5 Goals vs. 25 Goals

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 6, 2017

Grit-by-Angela-DuckworthI’m reading a wonderfully inspiring book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. Duckworth won a MacArthur “genius” grant, pursued several interesting careers, and is currently a teacher focused on helping students find their true passions, showing how grit will get them what they want. The book was often praised in 2016 book reviews, getting on several best-of-year lists, and was featured on PBS’s NOVA program “School of the Future” (also at YouTube). Grit is Duckworth’s first book, and continues to blaze the trail set by other books I’ve admired on the same topic: The Outliers, Talent is Overrated, The Talent Code. They all preach effort counts more than natural abilities. Duckworth observes people who apply themselves persistently getting ahead, a quality we know as grit. Since I’ve never been a particularly gritty person, I love reading this book.

Duckworth profiles many successful people, and I was particularly taken by a story she heard about Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor. Buffett’s advice was to write down 25 career goals. Then do some soul searching and select the five that matter the most. Finally, look at the leftover twenty, and accept they must be ignored at all costs. This bit of ambition triage is a common advice among productivity gurus. It’s old wisdom about focusing. However, I was intrigued by applying this advice to my general goals. Could I boil them down to just 5?

We all want too much, own too much, do too much, befriend too many people, consume too much. It’s much easier to narrow our desires down to a manageable number. But is 5 the right number? If we list everything we want out of life, it will tally more than 25. Now Buffett was specifically referring to career goals, but I want to use his advice for general ambitions. To apply his wisdom holistically.

Rationalizing Buffet’s Advice – Approach #1

I’m also going to do a bit of cheating. I could say my goal is to finish reading Grit. That’s something I can accomplish. But is it what Buffett meant? He meant something bigger. I could say I want to read 52 books a year and I want to get good at math. That would be two goals. Is it cheating to say I have a goal of being well educated and combine my reading and math goals into it? Reducing two to one?

Let’s say we have sixteen hours a day to divvy up between our goals. That’s a little more than three hours for each if we have five goals. But if you have to work, that has to count as one of the goals, and it takes up over half of the day, leaving little for the other four.

Now that I’m retired, I won’t have to waste one of my goals on working. Because of aging, my biggest goal is health. Staying healthy means I can pursue my other goals. Should it count it as a goal? Shouldn’t it just be part of living? I say yes it does count as a goal, because pursuing my health is hard. I show the most grit in life when it comes to staying healthy. I have to, because it’s so easy to careen into unhealthiness.

If I listed every last thing I want to do each day, it would run more than 25 items. But, if I list goals by their intent, I can get them down to 5 items:

  1. Constantly work at improving my health
  2. Constantly work at improving my writing
  3. Constantly work at improving my relationships
  4. Constantly work at learning more about reality 
  5. Constantly work at making the world a better place

Notice that all my goals will never be accomplished? And to be honest, I do very little towards number five. And because I’m getting older, and my mental and physical abilities are in decline, means my ability to work harder is declining. All my goals are losing battles. I can’t stop and cross off any as finished.

Below are many goal categories that could cover countless specific goals, but in general, they are goals that do have finishes. For example owning a new car or learning statistics with R.

  1. Possessions
  2. Careers
  3. Pleasures
  4. Hobbies
  5. Entertainments
  6. Skills
  7. Games
  8. Accomplishments

Improving my health does require many sub-goals like eating better, exercise, taking medicine, going to the doctor, learning to cook healthy meals, shopping for natural foods, etc. I no longer eat for pleasure, entertainment or even socializing. If I was a gourmet, I’d have to list it as one of my main goals. If I loved cooking or growing food, they would have to be a separate goal too. If I loved playing golf or cross-country biking, I couldn’t count them under health as exercise, I’d have to count them as sports goals. If I pursued both passionately, they would count as two.

I don’t know if this is cheating on Buffet’s advice or not. I think of a goal as a specific quest, but all the things I’ve defined as goals can’t be finished. Buffet might have been thinking of something that could be accomplished, and scratched off a list – like making a million dollars. My goals are states of being I constantly strive to attain and never abandon.

With all my present goals I could show more grit. I would be much healthier if I could lose weight, and that would take some severe persistence I haven’t shown in a long time.

