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Standing Up for What’s Right

November 15, 2017

ExcellenceQuoteImagine, if you will, an organization built on the premise of providing the best quality ‘product’ imaginable for ‘customers’ in their community. They hire people with proven expertise, a commitment to excellence, and a deep-seated desire to effect positive change. The goal is to provide an exemplary end result, no matter the ‘quality’ of the raw goods they’re provided with. They set to work and the results are immediate – great things begin to happen.

Over the years, despite the inevitable changes in technology, resources, equipment, supplies, and raw materials, the organization prospers and grows, processing tens of thousands of ‘units’ to the delight and satisfaction of a broad range of ‘customers’.


Collaboration drives success

The employees collaborate with one another, devise new and exciting methods for achieving their outcomes, and continually strive to improve not only how they work, but what they turn out. Many are recognized and applauded for their innovative strategies and exceptional work ethic – encouraging them to ‘go further’. Quality is ensured through rigorous testing; failure is accepted as a means of ensuring the overall quality of the organization’s output. The employees, although often overworked and occasionally under-appreciated, take great pride in ‘a job well done’ and seek to continually improve and grow. They are confident that the ‘product’ they’ve helped mold over years of consolidated effort will perform effectively ‘right out of the box’ and serve the community for many years to come. They take pride in what they do.

CheckboxesNow imagine that, after thirty years of success and growth, changes beyond the control of those hard working and dedicated workers come to pass. New managers, some with no experience in the field, are brought in to ‘improve the bottom line’ by increasing output and reducing costs. They institute a ‘list of accomplishments’ that, in many cases, don’t reflect the organization’s actual mandate. Employees are hired who have no knowledge of the organization’s fundamental principles, several degrees but no relevant (i.e., work related) experience, and little interest in doing much more than ‘putting in their time’. Much of the workforce is gradually replaced (as the organization grows, and the ‘old timers’ retire) by lower paid part-time and contract workers, until the ratio is roughly 25% full time to 75% part-time (saving the organization millions in salaries and benefits).

OneSizeCollaboration among workers is discouraged, proven methods are dismissed, and a ‘new way of doing things’ is put into place that requires a ‘one size fits all’ approach to nearly every aspect of the job. ‘Fast track manuals’, ‘how to videos’, ineffective PowerPoint presentations, and strict (but unproductive and inefficient) ‘rules of engagement’ are designed by people with ‘advanced degrees’, most of whom have never actually done the job they’re advising others how to do. Quality control becomes a ‘Does it work at a minimally acceptable level?’ yes or no process; there is no longer any relevant testing to ensure the ‘product’ performs as expected by the ‘customer’. Failure is seen as unacceptable (in other words, everything ‘passes’, whether it ‘works’ or not). More ‘units’ are processed and pushed ‘out the door’ than ever before (with many destined for foreign markets that will shell out four times what the domestic market will pay).

And despite the obvious decline of the quality of the organization’s output, despite the concerns expressed by the long-time employees who want some say in decision-making and change, despite the expressed frustration of ‘customers’ who no longer receive a viable product (but have nowhere else to go for what they need), the organization refuses to admit that they’ve lost sight of why they came into existence in the first place, of their original commitment to excellence and innovation, and of their role in the community.  They strip the employees of all authority to do the work they were hired to do, continue to undermine quality by hiring casual workers (who have little long-term stake in the company’s success or failure), and revel in the fact that ‘easy does it’ seems to have ‘won the day’. Concerns are dismissed out of hand; management’s attitude is, ‘Live with it!’

LiveWithItIf you worked for this organization, how would you react? Put up and shut up? Or step up and try to do something about it?

This isn’t some imaginary scenario. In a nutshell (or a 600 word piece of ‘creative non-fiction’) this is what the current strike by Ontario Community College teachers is all about. It’s not about money; it’s not about vacations or child care or benefits. It’s about restoring integrity to the classrooms, ensuring equity in employment between full time and part-time faculty (and job security for those on cyclical contracts), and about allowing faculty – the people who are actually DOING THE JOB OF TEACHING OUR YOUNG PEOPLE WHAT THEY NEED TO KNOW IN ORDER TO SURVIVE IN TODAY’S WORKING ENVIRONMENT – a voice at the decision-making table and in the classroom. They want no more than to take part in determining what they teach and how they teach it to ensure that the ‘end product’ (the students of today who will become the workers of tomorrow) get what they’ve paid for: a quality education and the skills they need to succeed.

My husband I both taught in the community college system for over twenty years; we both retired (early) because we couldn’t abide the changes that were taking place around us (e.g., being told to ‘dumb down’ our curriculum, teach ‘the same way as everyone else’ [despite the success of our tried and true methods], pass even the weakest students, move to purely objective [true/false, multiple choice] testing vs. subjective [long answer, practical demonstration of knowledge] assessment, adapt content for ‘online learning’ [so students can ‘teach themselves’ – if they could do that, why do they come to college?], work from ‘course in a box’ outlines, etc.) These ‘requests’ went against everything we believed in, what we’d worked hard to achieve; we were being asked to participate in a repugnant shift from educating students to ensuring there were ‘bums in the seats and dollars in the coffers’. And we aren’t the only ones who just couldn’t take it anymore.


