Monday, May 20, 2013

My Top Priority in Retirement

Sunday is my favorite day of the week - I love putting my feet up on the ottoman and digging into the big local Sunday paper. Yesterday, an article in the editorial section caught my eye. It was written by Jennie Chin Hansen, CEO of the American Geriatrics Society. According to Hansen, our first priority, as seniors seeking an active retirement, should be taking care of our health. Now, her advice seemed very centered within Standard American Medicine, and most of her suggestions involved soliciting advice from healthcare professionals, pharmacists, and even geriatrics specialists. Too, I got the impression that she assumes we’re all taking a boat load of medicines. I did, though, find myself in agreement with her main premise. 

Hansen’s article points out that there are 77 million baby boomers out there, over half of them sedentary or overweight or both. I have to admit to the overweight part... sigh... though I’m not sedentary. What this means, though, is that many of us are at increased risk of diabetes, heart trouble and a lot of other diseases that we think of as characteristic of old age. And it’s hard to have an active retirement, let alone to live well, if you’re chronically ill. Not impossible, but much harder. Plus, even with Medicare and good insurance, medical care and prescription drugs can suck up a huge amount of your savings. Buh bye vacation!

Fortunately, according to Hansen, there is a lot we can do to improve our health. She suggests seeing your doctor every year for a checkup, and helpfully points out that Medicare now provides an annual “wellness visit.” She notes that you need to be sure that all those medicines you’re surely taking don’t cause harmful interactions with one another or with your over-the-counter medicines and vitamin supplements. And then there's more advice to consult with your various medical specialists to design a beneficial healthcare, diet, and exercise program for you. Really? Ms. Hansen seems to be living in a different universe from mine. I can’t imagine the harried, rushed doctors I’ve seen most recently taking the time to do all of that in any kind of comprehensive way.

But one of Hansen’s suggestions is brilliant, and though I think we’ve all heard it before, it bears repeating. She wants each of us to become an active participant in our own health care. I totally agree with that. We can no longer depend blindly on our doctors and the pharmaceutical industry to keep us in good health. The way things are going in this country, I’m not confident those of us who retire on a modest income can depend on even mediocre health care being reliably available to us in coming years.

I feel like the best thing I can do for myself is to take responsibility for my health into my own hands. Statistics suggest that at some point I’ll have to deal with a serious illness. But before then, there is a great deal I can learn to do for myself to maintain my health and to correct relatively minor problems, including those things that can lead to serious illness down the road. I don’t want to be one of those oldsters who goes to the doctor every week, takes a zillion pills, and has a mind closed to any health advice not coming from their doctors. I know people like that and they are really pathetic.

In fact, I have a close relative by marriage who exemplifies this attitude. A few years ago she was employed, walking a lot, happy and active. Then she was laid off, and seems to have taken up going to the doctor as a new hobby. First they gave her antidepressants because she was a little unhappy about losing her job. Then, because her cholesterol was a bit high, she was put on a statin drug. Predictably, her capacity to exercise declined and her blood sugar levels rose (both documented side effects of statins), so she stopped walking as much and was put on another prescription for her pre-diabetic condition. Over the last few years, she has continued to see the doctors more and more often, has been given more and more prescription drugs, and has seen her health and level of well-being continue to decline. She remains completely closed to suggestions about lifestyle changes - diet, exercise, natural remedies - and although she’d probably listen to her doctors, they just seem to give her more appointments and more prescriptions.

Personally, I have found it quite valuable to search and use the enormous amount of healthcare information available for free these days via the internet. The problem is that some of it is excellent, and some of it is ridiculously bad, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at sorting the wheat from the chaff, but still there is a lot of good but conflicting information on the web. This is particularly true when it comes to identifying an optimal diet. And that's too bad, because improving our diet may be one of the most important things we can do to improve and maintain our health. Different sources insist on low carbohydrate, or no gluten, or low fat, or no animal-sourced foods, each recommended by a different medical doctor, each doctor with good credentials, and all accompanied by lots of glowing testimonials from real people who got great results.

