Pushing The ‘Comfort Envelope’ In Pursuit Of One’s Dreams…

As I’m looking out my office window and viewing a bright, sunny Monday morning I find myself once again marveling at my current situation.  So much has happened in the past five years, some positive and some negative, but all of it sure looks – at least in retrospect – as a large-scale ‘plan’.  Yesterday late afternoon while killing a bit of time awaiting my substitution at KTNA for the evening announcements, weather and classifieds at 18:00 followed by the “We’re Not All There” music show at 19:00 I happened to watch a bit of one of my absolutely favorite movies of all time – “The Matrix”.  I watched the portion in which Neo visits the Oracle and there’s the brief discussion regarding how he doesn’t believe in all that ‘fate crap’; for whatever reason this started me thinking about my own feelings regarding the concept of ‘fate’.  I probably am closer to the beliefs exhibited by Neo as I do believe strongly in free will and also firmly believe we ‘beings of light’ can affect our own lives in an infinity of ways.  With this said such feelings would seem to run counter to the perception I mentioned earlier regarding where I currently am being the result of a ‘plan’.  And this apparent incongruity interests me for a number of reasons.

In hindsight an amazing amount of things had to work out just the way they did for me to find my way to my current exciting and pleasing life in rural south central Alaska; and they had to occur in the sequence they did as well.  Without question I had ‘control’ over many of these aspects but there’s no denying some appear to be based upon random chance.  Looking back it was very important I was available to assist my parents through their last years; this was very much so regarding Mom.  I was able to be there for them because the job market in IT collapsed in 2006 just as my contract with the state of Ohio ran out and was not renewed.  I looked for work for another 18 months without success before electing to start a SEPP and basically retire.  This allowed me the freedom to briefly move in with my folks in 2008 and be able to sell my house in West Chester (OH) and move into my folk’s house as a caretaker in late 2009 after Dad had passed and Mom had moved into an assisted living facility.  These were circumstances I felt I had no real control over; I’d always imagined I’d work until at least 62 years of age if not longer but out-sourcing and moving jobs off shore prevented this from occurring.  At first I was isolated and miserable but I came to realize I needed to take steps to change this situation; I started by adding my ‘little’ angel Anana (my 124 pound female Alaskan Malamute) to my life.

While visiting Mom multiple times a week at the Northville Sunrise I began to take an interest in volunteering and thankfully the manager of the Reminiscence Neighborhood – the portion of the facility for memory impaired residents – was more than willing to bring me on as a volunteer.  In hindsight I didn’t expect to find I loved volunteering so or enjoyed working with elderly dementia residents so much.  This was something I would have never tried had Mom not been a resident at the facility and therefore I visited multiple times a week and started watching the care-givers and their interactions with the residents.  Because of this I’ll always look at learning the joys of volunteering to be Mom’s last and probably best gift to me.  I loved the way the staff had lots of fun with the residents but never, ever at their expense.  I decided to try volunteering after much urging from my sister and especially after spending so much time talking with Jewel – her name says it all – who is the Reminiscence Coordinator.  To my shock I found I did have a ‘way’ with the residents and I really found immense satisfaction in working with them.  I went on to work more and more at the facility often putting in more than 40 hours a month but truly loving the work and for the first time in my working experience discovering true job satisfaction.  But I also came to understand I was really ‘stretching’ myself with respect to my comfort zone and what I believed I could do.  This realization became more important as I learned that keeping one’s mind challenged as one ages is a proven way to help forestall the onset of dementia; given Mom died of the wicked Alzheimer’s I am almost assuredly more at risk than others my age with no history of such issues within their families.  I feel I could not know how much I would enjoy volunteering with the elderly but once I learned of the fun I pursued it recognizing ‘stretching’ in this fashion was very good for me and was also assisting the wonderful folks at the Sunrise of Northville facility.  Talk about a ‘win-win’..!!

