Monday, June 25, 2012

After a tech windfall: the challenge of what's next

Tom and Leslie hiking in France; traveling is great, but not enough
On our recent hiking vacation in France, with Sherpa  Expeditions, I heard of a transitioning problem that I had never imagined. What if you were one of those brilliant and/or lucky tech folks who got in on the ground floor of a company and, at age 55 or so, exited your job with a pile of money?
  No problema! you might say. No more work for me!
That’s what happened to many of Tom’s friends, who, like him, retired early after the telecommunications bubble burst and had to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. Some of his colleagues tried creative approaches to their new reality. One retrained as a Cordon Bleu chef and opened a restaurant. Another started a sports software company. Others became property developers or launched new business ventures. Some started over in new careers in different industries such as bioscience or the energy field.  While many of these people have been successful,  for most it has been difficult to capture the excitement and financial success of the work they did in the heady, early times.  For many, especially those with young families, the idea of not working -- even if they are financially secure -- was a non-starter.
What would you do all day?
 Tom, who wasn’t senior enough to leave with piles of money but with enough to stop working, says it hasn’t been quite as difficult for him and his wife Leslie. But it hasn’t exactly been a cruise in LaLa Land either. More  accurately, they’re feeling challenged in finding their way.
Retiring “takes a long time to figure out,” said Leslie, whose bonds with Tom run long and deep.  When Leslie was a teenager, her family moved to the Philippines, but she wanted to finish high school back home in Vancouver. Her parents sent her to live with family friends, and right there in their house, she fell in love with their son Tom.
They spent most of their working lives in Ottawa and a few years after Tom "retired,"  Leslie did, too. Then the couple, who have no children, moved back to Vancouver,  where they had grown up and where both their mothers still live. They’re working to befriend neighbors and reconnect with old high school friends.
 “We’d been gone for 25 years,” said Leslie. “The people that we knew have other lives, other friends. They’ve had  kids…. They’re hockey moms and dads--a circle we’re never going to break into.”
It doesn’t help that the couple loves adventure: they travel about five months a year -- in three-week blocks,  about the amount of  time they can live out of a suitcase.
 When in Vancouver, when they’re not renovating the family cottage -- an adventure that could be featured in a “how not to renovate” show --they “spend a fair bit of time with the two  moms who have a build-up of needs that they save for the couple's return.
"My mom saves all her computer problems," said Leslie. "Tom’s mom just
 loves to go for coffee. We take them to appointments, stuff the other siblings are doing when we’re gone. We pick up the slack. Then we’re anxious to leave again.”
 Sometimes, it's just not very fulfilling.
At one point, Tom and some old tech buddies decided to plunge into a major robotics competition and build an autonomous car. It took almost two years. The team qualified but didn’t make it into the top 10.
And that was that.
Said Leslie, “I think we are going to have to give some more thought to what we want here to establish a life --  or maybe live somewhere else five  months of the year and establish a life there."

Monday, June 18, 2012

What Legacy will you leave?

After a long career, what kind of a ripple in the sea of humanity have you made? How long will it last? Will anyone remember?
Those issues suddenly surfaced for me because of a fig tree.
A neighbor of my Washington D.C.  daughter had offered her the person-sized tree, rooted in a large wooden container. So one recent weekend, my husband and son-in-law began the difficult move (complicated by roots that had grown into the ground). As they dug,  my daughter and I chatted with Barbara, the owner of the tree.
At 85, Barbara walks slowly, her back tipping forward with age and gravity.  Yet there is a sturdiness about her in her resonant voice, her practical black earth-shoes, and her command of her ebullient garden, though she no longer has the strength herself to rein it in.
The grape arbor, for one, was invading her roof, and as we women waited for the men to do their work, I retrieved a ladder from her well-stocked tool shed and climbed up to clip back the invasive vines.
Economist Barbara R. Bergmann
“You missed one over here,” she would call from her seat at the green patio table. “And there are a few more over there,” she added a moment later.
Her husband had died the year before and you could feel his absence from their home. It was as colorful and lush as her garden, embellished with art works and crafts collected from decades of exotic travels together.
Who was this woman whose mind was so sharp? Barbara talked about trying to finish writing a book.  My daughter had only told me that she was an economist and a former university professor.
Later that morning, with the tree gone, the vines trimmed, and the ladder returned to the tool shed, I wondered if this generous neighbor was perhaps someone famous. I asked Barbara her last name. “Bergmann,” she said.
“Can I borrow one of your books to read?” I asked, curious. She took me inside and insisted I take three of her books – and that I keep them.
Their titles:  In Defense of Affirmative Action;  America’s Childcare Problem--The Way Out; and a 2000 cartoon book -- Is Social Security Broke? 
That night, from the internet, I learned that Barbara Bergmann was a math major at Cornell, got her PhD in economics from Harvard in 1959. That she taught at Harvard and Brandeis, served on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors and the Brookings Institution, among other positions. She then taught at the University of Maryland before rounding off her career as a distinguished professor of economics at American University. She has authored about a half-dozen books, including The Economic Emergence of Women, which costs $92 in hardback on Amazon, I discovered.
 In 2004, she won the Carolyn Shaw Bell award, a prestigious prize given each year to  an individual who has furthered the status of women in the economics profession.” The prize described Barbara as “a renowned scholar whose work has combined theory, quantitative modeling, and policy analysis on issues such as unemployment, urban development, discrimination, poverty, and women’s status.”
(And in another small coincidence of life, Bell was a professor at my alma mater Wellesley!)
As Barbara continues her reluctant downsizing, her fig tree is now gone. So are three of her books.
But the tree will take root in a new garden, where my grandson plays. I am reading her books.
And I hope Barbara knows that her work on gender equity, her determination  to make this country a better, fairer place for women, surely made a difference.
It did in my life.  Even if, until now, I did not know her name.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stuff, More Stuff and Too Much Stuff