This lack of uniformity in recommendations causes “information paralysis” in many people, so that they finally give up and go on doing what they’ve always done, which usually is to eat a poor-quality (but tasty) diet and to not exercise any more than they have to. I don’t think all the answers are in yet in the so-called “diet wars,” but if you look at all the recommendations, you find some common threads:
  • Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, both raw and cooked. Vegetables, especially the green or highly-colored and low-starch ones, have the highest ratio of micronutrients to calories and are an important part of virtually every expert's diet recommendations.
  • Include fresh fruit in your diet, too, but not too much. If you have weight problems or are diabetic, you may do better concentrating on lower-sugar fruits like berries and melons. Fruit should be eaten whole, as grown, and not as juice.
  • Eliminate as much processed food as possible. Eat foods as they are grown, in natural, minimally processed form. Sugar, refined grains, and packaged and chemical-laden foods should be avoided.
  • Get some daily exercise, but don’t overdo. Include some aerobic exercise that gets you breathing deeply, such as brisk walking. Also do some resistance exercise and stretching. Resistance exercise, such as lifting weights, helps you retain your muscle, which often atrophies in older, inactive people. Stretching, such as yoga, maintains flexibility and helps avoid injuries. Most of important of all, though, is to do these at your own level and to not over-exercise. Trying to walk long distances or jog when you are not ready, lifting weights that are too heavy, or forcing a stretch, all may cause injury and actually delay your progress in the long run. 

The jury still seems to be out as to the proportions of fat, carbohydrate and protein I should be eating. I need to continue to research and do some trial-and-error self-experimentation to figure that part out. But I think these are recommendations I can rely on and that will continue to support my health as I age.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Confession: I’ve Been Wasting Food

This morning I threw away two chicken legs, uncooked. Earlier this week, I removed them from the freezer and put them in the fridge to thaw. Then I put away some groceries in front of the chicken... and they got lost. I forgot about them until too late.

I felt bad about tossing the chicken, but it smelled bad. It was definitely spoiled, and who wants to risk food poisoning? Fortunately, I bought the chicken legs in bulk for 79¢ a pound, so the loss was small. Still, every time I sort out the refrigerator I throw out wilted vegetables and past-prime or even moldy leftovers. The individual cost of these items is usually small... but they add up.

I wonder how much I would be cutting from my food budget if I could eliminate most of this waste? Maybe 25%, according to the experts, because it turns out that in the US, consumers waste 25% of the food we buy. 

I think the main reasons I personally end up throwing out food are these:
  • I buy too much of something and am unable to use it all before it spoils. I do this a lot with fruit and vegetables.
  • I cook too much, and even though I always save leftovers, they don’t always get used.
  • Things get pushed to the back of the refrigerator, effectively disappearing until it’s too late. This is what happened with my chicken legs.
  • I don’t keep track of what needs to be used soon, so that I can plan to use it up before it expires. I used to go through my refrigerator once or twice a week and make a list of what needed to be used right away. 
  • I haven’t been planning out lunches and dinners that incorporate my soon-to-expire items. I used to make that “use soon” list just before making a weekly menu plan and shopping list. 
  • I know something needs to be used, but I impulsively choose to eat something else that I like better at the moment, or to pick up a pizza, hamburger, or other quick meal instead. 

What I see is that I need to recover some of the organization and planning skills that I used when my kids were home and I was planning and cooking daily meals. In the more relaxed environment of empty-nesthood and retirement I’ve slacked off a lot. I’ve stopped planning my lunch and dinner menus, and I almost never take a really careful look at what’s on hand before planning menus or heading out for groceries.

More discipline is called for in the case of impulsive fast food meals, of course. But discipline, planning and organization are at the heart of all these new and better ways of doing things to limit food waste.

Food wastage is a big issue not just in our personal budgets, but in environmental responsibility as well. Because food production consumes a significant amount of the energy used nationally, as well as most of the fresh water used in the US, cutting back on personal food waste lessens our energy and water use footprints and cuts greenhouse gas emissions. 

I really want to do better at this. I hate throwing food out. My raised-during-the-Great Depression mom definitely inculcated frugality concepts in me. But more importantly, cutting my food waste is just a good thing to do for myself as well as the environment.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Stealth Frugality": How I Learned the Concepts

Deciding to live well, on a small retiree's budget, meant dredging up some of the frugality skills I learned years ago. Back then, as a stay-at-home mom and wife of a pathologically stingy husband, I needed to learn to do a lot with a little.

