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Archive for August, 2008

How to Use the Economic Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 9, Find the Humor

Friday, August 29th, 2008

The time it’s most important to be able to laugh is when things look worst. Economic downturns can get pretty bleak when you’re trying to stretch a fixed income or watching hard-earned dollars wither as investments. But this really IS the time to remember how to laugh. Humor can be incredibly therapeutic.

Before we go any farther, there’s an important distinction to make as to the kind of humor I’m advocating here. The only person you should be laughing at is yourself. At your foibles, your shortcomings, your predicament. It’s all fodder for jokes if you are the one making them.

However, laughing at other people isn’t therapeutic. It’s mean. Also juvenile and short on creative genius. All the great comedians know this, but you don’t have to do stand up to benefit from that insight. Laugh with other people. Laugh at yourself–even if you are looking at bankruptcy, foreclosure, or having to live with your impossibly messy younger brother because of this pesky economic downturn.


Because laughter really is good medicine. Norman Cousins was facing an incurable spine disease when he choose this strategy. Instead of staying in the hospital, he moved to a hotel and administered dose after dose of humor to himself every day in the form of classic movie comedies. He wrote about the experience in Anatomy of an Illness, reporting that if he laughed for three hours in the morning, he would be pain free the rest of the day. Laughter can be even more effective with emotional pain.

So find some ways to laugh.

Martha Beck dedicates a whole chapter to laughter in The Joy Diet–and her writing is definitely laugh therapy. As one option, she suggests silliness. I am so pleased. I’ve been a personal fan of silliness my whole life, but it gets a really bad rap. Silliness in this culture is construed as flightiness, naivete, and a lack of appreciation for the seriousness of the situation. What a waste of a good tool.

Silliness can do more to help you let go of intense emotions than anything you can do awake. Silliness requires that you relinquish your problem, at least temporarily, to the ridiculousness of the moment. That’s why my brothers spent their time in the waiting room while Dad was having quadruple bypass surgery inventing a goofy card game with impossible rules. That’s why I cross my eyes when I can catch a friend’s attention in the middle of a long-winded presentation.

Silly is not just for kids. It’s your right and responsibility. Do something silly today and make the world a better place.

One way to be silly when times are tight is with games that make cutting back more fun. At one point when my then husband and I were coping with an economic gap, we started a contest to see who could use their paper lunch bag more times. Right, the idea is to be able to throw them away when you are done with your lunch. But how much fun is that? He won–I think he made it all the way to the fourth week, something like 21 consecutive lunches out of that same bag. Mine developed a terminal tear on Day 16. Dang.

There are benefits beyond the fun to this kind of silliness. Have you noticed that “going green” and saving money often involve the same behaviors? “Use it up. Wear it out. Recycle it.” is good for both the environment and the pocketbook. And if you can find fun ways to do it, it’s also good for your own sense of wellbeing.

If you are willing to work on it, you can learn to laugh at NOTHING. Just “Ha ha ha” for the therapeutic value it offers. There are clubs that meet to do this….Really.

I haven’t progressed this far. Even when I try to just laugh, I end up thinking about something funny and laugh harder. You’ll have your own style on this, for sure. But only if you put some effort into developing it. “Style” requires action. Refining and polishing your sense of humor is a great action step for a downturn. Beck advocates at least thirty laughs a day and recommends a hundred. (Did that make you laugh?)

So, even when things look awful, find a way to laugh. It can change your mood in a heartbeat, costs only the energy it takes to do it, and has no negative side effects. Maybe we should make it our first therapy for everything–even before a band-aid.

Searching for SuperGeek

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

There’s a superhero I really want to exist. One who can save the modern world from massive pain and suffering—SuperGeek!

SuperGeek can solve any computer problem instantly with just a key stroke. SuperGeek knows what the afflicted are trying to tell him even if they don’t speak Geekese. SuperGeek to the rescue. YES!

In case you’re wondering, I’ve just spent six weeks in computer hell. I want to believe in SuperGeek.

At first, it was “just” that my screen would freeze at increasingly inopportune times. More and more of my work got lost in these little computer Alzheimer moments. I did what most of us not born at a keyboard do when the computer gets weird. I pretended it was a fluke.

