Tag: retirement

The Golden Hour

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Between 2004 and 2009, Helen stood patiently on her third-floor condo balcony and waited for the fleeting color to appear near the end of each day.

Her inanimate accomplice was one of those disposal Kodak cameras from Walgreens. It soothed her shutterbug sensibility.

Nature photography was the perfect hobby for a woman in her eighties, who loved art and the clockwork of the calendar and the seasons.

Earlier in her life, she worked too hard to find the time to anticipate and ponder the legacy of sparkling sunsets.

But, as the remaining rays in my mother’s life flickered on the northeastern Illinois horizon, she found comfort in the hues that came and went.

Like a National Geographic photographer on assignment, she felt it was her duty to capture the most vivid color of each passing day.

***

Whenever Tom and I walk west after dinner toward the Papago Park buttes, I feel Helen’s anticipation … how she might have felt if she’d seen the Sonoran sunsets of our sixties.

During the last few years of her life she asked, “Do you think you and Tom will retire in Arizona?”

It gave her comfort to know we might fall in love with the western sky.

After the heavy lifting of our responsibilities was through, she could imagine our stunning sunsets … the colors, lights and textures.

She could dream of the golden hour after she was gone.

 

 

Splash

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It’s a long story, but true. For much of my professional life, I became a master of jumping ship. Making a quick splash in a promising job. Then, when it didn’t work out, finding and throwing myself a life-preserver that would rescue me until I could paddle to the next station in life.

Four months selling newspaper ad space in Jackson, Mississippi in 1980. That was a disaster. Four years writing mundane retail ad copy for Sears in Chicago. The friends I made there–Janet, in particular (our Sears years began on the same day)–kept me afloat.

Fifteen months with a small ad agency in Oak Brook, Illinois. Eighteen months crafting copy and PR strategies in starched shirts and suits for the high-powered Hill & Knowlton just off of Michigan Avenue. Six months with Weiser Group on the other side of town. Then, another deep breath before going back under water.

***

When I reemerged in 1988, I was holding onto another life preserver at Covia as a PR writer. This time I stayed for five years of creative moments peppered with senior executive hostility. The silver lining? Another lasting friendship–thank you, Mary Jane–and a few agonizing business trips to Tucson, Arizona. Dusty foreshadowing for a desert life … not a vanishing mirage … that would appear on the horizon three decades later without corporate shackles.

In 1993, I began a three-and-a-half year sprint underwater as a communication consultant for Towers Perrin in the Loop. That was followed by my first attempt as a freelance communication consultant. Sandwiched in between? Eighteen months as a communication manager for Ameritech and another authentic friendship–thank you, Bill–before diving into a misguided pool of piranhas at PricewaterhouseCoopers. That debacle of disarray lasted ten months.

On to February 2001. I tried my hand again as a freelance writer and training facilitator again. Things were going swimmingly until September 11. My business dried up over the next several months, but somehow I was able to tread water in the deep end.

***

In August of 2002, I resurfaced in Schaumburg, Illinois, as Director of HR Communication for Zurich North America, the Swiss-based insurance firm. The pay was good. While working there, I met another lifelong friend, Jillian (years later, Tom and I would ask her to be the officiant at our wedding). Still I felt like a fish out of water.

In spite of being “out” in various corners of my life, I was gaining weight and floundering personally at Zurich, another conservative company. Yes, I was going through the motions for all the right reasons. Making money to pay child support and contribute to Nick’s and Kirk’s college educations. But, at the end of each day, the feeling was the same. I was an outsider living in a straight world.

I realize now I wasn’t escaping jobs simply because I found them boring or overly taxing. I was casting myself into unchartered waters, because the stifling world of work and its many layers of homophobia–in addition to my own inability at that time to love my gay self–threatened my closeted existence. Think of it as a kind of toxic cocktail consumed for decades. A mix of liquid resiliency stirred by intense anxiety and a fear of entrapment.

***

In early 2006, I left Zurich. Something new happened for me, a gay man ordinarily adrift in choppy corporate waters.

In February or March, a search firm called with an enticing possibility. Hewitt Associates, a multi-national human resources firm, was angling for seasoned consultants to join their communication practice in Lincolnshire, Illinois.  I decided to turn the page and pursue a new gig.

Hewitt’s hiring process was rigorous. A few rounds of intense interviews. Thorough discussions with six or eight senior executives and consultants I would be working with. Strangely, I remember feeling entirely at ease. Perhaps it was because I had decided I would “out” myself at the start and ask a burning question: “Can a gay man like me be successful working here?”

I could tell Lori, the practice leader, was surprised by my forthrightness. But she didn’t hesitate. She and Robyn, my future boss, insisted I could make a lasting go of it. So, in early April, I left Zurich and found myself unpacking my belongings in my Hewitt office. On Day One, I placed pictures of all the men in my life … my partner Tom, my sons Nick and Kirk … on my desk next to that of Maggie, our sweet basset hound.