My shifting away from specific goals is due to aging. Take for example games. I’ve never really cared much for winning games, and generally when I played them it was to be social. When video games first appeared in arcades I felt challenged to get high scores, but tired of that after turning over Space Invaders. Now I play games like crosswords to improve my memory and focus. Pleasures like eating, drinking, drugs, travel, are becoming pointless because my body can’t handle them. My plant based diet isn’t miserable, but it’s certainly not something I desire. Eating for fun only hurts now. My only indulgence is dark chocolate covered almonds. It meets the requirement of the diet – barely, and I enjoy them, but it’s hardly a goal of eating gourmet food.

My main goal after health is writing. I could call that goal seeking identity. We all need a goal that defines us, where we find a sense of identity by pursuing. I think of myself as a blogger. When I worked, I thought of myself as a programmer. I can say that blogging also applies to my goal of health. Regular writing exercises my brain. Writing also gives me to look forward to and to get up and do each day.

I put friendships and socializing as my third goal, even though being social is also part of staying healthy. I’m mostly a hermit, but I do feel a certain need to socialize. At one time I would have put movies and television as two of my major goals because I loved them so much, and spent so much time with them, but I use both now as methods of socializing. I’m slowly fading away from enjoying fiction as a solitary pursuit.

Number four is about education. My reading is veering towards learning, and not pleasure. Nonfiction might be my new entertainment. Learning has become my new fun, maybe even my escapism. And in this crazy world of Donald Trump, learning to tell shit from Shinola is more vital than ever.

My last goal, and one I spend almost zero time on, is helping the world. I suppose if I wrote something useful, that could count, but if I’m totally honest, writing is for me. I work a recycling, conserving energy, consuming less. I try to be ethical in my behavior. I donate a little money here and there. At minimum I try to do no harm and maintain a small footprint on the environment. I’m 99% selfish though, and I think most of us are. I think all the problems in the world are due to selfishness. We all should give more time to altruism. I admire people who spend a great deal of their time being selfless. This is where I show the least grit.

Following Buffet’s Advice Without Rationalization – Approach #2

  1. Get a book of nonfiction published
  2. Get a novel published
  3. Get an essay published in a print magazine
  4. Get a short story published in a print magazine
  5. Learn to draw simple scenes of nature
  6. Learn to program digital music
  7. Digitize all my photographs and store them in three cloud locations
  8. Relearn math through calculus, linear algebra and statistics
  9. Write a blog about the best albums that came each year since the invention of the LP
  10. Become a really good minimalist
  11. Live in New York City for a year
  12. Build a parallel processing super-computer out of Raspberry Pi modules
  13. Write a program to produce meta-lists from multiple lists
  14. Sell the house and get a perfect apartment in a high-rise in a 55+ community
  15. Learn to travel cross country and not be afraid to travel alone
  16. Create a blog post that outlines the history of impressionistic art
  17. Learn to grow plants indoors for healthy air, herbs and maybe fruits and veggies
  18. Write an essay about the best jazz albums of the 1950s
  19. Learn Python and get into machine learning and text processing
  20. Learn R and statistics
  21. Decorate the house so it reflects my personality
  22. Move to a city where I can live without a car
  23. Build a robot that does something interesting
  24. Move to a foreign city for a year – London, Paris or Tokyo
  25. Take up bird watching

These are 25 things that popped into my head that I want to do. I could list a lot more. If I opened my folders of unfinished essays, novels and nonfiction books, I’d have hundreds of items to add to the list. What Buffett really meant was to pick 5, and to stop thinking about all the rest. What Duckworth’s book is all about is finding the few goals that align with our passions and persist at working towards those goals hour after hour until they are finished.

What I need to do is figure out which kind of goal oriented person I want to be. My first approach works well with my retired lifestyle, and my actual personality. The second approach is about succeeding at specific accomplishments. I’ve never been that kind of person, probably because of a lack of grit. But I’ve always wanted to be.

When I woke up I had the single goal of writing “7 Generations of Science Fiction.” I thought the many ways I could write it before I got up. I still plan to write that essay, but for some reason this essay grabbed me in the shower and wouldn’t let go. Every morning I get up and something grabs my attention, and it becomes my goal of the day.

Ultimately, it comes down to one goal, the one you work on.


