This week was a blur. Not enough productivity, too much sliding down the wormhole to the past. Some days the lack of focus is so hard to overcome that you might as well pack it in. Eat another muffin, watch another concert video on Youtube. This is one of those days when the rain and the return to cold is dragging me down (and I’m actually considering retiring in Seattle one day? Hmmm). I’m not feeling this day.
Claudine and I have been having a regular exchange almost weekly where she goes to put her dirty clothes in the laundry basket and upon discovering that it’s full, walks up to me all huffy, but in a totally deadpan way says, “you’re really bad at doing laundry.” And then we go back and forth for a few minutes of banter, her stare almost challenging me. When she walks away rolling her eyes, I question whether or not that conversation actually took place, mostly because I stooped to the level of a 6 year old with my immature retorts back to her. Sadly, she is right. I hate doing laundry with a thousand passions so it often does pile up. I’m staring at the laundry right now, in fact. I was thinking recently how true it is that being a parent keeps us accountable in so many ways. The kids keep us in check and their school schedule is the rhythm that provides the structure to our days. If I didn’t have to walk them to school every morning, I probably wouldn’t leave the house or get to sleep at any reasonable hour that makes it possible to interact with humans in the rest of the working world. Meals too. They’re probably the reason we even have food in the fridge.
So thanks girls, for saving me from a life of take-out and TV dinners and vampire hours. You make me laugh when you make my bed for me, even better than how I make it, but leave me a post-it note on the pillow reminding me to thank you. You make me smile when you offer to give me a foot massage, squeezing my feet with little fingers for all of 2 minutes before dropping my foot like a hot potato and running off when your sister wants to play with you. You make me look forward to birthday week with your schemes and whispers behind my back even if I’d rather forget the fact that I’ll be turning another year older. Your enthusiasm for even the mundane things in life is the spark that keeps me going on days like this.
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Retirement. I know…that word.
Doesn’t seem like this impossibly far away thing anymore and I woke up one day rather consumed by it as if a switch went off overnight, much like when I knew I wanted to have a baby.
I wasn’t taught as a kid about money and saving, though I wish I had been. I don’t blame my parents; it wasn’t in their culture or upbringing to know about things like retirement accounts or even savings accounts for that matter – not when you come from a poor, wartime childhood. I also think in traditional Asian cultures, children are expected to take care of the elderly so retirement planning isn’t quite what it’s like here, though that may be changing. My mom used to stubbornly tell me that we wouldn’t be left with the burden of taking care of her in retirement and that she wouldn’t want to live with us if that time ever came. Well, that remains to be seen, but it certainly signals a shift in her part from generations before her.
I’ll also divulge this, which is (or maybe was?) another cultural thing that I would later realize was not necessarily a given among my peers: it was always assumed that college would be paid for by my parents so I didn’t come out of school with student loan debt. Going to a scholarship based school certainly helped (though because of mounting financial deficits, Cooper Union is controversially considering charging students tuition for the first time, which would challenge its defining philosophy of free education when it was founded in the 1850s). My parents paid for everything. Maybe this sounds incredibly privileged, but I didn’t know any differently. All of this, however, made me fairly naive about money until I got my first job. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the value of money and I suppose I was fiscally responsible enough to never go into credit card debt, but I didn’t learn the importance of saving until I was 30 and at that age I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do.
That said, I don’t know if it would have been possible for me to start saving for retirement before I started at 30. I spent much of the 90s in school, stretching out my undergraduate studies to 6 years when I switched majors and schools, and then going to grad school which I did take out loans for – a whopping 60k debt which I was determined – and did – pay off within 8 years. But when I read articles of how compound interest works, it makes me wish that I had started saving earlier, that someone had pulled me aside and showed me a picture of the future and how saving even a little bit every month could change what we could be sitting on today. As it turned out, my long time accountant who retired last year, was the first adult in my life who urged me to open an IRA at 30 and for that I will be forever grateful.
I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about how our generation is screwed mostly because of the timing of the housing and market crashes, not to mention the whole social security debacle. It’s likely that many of us will never accumulate the wealth that the baby boomers have been able to build (though interestingly enough, this article suggest that the picture for 20-somethings might actually be better than those in their 30s). If you ever want to give yourself anxiety, just read any article on retirement. Guaranteed to make you depressed instantly! Despite the fact that I don’t feel prepared for retirement with what we have saved so far (and I recognize that everyone’s comfort level is relative and personal) I also know that we’re doing better than a good percentage of Americans. Sometimes it takes a real scare to put things into motion and as counterproductive as it sounds, I’ve been reading these articles to scare myself into being more proactive about retirement planning and learning all I can about investing. I’ve not much of a big consumer, though I certainly like to buy things and do prioritize our spending, but no material purchase will ever feel greater than being able to sock away that money instead. So starting this year I have new goals: max out retirement, but continue to save for family vacations even if that means buying less stuff. That ugly ceiling light in our room that I’ve been dying to replace can wait a little longer, I guess. “Buy experiences and not things” is still a philosophy that is really holding true for me.