Generally, I don’t condone strike action (and I rarely write about ‘political’ issues) but I feel compelled to do so here. Without recognition/acknowledgement of the systemic problems within the Colleges, and real, significant changes (that will allow qualified faculty to have a say in what goes on in their classrooms), our province’s future is at risk. (Honestly, few young people can learn much of anything – never mind real world skills that make them employable – by ‘following along in a textbook’, watching videos, reading/listening to boilerplate PowerPoint presentations, and filling out ‘bubble sheet’ exams; college learning was designed on the principle that knowledge is gained through explanation, demonstration and practice.)  I support those who want to do ‘what’s right’ for those they teach, even if all I can do is sit on the sidelines and watch from here on … the other side of 55.





My Gingerly Family

November 9, 2017

The mind is a funny thing. When I saw the Daily Prompt  this morning (‘gingerly’), my mind immediately went to ‘ginger’, the commonly-used term today for a person with red hair.

Visiting Santa 1958

My ginger sister & I, 1958

My parents had five children over the span of 16 years; four of us are dark-haired, one is a ‘ginger’ (my closest sister). Being the only redhead in the family, she often asked my parents why she was different. My father would tease her by saying he’d left a note out for the milkman (in the 1950s, milk was delivered right to the house) that read “two quarts of milk and one quart of cream” but it rained overnight and when the milkman read it, he thought it said, “one little red headed girl” (that my father thought this was amusing says something about his unique sense of humour; that my sister believed the story for years says something about her gullibility as a child).


Grammy Cook 1975


No one bothered to explain to her (or the rest of us, I suppose) that my mother’s mother had been a red-head in her younger days (by the time my sister and I were born, my grandmother was in her 70s and completely grey, although as I look at photos of her now, I can see the tiniest hint of red in her hair) and of Irish descent, so red hair certainly ran in the family (whether we would have understood that or not is debatable, I suppose; besides, the “being left on the doorstep by the milkman” story was much more exciting, if a little morally questionable).

As both my brothers and my oldest sister and I married and had children (my ‘ginger’ sister chose to remain childless) – and our children had children – there was always speculation about whether or not any of them would be born with red hair. My mother had always said she wanted a little red-haired grandchild; at the time of her death in 2012, she had twelve grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren – none of them ‘gingers’. It seemed as if the ‘red hair gene’ had disappeared from the family line.

However, there is still hope for a reappearance of this unique family trait. You see – even though less than 2% of the Canadian population has (natural) red hair – both my boys have married ‘gingers’ (people comment on this curious fact fairly often!) So officially there are now two ‘gingers’ in the ‘next generation’ of my family (and I occasionally catch a glint of red in my granddaughter’s curls!) Who knows – there might be many more ‘gingerly’ children born into future generations. In the meantime, though, I’ll enjoy and treasure the ones who currently share my life here on … the other side of 55.


My boys and their ginger girls (Christmas 2014)




The Difference a Year Makes

August 7, 2017

A little over a year ago my husband and I packed up all our worldly possessions and moved from a nice house in an urban setting (a city that was getting far too crowded, noisy and busy to suit our dispositions) to a much larger country property in a rural community approximately 85 km (50 miles) to the southwest (a ‘retirement plan’ we’d been discussing from the time we first met; see When Someday Becomes Today).

When you reach ‘a certain age’, you think you pretty much know everything you need to know in order to survive and thrive in any environment. I didn’t think there was an awful lot about living ‘in the country’ that I wasn’t at least vaguely aware of, or knowledgeable about. How wrong I was! Here are (some of) the things I’ve learned in the last year:

  • There are more shades of green in the country than I ever could have imagined.
  • March7_Sunset2

    Country Sunset

    When the sun goes down (or the power goes out), it is ‘pitch black’ outside. (I didn’t really understand that term until one evening, shortly after we’d moved here, when I had to drive home after dark on then-unfamiliar roads; at the time I didn’t even know where the ‘high beam’ controller was on my car – because I’d never had to use it in the ‘ambient light’ environment of a big urban centre.) But when the sun DOES go down, it’s quite often the most spectacular sight on earth!

  • Time and distance have a completely different relationship in the country than in the city (see my earlier post on The Time Distance Paradox).
  • It doesn’t matter how often you travel the same country roads; the view is different every single time (because there’s always something growing, dying back, or changing colour).
  • PileatedWoodpeckerHoles

    A pileated woodpecker  did this!