Sisyphean Hobbies For My Retirement Years

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 16, 2016

Let’s face it, our retirement years are life in decline. Our minds and bodies turn to oatmeal. Any hobby we pick at age 65 will get increasingly harder at 75, 85, and 95. So the challenge is to pick tasks that works well while rolling our rock up hill. For example, I’ve recently taken up crossword puzzles. I can see why oldsters do them. I started off with the New York Times mini-puzzles and I was flat out horrible. I couldn’t do them. I now finish the mini-puzzle on most days. I’m quite proud of that. To a real cross word puzzler, that’s like telling a friend who does monthly marathons you were able to run around the block today. But I feel a sense of accomplishment. I feel like an old dog telling the world “Fuck you” by learning a new trick.

crossword-puzzleThe other day I subscribed to the full New York Times Crossword Puzzle. I can barely do a seventh of a daily puzzle before I give up. However, I figure I’ll get better. I expect to eventually finish them. It might take months. And I believe I should continue to get better for many years, or dare I say it, decades? At least until my mind goes oat-mealy. Crossword puzzles will be the canary in the mind. When I start getting worse, I’ll know winter is coming to my neurons.

Blogging is a fantastic hobby for the last third of life. It’s a multipurpose exercise machine for the mind. When I go many days without writing, I can actually feel my thoughts get hazier, and I spend more time chasing elusive words around my head. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I finish an essay, so on the days I don’t write feel guilty. I feel lazy, and unproductive.

Retiring is all about not going to pot. (One reason I won’t smoke dope if it became legal.)  It so easy to do nothing. So doing something, doing almost anything, feels good. That’s why hobbies are important. And it’s all relative. I know retired guys who run marathons or build hand-crafted furniture, and know other guys who are happy to walk to the library or read a mystery novel. The key is do something you couldn’t do yesterday, because tomorrow you might not be able to do what you did today.

I’ve realized in recent weeks is I need to pursue more hobbies, ones that preserve my aging oats. Hobbies that exercise mental and physical skills that are currently snoozing on the couch. I need more variety of fun things to do each day. I wish I could do more outside physical things. I was walking and biking, until this summer, when I had to cut back. It was making my back and hip hurt, and making my legs numb. That’s because of my spinal stenosis. Not walking and biking makes my back, hip and leg better, but I worry about my heart. I’ve started small short indoor bike trips to replace the outdoor work. Luckily the plant based diet helps my heart tremendously. I also do my physical therapy and work out on Bowflex machines.

I get a lot of mental exercise out of reading and writing, but I’m starting to worry its not enough. I need some cross-training. Functions not tied to verbal skills need to start doing push-ups. My friend Connell has been getting better at drawing. I wish I could do that. I’ve also wished I could get back into programming. I did that for thirty years, and miss it. For my whole life I’ve wished I had some kind of musical ability, and recently wondered if I could create music with a computer or synthesizer. I could do that without performance skills, and it would get me back into computer programming. And I’ve also wondered, once again, if I could get back into math. I was doing the Khan Academy for a while, and it was pleasurable, but got out of the habit.

That’s the thing. Hobbies require building habit muscles. You have to do a little bit every day. When I do math, I discovered I had to go all the way back to grade school math. It requires being methodical. It’s much easier to go visit a friend, watch a TV show, or listen to music. Being retired is like living with sirens (Greek mythological babes, not fire engines). It is seductively easy for me to read a book, watch TV or listen to music. It’s much harder applying my mind to learning something new.

MPKmini_angle_web_lg_700x438Today I came across something called Csound. It’s a programming language for sound. This is a completely new world to me, and I wonder if I have the mental ability to explore it. I also ordered an Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII. It was only $69 at Amazon. This nifty toy will let me play music with Garage Band on my iPad mini, interface with music programs and programming languages on my computer, plus it comes with some simple synthesize software. I hope to teach myself basic music skill.

I’m making my 2017 resolutions a couple weeks early. I want to learn crossword puzzles, drawing, math and music next year. I’m not particularly ambitious though. So long as I piddle at each a little bit each day, and show a tiny tittle of progress, I’ll be happy.


How Much Time Do You Spend Escaping Reality?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 31, 2016

I often worry if I spend too much time escaping reality. Mostly I check out via television, books or daydreaming while listening to loud music. However, sometimes I just enjoy a sensual nap even when I’m not tired. I don’t allow myself drugs or alcohol, and my heart doesn’t allow mindless gluttony. I wonder why escapism wasn’t one of the original seven deadly sins? Or does sloth cover it?

