Alive and Well in Retirement!

I was recently reminded of a blog post I wrote back in January of 2014, entitled Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Phases of Retirement. It was written about five months after I retired. A fellow blogger who explores retirement issues found my post and used me, in a YouTube presentation, as his comic example of someone bumbling through the early adjustment phases of retirement. As I watched the YouTube presentation (slightly discomfited, listening to a complete stranger talk about the antics of “Betsy and her husband” like we were Lucy and Ricky), I was stuck by how much we’ve evolved since then.

I am quite content with my life now. Looking back, I see it really took me about two years to fully adjust to retirement. Five months after my retirement date, when I wrote that post, I was clearly in the Disenchantment Phase (Stage 4). The Honeymoon Phase (Stage 3) had worn off and I was starting to feel some loneliness, boredom, uselessness and disillusionment.

Stage 5, following Disenchantment, is described as the “Reorientation Stage,” where the retiree moves on to build a new identity in retirement. It is described as the “most difficult stage in the emotional retirement process and will take both time and conscious effort to accomplish. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of this stage to manage are the inevitable self-examination questions that must be answered once again, such as ‘Who am I, now?’ ‘What is my purpose at this point?’ and ‘Am I still useful in some capacity?’ New – and satisfying – answers to these questions must be found if the retiree is to feel a sense of closure from his or her working days. But many retires cannot achieve this and never truly escape this stage – make sure you do!” (Mark P. Cussen, “Journey Through the 6 Stages of Retirement”)

I wasn’t always mindful at the time, but in hindsight it’s clear I did go through this reorientation process, often in fits and starts. It forced me to take a hard look at myself and make some deliberate decisions about how I was going to spend the rest of my life. After all, the rest of my life could be another 30+ years! If I were to summarize my acquired bits of wisdom (and I emphasize that these are MY conclusions) they would be:

Throw out the expectations (especially of your partner) – Retirement is a wonderful and terrifying marriage laboratory, where you get one last chance to finally work out those thorny relationship issues so often ignored during the busy dual-career and childrearing years. Especially for my husband and I, polar opposites in many ways. Plus, I realized that I went into retirement with some unrealistic expectations. In my imaginary retirement la-la world, my husband (already retired) and I would be happily spending 24/7 together, having lunch dates and play dates and going to art museums. We would have an abundance of extra time, and we’d joyfully split the housework and tackle all those long-delayed projects around the house, like cleaning out the garage. We’d do all this together, with any relationship issues magically solved by the absence of work pressures.

That rose-colored bubble pretty much burst the first few weeks of retirement. We never spent that much time together, even when we were dating, so it was bone-headed to think we would start now. And my husband doesn’t even like art museums. After about a week of being together in the house, we had nothing interesting to report to each other. Plus, my homebody husband has vastly different ideas on how to spend his time, and was unwilling to give up his established and cherished routines and household chores. As I noticed my frustration and resentment start to build, I had a choice to make. I could either try to change my husband to fit my expectations, or I could respect his differences, let him be him, and focus on what I could do to structure my own life. I ultimately chose the latter, and also found it works far better to ask clearly for what I need than to expect it.

There are of course some things I still wish were different. For example, I really wish my husband would clean out the garage. I wish we entertained more, and we watched less TV (especially sports). But I finally realized there is an excellent chance our garage will never be tidy, that entertaining can be pretty stressful for us, and that watching a good football game together is a great shared activity. I had to look clear-eyed at those areas where reality and expectations collide and make some choices. If there were deal-breakers for me, I had to address them. If they were not, I had to come to peace with them. Just because Mr. and Mrs. McGillicudy down the street, also retired, work puzzles and drink Moscow Mules together every afternoon doesn’t mean we should. This process of letting go of unhelpful expectations and accepting, even embracing, the goodness in my own reality, with a spirit of gratitude, has been very liberating and my path to contentment.

Look no farther than thyself – I don’t mean this in a self-centered or narcissistic way, but I am learning that I am the one responsible for my own happiness.   It is too easy, but not helpful, to look to others or go into blame mode when I am unhappy. As it is difficult, if not possible to do on my own, there is a spiritual component integral to remaining centered and open, in removing blame and extending grace.

Eliminating unhealthy expectations freed me to look pragmatically, even creatively, at myself, my husband (and our life together), and to craft a fulfilling life. If I need more social interaction, I have a wonderful network of friends to call on. When I need more physical exercise, I hang out at the YMCA right down the street. I have a women’s study group and a book club that provide plenty of regular female companionship.

