How to be a Better Amateur Historian

Hackett Fischer

Last Monday I listened to a online lecture by Professor David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University. He has written several books of history including Washington’s Crossing, Paul Revere’s Ride and Champlain’s dream. He was also my daughter’s adviser at Brandeis. Professor Fischer’s lecture was great. One of the things he talked about was how interest in History is growing among college students and among older people who are coming to History having studied and had careers in unrelated areas. That’s me.

I consider myself an amateur historian. I have always loved History. My college degree was in Computer Science rather than History because my parents always impressed on me how important it was to get a marketable degree and History was considered anything but marketable. So now that I am no longer working for a living but instead I am working at things I love, I have added Historian to my list of current ‘jobs’.

At the end of the lecture Professor Fischer took questions so I submitted one. I asked if he had any advice other than reading books about how to become a better amateur historian. He said that Francis Parkman wrote an essay about being a historian¬† in which he said you should “Go there”, “Do it”, and “Write it”. He recommended retracing the paths and locations of whatever you are studying. Professor Fischer inspired me and made me think that I should plan some historical travel trips and write about them.

It would be fun to retrace John Quincy Adams trip from Russia to The Netherlands as a 16 year old. Here in Nevada, Duke and I have explored some of the old pioneer routes. I should do some more reading about the pioneers and write about it. Do you have other suggestions?

What other ideas do you have about how to be a better amateur historian?




Duke and I are going out to dinner to celebrate tonight. Our house in Union City is sold! The sale of our house is a classic example of how prices in the San Francisco Bay Area have gone down. It was on the market for four months. This was our first offer and the house sold for $165,000 less than what a house like ours in our development sold for back in November of 2005….. Oh well, that is history and we have our money. We are happy.

There are a couple of other interesting parts of the experience.

  • People always tell you how important it is to have fresh paint, new carpet and staging, all of which we did. It turns out that none of that mattered. The buyers were in escrow for a house like ours. They were offering less than the loan on that house and the bank was dragging out the closing process. Our buyers were in a hurry and decided not to buy the other house. They are from Los Angeles and bought our house without ever looking at it! We closed in less than 2 weeks. Can you believe it.
  • You might think that once you move your personal possessions out of your house the cost of the homeowners insurance might go down. You would be wrong. As soon as we changed our mailing address our insurance company canceled our insurance. We had a terrible time finding someone who would sell us insurance on a house that no one was living in. We had been paying $1,800 for 12 months of homeowners insurance. The new insurance cost us $4,800 for six months!

My first year of retirement

I just passed the one year anniversary of my retirement so I thought it would be worth looking at what I said I would be doing when I retired and comparing it to what has happened. It has been a quite a year with lots of ups and downs. Back when I decided to retire I wrote a blog entry about the things I wanted to do. I’m including exerts from it here with comments about how things have turned out.

from  the bog about my plans….. "My career has certainly been a big part of how I define myself. In
fact during hard times in my life my success at work greatly helped my
self esteem. But at this point in my life I have lots of joys and
interests outside of work and I really don’t think I’ll have too much
trouble adjusting. And retiring now doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll never
work again. It just means I’m quitting for now."

I haven’t missed work at all. I love working for me. I love having my life to myself. I’ll never say never, but I really can’t see myself ever working for someone else again. I’m having too much fun.

Here is the list of things I said I wanted to do with my retirement. I’ve put comments after each one with my observations about what has really happened.

" 1. Spend more time with my Husband, my Daughters, my new Grandson,
my family and my friends. There never seems to be enough time and now
I’m hoping there will be."

I have certainly done some of this especially when I was still living in the Bay Area but one of the down sides of moving to Reno has been that I don’t see enough of the family and friend we left behind and I really do miss them. Moving out of expensive California was part of the financial strategy that allowed me to retire at age 54. I love Reno and the new friends I am making  here but the down side is definitely missing my family and friends in California.