Ironically, I don’t have a clear vision of what the future holds for us in 2, 5 or 10 years, but I can visualize a 20 year plan now that has strangely calmed my nerves. In between now and then, however, remains a big question mark. Job stability and career longevity seem like a thing of the past and we have college to deal with in only 9 years. If private colleges are already costing 40k in tuition a year, what will it be in 9 years? All of this is scary stuff.
I keep coming full circle to the fact that it’s really important to teach our kids about saving money and the value of compound interest. Who knows what the world will be when they become adults? The education about money has to start at home. I don’t know if I can give my girls the gift of debt-free undergraduate education like my parents gave me, but what I can give them that my parents weren’t able to is an earlier start by teaching them about money while they’re still young. I also plan to open a Roth IRA for each of the girls as soon as they graduate from college to get their start in retirement early. I do believe it’s one of the most valuable gifts you can give your kids.
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We had parent teacher conferences last week and as I was waiting for my turn and looking around at all the artwork in the hallway, I noticed the “kindness wall” created by C’s class. It was filled with annotated drawings by the kids that demonstrated various acts of kindness as conceived and interpreted by 6 year olds. It made me think how interesting it is that we need to reinforce and teach kindness, selflessness and compassion to children. Aren’t these traits already inherent in human nature? Or is our natural instinct to protect our own best interest? I don’t really know the answer, but I do know that I sometimes need to gently nudge the girls towards the more selfless path when given a choice or faced with a decision. The younger one sometimes has a hard time understanding this, and this was fairly evident when we talked recently about donating some of her toys to kids who lost everything during the storm. She agreed after some resistance to the idea, but I’m not sure she really “got it”. This is probably a typical response from any little kid so it makes me think, is compassion and selflessness something that needs to be taught and nurtured?
I’ve seen a lot of acts of kindness throughout the city the last few weeks. It’s unthinkable to even consider where we’d be if people didn’t step up to volunteer and help their fellow citizens. Kind of gives you hope for the world. But I think I’m most impressed by the dedication demonstrated by those people who gave their time and energy even while dealing with their own losses from the storm. This includes people that I know, many of whom are fellow small food business owners. I don’t know what motivates some people to roll up their sleeves and jump in. Maybe you draw on some past experience and know what it’s like to go through hard times yourself. Or maybe you were raised with these values and had exceptional role models. To feel compassion but to actually act upon those feelings are 2 slightly different things. I look at that “kindness wall” and realize that it’s not enough to talk. It’s probably best to lead by example and not just make it part of your vocabulary, but part of your way of life. I may not always succeed at this, but like any parent, you hope that some of this gets absorbed by your children so that they can grow up to be compassionate adults.
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I think Claudine takes after me in more ways than one, but the thing I’m noticing lately is just how particular she is about things and how she belabors over certain decisions. I always think that the most stressful part of Project Runway is when they have to shop at Mood Fabrics and I can never ever be on that show (well, other than the fact that I’m not a fashion designer) purely because of the fact that I can take FOREVER deciding on a purchase. The last time I was at Mood I spent about an hour and a half just choosing 3 yards of a single linen. I think that part of the competition alone would be the death of me. I had to chuckle over the summer when a cousin of ours wanted to buy the girls rings at a jewelry store and Claudine agonized over which ring to choose. It was pretty painful, but we tried to be patient because she took it all so very seriously and was obviously tortured by the decision. At one point, she took a ring over to the middle of the store underneath a skylight where the light was shining down and held the ring between her fingers over her head to the light to get a closer look. I was anticipating a melt down if she didn’t find a ring she eventually liked, but she did, much to the relief of everyone.
This weekend’s pumpkin picking was a similar experience. Mia found her pumpkin right away and promptly named it “Bob”. I saw Claudine walk off into the distance away from everyone else looking intently. She was quiet and serious and wearing a scowl on her face so I didn’t know if something had upset her. Mark and I tried to help by pointing out perfectly round pumpkins for her. She would quickly inspect them and move on, unsatisfied. After about a half hour I saw her pick a pumpkin up and smile. She brought it over to us, obviously happy with her choice. When we were able to get a look at what she had picked, we were surprised. Her pumpkin was elongated, a little odd shaped and mottled green on one side, orange on the other. She told us that she was searching for a pumpkin that was not like any others, that was different and unique. Here we were lining up these perfectly round, orange pumpkins for her to check out and that’s not what she was looking for at all. The girl definitely knows what she wants.
ps. corn mazes are like the stuff of nightmares.
