Diversifying your portfolio of fun

Following my fall from last week, the good news is my chin looks fabulous (if chins ever look fabulous). The stitches are out, and it’s almost healed. Doesn’t look like I will have a scar. The bad news is a few ribs took some of the impact, so I’m not able to play golf. I am grateful nonetheless. In the grand scheme of things, this is a tiny nuisance.

It rained today, and for some reason, if I can’t play golf, I’m always happier if no one is playing golf.

From the outset, one of my retirement strategies was to balance my activities and focus on building both physical and intellectual reserves. Think of it as diversifying your portfolio, except this is about fun not money. Not that money can’t be fun.

Reading, writing, cooking and artistic pursuits counterbalance golf and other outdoor fun. I figured at some point I would be reminded you can’t have it all. Being down for the count after my accident seems to validate my strategy. I’m annoyed I can’t play golf, but I have plenty to keep me amused at home.

I made a batch of no-knead bread. I’ve been experimenting with the technique, and I love it! The dough rises for at least 18 hours. We keep our home pretty cool, so it has taken more like 24 for mine. I noticed today’s batch had a better rise, as it has gotten a bit warmer. To get me started, I got Jim Lahey’s book from the library.

The book is great, but I probably won’t buy it. I’ve made it a few times now, and there are tons of free recipes for no-knead bread on the Internet, so I think I’ll make do with what I have. One more cookbook might make our whole house implode, and no one wants that.

The rest of the afternoon I hung out in the garage making coasters and listening to Amy Winehouse. The garage is exactly the same as the shower … I sound just like her. A super-pleasant afternoon.

As for the coasters, I have no idea what I am going to do with them. Some will be gifts. I just keep making them. The process relaxes me, and I feel happy as I’m out there puttering away.

I’m currently on a drink theme. They are coasters, right? I’m giving myself permission to go with whatever my brain comes up with. I’m not allowing that nasty bitch masquerading as my inner voice to stop me with her harsh criticism. My current approach is fake Shakespearean advice. I uploaded two new ones to the gallery:

  • Quench thy thirst with a pure and earnest alchemy of barley, hops, water, and yeast.
  • Behold the gift of fermentation, and seek ye the merry pleasure of beer, wine, and cheese.

A note for word nerds. Over the course of my entire career in corporate communications, we used the AP Style guide for grammar and punctuation. I adopted AP Style for my personal use, because I figured at least I’d be consistent. Even personal emails, letters to my mother. It’s a sickness.

In AP Style, one does not use the Oxford comma. That’s the last comma in a series such as beer, wine, and cheese. You will notice I used the Oxford comma. A hundred little communicators just dropped over. I decided the Oxford fit better with this style. So, guess what, AP Style? I’m over you.

One last punctuation nit. This is how I’m wired. There’s a comma after fermentation in the sentence above, “Behold the gift of fermentation, and seek ye the merry pleasure of beer, wine, and cheese.” That’s because they are independent clauses. The two parts can stand on their own, so they should be separated with a comma.

I forgot to add the comma when I made the tile. I know, big deal, but I do plan to fix it next time around. I guess that means I still have a ways to go when it comes to balance, but you know, baby steps.

Have you ever been mellow?

I’ve been digging this art thing – or whatever passes for it in my case. Samples of my laboratory experiments are featured in a new gallery page accessible from the menu bar at the top. There are only a few works presented, as I have many more failures than successes.

Mostly, I’ve been playing around with tile coasters, and I’ve been so into it that I semi-forgot about writing. Sometimes not everything needs to be said. Do you remember that song by Olivia Newton-John – Have You Ever Been Mellow?

There was a time when I was in a hurry as you are

I was like you

There was a day when I just had to tell my point of view

I was like you

Now I don’t mean to make you frown

No, I just want you to slow down

Have you never been mellow?

Have you never tried to find a comfort from inside you?

Have you never been happy just to hear your song?

Have you never let someone else be strong?