Reality can be relentless. Sometimes we want to turn it off. What’s you’re preferred method? Some people have perfect lives. They love every moment of living. Other people need occasional breaks from reality. They want to take a few hours off and think about something different. Then, there are the sad souls, who need to completely abandon their wretched fates. From hobbies to heroin, how do you switch channels on reality?


This makes me think about all the ways we interact with reality:

  • Manipulate reality for our needs (gather food, find mates, clean house)
  • Study reality (science, history, journalism, philosophy)
  • Admire reality (meditate on the beauty of nature, enjoy works of art)
  • Add to reality (create a beautiful work of art)
  • Destroy/create (Cut a tree down to build a house)
  • Mess with our perception of reality (drugs, fantasy, delusions)
  • Turn off (sleep, become unconscious, inward meditation)
  • Escape (create an alternate reality in your head for entertainment)

I’m using the word reality in a specific way. It’s everything that’s outside of myself. I like to think of conscience beings as black boxes floating in an infinite objective reality. We exist in our box of subjectivity, gathering input through our senses, constructing a model of reality. Much like the Holodeck in the old Star Trek show. We never perceive reality directly, only by interacting with our model. Reality is too vast to actual grasp or perceive directly, but being realistic means working with an effective model. Escapism is when we consciously choose to ignore our inputs from the external reality and use our modeling mechanism to create fantasies. I’m never sure if escapist fantasies are how we wish reality was, or if we just prefer our substitute models of realities?

When I was growing up, I used science fiction to escape reality. My parents were alcoholics that should have divorced. Instead, they dragged my sister and I around the country hoping to find greener grass for themselves. I don’t blame them in the least, because I know they were just coping with reality the best way they could. Because of their alcohol abuse and my own experiments with drugs, I know about the paths of chemical escapism. But for this essay I’m not going to explore them. Those are negative forms of escapism. Are there positive forms of escapism? Is reading a great novel a positive form of escape? Or is it still an unhealthy negative way of dealing with reality?

Should we always face up to reality? Should we continuously keep our eyes focused on living in the now? When J. K. Rowling wrote her Harry Potter books was she escaping reality, or creating an artistic work of art for reality? Or a little bit of both? Happy people are often people who spend most of their time concentrating on being creative. Is building a house more reality based than writing a science fiction novel? Is a news junky living more realistically than someone who binges on The Walking Dead? Both spend endless hours watching TV.

Does watching TV always equal escapism? What about compulsive novel reading? Is taking a two-week Mediterranean cruise escaping reality or embracing it? Is sleep the body’s natural form of escapism, or a neutral state when we cease to exist in reality or subjectivity? We are taught by mindfulness instructors our thoughts get in the way. That idle brain chatter keeps us from seeing reality. They claim sitting quietly, ignoring our thoughts, but observing reality intently, is the best way to live in the now. Is that true? When is reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon a better choice?

Is living in the now, with a razor sharp focus on our inputs from reality more important than being creative?

Last night, my TV-buddy Janis and I binged on the first three episodes of Good Girls Revolt, an original series on Amazon, about women working at a fictionalized Newsweek in 1969. It’s based on the nonfiction book, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace by Lynn Povich. The show is very entertaining – but it’s also making a statement about reality. So was this three hours of TV watching escapism or education? The story reminded me of Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Presentbecause dozens of women changed reality by pursuing lawsuits for equal treatment under the law. However, did Janis and I improve the accuracy of our models of reality what watching Good Girls Revolt? Or were we each escaping from other things we should be doing? Both of us have projects and obligations that would have benefitted from those three hours.

Is living a binary condition – where we exist either interacting with reality or hiding from it? Aren’t our ambitions about how we wish to alter reality? Isn’t the desire to get rich, laid, or fed essentially wanting to alter reality? Think about that for a moment though. Picture yourself as an amoeba, swimming around looking for something to eat or mate (assuming amoebas mate). Our soul is programmed to interact with reality like any other creature in existence. Could escapism just be another bodily function? Could we be programmed to find food, shelter and mates, and when not doing either, just kill time?

Take virtual reality (VR) – which we’re told is the next big thing in entertainment. Could there be a more perfect form of escapism? Isn’t VR a rejection of reality? They should market it as AR – alternative realities. Who really wants to simulate actual reality? What people want are better realities to take their minds off the fact their bodies exist in a reality of growing threats.