Hewitt had the reputation as an industry leader with high standards for excellence and integrity. Along the way, I learned from my new colleagues that earlier in its history, when the company was privately held, the organization famously insisted upon sending its consultants to “charm school” to ensure uniformity in technique and approach. So, clearly this wasn’t the free-wheeling atmosphere you might expect I needed to find my stride.

Even so, from the start, I never veered from my true story. Quickly, my mates treated me with respect. I earned their confidence as a friendly, no-nonsense, collaborative colleague … forever at home brainstorming themes, concepts and brands in the comfy confines and chairs of the Creative Zone.

In those days, to encourage longevity with the organization, Hewitt offered a retention incentive called Splash. Essentially, for every five years you worked for the company, you would receive one week of paid Splash … a mini-sabbatical away from the bumps and grinds of a busy professional life … in addition to any regular accrued vacation time.

This program–along with the company’s ingrained culture of personal closeness and trust–produced dozens of long-service employees. Folks who worked hard and played hard together … many of them for twenty years or more.

The first few years passed quickly for me at Hewitt. I worked long hours for clients, who demanded excellence and timely turnaround. I mentored a few younger associates along the way. In 2008, I moved with three colleagues into the Chicago office to help build the communication practice in the Loop. Over the next several years, Robyn, Dina, Kim–three more lifelong friends–and I celebrated project successes. We endured a few failures, too. But they were good years. Obama was president and I was a happier man at Hewitt.

One morning, in July 2010, we all received a startling email. Aon Corporation, the global insurance and consulting firm, was buying Hewitt. In short order, vestiges of the old Hewitt culture … the constant collegiality, the “I’ve-got-your-back” spirit of oneness, the splendid Splash program … all vanished. Fortunately though, most of the relationships with friends there didn’t.

I logged billable hours for another three-and-a-half years as an employee of Aon Hewitt, before leaving in late January 2014 … worn from all the heavy lifting and my mother’s long, slow decline and death the year before. Little did I know I’d soon be resuming my professional life on my terms. I’d be writing my own, unvarnished personal stories. Soon From Fertile Ground fell out of my brain and landed on the page.

Since moving on, I’ve stayed in touch with many of my Hewitt friends on line. I still feel their love and encouragement. We root for each other from afar. Here in the desert, I’ve kept a box of cards they gave me when I retired. Each one reminds me of my eight Hewitt years–perhaps my best corporate chapter of all–before I dived headfirst into this literary life with enough money for Tom and me to live simply. But without having to ever again define myself by the salary I once earned.

As you’ve probably guessed, I never realized the benefits of Hewitt’s Splash. By the time I celebrated my five-year anniversary, Aon had dismantled the program. But, as karma would dictate, I’ve created my own version of Splash with Tom in Arizona. An open schedule. The unearthing of three books and an ever-evolving blog. A sandy sabbatical seasoned with swims.

For the last month or so, there haven’t been any opportunities to jump in the water and plunge ahead into the blue unknown. Like most of the world, our pools have been closed due to the global pandemic.

But on May 1, our community watering hole reopened under tight regulations. Only lap swimming is allowed. Most of the snow birds have flown home, so that’s a reasonable solution for Scottsdale, Arizona. There are fewer people to steer clear of here in the spring and summer months, because triple digits at 3 p.m. have become the norm.

For each of the past three mornings, I’ve submerged myself feet first, back in the water before 8 a.m. The air temperature is perfect at that hour … seventy or seventy-five degrees … and the water is refreshing. Just right for getting my stroke and fueling my energy for this story, which appears exactly two years since I began my blogging journey.

Fifteen or twenty minutes each morning is all it takes for me to feel free again, gliding through the water. Thirty laps of swimming from one side of the pool to the other. Then I dry off and come back inside to write my stories and share the companionship of my loving husband in the quiet of the Sonoran Desert.

That’s really all I need to make a splash.

 

 

My Slargando World

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April ushers in a slower pace in Arizona. Following the departure of their favorite major league baseball teams that train in the Valley of the Sun, most snowbirds have already packed their bags and flown back to their primary homes. Now, as ninety-plus temperatures descend upon us, there’s more room to dine in restaurants. Fewer scooters to dodge on Scottsdale streets.

To borrow the Italian musical term slargando (a word I learned last night as my husband Tom and I played a rousing game of Balderdash with friends Carolyn and John from Alaska and Adele and Len from New York), I feel the onset of a gradually slowing tempo … a widening sense of time and space on the threshold that coincides with see-you-again-in-the-fall-or-winter conversations we’ll have as our friends depart next week.

All four of them are kind and interesting people we didn’t know five years ago. Now they are friends who walk and laugh beside us. Crave the next movie night in our cozy condo. Cringe with us at breaking news. Share our home for wine and pasta dinners. Treat us to trips on boats, a ready supply of salmon spread, and stories of their future plans.