I have found comfort from inside, and I also think art is teaching me to fail better. Some of the mistakes actually turn out great, and some are just learning experiences, but I’m not spending much money on this little endeavor, and it’s fun to tinker.

After I made the cannabis display tile, I decided they should be coasters. I made a few more from the slate tiles and backed them with cork. They look fabulous, except I discovered the hard way slate is not level on both sides, and a drink on top is prone to tipping over. Dale said he could help me level them, but 4 x 4 slate tiles are difficult to find anyway, so I’m unlikely to continue on that path.

Travertine is way easier to find, and it’s perfectly level, but I do believe it’s a bit harder to work with. In the gallery, I posted a picture of my Travertine tile featuring whiskey in a glass (neat). I love how it turned out, but some of my other forays have been less successful. Sometimes the image doesn’t transfer the way I’d like.

The good news is Home Depot carries the small Travertine tiles, and they are cheap. While Travertine does come in varying shades, most are white, which doesn’t appeal to me. I appreciate variations and imperfections in the stone, so I didn’t want to paint over it. I got the idea for a color wash. I mixed up a little turmeric with water and brushed on a light coat. That’s what you see in the picture above.

Now I want to try other natural dyes – tea, beets – you name it. I was even thinking of carving something into a beet and using it as a stamp. That may not sound exciting to you, but to me, it’s revolutionary. Until a few weeks ago, nothing like this would have ever crossed my mind.

In other news, I was on my way into a thrift shop in search of goodies to play with in my art studio garage. Just feeling groovy, when something caught my eye, I tripped over a parking divider and trashed myself up pretty good. My chin took the brunt of it, requiring two stitches. I’m grateful I didn’t break anything.

So, as the canary in the coal mine, I’m still encouraging you to explore your inner artist. But if you’ve never been mellow, please proceed with caution. It’s dangerous out there.

Learning to relax

I’m bummed so far less than a handful of people are taking a chance on my free art. Alas, perhaps this is the life of a struggling artist. I suspect it’s more of the case: cannabis – they’re just not into you. Please be patient. Next on the docket: Art Chokes.

Maybe because I live in the West Coast bubble, I forget cannabis isn’t widely accepted. Not gonna decorate your house with it. Using cannabis wisely is part of our lifestyle. Not everyone’s, for sure. If I want to give away cannabis art, I suspect I’ll have to cast a wider net.

What’s the alternative to giving it away? I’m a beginning crafter, so I have no illusions about making any money. But I’ve discovered making art (or something like it) relaxes me. My sweet Dale set up a CD player and speakers for me out in the garage, where I’ve been working. I hung a pretty wind chime that’s too loud for the yard.

Writing is as good a hobby as any, but I can’t write and listen to music. Working on craft projects and amping up the tunes is bliss. Long-term plan is to keep pursuing all creative endeavors. Add that to cooking, walking and golf – and my retirement dance card is filling up quickly.

I have a few tiles completed. I’m getting better at the image transfer process and have been scoping out thrift shops for other potential substrates. So far, I bought an old wooden cutting board and a metal tray. Prices vary considerably among the stores – I thought Goodwill was the most expensive of the bunch.

Looks like I’m not going to stop, so what do I do with all this stuff? I know there are artists and crafters out there who create all the time. Any ideas?

As to the value of all this, I’ve always been a wound-up person. Dale said yesterday he has seen a huge change in me since I retired. I’m way more relaxed about everything. It’s true, and I sometimes wonder if my former colleagues would read about my life and feel sorry for me. Oh, Donna, not the power player. Writing that bloggy thing! Doing crafts! Smoking pot!

Yes, happily. I’m proud to have worked hard for a living, and I am exceedingly grateful to have made enough and saved enough money to quit. Once you have enough to get by without a job, time becomes more important than money or stuff.

I still have a long way to go. My temper flares over stupid things. Dale said, well, yeah, but consider how long you worked in that pressure cooker. You’ve only been retired a year and a half, and look how far you’ve come. Give it time.

Is he the Yin to my Yang, or is it the other way around?