If you start thinking about it, are most of the great forms of escapism based on alternative realities. Books, movies, comics, television, are all designed to move you mind out of reality into an artificial construction. Think of it as Noah Ark for your mind. You read a science fiction novel hoping when you finish reality will be more appealing, and you’ll want to get back to work.

Which reminds me of all those people who want to travel to other planets. Isn’t space travel the ultimate form of escape? Wasn’t the film Interstellar all about escape? Time to toss Earth in the trash heap and head someplace new. I’m a lifelong science fiction fan, but that philosophy seems ugly to me. If we can’t build a perfect civilization on a paradise planet, why think we could do better elsewhere?

Look at the explosion of heroin addiction, the expanding acceptance of legal marijuana, the endless stories of designer drugs, or just sit in your car outside a liquor store and watch the steady flow of customers. I suppose the folks who can’t find comfort in fiction turn to chemicals.

Of course, healthier people have work and hobbies, and rich folk have conspicuous consumption. People with talent have art, invention and science, Caring people have charities to keep their minds focused. But if you’re sick and poor, what do you have?

What’s amazing is the small number of people actually working on solving the world’s problems. Most people pick escapism instead. You’d think working on solving our problems would be an overwhelmingly attractive form of escapism. It could keep our minds busy for the rest of our lives. Of course, I still can’t get over the fact that 7 billion minds lack the imagination to turn this planet into heaven. Evidently, as a species we’re pretty bad at parallel processing – or cooperation.

It’s rather ironic that Iraq and Syria, once cradles of civilization, are now our best examples of civilization collapse? People over there are about as close to reality as it gets. Maybe the purpose of civilization is to provide security from external reality, so we have time to indulge in artificial realities. Work is essentially manipulating reality. Play can be enjoying reality, like swimming at the beach, but quite often play is indulging in artificial realities – television, movies, plays, books, games, sports.

Traditionally, work is a virtue, and play is a vice, or at best a short vacation from work. Western culture teaches that reality is something we conquer, and idleness is a sin. Is that still true? I’m retired, and don’t have to work anymore. Many people do think of retirees as a burden on society. A large segment of the working age population can’t get work. Maybe we need to make new ways to interact with reality, and consider them new virtues.


What I’ve Learned After Three Years of Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 24, 2016

October 22nd was the 3rd anniversary of my last day at work. The time has zipped by, but I feel I’ve already gone through several psychological phases. For the first year I used to occasionally revisit my old work place, but I don’t do that anymore. Even though I was at the university for over 35 years, I no longer feel part of that world anymore. I’ve entered a new territory, and I’m slowly learning to colonize it.

Joining Medicare feels like the gateway to the land of the aging. I don’t feel old, but I know I’m new old. I’m in the toddler phase for growing up to be old old. I now ask about senior discounts, and I notice just how much advertising is targeted to the elderly. Am I eventually going to need all that stuff? (Home catheterization, lift chairs, slim fit adult diapers, hearing aids, step-in bathtubs, electric stair chairs, medical alerts, motorized chairs, etc. – and all those zillions of drugs.)


I now watch out for scams. I keep seeing stories on the news about con artists scamming the elderly. I don’t know if its my new wariness, but I sometimes do feel extra sales pressure at stores or from hired workmen. I screen all my house-phone calls. Even though I’m on the national do-not-call list, I still get lots of calls. I assume since most people have switched to cellphones, there’s far fewer landlines to cold-call. And they seem more desperate. Most of calls I get are about selling stuff to people my age. Is that direct marketing targeting, or are older Americans the only ones with land lines?

And I hate charity calls. I feel bad about saying no to worthy causes, but I resent they feel they have a right to call my house and interrupt my life. Because I’m one of the last people on Earth to have a landline, it means I get a lot of calls. I just don’t answer my phone anymore, letting my machine reply for me. Supporting charities that call my phone only encourages them to call more. It’s time that all telemarketing becomes illegal, even for charities. (I’ve had three calls while writing this essay this morning.)

I spend a lot of time alone. My wife still works out of town, so I only see her on weekends. I visit with friends, but I like being alone. I’m getting addicted to it. I love puttering around with my projects. I hate when strangers come to my door. I can feel myself evolving into a crotchety old man. I used to be polite to con artists, salesmen, and church people knocking on my door. Now I just get rid of them as fast as I can. I’m not mean, or rude, but cut their spiel off quickly. Who knows how nice I will be in ten years.

