Retirement +1: A Review

Believe it or not, a full year has passed from last Halloween, the day I retired from active federal service. So I thought it was time to take stock and consider what surprised me and what didn’t about retirement.

First, I loved my work, but I don’t miss it at all. I miss the people, who are some of the most talented, dedicated public servants you could imagine. I still follow current events, and wonder sometimes about the “rest of the story” behind the headlines, but that is as far as the itch goes. That was then, this is now.

Second, you really must have some hobbies, commitments, or things you want to do with those hours that are suddenly all yours.  Yes, you’ll sleep-in longer, take naps, eat leisurely meals, read those books you always meant too, and maybe even work out regularly.  Guess what? I did, and there is still more time available on your clock. I have covered my new interests in past blog posts, but everyone who retires faces this key question: what do you want the next chapter of your life to be about? For the married and retired crowd, it is important to pick up some mutual interests. Yes, every couple needs alone time, but all relationships are either strengthening or weakening, and you can’t improve what you don’t work on together. For example, I ditched running, and Judy and I hike and work out at the gym together. I can easily see how couples who retire and don’t plan ways to spend time together could grow apart.

Next, we got to spend more–and better–time with our grandkids. Scheduling out visits with four working adults was always stressful, and put a lot of pressure on the actual visit. Now we can adjust to our kids schedules, and that makes it so much easier. We are still figuring out the fly/drive options, the week/weekend options, the summer/school year options, and (oh yeah) the holidays! We don’t have it perfected yet,  but man was it great getting to spend “days-n-days” with grandkids.

Stuff: we have a lot less of it! Once we got into the habit of not routinely acquiring things we saw or heard about, and then got rid of what we had acquired by putting it to the “do we really need this?” test, the burden of owning stuff mostly evaporated. It feels so much better, costs a lot less, and I can only think of one or two things I got rid of that I later thought I should have saved.

Mexico? Mexico has delivered as promised: less cost, less stress, great quality of life. The US President’s need to constantly berate Mexico has driven the Peso down and caused some irritation among the proud Mexican people, but they easily distinguish between what the US government says and does, and their expat neighbors (so far)!

Judy’s health has been outstanding; I feel the best I have in years, but have been plagued by a series of minor issues: higher cholesterol, some other blood work numbers out of kilter, more cavities, a nagging cold/cough/allergy of some sort, and that health scare right after we arrived here. The best news is the quality of the doctors and dentists has been good, and the costs really low. Judy will get a tooth crowned next week for about $200. We finally figured out how to submit our health insurance claims online back to the States, and the reimbursements have been quick and consistent.

Living in a small town, we have rediscovered what Edmund Burke called “the little platoons” we all belong to: communities. We have groups of friends: the Church group, our neighborhood(s), the Focus group, and so on. These groups continue to expand as we become more active in the expat community. Within each group we have made lasting friends that create a source of mutual assistance, understanding, and resolve.

Finally, my biggest surprise was this: once the stress of work/life was off, I could re-evaluate long-time personality quirks and habits and decide whether they were still necessary. I drive slower–not slowly mind you, but slower than before. And I hardly ever get angry while driving; I’ll get there, God willing, and if someone else needs to cut the line, Vaya Con Dios! I am somewhat less punctual. I still don’t buy into the fashionably late concept, but I don’t feel like I’ll waste the artillery bombardment if I don’t cross the LD on time (military jargon–sorry!). I am enjoying little things more: a sunset, or a hummingbird, or a video-chat about nothing in particular with a grandchild. Judy reminded me there is no Sunday-night-stomach-ache-ahead-of-the-workweek in retirement. She’s right. She’s always right: that is probably the least surprising part of retirement!


Back to the Villa

We made it back to the Villa Infantil, which I covered in an earlier post. The event was the October birthday bash, which honored three children ages 2, 3, and 3. This time, we got a better chance to play t-ball with the kids before lunch. I was amazed at how well these  kids throw and hit the wiffle ball, given that futbol (aka soccer) is the primary sport here. I did spot one dead giveaway: one of the the boys threw the wiffle ball right toward an older girl, who wasn’t watching. At the last minute, she looked up, saw the wiffle ball coming toward her head, then calmly stepped to the side, caught it with the top of her foot, and dropped it to the ground beside her. Only in Mexico!