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Is that a word? Undramatizing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that over the weekend. We seem to be chasing after it with Claudine who’s at an age where everything is full on drama, magnified by the fact that she’s very sensitive about a lot of things. It’s a phase I’m sure, and one that I know we’ll have some respite from, at least until the teenage years hit.
But I’ve also been learning how to do this myself. Had a bad day Friday and I went into a panic and straight into triage mode. But all the while I kept thinking to myself, I know how to do this, it’s scary, but we know how to do this, so it wasn’t a complete freakout. By the weekend I had devised a plan and I even examined the chain of events as some sort of sign. I even announced to Mark on Sunday that I had decided that I wasn’t going to work anymore, that I was retiring early. Of course it was a joke, but at that moment when the words were coming out of my mouth, I kind of believed it. Maybe what I actually believed was the unspoken implication by that statement that I was ready for a career change. It was certainly worth probing into a little more deeply. By Monday, things had mellowed out considerably and things didn’t feel so dire.
Today, I feel grateful for what we have. I’m grateful that we have the skills to jump into action and be resourceful when we need to. A lot of this comes from experience I think, of hitting rock bottom and knowing that you can climb out of it because you’ve done it before. I’m grateful to have friends who I can meet, email or text when I need to vent (no phone calls, ha! Who am I kidding). I never take this for granted because I didn’t have these kinds of friendships for years. They can be hard to find, so if you have them, hold on to them. I’ve made a point to meet with a friend almost every other day since the girls have been back at school and things tend to percolate and happen when you’re out in the world.
I also appreciate my mom’s completely unemotional advice when it comes to business and work matters. Being a business woman herself, she’s dealt with it all and works through issues in a very methodical manner. I called her Sunday when the wave of panic had largely subsided just to catch up. I was fairly unemotional about things myself at that point, but her response was a dry, “something else will come up.” I think our entire phone call lasted all of 7 minutes. Sometimes you just want some comfort and sympathy from your mom even though you’re an adult, you know? But when we hung up I just had to laugh at our phone call. Such an undramatic, practical response.
But I put the phone down and just nodded, yup.
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Pike Place. Touristy. Crowded. Never really changes.
Yet, every year we find ourselves walking down that steep hill towards the market even though some years we think about skipping it. Sometimes Pike Place is too hectic with little kids. Not so easy pushing a stroller through the crowds when they were younger, and more recently, it’s sometimes hard to see them in a sea of people if you momentarily lose grip of their hand. Last year Mark and I even walked around by ourselves while the kids stayed with grandma and had the best leisurely time, but maybe 2 years in between visits for the kids is long enough for some things to change because we had a great morning at the market with the girls. They were more interested in going into all the little stores on the lower levels, looking at the dahlias, sampling some food. The young, 20 something guy at one of the cheese stands even told us that the girls were by far the most polite kids he had seen in a long time. They asked for samples, said thank you and wanted to know where they could dispose of their toothpicks. I looked around me and said “really??”. Not that I didn’t believe him, and Mark gave him a knowing nod since he deals with kids who come to his table at the Flea grabbing handfuls of samples and running off and such, but it was a reminder that yeah…maybe we’re doing something right even if it sometimes feels like we’re not.
The thing is, the girls are at a point in their relationship right now where they bring out the best AND the worst out of each other when they’re together. If there was ever a time where it felt like us against them, this would be it. Separately apart, they’re like different personalities, but when they’re together they gain the confidence to be a little more defiant, a little less responsive when disciplined, always pushing the boundaries of how far they can push. I think this might be the hardest part of parenting – keeping your frustrations in check (as was the case today when we took a family shopping trip to Fairway). Nothing and no one has tested my patience more and I always thought I was a patient person pre-kids, but I’ve now realized that I’m not as patient as I once thought. Having kids certainly has a way of holding up a mirror firmly in place so you can’t escape some aspects of your personality that you’d rather ignore. But like a lot of things in life, you all jump in it together and learn along the way. I think that’s why I stopped reading parenting books a long time ago; every situation, every family dynamic, and every child is different. When there are days when you think you’re not doing such a great job because you spend too much time dwelling on the things that aren’t going so well, a random stranger can look at the situation from the outside and make an observant comment to reign it all back in. We’re doing ok.
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