I love quiet – unless I want to play my music loud. And I love to play my music loud for an hour or two a day, especially when I nap. It’s emotionally uplifting to hear my favorite oldies when I’m coming in and out of consciousness of a nap.

And my taste in TV has taken a very weird turn lately. I don’t have the patience to watch movies anymore. I can watch them if I have friends over, but not alone. And I still love new TV shows if I’m watching with friends, but again, not alone. My attention span for TV has shorten. At night, when watching TV by myself, I’ve become addicted to seeing an old Perry Mason before going to bed. That’s about 45 minutes. Growing up Perry Mason was my mother’s favorite TV show, and The Fugitive was my father’s favorite show. I couldn’t stand either. I’ve always hated mysteries – either books, TV shows, or movies. But for some strange reason, since I signed up for Medicare I love Perry Mason. I can always spot who is going to get kill, but I never can guess the murderer. Are we supposed to figure that out? I always feel they’re pulling a fast one at the end, plot-wise. But I’m not sure I care. I love the show because it’s in black-and-white, has old 1950s and early 1960s cars, and all the actors and actresses aren’t beautiful and buff. They even have a fair amount of bald guys, wrinkled, and fat people. Folks I can identify with.

One thing I have to keep remembering about getting older, is young people often feel squeamish about our appearance. Of course, most of my women friends have a great deal of self-loathing for their looks. They often complain about themselves and others looking bad because of age. They find getting old depressing. It doesn’t bother me. At least not yet. I was never good looking to begin with. And I have started noticing the affects of age on my friends. But I prefer looking at old folks to young people. I have nothing against the young, but I just feel alienated from the world of youth. I’d love to move to a small 55+ community. Somewhere where it felt like thinning gray hair, sagging flesh, and baldness, was the norm.

Being retired means living with less stress. I want complete control over my environment and habits, and I want to avoid all surprises, which usually involve me breaking in some way, or the things I own breaking. Everything wears out. Being old is mainly about worry about wearing out. I’m having to spend hundreds on my HVAC this morning. A couple weeks ago I had to replace the roof. Too bad they don’t have Medicare for houses. I wonder which of us will go first, me or the house? I’m trying to time it so the house collapses around my body when my heart stops beating.

And like I said, I’m just a toddler at this getting old thing. What will it be like to be in my 70s, 80s, or 90s? I get the feeling I’ve got many more psychological phases to pass through.


Overcoming Inertia in Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In retirement you can do whatever want – if you’ve have the drive. Otherwise you do what you feel. That distinction might be meaningless to many. (I imagine old hippies replying, “If you’re following your feelings, you’re doing what you want.”) The difference defines ambition.

All too often I feel like kicking back in my recliner to daydream about writing while listening to favorite songs on Spotify, rather than actually writing at the keyboard. Just now I was lazing in my La-Z-Boy when this essay occurred to me. I told myself this morning my number one priority was to finish the essay I’ve been working on weeks for Book Riot, and then finish an idea I have for Worlds Without End. (I do have growing guilt over not working on them, but writing this is what I’m feeling.) The trouble is both Book Riot and Worlds Without End each have an essay in the can waiting to be opened, so the pressure to write another isn’t that driving. (BTW, I’m not blaming my laziness of them.)

countdown to ecstasy

In the middle-third of my life, I hated being trapped in the nine-to-five world of work. Before that, in the first third, I hated being imprisoned in the K-12 school system. But I’ve got to admit without that outside pressure I never would have learned much, or put in my 35-years of work. (At least I’m honest about my laziness.)

If this sounds like I’m wishing for someone to crack the whip over me, I’m not. Na, I’m just whining about my own lack of drive. I didn’t have it then, and I don’t have it now. I’ve always admired people who live like guided missiles, always on target. And that’s the confusing thing about retirement. It feels like I’ve reached the target. The social security years can feel like being in the queue for nonexistence. How we fight that is important. It defines the game in the last third of life.

Don’t assume I’m depressed. I’m never bored. I go to bed every night near midnight, regretting the day is over, and wishing I had more time. Every day I do get a few things done I want, but mostly I overindulge my whims. And that’s quite satisfying too, in a heroin kind of analogy. My problem is I have too many things I both want to do, and feel like doing. My lament is I spend too much time with Ben & Jerry’s, and not enough with broccoli. (Not literally, just another analogy.)