Art for late bloomers

Many retirees seek creative outlets, and I’m on board with finding my inner artist. I’ve never been interested in visual arts, but why not give it a try? If not now, when? I took a class in mask-making and wrote about it here. I was not having fun.

We left our painted masks behind for a run in the kiln and later received an email they were ready for pick-up. I almost didn’t go. I told Dale I would retrieve it only because that hideous thing was probably part of the master plan to teach me some sort of lesson. I really said that. Dale went with me and stayed safe in the car while I went inside.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It looked like art! My crazy little guy kitty looks like art! I pulled him out of my bag when I got back to the car, fully expecting Dale to find the whole thing utterly amusing. He was beaming. “Wow, this is so cool. It looks great. Kind of like a palace dragon.”

I wrote the teacher an email.

Hi Tony,

I was in your recent mask-making class for women veterans. I did not like my work and almost didn’t come back the second day. Then I almost didn’t even pick up my finished mask.

However, I picked it up this week, and I am stunned. It’s art! You said at one point I seemed to be upset it wasn’t perfect, and I think that’s true. But now I can see there is art in imperfection. I’ve been attempting other art projects and was frustrated with their flaws, but now I’m sort of going with it. The mask has given me confidence to carry on. I’ve named him CatManDo.

Thanks for your teaching and inspiration,

Donna

He replied!

Oh! I am so glad!! I thought it was one of the best pieces in the class when you were working on it.

Thank you,

Tony

Best in class? I thought it was a complete and utter failure. Clearly I was right about the master plan. Many lessons to be learned.

Can you be bad at art?

Earlier this month, I decided to explore my inner artist. While I am creative in the sense I write and cook, I have never given visual art much of a go. I don’t read the comics, because I don’t relate to the images. I’m a word girl.

I started with a simple decoupage project to make coasters out of stone tiles. Coasters with inspirational quotes, because I’m a word girl. I was talking with my neighbor and said I was experimenting with art. I mentioned the coasters, and she said, “Oh, you mean crafts.”

That seemed a bit pretentious to me, the differentiation between arts and crafts, but whatever. I plodded on. All but one of my coasters is in the trash, and the other one is headed there soon. I don’t like the way the coasters look, and they don’t even come close to what I imagined in my head. However, I enjoyed the effort and am not quitting on decoupage just yet.

My next stop was a two-day class in making clay masks. The class was offered at a nearby arts center, and it was part of a grant supporting art therapy for women veterans. I’m a veteran, so the class was free. Nothing to lose, right?

Well, not so fast. I didn’t feel comfortable as a veteran or as an aspiring artist. The other women were a lot younger and have stayed connected to various veteran’s organizations. I got out in 1977 and never looked back. The women veterans I know got jobs with defense contractors and built high-profile careers.

These women didn’t have jobs and spent their days tending to husbands and children and juggling appointments at the VA hospital. I did my best to listen, contribute and be supportive. Three of us had bouts with breast cancer, and on a break, we compared scars. One woman told me she was 100 percent disabled from PTSD resulting from MST. I asked, “What’s MST?”

Military Sexual Trauma.

It’s heartbreaking to see such vibrant women defined by the bad things that happened to them. But here they were. Making art. Laughing and telling their stories. It wasn’t my community, but I was glad these veterans found theirs and were so open about their experiences. I was also happy they were good at art. I mean, somebody has to be, right?

Because it would not be me. Oh, I know all the talk. You don’t learn to play a violin by picking it up once. There’s no such thing as artistic talent. You either do art or you don’t.

All I know is my mask looked awful, and it got worse by the minute. I thought paint would help, but that was the beginning of the end. There was no rhyme or reason to the colors I picked. Toward the finale, I was just slapping paint on there, whatever color was left, eager to be done with it.

Go me – I finished first! The teacher will now put the masks in his kiln, and I guess we go back in a couple of weeks to pick them up. I don’t even want mine, but maybe it will serve some yet undisclosed purpose.

