Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - Europe in a Wheelchair

"I have a disability, yes that's true, but all that really means is I may have to take a slightly different path than you." Robert Hensel

We were warned beforehand that "doing Europe" in a wheelchair would be a challenge. "There's no Americans with Disabilities Act there," they said. Ancient ruins, medieval castles, and Renaissance cathedrals just weren't built for the mobility impaired, nor were the cobblestone streets and piazzas. Facing these obstacles would be difficult both for the rider and for the pusher, we were told. While new construction is often handicap-friendly, anything older than five years in Italy and Portugal isn't likely to easily accommodate an American-size wheelchair.
Undaunted, we opted to adopt author Shane E. Bryan's attitude as we contemplated our trip:
"I do not have a disability, I have a gift! Others may see it as a disability, but I see it as a challenge. This challenge is a gift because I have to become stronger to get around it, and smarter to figure out how to use it; others should be so lucky."
We decided up front that we wouldn't stay home, but we would cheerfully do as much as we could do and not worry about what we couldn't do. We took Stephen Hawking's counsel to heart:
"My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn't prevent you doing well, and don't regret the things it interferes with. Don't be disabled in spirit as well as physically."
I studied travel guides and videos extensively to see where we could go and where we couldn't go. Some places we wanted to see - like Pompeii - seemed to not work at all for a wheelchair tourist. Some places we wanted to stay - like the 12th Century castle in Óbidos, Portugal, now a swanky hotel - were totally inaccessible to us. Some activities we wanted to tackle - like a semi-private tour of the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum - cancelled our reservation when they learned we had a wheelchair because it's impossible for a wheelchair to come into the Sistine Chapel via the regular path.
So we found other options. When we were dropped from the semi-private tour, we found a private guide who could bring us to the Sistine Chapel the back way, through the Vatican Museum. In lieu of the Óbidos castle, we booked a stay at a 5-Star hotel built in a 15th Century fortress on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and had one of the best meals of our lives at their Michelin-rated restaurant. We avoided the water taxis in Venice and took a larger boat tour to three enchanting islands in the nearby lagoon. There were a few places where Marcie read a book while I explored an ancient castle, but mostly we did things we could do together.
Because there is so much to see and do in Italy and Portugal and so little time (2½ weeks), we had no trouble filling our itinerary with tons of stuff within our realm of possibility. In fact, by narrowing down the choices somewhat, our "limitation" actually made planning a lot easier.
We did encounter some challenges during our journey. For example, many of the handicap entrances to historic building were out of the way and difficult to reach. Several elevators were so narrow that Marcie had to stand up in them while I folded her chair so it would fit. Some of the Italian hill towns severely tested both of us, challenging my physical strength pushing the chair going up and her courage staying in the chair coming back down.
We determined to laugh and take all these obstacles in stride. We remembered another piece of sage guidance from Stephen Hawking:
"If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well."
Perhaps because of our smiles (and my wife's can charm almost anyone anywhere), we met kind and helpful people everywhere, like the policeman in Sintra, Portugal, who commandeered a handicapped parking space for us near the Castelo da Pena; or the handsome band of teenage boys who pushed the chair for us up the last hundred yards of steep hill in San Gimignano, Italy; or the thoughtful staff of the Douro River cruise boat who arranged our own private table on the main deck so we didn't have to go downstairs to the dining room.
We came across modern buildings in which the handicap bathrooms are far better than those found in the states. We learned that most museums and historic areas offer free admission to those in wheelchairs. We found the views from a wheelchair to be every bit as beautiful as from any other vantage point. We discovered that we could be as happy as we made up our minds to be, even with a wheelchair.

So what's my advice? GO! Figure out what you can do and don't worry about the rest. Get past your "limitations" and savor every opportunity. We can truthfully say our experience was wonderful in every way.