Being the puritanical atheist I am, I’m hung-up on doing productive work in my existential random existence.

Most people think retirement is all about not working – not me. I might have a minor guilt trip about being unproductive, but I’m not about to get a job, paid or unpaid. I won free-time millions in the retirement lottery, and just need to figure out how to wisely spend them. This means creating my own definition work. Right now, I gauge productivity in essays. Any day I finish an essay, feels like a productive day. Even if I write a navel-gazing one like this.

If I actually write a hard-to-conceive, hard-to-implement essay, that takes great effort and research, I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain. That’s when I believe I’ve won out over inertia. It’s how I redefine rolling my rock.


Best Links About Medicare

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 13, 2016

I have many friends like me who were born in 1951, and we’re all needing to sign up for Medicare this year. I’ve promised several of them I’d search the web for the best advice. Medicare is amazingly complicated, and can still be quite costly. Make the wrong decision, and you’ll pay. I provide these links with no warranty of accuracy. This page was created to help my friends and I find out more about Medicare, but if they’re helpful to you too, then great.

General Information

Of course, the first place to visit is Medicare.gov, but you actually sign up through Social Security. I’ve got to say, this site is information overload. They also publish Medicare & You 2016 as a pdf booklet. Plus Medicare.gov offers a whole series of publications, some in ebook format. And Medicare even offers a blog. Here is Medicare’s intro video:


My Medicare Matters from the National Council on Aging is a friendlier introduction to Medicare, but still intimidating.

Of course, everyone wants to know what Consumer Reports says.

This video gives a simple intro that’s the first step on a long journey.


This information came from UnitedHealthcare, so I don’t know what their vested interests are, but they have a site Medicare Made Clear, and a series of additional videos that explain more about Medicare on YouTube.


Medicare B & D vs. Medicare C (Medicare Advantage)

One thing that came up in the intro videos was the concept of Medicare Advantage. It seems very tempting because it combines several options into one plan. However, after watching this video I assumed it wasn’t for me. I don’t like insurance programs that limit choice of doctors and hospitals, but then I watched the second video.


Now I’m even more confused. “Medigap Vs. Medicare Advantage: Which is Better?” helps some. Probably if you live in a retirement community near good in-network support, and you don’t travel, Medicare Advantage might be a good deal. My fear is something catastrophic would happen to me, and I’d end up with monster medical bills I couldn’t pay without emptying my retirement savings.

It appears that Medicare Advantage often promotes preventative healthcare practices, and they will make sure you stay on top of your medical problems. That might outweigh the problems of working within a network.

Steve Vernon from CBS Money Watch writes, “Should you buy Medigap or Medicare Advantage plan?” Vernon offers additional links and essays on this topic, but I’m still just as confused and undecided. It seems your choice is between choosing parts B & D and spending around $150 a month, and choosing part C and paying lower monthly fees but with co-pays. Some plans have no monthly fees at all. Medicare Advantage sometimes includes dental and prescription drugs all rolled into one plan, but you’re restricted to which doctors and hospitals you can use.

Consumer Reports also has a page about “Medigap vs. Medicare Advantage.” It offers a nice comparison chart.

I then checked the entry on Wikipedia for Medicare Advantage. Evidently it’s a political issue to allow folks to find alternatives to Medicare. Medicare Advantage are private plans that are required to offer the same benefits as Medicare. By law, you can’t buy both. Medicare Advantage plans are more like HMOs or PPOs. If you enroll in a Medicare Advantage program, it collects money from the government’s Medicare program. Which explains why going to an out-of-network healthcare provider might cost you 100%. I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia entry several times. This statement is telling:

There is some evidence that sicker people and people with higher medical expenditures are more likely to disenroll from Medicare Advantage plans and go into Original Medicare instead,[6] which could be due to the more restricted networks of health providers or to the benefit design of the plans. The federal government makes risk adjusted payments to private plans to avoid this, but it is unclear how effective that policy is.

In other words, if you’re healthy, don’t go to doctors often, and have good in-network support, Medicare Advantage might save you a good deal on monthly costs. Which explains why the advisor in the first video picked it for her father.


