When Will I Do It?

My friend Maery did it after fracturing her shoulder at a company outing.

My cousin Eugene did it when he ran out of staples for his office stapler.

My sister Karen did it when COVID-19 closed the dental office where she worked.

What did they do?

They retired.

But unlike me, they all had employers to retire from. They also all had a key moment when they knew it was time to do just that.

But as a freelance writer who works for dozens of clients, there’s no one employer to retire from and since I haven’t yet had a “now’s the right time” moment, I’m still saying yes to most client work that comes my way. Thankfully, I enjoy the work…and the people I work for.

That said, I am beginning to think more seriously about retirement and what it might look like for me.

Despite the fact that I’ve been dreaming about (and saving for it) since I was 22, I don’t have a very clear picture. That’s one reason why, when I turned 60 three years ago, rather than celebrating with a big party, a piece of jewelry or an exotic trip, I took a one-year sabbatical.

Though I missed having work as a way of structuring my days, I really enjoyed the downtime and the chance to unplug both personally and professionally. I also enjoyed the chance to travel for months at a time.

Although I’ve since returned to freelancing, I now say yes only to projects I can do from anywhere at any time. That way, I still have plenty of flexibility and free time, a lot of which I just putter away. Most days that feels like exactly the right thing to do.

Other days, I’m more engaged. I’ve also started journaling again and gotten reacquainted with art supplies I haven’t touched in years. I’m cooking some and reading more. I’m writing letters and calling friends. I’m even enjoying routine household chores, plus getting estimates for several home improvement projects.

Increasingly, it’s these things—not my client work—that’s giving structure to my days…and no doubt moving me closer to retirement. What sign will tell me that it’s finally time? I don’t yet know, but I do look forward to finding out.

What Image Do I Want to Present?

Recently, Lauren Griffiths went viral when she replaced her “professional” LinkedIn headshot with one that better reflects her current situation as a human resources consultant who’s working remotely. She proposed that looking authentic is powerful and ultimately more valuable than presenting a “perfect” image. The longstanding ideas about “looking professional” remain powerful, although many people resent and resist those guidelines. Her post led me to consider: What image do I want to project? 

When my career was still active, I was well aware of the need to look polished. Looking younger would be even better, since the working world can be disrespectful of older women. Young was no longer possible (!) but I could manage youthful, especially if I colored my hair and wore attractive clothes and jewelry. Most women my age did the same.

Now, as a 66-year-old woman who’s retired from paid work, I no longer need to present a professional image or look any particular way beyond what pleases me. Griffiths wanted to present a more authentic professional image; women my age confront a similar dilemma. How do we present an authentic image as older women?

When and how do you allow signs of aging to show? Should I try to meet the world’s expectations for “attractive older woman”? In other words, look 55-ish until I’m 75? Do I try to hold the line at all costs? Should I continue highlighting my hair but skip surgery or Botox? Stop coloring my hair? Let go of the anti-aging fuss? 

When Gloria Steinem turned 50, she threw a birthday party and declared, “This is what 50 looks like.” She looked good, which turned the idea being a crone at 50 on its head. 30 years later, she told the world, “This is what 80 looks like” while traveling in Africa—another example of aging well.

In transition: Blonde in front. Silver coming in in back.

My more modest version of her philosophy is to stop highlighting my hair. Pleasing myself will be the point, so I reserve the right to resume hair color if I prefer it. Either way, I will proudly say, “This is what 66 looks like.”

A Great Day for a Bike Ride

I’m one of those people. I did a Simon Cowell. I purchased an electric bike.

Did I use to look at those people with scorn? Wonder if they were cheating? Deem that I was getting better-quality exercise with every pedal. Could those E-bikers even call what they were doing biking?

At the beginning of this biking season I was going strong. Biking 11 or 14 miles with Jody. We have a great route from our house to around Lake Harriet and a longer route to Lake Nokomis.