Live action shot; since they hit the tee pretty well, we went with slow pitch

The birthday kids were so young, they weren’t quite sure what was going on; little Jorge (or was that Cristofer?) sat in Sister’s lap all during the cake and birthday song, looking like he feared for his life.  The bag of birthday presents brought out a big smile!

What happens next?
Mr. Potato head, always welcome!

Lunch was delicious chicken tacos with a side of carrot salad, before tres leches cake (delicious!).

Of course I asked for seconds

Andrea loved her new doll and baby carriage.

I took some panoramic shots of the villa, so you could see more of the well-kept grounds where the children and Sisters live. Once again, a few hours of nothing but happiness and fun. We get back so much more than we give!

Preparing for The Way

One blessing available in retirement is the ability to indulge new hobbies or interests. My wife and I wanted to travel, find a way to exercise together, and engage our interest in religious study and practice. A few years back, we ran across the Martin Sheen movie “The Way,” which introduced us to a concept which combined all three: the Camino de Santiago.

For those unfamiliar, the Camino (literally, “Way”) is an ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain, leading 800 kilometers (~500 miles) from the French border to the town of Santiago de Compostela. This route is also known as the Camino Frances or French Way, and it represents the final leg of many other pilgrim routes that led from all over Europe, all ending in either Rome or Santiago. The reason for a religious pilgrimage to Rome is obvious, but Santiago may seem an unlikely choice. Legend holds that the town was founded after the miraculous discovery of the bones of Saint James the Apostle in farm field under a starry sky (James being Iago in Spanish, with compo for field and stela for stars, hence Santiago de Compostela).

Pilgrimages in Spain started during the 9th century, then spread across Europe in the 11th century. Pilgrims carried only their clothes and bare necessities, and offered prayers and penance along the Way. Villages along the Way provided hospitality (literally hospitals) where pilgrims were given food, water, and shelter for free or a small donation. The number of pilgrims waxes and wanes, but over the last 30 years the numbers have exploded to over a quarter million every year! While the largest number of pilgrims walk the Way for religious reasons, it has become popular for exercise, dealing with a mid-life or personal crisis, or to get back to nature.

Judy & I will be making our pilgrimage next Spring. We’ll walk between 10-15 miles each day, eating local foods, carrying a backpack and staying at a variety of different pilgrim accommodations. While we were in the States recently, we went to REI and got fitted out in all the right gear, and got briefed by our good friends Caryn and Mary, who completed a pilgrimage this year.

Pack, poles, hat, shoes

Gear is incredibly important: when hiking such long distances “ounces are pounds, and pounds are pain” as the saying goes. Unlike camping, where durability is key, weight is all important on the Camino. The rule of thumb is to carry no more than 10% of your body weight, and that includes your pack, clothes, food, and water. So we bought ultra-lightweight gear. We have personally-fitted packs and hiking shoes one size too large (because your feet swell when you walk day after day after day). Among the secrets we’re learning are the wonders of merino wool socks (not hot, very cushiony), silk sock liners (prevent blisters), wicking clothes (wear one set, carry the other), and how to use hiking poles (very important when going downhill).

We have started training lakeside, where we have the advantage of already being over 5200 ft in elevation, which is higher than almost any spot on the Camino. This should give us an oxygen advantage, much like that you hear broadcasters talk about when sports teams travel to Denver. We’re up to about 9 miles a day with packs, sometimes along a flat route and sometimes with some elevation gain. We will gradually add elevation and back-to-back hiking days.

I’ll provide regular updates as we train, and expect to keep the blog up-to-date during our actual hike across Spain. Buen Camino!

Judy modeling her gear

Everything you know is wrong (I)

I thought about entitling this post “Everything I know is wrong” but that seemed to invite your disinterest in reading further. Every once in a while, you learn something new about a topic you thought you knew all about. I will occasionally post about my experiences of “being totally wrong” (I have had many!). This first post involves a famous historical figure: Galileo Galilei.

