Five Ways to a Better 2020

December 30, 2019

Happy New Year, almost.

Another year and another decade face us.  While many things are outside of our control,  I believe there are certain things we can all do to improve our lives as retirees, about-to-be retirees, semi-retirees or just as people.

I’ve given some thought to these.  They don’t cost much, they are doable for anyone in reasonably good health, and they yield significant improvements in quality of life.

So here goes:

  1. Walk.  Walking is a “best” exercise in that it is aerobic, it doesn’t cost anything, it is reasonably time-efficient and, as a bonus, it can be sociable.  (I have noticed that men will run or bike together but don’t walk together.  Women walk together and thereby combine exercise with making and keeping relationships.  No wonder they live longer).   If you are not a walker, get started by walking ten minutes (probably about half a mile) five times this week.  Add a couple of minutes each week.  Shoot eventually to walk three miles in an hour.  You will feel better, lose weight and improve your vital signs.
  2. Cook.  I’m amazed at how few people cook anymore.   Meals cooked at home tend to be less fattening and less filled with salt and other additives.  They are vastly cheaper than meals eaten out, delivered or taken out.  And cooking, like walking, is a low-cost, high-impact source of entertainment.  There are a billion recipes readily available on the Internet;  just the other night I cooked a lemon chicken recipe from Pierre Franey that was printed in The New York Times in 1992, and got good reviews from W.
  3. Read.  I’m not talking about James Patterson here.  Up your game in 2020!  Take a look at one of the many “Best Books of 2019” lists (not the bestseller lists) and pick something relatively challenging.  If you want to ease into serious fiction, don’t start with Ulysses.  Try The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham or A Room With a View by E.M. Forster or A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.  For non-fiction, read Samuel Eliot Morison’s one-volume history of the US, or Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough.  I loved Yuval Hariri’s book Sapiens but some say it is tough going.  Work those dendritic pathways – and use the library to save money and find the books you want.
  4. Connect.  I often mention the importance of making connections, particularly later in life. If you have lots of friends and family nearby, great.  Stay in touch, send emails, organize outings, just get together for coffee (or a walk — see above).  If you don’t, work on it.  Join a group of like minded individuals for bridge, hiking, bicycling, ping-pong, golf, or whatever interests you.  Join a church and hang around at coffee hour.  Volunteer for a political campaign or at a food pantry.  I know you have heard these suggestions many times — so have I – but they work.
  5. Organize.  Where is your passport?  The title to your car?  Do you have an up to date will?    Are you over-insured or under-insured for your life, car and house?What are you paying in subscriptions to Netflix, HBO, and those weird boxed food services? What was the return on your investments last year? I’m always surprised by how many people lose track of things like this.  Getting organized is a highly productive and potentially enjoyable activity, and it pays financial dividends as well.

Having said all this, I’m far from the poster child for fiscal, mental or physical fitness.  In my next post, I will discuss some personal resolutions for 2020.

One sidebar:  Art Garfunkel (yes, that Art Garfunkel) has kept track of everything he has read since the 1960s.  He is a serious, adventurous and intelligent reader and his list can be found here.

Retirement and the Golden Mean

December 26, 2019

And a happy Boxing Day to all.

This blog is largely non-financial.  That’s because I don’t have any particular expertise in money management.  I’m not a CPA, MBA or CFA.  I know a little bit about stocks and bonds but I also know when I’m in over my head.

But I enjoy reading about, talking about and thinking about money.  We have CNBC on all morning and we are always reviewing our financial picture.

I regularly read two blogs that have a financial focus.  They embody what I would call the two extremes of personal financial management.  One is what I would call “get more” and the other is what I would call “spend less”.

These two blogs — Financial Samurai and Mr. Money Mustache — have big readership numbers.  They aren’t aimed at retirees per se but at people seeking to retire early, the so-called Financial Independence/Retire Early or FIRE movement.

Both are interesting and well-written, recording the activities of smart, thoughtful people.  But I find both a bit extreme.

Financial Samurai scares me to death.  The author is always telling me that I don’t have nearly enough money to live on, that I should have $5 million in my 401k account at my age, that I should only be taking four percent or even three percent per year out of my savings each year.  The author recently wrote on the CNBC website that he was going back to work because trying to raise a family in the Bay Area on the investment income from a $5 million nest egg was too difficult.