Wednesday Wisdom - Hidden Gems Amongst the Crown Jewels


"Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!" Mae West 
When you're seeing first-hand the grandeur of the Coliseum, the artistry of the Sistine Chapel; the majesty of St. Peter's Basilica; the stunning magnificence of Michelangelo's David or Botticelli's The Birth of Venus; the opulence of Venice's Grand Canal; the unrivaled beauty of Siena's Duomo (yes, even better than Florence's Duomo, IMHO); or the grand mountaintop summer palaces of the Portuguese kings in Sintra, there is a danger of your senses becoming overloaded and jaded to everything else around you. 

After two weeks in Europe, Marcie and I weren't expecting to be impressed when our driver dropped us off at the São Bento Train Station in Porto, Portugal, early one morning to begin a rail and boat tour of the Douro River Valley. Yes, we'd heard that our time on the river would be breathtaking - which it was - but we never imagined we'd discover an unforgettable gem before we even got on the train.

The São Bento Train Station in Porto, Portugal

Porto is more a working-class city than a tourist attraction. While the São Bento train station is lovely from the outside, we were blown away by the interior, which is an unpretentious but absolutely gorgeous work of art. We later learned that it was completed in 1903 and is considered by many travelers as one of the world's most beautiful train stations.

The walls in the front hall are covered with more than 20,000 of Portugal's finest "azulejos," the exquisite hand-painted blue tiles for which the country is famous. Those on the ends of the building depict great events in Portugal's rich history and those on the sides show delightful scenes of everyday life in the Portuguese countryside. Above the tiles, forming a crown molding around the entire room, are brightly-colored tiles that illustrate the progression of transportation from Roman times to the 20th Century.

Fortunately we had the time to savor this hidden gem of a workaday public building before our train carried us away to view scenery as delightful as Tuscany's. Fortunately we weren't so star-struck by other "grander" sights that we failed to notice this unassuming masterpiece.      

These so-called "lesser lights" were as essential to our enjoyment of our vacation as the blockbusters. For every Venice and its Grand Canal, there was a colorful fishing village of Burano, with friendly people, brightly colored houses, and its own Pisa-like leaning bell tower.
The main square on the island of Burano in the Venetian Lagoon.

For every Florence and its Galeria Uffizi, there was a charming Tuscan village of Pienza with its humble church, grand views, and Via Dell' Amore ("Lover's Lane").


For every Palácio da Pena perched on a rugged and regal mountaintop in Sintra, Portugal, there was an Óbidos with its more-modest castle and its 12th century walls that completely encase the village and stand a full 45 feet tall.

The history books say that when 13th-century Portuguese Queen Isabel passed through Óbidos and marveled at its beauty, her husband King Denis I simply gave it to her. For centuries after, the kings of Portugal followed suit, presenting the picturesque little town to their queens as a wedding gift. It is now known as the wedding capital of Portugal. 


This trip reminded Marcie and me that the world is made of much more than Five Star Attractions and E-Ticket Rides. Sometimes the less acclaimed settings and experiences are just as wonderful as the prima donas, if we'll just slow down enough to spot them and savor them.
Life is much richer when it is a mixture of super-star moments together with more modest but equally important and equally beautiful day-to-day discoveries and celebrations. We're grateful our time in Italy and Portugal was chock-full of both.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - Seeing the World Differently

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust

The Pena Castle in Sintra, Portugal

Marcie and I just returned from 2½ glorious weeks in Italy and Portugal, a trip that has been on our bucket list for quite some time. It was by far our longest vacation ever. We designed our own itinerary and made our own arrangements, with the aid of a superb travel agent. We had no children or traveling companions, just the two of us. We love being together and that left us free to fully soak up these two grand and colorful cultures.

During our adventure we experienced far too much to adequately describe here, even with pictures, but some highlights include: castles, cathedrals, country villas, art, museums, music, food, friendly people, great weather, orchards, gardens, forests, new discoveries (like eating barnacles - delicious!), beaches, mountains, canals, the Tuscany countryside, walled and hilltop towns, Douro River cruise, romance, extraordinary beauty everywhere. (Look me up on Facebook if you want to see more.)

