Measuring my mortality

pexels-photo-102107.jpegThe other day I received a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions, informing me that I would receive my state pension at the age of 66 years and 8 months.

What to make of this news? Should be I glad that I am still 10 years from being a pensioner or should I worry that there will be no money left in the pension pot by the time my turn comes to draw upon it? Worse than that, should I worry that I may not live long enough to receive the pension? Gloomy thought, that one.

Apart from my state pension, I have a personal pension, which I set up when I was 26. At the time, I was given projections for the eventual payout. Most of what I was told went completely over my head and the written information I was given would have foxed Stephen Hawking, God rest his soul. I didn’t give my pension a lot of thought. After all, I was decades away from being of pensionable age and could not possibly imagine what I, or the world I lived in, would be like when pension day came.

So the years rolled by, in the blink of an eye. I got myself an Independent Financial Adviser to help me translate the rainforests of pension statements and summaries which struggled through the the letter box, once a year. On my IFA’s advice, I continued to make monthly payments into my pension. It was much more than I wanted to pay, but I was assured it was necessary for me to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

Fortunately, I have survived to the age when I can draw on my private pension and I thank God for that. There is now a pot of money, which has to last as long as I do. The pot doesn’t have a secure lid which means that money can pour out of it if something bad happens in the world or, more precisely, if the money men (and some women) in charge of pensions think that something bad is going to happen. They may be right or they may be wrong and getting their knickers in a twist, but money will pour out of my pension pot anyway and there’s really not much I can do about that. Money does slosh back in again, but you never know when that will be and it never seems to come back in at the rate at which it poured out. Either way, the money men (and some women) will charge you, even though they have not secured your pension pot with a lid tight enough to retain what’s in there. Theoretically, at least, you could lose the entire contents of your leaky pot.

So it turns out that pensions are a bit of a gamble from start to finish. Not only do you not know exactly how much might be in that rusty, leaking old pot, but you don’t know how long you will live to dip into it. This is when it all starts to get a bit absurd because you have to try and figure out your prospects of longevity. Of course there are actuarial figures to help you, but these figures relate to notional people and I don’t know any of those. I know that my dear old mum and dad survived into their 90s, God bless their beloved souls, but that doesn’t guarantee that I will follow in their aged footsteps. Their parents and my grandparents, died much younger. A very dear friend, who was younger, fitter, slimmer and had a much healthier lifestyle than me, died in her late 40s. She was the last person I would have expected to die young.

Apart from that, there are hideous, random events which no-one could foresee and these are happening every day, all around us. I could just as easily be caught up in one of those, as the next person.

So here in my middleish years, I must regularly confront my own mortality in order to determine (i) when I can draw on my pension and (ii) how much I should take. All the while the money men (and some women) move my pot around, allowing the lid to slip off, from time to time, with unfortunate consequences. I should make it clear here that I’m not being flippant about ageing and dying. Facing up to one’s own demise is a truly serious business and one which I may return to, in future posts, on a more serious basis. This post is directed to one of life’s absurdities, as I see it. Having been a fairly careful person, all my life, and very risk averse, it looks like I’m turning to gambling in the later stages of my life. Too bad that, because I’ve never been a gambler.

As for the state pension, well I appreciate that the government is trying to help people plan for their old age and give them certainty. For me, there’s a rich irony in the fact that the state pension is right up there with some of the most uncertain and imponderable features of life.

I’m not complaining (much) and I have a lot to be thankful for. It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.

Better go now and get on with honing my poker skills…..

 

 

 

 

Critically thinking

thinking-thinking-work-man-face-60061.jpegWhat is true? What is nuanced fact? What is false?

Who knows any more?

The more news I listen to and watch, the more I suspect that I am not getting to the truth of the matter.

Back in the day, when I was 26, I used to read The Times daily, maybe watch one BBC news bulletin per day and I felt that was sufficient for me to be properly informed. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t spend a lot of time questioning the truth of what I was told.

Then along came 24/7 news channels and, of course, social media and I was overwhelmed by the variety of newsfeeds.

Even before “fake news” became a headline in itself, I suspected that I was being manipulated by the media. I came to realise that I was being fed the news which journalists and news editors chose to report.  They decide what makes the big stories of the day. Moreover, the style of reportage has changed from a largely factual presentation to one which includes commentary and opinion from “special correspondents” and “experts”. They frame issues, often with a negative bias, which they then use to inform their questioning of those on whom they are reporting.

Does any of this matter? Well, I think it does. That’s because it influences the way I think and the way I vote. Do I really think what I think, or am I being led to a set of conclusions which may be erroneous?

