Retirement’s first year

The Thinker by Rodin

Certain people get paid breaks during their careers. They are called sabbaticals. It’s basically an extended period of paid downtime, usually at least six months, to get away from a 9-5 job and recharge. It’s a privilege apparently given to a vanishingly few of us: ministers, scientists and professors for the most part. The rest of us don’t merit the privilege. The sabbatical depends on the idea that a change of scenery and intellectual focus will feed a creative mind and it will result in renewed energy and perhaps new ideas upon your return.

I could have used a few sabbaticals in my career. I think I would have been more effective in the workplace. Of course I didn’t get any of them. Some of us though have the privilege to retire well and in decent health at a reasonably young age. I opted for retirement a year ago. August 1, 2014 was my last day as a full time salaried employee. I retired at age 57 principally because I could. My federal pension was generous as I was under the old retirement system and I was highly graded in the government. In addition I had enough saved for retirement that it appeared I could reasonably expect to match my standard of living. It helped to have almost all my debts paid off too.

Still, retiring was a bit of a nervy thing to do. It ends badly for a lot of people. Often they discover they don’t really have enough money to have the sort of retirement they envisioned. Or they find themselves terminally bored, missing the contact they used to have at the office. I miss having the daily office experience, although at the time it was a mixed experience. I keep in touch with a few old colleagues, mostly on Facebook. However, most of them have vanished as a continuing presence in my life. I also miss having an office, just some place outside the house to escape to for much of the day. Of course I love my wife, but I wasn’t sure if I would like her as much when we were in each other’s faces so often.

So far I feel like I haven’t properly retired. For one thing, I haven’t stopped working. I don’t work full time, but I am doing some consulting that amounts to about twenty hours a week on average. It just depends on what inquiries come in through my professional website. This was by design. In spite of the pension and the retirement savings, I wasn’t confident that we could maintain our standard of living. Continuing to earn some money eased my financial anxiety. It also forced me to keep engaged in the work world, just in a different way than I used to.

When I wasn’t consulting my wife and I were busy remaking our lives. As regular readers know, the last year has been busy in spite of the fact that we are retired. That’s because we chose to relocate, and that decision started a whole chain of events. It meant selling our house in Virginia and moving to western Massachusetts. We sold the house in April and now we live in temporary lodgings in Easthampton, Massachusetts while our house in nearby Florence lumbers toward completion. It won’t be until we are in our new house and things are properly put away that this transition will finally be complete.

From last August through last March most of my time was doing basic fix up to our old house so it would sell. This meant what seemed like endless trips to the local Lowes, plastering, painting and minor construction jobs. Simultaneously we had to find a new place in Massachusetts. A neighborhood had to be selected, a house price agreed to and contracts had to be signed. It was all very tedious and often nerve wracking, but it worked out quite well. I went by our new house today and inspected the newly installed drywall, which is all screwed into place but awaits a lot of joint compound. We hope to move in during the middle of September.

As nerve wracking and expensive as the whole process was, it was still better than my old job. It had pretty much burned me out after ten years. The cast of masters I reported to had changed as well, and not for the better, giving me more incentive to get out. It did not take long after retiring to find that I slept better and was much less stressed in general. I discovered I have a natural sleep pattern after all (bedtime is around 11:30 and eight to eight and a half hours of sleep a night is what I need). I rarely got that when employed, except on the weekends. The crazy demands of my job and the frequently hellish commutes made it mostly impossible. I spent much of my professional life sleep deprived.

I rarely find myself bored in retirement, but I do find myself doing more of what I prefer to do and less of what I don’t like to do. I found that I like information technology too much to give it up. I try to stay current on the latest trends and to expand my knowledge, even though I am unlikely to need to know a lot of what I am learning. I used to feel guilty about surfing the web at work. It’s obviously not a problem anymore. I surf with abandon. Should I get bored I have Netflix streaming as a distraction. I also subscribe to a music streaming service. Together they provide a lot of entertainment.

Now that I’ve moved I find that I exercise more. I’ve taken up biking again and have enjoyed the many bike trails in our new neighborhood. I often walk in the evenings, generally for a few miles. I also enjoy learning about my new community. Finding new doctors, meeting new neighbors and connecting with a new religious community have proven to be growth experiences. Before the move I stayed connected to my community too. Right until the end I kept volunteering at my local Unitarian church. I also taught a class at a local community college. I am trying to teach here as well, but so far there have been no nibbles.