Some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, before I discovered The Tightwad Gazette and Amy Dacyzysn (legendary now in frugality circles), I read a book called Champagne Living on a Beer Budget by Mike and Marilyn Ferguson. Dacyzysn's writing is better known, but I'm glad I discovered the Fergusons first. Their approach to frugality was quite different from that of Dacyzysn, very up-beat and creative.

More recently, I bought a used paperback copy of Champagne Living but did not find it as compelling as I did all those years ago. Back then it was cutting edge stuff... now, it's more mainstream, things we've all heard before. However, it models what I think of as "Stealth frugality," the best kind to use if you want to live a good life in retirement without being annoying or pathetic.

Too often, when I read articles and blogs about frugality, it sounds so depressing. You spend less, but your result... the life you create... is not particularly lovely or inspiring. Savings become your primary focus, and honestly that's not any more appealing than when money and wealth are your focus. They seem like just two sides of the same coin to me.

Stealth Frugality, on the other hand, focuses primarily on having the good things of life, the beautiful and desirable things that make your life a wonderful place to be, with the things that make you feel good. This is easy when you have a lot of money. But it's also possible on that beer budget, too. Living well on a shoestring really is an art, and a very personal one.

Living well on little, but not sinking into the grinding, depressing stinginess that the word "tightwad" brings to mind, definitely requires a new way of thinking. Here are a few of the things I remember learning from Champagne Living on a Beer Budget. These remain the most important elements of a Stealth Frugality skill set:

  • Prioritization - If you don't have all the money in the world, you have to decide which things are the most important to you. This is highly individual. I pay for high speed internet, but not for cable TV, because I just don't like watching TV that much. I like expensive clothes , but get my underwear on sale at K-Mart. We decide what's important... to us, not to other people... and then spend the money we have accordingly.
  • Good taste - You need to become familiar with what quality looks and feels like, or you will find it hard to identify bargains that are of good quality. For example, Marshall's and TJ Maxx have hundreds of handbags, but only a small fraction are of good quality. The good bags often look very like the junkier ones. If you know how to look for quality and good brands, though, you can buy a super-nice leather bag that will look good for years and years, compared to a cheaper one that will look shabby by next year. Even though the good bag may cost two or three times the lower-quality one, your cost-per-use will be far less with the good bag. You can easily learn to tell the difference in quality in everything you buy by reading top-of-the-line fashion and shelter magazines and by browsing at upper-end retail stores.
  • Research skills - Knowing how to get information is still very important when it comes to frugality, but nowadays we mostly use the internet. I've learned so much about how to have and do things for less from websites, blogs, and search engines. For instance, I've found that what drives up the cost of foodie-type cooking is mostly a lot of unusual, difficult-to-find, and expensive ingredients. But by searching the internet for simpler recipes that use good-quality but commonly-available ingredients, I can prepare dishes that cost less, taste delicious, and as a bonus are often of historical interest. Likewise, it's nice to know how to compare the plus-shipping costs of things you buy online. And the internet is full of free, detailed how-to's for everything from plumbing repairs to building furniture.
  • Delayed gratification - Failure to acquire this "skill" is a common downfall of would-be frugalists. One thing I distinctly remember from Champagne Living on a Beer Budget is the dictum to never, ever buy something because you need it right now. Instead, try to find a work-around - borrow, rent, find an alternative. Then buy only when you find a bargain. Buying in need usually means paying full price. Waiting to buy during an end-of-season clearance or off-season sale often allows you to buy top quality for much less. But this requires planning ahead and delayed gratification.
  • Organization and record keeping - You can find lots of lists of what is on sale when, and plan your purchases accordingly. Buy new lawn furniture in the fall, at an end-of-summer clearance, rather than waiting for spring and paying full price. This requires you to plan ahead, anticipate your future needs, and keep lists and calendars. Likewise, you should be keeping lists of gifts you'll need to give, so you can pick up nice things in advance and at a good price. This saves you money, and also allows you to give nicer gifts than you would have otherwise.
  • Thinking outside the box - Creativity is maybe the most important skill you'll need to be really successful at stealth frugality. Once you know what you like, what will make you feel good, creativity and smarts are what will help you figure out how to achieve it, or an acceptable feel-good equivalent that is within your budget. Personally, I'm not very creative, but I borrow other people's creativity, usually found in magazine or newspaper articles or on the internet. I love seeing how people can take a very expensive decorating or fashion look and recreate it on a shoestring. Being good at finding, combining, and/or adapting other people's good ideas is a valid form of creativity.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Time Management - Needed in Retirement More than Ever

More than ever, as we age, we need to take seriously how we use our time. A lot of people just throw out their agendas and planners when they retire. I am starting to think that I may need mine more than ever! I just find it so easy to slide through a day unstructured by job or appointments. Too often I find myself at the end of the day having accomplished very little that will have any positive effect on my tomorrows.

