Goodwill, Here I Come

It seemed like a great plan: I’d take my no-longer-needed work clothes to a consignment shop and make a little money. Consignment store clothes are already inexpensive, and consignees only get a cut of the price—say 40 percent. So maybe I’d make $20. Then I’d use the cash for something fun—a little treat.

Choosing what to discard (a la Marie Kondo) was hard. I liked the clothes, felt good in them, and had enjoyed wearing them. But it didn’t make sense to keep them, since I no longer needed business attire. Maybe somebody else could use them. Last winter, I came up with a pile of about 15 pieces—jackets, tops, and pants. I washed them, hung them on hangers, and tried to keep the cat and his walking cloud of cat hair away from them.

Feeling virtuous and lighter, I called around and learned that the stores don’t want winter clothes in the winter. August is when I should bring in my fall and winter items. So I moved the clothes to the back of the closet and made a note on my calendar.

Last week, I loaded up the items and drove them to a nearby consignment shop. The sales associate said it would take an hour or so to go through my stuff. I assumed that meant deciding how to price everything. I took off to run some errands.

When I returned, I warned myself that the prices for my things might be lower than I expected. My cut might be small. Oh well, it was just meant to be fun money. No big deal.

When I found the sales associate, she said, “We are only able to accept a few of your clothes. Everything else is more than three years old.” In other words, my stuff was too out-of-style. I have never considered myself to be a fashion maven, but I thought my clothes were within acceptable limits for middle-aged business style. It’s not like I brought in a bunch of 1980’s power suits with jumbo shoulder pads.Power Suit pattern

“Do you want to take them back with you? If not, we can donate them,” the sales associate suggested. After making the decision to part with the clothes, I wasn’t bringing them home again. “No, go ahead and donate them,” I told her. I glanced at the three things she was keeping for sale and thought, “I’ll be lucky if I get $5 out of this. That’s a lot of work for a cappuccino!”

I laughed as I left the store and mentally paraphrased David Foster Wallace, “That’s another supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.”

Next time I clean out my closet, I’ll go directly to Goodwill!

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Celebrating Retirement

Last week I celebrated one year of retirement. “Celebrated” is a key word. While I was happy to retire last August, I felt a little undercurrent of worry—I didn’t exactly have a plan. For many people, not having a plan sounds like what retirement is all about. But to me, making such a major and irreversible move called for a blueprint. As in what I am I going to do for the rest of my life? Which suddenly seemed more finite.

Retirement is an Identity Change

Retirement is a major identity shift akin to starting a career, marrying a spouse, or becoming a parent. You see yourself differently. A wise friend advised that it might take up to a year to figure out retirement, and it has.

Who Am I Without My Profession?

Americans often identify with our professions. I have worked since I was 16, and I babysat before that, so paid work has been part of my life since I was 11. I went to some effort (getting a graduate degree, moving across the country three times) to launch my career—first as a teacher and then as a copywriter. In 1979, when I started teaching college full-time, the working world wasn’t welcoming to women, and I had to fight to belong. By the time I started copywriting five years later, I had toughened up and the workplace was less openly antagonistic. My early experiences shaped me, and having a career became an integral part of who I am.

My other roles—wife, mother, sister, and friend—have remained constant in retirement. But last August I wondered, “What does it mean to let go of the career I worked so hard to have? What happens to all the experience and skills I’ve gained?” Today, the answer is that I’m still a writer—an essayist and blogger, and I volunteer as a marketing communications copywriter.

Me in retirement--just kidding--it's Rose Totino

Me in retirement–just kidding!

That’s how I see myself, but early on when I mentioned my new status, I learned that the word “retiree” conjures up someone who’s out-of-touch and lives for coupons. Now when I meet people, I simply describe the work I do.Ellen in Hawaii

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People Openly Wonder, “What do you do all day?”

It’s a legitimate question. A year ago, I too wondered how to create a life that is fulfilling and fun. What exactly was I going to do with my time? The answer is more of everything I did before. I sleep half-an-hour longer. Most days, I walk for an hour because now exercising doesn’t have to be a trade-off (i.e., either I exercise or I have fun).