It does at times feel surreal to have relocated four hundred miles away. I had been living in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area for more than thirty-five years. I do miss some things from that area. In some ways I stay connected. I still read The Washington Post; I just do it online. At the same time I enjoy reading the local newspaper around here, pedestrian though it is compared to the Post. In the Daily Hampshire Gazette a big news story can be a moose found ambling through a suburban neighborhood. Routine content includes school lunch menus. I read the details of local town meetings where items like buying a new fire truck must get an up or down vote from the citizenry. They practice real democracy here in New England. It would not occur to The Post to publish this sort of “news”. It would be beneath them.

When you live in and around Washington D.C. you are deeply consumed by the minutia of national and international affairs. Who you know is important but what’s most important is what you do, which amounts to what power do you have over the government, which ideally involves control of policy or regulation. One of the first questions you are asked when you meet someone new is “What do you do?” In my last job I had a reasonably prestigious position. While that vanished with retirement, I find I simply don’t miss the authority or the problems I used to wrestle with. It’s someone else’s problem now. I’ve moved on.

I’ll try to come back to this topic in a year. I expect that my next year of retirement will be more settled and I’ll have a truer perspective of what it means and feels like to be retired. So far I have found that if you are reasonably confident that your financial house is in order and you are pretty good as distracting yourself with fun things to do, it is something to look forward to and not to dread.

Soft landing

The Thinker by Rodin

There is no question about it: Massachusetts is lovely in the spring. Many areas can say the same thing, of course. Moving further north has reminded me of what I gave up when I moved to the Mid Atlantic. One thing was the lilac bush. Make that a million lilac bushes. There was the occasional lilac bush in my old neighborhood, but they are native here in the north, they are everywhere and whether you like it or not they heavily perfume the air for several weeks. If you don’t like their smell you either have to tolerate it or stay indoors.

And speaking of indoors, here in Western Massachusetts you can be indoors and outdoors at the same time. That’s because most of the time in the spring and summer you can and should open the windows for most of the day. And if you do, this time of year you will smell lilacs. Most of the time there is a gentle wind blowing, usually from the northwest. It is a healthy air, not air pumped full of sulfur dioxide and other nasty chemicals typical of the Midwest power plants that blew air toward my old neighborhood. It’s largely clean, pure and invigorating.

It’s beginning to occur to me that my old environment shaped the man I am. Mostly I shuttled in a car from place to place, from one indoor environment to another. Now most of the time the windows are open, at least a crack. It is like infinite lungfuls of health are continuously surging through our home. I am naturally happier because my environment is more attuned to what is natural for me. So far there have been no ozone days to worry about. With little in the way of automobile congestion or carbon emitting power plants, when it does get hot it feels more tolerable.

And it has gotten hot around here, well, at least very warm. We approached 90 one day, and had one uncomfortable week when temperatures ascended into the high 80s most days. We turned on the window air conditioner in our apartment to find it wasn’t really cooling. Fortunately the landlord replaced it the following day. If we use the air conditioner, it tends to be later in the day. Usually by sundown it has cooled enough to reopen the windows, and usually there is a breeze to let in.

Yes, environment does shape who you are. That’s clear to me. The Washington D.C. region was hyper-kinetic, traffic clogged and overly educated. I became somewhat hyper-kinetic and overly educated just to keep up with the Joneses. Here in Easthampton, Massachusetts its much more laid back. I haven’t encountered an angry person yet. This is not Boston. People here are pleasant, nice and friendly but not plastic. For the most part they are simple but good people simply enjoying this ride called life.

Their friendliness is natural but somehow I feel somewhat reticent to accept it. Our second Sunday we made an appearance at the local Unitarian Universalist church and we overwhelmed with their graciousness and friendliness. Even before the service started we were introduced to two sets of future neighbors from our soon to be 55+ community. We got to know them better in the social hour after service. Within a day we were on the community’s mailing list, and invitations started coming in. With all residents 55+, they are mostly retired or partially retired. They have plenty of time on their hands. So perhaps that explained their seemingly excessive curiosity about us. We don’t actually live in our new 55+ community yet because our house is under construction. But after attending several community events, it’s like we are already living there. With about forty houses everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows our name: we have an instant set of new friends. There is a book club for the women that my wife attended. There is a guy’s night out while women are attending the book club. There I got to meet many of the men in the community around a big table at Roberto’s, a local pizza place. There is even a knitting group that my wife went to; similar to the one she used to attend. Most recently there was a wine tasting event that we attended. Strangely I won the competition although I don’t have much of a wine palate. The bottle of Pinot Noir that I won will come in handy when we officially move in and we invite the neighbors over for a house warming.