In other words, they are our sixties comrades in our condo community. Friends who are just as comfortable leading the charge up a trail to the Desert Botanical Garden, following us into a different circle for one of my choral concerts, tagging along for Blarney Bingo on St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Phoenix, or picnicking at a table under a Palo Verde tree at a local hangout in Tempe.

Needless to say, Tom and I are grateful for their friendship and the moments we share. Though we will miss seeing our part-time neighbors for the next several months, Tom and I will have each other and our creative aspirations to keep us busy through spring and summer. And, despite the heat, the coos of mourning doves nearby and the enchanting calls from mockingbirds and desert wrens outside our backdoor will keep us company.

Through it all, I’ll be content to walk and exercise in the morning with my husband, swim laps to keep my heart strong, and write my stories in my slargando world.

 

 

Nineteen Months and Counting Every Day

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Nineteen months ago this week, Tom and I began a new life in a new home in a new state of wider skies and grander possibilities: Arizona.

Much of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, is about my fond recollections of another state: Illinois. In it, I look back at thirty-seven rich and meaningful years in the Prairie State and the misfortune my husband and I encountered on our way west. Translated that means the mild heart attack I suffered in St. Louis on my sixtieth birthday.

Today, on a sunny-and-cool, sixty-four-degree afternoon in Scottsdale, I realized just how much number crunching I’ve been doing with Tom since we left the Midwest and arrived in the Sonoran Desert: tallying my steps (10,000 on most days); religiously adhering to a forty-five-minute cardiac exercise regimen three times a week that includes a combination of treadmill, light weights, stationary bike, and swimming; remembering to stretch daily and partaking in ninety minutes of gentle yoga every Friday morning (I love it!); monitoring my blood pressure regularly; dramatically reducing the amount of saturated fat and sodium in my diet; trimming my weight to 195 pounds (twenty less than my pre-coronary size); taking a higher dose of statin medication to lower the amount of “bad” LDL cholesterol; and visiting my cardiologist twice a year. The list goes on.

All of that may sound exhausting. At times it is. But it’s worth it. I feel good most days. I know I am fortunate to be living in a warm climate where I can stay active. Here in Arizona, I do more than count my vital signs. I count my blessings.

In that grateful vein, and because February is American Heart Month, I’ll be discounting the Kindle version of An Unobstructed View on Amazon for several days this coming week. It will be available for only ninety-nine cents from February 13 through 18.

I hope my story will provide you with the inspiration to treasure your past, present and future. To listen to your body and know the common heart attack warning signs: pressure or tightness in your chest or an aching sensation in your chest, arms or jaw; nausea, indigestion or heartburn; shortness of breath; cold sweat; fatigue; lightheadedness or sudden dizziness.

It’s up to you to stay healthy. To honor and heed your family history. To enjoy every moment. To make every day count no matter where you live.

 

I’ve Only Just Begun

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I realize the title of this post sounds a little hokey and an awful lot like a lyric from a 1970s Carpenters song. (Please tell me you remember who Karen Carpenter was!) But I prefer to imagine that I, a generally healthy sixty-one-year-old male who visits his cardiologist every six months, will channel my energies into creative writing projects that will stimulate my intellect rather than stewing over my advancing age. That is beyond my control.

I adopted this philosophy five years ago this week. That’s when I walked out the door of my Aon office in Chicago and began a new chapter. As background, up until that moment I really didn’t feel I was living the artistic life I was meant to live. If anything, in late January 2014, I was numb from my mother’s death a year before and the escalating demands of navigating thirty-four years in the communication consulting, PR and advertising worlds.

After months of soul-searching and years of smart saving, I left the familiar unfulfilling days behind. I needed time to heal. I needed time to explore life on my terms. At age fifty-six, I grabbed my digital camera and began to capture images of darting dragonflies and picturesque prairie landscapes. I recorded random inspirations in my journal as I rambled along. The fog began to lift and my energy returned. Gradually, I discovered my way out in Illinois. As I wrote about the grief of losing my mother and revisiting my southern roots in From Fertile Ground, it prompted new possibilities. It promised a more poetic life.

What else have I learned in the past five years? After surviving a mild heart attack in 2017, I know I am fortunate to be alive. My husband and I lead a creative, warm life. We have a quieter existence in Arizona far away from the hustle and brutal cold of Chicago’s late January days.

Even with the physical distance from my Chicago life, I’m thankful for friends there, who shared their gifts and inspired me along the way to be true to my creative self. Like my friend Dina. She and I were close colleagues at Aon. Five years ago, on my last day of corporate life, she gave me this artful-and-personal handmade gift: a mirrored collage for me to reflect on the fun-and-unforgettable aspects of my Chicago work life. I keep Dina’s gift on my desk in Arizona, because it captures where I’ve been and who I am: a big picture guy, who cares about his husband, good friends, art, music, theatre, the best books, and cuddly animals.

Yes, I lead a happier and more fulfilling life in the desert. Somehow I’ve written and published three books and survived a health scare. But it still feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface on the possibilities of this semi-retired, creative life.

When I look at Dina’s mirrored gift, it feels like I’ve only just begun.