Without question my decision to leave my ‘second family’ at the facility and retire to Alaska was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever faced yet it was one created by me.  I could’ve remained in SE Michigan volunteering at the facility but I was also concerned that I was becoming ‘comfortably numb’ in that role.  Yes, it remained challenging and I did enjoy it but I was also restless.  And I could not ignore hearing so many of the residents talk about their regrets that they never followed a dream or took a chance when younger; this was very common and it helped galvanize me into making the choice to move to Alaska.  These were things I had control over; I felt my own impending stagnation and I knew if I didn’t move to live my dream of retiring to Alaska soon it would never happen.  And some day I could well be a very elderly male regretting my failure to take that chance and upset my existence to a huge degree by moving to rural south central Alaska.  I couldn’t imagine allowing this to happen and hence was willing to do whatever it took to live my dream even though in so doing I was abandoning a marvelous situation.

I never thought of moving to Talkeetna as stretching myself; it was a dream to retire to Alaska and I was just fulfilling said dream.  But here and now as I reflect upon this massive event – fully 15 months in the making – it was probably one of the largest stretches I’ve ever made!  I lived my entire life in urban circumstances mainly in the northern Midwest yet here I was planning to move into a rural setting and in Alaska to boot!!  Yep, I’d say that is indeed quite a stretch especially as I was doing this solo with just my two dogs.  Sure, previously I’d moved to new places where I knew no one but these were all in the lower 48 and in urban settings.  In addition they were for jobs and hence I did know folks at my place of business.  But with the move up here I was moving my entire household with the assistance of one friend 4,243 miles to a rural setting on the outskirts of an Alaskan town of just 700 people in which I knew no one.  Without question it was truly a leap of faith as well as one helluva stretch but it was also the fulfillment of a 16 year dream.  As it stands now I couldn’t be happier with my decision; I’m settling in, learning the rural Alaskan lifestyle, meeting new people, making friends and  – surprise, surprise – continuing to look for new challenges.  Given the latter it should be no surprise that volunteering has shown me a new stretch in live, on-air broadcasting for Talkeetna’s local NPR station (KTNA).  I started with newscasts and have now branched out to a music show  and doing regular substituting on other newscasts and shows.  I had no experience with anything like on-air broadcasting; the closest thing would have been doing some teaching of company classes at field sites involving Microsoft operating systems and applications.  As an aside I undertook this challenge as a bit of a stretch because I had a huge fear of speaking in front of people reinforced by being a real stutterer as a child to the point I required years of speech therapy.  To my surprise I did well at being an instructor but even this was nothing like broadcasting live to a small town over the air waves.  While I’m still learning and do make some true ‘beginner’s’ mistakes I find I really enjoy the work.  Once again, if someone had told me five years ago I’d enjoy live on-air radio broadcast work I’d have asked them to share whatever they were smoking as it would’ve seemed that far out to me!  And my hunger for more challenges seems to grow the more I undertake such stretches; I will begin volunteering at a local food pantry that serves over 130 needy families in the Upper Susitna Valley.  With fifteen years in food manufacturing and a BS in Food Science I’d like to think I can assist them and just knowing the work I do will be helping needy families is a real plus for me.

So how much of this is is of my own ‘doing’ and how much is mere chance and coincidence..?  From my current perspective I’d say 70/30.  But I must admit that at least a sizable portion appears to be out of my control.  If, in 2006, I’d found another job then I’d probably still be working and wouldn’t have discovered the joy of volunteering, my ability to work so well with the elderly, wouldn’t have even dreamed of doing live radio and would most likely be only dreaming about moving to Alaska when I retire.  Such a simple thing; almost a binary decision set – find a job or not – yet it had huge and far reaching ramifications many of which I’ve most likely not yet discovered.  And I did try hard across 2006 to locate employment; my contract ran out in early February and I took a few months off believing I could locate a suitable IT job fairly easily as it had always been that way.  I started pursuing possibilities and sent out over 125 resumes across 2006 and into early 2007 with no luck; in addition I went to numerous local job fairs and even some outside the IT realm job interviews.  But I couldn’t find work; at the time I was dejected, disappointed and largely worried about paying my mortgage.  If, in late 2006, someone had told me this was all part of a sequence of events which would culminate with me living my dream of an Alaskan retirement I’d have been completely unable to envision how this could happen.  But to my credit I did remain receptive to the idea although after the economic collapse in ’08 and ’09 I’d all but given up on this dream.

