Officially Old

I once had the job of maintaining refrigeration equipment. Part of my job entailed noticing when something quit working in order to save the food before it got warm. Then I’d call Walt to fix it. I wanted to know when I was throwing good money after bad; when it was time to buy a new compressor rather than keep fixing the old ones. I would ask Walt for an opinion and his response was invariably, “How high is up?” And he would patch it together again.

This leads to the question of “How old is old?” Those compressors were old. I’d gotten them free from other stores that had gone out of business. (Some of them had been sitting out in a field at a dairy for years.)

My mom delivered Meals on Wheels. She referred to this as “delivering meals to the seniors”. She was in her late 70s at the time. She did not think of herself as old.

My daughter once asked if I were old. (I was 43 at the time of their birth.) I said, “You can call me old when you can beat me one-on-one in soccer.” By that standard I’m not yet old.

In the United States, one can begin to draw Social Security at age 62 (for most people). The amount you collect on a monthly basis continues to increase the longer you wait to begin collecting. At age 70, it’s about 40% more than if you start at 65. When you start to collect involves gambling against the house. How long are you going to live? When do you stop working? When do you need the money? Those are all questions to answer and I’m not here to answer them for you. Nothing in this post should be construed as financial advice.

In my case I decided I hoped to live for a long time and work past the “standard” retirement age. By waiting until monthly payments were at their maximum I hoped to win the bet. I calculated how long I’d have to live for the bet to pay off in terms of total dollars collected. (On a monthly income basis, it is paying off immediately, of course.)

I reached the age at which waiting served no purpose. I was at the maximum. That, I decided, made me “officially old” by one standard (though not the soccer standard). Social Security told me to apply in advance to get approved. It took them four months from the time I applied until they told me that I was eligible. Then they let me know that I would actually get my first payment two weeks after the month ended. One is not eligible to collect benefits for the month in which one dies so, to avoid taking chances, they don’t actually pay until the next month. That’s like telling your landlord you won’t pay your January rent until February 15 because you want to be sure your apartment isn’t destroyed by fire sometime during January, and you want two extra weeks just to be sure.

So the first Social Security payment has arrived. According to the US Government, I am old. I thought I would work right up until that date (at one point I thought I would work several years past that date) but a little bike trip changed that plan.

Social Security is known as an entitlement program. We’ve been trained to think that feeling entitled is a bad thing. The relevant definition of entitlement is “the right to guaranteed benefits”. Why am I entitled to this benefit? Because it is my money. I have been saving it for over 50 years – actually, the government has been saving it for me (since 1969) so I wouldn’t blow it on things like rent and food. So the next time you read the word “entitlement” in regard to Social Security, remember it is not referring to a “sense of entitlement”, meaning “the world owes me something because I’m special”, it means “I have a right to this money because it is mine”. If you put money in a bank savings account, would it be okay for the bank to decide not to give it back? Neither is it okay for the government to decide not to give back your own money that they’ve held onto for 50 years with the promise that it would be yours in retirement.

Had I kept working, I would now get my first raise in years. I was once represented by a union. (Wisconsin Act 10 changed that.) Each time we came into contract negotiations, management would tell us that their “market research” revealed that we were overpaid. They considered that research proprietary so they wouldn’t share it, or any evidence that it actually existed. One year they offered a 0% raise to occupational therapists (since we were overpaid but they decided it would be impolitic to cut our pay) and a fractional raise to physical therapists. Though our schooling and training were almost identical, they always made more than we did; and they were never overpaid. Through bargaining we all got a modest raise that year.

Our pay was based on a grid. PTs were a couple of steps higher on the grid than we were. Each grade had a range. Once you reached the top of the range for your pay grade, you never got a raise unless they changed the ranges. I worked my last several years at a flat (falling in real dollars) wage.

I had lunch with a former co-worker after retirement and learned that management had done some new market research and found that we were underpaid by two pay grades. (And apparently PTs were not underpaid as badly as OTs…surprise, surprise.) How much that means in dollars I don’t know and I think I don’t want to find out. If I were still working I would be getting my first raise in years about now. If I wanted to be working, I’d be bitter. Instead I’ll just go ride my bike. Retirement wins.