Housework, cooking, and grocery shopping still exist in retirement. I’m determined not to become obsessive about any of that, but now I might take an extra five minutes to dry the pots and pans after I wash them instead of letting them air dry as I did before. Why not? I have time.

Camping in WI

Camping in WI

Today, I read, write, travel, socialize, and volunteer more. Probably the main difference is that now I have more time to explore or learn new things in classes at the University of Minnesota, the Loft, or community education.

I wasn’t planning to retire last August at 61; I expected to work two-and-a-half more years. However, when a stroke of luck gave me the opportunity to leave early, I did. I am very grateful to be retired now. Eventually old age will find me. But for now I’m enjoying the gift of retirement. I want to use my time well.

Anachronisms (Or 3 Reasons Why I Love My Electronic Devices)

My youngest son and I were talking about eating alone in restaurants, when I flashed back to life before cell phones, tablets, GPS and Internet connectivity. He’s a nice guy, so he didn’t tease me about my “Why in my day, Sonny, we used to . . .” moment. Electronic devices have profoundly changed the outcome of several awkward or frustrating experiences.

Eating Alone

While traveling for business in the late 1980’s, I faced a dilemma that no longer exists: how to eat alone in a restaurant without looking weird or attracting unwanted attention.

Articles for career women advised bringing a book and reading at dinner. That way you wouldn’t feel stupid, and you wouldn’t attract sleazy guys trying to pick you up. Or you could order room service and avoid the whole issue.

I usually preferred a good meal with a glass of wine to a dry turkey sandwich in my room, so I learned to carry a book. Wait staffs’ reactions and service varied from dismissive to sympathetic. To boost my confidence and convey that I had a right to be there, I was pleasant but a bit aloof. While waiting for my order I sipped my wine and read. Usually that worked, but sometimes I didn’t have the energy for the performance.

Now I can take my smartphone or tablet and catch up on email, check Facebook, read online, or write and be legitimately busy and content. I don’t have to worry that I look pathetic or vulnerable.

Missing Connections

Before cell phones, bad luck could ruin a rendezvous. Imagine this: you’re in Chicago on business. You have a free afternoon before your flight and want to see a college friend. You agree to meet by the lions in front of the Art Institute at 1:00. By 1:15, you’re checking your watch and wondering. At 1:35, you’re frustrated and uncertain. Stay? Go? What’s going on?!?

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There was no way for your friend to call or text to say, “Missed my train. Can I meet you inside by the Chagall window at 2:00 instead?” You could go inside alone but she’d have no idea where to find you. Or you could leave, angry and disappointed. Either way, you would have missed each other. The afternoon of laughs and reminiscing couldn’t be salvaged.

Getting Lost

MissouriFor years, I’ve driven cross-country for family visits to Ohio or vacations in Virginia, Texas, and Montana. I also think nothing of driving to a distant suburb to meet friends for dinner. Usually I navigate these trips successfully . . . as long as I have a map or Garmin for GPS.

Occasionally, though, I’ve gotten spectacularly lost. Driving 30 miles out my way near Green Bay, Wisconsin. Circling Eden Prairie, Minnesota for 40 minutes (and Eden Prairie isn’t that big). Hubris accounted for these mishaps. I thought I knew where I was going, so I didn’t bring a map.

Back in the day, the only solution was to stop and ask for directions. I had to hope the person was reliable and not a knucklehead who’d send me the wrong way, because he forgot to mention three important turns.

If there’s no cell phone signal (rural Montana and Wisconsin come to mind), I can be just as lost as in the old days. Google maps and GPS have definitely reduced the likelihood that I’ll get lost during a road trip, but sometimes they are wrong or incomplete. Just in case, I still carry a paper map and keep my cell phone charged up.

How about you? What difficult situation has become a thing of the past because of your electronic devices?

God Bless Middle-aged Daughters

As I walk into the skilled nursing center where Mom is rehabilitating, I see other women like myself and think, “God bless middle-aged daughters.”

We’re the sensible, competent women who make it all happen.

On the street, we often go unnoticed, although we’re attractive. We dress well, but in age-appropriate clothes. No six-inch heels or short skirts. We may carry 10 to 20 extra pounds, but we’re fit, trim, and solid enough to carry the weight of the world.

