Forever Home – Far Away From Home

House for sale

Knowing retirement was coming up and fearing I wouldn’t be able to live on Social Security in the U.S., I started several years early and visited both Panama and Costa Rica as possible long-term locations. Even though I was looking at locations with mountains (since my dream included a babbling brook or quiet creek nearby), and a garden so I could fill my days with beautiful, aromatic flowers and herbs right at my fingertips – greenery that wasn’t readily available in Las Vegas, I had a friend in Florida who kept nudging me to come check out the state. He was not put off by my constant gripes that Florida had no mountains, I wasn’t really interested in sand in my shoes on a daily basis and they had hurricanes – not on my to-do list. Nevertheless, he persisted and so I visited a couple of times, with house-hunting at the top of the list. And what do you know? I liked the craftsman homes in the area, the greenery and the old-fashioned neighborhood feel.

I had it stuck in my mind that the thing to do was to cash out my 401K, use it to buy something outright so I’d have no rent or mortgage and then I could afford to live off my Social Security. And so I spent countless hours scouring Zillow and Realtor.com and a couple of others for something that I liked that I could afford. Not an easy task. I discovered that my meager 401K wasn’t going to get me much. I had found lots of places I could afford in Costa Rica but I had no way to check out the areas they were in or even see if the photos matched the reality. That scared me into going back again and again to look at properties in Florida.

I was constantly disappointed at my lack of affordability. The houses I could afford didn’t remotely match my dream and the amount of repairs that would be needed would require even more. I finally decided to stop attempting to make things happen and turn my attention elsewhere. I was sure that if it was meant to happen, it would.

And then one day, I got an email from my friend in Florida that one of his friends had come across a cute little place in her own search and had told him she was not going to buy it but that I should have a look at it online because it had the garden I said I wanted and it wasn’t terribly expensive. spring time gardens

I gasped when I saw the photos. There was a lovely garden and deck in the back and French doors leading from the master bedroom to a screened-in porch. Are you kidding? I wanted that house from the moment I saw the photos. My friend convinced me to fill out the online Quicken Loan information to see how much I could qualify for.

I’m not really sure what happened from there. One minute I was dreaming of a house with a garden and the next minute I had qualified for one, the lender had contacted me for more information and I was suddenly buying a house and would close on it in 6 weeks. Panic set in.

My goal of a stress-free, relaxed retirement turned into anxiety and sleepless nights as I downloaded document after document and started paying for all kinds of not-disclosed-up-front and unexpected expenses like an HOA application fee, an inspection fee, a property surveyPaperwork vortex fee, a title insurance fee, etc. I was running out of money and I’d been instructed not to borrow from the 401K until it was time for the down payment. I was drowning in paperwork (most of which reads like a foreign language and is exhausting to plow through) and my emotions vacillated all over the map – exhilaration, anxiety, despair, fright and excitement.

In the end, I drove across the United States to Florida and although I’m still adjusting to all the changes from my 42 years in Las Vegas, I think I’m going to be happy here. I love the back garden and have plans to transform it into a peaceful haven full of beautiful flowers. I already have the butterflies, birds and squirrels and I love them. But guess what? Gardening is expensive – just one more thing I didn’t anticipate.

When Retirement Loses Its Luster

Even though I’ve had a few niggling misgivings about retirement – having enough to get by, isolation, inactivity – the column of positives has outweighed those concerns. But they’re back and this time it’s my brother’s situation that has triggered unease.

If you were lucky enough to grow up with an older sibling that you always got along with and who always looked out for you, it’s disconcerting to see the tables turn in old age and brother and sisterknow that you love them enough to look after them but they won’t allow it. Not only will they not allow it, but they’ve made so many bad decisions along the way, that this is the result and the problems have multiplied. It’s hard not to replay some of those situations and constantly think, “What if…,” “If you’d only…,” or “Why can’t you…?”