Recently, I listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4 which was discussing “critical thinking”, defined, in Wikipedia, as:-

“the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement” and “an appraisal based on careful analytical evaluation.”

I learned that critical thinking used to be a curriculum subject in some schools, in the UK, but not any more. Another good idea gone west then. A generation or two of kids loses the opportunity to learn how to sift and weigh the information that comes at them and to make their own balanced appraisal.

Having said that, I have grounds for optimism. The BBC recently launched BBC iReporter, which uses an online interactive game to help young people in the UK to identify “fake news” . This is part of a broader programme, being run by the BBC, to help 11-18 year olds identify fake and false news stories, by developing their critical thinking and media literacy skills. The BBC has a vested interest in fighting back against fake news  because of the huge decline in global audiences’ trust in news overall. So I’m not alone in my scepticism then.

More encouraging still, I have seen for myself, without the need for any “expert” commentary, that there appears to be a generation of teenagers coming through who seem to have very mature heads on their shoulders. I’m thinking particularly of the kids who were caught up in the recent shooting incident in Florida. Every one of them, that I have seen, who spoke about their experience and their attitude to gun laws spoke rationally, and in a balanced way, giving their reasons for thinking as they do. Whether they are right or wrong in their view is not really the point. Of course people will differ in their opinions. What matters is the ability of these kids to gather evidence and information, to consider it calmly and objectively and then to arrive at their view. Opinions formed by way of a process of objective evaluation and analysis, should be and are capable of being respected, even if differing opinions result. What a difference that could make to decision making.

Similarly I was heartened to read LA’s post, They were better, in her blog “Waking up on the wrong side of 50.” She writes about her daughter’s reaction to not winning a mock trial competition in which she participated. Her daughter is ambitious and keen to succeed as a lawyer, but was able to review her own performance objectively and conclude that the winning team were just better than hers on the day. I think that’s admirable. I used to be a lawyer and I’m not sure I was ever that good at objectifying my view of my own performance. If the teenagers of today can learn or be taught to think critically and can maintain the confidence and ability to sift truth and fiction through an objective process of analysis and reasoning, then I feel hope for better things to come when these kids take their turn at running the show.

I think I just thought critically.

 

 

 

Stash the trash

Rubbish dump March 2018

This is the sight that greeted me on my dog walk the other day. A dump of about 30 empty plastic cider bottles left on a country path. I couldn’t believe it!

Littering is not new. Our streets and pavements have been festooned with it for as long as I can remember. Shame on me that it hasn’t weighed upon my consciousness as much as it should have until I got a dog, a couple of years ago. Since then, I have been out and about daily, walking along bridleways and country paths, whilst exercising my dog. My eyes and senses have been simultaneously exercised by the sun glinting on multi-coloured crisp and sweet packets, by the patter of raindrops on drink cans, by carpets of burst helium balloons draped in hideous technicolour over ground and shrubs and a veritable tsunami of plastic bottles, as pictured above.

Feeling ashamed of my complacency about my littered environment, I presented myself at my local council’s offices and, by prior arrangement, collected a litter picker and roll of plastic bags (recyclable, I believe). Since then, I have gone out, a couple of times a week, armed rather menacingly with my litter picker, to free some of my local countryside of its litter scourge. On the days when I am not lengthening one arm by dragging round a heavy bag of other people’s rubbish, I try to pick up and bin one piece of litter, whilst I’m out with the dog.

By far the largest components of my litter haul are beer cans and plastic cider bottles. I’m not sure how this arises. Do a group of people call each other and say – fancy a drink? Yeah? Ok, let’s go down to the third field by the farm or into the woods. Then when they have drunk their fill, they look around for a barmaid to clear the empties and there’s no one around. Only one thing to do then – chuck it down on the ground.

I have never been a litter lout and have always found litter offensive. I find it difficult to understand why people cannot be responsible for their own litter and “stash the trash”, where it belongs, in a bin, preferably for recycling. I do reflect, however, that, over the last 30 years of my life, we have become wedded to packaging, whether plastic or other material, to an exponential degree, myself included.

Thinking back to when I was 26, I don’t recall there being such an extensive plastic offering. Where I was living, at the time, in the north of England,  takeaways of food and drink were starting to come on stream, but not on the scale we see today.  Starbucks and Costa coffee shops hadn’t yet come to town and when I popped out from work to grab a sandwich, I went to a little sandwich shop round the corner from my office and took my lunch away, wrapped in parchment paper. In my local supermarket, I would help myself to cereals and other dried products, out of large bins. I don’t think there was as much material to throw away.

