Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Cure for What Ails You

     In the early 1970s I went through a back-to-nature phase. My girlfriend and I moved to upstate New York and lived with a friend who cultivated a huge garden. We helped him till and rake and weed and harvest; and we loved all the fresh produce from the garden. The ripe tomatoes off the vine. Corn eaten ten minutes after it was picked. But the greatest thing about the garden was that we were not responsible for it. He was. We just helped out a bit. If we had been in charge, the garden would have been nothing but a patch of weeds.

     It takes both talent and luck to grow a garden. Gardening is like gambling.

     When I bought my first home, I put in a vegetable garden. But I didn't have much luck -- although I think my problem was not so much bad luck as not enough work.

     In the early 2000s, after I got divorced, I lived in a condo, and there was a little patch of dirt out front that I turned into an herb garden. I grew basil, mint, parsley and a few other things. Plus, I had a tub on my deck with a tomato plant. I didn't rake in much, but at least the mint and parsley thrived, and a got a few tomatoes.

     Now I have the best set-up of all. My bother-in-law lives in Pennsylvania and he's a serious gardener who tills about an acre of corn in his front yard, and grows a variety of other vegetables on another half acre in his back yard. He and his wife have no children. They put up some of their produce, but they give a lot of it away. We visit them two or three times a summer, and come home laden with corn, tomatoes, beans, and lots of other stuff. Last year he even did sweet potatoes.

     I figure gardening is a lot like gambling. Some people are good at it; they can figure the odds, know how to play their cards. Others, like me, just don't know what they're doing, and our luck arrives when we know people who are flush, and who don't mind spreading it around.

     Blogger Meryl Baer has taken the gamble to retire to the Jersey Shore, right near Atlantic City. I've read that a couple of the big casinos have shut down. And now Baer has done a post on the city that, she says, is one of the most economically distressed urban areas in the country, a place where current events are a lot more interesting than any fictional story. If you're interested in some urban intrigue stake a claim over at her post A City Way Down on Its Luck.

     Of course, I know some people who have built their own house. And based on my own experience with contractors, I think building a house is even more of a gamble than growing a garden, or making a trip to Atlantic City. But not so Laura Lee Carter. She and her husband have been constructing a new solar home in the outback of Colorado, and her latest post More Progress Up at Our Build Last Week shows that they are making a lot of headway. All I can do is marvel at their courage, and appreciate vicariously the spectacular scenery at  their new house.

     There's another gamble we all take when we pick up our smart phones. This was a big issue a while ago, then seemed to fade, and so I thought it was just a scare. But apparently cellphones do emit at least a small amount of potentially hazardous radiation. On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, reports on her post Cellphone Cases Make Phones Work Harder that many cases are so badly designed that they partially block the antenna, making the phone work harder to transmit a signal and intensifying the radiation that strikes the user’s head and body. Rita’s article also offers tips on reducing your cellphone radiation exposure.

     I know my phone case partially blocks the camera lens, so I have to make sure to move it out of the way when I take a picture. It's kind of annoying. But I didn't know the case actually posed a health danger. Personally, the way I deal with the problem is that I don't use my smart phone much. But for those who do, perhaps you should check out Robison's post.

     And finally, back to gardening. In her post Is Gardening a Simple Cure for What Ails You? blogger Kathy Gottberg of SmartLiving365, remembers her mom working in her garden. It was little more than a rock-and-gravel patch of dirt, yet she managed to harvest a few tomatoes and zucchini in spite of the inhospitable ground.

     "While I always enjoyed the taste of her fresh vegetables," recalls Gottberg, "my life was far too important and fast-paced to even imagine having the time or interest to garden. But now here I am so many years later, spending time nearly every day nurturing tiny green plants in my care. Though it's taken a while, I've  gradually come to realize that many of the hidden benefits my mother harvested went far beyond the obvious. I have come to realize that gardening may just be a cure for what ails many people, as well as the planet itself."

     After reading Gottberg's elegant words, I wonder if all of us might be better off we if just folded our cards, put down our smart phones, and picked up a hoe or a rake instead.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Is the Town Library Outdated?

     My Internet friend Brad Szollose recently posted the picture below, asking with some astonishment:  Did you know you can still get a bachelor's degree in library science?

      Actually, I did know that. And I know you can still also get a master's degree in library science, because B has her MLS. She went back to school at age 52, got the degree, and now goes to work every day at the library in our community. The fact is, if you want to get hired as a librarian, at least around where I live, you must have an MLS.

     Her son, a 20-something hipster who works for an Internet marketing company in Brooklyn, NY, thinks along the same lines as Brad (much to his mother's consternation). He thinks libraries are outmoded technology. What do you need a library for when you've got a smartphone in your hand, giving you direct access to most of the world's knowledge?

Young Americans for Liberty's photo.
Maybe he has a point ... but not about librarians!
     And, when somebody pointed out to Brad that there still are plenty of libraries, he responded: Yes, that's true. They still have horses and buggies, too.