I also gradually came to the conclusion that contributing to my disenchantment was a growing and nagging feeling of uselessness. Although I initially thought I would enjoy doing more around the house, I found I was honestly just as happy letting my husband keep his chores! (And I am, BTW, the envy of my girlfriends.) I found I need more time out of the house. I was someone who worked my entire life and was used to being the breadwinner in our family and a leader in the workplace. I missed the energy and camaraderie of the office, the business travel, and being a part of teams where we solved problems for our clients. I enjoyed all the fun I was having in retirement, but I began to feel that something was missing.

For me, a providential solution was my involvement with a charitable organization. A few months after I retired, I re-connected with a friend who was long interested in starting a non-profit. She enlisted my help and together we launched Alive and Well Women. Today I am the Chair of the Board and last year volunteered to take the lead on grant writing (something I’ve never done before).

My work with Alive and Well Women has proven to be a godsend. It gives me an outlet for using my professional talents, a sense of value and accomplishment, while allowing me to give back to the community. I love the women I work with and I’m learning new skills. We are in the midst of our first capital campaign and I’m finding it a joy to raise funds for a cause I feel passionate about. And since I am a volunteer, I work when I am home but still have the flexibility to travel with my husband.

Find some things to enjoy with your partner – when we are home, my husband and I find the ideal mix of together/independent time typically skews more toward separate schedules. We have breakfast and dinner together, and go for a daily walk around the neighborhood, but the rest of the day is typically individual time (often we are both home, but separately engaged.)

The danger with our natural parallel play tendency is that we can easily become disengaged. So, we deliberately look for activities that we can enjoy together. For us, our favorite joint activity is travel. Something special happens when we are on the road. We find we love being together 24/7, we work as a team, and we create amazing shared memories. These are the moments when I am overcome with gratitude. And as soon as we’re back from one trip, we start thinking about our next, which gives us something to dream about together.

We also try to do a few things each week while we are home. We rarely miss church and brunch on Sunday. We have at least one lunch or dinner out during the week, and we recently started ballroom dancing classes. We’re still more Lucy and Ricky than Fred and Ginger, but we’re having fun with our salsa!

"Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose"

“Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose”

The Routine Stage (Phase 6) of retirement is when “finally, a new daily schedule is created, new marital ground rules for time together versus time alone are established, and a new identity has been at least partially created. Eventually, the new landscape becomes familiar territory, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose.” (Mark P. Cussen)

You know, I think we might be there!

Spring Training

We just returned from a week of Spring Training, and as they say in baseball, it was a rough outing.  In the baseball world, Spring Training helps players get back in shape after a long winter hiatus and prepares teams for the upcoming season.  For my husband and I, the trip was about getting our recreational relationship back in shape after years of career and childrearing, as well as good training for our next season of life.

Here I am in my Giant's gear before our first game

Here I am in my Giant’s gear before our first game

I have several friends who thoroughly enjoy Spring Training games in Arizona.  My husband is a huge San Francisco Giants fan.  So I hatched the brilliant idea of taking a trip to Scottsdale for Giants Spring Training. I went on-line January 9 at 10:00 AM when tickets went on sale, not sure if anything would be available for non-season ticket holders.  When I gleefully discovered there were indeed tickets available, I binged on 5 consecutive game days.   I was sure this trip was going to be a home run!

In the meantime, I’ve been taking golf lessons.  I still stink, but at least I can (usually) make contact.  We recently unburied our golf clubs and bikes in our garage excavation, so we decided to take them with us.  My husband was playing quite a bit of golf when we first met, and riding bikes was a favorite activity in our early years.  My husband volunteered to book the hotel and found a place that was walking distance to Scottsdale Stadium and surprisingly inexpensive.  Man, this was going to be a grand slam homer!

In general, the trip was enjoyable and I would definitely do it again.  We loved the scenic afternoon and sunset drive through the Mojave Desert.  The baseball games were fun and it was interesting to see the different team stadiums.  Three of our games were at the Giants’ stadium in Scottsdale, one was at the KC Royals’ stadium in Surprise, AZ, and the last was at the Dodgers’ facility in Phoenix.  We found some great restaurants, including one quirky place in a former dentist’s office with a lovely outdoor patio in a mostly residential section of Phoenix, where a Charlie Byrd-type character with floor-length dreadlocks and an electric guitar was the entertainment.  On Saturday night, we explored the Desert Botanical Gardens, where there was a special “Chihuly in the Gardens” exhibit featuring spectacular blown glass artwork intermingled with the cacti.  I’d never seen anything like it and it was breathtaking.