    The bigger the woodpecker, the larger the holes it drills in trees. We have small downey and hairy, larger (mid-sized) red-headed and red-bellied, and huge pileated woodpeckers in our forest; the holes drilled by the latter are enormous (and pileated woodpeckers look like pterodactyls when they’re flying).

  • Chipmunks and squirrels are not afraid of humans; I believe they see us as the ‘interlopers’ in THEIR territory and often make their annoyance with us known (by chattering loudly and/or staking a claim to their spaces; see The True Meaning of Tenacity).
  • Dragonflies and damselflies come in every conceivable size, shape and colour (and they eat mosquito larvae – how advantageous is that?!?!?)
  • TurkeyVultures

    Three of 11 turkey vultures sitting in my tree

    Turkey vultures ‘roost’ from sunset until early morning in groups in tall trees (that one particular family group of up to 15 of these enormous birds chose a pine tree in my front yard for this purpose pleases me no end); they spread their immense wings to wash them during a rainstorm and to dry them on a sunny morning (the sunlight apparently also kills any bacteria lurking in their feathers). And when they ‘launch’ themselves (one after the other) from the tree, the sound their wings makes is reminiscent of someone shaking out a rug or a very heavy blanket.

  • No matter how often you weed a garden, the weeds will be back within days; it’s a never-ending cycle (something I have yet to come to accept!)
  • Poison ivy can grow in the forest as a low-lying plant, a shrub, and/or a vine; it’s insidious and can only be killed by pulling it up by the roots (NOT recommended for those who are sensitive to its caustic oils, like me) or spraying with a highly controlled herbicide (available in urban areas because it grows EVERYWHERE!) Fortunately, my husband seems unaffected by the nasty plant and has managed to eradicate it – by spraying the low lying plants and yanking the vines out by the roots – from the garden areas and pathways along the edge of our forest (but not before I suffered from a rash on my forearms and parts of my legs last fall).
  • SouthernOntarioWeeds

    A field of ‘weeds’

    Most of our native (southern Ontario) roadside ‘weeds’ (misunderstood wildflowers, IMO) have either purple or yellow flowers (with the occasional white, blue, pink or orange thrown in for contrast); they grow to great heights during a wet spring/summer season, and attract an impressive number of birds and butterflies (and they grow back within a week of being cut down by the shoulder-clearing county tractor).

  • In the city, far too many drivers (IMO) think a yellow light means ‘speed up’; in the country, we have yabos (usually in tricked-out pickup trucks) who think a solid (or even a double) yellow line is merely a ‘suggestion’ not to pass other motorists (so you can never assume that the vehicle in your rear view mirror is going to follow the rules!) This is one of the only ‘negatives’ I’ve encountered out here.
  • As a counter-point to the observation above, nearly everyone slows down and/or pulls over to the far side of the road (and WAVES!) when they see a couple of former ‘townies’ walking along the side of the road (something very few people seem to do out here; we, however, thoroughly enjoy our daily walks).
  • Speaking of walking: ‘going to the corner and back’ is a 2.5 km (1.5 mile) walk (either north or south); ‘going around the block’ is a 5 km (3 mile) trek; we do the first almost daily (sometimes extending our strolls ‘around the corner’ and going 1 km or so further); we’ve done the second walk only once so far (but plan to do it again before the summer is over).
  • FrozenFog2_Jan15_2017

    Frozen fog on the side of the house

    Fog is nothing more than very low lying cloud; on early fall mornings, it spreads its floating tendrils all the way from the ground to the tops of the tallest trees (around 100 feet) and beyond; this low moisture is what makes the area good for growing crops like tobacco and ginseng. And in the winter, we have frozen fog (something I didn’t even know existed) – it sticks to horizontal (like the sides of the house) as well as vertical surfaces.

  • Nearly everyone who lives and works outside the ‘big urban centres’ is friendly, accommodating, helpful, and just plain NICE; we’ve encountered very few people who are rude, dismissive, uncooperative, or unhelpful (a far-too-common occurrence in ‘the city’).
  • The local (small town) grocery store is considered ‘busy’ when there are more than six cars in the parking lot; the Beer Store, hardware store, and LCBO (liquor store) rarely have more than one person at a time shopping in them (oftentimes there are more [helpful] staff than customers in the stores).
  • ‘Public servants’ really are public servants. The workers in the post office (where we had to pick up our mail until our mailbox was installed at the end of the driveway) remembered me after only one visit; the local Librarian not only remembered my name and my reading preferences after meeting me once, but was soon recommending books for me to read, and calling me personally when a book I’ve put on hold arrives (and speaking of ‘holds’ – in the city, a new release would generally have anywhere from 12 to 100 ‘holds’ on it by the time I saw it listed in the Library  newsletter; here, a new release has maybe 2 or 3 people wanting to read the book ahead of me; I feel like I’m always up to date!); the MTO (Ministry of Transport) office is never, ever busy (in ‘the city’ there would be lineups out the doors; here, we’ve been the only ones in the place!)
  • OttervilleCarShow

    Otterville Classic Car Show

    Every small town has at least one ‘festival’ during the spring/summer/fall months. From nostalgia days to maple syrup and ice cream festivals to harvest festivals (not to mention truck and tractor pulls, classic car displays, swap meets and local horticultural show/sales, and the Canada 150 celebrations this year) there is something for everyone (and something you can ‘do’ nearly every single weekend from early April through late October).