 Yesterday, my daughter dropped by for one of her last visits before she moves to Boston in a couple weeks. She and her boyfriend will be combining apartments and moving in together. “We have doubles on a lot of things. What do you need?” she asked.
This is a question that those who are transitioning smaller –or endlessly contemplating doing so – do not  want to hear.  It’s supposed to be the other way around. When I tried to decline,  she made it clear that I should be more grateful. After all, they had some good stuff.

Better than my stuff.

Not wanting to offend, I tried to graciously accept a blender (to replace the one given to me as a wedding present more than 40 years ago and a bit cracked) and new measuring spoons to replace the bent up, blackened  ones which were once my mother’s give-aways. I even said yes to a Foreman grill.
Wait until you get to be my age, I told her, trying to explain one of the Great Generational Divides.
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Dan Rubin said it much better than I could as he discussed his 86-year-old father’s decision to box up Dan’s books and those of his older brother.  This quote doesn’t do justice to the whole piece -- worth reading -- but it gives you the flavor:
“I told Dad I preferred that the books stay right where they are, so I can freeze time, so whenever I drop by my old house, I can sit in that room, on the velour sofa that replaced the twin beds, and as night falls and the radiator belches that foul steam heat, I can get lost again in the words that took so long for me to hear.”
Or, as his brother told his parents, “They’ve been there 40 years. Another few years won’t hurt anyone.”

I dropped by the Inquirer's offices today --and speaking of "stuff," they're throwing our decades-worth as they prepare to move in a week.  Dan Rubin gave me some news to break here.
An email just landed from his father:

"All of the books have been put back on the book shelves, in order of their size. The next rainy day I will catalog them and rearrange them alphabetically, however they, as well as the shelves, are now clean. No longer dusty."

Dan Rubin can go home again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Guilt? I don't feel any."

Susan Linder Orkin
When it comes to finding the “next great thing,”  some people couldn’t care less.  In fact, they are happy that they are no longer chained to PRODUCTIVITY and the guilt that comes with not getting things done. 
At my recent college reunion, amidst all the people who talked about reinventing themselves, Susan Linder Orkin of New York City offered a different take. This is the relaxed, centered, content version of moving on. And it’s one that,  for sure, I am totally unable to attain right now.
Speaking on a panel with Becky Burckmyer (who recently launched a B&B) and yours truly (loving writing this blog and still editing and coaching writing), Susan announced:
“I’m here because I’m doing nothing and I’m just loving it.” (Sound familiar?)
With a social work degree from Bryn Mawr College, Susan spent her career developing and managing programs for at-risk populations. You might say she gave at the office.
“I always worked full or part time and adored it,” she said. “I thought work was play and I much preferred it over child rearing.”  But when she and her husband became “weary of work in which the routine overtook creativity," they finally retired.
"Now I feel I’m enrolled in my own university, majoring in music and minoring in French and literature… I’ve been taking piano lessons as well as chamber music (which I had never done before), courses on Moby Dick and The Illiad, concerts, theater, museums, and, oh, I have two grandchildren. I’ve never been happier.
   "Guilt? I don’t feel any."
As for identity, said Susan, "I don’t feel any need to be anybody special at a cocktail party."
"I don’t know ... It’s kind of great."
She had fans in the audience. "The number of people who came up to me after the panel and said they loved what I said was huge (maybe 20 people) -- it must have struck a chord."  
Hmm... I'm nowhere near this Nirvana some eight months after leaving my job.
 Any thoughts on what we might call "slow food for thought?"

