Sunday, June 28, 2009
Saturday, June 27, 2009
My yard is getting smaller.
It used to be pretty big, a couple of acres of lush green grass, made more so by an underground sprinkling system, some telephone pole-type logs marking off the wild areas leading down to the creek, and some nice, well-mannered shrubs dotting the lawn. And, of course, the tiny cold trout stream that wanders through the front yard.
Well, not anymore. First, the logs went. I think that was a function of the fact that the innocent little stream becomes big and brown and angry after a few days of storms or snow melts. It rises up, enraged, and covers my driveway and the little bridge crossing Mann Creek and floats those logs down toward the lake, tossing them like pick-up sticks into the woods behind my house.
I don’t even try to retrieve them—my neighbor did that for me for the first couple of years it happened: he would chain them to the back of his tractor and pull them down the old railroad bed to my yard. He worked hard to keep order in the woods in his day, his short powerful body straining to roll those logs back into place along the edges of my green grass.
Now, though, they’ve taken him away to live in a ‘safe’ setting, a nursing home, I think. He probably shot one too many raccoons from his bedroom window with his .22. And my front yard borders are stacked like cordwood against the tiny aqueduct under the abandoned railroad track.
Meanwhile, my yard is becoming a nature refuge. The wild growth comes closer to my house—blackberry bushes and scrub cedar trees. The willow branches hang unkempt as old women, long hair tangled and stringy. My fire pit and little rock garden are out there somewhere, lost in the undergrowth, and there’s only a narrow path to the tool shed that used to mark the back corner of my lawn.
I sit on my porch at watch things grow green and close and I welcome the softening of the edges, the missing boundaries, and the wild disorder. Why is it, I ask, that I spent so many years creating sharp-edged squares and rectangles and manic green carpets? Did a really think I could win that battle against the world?
And would it matter if I had?
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
As a result of my last column, my friend Julia called to discuss some of my observations about retirement. “I am sorry this is not working out as you’d planned,” she sympathized. And then she asked, “How can I help?”
Now one thing that I’ve learned—and it’s not an easy lesson for me—is to accept help when you need it. I mean, I’ve had some pretty rocky times in my life and during them I’ve met wonderful, caring people. I’ve learned to say “yes, please” and “thank you” and “what a good answer you’ve shared”. For a woman who has considered herself bionic and invincible, these are hard words for me to say.
Julia is one of those people I fondly call “drowners”—the ones who are beautiful inside and out. They are smart and generous and kind—and one can’t stop liking them. Such folks, I figure, ought to be wearing cement shoes and be dumped in the middle of Lake Michigan—they are too good to be true.
And not only is Julia a ‘drowner’, she is a public speaker and personal coach whose work I greatly admire. So when she asked, “How can I help?”—well, I have an answer!
This is not the first time I’ve had a coach—in fact I have a lot of them. As I work to improve my life I rely on coaches. Steve is my physical fitness coach (and it’s time to renew my acquaintance with him!). For years, Steve and I met at least once a week, first thing in the morning. In between counting reps, we had great conversations and 6 AM laughter, and I found inspiration in his commitment to health and his personal self discipline.
Nan was my counselor during a very shaky time in my life. Short and feisty as a rattlesnake, Nan had empathy and insight, and fought hard for her clients’ emotional and mental well-being. Her words stick with me: I can hear her saying “Of course you married someone just like your mother. She defined ‘love’ for you.” Aha! Moment of truth for me!
Debby was my personal coach as I thought about retirement, and planning my life afterwards. She’s a good friend still, always full of creative ideas and support.
Finally, I can’t forget my orthopedic surgeon, “Quick Draw”. He and I spent a year together—unwillingly, I might add. He wanted my hip replacement to be successful, as did I…and neither one of us wanted the continuing succession of infections and other disasters that happened to my body. “You can do this,” he kept saying. And when I left him—at last—he said, “You’re not an invalid any longer. Don’t let yourself think like one.”
I’m not thinking like an invalid, QD—I’m not! Since the surgery I’ve been to Eastern Europe, lived a couple of months in the Bahamas, and given presentations, and written a variety of blogs and columns. But I’m not the happiest I’ve ever been, either: as I said in an earlier blog, retirement is not really good for me for lots of reasons.
And so I had my first coaching session with Julia last night. It began with a centering exercise—Slow down, think about this time right now, let the only voice in your life be the one at the other end of the telephone line. And then we talked—really talked. Friends and family can be empathetic and warm and loving, but coaches ask some tough questions: what do you really want? Describe how you see yourself in a successful life. Do you think you could try my suggestion for just one week and see how it works? Will you brainstorm how this problem might be resolved and we can discuss it next week?
Define, focus, clarify. Vision. Plan. What a relief to talk about personal issues with a third party, someone who’s not a stakeholder in the outcome of my decisions but who is a discerning, enlightening voice. The result? Three simple steps to work with for the next week, things I can think about and act on—knowing, of course, that I will make a progress report in a few days.
Having an action plan is strengthening and liberating: I can begin to focus on other parts of my life including the fun things without dragging worry and depression behind me like (pardon the expression, Quick Draw) a bad leg.
Can I help? Sure you can, Julia.
Monday, June 8, 2009
My answer is, “Who certified YOU to ask these superficial questions?” Sure, I do some personal coaching too, although I didn’t pay the dues to call myself a certified specialist in anything—the least of which is retirement. And secondly, I can’t think of anybody whose ‘retirement lifestyle’ I really admire.
I know retirees—lots of them. But the ones I admire don’t have a retirement lifestyle, whatever that is. The people I admire who are my age and have dropped out of the career squirrel cage are still working. They are people to whom ‘work’ was not a dirty word, but one which brought a sense of self-worth, entertainment, and contribution to life’s value proposition. And they are still doing it.