  • Encountering ‘traffic’ on a drive to town (8 km / 5 miles away) means seeing one or two vehicles on the road; even a drive to the nearest city (25 km / 15 miles) is a pleasant experience, with no more than a few dozen cars travelling on the roads with you.
  • There’s something enormously satisfying about eating locally-grown food, and enjoying plants and flowers purchased from a roadside stand or market (especially considering you are contributing to the local economy at the same time).

I’m sure there are many more things yet to learn as we continue to live our dream here on … the other side of 55.

Eating the Elephant

June 14, 2017

Eat An Elephant 2Yesterday, as I gazed across the massive expanse of grass in my new backyard – the one that desperately needs weeding – I was reminded of the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” (The answer, of course, is, “One bite at a time.”)

My previous (city) property was a good size (approximately 60’ x 180’), with lots of trees and two manageable garden areas (the one adjacent to the front walkway was about 12’ x 6’; the other was really the ‘front yard’ – a 25’ x 10’ space next to the driveway that ran from the side of the garage to the street). We had no ‘lawn’ – because grass simply wouldn’t grow under the trees (our backyard, however, was a lovely shade of green because moss DOES grow in deep shade).

When we moved into that house (in the fall of 2000), the ‘gardens’ were mostly filled with lumps of hard dirt out of which sprouted a few tenacious weeds and the odd clump of wild grass. It took me almost ten years (as well as 40 cubic yards of topsoil and lots of ‘sweat equity’) to get them to the point where they could honestly be called ‘gardens’. Over the years, I experimented with a multitude of plants – all touted as ‘deep shade’ varieties by local garden centres – but had little success with most. In the end, I stuck with ground covers (English ivy, vinca, sweet woodruff) and proven hardy perennials (hostas, lily of the valley, bleeding hearts, ferns) from the gardens of family members and friends, along with a few things ‘liberated’ from woodlots and the side of the road (hardy geranium, wild violets) and annual doses of mixed shade-loving wildflower seeds from Costco. During the last few years we lived in that house, the gardens were pretty much self sufficient, and quite lovely.


The front walkway garden at our previous home.


The front ‘yard’ / garden at our previous home.

And then we moved – to a four-acre property that is primarily pine forest (on three sides) with a huge grassy ‘backyard’ and a single ‘developed’ garden space (that the previous owners had planted with the help of the neighbours, but not maintained; the few daylilies and hostas that had survived were completely choked by heavy grass and weeds, including about a million dandelions!) Once we’d settled into the house, I took up the challenge of restoring it (as best I could in late summer). I weeded and dug up the grass (which took weeks!), and moved a few plants from other areas into the space. Eventually I’d had done enough to be pleased with the result, and knew I’d add my own personal touches to it during the coming years.


The garden at the new house about half way through my initial clean up (the entire garden had been choked with grass and weeds, seen here in the ‘background’ only); the hostas and lilies were original.


The garden at the new house once I’d finished cleaning it up, moved a few hostas from other areas, and added some of my garden statuary (early fall 2016).

As soon as spring arrived this year (in spurts and starts, as it is wont to do in southern Ontario) I weeded (again!), divided up the lilies and some overgrown hostas, transplanted some more, and added two store-bought bleeding hearts to ‘fill in the gaps’.  I’m impressed with the result – the space (which is about 4000 square feet in size – or the same as the two gardens at our previous home combined) is actually looking fairly prosperous. The only ‘downside’ has been the realization that weeding will be a never-ending process in this rural / forested area (and that poison ivy tends to creep in from the forest – a lesson learned the ‘hard way’ late last year.)


The side garden on May 9 (2017) – cleared of weeds and ready for the ‘personal touch’.


The garden a month later with hostas and lilies divided, new plants, etc. added

With the garden basically taken care of (except for the relentless need to weed), I could finally turn my attention to the massive ‘lawn’ at the back of the house. Now, I’ve had lawns before – at the house before the last house I lived in, we had generous lawns front and back. We also had a lawn care company that came in regularly to aerate, fertilize, banish weeds and slugs, and over-seed in the fall (I had two small children, a part-time teaching job, a gazillion volunteer responsibilities, and a household to look after – outsourcing the yard work was a necessity at the time); all we had to do was mow and water. Facing the prospect of looking after more than 8000 square feet of grass (especially after 17 years of not having any) on my own was daunting, to say the least (the ‘backyard’ here – if you include the gravel area near the garage, where the fire pit and wood storage shed are – is just about the same size as our ENTIRE URBAN PROPERTY– house, yard, driveway, and trees – had been!)