If only we could move in, but it still looks like it won’t be for a few months. I biked up to the neighborhood in Florence today on the excuse to get our mail (we’re having mail sent there). There are little else but clean bike trails between here and there, trails that are often covered under a canopy of green leaves. Our soon to be next door neighbors greeted me by name by the mail kiosk. They know us better than we know them. It will take time to associate all their faces with names.

In the meantime I’ve been invited to join their biking club, which includes regular bike trips to Westhampton for bagels and breakfast. Our house to be is mostly a shell, but the outer walls are up and the roof is on. Most recently the electrical wiring was roughed into place, but largely construction is not going as quickly as we would like. Our very small apartment here in Easthampton is feeling claustrophobic. As much as my wife and I love each other, we are seeing too much of each other. The place is too small to have friends over. The kitchen seats only two, and there is no dining room. We want our house finished, our house on the hill, overlooking a park with Mount Tom framing the south. We want our stuff out of storage and a couple of new cats wandering around it to make it home.

Meanwhile I have consulting and programming projects to keep me busy. I am often on the bike trails, averaging fifteen miles or so per trip. Easthampton is not without its charms or its amenities. My wife has become attached to its Tasty Top ice cream stand. We are both discovering the charms of downtown Northampton, including its library, the Tuesday Farmers Market and its lovely downtown. (The library includes probably the smallest presidential library ever: the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library. President Coolidge was a former resident and mayor of Northampton.) Its downtown includes two stores of note: Thornes Marketplace (a sort of mini-mall) and Faces (a very eclectic store with mostly funny and offbeat items). Chain stores are few around here but there are many restaurants of superior quality and diversity. Most businesses are independently owned, and at least in downtown Northampton they all seem to be prospering.

Our first winter here will perhaps expose an ugly side to this area. Overall it remains lovely, charming, pleasant and friendly. It will take a few years to have informed opinions about our new neighborhood and our neighbors. Right now it satisfies our need for a quieter lifestyle, some city amenities, the best parts of New England, and a feeling of closeness to nature.

Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

The Thinker by Rodin

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

There and back again: a three-day nerve-wracking adventure in house hunting

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s been a while since I have put out a post. When that happens it is usually because I am busy. Retirement is supposed to be less busy and more restful. So far that hasn’t proven to be true. Of course, most retirees don’t start their retirement actively working to move 500 miles away. We are moving of course to simplify our lives, but at least for a year or so it will make our lives much more complex.

Case in point was last Wednesday through Friday when we made a whirlwind visit to our future home in western Massachusetts. We had to go to pick a home. A confluence of events made a trip a necessity, but it all boiled down to my wife’s great desire to move into a new house. New houses don’t grow on trees, although it takes a lot of trees to make one. A new house takes six months, sometimes more to go from plot of land to house and it starts with the hassles of picking a plot and a style house at a negotiated price and then financing the deal. So we were there to look at a few final candidate-housing sites and hopefully make a selection. All this right before Christmas and after being delayed for a few weeks while my wife recovered from another cold from hell.

It could have been delayed again by winter weather, always problematic in December. But the weather gods were benevolent this time. We dealt with cold weather but no precipitation during our drive from Northern Virginia. We try to avoid the New Jersey Turnpike, which also allows us to dodge most Washington area traffic. So this meant sneaking out of town the back way, up U.S. 15 past Gettysburg, around Harrisburg on I-83, then I-81 to I-78, and then about forty miles of I-287 in New Jersey until we slipped into Connecticut on I-84. The only toll on this route was $5 to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River. Traffic congestion was not too bad either: some roadwork on I-287 and some delay getting through Hartford during rush hour. Otherwise it felt surprisingly speedy, just 8 hours and 45 minutes with minimal stops. We arrived in Holyoke, Massachusetts in darkness and wended our way back to the now comfortable D Hotel where we had stayed in August. The affiliated restaurants at the hotel were jammed with locals there for holiday parties, but the hotel itself was largely empty, which was how we could get a room there for $68 a night at a Hotwire rate.

In the winter the Northampton Massachusetts area remains pretty but definitely looking different than in the lushness of summer. The trees of course are largely bare and the days are very short with near total darkness by 4:30. There was no snow on the ground except in a few piles in parking lots, but the temperature was at or below freezing most of the time with stiff breezes. It’s a beautiful area even in the winter without snow, but one thing I noticed in this trip is that it is obviously less prosperous than Fairfax County where we live. All the money in our county buys large houses that are newer in general but also meticulously well maintained. Fairfax County also has stricter zoning: no ugly billboards to view driving down the road. In Northampton there are quite a few shabby houses, shabby mostly due to age (many are a hundred years old or m ore), but also because people earn less there. Northampton has pretty good zoning laws, but go outside the city limits to places like Hadley across the Connecticut River and it quickly turns ugly. No place is perfect.

