Alternative retirement planning

Once upon a time I wrote a personal finance column for a South African daily newspaper. The column was called “Smart Money”, and every week I used it to yatter on humorously about stocks, bonds, money markets and such esoteric entities. It was fun. I got invited to insurance company shindigs and had lunch with movers and shakers like the head of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and they would ask my opinion about the economy, and listen with interest as I repeated whatever I could remember from the last shindig or lunch I’d attended.

Fun, but also scary. I was constantly aware that, at any moment, I could lose my conversational balance and plummet like a sheep out of a tree.

My friends and family thought this was the funniest thing of all the absurd things I’d ever done. In fact, the only time I ever generated more whoops of appalled laughter was a few years later, after I’d moved to the US, when I got a job driving a school bus. According to the people who claim to love me, the only thing I do worse than manage money is drive.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, and pondering how much easier it is to give great advice than to follow it. Take my “Smart Money” column, for example. I knew I was entirely unqualified to advise people where to invest, or to forecast economic trends. But I figured out pretty damn quick that many of my readers were people who had accumulated money by being good at whatever they did, but were as clueless as I about how to make their money grow. They were widget-makers and dream-sellers, not investors. So instead of competing with those much cleverer columnists who pontificated knowledgeably about this or that investment opportunity, I kept just one step ahead of my readers by hearing terminology I didn’t understand, getting boffins to explain it to me, and passing along what I’d learned at a rate of about 750 words a week.

Unfortunately none of this knowledge actually stuck, in the sense of me personally doing anything with it. As a result I’m now hurtling inexorably toward 60 – 70 – 80 sans safety net or parachute. The Hubbit is a fair bit older than I am, so when he retired we chose the larger-pension-for-the-rest-of-his-life option, rather than the very much smaller-pension-until-whichever-of-us-lives-longer-snuffs-it option. Not to be ghoulish about it, I’m expecting a decade or so of widowhood (preferably later rather than sooner). I’ve always assumed I’d be the merry sort of widow – like this one:

Seniorin mit Hund am Laptop, auf Wiese liegend
Okay, so she’s not merry, exactly. Poking around Adobe’s stock photos I found lots of beaming bints with gray hair, kicking up their heels or frolicking on the beach. But this is my kind of happy. Dog, laptop, solitude, trees. That’s plenty merry enough for me.

Not like this one…

Homeless elderly woman sleeping rough in a park
If I’m ever homeless, I hope I at least have a dog.

Only … a question that lately has been coming to mind with disconcerting frequency is, “How?”

I’ve reached that life stage where you start reconnecting with all the old farts you went to school or varsity with, way back in the Pleistocene … and they all seem so darn stable. Settled. Secure. A nice house in the suburbs, a holiday cottage here, an overseas trip there. How did they do it?

I seem to have lived my life just outside the masquerade ball. I can hear music and tantalizing scraps of conversations, I can smell food and perfume, I watch the dancers flirt from behind their masks and fans. I think I was invited but … ehhh … my mask makes my nose sweat. If I tried to dance I’d be like a sheep in a tree – baa-aa-aah, two, three, plummet.

Abandoning that strangely mixed metaphor and getting back to my point (I think I have one; I must just keep circling until I close in on it) … it’s clearly too late for me to spend my adult life preparing for old age.

For a while, until a couple months ago, I thought I’d get a job. After all, I’ve spent a lot of years doing a bunch of interesting things – not just journalism and tech writing; I’ve also started and run several businesses, a mission school and a dog rescue, some of which turned out well and taught me all sorts of useful skills. So now that I’m willing to let some plutocrat chain me to a desk for 40 hours a week in return for health insurance and enough money to pay down our mortgage, wouldn’t you think prospective employers would stare in awe at my résumé and exclaim, “Wow – you’re clearly a flexible, innovative problem-solver! We need you on our team right now!

We-e-ell, no. As it happened, their response tended to be more along the lines of “Seriously? WTF is this?” And, even more worrisome, every time someone turned me down I felt quite dizzy with relief that I’d evaded having to sit down at the same desk at the same time surrounded by the same people every day, regardless of whether or not I wanted to.