Is there some sort of correlation between packaging and litter do you think? I can’t help thinking that there is, even though there is no excuse for littering. I wish, now, that I’d given more thought to the whole issue of packaging, its disposal and the environment. I wish I’d realised, when I was 26, how much my convenience would inconvenience the generations coming after me. I should have followed my parents’ example and taken my own shopping bag to the supermarket, rather than helping myself to numerous plastic bags which will suffocate the earth as landfill.

Better late than never, older and wiser, these phrases run through my blog theme. I shall continue with my litter picking and I shall try to moderate my use of packaging, as I have been for some time now. I’m no Boadicea-like eco warrior – I just don’t have the legs for it – but I can and should do more. I’m listing some of my current, rather paltry efforts which don’t really require much from me. Do you have any tips for a less packaged life? I’d love to hear.

I do:-

  • take my own bags for food and other shopping
  • buy fruit and veg loose and unpackaged, wherever possible
  • cut down on the purchase of take away drinks – making my own in a takeout mug or drinking inside from crockery cups
  • wash and re-use food storage bags until they fall apart
  • use tuppaware to carry home-made sandwiches
  • use real soap for personal washing rather than soap from a plastic bottle
  • throw rubbish straight into the bin rather than plastic bagging it, then clean the bin out with soap and water
  • buy products in recyclable cartons and containers, wherever possible
  • take my recyclable rubbish to recycle bins

I don’t want to get political about this, but there is a whole lot more that could be done by local and central government to improve matters. Sadly I’ve got old lady cyncical disease and have very low expectations of improvement from those quarters. I do however cling to the hope that individuals can make a difference, however micro, if they take personal responsibility for themselves and their environment.

Off to walk the dog now and to collect a few more empties.

The joy of becoming irrelevant

It’s been 2.5 years since I gave up my career as a lawyer.

For about 2 of those years, I have struggled with a new and rather unwelcome feeling – the feeling of being irrelevant.

If you are retired, semi-retired or between jobs, what I am going to say may strike a chord with you. The rest of you workers, please keep reading anyway.

The irrelevant thing started more or less as soon as I finished my work routine. I would open my shutters in the morning and look around the close, where I live, to see who was already going off to work, just as I was starting my day. I pictured the car journeys and commutes they would have to make, the newspapers they would buy, the phone calls they would make en route.  Then I imagined them all at their desks or rushing off to meetings and I felt, well, kind of stationary.

Later, when I went out and about to do my jobs for the day, my eyes would be drawn to people in dark, smart work clothes, striding purposefully ahead with a work bag in one hand and a take-away coffee in the other. That was me, once, I thought, picturing myself on the way to and from court or in an important meeting. I was one of those worker bees, buzzing purposefully through my working day.

The irrelevant thing intensified when I spoke to former work colleagues. I realised that the space I had occupied, for many years, had totally and swiftly closed around me, like a ripple in water after a pebble has been thrown into it and sunk without trace. Where I used to feel an affinity with my fellow workers, and would happily swap stories, over a glass of wine, about “work days from hell”, I no longer quite got it when those conversations started up again. I felt removed from that working world, as if I was looking at it from a great distance, barely able to see what was going on. I felt invisible, irrelevant.

In fairness to myself, it was never my intention to stop working. I planned a very belated gap year, to do some long deferred travelling and to re-energise myself, both mentally and physically. Thereafter, I intended to look for work again, outside the law. I had a few ideas about what I might like to do, but not much clue how to go about it.

Personal circumstances intervened in my plans, meaning that my life was overtaken by the need to support dear relatives and friends whom I have since lost. Sadness and grief subsumed me for a while. Still and occasionally, that little voice would chip away, asking me to justify who and what I was. I couldn’t do it, which rather added to my woes.

Eventually though, I emerged from a very difficult couple of years, somewhat damaged and bereaved. I and my partner, who also suffered terrible loss, got a beautiful Labrador puppy who has helped us to repair, immeasurably. We also had tremendous support from friends and relatives. I have a much “smaller” job now in terms of pressure and responsibility, but I am working in adult social care, where there is a lot of work to be done. I have learned to blog, despite being useless at the whole technology thing, and I have lots of “small” plans and ambitions for what I want to do in the future. I rarely have any time to spare. In many ways, I am more content now than I have ever been.

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I do keep a weather eye on matters legal. The other day, I stumbled across an interview on You Tube. A guy I was at uni with, who has climbed to the very top of the legal tree, was being questioned about the legal profession now and in the future. This guy has had a stellar career and continues to be very relevant in the legal world. All credit to him for a great deal of hard work and for his ability. It suddenly struck me though, in a light-bulb kind of moment, that all of us, one day, step away from jobs we have done or roles we have occupied, of whatever sort. In employment terms, we may leave to go on to something new, or to nothing at all. In personal terms, we may complete a role that befell us, such as waving off children into their adult lives. As soon as we finish the particular role, the waters will close around us and another pebble will be leaving its impression. And, hey, I now see that is completely ok. When all’s said and done, it’s life, it’s the dynamic of life, constantly changing and moving us all on. It happens to all of us, at some time, wherever we stand in the world. No point getting depressed or upset about it. For me, it’s a fact of life that simply must be recognised and accepted.