The fishing village of Burano, Italy

One of the most valuable things travel affords me is the opportunity to experience the world afresh, with a new perspective and through a new set of eyes. Seeing how others live today and how they lived millennia ago changes the way I see my own life. I return from a foreign visit alive with creativity, because "a new set of eyes brings a day full of possibilities." (Mama Deb) Stepping away from my daily routines - and even out of my comfort zone - frees me to re-think what I'm doing, how I'm doing it, and why.
Another result of travel is that the essence of the places I visit becomes woven into the blood and sinew of my being. Being there changes me. What I see and hear and smell and feel and taste on foreign soil transforms me into a more informed and understanding person, leaving me more compassionate, humble, tolerant, flexible, and grateful. It is true, as Anita Desai writes, that "wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow." I feel I am now a bit Italian and a bit Portuguese, yet no less American than before.

The Alhambra Room in the Palacio da Bolsa in Porto, Portugal

When I was growing up on a small dairy farm in Fruitland, New Mexico, our family of 14 didn't travel much at all. There were simply too many people, too little money, and too few occasions to escape the urgency of milking cows twice a day. Maybe that's why in my later years I cherish every opportunity I have to visit other countries. This most recent expedition changed me in profound ways: I have a new set of eyes and a new heart. Having seen more of the rest of the world, I now see my own world differently. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - Real Men Don't Wear Knee Pads



"A man's got to know his limitations."
Harry Callahan/Clint Eastwood

I guess it's time to confess to something very un-macho: I sometimes wear knee pads when I work in the garden.
My children gave them to me for Christmas and I initially resisted the notion of wearing them. Unmanly and not cool, I thought.
But my children also gave me two large bunches of red onion plants, and by the time I had a fourth of them planted, my knees were rebelling against my male vanity. Out came the new knee pads and voila! Sudden comfort! Rebellion over! With my new protection in place, I had the rest of the onions in the ground in no time.
Uncool? Perhaps.
Un-macho? Without a doubt.
Comfortable? Absolutely!
One of the nice things about being almost 65 is that I no longer worry what other people think of me. People who love me will keep on loving me even with those goofy-looking things strapped around my legs, and those who don't, don't matter after all.
As my hero Dirty Harry said, a man's got to know his limitations. One of mine is that I don't have 5-year-old knees any more, and if I don't take care of the ones I've got, some orthopedic surgeon is going to cut them out and install some artificial ones in their place.
No thanks. I think I'll go with the unmanly, goofy-looking knee pads for as long as possible. Thanks, children, for looking out for your old man.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - Don't Pull Up the Bonus Broccoli!


Very few people know about "bonus broccoli."

The first time I raised broccoli I harvested some large lovely heads, plump and full and rich dark green. Then, being the efficient gardener that I was, I started pulling up all the old plants and planting something else in the space.
A more experienced gardener saw what I was doing and rushed over to try to head off my mistake. "If you leave them alone for a few weeks, they'll grow more heads," she told me. "The plants may look a little ragged at this stage but they've still got lots more production left in them."
The next season when I harvested broccoli, I took her advice and let the plants grow after the first harvest. Just as she had told me, those older plants started producing more broccoli. The heads weren't quite as large during the second round as the first crop, but they were still excellent broccoli. And they kept going for several more weeks. I ended up picking about three extra months' worth.
Now that I understand how broccoli grows, I am able to harvest three or four times more broccoli per planting than I used to, simply by not being so hasty to get rid of the old plants.
I call these extra months of production "bonus broccoli." It's a nice return on my garden investment, because all it costs me is a little patience. My experienced gardener friend's instruction was correct: there is still a lot of production left in those mature plants and it's foolish to pull them up too quickly.