Phil Ochs – “When I’m Gone”

Not to be overly morbid but, when you write about aging, death is looking over your shoulder to make sure you get it right. On a recent indoor bike ride, I watched the movie “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” (available via the Kanopy streaming service at your local library). Have I mentioned that the public library may be the pinnacle of civilization? No offense to the folks who put up Little Free Libraries, but these big libraries are also free.

Ochs was one of the greatest singer/songwriters who ever lived. Imagine if Bob Dylan had continued to write topical songs and had the voice of an angel. Dylan famously denigrated Ochs by telling him he wasn’t a folksinger, but a journalist; but his satire was too powerful to call it journalism. (Ochs also didn’t consider “journalist” an insult.) “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” and “War is Over” are way beyond journalism. In introducing “Love Me”, he said a liberal is someone who is 10 degrees left of center, but when it’s personal, he’s 10 degrees right of center. “War is Over” imagines simply declaring war to be over. He held a march in NYC declaring the end of the war in Viet Nam as a piece of political/street theatre, to see how people would react. In “Small Circle of Friends” he looked at the phenomenon of people “not wanting to get involved”. The impetus was the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, with the news reporting that people heard her screams but didn’t call the police because they “didn’t want to get involved”. Ochs puts that story and others to music with banjo, honky tonk piano, and snare drum – a vicious satire juxtaposing good-time music with a chilling message.

I saw him near the end of his life. (Concerts Wiki tells me it was February 1, 1974 in a benefit for The Wounded Knee Defense Fund. He died in April of 1976.) He had broken his hand – he said he had punched a wall the night before – so playing the guitar was a challenge (at least it was his right hand). Nonetheless, he played through his pain and it was an evening to remember.

Ochs was already contemplating his own mortality with this song. It is not about dying as much as it is an exhortation to not waste our lives but to live them fully while we’re here.

In that spirit I will ride the Horribly Hilly Hundreds this spring. I have to admit, 70 sounds old – much older than 65 sounded.

I just collected another 2 liters of sap. That may be it for a while. The temperature is dropping as the day progresses (colder at noon than it was at 6 AM) and a snowstorm (possible blizzard with 35 mph winds and up to 10 inches of snow) is on the way.

I am just a vagabond, a drifter on the run

And eloquent profanity, it rolls right off my tongue.1

One of my favorite couplets, I had to find a way to use it. Four years ago, I rode across the country as a gainfully-employed healthcare professional. A job and 15 patients/day not that I could see that many) awaited my return. Today I ride across that same country, just a vagabond. No job awaits. I am a retired person. When I arrived in Gloucester, MA four years ago I wasn’t ready to stop riding. I wanted to turn around and ride home. This time, that is theoretically possible. (I say “theoretically”, as I am not on a bike suited to carrying heavy loads, so that would mean shipping stuff home and relying on motels and restaurants.)

While I have done this before, all that does is make me over-confident. Have I trained enough this time? After, all, I’m four years older now; pushing 70. Getting into shape comes more slowly, as does recovery.

“Roll um easy” sounds like good advice. There is no rush. The other coast will be there when I get there. Okay, so there’s a schedule – I do have to be at a campsite each night if I want a place to sleep and eat. But how I do that each day is open for consideration. Last time I was tempted to turn around and ride Needles Highway a second time. I can do that if I want. I was into camp plenty early every day – I could ride it twice if I want to.

It is not the same country I rode through four years ago. Even if it were, all I have to do is look to the other side of the road (from the one I was looking at last time) at any given moment and I would be seeing something different this time.

Day 2 Skykomish to Wenatchee.