This morning, a quote caught my attention:
Much of the trajectory of our lives is made up of seemingly small, daily decisions.” ~~ Doug Sherman in More than Ordinary.
Thinking about this, I realized that it’s not yet too late. I can still change the course of my life via these kinds of small, daily decisions. It’s true - they do seem small and insignificant on a day-by-day basis. And as such, I think I tend to ignore them. Whether or not I go for that morning walk, write entries in my journal and gratitude pages, get my household and garden maintenance chores done, reach out to friends and family - none of these seem very crucial to any given day. Almost always there are much more urgent or desirable things I need to do, or want to do - things like preparing lesson plans and handouts for teaching; paying bills; reading the newspaper, blogs, or a good book; attending meetings. Those little, daily things, they can always be done tomorrow if I don’t have the time or inclination today, can’t they?

But as Sherman suggests, little decisions to slack off on the small things we need to do, in order to create the kind of life we deeply desire, are actually decisions in themselves. They are decisions to NOT go after my longer range goals in favor of short-term ones that I actually care a lot less about.

This morning's meditation has given me a lot to think about regarding how I conduct my life. There are quite a few things I still want to do, ways I still want to improve my life and how I live. I've already started forming some excellent new habits. But I see that creating a more focused approach to planning my time each day is now in order.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Honor Thy Parents? Not So Much for Some

On Saturday, my students surprised me with a lovely party. It turns out that May 15 is Teacher's Day in Mexico, and Mother's Day was Sunday, and so they wanted to honor me on both counts. To say I was very touched would be an understatement. Here are the beautiful flowers I was given... a dozen fragrant, deep pink roses and a pretty orchid plant. There were other gifts, lots of delicious tamales and other good food, and impromptu speeches about how thankful they've been for my help, my patience, and my friendship. They even played mariachi music!

They are such a lovely group of people, and I really did feel deeply honored. None of these people are at all wealthy, but the depth of their generosity always surprises me. I've noticed after years of volunteer tutoring and teaching adult English learners, people from all different cultures, people without a lot of money, that compared to most other cultures we Americans have become increasingly neglectful, if not disrespectful, of our adult parents.

Personally, I am acquainted with more than a few women who I know were great mothers, who spent years making sacrifices for their children. Women who typically are forgotten by their children on Mother's Day, birthdays, holidays.  I know there are lots of good mothers who on Mother's Day were not honored in any way. Usually they don't talk readily about this situation. They put on a brave face, make excuses for their children, and don't complain. Many are deeply ashamed and feel they have failed as parents. They don't realize how common a situation this has become... there are many others in the same boat, but practically nobody's talking about it.

Today's American society just does not put the emphasis on family ties and honoring of parents that existed in the past, and still does in most other cultures. I cannot imagine something like this happening among any of the foreign-born students I've worked with. They would find such behavior abhorrent. True, there are still countless families in the U.S. in which adult children appreciate and honor their mothers and fathers. But from what I have seen, there is also a growing trend towards blatant ingratitude and neglect. And it seems like the better off the children are financially, the more likely this is to be the case.

As one of my friends put it when we were talking about her rather flagrantly neglectful kids, "Out of sight, out of mind." These same children, though, are always ready to schedule visits to their parents' beautiful home, located in a vacation destination area, and even to drop off the grand kids to spend a week  with their grandparents. I think maybe we have somehow managed to raise a lot of really spoiled offspring.

Personally, I had a nice Mother's Day. I was taken for a delicious brunch by my daughter, son-in-law, and grand kids. To say I felt totally honored would be pushing things, though, since my daughter says that she isn't creative about gifts and will need me to give her precise instructions about what gift I would like. I feel really awkward about this sort of thing. I don't know what would be an appropriate price range, for one thing. A card, gift certificate or a bunch of flowers or a plant would have been easier. Now it will feel like I'm asking for something. But compared to what I keep seeing among other women my age, I feel guilty grumbling at all.