Well, OK.  We used to live in the New York area and left because it was too expensive.  I understand the high cost of living in some places.  But $5 million?  Really?

Then there’s Mr. Money Mustache (or MMM as its fervent fans call it).  It’s all about the joys of simplicity, frugality and living in harmony with the earth.  The author makes his own pizzas, walks or rides an old bicycle around Longmont, Colorado, and only washes his towels once a month (ugh).

Ironically, MMM is now as rich as Croesus, generating more than $400,000 per year from advertising and referrals and having sold his blog for something like $6 million.

There is great information and a lot of entertaining material in both blogs, but I think most retirees and near-retirees should be aiming for what I would call the Golden Mean in retirement, somewhere far from these extremes.

That means having enough money to cover basic needs.  Ideally, you should have a paid-off mortgage, Social Security income and some savings.  Most retired couples in most parts of the country spend about $4 to $5000 per month after tax on basic living expenses.

After that, it’s a matter of personal preference.  Do you belong to a country club?  Do you want to bicycle in Laos and Vietnam?  Or are you happy taking walks and camping out in a state park?  Do you want to drive a Mercedes or will a 10 year old Honda do just fine?

I honestly don’t think that activities at the high end or at the low end make much difference in terms of ultimate happiness. I know people who spend their days walking their dog, working in their garden, going to church, checking books out of the library, cooking delicious meals, and playing with their grandchildren, who are as happy as can be.  I know other people who drive Porsches, take vacations involving blasting birds out of the sky in Argentina,  and belong to fancy clubs they never use.  Some seem happy, some not.

People who don’t have the bare minimum, however, are rarely happy.  There is just too much stress involved.  Also, one of the joys of getting older and needing less is the ability to help others, either within the family or through contributions of time, skill and money.  If you can’t take care of your own needs you will not be in a position to help others.

One other caveat:  If you have become accustomed to life at the high end, it will not be fun if you have to get used to living at the lower end of the scale.  Prepare accordingly.

 

 

 

 

Sustainability, My Foot

December 21, 2019

Christmas is coming, and I should be thinking happy thoughts.  And, for the most part, I am.

One thing, however, is really bugging me.  This is what I’m calling the Great Allbirds Scam of 2019.

You might remember that I blogged back in August about my first pair of Allbirds and how great they were and how they were emblematic of trying something new and all that.

Well, as it turns out, Allbirds are a scam.  These much-touted, eco-friendly $95 shoes have a very short life span.  After a few months, one’s toes wear through the eucalyptus fibers that compose the shoes’ uppers.  This has happened to me, to W. and to random people I have talked to.  (I haven’t tried the wool “winter” Allbirds yet but am unlikely to do so at this point.)

That means you have to throw them out and buy a new pair.  That is the very opposite of eco-friendly.

By contrast, I have two very expensive pairs of Alden tassel loafers in black and cordovan.  I bought them at Brooks Brothers in 1999.  I have had them re-soled and re-heeled more times than I can count.  Yet there they are in my closet, looking just as good as new.

This seems to me to be friendlier to the environment than wearing out and replacing a pair of shoes every few months.  (I know that there are ecological and ethical issues involved in wearing leather, but I’m not ready to deal with them yet.)

So I won’t be buying any more Allbirds.  I’m going to save the environment and stick to leather, or compromise on canvas if I can find a pair of Jack Purcells somewhere.

The photos below tell the sad story.

This is my left Allbird:

IMG_0420 (1)

W.’s right Allbird:

IMG_0422

And my friend’s right Allbird:

IMG_0418

 

Clearly, there is a pattern here.  I will be following up with the company and will post what they have to say in a future blog.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and a healthy, happy and productive 2020.

 

 

 

The Book of Books (for Retirees and Near-Retirees)

December 19, 2019

About 15 years ago, I read a book that changed my life.

You can’t really say that about too many books.  (The Bible?  Anna Karenina?  How to Win Friends and Influence People? Sometimes a Great Notion?)

But this one did.  It changed the way I eat, the way I approach exercise, and the way I approach life.  It came along just as I was about to undergo open heart surgery at the tender age of 52, and it helped me tremendously with my recovery.

It’s called Younger Next Year:  A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond. 

I know that many people have read it, but many more have not.  In a nutshell, it is a philosophy of aging;  diet and exercise, yes, but also money, drinking, sex, community, family, spirituality, friends.