I suppose it was good to get outside my comfort zone, but honestly, I did not enjoy myself. I don’t have a deep appreciation of art in general. There was a little gallery adjacent to the workshop, and they invited me to look around since I was (of course) the first one there, but I could not have been less interested. Try as I might to change, I think I’m still all about starting and finishing tasks subsequently evaluated on the basis of perfection.

Hearing about the terrible experiences of these women veterans depressed me. I know. That is so self-absorbed. One of the women who had worked for the VA said she quit because it was too depressing, and she often sat crying with the veterans who came in for help.

The women and their stories left a mark on me. Maybe that’s why I was supposed to attend this class. It wasn’t necessarily good for my mood, but it was probably good for my soul.

At the end of the day, I don’t think art is my thing. Maybe my neighbor was right. I’m more likely to enjoy making crafts. Something that has a purpose – not just art for art’s sake. I know arts and crafts take practice and patience, but I do feel bad that so far, I suck at it.

On the other hand, I’m glad I opened my eyes to the possibility of creating something crafty or artistic, if there is indeed a difference.

My first slab pie

Although I don’t make dessert pies often, Dale and I both adore savory pies. There’s one with fresh summer tomatoes and basil with cheddar cheese in a biscuit crust. Oh, and the recipe from an old Gourmet magazine for broccoli and sausage pie with Swiss cheese and a whole wheat crust topped with sesame seeds.

My most important rule for pie making? Never trim the excess crust – just bulk it up so there’s more.

As a crust fanatic, I’ve made my share of winners and losers. I enjoy making pie dough, but there is nothing worse than screwing it up. I’ve done reasonably well since I abandoned fancy and reverted back to my old recipe with Crisco. But I’m all about continuous improvement.

I read about a new cookbook by Cathy Barrow: Pie Squared: Irresistibly Easy Sweet & Savory Slab Pies. At first, it didn’t appeal to me, because slab pies are big, and there’s just two of us. But then I saw the book at the library, and I had nothing to lose by checking it out.

What a unique and well-done book! I curled up on the couch and read it from front to back. She talks about pie crust in ways I have never heard it discussed. She’s an excellent writer, who explains the art of making good pies in easy-to-understand language.

Cathy includes great ideas for substituting ingredients and tips for making it ahead, which simplifies the process … because as you know, I’m retired and quite busy! She also tells you how to freeze it and how to reheat it. Stuff you want to know but cookbook authors rarely tell you.

Oh, and it turns out crust is not just flour and shortening. Recipes include cream cheese crust, caramelized onion crust, rye crust and a host of press-in crusts using crackers, cornbread, potatoes and more. The book is really a crust-lover’s dream. My only complaint is that she says to trim the excess.

Slab pies look huge, but when I saw they were made in ¼ sheet pans, it seemed less daunting. I started with Curried Chicken Pie with All-Butter Crust. The filling includes chicken, cauliflower, carrots and sugar snap peas. This is the first time I made a successful all-butter crust, and it was the first time I put the pie pan on top of a pizza stone in the oven.

I have some things to learn about rolling the dough for this new shape, but is that not a beautiful pie?

Beautiful and delicious. We’re having it again tonight. I assume it’s only a matter of time before I break down and buy the book. If you love pie, I encourage you to explore this book. I learned so much and can’t wait to try another recipe.

Maybe Poblano and Chorizo Slab Pie with a Hash Brown Crust?

Postscript: For second-night dinner, we found ourselves raiding the corners because … well … more crust. Then we had a whole middle to deal with, and that leads to the only downside of these pies. They are big. Even if you freeze the leftovers, it’s more pie than we need.

I’m still going to get the book. The recipes and instructions are fantastic, and I believe I can tinker with quantities to make a smaller round pie or even individual rustic pies, the kind where you just flap the dough over the filling. But if you have more people to feed, go for the slab!

Technology gremlins

I’m pretty good with Word, PowerPoint and Excel, but that stretches the limits of my technical expertise. When I started this blog, WordPress was supposed to be easy, but for me, it has been anything but.