My brother and I had a sort of bond against the world growing up. Our parents had a volatile relationship when my father was drinking (he eventually quit) and my brother, six years older, was quick to make sure I wasn’t being dragged into their fights – and by fights, I mean when my mother was yelling at my father (nothing physical). There was one incident shortly after he’d gone off to college when she was yelling at him and I’d slunk into my room and closed the door, turning up the television to avoid hearing them. Nevertheless, I heard my name being called. I stepped tentatively into the hallway to see them both standing in their bedroom doorway and my mother demanded of me, “Tell him. Tell him who loves you more.” What can you say to that? The moment they saw my face, the fight ended. I, however, relayed the incident to my brother and only found out years and years later that he called them and read them the riot act for putting me in the middle. He was my protector.

So yes, my brother and I have always had a bond. And now, it seems, when the tables have turned and he needs my help, I’m unable to pull my weight.

Over the years, his life took some hard turns and he lost sight of his dreams and goals and eventually gave up and retired. Not much of a money manager, when things would get rough, he’d abandon everything and just move. It never occurred to him that he was making his financial situation worse every time he did that and his money grew tighter and tighter. It’s finally reached the point where he has cancelled his Medicare because he needs the money for food. He hasn’t been able to afford any medical, dental or vision care and his health is beginning to deteriorate.

So here we are: me on the verge of retirement, hoping to spend some time taking him to dinner to make sure he eats decent meals and maybe catching a movie or two to get him out of his apartment. He, however, has decided he can’t even afford the low-rent Problems quoteapartment he’s in and is planning to abandon everything once again and head to Nicaragua so he can afford a decent apartment and food without having to ask for my assistance.

I help him out financially as often as I can and yet still feel guilty that I don’t just cash out my 401K and give him enough for the medical care I know he needs but is avoiding. I struggle with wanting to make his life easier but also protect my own. It’s made retirement scary for me. I want what’s best for both of us and I want him to live to be 100!

You’d think that, working in hospice, I’d be able to talk about death with him but I find that I can’t. The thought of losing him because he refuses to go to a doctor, makes me physically sick. More than anything, I want to be there to take care of him and I’m afraid part of his rationale for going to El Salvador is not only to save money but to keep me from watching his decline. I don’t know which is worse: being there to watch his decline or not being there and allowing him o cope by himself.

Neither choice is ideal but it’s made my view of the benefits of retirement slightly skewed because my future portends loss.

Transformation – Conservative to Liberal

63f44bf5df433d698abb349de3018b08I can only speak to my own transformation but I think it was my three years of traveling overseas that turned me from a semi-conservative to a liberal. Prior to travel, I had no reason to pay any attention at all to anyone else’s customs, hopes and difficulties. My thinking changed by interacting with various cultures and realizing the things we had in common. The little things might differ – what we wore, our food preferences, where we worshipped – but the big things were the same. We all want happiness and a measure of success. If you look at the billions of people on the earth, I’d wager that most of them are working to survive, not working at something they love. What, then, determines what makes their lives good ones?

My thinking had progressed a little bit when I moved from small town Texas to big city Washington, D.C. and then to international Las Vegas. It was not a big city when I first got here but it had an international base in the casinos and I worked with many of them in the show I danced in for my first four years here – French, Canadian, Czech, Italian. I watched their approaches to American norms and heard stories of what it took to adapt to our ways. Although I didn’t have to accept the differences, I found myself thinking about them. What did it take to leave everything behind to come here? I wasn’t sure I would’ve had the courage to do that. And the little differences became apparent as well. Who thought fast food was awful? More important, who survived on fruits and vegetables … and preferred them? Really?

And then I got the chance to travel to South Africa for a show that was beginning rehearsals in Bophuthatswana. I had found the stories of travels from the military people I had met in Washington interesting and they had opened my mind to even more options once I drove across country to Las Vegas on my own and found that I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I guess that was the beginning, because I would not have imagined such a thing in high school. In fact, I remember that my mother had once told me that although not a rich family, if I wanted to do something like go to school in Switzerland, they would find a way to get me there. I was horrified at the thought of being that far away. I couldn’t really tell you why. Perhaps it was that I was young and had always had relatives close by that I could depend on to take care of me and although I longed for the independence that all teenagers do, I didn’t want to push it too far.