Some years back at work, I received a professional recognition called “the Galileo Award for Innovation.” In preparing to accept the award, I decided to do a little extra research on Galileo, to use in a short acceptance speech. I thought I knew the story well; we all do, right? Galileo was a brilliant 17th century scientist who proved that the sun did not revolve around the earth. This upset the Catholic Church, which tried him for heresy, tortured and imprisoned him, forcing him to recant his beliefs. Science eventually proved him right, and Galileo is remembered as a martyr for truth and reason against religious dogma.

There are excellent historical records on the entire affair, and they tell a more nuanced story. Galileo was both brilliant and irascible, with a unique ability to anger both friends and enemies with his sharp tongue. Ever notice how exceptional genius is oftentimes accompanied by an exceptional lack of tact? That was Galileo.

Copernicus proposed the theory of heliocentrism in 1543 in a book dedicated to the then-Pope Paul III. Kepler expanded on Copernicus’ work in 1606, ten years before Galileo published his first work arguing for it. Much of this work was financed by the Church, and the Church expressed no objection to it, as long as heliocentrism was posited as a scientific theory. However, the scientific establishment was vehemently opposed to it; to borrow a phrase, geocentrism was settled science. Scientists who had spent entire careers explaining geocentrism were not going to throw away a life’s work, even if heliocentrism did a simpler job explaining observed planetary motion. Furthermore, some of Galileo’s theory required space to be almost infinitely large (it was, but no one at the time could prove it), and that our sun was the center of the entire universe (it wasn’t, but no one could determine this with the instruments available at the time).

In 1616, some of Galileo’s scientific opponents reported him to the Church for heresy, since (in the scientists’ opinion) his views contradicted language in the Bible. Galileo responded that since he was correct, the Church needed to interpret the Bible to conform with his views. This all happened in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, where the question of who gets to authoritatively interpret Scripture was a cause of actual war. The Holy Office (the “Inquisition”) forbid any attempt to interpret Scripture to support heliocentrism. At the Pope’s request, Cardinal Bellarmine met with Galileo and made this agreement: Galileo was to stop making claims about how the Bible should be interpreted; he was free to write about heliocentrism as long as he described it as a scientific theory and gave other theories their due. For the next seven years, Galileo complied with this agreement.

In 1623, Galileo caught a huge break: his old friend and patron Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VII, who now asked him to write a work explaining the case for and against heliocentrism. The Pope cautioned Galileo to be fair to all sides. Galileo sensed his opportunity to win the argument once and for all, but also to settle old scores. His resulting work Dialogue on the Two World Systems was a masterful repudiation of geocentrism and argument for heliocentrism, employing a series of discussions between a brilliant scientist, an impartial scholar, and a foolish philosopher named Simplicio. While he presented both theories, Dialogues clearly favored heliocentrism, and Galileo voiced the Pope’s views in the character of Simplicio, mocking him in the process.

Having antagonized his chief benefactor, Galileo was now referred for trial by the Inquisition for having broken his vow not to publicly espouse heliocentrism. In a one day trial (without any torture) Galileo confessed that he had broken his vow, although he continued to contend that he did not hold to heliocentrism (which was not the charge against him). He was sentenced to a day in jail and afterward house arrest, daily penance, and to observe his previous agreement. The Holy Office forbid arguments supporting heliocentrism for over a century. Three-hundred and fifty years later, then-Pope John Paul II apologized for the Church’s treatment of Galileo.

The real Galileo story is a cautionary tale on many levels. The Church let itself get needlessly dragged into a scientific controversy, and then let pride play a role in how it meted out justice. Galileo was brilliant but could not overcome his own ego. He never proved heliocentrism; that would take until the 18th century, and his views on our sun as the center of the universe ultimately were wrong. Scientists are people, and the pursuit of truth in science is just as petty and messy as anywhere else. This last thought led me to a very influential work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, which details just how hard it is to change mindsets, especially scientific ones.

Sorry for the length of this post; getting to the bottom of things sometimes takes space and time (perhaps not 350 years!).