And here is the first of two key learnings I want to share with everyone: do not allow yourself to restrict your ‘stretching’ by imposing self-generated boundaries on what you believe you are capable of doing or what you might – or might not – enjoy!!  In this sense many of us are our own worst enemies; I know for certain I surely fit into this mold.  Do not be afraid to try something completely new and something you’ve never even really seriously considered.  I’d bet many folks will fail when doing so but I’d also bet the successes will far outshine any failures!  And you just might find a new career or passion.  And secondly:  never, ever give up on your dreams no matter how lofty or seemingly out of reach!!  Without question in ’09 and ’10 I was sure I would never retire to Alaska because of the financial beating I’d taken in the economic downturn; I’d even formulated a plan ‘B’ which involved moving to the western UP (that’s ‘Upper Peninsula’ for non-Midwesterners) because it was rural and at least had cold winters with lots of snow.  Yet with the assistance of my wonderful financial adviser I was able to keep my dream alive, rebuild it from the ashes of the recent recession and actually make it a reality.  If you can embrace these two concepts and truly live them the sky is indeed the limit for what you can attain; I am living proof of this reality!

North Country Retirement

I was dismayed this morning while scanning one of my on-line news sources – I refuse to use TV or printed media for news as they all lack true journalism and have their own agendas – and seeing the headline; “Why You Shouldn’t Retire At 65”.  Of course I had to peruse said article and when I finished I was initially left with a sad feeling that slowly built into disgust at what is now being sold as the ‘new’ norm; working until one is at least 70 if not older.  Of course I can understand the need to do so if one’s finances are not supportive of retirement but some of the other reasons given were just downright pathetic.  What does it say about this country that a ‘pundit’ thinks you should continue to work past age 65 if you ‘still have a job’..?  My God, does this implies that nowadays jobs for people over 60 are so scarce if you are lucky enough to have one you should cling to it..?!?  There were predictable tripe such as not retiring because you truly like your job – who would like working for someone else so much they’d forgo being the master of their own personal time – and something that I’ve always felt reflects very poorly on the whole ‘work for a living’ concept – you may not want to retire because for decades your job has been almost your entire life so suddenly having ‘no direction’ in your life is a bad thing.

I was literally forced out of the work place in ’06 by a combination of a changing job market, the beginnings of the financial meltdown and my age.  After working corporate for decades with a Fortune 500 firm I tired of the almost constant travel and thus took a position as a contractor in IT support with the state of Ohio.  My three year contract played out in February of 2006 leaving me a few years over 50 but in what I mistakenly thought was still a solid field in the American job market.  I failed to understand what outsourcing was about to do both to the salaries within the field and to position availability.  For 18 months I sadly followed all the traditional methods of looking for work with no luck; I even explored going back to work in my college major – food science – but soon learned that as soon as I was asked about my ten year hiatus from said field and I explained I went into IT my interview was over.  Despite a degree and 20+ years experience in the field I was ‘persona non grata’; I’m sure the fact that I’d worked in IT so it was assumed as soon as I found an IT position I’d jump ship as well as my age contributed to my inability to locate work.  Thanks to a very wise financial adviser I decided to take an SEPP (Substantially Equalized Periodic Payment) until I reached 59 1/2 years of age; thankfully doing this helped me be available to my mother as she slowly succumbed to the horrific disease Alzheimer’s.  However, I was only able to do so because when I’d first started working my father gave me probably the most important advice I’d ever receive from him: he told me as soon as I started a new job I should immediately sign up to have the max amount of my salary withheld and invested in the available company supported investment programs.  This I did across my almost 30 year employment career and because of doing so, along with some additional investing and the assistance much later on of a truly skilled financial manager along with life decisions (no children, no long term relationship, etc.), I did have the means to retire much earlier than I had intended.

