Mixed Feelings and Conflicting Thoughts

We live in a time of extreme superficiality and greed.  I watched highlights of the arrival of “stars” to this year’s Met Gala and all I could think about was excess, but who am to judge. Some would argue that the Gala is raising millions of dollars for good causes and I’m sure that is true; however, I know from experience (I ran a foundation for 10 years) that in order to make money, you have to spend money. Charity on that level is extremely complicated. I am certain there were millions spent on this event and I can’t help but wonder how many people could have benefited from that money.

https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/video/2019/may/07/lady-gagas-met-gala-transformation-in-one-minute-timelapse-video

I wonder if Lady Gaga struggled with the amount spent to display her dress? For me, there is only one answer to this question and that answer is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is how I live my own life. What I give to the world versus what I take from the world. There has to be a balance. If we continue to take without giving back, our resources will dry up and there will be nothing left to take.

I’m thinking about people who are struggling to pay for groceries or to keep their lights on. And yet, I watch footage of the “Camp” theme and smile. I cannot get enough of it and I feel that I may have had too much of it. It’s these conflicting feelings that drive me mad. Is it okay to admire such excess and be angry about it at the same time?

 

Two days later:  I watched a “Behind the Scenes” video and saw how many people worked to make that red carpet extravaganza a reality. They were all intensely passionate about what they were creating and many were being paid well. Admittedly, this made me feel a lot better.  I had to step down from my righteous high horse; not easy for me.

 

 

 

Side note:  I’m angry about a lot of things lately; in my life, in the world, in my head. None of it is good for me and I struggle with it daily. This morning at 5:45 a.m. (I wake up at about 5:15 a.m.) I was watching an interview RuPaul gave recently. I admire RuPaul because he seems to understand the balance between camp and reality — we should never take ourselves too seriously; however, some things in life are serious. At the end of the interview he was sharing pearls of wisdom, fortunately for all of us, and he said, “Don’t become bitter.”  I turned off the television and thought about his words for quite sometime. I realized that I am bitter about what I consider to be a great deal of injustice that has been put upon me and others. No doubt we all feel this way at one point or another. RuPaul is right, being bitter is bad and it’s a waste of energy. In some ways it’s like a relentless cancer that eats you up from the inside out. My work for the next however long, is to stop being bitter about the past, live in the present, and look toward the future. In some ways, I’d rather beat up on myself about these mixed feelings than to not feel at all or to be so self-absorbed that it’s all about me, me, me.

I’m certain that if you read carefully, as painful as it might be, you can read into my personal conflict. The dichotomy (a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different) between feelings of what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust, and what is true and false, keep me awake at night. I often wonder if that’s just the way I’m wired.

 

Gratitude

I’ve been listening carefully lately. I think as you get older and search for meaning, listening becomes a good exercise for self-discovery. What I hear over and over again, is to be grateful for whatever the universe sends your way. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will tell you that I believe that I have a great deal to be grateful for. Even the bad stuff has in some way or another, provided insight and meaning. For example, my brother Anthony, who was also my best friend, died almost 20 years ago when he was only 38 years old. I wish Anthony hadn’t overdosed and I’d give just about anything to have him back in life, but his death has taught me so much about myself and what is important. Other tragedies in my life have also provided clarity.

Years ago I read a great book entitled, The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. My take away from the book was to start each day writing three pages of whatever comes to mind. What I recall (it was awhile back so please don’t quote me on this) is that gratitude was to be a part of this daily journal. It was the first time in my life that I had to truly consider what I should be thankful for versus what made me angry or resentful. I don’t write three pages anymore, however, I do keep a journal and I do meditate. Gratitude is a big part of me life these days.

For today, and for the purpose of adding lasting meaning to my life, I will say that I am grateful for the opportunity to search — to search for truth, to search for answers, and to search for love. I am learning the hard way, that there isn’t much more to life than that.

adults affection baby birth
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nearly One Year Abroad

 

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Asilah, Morocco for the New Year 

 

I thought I’d share the highs and lows of relocating overseas. I’ll be in the States for my 60th at the one year mark, so I thought I’d blog about it now.