Wrong. It happened again. And again and again and again.

I admitted I needed help and called my kid. He is very very smart about computers. I’m careful with what I download and have a good security set up, but still he discovered way too much nasty stuff that I had somehow let in. Spyware. Viruses. A trojan horse. A root kit. (Sounds like it belongs at the dentist’s office.) He spent an entire evening cleaning it all up. An evening he didn’t have. I was very grateful. And technologically whole again, right?

Wrong. The same things happened again, only now I also had this irritating little gerbil sound when I used the touch pad. My son has a real job that was eating him alive. He didn’t have time to be my SuperGeek. He gave me the name of a good repair shop. (This may have been SuperGeek in itself because good computer repair shops are really hard to find.)

I took it in and they fixed it.

Not. They are good guys and told me to bring it back in for free. when I told them the problem was still there. They worked on it again. They were even more convinced that we’d solved the problem.

Nope. By now I was feeling like I’d been evicted from my childhood home. Trying to get work done had become an exercise in futility. I felt vulnerable. I felt stupid. I felt at the mercy of other people who had way too many other things to do. I felt like the Computer Gods were, for some reason, really peeved with me.

The repair guys were frustrated, too. But they handled it better. They told me to bring it back again. I did. They worked on it again–at no additional cost, bless them. The hard drive finally got weird enough that they could see it was the problem and fixed it. Ah, back to normal.

Not at all. My data had disappeared.

Not really, but it was pretty elusive with where it had taken it. They knew more about where to look. All I knew was panic. They got that fixed and coached me on how to deal with transferring what I needed to where I could find it easily. SuperGeek? Close for sure.

Once we finally got the computer problems solved, a whole new raft of difficulties cropped up with the ISP. I won’t go into details, but I promise you those guys are not SuperGeek. I spent over a week trying thing after thing to get my internet access and e-mail back to where I could use it. Where are you SuperGeek?!  Certainly not with my internet service provider…..

But an interesting thing happened at that point. I finally started to understand what my son has been trying to tell me for years. NO ONE can fix a computer with a keystroke when something major goes wrong. And most of what the wonder geeks can do comes from the ability to try again and again and again. Their patience is astounding. Also something I need to emulate.

Instead of throwing up my hands and crying for SuperGeek, I need to knuckle down and go to work to figure out what’s not working. I will never be able to fix the kind of thing that was the problem that created this nightmare. But I did get to where I could fix a good many things that I’d been waiting for SuperGeek to handle before.

It takes patience. And a willingness to be wrong–and lost–that is probably more foreign than a motherboard to my generation. But I can learn this. There is no SuperGeek. I can live with that.

How to Use the Economic Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 8, Assess Your Geography

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Geography is a big deal when we start to think about retirement. Most of us either want to travel or to live somewhere else–or both–once we leave work. There is great peril in making these decisions lightly, yet much of what we use to decide comes from a few vacation trips or someone else’s opinion of the value of going there.

Travel is an important way to learn. Living somewhere different is guaranteed to shake you out of your ruts. But take the time to figure out what you really want before you buy the motorhome or put the for sale sign on your current home.

Take the time to be sure you’re going somewhere you really want to go. If all you plan to do is lie on the beach, it’s a whole lot simpler to go to Florida or San Diego, or even the shore of Lake Michigan in August, than to deal with the hassles of international travel.

Why do you want to go to this place? If you yearn to watch them run the bulls in Pamplona, you’re pretty much talking about a trip to Spain. But if you want to watch something exciting that involves large four-legged animals with horns, there are probably plenty of options closer to home.

Make sure you want to experience doing whatever you are going to do at that location before you commit to an expensive trip. You can zipline many different places. Is it important that you do it in Costa Rica? If so, fine. But at least ask yourself the question.

And the question is even MORE essential if you’re thinking of living somewhere else. Unless you’ve been uniquely successful at not collecting possessions, getting all your “stuff” from here to there is a major undertaking. Just the cost to put gas in a U-Haul is enough to give you pause these days. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Moving costs money once you get to the new place,too–for everything from utility deposits to a new trash can. And the costs aren’t just financial. You will need to find a new doctor, tax person, hairdresser/barber, mechanic. You will need to figure out which grocery store is the best and where to buy your favorite version of coffee. This may be the best set of challenges you could ever hope to find, but take the time to confirm that before you start packing boxes.