More than that, being unleashed from those jobs and roles which, we felt, anchored us in the “real”world, can be extremely liberating. It can free us to do all sorts of other things, even to be different people, if that’s what we want. It can allow us to try things, to abandon them, to learn new skills and to really be and find our true selves, for as long as health, strength and finances allow.

So I would say, to my 26 year old self, go ahead, try to make something of yourself and try to make some mark in the world, if you feel you must. But don’t get caught up in or diverted by any notions of status or importance, because you may have your moment in the sun, but if you do, you must also take your place in the shade. It’s part of the inevitable cycle of life. But however you get there, the shade can be a comfortable and productive place to be, where you will find the freedom to be and do what you want, rather than what you think you should.

Snow days

Across most parts of the UK, we’ve been having snow. Lots of it.

When I was 26 and starting out as a lawyer, I was keen to impress and afraid of messing up. No matter how long it took, I would skate to work in my car, fearful for myself and others. Later, when I worked in London, I would stand for hours on cold train platforms or crowded bus stops, waiting for public transport that would take me somewhere near the office and home. Sometimes, I walked for miles and took hours to get to my desk, only to leave it a few hours later to repeat the process, in reverse.

I wish I’d known then that one day, the technology would be available to allow me to work as well from home, as from the office. I wish I’d known that it would become much more acceptable, if not advisable, to take a “snow day” and work from home in warmth and safety.  I wish I’d listened to that inner voice that told me I probably wouldn’t get the recognition I anticipated for my herculean efforts in trekking to work, expedition-style.

Back in the day, there was a kind of macho competitiveness about battling into work in adverse circumstances, including bad weather. I wish I’d known that it can be damaging to push yourself too hard for too long. When my partner and I walked to the supermarket yesterday, with our dog, we saw many more people around than usual. Although it was bitterly cold, the sun was shining out of a cloudless blue sky. With schools closed and non-functioning road and transport networks, families were playing together in the snow, and having fun, as they found themselves with some unexpected and unplanned time at home. Good for them! I’m sure they’ll make up the work and school time, if, indeed, any was lost. I’m also sure they’ll have some great memories of that time spent together.

I wish I’d known the value of work/life balance when I was 26.

 

 

Future blog features

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I have finished my wordpress tutorials and I’m keen to develop my blog and connect with others. My intention is to blog on a weekly basis, if possible. I envisage that my topics will centre around self-knowledge, work, retirement, age, mental and physical health, all within my theme of “at 26 – what I wish I ‘d known”. At the moment, I’m thinking that I will blog for a year and then stop or, perhaps, change theme. I’ll see where my writing and connections take me. Thanks, in advance, to those of you who will read my blogs. I have already enjoyed and learned from some really professional and interesting blogs out there and I look forward to reading many more. Happy reading everyone!

It builds character

pexels-photo-220237.jpeg“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

So said the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, or at least, the saying has been attributed to him.

I think  Nietzsche’s general drift was – any adversity which you manage to overcome makes you a stronger person in the long run.  Put another way, the fact of living through adversity builds strength of character.

I wish I had read Nietzsche when I was 26, or even earlier. A good friend of mine studied Nietzsche for her philosophy degree, as I recall. I wish she had referred this buzzy little quote to me back then, when I was an undergraduate with her. It took me a long time to work it out for myself.

When I look back now, I see that many of the things which knocked me back and made me doubt myself were nothing more than life’s up and downs. Back then, if I failed or did badly in a test or exam, I thought my life was over. If, as regularly happened, the guy of my dreams barely registered my existence or, worse still, fancied one of my friends, I thought I would be on my own forever. When I didn’t get the job I really wanted or the role I coveted, I thought my efforts were worthless.

I wish I had known that getting through to the day after the adverse event, and then finding my equilibrium again, would, one day, make me a stronger person; that I would eventually learn to reason with and pacify myself. Of course, that process of managing myself is still very much a work in progress. What I would like to have known, though, back then, was that many years of picking yourself up and dusting yourself off do have an effect. That effect is to prepare you and give you strength to bear some of the harder knocks, when they come, as they do to all of us. Back when I was sweating some of the smaller stuff, albeit important to me at the time, I wish I’d known that I would have time to build defences and protection against some of life’s crueller vicissitudes. I would like to have known that.