It was written by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, M.D.  Dr. Lodge, sadly, died a few years ago.  Chris Crowley, a retired “Big Law” partner, has turned healthy aging into a second career and still actively lectures and blogs at the age of 84.  He and other partners have written follow up guides (Thinner Next Year, etc.)  God bless him.

I know there are many books on aging and on slowing the aging process.  I have read a couple, but this is the one for me.  If you haven’t read it, get it and read it.  Give copies to your friends — there is still time before Christmas.

That’s it.  It’s day off from exercise (except maybe a walk with the neighbor’s dog) but lots of work to do.  Off we go.

 

 

The Fitness Center

December 17, 2019

A rainy, nasty Tuesday in December.  For some reason I don’t like swimming in the rain (afraid I’ll get wet?) so I opt for the fitness center.

This is a large open space (several spaces, actually) filled with aerobics equipment and various kinds of weights.  I get there at about 815, change and do the following:

  • About 17 minutes on an elliptical machine (a little over a mile and a quarter) while watching CNBC
  • Seven “core” exercises — some with weights, some with a medicine ball, some with an iron bar, plus planking
  • Three upper body exercises with weights (rows, French curls and arm lifts) and
  • Three leg exercises on weight machines and with free weights

The whole thing takes 40 to 45 minutes.  I see some people I know, which is nice, and, while I can’t say I enjoy doing it, I don’t like myself when I don’t do it (or something like it) five or six days a week — swimming, weights, aerobics, a brisk three mile walk, bicycling, or something.

I see the same people all the time at the fitness center, and at the pool.  What’s interesting is how many people I never see there, or doing anything else for that matter.  Some people in our complex take long walks, but most people don’t do anything.   Then they complain about aches, pains, not being able to sleep at night, and gaining weight.

Shower, change, and on to do some work.  And the best thing of all is that it’s over and done.

 

Ten Things That Will Not Happen in 2020

December 12, 2019

I recently read about a project undertaken by McKinsey for AT&T in 1980.  It seems AT&T asked McKinsey to estimate the size of the cell phone market over the next 20 years.

McKinsey worked its magic, crunched its numbers and came back with an estimate of 900,000 phones in operation in the US by the year 2000.  AT&T, seeing the market as too small, decided to place its bets elsewhere.  McKinsey underestimated the market by 99 percent, but there is no word on whether they ever sent a refund to AT&T.

So, the lesson is, take predictions with a shaker of salt.

I make non-predictions, or, rather, I predict what will not happen each year.  It’s an easier way to be right.

Here goes the list for 2020:

  1. Despite Time naming Greta Thunberg its “Person of the Year” there will be no progress on curbing carbon emissions.  That’s because no one will confront China about opening up a new coal-fired electrical plant every week or so.
  2. I will not write a breakthrough first novel in 2020, although I have every intention of doing so.
  3. Similarly, I will not break 90 in golf, despite practice, lessons and endless frustration.
  4. By the end of 2020, I will still not be able to play Bach’s Two Part Invention #8 all the way through.
  5. Neither Elizabeth Warren nor Bernie Sanders will be president of the United States.
  6. There will not be as much “buzz” about artificial intelligence in 2020 as there was in 2019.  People will get bored and move on to something else.
  7. I will not lose that last five pounds and get down to my fighting weight of 170.
  8. I will not go skiing in 2020, especially since we just got rid of our old skis and boots.
  9. Autonomous vehicles will not be seen in any significant numbers on our roads and highways.
  10. The stock market will not increase as much in 2020 as it did in 2019.

There you go.  I feel fairly safe in making all these, although who knows about #2.  This just might be the year.

By the way, I should mention a couple of sites that are chock-full of wonderful factoids, ironies and paradoxes:

The Browser

Marginal Revolution

Philip Greenspun’s Blog (whose motto is “a posting every day, an interesting idea every three months or so”)

On to the next thing.

 

 

 

 

TED talks to me on an airplane

December 9, 2019

“Only connect” is something that E.M. Forster wrote in his novel Howard’s End (made into a quite good film, but not as good as the Merchant/Ivory film of A Room with a View).

I thought about this phrase on my flight home from France.  I had been reading Tom Jones, which, I admit, is a bit of a chore.  I couldn’t get into the book during the flight so I watched two unmemorable movies.  What did make an impression were two TED talks that were available through Air France’s fairly extensive in-flight entertainment system.