The questions to ask are the same whether you’re looking at a permanent move or a significant travel adventure:

  • What about this location makes me want to spend the time, money, and energy to be there?
  • Is this location the best way to get that?
  • Are there other ways to honor this need that would give me the same thing–or maybe even more–for less money, time, and energy?
  • Is there any way to try this on a small scale before I commit to it in a major way? Do I need that?

Please don’t think I’m telling you this based on a few Caribbean cruises and downsizing from a house to a condo in the same community. I tend to deal in MAJOR geography–a 67-day cruise that got me onto five of the seven continents (missed South America and Antarctica…) and a permanent move from the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies to the Pacific Northwest, for example.

There are many reasons to move. But there are also many pluses about where you are. Those tend to get lost in the romance of “going somewhere else ” once you start to explore the possibility. Consider both sets of pluses in your decision-making. Know what’s important to you that makes you want to change your geography. But be honest with yourself–and your spouse or anyone who’s going to be part of it–about what you will be leaving behind. What do you expect to achieve with the change?

A downturn makes you take a longer look before you spend money, so this is the perfect time to learn to do geography on purpose. Don’t just wander around so you can say you’ve been somewhere else. Choose your geography with a clear idea of what you want and how the new environment is going to be key in helping you get it.

The High Cost of Fear

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008


We don’t talk much about the cost of fear, probably because it’s so expensive. When we are afraid, we don’t take essential risks. and we put too much of our time and money into assuring our security. That’s fool’s work. Life turns on the unexpected. No matter how hard we try, what comes is not going to be what we had in mind every time. We will never be able to anticipate all the things that can go very wrong.

Right now we’re spending billions to make us safe from terrorists. Nice idea, but really not achievable.There will be demented souls who do unthinkable things no matter how hard we try to protect ourselves.

Right now we’re spending horrendous amounts on health care in a system that admits half the medical procedures it orders are unnecessary. Many are insisted on by patients “just to be sure” or by doctors afraid of malpractice suits.

Right now, we’re requiring companies to warn us about obvious risks and to carry insurance in case we choose to do something stupid with their products anyway. Higher costs for false safety.

We do these things because we are afraid.

What’s saddest about this is that we live in a nation that’s long been proud of NOT being afraid. As Americans, we’ve stepped up to whatever came along since the country was founded over 200 years ago. Can we do that now? …..Not if we are afraid.

When we give in to fear, we’re hoping someone else can guess what bad thing is coming and protect us from it. We look to “the government” as some sort of bureaucratic version of Superman to assure our ongoing well-being. We expect somebody else to meet the challenge of keeping our world perfectly safe as we cower timidly.

It’s time to face one important fact: Life is tentativeWe don’t always get to live tomorrow. Or to live it as we’d hoped. Hiding under the bed today isn’t going to change that. It’s just going to make life today less.

There are things about aging and retirement and moving toward the end of life that are scary as hell. We spend a lot of money avoiding those, too. What would happen if we funneled all the resources we put into anti-aging products and services into making things we believe in happen? How about funding a playground with your Botox budget? Or setting up an after school program with the money you typically spend at the spa?

There’s an interesting benefit to this. Since beauty really does come from within, you get a double whammy when you give to those who really need it instead of spending it on trying to susain yourself as a geriatricversion of a teenager. You look younger because you’re involved. Someone has a better life because you cared. That will do far more for your complexion than any skin cream.

Plus it makes you own life more interesting.You start to see the bigger picture and find more ways to make a difference. Pretty soon, you’re so wound up in what you’re doing you have no idea whether you’re 18 or 80. And it really doesn’t matter because you are alive and standing tall.

CAN DO. It’s the attitude that made us a strong nation and can make us strong individually. “Yes, I can do that, and I will because I believe in it. ”Not “I’m scared. Protect me.” There’s no reason for us to live in this silly, self-imposed prison of fear. Or as Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Think about what you’re afraid of. Getting old? Not having enough money? A dreaded disease? Can you feel how oppressive those thoughts are? Now tell yourself “I can deal with whatever comes.”Square your shoulders, lift your head, and say it again.