Thursday was decision day and it was as challenging as you can imagine. Next to deaths in the family, divorce and losing a job, buying a house out of state must be the next most challenging event in life. In August we had scouted lots of neighborhoods so we knew what we liked and where. In January there is not much on the market. But if you are going to have a house built it’s a bit past optimum time to place your order. Ideally you make these decisions before the foundation is laid but it took months of discussion for us to get this far. This late in the year it is problematic but still possible. Wait too long and groundbreaking is likely to occur April 1.

We looked at a new community being built in Hatfield, a bit north and east of Northampton. The houses we looked at were large and quite fancy, not to mention an excellent value. It’s just that no one was actually living there yet, and only one plot of the 12 had been sold. Two units had been finished, and one was under construction.

The salesman with a ring in his ear told us his husband was the architect and was currently out of state. (I mentally noted how completely banal gay marriage was in Massachusetts. It is so institutionalized that no one gives it a thought.) While I loved the house, Hatfield did not agree with me. It is filled with mostly old houses, very large and many not well maintained, often with a farm in the backyard. There was no bike path, no restaurants to speak of and no place to buy groceries beyond a corner store. My wife really liked the community but I couldn’t see myself spending the next thirty years in a community that did not appeal to me, no matter how nice the house. It was not yet noon and already we were in arguing.

So it was back to the 55+ community near Northampton that was the reason for our visit. Armed with our buyer agent realtor Craig, we met again with the realtor selling the property to go through available plots and other issues. Our realtor took us through a nearby park and we ate lunch at a local diner while we argued and tried his patience. Eventually we sent our realtor back to his office while we went back to the hotel to hash through all the options and then drive through both neighborhoods again.

We took a break to meet a client of mine living in the area. We met him at Joe’s Pizza in Northampton, so popular that even on a cold Thursday night there was a significant wait for a table. But the pizza at least lived up to its reputation. My client Roger turned out to be a really nice guy and we all got along great. Count one future friend in my future neighborhood. Roger helped take our mind off the impending decision and we agreed to sleep on it. Sleep was somewhat restless as we weighed in our own minds the size of our decision. Having a new house constructed would most likely mean we would close on the sale of our house first, so we’d have to endure temporary housing in the area. We were not thrilled with the alternative, but it’s the price to be paid when you make the decision to go for a new house.

Morning though at least brought clarity: we wanted a particular lot in this community in Florence, which is on the west side of Northampton. We ate breakfast at Sylvester’s in Northampton while trading calls with our realtor. Mostly though we needed to get back on the road for home. The greyish skies suggested snow and/or ice but nothing happened. The weather improved the further south we went. We tried a different route going home by taking I-84 through southern New York State and northern Pennsylvania, then connecting with I-81. It turns out it is just as quick as our other route, much less used and thus much less likely to be affected by traffic accidents. We made great time. Driving time was about eight hours.

Once back home we immediately started trading emails with our realtor and chatting with him on the phone. Yesterday we went back and forth on the wording of an offer. It was declined, not because they don’t like us, but because the seller wants a guarantee that we will buy the house even if our current house doesn’t sell. So more paperwork remains and our credit union will get a call in the morning.

Three days. There and back again. More forms to fill out. More paperwork to file. More decisions to be made. More house to clean and prepare to show. The house decisions at least is made but waiting to become more concrete. A new year approaches. 2015 looks like it will end a whole lot different than where it will start: in our new home in New England.

Scouting neighborhoods

The Thinker by Rodin

When you haven’t moved in 21 years, moving becomes a big deal. It becomes a bigger deal when you are selling a house, moving out of state, moving into a new home and moving for pleasure all at the same time.

Essentially my wife and I have been planning to move for about a decade now. That’s how long we’ve been examining communities we’ve traveled to for retirement potential. It turns out that the more communities you look at, the larger the possibilities and permutations become. There are plenty of communities that would suit us, plenty even when we considered that we could not afford to live in all of them. There were plenty that she liked and that I did not, and visa versa. Eventually we either had to choose something or stay where we were at for the rest of our lives.

We chose the western Massachusetts area last year, sort of tentatively. This week we are back in the Northampton area of western Massachusetts, this time for scouting neighborhoods. Last year we checked out four candidates sites including Watertown MA, Ithaca NY and Burlington VT, and the Northampton area won. Deciding to spend four nights here by the banks of the Connecticut River shows our intent and seriousness. Our base of operations is a place called the D. Hotel, close to the River, technically in nearby Holyoke but essentially in Northampton. It’s a great hotel, and probably the nicest in this area, with two quality restaurants literally next door.