Initially I did struggle with so much free time and it was frustrating to send out well over 100 resumes in just eight months of ’06 with no results; in this sense although I never did work again after my stint as a contractor I really didn’t accept I was retired until August of ’07.  However, once I recognized that with the ongoing world economic meltdown, the outsourcing of so many IT positions and my age I had little chance of finding a job I came to accept my situation.  At first it was difficult because I was making a mortgage payment but when Mom’s Alzheimer’s worsened and we had to move her into assisted living I sold my place for no real profit because of the housing bubble bursting and became a caretaker of the family’s home.  During this time I realized it was most likely I would never be financially able to retire to Alaska; I began to prepare myself and the process was long and painful.  Only my financial adviser even spoke to me about the possibility and did try to keep my dream alive.  I truly struggled living in the family’s home in Dearborn (MI), knowing no one and spending time visiting Mom; it was tough.  But I slowly started to realize volunteering looked like something I should try and happily the assisted living folks were only too happy to have me start volunteering.  I discovered I did enjoy working with the elderly and particularly those with memory impairment; this enjoyment was reflected in the quality and quantity of my efforts.  I continued to volunteer for two years after Mom passed; only my decision to retire to Alaska once I ran the numbers in January of 2012 and realized I could caused me to stop my volunteering.  For this I was eternally grateful as I was not only able to assist Mom with her final 18 months but I also made a positive difference in many, many elderly people’s lives and I discovered the real joy in volunteering for worth causes.

Musical performance for the Reminiscence residents of the Northville Sunrise

Musical performance for the Reminiscence residents of the Northville Sunrise

Many of my good friends could not believe I was volunteering with Alzheimer’s patients let alone loving it; as they often reminded me I ‘didn’t suffer fools gladly’ during my working days.  I cannot explain how or why this was; it simply ‘was’ and I went with the flow.  This taught me some very important lessons in my retirement; just as in general living attitude is everything in retirement!  If you fear it or cannot imagine what you will do with your time you will probably have issues.  Thankfully I was never someone who felt ‘defined’ by my job; sure, when talking with peers or colleagues I would probably have introduced myself as ‘working in IT field support for Company X’ but within me I knew I was so much more.  I’ve always possessed a strong spiritual side so to think of my essence as a salaried slave to some anonymous corporation was completely non sequitur.  I felt much more defined by my love of Nature, my joy in camping and hiking, my newly discovered love of volunteering, my joy in assisting the elderly, my interest in Nature photography and meteorology and, of course, my deep love of Alaska; to me these really formed the foundation of who I was as a human being.  Therefore I suspect I didn’t really struggle with the whole ‘loss of identity’ thing when I retired.

In hindsight I needed those three years of assisting Mom, discovering volunteering, cultivating the patience and willingness to listen required when working with the elderly to really make my retirement work for me.  All this and more really brought out my heretofore relatively low key extrovert tendencies; this, in turn, made it possible for me to experience many things I wouldn’t have even tried prior to these situations.  I spent many days wondering if I were really ready to retire to Alaska especially as I’d already decided I wanted to live rural and this was something I’d never before experienced.  Sure, I’d done my homework but one can only gather so much information regarding a topic like rural Alaskan existence from reading; I needed to talk with people who had experienced this lifestyle.  Thankfully my willingness to engage strangers in conversation gave me five hours of talk with a native Alaskan who lived in rural Valdez his entire life on the flight from Chicago to Anchorage which began my house hunting experience.  I had already held lengthy email conversations with my realtor and now good friend Holly and when we checked into ‘The Susitna River Lodge’ I immediately befriended the owners; they, in turn, introduced me to other locals and I talked at length about my plans and soaked up all they had to say about living in rural Alaska.  Because of this I felt much better prepared for what I knew would most likely be the biggest adventure of my life.