So I arrived in South Africa, where I spent ten and a half months, and loved the adventure. To this day, I have great stories to tell. But more important, I saw firsthand what apartheid was like and wondered how people could treat each other that way. I saw people who had to be taught what a knife and fork were before they could work as waiters in the resort’s restaurants. That people could be so different was eye-opening and it made me take stock of the sheltered little world I’d left. It also made me put things in a bigger perspective.

I worked in Cairo where women who wore pants of any type (that includes jeans) were suspect as being loose and ran the risk of being followed, and maybe worse, if they dared to walk alone. I had a boyfriend there and learned that, by law, women were second-class citizens. It was not appropriate for me to hug him in public. Unimaginable.

When one of the shows I worked in overseas took me to Ito, Japan, I was particularly fascinated by the plethora of “rules” the Japanese lived by. When I questioned some of them, the answers almost always came back to “tradition.” I realized that in many of the countries I visited, the people I met had no reason to question. They had grown up in one place and much like me before I left Texas, knew nothing else. To them, it was entirely normal and my views were seen as radical. I got a taste of what it’s like to be the outsider with different ways that are frowned upon.

So I came back to the States having loved my travels but sporting a liberalism about what other people could and should be allowed when they come to my country that appalled my conservative mother. Too late. I’ve discovered that once you start thinking a bit more liberally, it’s impossible to back up. And I wouldn’t want to because the most important lesson for me was that if you look at the big picture, everyone simply wants to be valued, loved and to live life to his or her fullest.

Looking Back at the Forks in the Road

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From time to time I see comments from people who say they don’t regret anything they’ve done in their lives. I often want to say, “Really? Just wait.” How can you not look back at some of the forks in the road and try to imagine how different (always assuming better, of course) your life might be.

One of those forks in the road for me began the day I decided to continue a relationship with a man that I’d begun dating before I moved to Las Vegas and before he decided to marry someone else while I was working overseas. His job required a lot of travel – Secret Service – and so I saw the separations as a normal part of our relationship. In my mind, he only married her because, as he’d told me, the agency encouraged its agents to marry. Surely he settled for second best under pressure but just couldn’t tear himself away from me. (Yeah, I know. Don’t laugh). It took me a long time to understand that love is not necessarily reciprocated. That’s a hard lesson because we like to think if we’ve vetted the other person and found them worthy of our love, they must love us, too. How could our love be so misplaced?

In this particular case, our meetings lasted on and off for almost 20 years. Stupid, you say? Why yes. I remain mystified that I could’ve thought someone who only saw me once every year or couple of years would actually be in love with me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I convinced myself that he didn’t really love the person he married or he wouldn’t still be coming to see me. I told myself that he was just too chicken to face her.

Here was the defining moment that made me look at our relationship realistically: Over the years, he drank more and more and I had eventually told him I thought he was an alcoholic and I didn’t want him calling me again as long as he was still drinking. Two years later, he was in town, called, said he’d made some changes in his life and could we have dinner. Well, of course I relented because it sometimes takes a whole lot of water to extinguish the fire and clearly I’d only tossed a sprinkle or two when I’d needed a fire hose. I noticed that although he didn’t drink as much at dinner, he still drank. Hmmm. Then when he told me he loved me, I didn’t want to rock the boat by bringing up the booze issue.

So the next time he came to town, I decided to broach the subject of our long-term relationship and where, if anywhere, it was going (and yes, he drank at dinner). I don’t remember much of the conversation. The only thing I remember clearly is that when I told him he’d said he loved me the last time he’d been here, his eyebrows shot up and he laughingly said, “Jesus, was I drunk?”

Cue anvil between the eyes. Boy, that was a show stopper, I’ll tell ya’! It was also the end of the relationship. My regret is my stupidity. On the other hand, I’ve always believed we learn something from the bad as well as the good so I’ve long since put it in perspective. Even so, I sometimes look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking.

Freedom or Boredom

1464810432178This whole retirement thing is a bit tricky. I, like many before me, have spent decades talking about all the fun things I’ll do when I retire, not least of which is not having to set an alarm and then function on someone else’s time for the majority of my day. And the older I get, the more I’ve felt like life is passing me by while I’m stuck inside following someone else’s rules.  I didn’t notice it so much when I was younger because in my 20s, 30s, 40s and even some of my 50s, it still felt like I had hundreds of hours left to do what I wanted – to rebel and head out on my own, to forge a different life in another part of the world and explore, explore, explore.