Among our first investments now that we are here is a street map. Yes, it’s also available in Google Maps, but a street map is still essential for this sort of analysis. It takes a lot of work to find candidate neighborhoods and study how it all connects into a larger infrastructure. Finding housing that we were interested in was facilitated principally by zillow.com, the real estate web site, which showed us potential neighborhoods that had what we were looking for: essentially very large condominiums. Most of these are marketed for people our age: 55+.

We have more than two decades caring for a single-family house, and we’re sick of it. Sick of cutting grass, repairing roofs and shoveling snow. With a condominium, a condominium fee handles all the exterior maintenance. Interior changes would still be our responsibility, but that is more manageable. Here in snowy western Massachusetts, these sorts of houses can be found, but they are a tiny share of the total market. The ideal condo though should have some extras. I wanted a mancave, or more specifically a man room, something with a window and that was reasonably private where I could concentrate on writing and programming. The ideal condo would also have all the essentials on one level, anticipating the day when age would make it difficult to traverse stairs. It would also come with bathrooms accessible to us if we ended up in wheelchairs. These units are out there, even in this area. We are not the only seniors tapping into this market. It’s just not a huge market, but a profitable enough market to attract some developers.

The ideal community is more than a bunch of aging adults sitting in condos, but would be connected to a larger and vibrant community. There would be things to do nearby, interesting restaurants reasonably close and various cultural events to enjoy as well as feel close to nature. The Northampton area seemed to have all of these: five colleges nearby, more ethnic restaurants than you could ever want, and a good local arts scene not to mention artists all over the place with studio space. They are often found in refurbished buildings with brick exteriors that used to hum with machinery of an earlier industrial age.

And so we focused on communities. Northampton itself was an obvious choice, except for its downtown, where it has become a victim of its own success. There is not quite the housing we were looking for there, and parking is problematic given all the trendy stores and restaurants downtown. There are possibilities further out from the center of town, but it looked like we would have to trade walkability for space, green space and quiet.

The Oxbow, Easthampton, MA
The Oxbow, Easthampton, MA

Easthampton though is now calling us. This small city, south rather than east of Northampton, called me from afar as I studied it. Now it is calling me strongly as I spent a good part of the day in the city. It seems to be calling my wife as well. First, we found two condominium complexes in Easthampton that seem to meet most if not all of our needs in a condo. Second, Easthampton is a city, and thus a coherent place. We have spent our lives in largely unincorporated suburbs, with some basic services like police and fire controlled by the county, but much of the rest effectively controlled by the homeowner’s association.

A city, even a small one like Easthampton, is a contiguous area that is centrally managed. That means something to us at this stage in our lives. It means you can drive for a couple of miles and the zoning does not change. It means that you pay taxes to an entity that manages all this. It means the city is responsible for the water, sewage, trash pickup, parks and should you choose to use it, a burial site for your remains. When done right, and Easthampton seems to be doing it right, it offers a consistent experience as well as a set of implicit shared values tailored for the area you live. And if you don’t like the way the management is running the place, you can try to elect people who will do a better job, or run for office yourself.

Easthampton though is also connected to the rest of Hampshire County, not just through roads but also through common biking trails, as well as much in the way of a shared values. Throughout Hampshire County, there is an appreciation for the environment and for preserving the past. Historic districts maintain the look from a hundred years ago. Common space and community gardens with deeds ensuring they will never be developed, along with many nature sanctuaries, preserve natural space. It is also politically liberal. Rachel Maddow cut her broadcasting teeth in Northampton, and clusters of same sex couples are as common as rain out here. No one thinks this is the least bit weird, which is as it should be.

Beyond Hampshire County is more concentrated civilization. Springfield turns out to be a major city, definitely the largest in western Massachusetts and not as run down as I feared. Holyoke too looks much better than I thought it would, with beautiful estates in the northern part of the city. We still need to check out Chicopee to its south. We traveled through Hartford, Connecticut on our way up, about an hour away. Hartford is substantially bigger than Springfield, and is quite modern. More importantly, it has a major airport and a Southwest Airlines hub. New York City is two and a half hours away by car. Boston is ninety minutes away. And trains can take us both places with reasonable ease while we enjoy a home very much in the midst of nature.

The result is that we are finding not just the neighborhoods, but the towns and small cities that align with this phase of our lives. We won’t find the perfect community. There is not the time or the resources to find such a place, if it exists. You can however be pragmatic. Hampshire County and Easthampton in particular is coming together into a frame, and under the frame is its title: our new home.