Though I was doing well biking, I was also uncomfortable. With two knee replacements, I lost the get up and go from a dead stop. This is a problem when you are trying to move through an intersection. I also felt unsafe. I couldn’t smoothly slide my feet from the cage pedals. I had to think every stop, or I’d tip over. I replaced the pedals with platform pedals. I also wanted to sit straighter so I jimmied some handles that would allow me to do that. Nothing is pretty when I jimmy.

Biking became not fun. I learned that two knees replacements aren’t equal. My left knee stayed on the pedal rock solid. My right knee wanted to complain about the position of my foot on the pedal. It did not have the same range of motion as the left.

I would only go biking with Jody if it was sunny and no wind. Not even a breeze.   

My preferred method of exercise became walking, hiking, and climbing the hills at the ski hill. I wasn’t a slouch. I often got compliments. Especially, when the telltale signs of my knee replacement scars were visible.  

I missed biking.  Jody is a strong runner and biker. We didn’t run together. We just rode in the same car to the same spot and then had an agreed upon time to meet up. When biking, she’d bike right behind me. She would insist that my pace was fine. I was certain that I was hindering her athletic prowess.

Since COVID, Jody and I have done a lot of walking together. She calls it her bonus steps since she has already worked out for the day. I call it my one and out.

Do you see what this is all leading to? My birthday gift. 

I did read Simon Cowell’s article before buying my E bike. I did read the manual. I have not fallen off my bike. I have also not done any wheelies.

My first ride with Jody was around Lake Nokomis from our house on a very windy day. My first impression was happiness. I was five years old, it was my birthday, and my mother had just handed me a Winchester lever rife that shot plastic bullets. 57 years later, I have that same joy riding my E bike.

At first Jody wanted me to bike in front of her like old times. That wasn’t going to work. I can bike whatever pace she is biking.

The next day we rode 20 miles on the Cannon Falls Trail. The only tense time was when I was in front of Jody and I was waiting for her to catch up. “This is a lot of work, you know”, she said a little testily. I learned to adjust my gears after that and not assume she could go any faster.

Since having the bike it has become my preferred exercise. There is work to an E bike. I pedal. My calf and thigh muscles work. Biking has improved my range of motion in my right knee. I can also feel more strength when climbing steps. Jody says that she gets a better workout.

I’m now one of those people. Don’t be judgy. If you ask me, I’ll tell you, it’s like having my birthday every day.  

Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy

Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy is written on my desk calendar, on a piece of scrap paper in my bag, at the bottom of our grocery list. My husband’s favorite order from a small Vietnamese restaurant we like. Okay, a place where we ate so often that the servers know us. 

It is a neighborhood eatery where we could relax after a busy day or before running errands. Carry out orders flew from the kitchen. Tables were filled with college students, young families, parents with grouchy high school kids, retirees. Large fish tanks amuse young diners. Food came fast. On rainy or winter nights the crowded room felt cozy. 

When curbside carry out became available, we called our place. The first night, part of our order was missing when we got home. Two weeks later my stir fry had little flavor and the rice needed warming. We noted the slip-ups, but didn’t dream about trying another place or dropping Vietnamese from our carry out rotation. They know who we are when we walk in. I know the person who says it is good to see me. They prefer cash and I understand how credit card fees eat into small business sales. 

The food is good, but not great. It is truly all about the people and setting. And we want to keep their kitchen busy and their staff working until that atmosphere can be restored and there is time to talk about the world as water glasses are filled. We have a connection. In cities that builds neighborhood.

Storefronts and restaurants have already closed on their block because of seven months without stable sales and the whammy of riot damage. Social distancing outside the watch repair place, there are no lines next to me at the theater where a new release is showing. No patrons sit around tables at the tea shop. Inventory looks low at the corner gift store. What will the holidays look like for these small merchants? How will a tenuous consumer economy support neighborhood places? 

So much is unknown because most of us haven’t experienced circumstances so forbidding. This has been described as the worst economy since the Big Depression. Hopefully there will be enough folks in the neighborhood, with resources, ordering Gung Pao Chicken to keep owners and employees of small businesses intact. In the meantime, let’s keep safe and watch out for each other.

Rest in Peace, Patty C.