The first was by Susan Pinker and recounted her findings in doing a research study on Sardinian centenarians and why they live so darn long.  It turns out it’s not diet or exercise — it’s social connections.  (Susan Pinker, by the way, is the sister of the great thinker and writer Steven Pinker).  Even the crabbiest 100 year old in Sardinia has a network of great- grandchildren, neighbors and grandnieces who take care of him or her.  These people have coffee in the same cafe, buy bread from the same bakery every day, and know everybody they deal with.  This is good for your psyche but also for your physical well-being.

The second was by Robert Waldinger, head of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the long-running men’s health study, which started in 1938 and has yielded rich data on what makes people happy and successful.  Happiness (not so much longevity in this case) doesn’t stem from money or fame (nothing wrong with those) but having some close relationships — what Dr. Waldinger calls “people you can count on.”  You need three or more of these, but many people don’t even have one.

These talks hit me pretty hard.  I am not a good connector; I don’t make friends easily, and I like spending time by myself.  Many of my pursuits – reading, writing, piano – are solitary activities.

On the other hand, I’m very close to my wife, children and sisters, and I do have a few dear friends.

So, a 2020 resolution, and a public one at that.  I’m going to add to the “circle of trust” adding one or two people I can count on — and more importantly, of course, one or two people who can count on me.

How am I going to do this?  I haven’t a clue.  That’s something I will be thinking about this month.  I will keep you posted.

 

 

 

Back in the U.S.A.

December 4, 2019

Actually, we got back a few days ago.  I spent the first couple of days in a fog, fighting jet lag and a weird sense of disorientation.

We returned to a fair amount of chaos.  One car with a dead battery, the other with a lapsed inspection sticker and $700 worth of repairs to get it passed.  A dead garden, victim of what was apparently the hottest and driest September in history here.  French sim cards in our phones, and the US sim cards lost somewhere.  Massive tech problems in terms of linking up with the client.  Blood pressure still elevated.

All these things take time and effort to sort out.  Three months is a long time to be gone.  We got back on Saturday night.  Now it’s Wednesday and “normalcy” (a word invented, I believe, by Warren G. Harding) has more or less returned.

A couple of Christmases ago, I asked for (and received) a little device that can jump-start your car.  You keep it plugged into your car’s cigarette lighter (yes, your car still has a cigarette lighter somewhere).  When your battery goes dead, you put the clamps on the negative and positive posts, turn over the engine and you are up and running.  I’ve used it twice and it has already paid for itself many times over.

That’s my theme for 2020:  Be prepared.  I think it is going to be an eventful year, with a lot of strange things happening.  Stock up on bottled water, canned tuna, and powdered soups.  Put together a “go bag” in case something bad takes place.  Stick ten hundred dollar bills and a few gold coins somewhere in your house where you can find it but nobody else can.

I’m not a doomsday prepper or anything of the sort.  But I think we could all be a bit more self-reliant.  As the saying goes, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

 

 

 

 

 

Rain Makes Me Think of an Underappreciated Novelist

November 23, 2019

So we are in the middle of a big storm here, which is coming at the end of a week of rain.

As I mentioned previously, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Nice in the rain.  We have been to all the museums and seen all the English-language movies.  Right now it is Saturday morning and W. is swimming at the local Piscine Municipal, fighting her way through crowds of undisciplined French swimmers.  I’m writing this.

I don’t mind the rain as it gives me a good excuse to sit around and read, which is probably my favorite activity.  I’m in the final stages of a novel called Troubles by an Anglo-Irish writer named J.G. Farrell.

Troubles, published in 1970, is the first novel of a trilogy that includes The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) and The Singapore Grip (1978).  The three novels are known as the Empire Trilogy, as they dissect the strengths and, more commonly, the weaknesses of the British Empire and the whole concept of colonialism.

If this sounds a bit didactic, well, it isn’t.  Farrell was an extraordinary storyteller with a wicked sense of humor and a wonderful sense of character.  His grasp of historical detail, of social structure and of the way things work — from 19th century artillery to the operations of a Singapore merchant house — is unparalleled, in my opinion.