We were pleasantly surprised to find our seats behind home plate in the shade for the game against the Royals in Surprise

We were pleasantly surprised to find our seats behind home plate in the shade for the game against the Royals in Surprise

However, the trip was no home run, but rather, as with any typical Spring Training, there were some errors as well as lessons learned.  As I thought about our past trips and recreational activities, I realized that, in the first 23 years of our marriage, we had only two years without kids in the house.  Even our activities during our courtship often included my stepson.  We have been empty nesters the past two years, but until six months ago I was still working and most of the trips we took were to visit our son.  Our married life has predominately been focused on children and work, not on leisure.  So it is understandable that we may be a little rusty in the fun department.

So, in no particular order, here are my observations (or “Coaching Report”) of our Spring Training performance, lessons learned, and things to work on:

1)   Don’t be overly chintzy on the lodging

Once we saw our motel, we understood why it was so inexpensive.  After a lovely first dinner at an upscale pizza joint in Scottsdale, we arrived at the motel, and found that our room included absolutely necessary items but not an inch of excess space or additional amenities.  We also discovered it emitted every sound imaginable.  Cars, trucks, refrigerator, air blowing from the A/C unit, neighbors, babies, you name it.  On top of the noise, the room had an odd odor.   I don’t think I got a restful night sleep the entire time we were there.  Granted we are now on a fixed income, but I am too old and have stayed at too many upscale hotels during my business travel days to go back to Motel 6.  We realized how much an uncomfortable lodging situation detracts from the fun factor.

2)   Be mindful of your partner’s preferences and temperament

After 25 years of marriage, I already knew my husband and I are quite different in certain key areas.  But there is nothing like being cooped up together in a car and a tiny, noisy, smelly room like lab rats for a week to accentuate the dissimilarities.

First of all, my husband is not a morning person.  He’s typically unenthusiastic about anything before noon.   He may wake up at a reasonable hour, but he likes to putz around, catch up on his sporting news, and generally ease into his day.  While I am not a crack of dawn person, I (especially since retiring) am probably most hyper in the morning and start to lose steam as the day progresses.  To me, sitting around all morning is an unfortunate waste of half a day.

An example of the amazing exhibit of blown glass at the Desert Botanical Gardens

An example of the amazing exhibit of blown glass at the Desert Botanical Gardens

Second, when I go on vacation, I love to see and do as much as possible.  The world is my oyster and I can’t bear the thought of missing something really cool.  My husband, on the other hand, likes a slower pace and plenty of downtime to relax.  Naps are one of his favorite vacation activities.

Somewhat related, I am also more of an extrovert than my husband.  He can be quite sociable but he is also perfectly happy with solitude and finds extended bouts with people tiring.  I, on the other hand, although not an extreme extrovert, am more energized by personal interactions and can feel isolated with too much quiet time.

With that as background, and in hindsight, it is not surprising that our two morning golf outings in Scottsdale were just short of disastrous.  After our first baseball game on Wednesday (to which we arrived bleary-eyed and sleep deprived after our first night at Motel Chintzy) I insisted we check out the golf course and reserve tee times for the next two mornings (since the baseball games were at 1 pm).  I also decreed that Saturday morning we would ride bikes.   In my current just-released-from-prison-i.e.-retired state, I was determined to not waste a moment!

But as I should have more wisely predicted, when the alarm went off at 7:30 AM the next morning after another rocky night at The Chintz, I realized I had Mr. Grumpypants for a golf partner.   My husband was clearly not happy to be rising so early and barely spoke until the 5th hole, and even then it was something like “Hey, can you move…. I can’t see the pin.”  He had no patience and it didn’t help that:

1)   I whiffed the ball more than I actually hit it

2)   I was averaging upwards of 9-10 strokes per hole

3)   We had a foursome behind us breathing down our necks

4)   I kept asking if I should use a 1-iron (which apparently doesn’t exist), AND

5)   I was texting on the course (which apparently is poor form)

 Things improved somewhat as the day wore on, but I wouldn’t characterize the outing as Fun.  I looked at it more as a character building exercise.  I remember reading about how Tiger Wood’s dad would employ all sorts of purposely disturbing techniques (like yelling or suddenly rattling keys when Tiger was putting) designed to teach focus and resilience and I thought perhaps golfing with Coach Grumpypants would somehow make me a tougher golfer.

And then, if you can believe it, we went golfing again the next morning with an even earlier tee time!  It was an only slightly better but similar experience and thus unfortunately, largely because of poor timing, our first golf outings together weren’t exactly the home runs I was expecting.