My backyard ‘lawn’

Last summer was hot and dry – near drought conditions. By the time we’d moved in (in late July), the lawn was already looking pretty sad. And since I was busy with the house and gardens (and, to be honest, not all that fond of ‘grass’), I did the bare minimum – pulled up a hundred or so dandelions (as well as a smattering of other weeds and a goodly amount of crabgrass), filled in the resulting ‘holes’ with topsoil and grass seed, and watered sporadically (moving the sprinkler a dozen times to cover it all). In early fall, I followed the Farmer’s Almanac guide to fertilizing, dethatching, and over-seeding (to the tune of about $300 in supplies) in the hopes of bringing it back to life (or at least giving it a head start for spring). It (sort of) worked.

This spring the grass was far greener than it had been in the fall (although some of that colour admittedly was from a variety of weeds). I sprayed the larger of the dandelions with weed killer (I don’t like putting too much on the lawn, because it eventually seeps into the water system), pulled up some of the smaller ones, and yanked out some wild clover and plantain. I applied the recommended spring fertilizer, raked out a couple of patches of thatch and added new seed. It was looking (relatively) good by mid May.


Speedwell in grass

And then along came a new ‘invader’ – speedwell (a ‘creeper’ with tiny blue flowers that has spread throughout the lawn; I also had it in the gardens in early spring, but it was pretty easy to pull out there, as nothing else had emerged at the time it started sprouting). An Internet search revealed that it can be kept at bay (by killing the seeds before they germinate) with an early-spring application of corn gluten fertilizer. But it was clearly too late for that! So – what to do about it?

There was only one answer – pull it up (my husband jokes that I never met a weed I didn’t want to yank out of the ground – and he’s right!) So one day, I started pulling it up. It was a slow process, but the sun was shining, I had my headphones on (with some lively music to keep me moving forward and distracted from the actual task at hand), and the mosquitoes (which are abundant this year, thanks to an unseasonably wet April and May) seemed to be leaving me alone. After about an hour, my bucket was full, but when I raised my head and looked around, I realized I’d barely covered ten square feet of lawn (to give you some perspective, the edges of the lawn aren’t ‘square’, but overall it’s about 120 feet wide by 70 or so feet deep). I was shocked – eliminating the speedwell (along with some other weeds that were lurking amongst the grass) seemed an absolutely overwhelming (read: impossible) task!

I was about to just give up when I remembered that joke about the elephant. Maybe, I thought, if I attack the lawn ‘one bite at a time’ (as opposed to thinking I could do it in ‘one fell swoop’), by summer’s end I’ll have consumed the entire ‘elephant’ (i.e., the weeds will be gone). And, honestly, I see no other option (except for bringing someone in to deal with it – but I refuse to pay someone to do something I can do myself now that I’m retired, no matter how onerous!) So, I’ll be weeding – one ‘bite’ of lawn at a time – from now until September (and next spring, I’ll apply the appropriate fertilizer/weed blocker before it reaches this point again!)

My new gardens (and that huge lawn, which is eventually going to be broken up into pathways through various raised gardens, with a walking labyrinth in the centre) are a huge ‘work in progress’ – just like my life here on … the other side of 55.

The True Meaning of Tenacity

May 22, 2017

From  Tenacity: noun

  1. the quality of being tenacious, of holding fast; persistence
  2. the quality of retaining something
Chipmunk in the woods

Chipmunk in the forest

When we bought our country property (just about a year ago) there was a small hole about halfway down the (very long) gravel driveway. Thinking it was ‘just a hole’, my husband shoved some small rocks and gravel into it to ‘plug it up’. Less than a week later, it was there again. Not one to give up easily, hubby tried jamming more rocks and gravel down the hole, followed by screenings, sand and water (to make a kind of poor man’s cement); it reappeared within days. Then one morning, as we were returning from our walk, we saw a chipmunk disappear into the hole. It emerged from another one (that we hadn’t noticed before) on the side of the driveway (where it slopes down into the forest), and scurried off into the woods. Clearly what we’d thought was ‘just a hole’ was one of the animal’s many entry points to his extensive tunnel system. And he wasn’t going to let us keep him out!

The young man who lives next door told my husband that the chipmunk hole had been in the middle of the driveway for years; the previous owner had tried repeatedly to block it up, without success. I kind of liked the chipmunk’s persistence; his determination to retain a specific entry point to his home. My husband, however, was convinced the hole would be eliminated when we had the driveway ‘paved’ in the fall (we had recycled asphalt layered several inches thick over the gravel, and then compressed with a roller and a compactor). Surely he wouldn’t be able to dig through THAT, hubby thought. He was wrong.