Stepping up to fear is essential to being fully alive. Eleanor Roosevelt said it well.“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”That’s the only way to confirm that you can. That’s what’s made us strong as a nation–the ability to step up to huge odds and get the job done anyway. Well.

We still have it in us. As a country and as individuals. Say “No” to fear. The odds won’t change but your outlook will.

How to Use the Economic Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 7, Have an Honest Conversation

Monday, August 4th, 2008

When things are going gangbusters, we don’t take time to talk. At least not about the things that are a ways off–like retirement. Instead we just keep going full-throttle, trying to get everything we think we need to done.

An economic downturn often shortens the “to do” list. Projects at work and at home get postponed. We don’t go out for fun as much to economize. We cut back on business travel. We do “stacations” instead of heading for a resort 2000 miles away that involves two daunting days of travel and a pace that would wear out the Energizer Bunny once you get there.

There’s treasure in this change of pace. It leaves room for the “important conversations.” When the pace slows, the interpersonal stuff that’s had to wait when you’re pushing to get a project done can take center stage for an hour or two more easily. That’s true at work, true at home, and true with loved ones you can only reach by phone or internet.

Take advantage of it. If you’re planning retirement, there are things that need to be discussed rather than assumed. Same deal if you are LIVING retirement. What you are assuming about how other people fit into you life warrants some investigation in both cases. Some of those conversations are waiting to happen at work as well.

If you’re in a committed relationship, one of the biggies is a discussion of how what you want as “retirement” is going to mesh with what your sweetie wants. If you want to move to a cave and she’s looking forward to shopping in New York City once a month , you’re gonna need a fair amount of conversation to keep both of you happy. Likewise, if you want to travel the world and he wants to stay home and raise rare African orchids. Differences in interests are surmountable. But solving those challenges requires honest conversation. Nothing like a downturn to give you some quiet time to have one.

Honest conversations with adult children also require some slow time–at least to do them well. Are you planning on being a significant part of their lives once you retire when that’s not the case now? How do they feel about that? Are they expecting you’ll be available as their full-time or fall-back babysitter? You need to lay out the boundaries for that or you’re going to feel like indentured help in no time.

If you’re working and wondering whether you want to retire at all, this is also a good time to talk to your boss or mentor about what he or she sees as options for you, either with the company or as a resource to the company after you retire. The place to start is with…you guessed it….an honest conversation–about what you’re doing and the value of that to the company. If you do what you do well and like doing it, there may be a way to create a more flexibly shaped job as a transition to–or in lieu of–retirement. But you aren’t going to have any idea of how you’re valued unless you get some feedback.

The “who” for this conversation varies. It may make sense to talk with someone in Human Resources. Maybe it’s the guy who loved having you on his project four years ago. It may be best to talk to peers. One way or the other, you need to know the value of what you know and what you can do from a source other than your own perception. We deceive ourselves too easily. Sometimes, by thinking we are superstars when we aren’t, but often in the direction of giving ourselves less credit than we deserve. If you have a little time for conversation, go to people you work with and trust and find out what they think of what you do.

And don’t stop there. Find someone to talk to about the future of your area of expertise, too. Is it a growing area of need? Or waning for whatever reason? How current do you keep yourself? Even if you do stay current, are the things you do well going to become obsolete in another decade? Being realistic about this stuff will help you define a satisfying set of retirement options.

Don’t stop there either. Once you have a sense of your value as an employee and a realistic assessment of how long that work is going to need to be done, explore ideas for reshaping your work. There is so much that can be done with a cell phone and a laptop these days. But getting the flexibility you want will probably take several steps. The likelihood of running your job from wherever you want whenever you want will be better if you explore ideas within the chain of command for while before making any concrete suggestions. That’s easier to do when business is slow.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of conversations we need to have to live well. A downturn provides quiet time when you might be able to get some of them accomplished. The best part is that once you have this information to work with, new possibilities and directions open up. Focusing on and pursuing those will make you forget there’s a downturn happening it all.