I managed a little of that. When I was dancing, I got to see South Africa, Egypt, Finland, Sweden, Japan, Hong Kong, England, Italy, France, and Thailand. In a brief search for a retirement place, I checked out Panama and Costa Rica. But the funny thing is, the closer I get to retirement, the scarier it looks and the less adventurous I get.

Why is that? There are any number of reasons. I get less adventurous because moving two cats to a foreign country is problematic and then what if I hate it; I’ve developed chronic issues as I get older that require care, which makes me worry about leaving the country; I’d be an older, single female living amongst strangers and hoping they’re nice to me rather than viewing me as the odd one out and an easy target; and the hassle of traveling isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be. Things that never bothered me before, now do: Did I pack everything, did I leave early enough to get to the airport, will I find an overhead bin to put my carry-on in, will I hold up everyone behind me (none of whom offers to help) while I try to stuff my bag in that overhead bin, will I find my way through the airport to my connection in time, will the taxi driver screw me around on my way to the hotel, will this be the one hotel in the city with a bedbug problem … and on and on.

As for retirement being scarier the closer I get, I have a short list of what ifs:

  1. What if I get bored with the things I think will entertain me? I have a long list of things I’ve always wanted to tackle but what if I go through the list in the first few months and then none of them appeal to me any more?
  2. What if I get so used to sleeping late and with nowhere I have to go, resort to sitting around staring at the television or the computer screen, putting on weight and becoming more and more sedentary (which would, of course, mean that my chronic back problem will only get worse and my joints more creaky)?
  3. What if I decide I can’t live on my Social Security and I need to find a part-time job? At my age, very few places are likely to want to hire me and then I have to wonder if I should’ve retired in the first place.
  4. What if I get lonely? There’s an older gentleman who comes into the Starbucks where I go to write who, as I’ve heard him tell people, comes in every single day (like I’ll soon be doing) and sits very quietly until he can insinuate himself into someone’s conversation, where he then proceeds to spend far too much time talking to them. Will I end up like that – desperate for human conversation?
  5. What if I die? I’ve heard countless stories about people who were looking forward to retiring and then died within a few months of doing so. One of my co-workers and her husband both retired so they could travel the country. They were excited about this new path in their lives. They bought an RV and planned out their route around the United States. He died roughly two months after retiring. I don’t know why that happens so often (or at least often enough to have caught my attention) but I sure as hell don’t want to be one of the statistics.

So I suppose the basic issue is whether or not the dream will be all it’s cracked up to be. Looking at your dreams and realizing that they might be just that and nothing more, can put a serious dent in the rest of your days. It makes you pause and go through the retirement check list one more time to assure yourself that you’ve thought of everything. Then you just have to say: You’ll be fine. Repeat after me: You’ll be fine.

 

New Year’s Resolutions?

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Another New Year’s. I’ll bet most of us, through the years, have done every combination of resolution list that’s ever been proposed. In my high school and college years, I sat down and very seriously came up with the one thing that absolutely had to be accomplished during the ensuing year. It took at least a decade for me to abandon that method as a total waste of time. I can’t think of a single resolution that I actually achieved that way.

Then came at least another couple of decades of following different but somewhat similar plans every year: Don’t call it a resolution, make a list of the top ten things and be happy with crossing off 2 or 3, ten ways to stick to this year’s “goals,” rethinking what “achievement” means, etc., etc., etc.

So here we are – the cusp of 2018. What have I learned? Apparently nothing. I’ve put a different description to my contemplative end-of-year exercise and I choose goals that are a little more general in nature – like eat healthier (what, exactly, does that look like?), keep a cleaner house (like that’s going to happen), and make it to 2019 (I think that one’s achievable). I now say that I like to do a “mental reevaluation” of the year and where I’d like to focus in the next one but that sounds suspiciously like watered down resolutions, doesn’t it? Oh well. Who knows? If I keep at it, I may hit one on the nail this time. And what are those things that crop up every year? Publish a play, find a lucrative part-time outside source of income so I don’t have to worry about reverting back to my college living conditions when I retire (fun then – not so much now), publish a series of novels about my showgirl and casino marketing days (each one in a different Las Vegas decade), lose weight so I look as fabulous at 65 as any senior possibly can and check out another country or two as possible retirement sites. I’m not sure I can cram all that into one year so maybe I’ll just stretch it out for a few more.