I finally got smart, and we moved our Saturday morning bike ride to that evening, which was much more pleasant.  We rode a beautifully scenic bike path along golf courses, parks, a canal (where we stopped to watch crew racing), and stopped to observe another stunning AZ sunset.

3)   Communicate, communicate, and communicate!

I would characterize communication as one of the strengths in our marriage.  We have always been able to talk through issues and resolve conflict through communication.  After we returned from this trip, we had our usual post-mortem debrief.  We both realized that not everything went as well as it could have.  We identified where we could have done better.

Through our conversations, my husband admitted he was deeply embarrassed about the motel room since he was the one who booked it, and that greatly affected his experience of our trip.  Since he prepaid through Expedia, he felt powerless to remedy the situation so he didn’t address it.  However, we concluded that we should have talked about it and our options on the spot, which would have at least called out the elephant in the room (albeit miniature pygmy elephant in that room) to alleviate any sense of shame.

We also talked about our contrasting temperaments and preferences and how we could better respect and accommodate our differences on future trips together.  Some options may include “parallel play” in the mornings, where I find things to do on my own before noon, leaving him to his quiet time, or, for example, having only one golf morning rather than two.  But in any case, giving each other space and permission to do things differently or separately.

We agreed the most important skill for us to work on is better communication earlier, before feelings get hurt and things go south fast.  The two bad golf outings not only colored our later experiences in the day, but also provoked negative emotions that were hard to put back once they were out of the bottle.   One of my disappointments at the time was that my husband agreed to my frenetic morning plans before we left on our trip and I felt we had a “contract”.  But, as much as pre-trip communication and planning is important (and my husband may have honestly thought he would enjoy golfing in the morning) we don’t always know how we will feel until we are actually in a situation, so there must be room for communication and negotiation and change to address one or both partner’s needs in the moment.

All in all, I think we effectively did our own marital version of Spring Training on this trip.  We worked on getting ourselves back in shape as a couple, identified areas for improvement, and prepared for the upcoming season.  And maybe we learned something.  We went golfing yesterday (LATE morning tee time) and had a great day together on the golf course.   My first home run of the season!!!!!

Travel with the Spouse: The Togetherness Test

I liken international travel with one’s spouse (especially when not on an organized tour) to an Advanced Placement Exam in Marital Compatibility.  And I admit to some apprehension approaching our recent 2-½ week trip to France.  My husband and I had not done much foreign travel together, and had certainly not been together, just the two of us, 24/7 for that length of time since our honeymoon in 1988; and even then (1) our honeymoon was not that long and (2) we both still thought the other perfect.

Although I am not a fan of reality TV (so the following comparisons may not be 100% accurate) I was hoping our trip to Paris would be more “The Bachelorette” (those episodes in which starry-eyed couples are whisked away to romantic far-flung scenic locations) and not “Survivor” (where contestants conspire to rid themselves of each other) but maybe a bit of “The Amazing Race” thrown in.    Though, with respect to the “The Amazing Race,” which I actually enjoy, I had always been vocal in my opinion that I would much rather be on a team with my son than my husband.   My son has a better sense of humor, and I could envision my husband and I being that bickering couple that can’t even agree on how to get the envelope with the next clue open.  We can both be rather, um, opinionated.

Indeed, our first few days in Paris were trying.    If the journey was an AP Exam for us as a couple, it was a physical endurance test for my husband.  For starters, he is very tall, doesn’t particularly like big cities or crowds, and is lactose intolerant. Consequently, he deserves bonus points right off the bat for venturing to the most densely populated city in Europe, where the apartments are so small he could barely fit in the shower with the door closed (much less turn around), and which is chock-full of cheese.    Add fatigue, jet lag, inclement weather, and the language barrier to the mix and we had a recipe for disaster brewing.  In fact, observing my husband, clearly at first a fish out of water in Paris, I was initially worried that my “dream” trip was headed towards spectacular calamity.  The fatigue led to grumpiness and unlike home, where one can simply go to the other side of the house or run errands, there was nowhere to escape each other and those irritating moods, quirks and habits. (Yes, we have discovered some imperfections in each other in the ensuing 25 years.)  I have also learned, over the years, that my husband is not a “Gee whiz, we are in Paris and isn’t this swell!”  kind of a guy.   He will instead often plod through a day impassively and then later declare it a wonderful experience.  Accordingly, all I could do was trust that this trip would ultimately prove to be at least retroactively fun.