I’ve pondered getting back into freelance technical writing, but the problem with that is, you have to market yourself. Back in South Africa when I partnered with my bestie, Twiglet, she slapped on face paint, donned a pantsuit with a nice brooch and high heels, and topped it off with an elegant hairstyle, and clients had no difficulty at all taking her seriously. I, on the other hand, with my swirling caftans and my hair falling out of a bun? Not so easy to sell to go-getting executive types. Plus I hate it.

So the fruit of my recent ponderings is as follows.

First, the masquerade ball is almost over. The dancers are getting tired; some have already left. I didn’t want to go when it was in full swing; why would I go now at the draggy tail-end of the party? Baa-aa-aah-plummet – and then what?

Second, I kinda like what the Hubbit and I have managed to pull together in our small corner of the planet. It’s shabby and untidy and a tad heavy on the dog hair, but I’d rather spruce it up (or not) than replace it.

ants and grasshopper

Third, in nearly sixty years of rarely worrying about tomorrow, this grasshopper has never gone hungry. I guess God likes the sound of my fiddling; at any rate, He’s provided for me this far, and I continue to do my grasshopper best to please Him. (I understand the moral of the fable; I’ve just never liked it. Those ants are a miserable, self-righteous, mean-spirited bunch – why would anyone want to be like them?)

So I have decided: enough with the worrying and pondering. Definitely don’t start with the wishing and regretting. I’m grabbing whatever time I have left and doing what I love.

In other words, work on my book continues, y’all! It’s called “A is for Affenpinscher”, and it’s the first in a series of 26, which is enough to keep me busy for a while. This first one is going slower than I like because I’m having to take time to walk in circles and get acquainted with the various characters, and then make notes so I don’t get them mixed up. But it’s moving along quite nicely; I’m having fun with it and look forward to putting it out there.

Speaking of which, two months from today is the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. The cost of attending is wince-worthy, but it provides an opportunity to meet with 22 – yes, twenty-two, that’s two hands plus two thumbs up – editors and agents, all a-tremble with their eagerness to sign up fresh talent.

In two months I can finish writing the first book in the series, map out the second, and maybe overhaul a completely different manuscript (a YA fantasy) that I set aside years ago when I realized it needed … oh well, I’ll spare you the details, but I have to do a shitload of research in the form of gaming, which scares me a bit because what if I get addicted?

So, anyway, that’s my retirement plan. If you think it’s a little nuts, you’re probably right. On the other hand, look what I found in my fortune cookie tonight!

Fortune cookie

It’s a sign, right?

If you’re a gamer, which game would you recommend for fantasy, quests and magic? And, regardless of whether or not you’re a gamer, how do you plan to spend your declining years?

Made up

When my mother puts on make-up, she says she is putting on her face. I usually find it easier just to go with whatever face I happen to wake up in, but sometimes that doesn’t feel quite … enough.

So when I was packing for the road trip Himself and I are currently enjoying, I crammed my supply of face paint into a small bag and shoved it into my suitcase. Day 2 found us rolling into Reno just barely in time for the start of the Hubbit’s 50th school reunion festivities. Getting there was good – a leisurely two days with an overnight stop at a comfortable Best Western. And while Nevada appears to be mainly a whole helluva lot of not a whole helluva lot, it has a certain stark visual appeal.

Arriving was a whole other matter. Tell this South African girl she’s staying at a “resort”, and she expects to see trees, grass, some chalets scattered around a rustic but luxurious lodge, a pool, maybe a miniature golf course – you get the idea. Quite apart from the fact that it hadn’t occurred to me that we were going to a casino (yeah, I know, call me stupid) the word “resort” had me expecting some sort of desert oasis. The reality of a high rise city center hotel, with a crowded lobby that was all marble and mirrors leading to bleak little rooms failed to enchant.

This is how we do casino resorts in South Africa
This is how we do casino resorts in South Africa.

As for the casino, it was creepy and depressing. A (presumably fake but I think full scale) mine headgear loomed in the gloomy arch of the domed ceiling. Arrayed around it were machines lit in lurid colors, silently waiting to swallow your money – and, with it, your hopes and dreams – but the alleys between the machines were dark. The hotel surrounding the gambling area was loud with voices and piped music, but the casino seemed clouded in a dull hush. It used to be fun to play the fruit machines – you carried your money in a paper cup and fumbled it out to push it into the coin slot, and after a while your arm would ache from pulling the lever, but you kept pulling because the sound of money clattering into the catch tray when you won was so seductive you had to keep trying for more, until you were left with nothing but the stink of money on your hands, and an empty cup, and sleepy daydreams of what might have been if you’d stopped just 15 minutes sooner. But now it’s all done with smart cards and buttons. Bells don’t ring, lights don’t flash, and winnings don’t clatter. I don’t know why anyone would bother.