 

A Brief Overview

I have pondered living outside of the United States my entire adult life. Until a couple of years ago, the opportunity had not presented itself. I moved to Maine a few years ago, but it never felt like the right fit. When I’m unhappy I usually consider something I might do to change things up; leaving the country was my best option. I love America and will never give-up my citizenship. You just never know what the future has in store for you.

The Highs

I think the best part of leaving the States has been the ability to gain some perspective. A big move, such as the one I made, forces you to take inventory of your life. I left most of my material belongings behind. I didn’t put my things in storage, I got rid of them. I brought five suitcases full of memories I did not want to part with and clothing I hoped would fit for a long time. The purging of most of my material belongings was a good exercise for me. It made me realize that I can live without so much of what I have accumulated. It was also nice to start fresh.

The people in Portugal are gracious and welcoming. I have never felt like an outsider. I had dinner in a restaurant last week and when the owner learned that I was living in Faro, she gave me her cell number and said that I should call her if I ever needed anything. That’s just one example of the reception I have received.

I know this is odd, but I had no idea that I would be only a little over two hours away from Seville, Spain and that it was an easy bus ride away. It’s been a huge bonus to take two or three-day trips to one of my favorite cities. I love everything about Seville. Spanish culture is very different and there’s a whole lot to discover.

The weather in the Algarve is amazing all year-round. With an average 300 days of sunshine, no humidity most of the year and the temperature never dipping below 45 degrees, I have to say it’s hard to beat. There is often a beautiful breeze in Faro during the summer months because of where we are located on the south side of the Atlantic. The beautiful and diverse beaches here are also more than I could have hoped for.

Taxes on property are much lower in Portugal. Condo maintenance is one-fourth the cost in Maine and one-tenth of what I paid in New York. Groceries are about 30% less. Insurance costs are a lot lower. There are bargain airlines that allow you to fly for less than 30 euros each way (if you carry a small bag onto the plane — I’ve learned how to pack more efficiently). Sometimes I wonder why things cost so much more in the States.

The Little things that make a big difference:

  • Because there is very little humidity here, things like sponges and clothes never get that damp, musty odor.
  • No snow . . . ever! I loved snow until I couldn’t ski anymore (knee issues).
  • The Portuguese government has regulations prohibiting the use of pesticides in farming, no hormones, no food additives, etc. Eggs are bright orange and delicious and do not have to be labeled organic — all food is grown naturally.
  • Very little crime. I feel very safe.
  • Public transportation is cheap and efficient. City buses are less than a euro a ride and run frequently. Going outside the city is also easy and only a few euros. Buses and trains are never overcrowded. Not owning a car has been freeing and has saved me a good deal of money. My commitment to lessen my carbon footprint has been rewarding. It took me a while to figure out the system, but once I did, it was a right.
  • Because we have an abundance of sunshine and great weather, I can cycle all year-round.
  • I have discovered many European healthcare products that are inexpensive and work well (i.e., face cream, toothpaste, pimple cream). I have a French grocery store a few blocks away and a fresh food market right above it. The outdoor farmer’s market travels from town to town and it’s in Faro on Sunday.
  • Labor is inexpensive. I have been able to do some very nice renovations to my apartment that did not cost me a fortune (i.e., french doors in my kitchen, tile work, painting).
  • Furniture is well-made here.

The Lows

Losing Giorgio to heart disease has been the worst thing that has happened in Portugal thus far. In truth, he would have had to be put down in the U.S. at some point; however, knowing that the climate change adversely affected his heart, made his death more difficult. The wide sidewalks were great because I could walk him without a leash. He loved our new home (parks and beaches) and that gives me great comfort.

I indeed miss my friends and family and that can be tough at times. I fortunately chose a place people want to visit and so, I’ve had more friends and family come to see me than I ever anticipated. It’s been quite a treat to show the people I love, my new home. My brother and his wife are with me now and we have been to places I had not discovered yet; I’ll make sure to explore the unexplored, in the future.

I’ve gained some weight and I’m not happy about that. Delicious pastries are everywhere and they’re so cheap. I think the novelty will soon wear off; either that or I’ll get tired of buying new pants. I’ve always had to work hard to keep the weight off, but aging makes this even more difficult.

Flying back to the States is expensive. Currently, airfare back to the U.S. is 900 euros during the high season, April to July. I won’t be returning very often. There are bargain fares; however, you have to accept long layovers and not great airlines. I like TAP — Air Portugal.