One character — “the Major” aka Brendan Archer — shows up in both Troubles (as the main protagonist) and in The Singapore Grip (as a relatively minor observer).  He is sort of a stand-in for the Empire, decent, well-meaning but, in Ireland and Singapore, essentially out of place.  In each book, “anti-colonial” forces (the Sepoy Mutiny, Sinn Fein, the Japanese Army) exert irresistible pressure on the colonial establishment.

Another “character” in Troubles is the Majestic Hotel (later the “ajestic” after the M falls off and nearly kills a long-haired dachshund).  This is a 300-room edifice by the sea that has seen far better days.  The roof leaks, palms grow wild in the Palm Court, and stray cats are everywhere.  I see the Majestic as a symbol of the late stages of the Empire, leaky and doomed.

In Krishnapur (a fictional city in the midst of a very real insurrection) the colonialists hold off the attackers, at the cost of the trappings of their own civilization.  In defending themselves, they become half-starved, ragged savages.  In Singapore and Ireland, the other side wins.

The books are classics.  In a just world, they would be prominently displayed in every bookstore on Earth, but in this world they are typically available only through Amazon (although The Siege of Krishnapur turns up in the paperback fiction section at Barnes & Noble once in a while).  Each book is long, self-contained and totally absorbing.  I recommend them wholeheartedly.  Just the thing for a rainy day in Nice, or anywhere else for that matter.

Farrell, by the way, died a tragic death in 1979, when he fell from a ledge while fishing and was washed into the Irish Sea.  He was 44.

The last week of the Big Trip is coming up.  We will be home at this time next week.  With luck the weather will clear and we will hit Monaco and return to Antibes to see the Musee Picasso.  As I have said before, things could be worse.

Nice Really is Nice

November 14, 2019

We are on the final leg of the Great France Trip, spending the month of November in Nice, on the Mediterranean coast not too far from Italy.

The weather is mixed.  Some days are sunny, with afternoon temperatures in the high sixties.  On those days, everyone in Nice comes out to the Promenade des Anglais and walks, bicycles or scooters along the water.   Other days are November-ish, chilly and rainy, and on those days the city seems dead quiet.

Nice is really a cluster of small towns.  The old town (Vieux Nice) has narrow streets and buildings from the 1600s or thereabouts.  It is where the chic restaurants and hip boutiques are located.  The port is tiny but shelters an interesting collection of mega-yachts, along with more trendy restaurants.

The new town is here the fancy hotels like the Negresco are situated, along the Promenade and in a few blocks back from the beach, where the tourist restaurants line up.

Up a hill overlooking the water is a neighborhood called Cimiez, which is where Queen Victoria and others built palaces and grand hotels that have now been turned into apartments.  Cimiez houses Nice’s museum district, with the Matisse Museum, the Chagall Museum and a small archaeology museum all near the site of some excavated Roman baths and the remains of a small amphitheater.

We have not done much exploring outside Nice yet.  Over the weekend we walked to Villefranche-Sur-Mer, which is about three miles west of the port.  Villefranche is a much smaller town than Nice, but it has a much bigger harbor, so the cruise ships stop there.  A city bus goes from Nice to Menton, Monaco and other destinations for the princely sum of $1.65, so we will undertake more excursions.  And, the city has a rent-a-bike system that enables you to pick up a bicycle, ride it around and drop it off at another station.  The bikes are a bit clunky but they work well enough.

One interesting sidebar about Nice:  It has strong ties to Russia.  After the Crimean War, the Czar’s widow spent the winter here, and the Russian aristocracy followed, building grand houses.  There is a Russian Cathedral and a Russian cemetery.  And supposedly Anton Chekhov wrote several acts of The Three Sisters while staying here. Nice remains popular with Russians, who come here to cafe-sit, smoke, imbibe huge quantities of alcohol and argue loudly with each other in their distinctly non-musical tongue.  

My workload has picked up a bit (the “retirement” part of Real Life Retirement remains elusive) so I work in the mornings from the apartment while W. takes classes at the Alliance Francaise.  In the afternoons we explore Nice.  Things, as they say, could be worse.

As a PS, we took a bus to Eze yesterday afternoon (at a cost of one euro each) and hiked up a huge mountain (taking the Sentier Nietzsche or “Nietzsche Trail”, which was marked with quotations from Also Sprach Tharasustra) to the “high town” of Eze.  There we sat in a cafe and had a Perrier-sirop.  Then we poked around some stores, talked to a nice couple from New York, and took two buses and two trams back to our apartment.