For so many older parents, the situation really is heartbreaking, especially those who are alone, divorced or widowed. So if you have friends, or even just acquaintances, who you suspect may be ignored on important days like Mother's Day, Father's Day, birthdays, and other holidays - celebrate with them! It won't be the same as coming from their children, of course. But as little as a call, a card, a visit, or even a quick e-mail could help make their day. If some of our adult children have forgotten how to honor their aging parents, well then... I think we should just do it for one other.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Do You Remember Dime Stores?

Do you remember dime stores? Or sometimes they were called five-and-dime stores. When I was a kid, in the 1950s, there was a dime store on the main street of my beach town, and we used to love to spend hours browsing through its offerings. It had a little of everything, much of it made in Japan, all of it pretty cheap, in both the cost and quality senses of that word. Pencils, paper doll books, rubber flip-flop sandals, those little blue glass bottles of Evening in Paris cologne, small pastel diaries complete with a lock and tiny brass key... all ours to covet and maybe buy with allowance or chores money.

The five-and-dime stores have been gone for a long time now. But... not really. They reappeared several decades ago, reinvented per inflation as dollar stores. And when the recession hit, dollar store sales skyrocketed. There are quite a few different chains, but  in my area we have Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General, and they always seem busy. Inflation has again hit... dollar stores often offer a lot of things for sale for more than a dollar.

One of my planned activities this weekend is a walk to the neighborhood Family Dollar to get more canned dog food. I feed Petey a good quality dry kibble with a couple tablespoons of canned food mixed in, to make it more appetizing for him. Family Dollar's selection of dry dog food is pretty pathetic... corn seems to be the main ingredient in all, and the last time I tried that Petey ended up with an astoundingly bad case of "doggie dandruff." I've had to start ordering Eukanuba's dachshund food from to get his skin back to normal. Pet food seems to be one of those things where you often do get better quality by paying more.

The canned dog food I get at Family Dollar is a good example of why dollar store shopping is not always the bargain you'd assume it to be. The Family Dollar price for the brand Petey and I like is no different than the supermarket price. I buy it there mostly for convenience... it's nearby and I don't need to take the bus. Actually, Family Dollar's prices are often about the same as supermarket prices, or a bit lower, but they tend to carry more of the lower-cost brands. That's where most of my savings come in, because most of these (but not all, such as the dog kibble!) are as good as the higher-priced brands. Sometimes even better!

I've learned that the "rounding up" phenomenon that occurs at some dollar stores, such as Dollar Tree, can make prices actually higher than conventional stores. Due to inflation, a lot of dollar stores have given up on trying to sell only items for $1.00. But some, like Dollar Tree, still try to maintain that price for a majority of their merchandise. Sometimes this results in a really good deal. But sometimes you can find the same item for less at groceries or discount stores. Some shampoos that sell for $1.00 at Dollar Tree can be had at the supermarket for $0.89 on sale, for example. Last week Dollar Tree was selling name brand canned beans for a dollar,  but I can always get an equivalent product at the grocery store for less. No bargain here. On the other hand, I can always find full-size tubes of name-brand toothpaste for $1.00 at Dollar Tree, which is a huge savings - much cheaper than drug stores,  groceries, or even Family Dollar.

So to use dollar stores effectively, I've had to train myself to pay more attention to prices. I've read about really hard-core frugalists keeping "price books," which they carry with them on shopping trips and keep updated with the best prices and sources of everything they buy. A good idea, but time consuming and more trouble than I've ever wanted to go to.

Maybe an even more important skill for using dollar stores effectively is learning to avoid impulse purchases. Sometimes I find something at a dollar store that I'd been kind of thinking about buying, but for a lot more money. It makes sense in this case to grab it fast. But... it's so, so easy to end up with a bag full of cheap, appealing stuff that I don't really need, cancelling out my savings on my planned purchases. I'm getting a lot better at this.

In doing volunteer work, I meet a lot of well-heeled women, and have been surprised how many of them regularly shop at dollar stores. In fact, when I was new to this city, I got some of my best bargain-hunting tips from a pair of ladies who live out in the suburbs in million-dollar homes. I have come to believe that we humans have not completely outgrown our hunter-gather pasts, and that's why so many of us enjoy the hunt for bargains. Bargain hunting  is not only a very useful skill when you are living on a tight  budget, but it seems to fulfill some primal psychological need, for some of us at least. I like to think of it as a profitable form of entertainment.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Save Your Brain... Exercise!