Did I Make the Right Choice?

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I chose the right country at the right time. Portugal is becoming more attractive to expats because real estate prices are reasonable; however, in the year since I purchased my condo, the value has risen by 20 percent. It will soon be just as expensive as everywhere else. I saw this happening with Spain 20 years ago. More importantly, I love it here. I love the people, I love the food, I love the weather, the quality of life, my location in Faro, my healthcare, and I love how it all makes me feel. I’ve mentioned this before, but I am 45 minutes to Spain by car and I can fly or take a train to several other European countries very easily. The time difference in other countries is only an hour or two and that’s manageable.

Access to Travel

Faro is not a very large city; however, it is the capital of the Algarve and the airport is a fairly large hub. Multiple airlines fly direct to many cities throughout Europe. The rail system in Europe is also quite extensive and efficient. I can see the world more easily from my new home. I know that as I get older I will want to stay closer to home where I get to enjoy all the creature comforts. I sleep better in my own bed than anywhere else. Still I know it’s best to travel as much as possible; while I still can.

 

Photos:  I took these photos in Sagres, Portugal a couple of days ago. Sagres is the furthest south and west you can go on the Iberian continent. It’s difficult to capture how truly peaceful and spectacular this part of the world is. It was an easy two and a half hour drive from my home.

Sagres Guide

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What Lies Ahead?

The best is yet to come . . .

I have decided to stop thinking long-term. I am open to possibilities I might not have ever considered before. I have two big trips coming up in 2019. After I return, perhaps a rescue dog? A pet would probably force me to stay put for a while, but that’s not a bad thing. I’m going to go the organic route on this decision and see where the future takes me. Getting older means aches and pains I did not anticipate and other small medical issues that I have to be dealt with. Staying on top of these things is important for long-term good health. When you get older, health becomes a priority.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
― Soren Kierkegaard

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”
― Beryl Markham, West with the Night

“We don’t have to be defined by the things we did or didn’t do in our past. Some people allow themselves to be controlled by regret. Maybe it’s a regret, maybe it’s not. It’s merely something that happened. Get over it.”
― Pittacus Lore, I Am Number Four

Managing Your Money

I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too. –Steve Martin

 

 

 

Tackling this topic is not very smart. I’m certain some of my readers will disagree with some of the points I will make. Again, my thoughts are all subjective. I share them only to give you a starting-off point or an example of one way to go. People worry about money for all different reasons and most of the time, those worries are valid. I’m often asked how I was able to retire when I was 58 years old.

The average retirement age in the United States among currently living retirees was 59.88 years old. The median living retiree left work at 62 years old, and the most common age to retire was 62 years old. 18.7% of retirees retired at age 62, and a whopping 63.1% retired between the ages of 57 and 66Feb 27, 2019
Average Retirement Age in the United States – DQYDJ – DQYDJ.com

With the average age at 59.88 years old, there are people retiring a lot older and a lot younger than I was. I was fortunate to retire earlier than the median age of 62. This is how I did it:

Your Retirement Fund — When you’re in your 20s the last thing you’re thinking about is retirement. You’re wondering how you’re going to pay off your college loans, whether or not you’ll have rent money, where you’ll get the money to fix the car — you get my point. But honestly, if you want to retire at an earlier age, you have to put some money into a retirement account as soon as possible. It almost has to be like a car payment or rent. It takes discipline. I understand that for some people, this isn’t even a remote possibility. Whenever I received a pay increase, I raised the amount my employer took out of my salary for my 401K (I was fortunate to have employer contribution matching for 20 years of my career, I understand that it’s rare for employers to match these days). Because they deduct the money pre-tax, you pay less taxes on your income. You are not taxed on the money until you retire, at which point you will theoretically be drawing less annually and therefore, you will be in a lower tax bracket. Let’s just say that if you are single and you are not responsible for others, you might be able to do this.

Side note:  financial advisors told me that upon retirement I needed to be able to draw two-thirds of my annual salary in order to maintain my lifestyle. I always thought that was a crock and that they told you that so that they (and their companies) would earn more money. Most financial firms charge you an annual percentage of your savings; the more you have put away, the better they do. I guess you can’t blame them for that. I have found that my needs and desires have changed as I’ve gotten older. It doesn’t hurt that I now live in a country that is far less expensive than just about anywhere in the States. Also, I caution you to do extensive research on financial institutions. There are a lot of bad players out there and the last thing you want is to see the money you worked so hard to save, disappear.