From the very beginning, I had problems downloading a theme and experienced subsequent issues with the banner across the top … because it wouldn’t go across the top. That’s why I always had a weird box with the blog name in it.

The details are mind-numbing, so I’ll spare you that, other than to say a whole year went by, and I only discovered today my theme was linked to the wrong site. I guess that’s why shit didn’t work.

I’ve uploaded a new theme, and that took me through lunch because I was scared to push the publish button. Or as they say in the South, I was afraid to mash the button. Lots of reading on the Help site and lots of f-bombs later, but I did it!

I rather like the new template. It’s certainly easier than the one that didn’t work. All my content appears to have migrated, but please do let me know if you notice something missing or have problems commenting. My email is on the contact page.

I’ll probably tweak it as I go, but this is it for now. Only so many accomplishments in one day. I hope you find it easy to read and navigate. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Can you recession-proof your nest egg?

I try not to pay attention to the stock market, but it has been awfully difficult to see it flitting about as it has. My nest egg hasn’t taken too big of a hit, but that’s a fluke.

You’ll remember back in October, I rolled over my 401K from my former employer’s plan administrator to an IRA with Morgan Stanley, where the rest of the money is invested. That transaction was completed just before the market started dropping, so I saved a nice chunk of money by accident.

Although I am no longer working, I don’t plan to start withdrawing money from my retirement account for another three years. I still have a few long-term incentives from work. Add Dale’s military retirement, his social security and cash we set aside, and we’re doing fine.

Our adviser suggested we park the IRA in something safe until we had more insight into what the market is up to. We’ve been talking regularly, and by that, I mean he regularly talks me off the ledge.

Bob Lowry at Satisfying Retirement had an excellent post along with thoughtful comments submitted by readers about managing your portfolio in retirement. I’ve since seen more than a few horror stories from the Great Recession.

For example, I read this in bed during one of my 2 a.m. financial retreats:

“Between October 2007 and March 2009, the S&P lost 55 percent of its value. An investor with $1 million exposure to an S&P fund would have lost $550,000 in the span of 17 months.”

Yikes!

While impacts were felt across the board, I believe those hit hardest were people heavily invested in stocks. And that begs the question – what’s the right balance of equities and safer assets? I’m barely literate when it comes to finance, so please don’t mistake me for someone who knows anything. I can only share my own experiences.

There is no single solution. There’s no magic bullet. Some people can tolerate more risk than others. Some people have more money to play with. Some people have less. Our adviser suggested a 50/50 split, but that seemed too aggressive to me. I’ve read that’s actually a conservative allocation.

Just to make it confusing, factor in we don’t have children and don’t plan to leave an estate. We’re on board with the “Die Broke” approach, but because we are financially conservative by nature, it’s unlikely we will actually die broke. In our case, big growth is not a requirement. Our investment philosophy is hang onto the money we have and keep pace with inflation.   

I talked again with our adviser, and we settled for now on a 35/65 allocation. For us, that means 35 percent in index funds and 65 percent in bonds and money market investments. There’s still a bit of risk, but we could ride out a recession if we had to – and maybe I can get some sleep.

Retirement planning isn’t easy, especially when you are already retired! In weak moments, I blame corporate America for abandoning pensions and forcing financial illiterates such as ourselves to eke out a retirement plan. But it is what it is, and we are fortunate to have a good adviser with a solid plan that includes Dale’s military pension.

For most of us, managing money is one of retirement’s greatest challenges. I say accept it, learn all you can and seek expert advice, if needed. I’m feeling pretty good since we settled on a prudent approach for our future.

As for words of wisdom, I’ll quote Bob’s conclusion, “Whatever comes now we believe we can handle it. And, that is a great feeling.”

Finding your inner artist

How long did it take you to decompress from work and adjust to being retired? Right from the get-go, I was happy to be done with my job and thought that meant I had adjusted, but I was wrong. Just read through some of my old posts, and you can see how my thinking has evolved.

Work? Not work? Who am I without a job? Who was I with a job? What’s my purpose? Is there a second act? Do we have to reinvent ourselves? Aren’t we pretty OK already?