I first met Patty in 1978. We were both English majors at Drake University in Des Moines. I was in my early 20s, she in her mid-30s.

We didn’t have a lot in common.

I lived with a roommate I didn’t like in a campus dorm. She lived with her husband and young son in a four-bedroom house about 15 minutes away. I was a poor college junior who spent my weekends drinking beer that cost $1 a pitcher. She spent her weekends with her parents, swimming in their indoor swimming pool and sipping cocktails graced with fruit from their lemon and lime trees.

Both English majors, Patty and I were paired up on a class paper we worked diligently on to earn an A. I no longer recall what grade we received, but we became good friends in the process. She enjoyed hearing my stories about dorm life, and I liked hearing stories about her parents’ home and lavish lifestyle.  

Looking back, what I think we enjoyed most was sharing our hopes and dreams with someone who not only truly listened, often for hours on end, but also believed in our ability to achieve those dreams.

A year later, in December of 1979, I graduated and moved back to Minneapolis where I went to work for the Minnesota Senate, first as a page and then as an intern researching DWI legislation.

In mid-August of 1980, out of the blue, I received a letter from Drake University’s English department offering me a graduate-school fellowship. In exchange for teaching two sections of freshman English and working 10 hours each week in the school’s writing lab, I would earn a master’s degree in English.

I wanted to accept the school’s offer, but I’d already spent all my savings getting my undergrad degree. And having been raised by a dad whose mantra was, “If you can’t pay cash, don’t buy it,” I was reluctant to take on more student debt.

But then Patty invited me to come live with her. And suddenly my dream of earning a master’s became a reality.

The rules for living at Patty’s were simple: two dos and two don’ts. Do empty the dishwasher each morning and do grocery shopping with her once a week. Don’t smoke pot in the house and don’t have sex with her husband (she’d once found him in bed with one of her best friends).

We quickly settled into a routine. Her husband dropped me off on campus on his way to work each morning, and Patty drove me home each afternoon after we had both finished our classes.

We read books and wrote papers, and spent our free time penning bad poetry, drinking beer (her husband worked at Coors) and frying ourselves in the sun.

We also talked a lot about our hopes and dreams. Mine started out modest, but she encouraged me to dream bigger and set goals. It was her encouragement that led me to set a goal of someday writing a book. (Decades later, thanks in large part to her, I did: a book on goalsetting that’s been translated into five languages and is helping young people around the globe set their own goals.)

I liked being part of Patty’s family. Quiet early mornings at the kitchen table sipping coffee and writing in our journals. Afternoons playing catch with her son or helping him with his homework. Weekends hanging out with her parents or her husband’s colleagues.

After 18 months, with classes complete, I moved back to Minneapolis.

For years, Patty and I talked often, regularly exchanged long stream-of-consciousness letters, some of which held our deepest desires and our darkest fears and visited one another now and again.

Eventually she and her husband divorced, and she moved to Arkansas. She also got sick: first with a mysterious disease that was never diagnosed, then with tuberculosis followed by heart disease. Along the way, she made me promise that I’d be at her funeral—no matter when or where—and that I’d make sure Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird was played.

But as the years passed, our letters got less frequent. And although we did come close to getting together in person a few years ago when I vacationed about 50 miles from her home, we never did as she’d woken up that day not feeling well and had to cancel.

I still wrote a couple of times a year. Sometimes I heard back, sometimes I didn’t. Then, I sent several letters that went unanswered. I wasn’t worried at first, but then sent a letter asking if I’d said or done something to upset her. When I still didn’t hear back, I wrote to her sister who called me immediately to tell me Patty had died several months earlier, most likely from a massive heart attack. Patty’s sister and son had wanted to tell me but didn’t know how to reach me.

There was no funeral. I’m glad, as I would have felt terrible missing it.

But I did download Free Bird to my phone. In honor of our friendship, I play it now and again, always with a heart full of gratitude to a forever friend who made a huge difference in my own life, not only by encouraging my early hopes and dreams but also by being the first friend who truly believed I could achieve them.