On our lunch hour, after work, or during weekend visits, we go see our failing mothers and fathers. We bring them flowering plants small enough to fit on a bedside table/hard candy/clean sox/good cheer.

We comb their hair and smooth hand cream on their veiny hands and swollen feet. Once they could manage a demanding job or their family’s busy schedule, keep track of birthdays, recipes and grocery lists, but now they can’t remember what you told them five minutes ago, so we answer the same questions again and again. The times they emerge from the twilight, smile and say, “Oh honey, I wish you could always be here,” are heartbreaking treasure.

As we go back to the office, drive home, or head to the airport, we sigh at the slippage and blink back tears at the losses. Then we put on our game face because somebody else needs us. We keep moving—plan the marketing campaign, schedule the meeting, throw in a load of wash, or make a decent dinner.

We are careworn. Our lives are not glamorous (and never were—we didn’t aspire to that). We don’t expect much. We can be made happy with so little—a compliment when we don’t feel sexy or a hug from a kid who often seems oblivious.

Photo credit: Bokal @ Vecteezy.com

Photo credit: Bokal @ Vecteezy.com

Sometimes we need to push back our realities for a little while, so we laugh ourselves silly over a stupid joke when we’re out with our girlfriends or sink into the sofa and pour a second glass of good wine.

Writing Memoir Is Risky Business

Last fall I finished revising my memoir manuscript, BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE, and I shared it with several friends and family members before I started seeking a publisher. All of them were familiar with the basic premise of the book: it’s a coming-of-age-in-the-workplace story that takes place in 1979-1980. As a young woman, I was unsure about how to apply my feminist principles to my own life—What did I believe? How far was I prepared to go in pursuit of a career? How much did having a relationship and a family matter to me? If I wanted all three, how would that really work day-to-day?

Sharing the manuscript is scary. I’m exposing my personal life. To judgment – (Your life is boring. Your experiences don’t matter.) To criticism – (The writing is amateurish. The book is poorly written.)

Writing about my own life means I’m also writing about friends and family in my life. Real risky business. They didn’t ask to be in my book or become part of my creative project. They may resent the intrusion. Hate how I’ve characterized them. Even if I don’t intend to, my words can hurt people.

There’s a risk that my family won’t like what I’ve written. A risk that goes beyond embarrassment or irritation about the portrayals. More like – “I don’t care for memoirs—all that emotional stuff. I’d rather read a spy novel.” OK, I can handle that. Tastes vary. Vampire novels may be great stories, but they don’t appeal to me.

But if someone dear to me said, “I’m worried that although I love you, I might not like your writing,” that would be hard. I’d have difficulty separating my relationship from my craft, which is my passion and my life’s work.

I’m exposing my innermost thoughts. Often they’re innermost for a reason—sometimes because they’re painful. Embarrassing. Unworthy. Or stupid. As a writer, I’ve learned that the painful and embarrassing moments are most worth exploring—they’re most likely to yield the material that others really connect with.

The story I’m telling is only as good as my craft. As a memoirist, I use my writerly skills to shape the stories I tell. I decide which incidents, feelings and insights will create a story arc and which are extraneous details and better omitted. I use my powers of description, write dialog, and mine my memory for details. I’ve learned to check facts instead of trusting my memory (The lecture happened in February, not November as I recalled) so I can present a scene as accurately as possible. My skills or shortcomings as a writer determine the value placed on my memoir.

Why take that risk? Some memoirists write in hopes that they can teach others. That’s not what motivates me. Instead, I hope others will recognize something about themselves – “That frustrates me, too.” They’ll enjoy a moment of reminiscence – “OMG, that happened to me!” Or they’ll realize that they’re not the only one – “Wow, I’ve thought that, too.”

Despite the inherent risks, I examine certain periods of my life to find and share meaning. My experiences are worth writing about, not because they’re mine, but because they’re human and other people will see themselves in some of the central truths of my life, even if the particulars differ. For example, other working women have worried about pay and workplace politics. Today, some young women still wonder about how to balance a relationship with a career, just as I did. Other middle-aged women are looking back and considering their legacy.

If you write memoir—what makes it worth the risk?

If you read memoirs—why do they appeal to you?