We awoke in a cloud. If it gets much colder I’ll have to wear my fleece tights to sleep. I wore most of my non-biking warm things last night. We stayed in that cloud as we climbed Stevens Pass. Climbing for 16 miles is all that kept us warm. While Stevens Pass is only a little over 4000 feet, we started at about 800 feet, so it was a 3200 foot net gain. We came into snow at 3200 feet. I passed a snow tunnel (where the snow had melted over a stream but was otherwise intact). I thought about a picture but didn’t really want to stop. About 100 yards later I came upon a full bottle of beer (Modelo). I thought a photo op in the snow with a beer sounded like a great idea (for someone else) so I didn’t stop again. I did stop at Deception Falls to go over the falls in a barrel before getting back on the bike. See the post from 4 years ago for photo. I shot video but have no Wi-if connection here so won’t try to upload it today. No stop at the red caboose, but there is a photo (and maybe a little essay about childcare) four years ago so check it out. I’m not providing a link, since it’s a bit of a pain with the phone app. I likewise didn’t stop at the Iron Goat Interpretive Site but, as a public service, it’s the Cabra de Fierro Sitio Interpretivo. I could maybe get that interpreted in French, Greek, or Afrikaans if I asked around.

The song for the morning climb (to which I cannot provide a YouTube link due to lack of internet access) was “Easy Skankin’” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I changed the lyric to “easy spinnin’” to keep a rhythm for the climb. Since I can’t listen to it, you go ahead without me.

Visibility at the pass was near zero but the staff were waiting with brownies as a consolation for the lack of view. Heading down the pass involved some serious evaporative cooling. My feet were numb and I kept shaking out my hands to get feeling back. At mile 25 the sun came out for the first time in the four days I’ve been here and at mile 44 I shedded multiple layers.

Descending along the Wenatchee River was breathtakingly beautiful. Most of the best views were in places where I couldn’t take pictures, so you just get the two below.

We rode through orchards. (If you look at apple or pear boxes you may see “Wenatchee Valley” or “Lake Chelan”. That’s where we are.) We saw apples , pears, grapes, cherries, and hops. The sunscreen was packed away so my face is slightly burned. It is >80 degrees F here.

Tomorrow will be the first day >100 miles. No rain in the forecast at either end, at the moment.

Tonight’s dinner was memorably wonderful. A green salad, a spinach and strawberry salad, slaw, pineapple, oranges, grapes, watermelon, rice and broccoli, a noodle dish, garbanzo beans in a fabulously spicy sauce, and ice cream. There was also chicken, but I was plenty happy without it. When I remarked that the plates weren’t big enough to hold it all, the cook said “That’s what seconds are for.” It was clearly not FHB night.

The post-dinner meeting let us know about a little route alteration, increasing distance to 107 miles, with lunch at 62; meaning I’m glad I replaced the calories burned today; and I’ll need some snacks to tide me over. Forty miles is my limit without food.

After the regular meeting there was a special meeting for the coast-to-coast riders. (Not everyone is here for the duration.) The meeting was getting long when someone ran in to announce that tents were flying away and bikes were falling over. After battening down the hatches, I’m ready for bed. I won’t cover the bike tonight, as I’m afraid that would only give the wind encouragement.

The rhythm of this life is pretty simple and satisfying – get up in the morning, dress, pack everything away, load the trailer, eat breakfast, ride. Arrive at camp, unload the trailer, hang everything to dry, then pitch the tent, clean and lube the bike, take a shower, and change. Hang out until dinner and a meeting. Set out clothes for tomorrow. Go to bed. Rinse, repeat.

1 Lowell George, “Roll Um Easy”, 1973


I worked my last day yesterday!
First song I remember learning to play on the harp
Never heard the lyrics – knew the instrumental version

You want writing? Hey, I’m retired. Few words today. Let me let this sink in. Off to Cannon Falls, MN to drop off my bike so it can meet me in Seattle. The bike is ready. Two weeks to get me ready.

PS: I got out just in time (I hope). Four more therapists are out with COVID-19.

School’s out! or Take This Job and Shove it.

Today is the last day. After 23 years I will drop my cell phone, key, computer, dictation microphone, and photo ID at my supervisor’s office (it being Saturday, she’s not here) and walk out of this hospital for the last time. I’ll try not to let the door hit me in the ass on the way out.

And I’ll pretend it’s hay fever as I walk out. 😉