* * * * *
In my work as a retirement planning expert, I help lots of folks in their early 60s. Some come to me after receiving the devastating news that they have just been laid off from their long-term job.
Losing your job at that stage of life is a bitter pill to swallow. Your paycheck and your benefits are gone, as well as your sense of identity. But more significantly, it also means you're very unlikely to find a new position similar to your previous one. It's sad but undeniable - even if it's illegal, age discrimination is alive and well in 21st century America. You may get an interview but if you have gray hair, you probably won't get hired.
I'd like to tell employers who are thinking of firing long-time faithful employees the same thing that experienced gardener once told me about broccoli:
Mister, you're making a big mistake. You're being too hasty. There's still plenty of production left in that seasoned employee.
Don't pull up the bonus broccoli!
Besides their actual production, mature workers bring a number of intangibles to the table. They may not be as flashy as a new batch of replacement millennials, but the wisdom and common sense they bring to the job will serve you and your company well. They introduce a work ethic to your organization that the youngsters just don't have. They're more stable. They're less likely to wilt under pressure, or drag their "life-traumas" to the workplace.
Don't pull up the bonus broccoli!
Today's retirees need more flexibility. Some can't wait to retire, while others enjoy their job and want to work - perhaps part-time - into their 70s. And obviously there comes a time when every worker needs to retire gracefully, but usually they're sent away far too early. Don't waste all that talent. Your patience will be well rewarded with a significant return on investment.
Don't pull up the bonus broccoli!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - "Choose It or Lose It" - Part Two


"Emotions [can] run high over who gets Grandma's pearl necklace or Dad's fishing pole. Disagreements over who gets what can lead to bawling and brawling between siblings that can scar relationships forever."
John Ewolt

(Dividing the assets of a recently-deceased loved one can challenge the good will of even the best of families. This series of articles provides guidance for those facing this tricky task.)

In the fall of 1986, my wife's father, Henry Ware Hobbs, Jr. sent each of his six children a large legal file entitled "Choose It or Lose It." The file contained a photograph of every heirloom object he owned and a paragraph about each item. In the cover letter to the file, he invited his children to come to his house "at high noon" (he often had a flair for the dramatic) on the Friday after Thanksgiving, without spouses, prepared to "choose it or lose it."
At the meeting, each of the children drew numbers and then proceeded to voice their top choice, one child at a time until all six had selected. Then the order was reversed for round two, with the child who had drawn number six going first this time, followed by number five, etc.   Back and forth they went, round by round, until everything had been earmarked and their choices recorded. It was elegantly simple and eminently fair.
Here are the key elements of Henry's wisdom:
  1. He took personal responsibility, not leaving this difficult issue for his children to muddle through without his guidance and oversight.
  2. He developed a simple and fair process for making the division, and made sure everyone understood it.
  3. He did not presume as the parent to know what each child valued; instead his process allowed them to express with their choices what was important to them.
  4. He found ways to reduce the emotions and stress in a setting naturally fraught with tender feelings, hidden agendas, and deeply-embedded rivalries, such as by starting early, using humor, and disinviting spouses.
When Henry passed away seven years later, everything from the original "Choose It or Lose It" meeting was distributed according to the earlier lists without confusion, rancor, or drama.
But as it turned out, Henry had not included his own possessions in the original "Choose It or Lose It" session, only those things he considered family heirlooms. No problem. The family inventoried Henry's personal items, selected a private meeting place, and repeated the same process, again with harmonious results.
When my father died about ten years ago, my brothers and sisters and I employed this simple process to allocate his meager personal effects. It was a sweet and satisfying experience for all. We felt our father would have been pleased to see our cooperation and our concern for each other's happiness in distributing these cherished items.
Most recently, over the New Year's holiday, my wife and her siblings used their father's "Choose It or Lose It" approach to smoothly divide and distribute the contents of their mother's large Mississippi home, which had been sold after their mother moved to a nursing home.
From observing the process three times in my wife's family and once in my own, and from using it with great success in my own legal practice, I can heartily recommend the principles that undergird Henry's methodology: 1) Take personal responsibility; 2) Develop a fair and simple process; 3) Let the heirs express their values with their choices; and 4) Avoid overly-emotional settings.
I encourage families to implement these four principles as they face the daunting task of dividing the artwork, heirlooms, and tangible effects of a loved one. Each family's methodology may vary somewhat from Henry's, but as long as the principles are honored, the results should be positive. I am not suggesting that this approach can eliminate every pitfall, but I do believe it is more likely to engender lasting family harmony than the free-for-all most parents and grandparents leave their heirs.   