And almost three months into the experience I am indeed living my dream and biggest adventure!  I’ve met all my neighbors – up here anyone within a mile is a ‘neighbor’ – and have started working on developing friendly, conversational relationships with other locals who work in the local stores or PO.  I’ve decided to test those volunteering waters once again by offering time to the local NPR radio station – KTNA Talkeetna (FM 88.9); although I’ve only visited the staff and seen the operation twice I’m going back for more training this (Tuesday) afternoon.  To my shock I am being groomed to be a ‘reader’ for the local news; I can’t think of a much better way to get my name out to the locals!  I’ve really liked all the staff and other volunteers I’ve met to this point; I can see this opportunity as something I will find invaluable come winter.  Now that the tourists have largely left for another year I understand ‘Latitude 62’ which is a restaurant/bar in town is quite the gathering place for the locals; I plan to begin to visit on a more regular basis and strike up some new friendships.  The openness and willingness to talk on the part of the locals is just so refreshing and radically different from so much of what I experienced in the urban areas of the lower 48; there’s none of that ‘distrust by default’ attitude or that wariness engendered when someone is expecting you to want something.  Happily I truly believe I’ve found my home and unlike my life during the 30 years I worked and never really became part of a community because I relocated every two to three years to chase a promotion or new job I intend to put down roots in Talkeetna.

And so I once again find myself full circle and am wondering if I were to have taken this supposed ‘new’ normal and refused to do anything but look for work after my IT days to the exclusion of all else would I have ever found a job and more importantly, would I be living the dream I now experience?  Its possible I might have found work but almost assuredly at much lower wages and I most likely would’ve been ‘under employed’ as well and working in a much less pleasant environment.  But my honest feeling is if I worked until I was even ‘just’ 65 let alone 70 I would never have undertaken this dream.  I know the entire relocation process put an enormous strain on my body, spirit and emotions; there were days I wondered just what the heck I’d been thinking!  The months of planning had seen many ups and down and the complete re-writing of the relocation plan at least twice.  Getting the truck properly packed after ‘Two Men And A Truck’ had demonstrated such poor abilities was draining.  That very long 4,245 mile drive from Northville (MI) to Talkeetna (AK) via the Mackinac Bridge was a real butt buster which required nine and a half days two of which saw over 700 miles in driving.  Getting the truck unloaded up here was physically draining and the process of unpacking and organizing my new home often seemed to never end; I still have a sore back from moving heavy boxes around during the process.  I had to deal with many unexpected issues after arriving up here not the least of which was the fact this house is in a null zone for cell transmission strength; only by mounting an outdoor cell antenna and using an amplifier to boost the weak signal and a special planar antenna inside to retransmit the signal do I now have cell reception indoors.  In addition there was the snafu caused by not realizing I did not have PO delivery to this physical address; this required renting a PO box but more importantly meant I had handed out an incorrect mailing address to all my family, friends, business concerns and the like which had to be corrected.  I’m still working through the fall out from this error.  While its largely history now and thus I can look back on it with a certain sense of pride and humor while marveling at both the expected and unexpected learnings I also cannot help but realize I wouldn’t have been able to do so if I were even five years older let alone ten or more.

And so it comes down to this; retirement is what you made it (via investing, saving, lifestyle choices, etc.) and will make it (willingness to try new things, a need to make new friends while keeping old ones, a need to really look at fulfilling one’s dreams, etc.).  While volunteering I often heard elderly folks reminiscing and almost to a person they would sadly say if they could change one thing in their pasts it would be to go back and do something they never did often because it seemed too daunting, time consuming or expensive.  It didn’t take long for me to realize Alaska would become such a failure for me if I didn’t take the chance, make the effort and give it my best; at some point I refused to be one of those older folks sadly reminiscing about dreams unfulfilled.  In so doing I’ve become a kind of ‘poster boy’ for the over 55 crowd who dream of fulfilling dreams of their own; to them I say ‘never, ever give up on your dreams regardless of how impossible they might seem!’.  But I would also council this; do not let uncertain economics, political instabilities or family situations cause you to postpone your retirement under the guise of doing so for ‘just a bit longer so I can handle this’.  If I’ve learned anything from life its that our time on this plane is limited and so we should embrace our challenges but also learn to celebrate ourselves through doing for others as well as giving back to ourselves.  Failure to do this will most likely lead to unfulfilled dreams and sad, soft reminiscing’s in a wheel chair…

Anana with Nine and Luba

Luba (a Nazi death camp survivor), her daughter Nina and my Anana in the Sunrise of Northville’s Reminiscence Neighborhood