So anyway, we checked in with just minutes to spare, and the Hubbit was all antsy to get upstairs to reconnect with the Good Old Days Of Yore, and I was rattled and discombobulated by finding myself in a crowded and alien world. I yanked my make-up bag (actually it’s a small linen bag that pillowcases came in and that I kept because I was sure it would come in handy some day – I don’t actually own a make-up bag) out of my suitcase, peered into the mirror, thought “Stuff it”, splashed cold water on my face, and followed Himself up to the hospitality suite.

It was full of happy old people clutching alcoholic drinks. I didn’t know anyone. Himself introduced me to Bob and reminded me that we’d met. (Poor Hubbit had no idea that Bob and I had been conspiring for weeks via email to make him feel conspicuous on his birthday, which happened to be the next day.) Bob called his wife over, and although

Apparently I don't remind anyone of Juliette Binoche.
Apparently I don’t remind anyone of Juliette Binoche.

she clearly had no idea who I was and no memory of ever having met me, she informed me that I did indeed look familiar because I reminded her of an actress, only she couldn’t remember which one. I snaffled a bottle of water and snuck away into a corner. People introduced themselves and told me where they were from and asked me where I was from, and at intervals Bob’s wife wandered past and said she was still trying to remember which actress it was, but my smile definitely reminded her of someone. Eventually everyone decided to go out to dinner together, and as we were leaving Bob’s wife found me again and apologized, because she’d realized I didn’t remind her of an actress, but rather of one of Bob’s cousins, who was a very sweet woman.

Alrighty then.

The next evening was The First Dinner (the one on Tuesday didn’t count because it was spontaneous). I blinged up a bit, peered into my makeup bag, and said “Stuff it” again. Earrings and a malachite bead necklace was as far as I felt able to go. And it was just fine, because no one was paying attention to me while Himself got royally roasted (two bottles of “viagra” – Bob’s wife told me she had to eat her way through a terrifyingly large number of M&Ms to find enough blue ones – and a gift certificate for a Happy Ending, whatever that might be – pretty much what I expected after telling one of the Hubbit’s peers to “be as juvenile as you like” in celebrating his birthday).

Last night was the Big Event. We have left Reno and are now in Vallejo, and last night’s banquet was hosted by an Admiral, no less. (The Hubbit is a Cal Maritime Academy boy.) Getting myself ready, I blinged to the max, and dumped my supply of warpaint on the sink counter.

Now to give some background to all this … My friend Wonder Woman decided, for my birthday in February, to make a woman of me, and she took me shopping for Face Stuff. Ignoring my mutters, winces and rolling eyes, she selected some kind of tinted face cream (for covering wrinkled and freckles), face powder (for covering the cream), eyebrow pencil (for revealing brows that might have vanished under a layer of cream and powder), brown eye shadow, and lipstick. And I used it faithfully every day for weeks, right up until Argos ate my lipstick and I ran out of tinted face cream.

Well, as part of preparing for this road trip, I betook myself to Walgreens and replenished my supply. I couldn’t remember what she’d bought, but how hard could it be to buy lipstick and face cream?

Yeah … maybe I need to put more work into this process… It turns out that Jergens Natural Glow is not so much a tinted moisturizer as a fake tanning lotion. I’d already covered my face before it occurred to me to read the directions. Then I hastily scrubbed it off … slathered on cold cream that I got at the Dollar Store … patted powder over that … touched up eyelids (brown), eyebrows (browner), and lipstick (brownish). I have no idea how it turned out, because I suspect that when I look in the mirror I don’t see what the rest of the world sees – and the Hubbit is no help, since he doesn’t ever comment on my appearance and, for all I know, doesn’t notice whether I look like a clown or a queen.

I dunno … I guess I’m just not that good at being a girl, y’all. On the other hand, I’m not bad at happy endings…