Happy New Year to all you dedicated resolutioners!

Panama – Part III

Boquete

Keep in mind that this little Panamanian adventure was taken when I was 63 years old, traveling alone and in search of a retirement location that would be more affordable when living off nothing but social security. The goal was to cash out my 401K, use it to purchase a small cottage with a backyard suited for establishing a lush garden to revel in on a daily basis and yet still be close to decent medical care.

So I drove from David, Panama to Boquete, where the instructions were to turn left just past the bank  and before the town square as I was descending into the valley. Now really, how could that go wrong? However, as you can see from the photo above, you can’t miss the fact that you’re traveling down into a valley. And here was the town square:

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I quickly found my host’s house and settled into the one-room casita in the backyard – right next to a babbling brook that attracted all sorts of birds throughout my stay. It was an idyllic setting: perfect temperatures in the day – t-shirts, sweat pants and sneakers – but cold enough at night to sleep with the window open and a blanket pulled up under my chin. The morning bird calls would wake me and I’d make a cup of coffee and sit outside the front door and watch the resident creatures come to life and dip in and out of the backyard.

Cottage

The first thing I noticed was that the town seemed to be more expats than locals and that most of them made little or no effort to talk to the locals (at least that I could see). I didn’t like that. My stay overlapped a three-day celebration on the founding on Boquete and there were “parades” daily. I use that term loosely because the first one was a constant stream of men on horseback, interspersed by pickup trucks with women freely pouring booze into plastic cups for anyone who walked up to them as they passed by. I watched one horse, made to lift his knees and prance down the street, foaming at the mouth and no none seemed to mind a bit. These same horses paraded around in a giant square for the better part of 5 hours. I sort of wished we’d made the rider prance around like that for hours with no water and see how much he liked it. And then there was the public drunkenness. When I returned to my casita, the owner asked about my day and when I told her the public drunkenness concerned me, she responded, “Well, there is that.” Hmmm. How safe would a lone foreigner be in the city with drunken men routinely tottering around the streets?

I took a tour of a coffee plantation, enjoyed that and booked a tour that only had three of us and a guide, walking uphill in the forest in a light drizzle for the better part of two hours. They may have seen this tour as “an easy uphill walk” but as a senior, there were times when I thought that if we didn’t stop for breath, I wouldn’t have any left.

I used my time in Boquete to walk some of the back streets to see what the houses looked like and how the locals lived. The houses were dilapidated but the locals were friendly. I also asked my host lots of questions. I thought maybe I could make herbal and essential oil products from my company, Scentsibility, and sell them but her response was, “Who’s going to buy them?” When I said “hopefully the locals,” she responded, “They grow herbs in their backyards and wouldn’t have the money to buy products.” She suggested I check out the weekly open market to check out the competition and so I did.

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I was mostly struck by the fact that this was the height of entertainment for the locals. There were no department stores, no big grocery stores, no library that I could see, and television programs in Spanish. I started to realize that although this would be wonderful for about a month, then what? I found the local doctor’s office and decided I’d need to head to David or even back to Panama City for health care and that would certainly not be convenient.

I talked about buying a small house and my host discouraged it. She (as well as all the expats I talked to) said I should definitely rent for six months to a year before settling there. That would mean I’d be depleting my funds for a purchase. She added further fuel to my thoughts by asking me who would buy my little cottage if I decided after a year or so to leave? The locals couldn’t afford it and the expats tended to band together in gated communities on the outskirts of town so they wouldn’t buy it.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Boquete, I realized that I probably would not want to settle there. So I flew back to Panama City for my last night’s stay in the country and was picked up by my trusty driver, Sinar (see Part I).

So it appears I’m back to square one – where to go and how to live on social security.