Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Heading into Autumn

Labor Day has come and gone, marking the unofficial end of summer. Autumn is my favorite time of year. As we pass into the fall and the nights begin to become a little cooler, as we’re sitting around the fire pit on the patio listening to the crickets; maybe it’s time to take stock of where I’ve been and make a few plans about where I want to go.

One thing that marks the change of the seasons is how much reading I get done. During the spring and summer, as the days get longer and there’s just more to do outside, I get less reading done. I used to struggle with this, until I realized that it was a part of the change in seasons.

Under the heading of “Reading” I count my Japanese language study as well as my recreational reading. With a special effort in June and July I read all of the Harry Potter books anticipating the release of the last one in the series. I thoroughly enjoyed the books, however reading them threw a monkey wrench into my Japanese study, and after reading a foot high stack of books, I was frankly sick of the written page for a while.

I’m back on course now. The latest issues of the Smithsonian and National Geographic have come and gone.

I’ve started digging back into my Japanese study.

Looking ahead, I expect to do some traveling for work in October. That means long airplane rides, as well as layovers. It means I’ll get some reading done.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Dracula by Bram Stoker in the days leading up to Halloween,

as well as taking in as many of my favorite vampire movies as I can catch: Dracula with Bela Lugosi; Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with Anthony Hopkins, Gary Oldman, and Winona Ryder; Dead and Loving It, with Leslie Nielsen; and of course that instant dopey classic Van Helsing.

At a sale table, I picked up The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. This is a fairly new novel inspired by, and thoroughly wrapped around Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I’m also thinking of trying to fit in a vampire novel that I haven’t read in over 20 years, but might be ripe for a revisit. This would be Interview with the Vampire by Ann Rice. This was the novel that made her famous. I tried to read a couple of her later books (I remember reading the Vampire Lestat), but they never appealed to me as much as did this first novel, and I never went back. I caught the movie version on cable a couple of times and I’d been thinking of reading it again. Maybe this year I’ll do it.

That should take care of October. For November, if I’m not sick of reading for a while, I’m thinking of revisiting one of my favorite works: The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. Historical fiction set in the Baroque period. Newton, Libenitz, Blackbeard, the Siege of Vienna, the Barbary Pirates, Alchemy, the Royal Society, Turkish Harems, the Financial Instruments of the Dutch Republic, the Sun King, Tourettes Syndrome, Gold … there’s something in there for everyone who enjoys a rollicking story that spans the globe (several times as I recall) and generations. Who can’t help but root for Jack Shaftoe, or fall in love with Eliza?

With my youngest daughter driving herself around, I find that I have more time on my hands. Wanting to put this extra time to good use, I’ve started a few new things. I’ve gone back to regular martial arts training with the Wu style of Taijiquan (Tai chi chuan). I go there once a week, pick up new material as it’s offered, try to absorb refinements as they’re presented and practice regularly.

Something about martial arts, especially so called “internal” martial arts, tends to attract people who are … off the beaten path (for better or worse). I find that this group is the more “normal” yet diverse set of people with whom I’ve ever trained.

I’ve trained various martial arts, on and off, since I was about 16. There have been numerous and sometimes quite lengthy interruptions in my practice, but it’s always something that I’ve wanted to come back to. Well, I’m ready to give it another go.

This school is directly connected to the “gatekeeper” of this style of taiji. This is the webpage for his school:

Besides Taiji, I’ve always liked to exercise. Last fall, I got into the habit of walking the dog with my wife every evening. While it was nice to go for a walk with her, I really needed something more vigorous. She still takes the dog, we spend time together making a fire on our patio, and I’ve taken to walking pretty vigorously on a treadmill, carrying a couple of dumbbells with me. My feet and joints can only take so much wear and tear, and I’ve pretty quickly found what is my limit.

I’ve also ordered a knock off of the Bow Flex (called a Band Flex, about 1/3 of the Bow Flex cost). I’m expecting to have that assembled in my basement by the end of the week. At my age, my plan is to lift weights that are challenging, but I’m not going to put myself under any undue strain. My daughter can make use of it as well for her volleyball training.

“At my age.” Ha! Next month, I’ll turn 50. Several of my friends have already turned 50. I usually look at birthdays as just another day. None of them has really had an impact on my thinking (OMG, I’m 30!). I can’t help but think that at 50, I ought to be looking back as well as looking forward.

For my first 50 years, I’d say that I’ve had a good run. When my mother was in Hospice care, the Hospice counselor who was looking after my well being asked me if I would have changed anything in how I had looked after her for all those years. The answer is the same as I look back on my first 50 years. No. Nothing of any significance. Maybe I’d be tempted to fiddle with a little something around the edges, but I can’t think of a single thing I would want to change in my life.

Where I am right now – my oldest is in her last year at the University. She’s had a very good internship this summer working for the Detroit Tigers Baseball Team. She worked in promotions as an intern. She’d work in the office during the day, and all of the home games in the evening. It’s a great addition to her resume. She’s got quite a few stories to tell.

My two favorite are these: one of her jobs was to take the celebrity who would be throwing out the first pitch out onto the field. Sometimes, the celebrity would cancel at the last minute due to whatever reason. One time this happened with just minutes to go, and her boss told her to get somebody. She picked out a 10 year old boy, who will remember that day for the rest of his life.

Another promotion was to pick “the fan of the game.” She’d go find a family of four sitting in not so great seats, and move them to very good seats behind home plate. One family she moved was especially thankful. It turned out that one of the kids had cancer and was to begin chemo the following Monday. This was the last family big outing before his chemo began. I think God guided her hand in picking that family.