Borrowing — When big life decisions come up, like buying a car or a house, you cannot take the money out of your retirement account. I learned this lesson the hard way. The government will penalize you in two ways:  first, you’ll have to pay a ten percent penalty for early withdrawal, and then you’ll have to pay tax on the money as if you’ve earned it — it can turn out to be thousands of dollars that you do not have. When you’re young, it’s easy to tell yourself that you can use your retirement savings and worry about it later — it’s a bad call. An alternative is a retirement fund that allow you to borrow from them (research your fund). In essence, it’s like you are the bank and you are loaning yourself money. When you pay back the loan, you are paying interest to yourself. So you are paying for the loan, but at least the payback money is going in your pocket. Keep in mind that the amount you’re borrowing has no earning power while you are paying the money back. Some whole life insurance policies offer you the same benefit. It’s better to avoid this option altogether if you can. And by the way, do not get suckered into a whole life policy as a way to save for the future. Term life is a cheaper and better security blanket for your family. And if your employer offers life insurance as a benefit, don’t count on that policy to take care of your family. If you lose your job, you lose that insurance. Therefore, you should either have money in savings to protect your family or term life insurance (if you’re young and healthy, it’s fairly inexpensive).

Saving — Save for the things you want to buy. Buying on credit is expensive and debt piles up quickly. There are guidelines about percentages of your salary that might be helpful, but we all know that you can only save money if you have money to save.

Saving Tips

54 Ways to Save

Budgeting — Budgeting is a big deal. It allows you monitor the funds coming in and going out. You’ll know what to put aside for the essentials and you’ll hopefully know what will be left at the end of your pay period. I always overestimated my utilities. I knew that my electricity bill would be high during the summer months because I hate heat. I knew my AC would be cranked and frankly, I’d pay for AC before I would buy new clothes or take a trip. Your budget should be adjusted whenever you have a major financial change (pay increase, rent increase, mortgage, etc.). Spending within your means is essential. People end up under water because they spend more than they earn.

Frivolous Spending — Small extravagances are dangerous. I remember working with people who stopped at Starbucks on the way to work everyday. They spent $10 a day at a coffee shop everyday and that was breakfast 10 years ago. That adds up to $200 dollars a month for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. I always made coffee and had oatmeal or cereal at home; saved me thousands over the years. That’s just one expense — think about all of the others you can avoid or live without.

I have used frivolous spending as a reward I dangled in front of myself if and when I achieved long and short-term goals. If I had a great meeting at work, I’d treat myself to a morning cappuccino. It makes for a sweet reward and a little private celebration. If I achieved a big goal (like my Ph.D.or a big promotion at The French Culinary Institute), I’d treat myself to a nice vacation or I would upgrade my car. I’ve never really cared for fancy resorts. I was once treated to a few days at a Ritz Carlton Resort in Arizona. I ordered a cocktail poolside and it was $25; I thought to myself, I could have bought myself a new shirt for that much money.

Credit Cards — Credit card debt is the worst debt you can have. Well not true, if you borrowed money from my mother’s friend Vinnie in Brooklyn and had to pay him back twice what you borrowed, that was pretty bad. The problem with credit cards is that they allow you to pay back a minimum amount each month and before you know it, your debt is greater than your monthly income. I once gave all of my credit cards to a friend and I told him to never give them up, even if I begged. Spending can become an unwanted addiction. Keep one or two low interest cards to have for travel and emergencies. There are also cards that draw from your checking or savings; even better.

Mileage programs — Credit card companies and airlines have become very greedy (I know, they always were). There was a time when your miles meant something. Now there are enormous fees that come along with “free” tickets or hotel rooms. I personally like hotels.com; you get a free room after you’ve booked ten nights using their service. The fees and taxes you pay for your free room are nominal — I’m wondering how long this program will last.