I recently watched the West Wing fourth season episode titled The Long Goodby, originally aired in January 2003. I just loved that TV series, by the way, and am re-watching it on my Kindle via Amazon instant video. This touching episode was unusual in that it was set mostly outside of Washington DC, and dealt almost completely with C.J. Cregg's father and his worsening Alzheimer's disease. This kind of "loss of cognitive functioning" is something I think most of us worry about. Even if we don't "get" Alheimer's disease, older adults tend to lose at least some brain volume and show some degree of memory loss as they age. That's scary.

But I just read a good-news article that gives me a reason to feel less concerned about these kinds of potential changes. It reports a study showing, with concrete physiological reasons, that aerobic exercise really is good for brain function. It looks like exercise not only helps maintain cognition, but can actually improve it, even in seniors. The important and encouraging takeaway from the article:
"These theoretically important findings indicate that aerobic exercise training is effective in reversing hippocampal volume  loss in late adulthood, which is accompanied by improved memory function."
The article is titled Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory. It reports specifically on the effects of exercise on the brains of older people (average age well over 60), and makes it clear that if you aren't getting regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, you're passing up an opportunity to keep your brain working well and to stave off deterioration and even dementia.

The hippocampus, according to Wikipedia, in case you didn't know (I didn't) is a critically important part of our brains. It's two parts reside in each of your brain's two halves and together they are very involved in memory function, especially conversion of short-term memory into long-term memory, and also in spatial memory and function. The hippocampus tends to decrease in volume as people age, and is the first part of the brain to show shrinkage and impaired function in early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

This one-year study demonstrated that seniors who participated in moderate (high-intensity workouts not required) aerobic exercise, just three times a week, not only retained hippocampal volume, but on average increased it. The control group only did stretching exercises, and instead showed decrease in hippocampal size.

Now, I already walk quite a bit, several times a week at least, just to get to the store and to my volunteer tutoring appointments. But I'm often carrying a heavy book bag or towing a load of groceries. I'm not sure how "brisk" my walking usually is.. not very, I'm afraid. I'm thinking that I need to add in some more truly aerobic exercise - faster walking, or even the aerobic video DVDs I have accumulated but rarely use.

Last summer I was gung-ho on Weight Watchers, and in an attempt to accumulate "activity points," and thus be able to eat a bit more, I went out for a 30-45 minute brisk walk every morning. It  became part of my routine, a habit. I took Petey for his walk later in the day - he likes to stop and sniff everything too much to make him a good companion for even moderately aerobic walking. When the cold weather hit in the fall, I gradually stopped the morning walks and my exercise was once again limited to just my "utility walking," I guess you could call it, and short, slow walks with the dog.

Monday I wrote about my current early-morning routine. After reading this article, I think I'm going to add exercise to it. After a quick shower, I'll pull on some sweats, a t-shirt or sweatshirt (depending on the weather), cushiony socks, walking shoes, and of course my MP3 player, and get in a nice walk before the rest of my day starts.

Monday, May 6, 2013

New Morning Rituals in Retirement

I have a morning routine, as most people probably do. One of the nice things about being retired is that my mornings are rarely at all rushed. It's unusual for me to have anything scheduled before 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. I remember the rush-rush workday mornings vividly though. Rush to get up and shower, get dressed, dry hair, fix and eat breakfast, multitasking all the while. Now I go at a more measured pace, and it's lovely. No more multi-tasking.

A few of my first things, after getting up and finding my robe and slippers are fixing a large mug of coffee with soy milk, wandering out to the sun porch to peer through the glass and see if the paper has been delivered, and sitting down at my computer (on the dining room table) to check "stuff." I sit looking out on trees and a park, so there is a very pretty view. I love how it changes with the weather and seasons. Currently there is a lot of lush, green spring leafiness, reminding me that I really need to do a major pruning of the hedge. Oh well... yawn... too early for that.

I check my calendar, then my e-mail. One rather new early-morning ritual I have gotten fond of is the daily email from A.Word.A.Day, a free service from If you like words and reading, or just learning new words, this is for you. Personally, I've grown to love words, and it's fun opening up the A.Word.A.Day e-mail each morning and learning, or renewing acquaintance with, another unusual word. Each day's e-mail includes information, sometimes speculation, about the word's origins, and a sentence illustrating its use. A bonus is a new quotation at the end of the post, and their quotes are great. Each week has a theme - this week's is words that sound rude, but aren't. Last week's featured some unusual words of foreign origin, such as "boondocks" from Tagalog.