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - "Choose It or Lose It" - Part One

"CHOOSE IT OR LOSE IT" - Part One   

"Emotions [can] run high over who gets Grandma's pearl necklace or Dad's fishing pole. Disagreements over who gets what can lead to bawling and brawling between siblings that can scar relationships forever."
John Ewolt 
Some families could care less about their parents' and grandparents' personal property, as I described in last week's Wednesday Wisdom. Other families, however, deeply value their heirlooms and personal artifacts. In such families, the failure to plan properly for their division and distribution can create significant family harmony issues.
When most people plan their estates, they largely focus on how their money and their property will be distributed, but they usually pay scant attention to the "stuff." While those personal effects may have little monetary value, often they carry tons and tons of sentimental value. Unfortunately, dividing up those items is the one part of the estate settlement process that is most likely to create lasting relational problems in a family.
Estate planning clients (and their advisors) often make at least one of these potentially devastating mistakes:
1.)  They leave the issue for others to address after their death.  
2.)  They fail to establish a process that feels fair to their heirs.
3.) They postpone the matter to a time when emotions and tensions are already high, such as in the middle of the grieving process.

Any one of these slip-ups can light a fuse that could blow family relationships to smithereens.
Many times, if the will says anything at all about the personal property, it simply instructs the children to work it out among themselves. My dear friend John A. Warnick, a SunBridge advisor from Denver, Colorado, uses a powerful metaphor to describe the havoc this approach can create, as quoted in a New York Times article:
"I ask parents to think just for a second what it would be like on Christmas morning if your children ran downstairs and there were all of these presents, bright and shining, big and small, but with no name tags on them," he said. "Can you imagine the free-for-all that would ensue?"
Doing nothing and believing that your children will divide things without quarreling, he said, will not work. "It's the denial that my children will never fight, they'll never quarrel, they'll just accept it," he said. "That denial is a temptation for many people to not put the time and energy into carefully designating and selecting personal property." (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/16/your-money/when-dividing-assets-the-little-things-matter.html)
Some parents unfortunately use the "stickers-on-the-bottom-of-the-item" method. Even ignoring the danger of the stickers falling off or being moved or removed, this is a dangerous game. Seldom does every object receive a label and never does the outcome turn out to be equitable. It usually ends up favoring the child who is the most pushy or manipulative or close-at-hand, the one who is willing to push the limits with the parent. Those who draw the short straw in this system often end up resenting both their parent and the sibling(s) favored by the parent's stickers.
My father-in-law, Henry Ware Hobbs, Jr., saw firsthand during his long career as an attorney in Brookhaven, Mississippi, how this issue can destroy families, and he was determined that he would not let it happen to his six children. In the fall of 1986, many years before his unexpected passing in 1993, he sent them each a large legal file entitled "Choose It or Lose It."
As I described in last week's Wednesday Wisdom, he preserved the stories of each item by photographing every heirloom object he owned and writing a paragraph about each item, summarizing what he knew of its history: who owned it, how they acquired it, how they used it, how it came into his possession, and any other tidbits of information.
But he did not stop there. He went on to outline a simple process under his direction for making a fair and equitable division of those heirlooms in a calm and dispassionate setting. It was pure genius.
To be continued . . . .