Life’s eternal questions. I kind of stopped thinking about them and focused on what made me feel good and what made me happy. Amazingly, my creative juices are flowing. I’ve been feeling artistic!

While writing is an art, I’ve never been otherwise inclined to pursue artistic activities. My crafty quilting sister got those genes. If I needed help with a Halloween costume or gift packaging, she would take my emergency phone calls from Michaels, where I panic. Seriously, what is all this stuff?

And in minutes, she’d talk me off the ledge. She’s the Michaels Whisperer, “OK, stand with your back facing the door. Go three aisles down and turn right. Look up. No, not that way. 3 o’clock. Bend your knees slightly and reach out in front of you. Pick up the tube on the left. Glitter glue.”

So, where to start? I took this quiz, and it said I am destined to be a print maker. I got a book from the library, and making prints looks hard. Actually, everything looks hard.

I’m calling in all my lifelines for help deciding how I will scratch this itch. I have virtually no experience making art, unless you count a ceramic ashtray I made in grade school and cookies decorated with royal icing. My friend, Carole, who is an artist, recommended decoupage. I went to the library and got a book on decoupage. Looks doable.

My sister warned me I need to be patient. Immediate results are not to be expected. Like I need to be warned about patience! I don’t have time for such nonsense! We’ll be talking this weekend, when she will share other important sisterly advice.

I’ve been thinking about what might come naturally pursuant to my interests. I like things with function. Surfaces like wood, glass, ceramic and tin. I like kitchen stuff. I’ve been doodling spirals since I was a kid. I see more spirals in my future.

It’s exciting to think about getting started in art, but it’s even more exciting to think my brain is finally in this place. This is year two of retirement, but my first full year. I’m decompressing from my work life and embracing my creative urges. Urges I didn’t even know I had.

Are you an artist? Or have you found a new creative side of yourself in retirement? How’s it going?

As for other creative urges, Dale and I are embarking on a journey this weekend to make tamales from scratch. You know there will be a story.

Deconstructing Christmas

Today is the magical day of putting Christmas to rest. I would have jumped on it two days earlier, but golf was calling. This morning I started to deconstruct the tree and will soon begin putting the ornaments to rest. If I could give them a lethal injection, I would.

Oh, stop! Not really.

I will make Dale drag the tree to the driveway, where he will chop it up with a chainsaw and stuff it into the yard waste bin. It’s easier than taking it to the recycling center, and I suppose it’s possible he works out some frustration imagining he’s practicing for the real thing.

Yes, I read too many crime novels.

Perhaps I should deconstruct my perspective on Christmas. I’m not sure there’s any there, there. I just don’t like it much and can’t wait for it to be over. Nothing bad happened on Christmas when I was a child … no dead Santa Dads in the chimney. My sister is beside herself with joy during the holidays, and Dale is his usual jolly self, so obviously I missed something.

And you know what? I’m rolling with it. I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole retirement thing and all the helpful articles about reinventing ourselves for our second act and overdosing on an abundance of gratitude.

I must admit I am pretty grateful, and at least gratitude takes the heat off of mindfulness, which must be tired after such a long slog. Me? I just keep marching forward, although I always thought I could do even better. I told myself I had not yet reached my full potential.

While the reinvention message spoke to me at first, lately it has become nothing more than noise. The thing is, I’m not sure I can do better. I was incredibly lucky to earn an excellent living mostly by being literate. I worked for great corporations and organizations, but I was never a true believer. The mission, the vision, the values? Just widgets.

In hindsight, it’s entirely possible I peaked.

At first, the idea I had peaked was kind of hard to accept, but I let it simmer awhile, and it’s starting to take hold. At least I made it to the endgame with a decent retirement. I can still evolve as a human, and it’s possible a professional opportunity will surprise me.

But with every retirement day that passes, I find that I enjoy just being alive without the pressure to earn a living, reinvent the wheel or memorize the vision statement.

And for this, I am abundantly grateful.