I’m still working, too. I’m up early every morning, and I do my best writing and thinking before breakfast. The glorious part of my day is
a. That I can wear my pajamas for all of the rest of the day if I want (Think of all the hours wasted on corporate clothing, hairdos, and make-up);
b. That I can ignore the phone (my caller id is a clue as to whether I pick up or not—and I frequently do not);
c. That I can go to lunch whenever I want and stay as long as I please; and
d. That I don’t have the ongoing care-taking duties that people management requires.
However, I retired from my career job too soon. Oh, it was time to leave my former position—I was not creative in it any longer, and the company needed a change from me. But I thought I had it planned right: I had some savings, and a small retirement income. I could get along, I said: my life needed to get more simple and uncomplicated. I needed more time to do creative stuff—writing, music, visiting friends. And I could make a little money at coaching and consulting—that was the ‘retirement lifestyle’ I envisioned.
All that was, of course, before my retirement savings disappeared with a giant sucking sound called an ‘economic crisis’. It wasn’t anything I could have planned for, nor about which my financial advisor might have warned me. It’s just gone, slurped noisily down the drain.
And so what I’m finding in retirement is that money IS an object. I don’t miss spending it on discretionary items, although I am still fascinated by gadgets and tempted by flip cameras and net books. But clothes and expensive vacations? Nah. Don’t miss ‘em at all.
I do miss getting paid enough to eat AND make a house payment. And I do miss the comforting sound of people laughing and talking throughout the day. Finally, I miss the respect, camaraderie, and appreciation of being a regular part of a team. These aren’t things I can invoke, and probably not things I can easily re-create for myself at this point in my life.
Retirement lifestyle? Fah. I’m not impressed.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
One of the new experiences I am enjoying the most is my new profession as a personal coach. When I knew I was going to retire, I realized that I simply didn’t have the skill set I would need to plan the rest of my own life. After all, I had worked since I was fifteen, really without a break. Just after school, I married and began to share my life decisions with another person. Then, I had children, and my life decisions were based on my commitments to them. And after that part of my life was over—children gone off to their own lives, and former husband off to his—I worked even more. And I enjoyed every minute of it!
So, how was I to become a ‘retiree’? My whole life had been based on meeting the needs of others—family, school, jobs, children, husband. I really needed to learn how to build a life that was mine, on my terms.
I found a personal coach. I’d been to counselors of various types throughout my life—an emotional breakdown when I lost one job, substance abuse counseling, and just plain chronic depression: I always had great respect for professionals in any field, especially when I was in a crisis mode. But retirement? Is that a crisis?
Well, not exactly. I thought I had it figured: I’d saved, I had a small retirement, and there would be social security. But I also had a lot of energy and creativity, a healthy work ethic, and an obsessive guilt complex left over from my childhood. It all scared me, and I hired a personal coach to help formulate my questions and search for the answers.
I became so enamored of that process that I, in turn, trained as a personal coach. Coaching is one of those things that you just do—there’s no proficiency exam and no definitive certification, though there are certainly techniques to be learned in a variety of informal as well as structured settings. I spent some time with that, paid a coach to help me learn to coach, and found clients.
The way my coaching is going now is that I am coaching quite a few of my former association management professional peers. That’s a lonely business, association management. You’re surrounded by people—staff, members, friends of your association efforts. Few of these folks, however, share your concerns: how do I keep members happy? What’s the secret of surviving a board president who is really not a good leader? How can I find more income? How do I market a new product or service? Is there a better way to balance my personal life and my career?
What I can offer as a coach is an informed, objective listening ear—an objective person in your life with whom you can discuss personal and professional problems (often they’re the same). I can offer some suggestions for solutions, and I can hold your feet to the fire if need be.
Here’s an example: One of my clients, an association executive of a trade organization, has a real problem with her members’ perception of her. They think she doesn’t know much about their profession as real estate sales agents—she never practiced it, she never walked in their shoes. The members are experiencing economic uncertainty (aren’t we all), they are fearful, and they want something to happen which will turn their economic lives around. “If we just had a more supportive association, “they moan, “We could lick this economic downturn. It’s all HER (the association CEO’s) fault!”
“How do I cope with this attitude?” my client asks. “I know I’m not real good at understanding their distress. I never worked on a commission basis, I’m not a sales person by nature or personality, and I have way too much to do in the office to spend a whole lot of time having coffee with members and being sympathetic.”
And so we identify the problem in some detail. There is, of course, a reason why my client doesn’t like to leave the office and schmooze with the members—what is it in her personal make-up that holds her back? Often, knowing the answer to that is a big step in overcoming resistance. Then, how can she make adjustments in her personal life so that the task becomes more pleasurable and higher in her priority list?
What are some management techniques she might use to gain insight into the members’ fears and also their needs of professional support—member advisors, focus groups, a ‘kitchen cabinet’? And more importantly, how can she inform members of the ways in which she is personally understanding their concerns and working to support them—an outreach program, a blog, a personal marketing program?
Over the course of a few coaching sessions via telephone and internet, we were able to reach our goal of overcoming a member perception which, if left untouched, could have become a full-fledged employment crisis for my client. A lot of the action plan were her ideas, too—things that would work well for her in her particular circumstances. What she really needed was someone to listen to her, ask some of the tough questions, be sympathetic to what would really be a comfortable solution, and help her devise a plan and a results-measurement program.
Did I help her solve all of her problems? No. But I think I did help her over one barrier to her success—and the results were immediate! Furthermore, I’ve made a new friend—we keep in touch via email and Facebook. Maybe one day I’ll even meet her in person.