"2. Exercise more regularly – weight lifting and  walking. "

It is certainly easier to find the time to exercise without work getting in the way. I haven’t been lifting weights but I have started yoga (I really love it!) and I have been swimming and of course doing a lot of hiking. The hiking has been awesome. The Sierra canyon Hiking Group  and the wonderful hiking opportunities around Reno have made hiking one of the very best things about retirement and moving.

" 3. Sell our house and move. We don’t know where but exploring the
possibilities will be a big part of the agenda for the next few years.

We put our house on the market but unfortunately we did it in about the worst market for selling a house that I can remember. I don’t want to jinx things but there may be light at the end of the tunnel on this front. The move we did. Since July we have lived in Reno. I love it here. Reno is much better then I ever expected. It is so nice to live in a smaller town with lots of amenities but less traffic and lots of fun places to explore and things to do. I wasn’t sure about living in a Del Webb over 55 community but that has also exceeded expectations. We have met so many wonderful people and are having so much fun!

" 4. Improve my piano playing skills. I’ve taken lessons for the last
several years and I am looking forward to having more time to practice.

I did this until we moved. Then I gave away the piano with the idea that I would get a new one once we settled some place. So far it hasn’t happened. I haven’t touched a piano since mid June. I do miss it but I’m still debating whether I want to start playing again. I have very little talent and after all these years am still not a good piano player. But I do enjoy it. I play only for me and I probably will again some day but for now I am focusing on other things.

" 5. Blogging – I want to get to the point where I blog about
interesting things every day. I want to improve my writing and blogging
skills and I think the best way to do that is to just do it regularly.
I also want to redesign my blog and explore some of the technology I’ve
gotten behind on since I started my current job.

I guess it goes without saying I am still blogging. I really do love it. I’m still figuring out how to be interesting, how to improve my writing skills and how to improve my blog.  I still need to get better about blogging regularly and I still want to do some redesign and focus. My blogging like my life is a work in progress.

" 6. Travel – I’m looking forward to taking some long trips both within
the US and abroad. Duke and I have talked about spending several months
in Spain or Portugal or Australia or any of a whole list of other
places. The idea is that if we rented a place and really explored an
area then friends and family could come visit while we were there."

We have done some traveling. Our month long driving trip through Mexico last January was awesome. it verified for me how much I love traveling. Since then life has precluded any more travel for fun. I think once we sell the house this may change. I hope so.

" 7. Gardening – This is one of those things I’ve always thought I would like to do more of. We shall see. "

Other than helping Duke work on our yard in Union City this hasn’t happened. It is one of the things that will be difficult to do in Reno’s desert climate so this may be off the list. Time will tell.

" 8. Hiking – My goal is to do at least one long hike a week. "

Since moving to Reno and joining the Sierra Canyon hiking group I have been hiking twice a week and loving it. It certainly takes time and I didn’t hike very much when I worked. Now that I have the time it is awesome to explore all the beautiful places to hike especially in the Sierras west of Reno.

" 9. Financial Planning – I’m hoping to do what it takes to complete the practical experience for my Certified Financial Planning certification.
I’m still exploring how I will do this and then there is the question
of how I will use the CFP once I get it. I’ve got lots of ideas to

It seems like a real pity to waste the time and effort I put into taking all the classes and studying for and passing the CFP certification exam but the time allowed to get the necessary practical experience has almost passed and this is something I just don’t think I want to do any more. It is too much like work. I learned a lot and I enjoyed the process but I think this is off my list.

" 10. Guitar – I keep thinking I’d like to start taking guitar lessons again."

I’ve done nothing about this. It is still on the maybe someday list.

" 11. Read – I love to read. "

I have done a lot of reading but I always want to do more. One cool side benefit is that I have received review copies of a DK book about Lincoln and a DK book of world history and have written reviews. I’ve also decided to read a book about each of the U.S. presidents.