Going Out — Going to bars will set you back. A night at the bar could be outrageously expensive. If the point is to hang out with your friends, you should consider taking turns hosting. Beer in the supermarket is a lot cheaper and a bottle of vodka can go a long way. Don’t do take out — way too expensive. Some sandwiches or snack foods will save you lots of money. It’s not being cheap, it’s being smart (just to make you jealous:  a beer at a bar or cafe in Faro is one euro or 1.50 euro; a mixed drink is usually 3 euros and sometimes even less. Crazy huh?

I was at a bar with friends in New York City last year and I decided that since they all came to see me, I should buy a round. I looked at the check to see what I should tip and the check was over $100 — sticker shock!

Eating in Restaurants — I love eating out; as does most of the world. Letting someone else cook and do the dishes is quite a treat. I know people who never cook or eat in and I have to say I’m a little jealous. Similar to drinking in bars, eating out can cut into your savings or add to your monthly budget. If you’re trying to save for a house or a college education, you might consider either cooking more or eating at less expensive restaurants. I love my own cooking so this isn’t too much of an issue for me. When I lived in New York and Maine it was difficult to avoid eating out a lot. When I was at the French Culinary Institute I had to eat out to keep up with our alumni and current food trends. Then of course, most of my friends are big time foodies and most of our social activities centered around food and eating out. Every once in a while I would suggest taking a long walk or eating in just to mixed things up a bit and save some cash. Keep track of what you’re spending at restaurants. When you look at the amount, it may help you cut back.

 

Vacations — I love Airbnbs because I can cook some of my own meals. So many benefits if you like to cook:  you know the ingredients are fresh and you can save lots of money. I also do a lot of research on off-season bargains, etc. It’s so important to get away; it’s a great way to gain perspective and escape from your worries for a bit. For me it’s always been a good excuse for allowing myself to shut down. It’s also a great opportunity to spend leisure time with friends. I also get extra satisfaction from having snagged a bargain.

Generosity — If you’re from a big family, there are lots of weddings, showers, birthdays, anniversaries and different ways to celebrate. And then there’s Christmas, Hanukkah, bar mitzvahs, oy vey. Being generous and buying expensive gifts is great if you have a load of cash, but let’s face it, few of us do. Gift giving should be more about showing someone you care with a token gesture, but it’s become competitive and sometimes the expectations are unfair and unrealistic. For example, if you don’t spend a lot of money on a unique Valentines gift, it means you don’t love your partner. Sometimes a discussion about limits and expectations is warranted in order to keep things reasonable. More communication is always better. I think it’s great to be generous, but also prudent to live within your means.

Keeping Your Eye on the Prize — If early retirement or retirement in a beautiful place is your goal, keep it dangling in front of you at all times. What will it take to get there? How much do you need to put away annually? Where can you cut back in order to get there faster? Entice yourself with photographs and journal entries describing what it will be like.

What I Might Have Done Differently

Regrets are a waste of time and it turned out pretty well for me despite the mistakes I made, but for your benefit, the following are some things I might have done differently:

  • I should have started savings earlier.
  • I spent a lot of money on a Whole Life insurance policy thinking it would grow over time and benefit me in retirement. It was a waste of money and I eventually cashed it in.
  • I spent a lot of money on silly gadgets (i.e. kitchen tools, TVs, electronic equipment) throughout my life. I wish I had been a bit more prudent.
  • I spent way too much money on “the other guy” in relationships; oh well.
  • I had a little country house in Pennsylvania for ten years. If I could do it over, I’d rent. Buying a second home is great for entertaining and bragging rights, but it is very expensive and a lot of work. I spent most weekends doing repairs and taking care of the yard; hardly a place to relax and unwind (although I did enjoy some good times there).
  • Sometimes I forget to check to see what I have in the refrigerator or pantry. I end up buying too much of something and end up having to throw away food that is no longer fresh.
  • I’ve always enjoyed casinos and I’ll leave it at that.

Note:  My brother and his wife are visiting from the States. I told my brother I was writing this blog and this was his reaction:

“Chris, you don’t understand, the only person you have to take care of is yourself. I have a wife, children and grandchildren to care for. It’s a lot harder for me bro.”

This is the reaction I feared. I’m hoping my readers can find something helpful here. If I missed anything, please chime in.

 

I see the moon over Faro (left) in the morning (back view) and the sunset over the Ria Formosa in the evening (right, terrace view) and it makes all the sacrifices I had to make to get here worthwhile.