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

After a loss, now serving lemonade...

Together then : Larry and Becky Burckmyer

Last week,  I heard one of the most extraordinary stories of transition. It starts out grim, but you’ll be cheered by where it ends up.
Alone now:  Becky gave Marblehead home new purpose
“Unfortunately, I had my process thrust upon me,” explained Becky McCandlish Burckmyer as she addressed her fellow Wellesley classmates as part of a panel on life after career.  “In 2000, my husband Larry was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s -- or possibly Pick’s disease, which is like Alzheimer’s only worse because you don’t talk,” she said.
“In 2001 in March, my brother died. In August, my mother died. And in October, Larry tried to cross [Boston’s] Storrow Drive and was hit by a car.”
After nine weeks in rehab, “he came back in body anyway.” After that, Becky’s career as a business writing  author and consultant pretty much ended, as she cared for her husband and, swept up by his situation, became a hospice volunteer and studied chaplaincy.
That is not the end of her story.
 “On this day, two years ago (June 2), he died,” Becky continued, her voice quavering.
“After the tumult and the shouting died, I realized that I was sitting in this very big ark of a house in Marblehead [Mass.] and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I thought maybe it would be appropriate to downsize and let somebody else raise their kids by the water, as we had raised ours. A couple of people suggested an alternative scenario. They said, ‘Becky, your house is a teardown.  Somebody’s going to rip it down and put in new wiring, new plumbing, and new lighting and they’re going to live in it about two weeks a year.’
And I said, ‘That’s great, I’m not moving.’”
Weighing how to handle her sprawling seaside house and its hefty utility bills --- and how to share it now that her kids were grown -- an idea hit her while sitting at a traffic light.
 “I will open a bed and breakfast in my house and anyone who wants to can come.”
 A life coach (gift from her daughter) said “your Myers-Briggs shows you’re an extrovert and it might work.” Her son, with a new business degree, did spreadsheets on income and profit. Other women who run B&Bs in the community “told me what to charge for rooms and how to fix breakfast.” And a handyman plunged in to “put this house together again.”
Astoundingly, within four months of Larry's death, she had opened Marblehead on Harbor. “I look back and I think, ‘Good Lord, you’re supposed to sit tight, aren’t you?”
Even as the women who knew her as an 18-year-old so many years ago applauded her spunk and her success –adding to the support she has received from so many --  Becky was torn. Privately, she regretted that she was not back at her B&B that weekend greeting her newest guests. But, she’d found someone to step into her role for the weekend.
 It was okay.
And, oh, I forgot to add:  a few months ago, in another surprise, Becky discovered  an old friend on He didn’t know she was widowed; she didn’t know he was widowed and neither realized they lived within driving distance. Theirs will be another story to write about some day.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Who we (at Wellesley) are becoming

Having just returned from my Wellesley College class reunion, I am energized by the spirit and determination of this group of high-achieving women. Think Hillary Clinton (though she’s two years behind us). And Diane Sawyer, who is in our class but never shows up for reunions. Or Madeline Albright, who is older.
Among the things women in my class are doing: creating an art installation that echoes the water-power of Lowell, Mass (Nancy Selvage); running the neurology division of the National Institutes of Health (Storey Landis;  fighting for LGBT rights as an “ally” (Prue Beidler);
Their hair may be graying and their waistlines thickening, but they are vibrant -- lawyers, doctors, financial planners; judges, publishers, and artists. While at Social Security age, 56 percent are still working and a fourth of those say they'll never retire, according to the class survey. They are the backbone of volunteerism in their communities. (After all, Wellesley’s motto is Non Ministrari, sed Ministrare – not to be ministered unto but to minister.) They are politically engaged,  even drifting leftward. Eighty-five percent of the 181 women who responded said they will vote (again) for Pres. Obama.
Some of the newer choices they are making emerged at a class meeting to talk about “transition”  from work to whatever. Sometimes, the choices are too many. Prue Beidler, for one, advises never to say “yes” to a request on the spot – sleep on it first. (Oh, that I had had that advice six months ago before I overwhelmed myself.) Lolly MacMurray-Cooper , who is among those who has found a late love in life, volunteers at a hospice just two hours a week, but it fulfills her. She's found that the dying often want to make amends, to say sorry to someone. She helps them write such “legacies.”  Longtime English teacher,  Rhoda Trooboff, got it into her head a few years ago to start a book publishing house, Tenley Circle Press, in her basement and it’s thriving. And Susan Korte is helping to green her home state through her blog, Providential Gardener,, a gathering place for the fruitful earth of Rhode Island.
But among the stories I like most is that of Becky Burckmyer, who has truly turned lemons into lemonade. My next blog will be about her.