On our recent trip to Paris

On our recent trip to Paris

As the days progressed and we recovered from our fatigue and jet lag, got our bearings and the weather mercifully improved (and we learned to ignore the French) we fell into a happier, more comfortable rhythm.  The days were mostly  “The Amazing Race” and we learned to function like a team.  Happily, our evenings truly were “The Bachelorette” and we had wonderful, romantic evenings with candlelit dinners and strolls back to our apartment along the River Seine.   And to my great relief, we never had a serious “Survivor” moment where we wished we could vote the other off the island.

Traveling with one’s spouse can be both rewarding and risky business.  Here’s my take-aways from the whole experience:

Teamwork and engagement are important.  I’m the planner in the family so I did all the pre-trip planning, and consequently began to think of it as “my trip.” I initially approached our days in Paris like a self-appointed Tour Guide and did all the legwork and made all the arrangements and it began to feel like a job. Even though part of me had trouble giving up control of “my trip”, I found to my relief that things worked much better and we both had more fun once my husband fully engaged and took on tasks.  There was much to figure out on the ground with respect to transportation (metro system, trains, street maps, etc.). He became our Chief Navigation Officer and was responsible for getting us to and from places with his iPhone navigation apps, and took ownership for some of the planning, as when he spearheaded a wonderfully memorable night walk to take photos at some of our favorite monuments.    Next time, I will look for ways to get him more involved earlier.

Go with the flow.  When traveling to a foreign country, especially on your own like we did, there are numerous surprises and things that don’t go according to plan. We both had to learn to be flexible with our plans and with each other.  There were times when I really wanted to do something, but I could see from my husband’s face that that something might put him over the edge.  It’s also important to recognize when one or both parties might need some alone time to recharge, or to do separate activities.  And some of our favorite experiences stemmed from spontaneous detours from plan that I might have initially resisted.  I hated the idea of going to a falafel place in Paris but we did and it was great.

Girlfriend trips are different.  I have gone on great trips over the years with my female friends.  We usually laugh, shop, talk and do all the other things girlfriends do when they get together.  A trip with my husband is fundamentally different, because the relationship is fundamentally different.  I love both types of trips , but I have learned the types of trips and activities that work better with my friends and those that work better with my husband, and its better not to mix the two..   Trying to get my husband to spend a day shopping or wandering aimlessly or playing bingo with me on a cruise ship is just not going to work.   That’s what my girlfriends are for!

Know when to bite your tongue.  Big one for me!  Once one or both of us gets tired and cranky, it doesn’t take much from the other for things to quickly escalate out of control.  And when together constantly, it can become a pressure cooker situation with no place to hide. It can start over the silliest things – like when I stopped to take a picture of a flower stand and then realized that my husband had taken off without me and then I finally caught up with him on busy Blvd St Germaine and was ready to tear his head off but thankfully thought better of it before I got too far in my “commentary”.  We had made a pact before we left home not to let any disagreements ruin our time together on this trip.  There were some minor flare-ups, but nothing serious, and it helped to count to ten and remember our pact.

Granted, these take-aways may seem to be rather basic relationship advice, but are things that can trip my husband and I up under normal circumstances, and it was important to recognize that extended togetherness can put additional strain on a marriage or other relationship and must be carefully managed.  International travel can be hard work!

And if this trip was an AP exam, what was the result?   We certainly didn’t get a perfect score, but we found ourselves to be surprisingly compatible!  That we successfully overcame every trial we faced together (sometimes smoothly, sometimes ugly) was a real boost to our relationship.  It was a challenging, incredible, life changing and shared experience.   If I had done this trip with someone else, I would not have been able to adequately convey what I saw and experienced to my husband.   Now that we’re back home, I love hearing him enthusiastically tell other people about all the things we did in France and his perspectives on the experience.   The trip confirmed and deepened our level of trust with each other.  When I got sick on the train coming back from Giverny (I’ll spare the details), I was exceedingly grateful that I was with my husband because I have the utmost confidence in him.   After years of balancing careers and family and tag teaming and co-parenting, now that we’re retired empty nesters, we re-discovered our abiding friendship.  We still really like each other! My husband may have some really annoying habits, but so do I (although I’m convinced mine are less annoying). Nonetheless our more unvarnished acceptance and affection for each other is a richer and more satisfying companionship.

Probably the single best indicator occurred before we had even left Paris, enroute to the airport for our flight home, when my husband turned to me and said (with palpable enthusiasm in his voice) ”So where should we go on our next big trip?!”