Medicare Part D

Part D is drug coverage. You can buy Part D from a private insurance program in regular Medicare, or you can get drug coverage in a Medicare Advantage plan. Consumer Reports offers “How to find the best Medicare drug plan.” There are penalties for not signing up right away, but they are low enough to consider delaying participation – see the skepticism section below.





Supplemental Skepticism

What makes things really confusing are supplemental plans. These are insurance plans to cover costs Medicare doesn’t, including the infamous “donut hole.” More on the donut hole can be found at Wikipedia.

David Belk claims paying for supplemental insurance is basically giving your money away. He says supplement insurance doesn’t cover what a lot of people think it does. However, I’m skeptical of his skepticism.


This just adds to my decision agony. I want to avoid any chance of being stuck with a gigantic medical bill. I hear about that in the news more and more. Belk claims insurance companies are playing into that fear. Belk says insurance companies are mostly insuring against minor costs, not major ones. And they don’t cover what Medicare won’t cover. David Belk is a MD that maintains the website True Cost of Health-Care. He even claims that opting out of Part D might be a good option if you buy low-cost generic drugs out-of-pocket. Check GoodRx.com for drug pricing.

I was all ready to load up on supplemental insurance plans until I saw this video. Now I’m not so sure. However, there are penalties for delaying joining Part B & D. So for those folks who are willing to bet they will always be healthy, they can delay buying Part B & D, but they need to know about the penalties.

Mistakes to Avoid

The penalty for not signing up for Part B on time is stiff – one that lasts the rest of your life.

The penalties for not signing up for Part B & D can be add up to a lot. But there are exceptions. It appears if you are still working and have good insurance coverage you’ll be excepted. Watch out though, how long you go between ending private insurance and starting Medicare is important.

My guess is people trying to keep their monthly costs down will pick a low-cost Medicare Advantage plan, which is a Medicare approved alternative to signing up for Part B & D. These folks will have to go to network doctors, but they may get better preventative medical care. And if Wikipedia is right, these people will eventually switch to traditional Medicare when they get older and sicker, because traditional Medicare covers more.

I thought my monthly bill for health insurance would go down when I joined Medicare, but that won’t be true. The insurance I now get through work is an extremely good retirement perk. If I spring for Medigap insurance, I could end up doubling my existing monthly healthcare bill. However, I have friends that buy their own health insurance and they will save a lot of money.

It’s critical for people to sign up for Medicare promptly. Delay will cause penalties that could continue for the rest of their life. Life would be far simpler if we had a single-payer system. The freedom of options requires both extensive study and risk. There are many private companies offering a variety of options to avoid potential medical expenses. If you have a very small fixed income, you’ll have to navigate these waters very carefully. However, it also appears you can easily overpay searching for peace of mind. None of us know how long we will live, or what kind of healthcare burdens we will face. If we make a mistake in these decisions we could end up spending more each month from our fixed budget, or incur risks to our shrinking nest eggs.


The Williamson Effect–Losing Interest in Life

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 28, 2016

A friend of mine, before he died, called me to talk about life. His name was Williamson, and he was depressed. This was back on the first night of the Gulf War. Williamson said something then, a quarter century ago, that has always stuck with me. He said he was down to loving only two things in life. Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. I had gone to see The Allman Brothers with Williamson when Duane Allman was till alive. That was a long time ago. Williamson and I were buddies for a while in the 1970s, and we went different ways when I got a steady job.

Duane Allman Fishing 

Williamson hated working, always telling friends, “A job a good way to waste a life.” He spent his life avoiding the old nine to five, choosing to pursue endless hobbies and schemes hoping they’d pay off. They never did. I was surprised to hear from Williamson in August of 1990. The decades had changed him, and he was quite bitter. He called me a few times after that, and then disappeared. I heard later he died under mysterious circumstances.

I now worry when a friend tells me they are getting tired of things they used to love. I call it The Williamson Effect. I’m known to be a naturally happy person, even though I love to write about depressing subjects. I don’t know if I’m happy because of genes, or because I’m constantly searching out new things to love. Whenever I hear a friend suffering from The Williamson Effect I encourage them to try new things, especially music. I’m always amazed how a new artist and their music can revitalize my thinking.

I tried to convince Williamson that there was more to music than Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. He only sneered and belittled my then current favorites. Benny Goodman and Duane Allman are still on my main Spotify playlist, but so are Katy Perry and Sarah Jaffe, and I’m still living.