Actually, much of our English language, it turns out, came from other languages. It was instructive and fascinating to read about the origins of modern English, in order to help explain the language to my adult English-learner students. The large quantity of borrowed vocabulary explains our hodge-podge of spelling, grammar, and phonetic rules, none of which actually work well as rules and make pronunciation and spelling a nightmare for English learners. It constantly amazes me how well they do.

So... next in my morning routine comes Facebook and the news. I want to hate Facebook, but then there are the photos of grandkids and the occasional interesting post from others. I've learned to scroll quickly through all the ads. And I just found and joined a large Facebook group that actually is actually a great use of Facebook. It's a large (4,000+ members) open group about my beach city hometown, with strong emphasis on the past. Almost every day someone has posted an old photo or question or reminiscence about days gone by at the beach... it's a nice bit of nostalgia that I've quickly come to look forward to.

I still get a local print newspaper delivered to my door. In these days of waning readership I think local newspapers provide an important community service and that it's important to support them. Unless you live in a large city, local web news is likely to be neither complete nor comprehensive. But I do like to perform a morning scan of a few news websites, including the New York Times, The Daily Beast and Huffington Post. If you don't like my choices, don't worry - next week my list will be different. I'm very fickle about my news sources. I hardly ever look at The Drudge Report these days, for example, but I will surely be back.

Frankly, I think it is extremely important for us citizens to scan a wide variety of news sources. I don't trust any one of them, but by reading and listening to sources from the far right all the way to the far left, I think I get a clearer picture of what is really going on. I've noticed that this has made me a lot more tolerant of those who hold views different from my own. I think a lot of the polarization (red state, blue state stuff for example) is a result of many people only hearing or paying attention to one side of the arguments.

So by this time, I've usually also fed the dog and had a second mug of coffee. The sun is up and it's time to shut off the computer and really start my day. I've found in retirement that it's far too easy to just drift through the hours without much structure. Establishing new, more leisurely rituals like this has helped me, I believe, to add some relaxed structure to my days, although I'm still having trouble with a sense of not getting enough done. But that's another post.

Friday, May 3, 2013

More Free Cloud Storage

I heard another one of those scary radio ads recently, about how you could accidentally lose everything you store on your computer: e-mail, photos, letters, e-books, etc. I had a hard disk crash on me a couple years ago, so I know first-hand that you need to back up your computer storage. But there is so much free cloud storage out there that I don't feel the need to pay for the kind of backup service that was featured in that radio advertisement. In addition to the storage services I've written about, SkyDrive is worthy of consideration.

Microsoft's SkyDrive gives you 7 gigabytes (GB) of free storage, which is a lot. If you want, you can buy another 20 GB for $20 a year. Microsoft currently aims to have the lowest cloud storage cost of all the major players, so this is quite a good deal. You can use the storage for all kinds of files - it is not just for Microsoft Office documents.

When you sign up for SkyDrive, you also get free use (if you want it) of Microsoft's online Office suite, including for e-mail, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These are simplified, basic versions of these Office classics, and you don't have to download or install them. You simply use the online (in the cloud) to create and edit documents, including documents that you created on your computer using installed versions of Office. These online versions will work for most of us, but may not suffice if you use, say, a lot of fancy formatting or elaborate spreadsheet formulas.

You can use SkyDrive just on the web, or you can download a Windows app for your computer, which will create a dedicated SkyDrive folder for  storing everything. Used this way, SkyDrive keeps everything in the folder backed up. If you change anything, it is promptly changed in the cloud, also. (In other words, it acts like Dropbox, but gives you more than three times as much free storage.)

Honestly, I don't use the online MS Office suite often, as I had already gotten in the habit of using Google Docs and Spreadsheets. But I have to admit - these free Microsoft cloud programs are really user-friendly, prettier, and have better help documentation than Google Docs. They will feel quite intuitive, especially if you are a long-time MS Office user. I find them handy for opening and editing Office documents if I am working on somebody else's computer.