As soon as the winter snow had melted, we could see that the hole was right back in the middle of the driveway (as was the ‘side door’ leading into the woods, which had also been buried under the new driveway surfacing). How an animal no more than 6” in size had managed to dig his way through a thick layer of compressed asphalt and rock to re-establish an eight-foot long tunnel between the two holes is beyond me! (And where he deposited the ‘debris’ he removed remains a mystery. There was little evidence of any rocks or asphalt pilings at either end of the tunnel). Even more fascinating to me is how/why this particular tunnel has repeatedly been ‘excavated’ over the years. Chipmunks only live for about three years, which means it’s highly likely they’ve passed information about the ‘family tunnel system’ – and how to keep the entrances clear, no matter how the humans attempt to block them – down through multiple generations.


Main ‘entry’ hole in driveway


The side ‘exit’

I’ve blogged about chipmunks before, but this particular experience has given me a brand-new respect for them. Every time I see that little chipmunk disappear into that hole (he often sits right in the middle of the driveway as we pull in, darting down the hole just before we reach him; I suspect he’s playing a version of ‘chipmunk chicken’ with us), I marvel at the tiny creature’s doggedness in keeping his tunnel accessible. As a result, I’ve nicknamed him ‘Tenacity’. I think he’s earned it. Just as I’ve earned a new admiration for all the creatures who live in the forest that surrounds me here on … the other side of 55.

It’s Now or Never

March 14, 2017

MillionDollarsNot long ago, my husband and I paid a visit to the financial planner at our bank. He reviewed our current situation, ‘crunched the numbers’ and announced – in all seriousness – that with our assets (home, cars, pensions, savings) and a sound investment strategy, our net worth would be ‘more than a million dollars’ by the time we die (he gave us a generous life expectancy of 100 years). I laughed and told him he was wrong. I expect to be worth next to nothing by the time I die – because I’m planning to spend most of what I’ve earned and saved for 60+ years well before then!

Sunday Night Dinner 1960

Sunday Night Dinner, circa 1960

When I was growing up, money was scarce. My father was self employed (except for one two-year stint working for a firm in ‘The City’ when I was in my teens). Since he never knew exactly when work might come his way, or when a client might finally settle his bill, my mother was very careful with her ‘household allowance’. I don’t recall ever feeling deprived as a child, but meals were simple – meat, potatoes, and vegetables, with larger items (hams, roasts of beef, turkey) being stretched over several days – or spaghetti with meat sauce (my favourite), basic mac and cheese, or soup and sandwiches. Leftovers were always ‘tomorrow night’s dinner’ (if Dad didn’t get to them first).

Downtown Oakville, 1960s

Downtown Oakville, 1960s

When it came to items like school supplies, clothing, and household goods, Mom shopped frugally. Clothing was either handed down from my older sisters (or Mom’s best friend’s daughter) to me (being the youngest), homemade (a skill I was taught when I was around twelve so that most of my teenage wardrobe was ‘made by Margo’), or purchased from the ‘sale’ racks at local stores (even special occasion items like party dresses and snow suits were bought a size ‘up’ in the off season and saved for when we grew into them the following year). Furniture was reupholstered rather than replaced, and most of the ‘decor’ items in our house were purchased from Broadbent’s second-hand store or from the ‘50% off’ shelves that were always located at the back of the shops along the main street. Dad drove second hand cars (which he maintained himself), Mom walked to the shops and home again (taking a taxi only when the weather was so bad that carrying a half dozen sacks of groceries home made it impossible or dangerous), my brothers and sisters and I walked to school and took the local bus (at 10 cents per trip) to wherever we needed to go.

Expo_67_Canada_PavilionWe never took expensive vacations (the only ‘trip’ we went on as a family was to Montreal in 1967 – for Expo ‘67 – and that was only because my father was coordinating a conference for the Economics School he was managing at the time and there was room for the family at the university residence where he was billeted), we rarely ate out (now and then we’d go to Creston’s Restaurant downtown for pancakes after church, or order Chinese takeout from the Red Dragon, but those were very rare occasions indeed), and we knew not to ask for things we didn’t ‘need’ (my father was very clear on the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’ – and if you ever pondered whether or not you could ‘afford’ something in either category out of your meagre allowance, his counsel was always the same: If you don’t have the money in your pocket or in the bank to pay for it, then you can’t afford it.)