My youngest is a junior in high school. The volleyball team is the defending state champion, so this season should be a lot of fun. She’s also been selected to be a Peer Conflict Moderator, which is a pretty good leadership position, which I think will pay off for her as she applies to colleges.

My wife and I have had our ups and downs over the years, but no more so than anyone else I think. Looking back the best times we had was when we first started out, and we had nothing but each other. With the kids perched on the launching pad, I can see us coming full circle and in a way I’m looking forward to it.

The job has it’s issues, but so does every job. What I’m doing right now is what I enjoy the most. Having spent many years as a contract employee, I tend to see a very sharp axe hiding behind every dark cloud as well as every silver lining, so at least I’m always prepared. We’re kicking up a lot of dust. We’re having a good run.

Looking forward, well that’s a little tricky.

The 64th verse of the Dao De Jing says:

64a. Care at the Beginning

What lies still is easy to grasp;
What lies far off is easy to anticipate;
What is brittle is easy to shatter;
What is small is easy to disperse.

Yet a tree broader than a man can embrace is born of a tiny shoot;
A dam greater than a river can overflow starts with a clod of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles begins at the spot under one's feet.

Therefore deal with things before they happen;
Create order before there is confusion.

The Daoist, in my mind, is above all pragmatic. He looks at the world as it is, where he wants to go, and plots his course accordingly.

One of my favorite books, which has really influenced my thinking, is Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb.

Taleb is a mathematician, philosopher, and hedgefund manager. Among the high points of his thesis is something shared in the timeless advice from the I Ching, the classical Chinese oracle: lay low, accumulate small gains, know when to stop when a big gain comes along, and do everything you can to avoid the “big blowup.”

The “Big Blowup” is when a stock trader’s multi million dollar fortune evaporates in one day of bad trading, for example. If you know anyone who is one paycheck away from living in a box, they are begging for the big blow up to happen. I know someone in that situation. His future is not something he likes to think about.

At 50, it’s not a bad idea to look at one’s retirement plans. Are you saving enough money? Are you hedging against the big blowup? Do you even have a plan? When you’re younger, you can recover if something doesn’t turn out well. When you’re older it’s much harder.

My wife works at a credit union, and they’ve added a new service. They now have a financial planner on the staff. As an introduction, all the staff members were given a free consultation with him. So we gathered all of our financial figures, which was an exercise far beyond what you normally do for your taxes, and sat down with him. That exercise in itself was mind opening.

We handed over a stack of papers, and began talking about what were our concerns and goals. Having to articulate one’s goals forces you to really think about them. He made notes. A couple of weeks later, he had an inch thick binder for us, with recommendations about all sorts of things. This binder has been the source of a LOT of discussion between the two of us. It’s forcing us to take a look at some aspects of aging and retirement that perhaps we’ve each given thought to, but we’ve never really hashed out. It’s good to be on the same page.

We’re putting away enough for retirement, but you can always put away more. For the most part, we’re doing well with the funds in my 401k, but for the others, there are such things as funds of funds you can invest in. This is something to be considered. If your employer offers any matching funds for a 401k, and you’re not taking advantage of it to at least that extent, you’re missing out on free money.

So much for that. It’s some other intangibles that need some consideration. Do you have life insurance? What are the goals for the coverage you have? Have you really ever thought about it? Life insurance is the relatively easy one. The next two become a bit harder to think about.

We all kind of intellectually grasp that we’re going to die. What we never really think about is that we might get disabled, or really sick, for a long period of time before we die. A major illness or disability can wipe out your assets, and become the big blow up in no time. Do you have disability insurance? How much do you get, and for how long? Given where you are right now, if you were to live on your disability insurance, where would that leave you? You really have to think this one out.

The other is Long Term Care insurance. I know from first hand experience that if you have to go into a nursing home, or assisted living, or have help come in, it can be an arm and a leg. For Medicaid to cover your care, you have to run your assets down to under $2000. Then if you can get a Medicaid bed in a nursing home, you sign over your monthly income over to the nursing home, while the state picks up the rest. It’s heart wrenching to see people who have worked all of their lives having only allowed to them what fits in a closet and nightstand. This is something you might want to avoid.

So part of the protection against the big blowup is to carry LTC insurance, and the other is to strategize how to put your assets into a column that isn’t used in reckoning that $2000 if it comes to that, if you want to pass anything on to your loved ones. I’m beginning to do research on the later, and the policy I’m considering for the former comes to a little over $100 a month for each of us. Just for piece of mind, it may well be worth the price.

What are you going to do with yourself when you’re retired? I remember the father of a friend of mine. He didn’t have anything to do when he was retired. He had a stroke a year after he retired, and died a year after that. Some friends of ours said they were working on a list of at least ten things they either wanted to do while sliding into retirement, or begin once they were there. I came up with a list in about three seconds flat:

1) be fluent enough in Japanese to work as a translator/consultant (ongoing language study at any rate)
2) live on a lake (located between wherever my kids settle, to draw them back to me)

3) build a proper garden in which to relax (a garden is never finished)

4) practice a martial art on a regular basis

5) read

6) walk a lot

7) weight training

8) renew my interest in classical music

9) History/Discovery/Animal Planet/National Geographic channels

10) golf?

11) games - chess, go, etc.

12) movies

This list is likely to evolve.

That about sums things up. I’ve had a pretty good life so far for these first 50 years, and I’m looking forward to seeing the next 50 turns out. You can’t guarantee outcomes, you can only do the work.


Zen said...

Plan for tomorrow, live in today...

Good post.

Rick Matz said...

Thanks. You have to be somewhere, and you have to be doing something.