And all these online Office programs, including the new web-based Outlook e-mail, have a beautiful, easy-to-read interface - better than Google for older eyes. I especially like the calendar. But I don't think Microsoft is as far along as Evernote, Dropbox, and Google in making it all accessible on a truly wide variety of mobile platforms. It doesn't work on my Blackberry, for example, and wasn't in the Kindle app store. However, there are apps for IOS, Android, and Windows mobile.

So here's how I use SkyDrive. I have it set up on my primary computer as a separate folder in Windows Explorer, with many subfolders. I store all my lesson plans and handouts here, because I always use Microsoft Word 2003 for this work. (I prefer the ease and accuracy of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) insertion, cropping, and placement of graphics into Word documents compared to any other word processing software I've used.) I also store some photos and miscellaneous letters. I've used less than 2 GB of the free 25 GB I got from Microsoft (I was grandfathered into this in some way I never figured out.) I like that everything is right on my computer, but is always current in SkyDrive's cloud.

But I use other cloud storage too, remember. I have 35 GB of free storage on Google, plus 20 GB for which I pay $4.95 a year for under a legacy plan. And Google gave me an additional 100 GB, good for two years, when I bought a Chromebook.

In addition, I clip and store a lot of web-based stuff on Evernote, which allows unlimited total storage but limits you to 60 megabytes per month in uploads. It's hard to say how much I have stored there, maybe 2 GB or so. I also have 3.75 GB of free storage on DropboxAmazon has given me free storage for 250 songs, plus an additional 5 GB of free cloud storage. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's a total of 75 GB of free storage, not even counting the temporary stuff from Google and the songs on Amazon!

So as you can see, most individual users will be able to store all their computer files, with plenty of room to spare, on the "free" versions of the major cloud storage services. This may change over time, but right now... the price is right!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Gratitude Experiment

The dogwoods are now in full, spectacular bloom. I took this photo on a morning walk during the rather soggy start to this week. When the dogwood petals start falling, you can think you're in the middle of a snow flurry! This morning we have a blue, blue sky with nary a cloud - spectacular spring weather once again.

As I've gotten older, I more and more appreciate the cyclical changes of the seasons and day-to-day changes in the weather. There always seems to be something to be grateful for. And since revisiting Law of Attraction philosophy this week, I've been thinking more about gratitude, and its psychological effect.

I kept a "gratitude log" several times in the past. I began the first one in response to something I'd been reading, perhaps SimpleAbundance by Sarah ban Breathnach. I continued for a while each time, but frankly, I found it a bit tedious. I kept writing the same things every day... my cozy warm home; the beautiful morning sunshine; my family; my sweet little dog; etc., etc. In retrospect, I guess I wasn't always feeling positive enough to identify a lot of new things to be grateful for each day. But still, I did find it comforting to simply recount the ongoing graces of my life.

Just always having "enough" is truly something to be grateful for, even for those of us with limited incomes. And I cannot really say that there has ever been a time in my life that I did not have enough, that I ever lacked something that I truly needed. Not once, not ever.

There have, however, been times when I did not accept things that could have made my life easier. I think here of the years during my career that I worked obsessively, put in so many hard hours, because I somehow felt it was required. But that "requirement," one that sucked up so much of my life during those years and kept me from doing the other things I wanted and needed to do, I saw later, was really a construction of my imagination. And of my ego, too, I guess. But I think I learned from that experience, and when the same situation arose more recently in my work life, I was able to recognize the problem and get myself out the situation much more quickly. It did tick off my boss, though, an indication that the problem was not solely of my making.

One thing I do know, quite surely, is that focusing on gratitude for all the good things in my life always makes an enormous positive impact on my mental attitude. I don't think I've ever been happier or more positive than during the times when I've taken a few minutes every day to dwell on what I'm thankful for, especially when I've written some of them down. I was so optimistic and upbeat during those periods - about my circumstances, people, and things that came up day-to-day. And I believe things really did go better for me during those times.It wasn't just in my head (although my better attitude undoubtedly influenced how things played out.)

So my new intention, starting today, is to resume keeping a notebook with a list of "gratitudes". And this time, I'm going to focus more on finding new things to be grateful for, things that have come up during the last 24 hours, instead of just writing the same things over and over, worthy of gratitude though they may be. I will set aside a tabbed section in my organizer with plenty of fresh, unlined paper, and add to the list each morning. It will be an experiment of sorts, and I look forward to it.