An 80s ChristmasAs I entered adulthood (landed my first full time job, got married, bought a house), I followed my mother’s example (as well as my father’s advice): I shopped frugally (sale racks, liquidation outlets, the ‘scratch and dent’ areas of appliance stores, second hand shops), stayed within my ‘budget’ for groceries and cooked simple meals, spent only what was necessary to live comfortably (but not lavishly), didn’t incur debt, and saved what I could. For the first three years of our marriage, we paid our bills on time, travelled everywhere by bus or bicycle (choosing to buy a house over a car seemed the prudent thing to do at the time; we didn’t want to continue throwing money away on apartment rents), and took only one vacation (a guided bus tour of California and the west coast of Canada). Eventually we both moved into better jobs, ‘traded up’ to a much bigger house, took a couple of vacations to exotic places, and settled down to start a family. I combined being a daytime ‘stay at home mom’ with teaching night school (and later teaching part-time around the boys’ schedules), saved for both the boys’ post secondary education and my own eventual retirement, and continued ‘pinching pennies’ so we could afford the special things we wanted most for the children (particular Christmas and birthday presents, annual trips to Walt Disney World, a safe, happy and comfortable home). During it all, we never overspent or carried any debt other than the mortgage (which we paid off in fifteen years).

HouseFast forward another fifteen years. That first marriage had ended, the boys were grown and gone, I’d been teaching full time for more than a decade, and my second husband (who lived by the same ‘if you don’t have the money, you can’t afford it’ credo) and I had paid off the home we’d bought together in just nine years and socked a goodly amount into our retirement savings plans (with visions of retiring early from our increasingly stressful jobs as College professors dancing in our heads). Last year (just around this time) it all came together – we found our dream home in the country, sold our house in the city (for nearly triple what we’d paid for it, leaving a nice lump sum ‘left over’ for any modifications we wanted to make to the new place), my husband was teaching his last semester’s worth of classes, and we had a enough savings tucked aside to live ‘happily ever after’. We were set!

MyNewCarBut 60+ years of frugal living has been a hard habit to break. Despite having the necessary funds to do all the things we want to do, each purchase decision is met with no small measure of angst (after buying a new all-wheel drive car – an absolute necessity in the winter out here in the wilds of southern Ontario – I didn’t sleep for a week) . We still check for sales on items we need (kudos to me for finding the living room furniture I wanted – complete with custom upholstery – 50% off), postpone major expenditures (we can wait another six months before renovating the upstairs bathroom and closet), and second guess full-price purchases we know are essential (like the outrageously expensive but back-saving gliding shelves for the kitchen). It ‘goes against the grain’ to buy something we need (we’re pretty much past the ‘want’ stage of our lives; we purged a good deal of excess ‘baggage’ when we moved) without thoroughly exploring all the (financial) options.  We’re loath to spend ‘all that money’ (i.e., pay full price) for items that ‘might’ go on sale later or be available elsewhere for less, even though we have the money sitting in the bank, begging to be spent. We needed a serious shift in perspective.

RetirementFortunately, I experienced an ‘aha moment’ not long before our visit to the bank. I’d come across a comment that basically suggested that ‘selfless’ people tend to deprive themselves of things they want (or need) because they believe that ‘taking for themselves’ somehow deprives others of abundance (I tend to think a lot about how much I could ‘help’ my kids get what they ‘want’ by giving them money – instead of how I could be spending it on myself instead). I had to remind myself (by taking a common sense assessment of the situation) that I had worked hard for 40+ years to earn a decent living so my family could ‘live well’ (not extravagantly, mind you – but they certainly never ‘went without’), saved judiciously (both for their futures and mine), never carried debt (except for mortgages and two car loans), and arrived in this comfortable retirement situation because I was conscientious, careful, and responsible with my finances. I realized that if I don’t spend it, it will just sit in the bank (and, yes, eventually go to the kids – and while I love them with all my heart and have given them a financial ‘boost’ here and there, it’s really up to them to follow my example and spend judiciously and save for their own futures, rather than hope I’ll leave them something substantial at the end).

GazeboDeckSo I won’t be worth more than a million dollars when I die. I’ll spend the kids’ inheritance (as my Dad used to always tell me he was doing – and I’d say ‘Go for it, Dad. It’s your money and you should spend it any way you want!’) because I have the ‘right’ to buy what I want (and what I want is custom-built shelving for my living room, a beamed mantle over the fireplace, a western facing deck at the front of the house with a gazebo at the corner, and a kick-ass master bathroom with a giant soaker tub and a glassed-in shower big enough that I won’t bang my elbows every time I turn around.) It’s now or never!

I’m going to spend my hard earned money on things I want AND need in order to really LIVE here on … the other side of 55.

The Time-Distance Paradox

December 28, 2016

time-distanceThere are a thousand benefits to country living (or more; we’ve only been here five months, so we’re still learning). One of the strangest effects I’ve noticed, however, is something I’ve come to think of as ‘the time-distance paradox’.

To get pretty much anywhere from our home here in the country, we have to travel further than we had to in the city. And while it seems like we’ve been driving for a much longer period of time, we usually get where we’re going in the same (or a much shorter) amount of time. It’s a very odd sensation.

trafficFor example, when we lived in the big, busy city, we were just 2 miles (3.1 km) from the nearest grocery store. Google Maps states the trip should take ‘6 minutes without traffic’ (at the stated speed limit of 30 mph / 50 kph). However, the journey was never ‘without traffic’ (even during the early morning hours, I would be one of hundreds of drivers navigating the busy residential streets and major east-west arteries that led to where I was going; I also had to get through two four-way stops and four sets of traffic lights on the way). I might have averaged 15 mph (if I was lucky), and would arrive fifteen or twenty minutes after pulling out of the driveway (it took much longer than that during the mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and all day Saturday rush periods).