"12. Programming – I haven’t done it in many years but my degree is in
Computer Science and for a long time I’ve been intrigued with the idea
of working on an open source project."

I haven’t touch this goal but this is something I am still determined to do. I think I need to determine what my first step should be.

New things I am adding to my list to possibly explore now that I am a year into my retirement include the following.

  • Perhaps start volunteering at the Nevada Museum of art
  • Learn to speak Spanish
  • Become an amateur historian
  • Knitting
  • Geneology

My Mother’s death was the one terribly low point for this year. I miss her. But other than her death it has been a good year and I am looking forward to my second year of retirement and to continuing to explore my goals and interests.

Travels and Getting the House Ready to Sell

On April 17 Duke finished his first tax season working for H&R Block. Since then we shifted into high gear in our drive to get our house ready to sell so that we can move. We have lots of other stuff going on too.

One of my daughters was moving so last Saturday morning we helped her transfer a load of furniture to her new place and then we headed towards LA. Duke’s girls’ choir had a recital and one of the girls had a solo. The recital was great and the solo (her first time singing in public) was very impressive.

After the recital on Sunday night we drove to Escondido to my parent’s house. Monday morning we took Mom to have an MRI and an EEG. Mom goes back to her doctor this coming Friday. My sister Barbara and her husband will be with her for that. We are hoping to get a better diagnosis for the cause of her Parkinsonsisms.

On Wednesday we drove from Escondido to Reno. It always seems odd to me that Reno is essentially due north of San Diego. The road goes east of LA and then straight for many mile right past Edward’s Air Force base and up the East side of the Sierras. The mountains are beautiful. I climbed Mt Whitney 9 years ago so It was fun to go through Whitney Portal again.

On Thursday in Reno we had lunch with my Mom’s brother and his wife. Then we looked at a few apartments. Our plan is to get our house up for sale and then rent a place in Reno to use as a home base while we decide where we want to move for the next stage of our lives.

We looked at several places and think we will rent a house in a Del Webb Active Adult community, for people 55 or better. (Duke just turned 55 and I will turn 55 this summer). For less rent than they were asking for the apartments that we liked we can have a new house with a two car garage and use of the club house with indoor pool and walking track. I don’t think it is the kind of place we want to live in eventually but it should be perfect for the next year. It will be right around 240 miles from the old house to the new house.

The list of things we want to do before we sell the house is long. Before we left last week we painted our bonus room and now we are laying solid oak hardwood on th floor. Next we will lay porcelain tile in our laundry room and in the one bathroom that still doesn’t have it. Next we will get scaffolding and paint the walls and ceiling of the living room with the 24 foot ceiling. Those are just the first 3 big items on the list. In the next month we will also be helping Duke’s girls move and helping my parents move from the assisted living place back to their house.

June 10 is our target to have the house on the market so May is going to be a very busy month!


One of the good things about retirement

One of the lovely things about being retired is that for the first time in my life my daily schedule and agenda are under my control. My days were externally driven in childhood, in school, at  work, and then parenthood. Now I decide what I am going to do every day. I decide what is important and what isn’t. It is up to me! I absolutely cherish this freedom.

So, for example, last Tuesday I drove to Sunnyvale and had breakfast with a friend before taking her to the San Jose airport for her flight. Then back to Sunnyvale where I caught Cal Train to San Francisco for lunch with Allison.  The train service on the the San Francisco peninsula is wonderful and the scenery is great too. I walked to Allison’s office. It was a beautiful warm sunny day (rare for San Francisco). After we ate our sandwiches we sat in Yerba Buena park and talked before she had to go back to work. Then I walked back to the train and took it back to Sunnyvale.

My friend Linda’s house is near the train station. She I went out for dinner before our book club meeting. The book club book was Any Bitter Thing by Monica Wood. It was a wonderful very enjoyable book. I liked that it was well developed. The characters were very believable and it had a thought provoking and satisfying ending.

Tuesday was a perfect day partly at least because I was doing things I wanted to do.