The nearest grocery store here is in the next town, 5.1 miles (8.1 km) away. The posted speed limit on the major east-west artery leading there (that sees maybe two dozen vehicles an hour passing along it) is 50 mph / 80 kph. Google Maps states the trip should take ‘7 minutes without traffic’. I can be there in six (provided I don’t have to stop at the single traffic light in the centre of town); oftentimes I don’t see a single other car on the road as I drive there and back (and the scenery is fantastic!) The drive ‘seems’ much longer than it did in the city (admittedly, I am covering more than twice the distance, but I’m going much faster), yet I get there in a third of the time. It’s a bit disconcerting.

walmartparkingSimilarly, the nearest Walmart to my former city home was 2.4 miles (3.8 km) away; I had to get through two four-way stops and seven sets of traffic lights to get there (all the while being squeezed on all sides by hundreds of other cars and drivers, all in a mad rush to get somewhere, but inevitably travelling at not much more than a snail’s pace). The trip nearly always took at least twenty minutes (and then there was the lengthy walk across the parking lot past a hundred or more cars that had arrived ahead of me, and the crush of hundreds of shoppers inside the store to deal with).

The closest Walmart to me now is in a city 20 miles (32 km) away. Again, the posted speed limit is 50 mph / 80 kph (mostly; I do have to slow down when I pass through the town where I do my grocery shopping, and two more small communities along the way; there’s a total of three traffic lights on the journey). If I don’t get too distracted by the gorgeous scenery along the rural roads between here and there, I can pull into the parking lot (where there might be 20 or 30 cars parked at most) in around 25 minutes. That’s five minutes longer to go nearly ten times the distance. And while it seems like it’s taken much longer (I suspect the illusion has to do with the scenic aspect of the drive – the wide open spaces and lack of traffic), I can honestly say it is always an enjoyable journey getting there (and shopping – fewer people means fewer headaches and more choice of goods available, especially around Christmas-time).

countryroadI am gradually getting used to the idea of travelling ‘great distances’ (which really aren’t that ‘great’ if you think about it) to get to where I need to go (shopping centres, the hardware store, the drugstore) and to getting there in less time than it would have taken me to drive a shorter distance to similar stores in my ‘previous life’ (as I think of it now), even though it seems longer. Still, it seems like it should be taking me longer to go further, not the other way around. (And pretty much everything we need is within a 20 minute drive – to one of two city centres [each city being less than one-quarter the size of the one we moved from] or two lovely little towns with delightful main streets and unique shops). Yes, I am putting more miles (kilometers) on my car, but my blood pressure is certainly much lower and I’m actually enjoying the experience of ‘going shopping’, instead of returning home totally stressed out and determined never to venture out again.

wine_lcboSPECIAL NOTE: as an ‘added shopping experience bonus’ to living where we are now, stores are far less crowded and the people who work in them are infinitely more friendly and helpful than what we experienced in the city. For instance, last year, I went to the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario – our government-controlled liquor store) a week before Christmas to pick up some wine for dinner, and a couple of ‘sample packs’ of craft beer for the boys as gifts. The store was packed and even through all six cash registers were open, there are seven or eight people lined up at each one (most of whom were grumbling or complaining about the crowds, the cost, the lack of inventory …); it took me almost forty minutes to buy the four items I wanted.

And when I went to the grocery store on Christmas Eve (early in the morning!) to pick up a few last minute items for Christmas dinner and Boxing Day brunch, I couldn’t even get into the parking lot (cars were lined up on the street, waiting for someone to pull out). I ended up driving to another grocery store (that is rarely busy), parking at the very farthest end of the parking lot, and spending almost a half hour in line trying to get through the check out!

This year, I went to the little LCBO in the next town a week before Christmas and I was the only person in the store (except for the exceptionally friendly lady who works there, who chatted with me for several minutes about the advantages of living and shopping in small towns). The grocery store on Christmas Eve WAS busy – there were perhaps fifteen people TOTAL in the store and two or three people customers in line at each of the two check outs. I was in and out in half the time it took me a year ago just to get through the check out!  And everyone said ‘Hello’ or ‘Merry Christmas’; you didn’t hear a single person grumbling or complaining about anything.

travellingincountryWe knew (years ago) it was time to get out of the city and find ‘our place’ in the country. We knew there would be challenges and discoveries and unexpected hurdles to face. However, we didn’t expect quite so many wondrous experiences (or truly scenic drives). It makes me wish we’d made the move long before we’d reached … the other side of 55.