     So with a little help from B, I thought I'd outline what libraries do for us, and why they're still an important part of our communities -- despite the fact that a great deal of the world's knowledge is right there in front of us on the Internet. I know I'll never convince B's son; but maybe I can change Brad's mind.

     For one thing, you can borrow books from the library. For free. That's a bargain even if you can download the latest $25 bestseller from amazon for only $7. It's true, you might have to put the book "on hold" and wait a few weeks. But at many libraries you can also download the book onto your e-reader. Again, for free.

     You can also borrow music and movies from the library. Yes, I know they are delivered on those old-fashioned DVDs. But the library has a lot of good movies, classic movies, offbeat indie movies that Netflix doesn't offer.

     B is a children's librarian. She hosts three different book clubs for kids of different ages. The library also offers a number of other programs. Teenagers read books aloud to young children. Younger children read aloud to dogs -- the idea is that it helps kids develop their reading skills in a completely nonjudgmental atmosphere. The library hosts a sleepover for middle school kids once or twice a year.

     But of course it's not just kids. People still come to the library to browse the bookshelves, looking for something good to read. They ask librarians for recommendations. People spend time in the periodical room perusing newspapers and magazines. And they still do occasionally come in looking for reference material.

     There are jigsaw puzzles out on the tables. There are displays featuring various subjects -- Irish history for St. Patrick's day, memoirs about mothers for Mother's Day; thrillers for Halloween. The library features paintings and drawings of local artists in the hallways. And of course there's a bank of computers for the public to use -- if people don't have a computer at home, or their computer is broken, or they need some help, or they just want to get out of the house.

     The library also offers adult programs, bringing in guest speakers to give lessons in basic computer skills. Other experts offer financial advice, literary insights, historical perspectives. There's a dancing class for seniors once a week. There's an adult book club sponsored by the library -- and the library coordinates with several private book clubs in town to help make books available to people.

     In fact, about the only people you usually don't see in the library are the 20-somethings. They're too busy getting their lives started. But kids and families and seniors all come into the library. They spend time there, meet other people, strengthen community ties and enrich their own lives.

Friday, March 20, 2015

I Almost Died

     At the risk of being macabre . . . do you ever wonder how you're going to die? I have a friend who's been walking around with a pacemaker for a couple of years. I wonder if he thinks that one day the thing will short out, and he'll just fall over. I've never talked to him about it.

     People in my family have strong hearts. I don't worry about my heart. But there's a history of cancer in my family. So I figure when my time comes, I'll get cancer and die.

     Unless I die in a fiery plane crash first. I have a fear of flying, and every time I get strapped into an airplane seat, I imagine I'll going down with the plane, plummeting to earth in a screaming chaos -- although this is pretty unlikely, since I only fly when I have to, once every two or three years.

     Maybe it will be a car accident. Didn't you ever have a close call with a truck at a busy intersection, or a racecar wannabe on the highway, and think, Oh god, I almost bought the farm.

     Also, I admit, I am a little bit clumsy. And all my life I've lived with people who are kind of messy, who have a lot of stuff lying around the house. I'm always banging into something, or falling over something, or tripping over a pile of clothes or a piece of furniture that wasn't supposed to be there. I fell in the shower a couple of years ago, pulling the soapdish out of the wall and taking down the shower curtain and shower rod in the process. Not too long before that I tripped over the open door of the dishwasher. I didn't hurt myself. But I had to buy a new dishwasher. Did you know -- when the door of the dishwasher gets broken off, two big metal springs come jetting out at about 80 miles an hour?

     But here's what happened the other night. B and I like to read in bed before we go to sleep. Actually, she went up early and was asleep by the time I got to the bedroom. I undressed, brushed my teeth, climbed into bed.

     B had given me a candle for Christmas, and we've been lighting it on these cold winter nights. It smells nice, and seems to make the bedroom just a little warmer. So I sat on the bed, reached for my book and my glasses. Then I remembered the candle. So I picked up the candle with my other hand, fumbled for the matches and tried to light one. But my hands were too full, and I was having a hard time. So I tucked the book under my arm, and struck the match towards me, since that was the only way my arm would go at that point.

     The match lit up, and a millisecond later a ball of fire flashed up my arm and across my chest. It just exploded in front of me, flying up my arm toward my shoulder. I dropped everything and slapped at the flame. It went out as quickly as it started.

     I sat there for a minute, stunned. That was close. I almost immolated myself, going out in my own little firestorm. B had slept through the whole thing; and I realized, if the fire had "caught" I might have taken her with me.

     How could a shirt burst into flames? I changed the shirt because it smelled like it had been scorched. I went into the bathroom and ran some cold water over my arm. I looked for burns, but didn't see any.

     I came back to bed. My pillow smelled, so I changed the pillowcase. Needless to say, I didn't try to light the candle again. I read for a bit, then went to sleep.

     I told B all about it the next morning. We looked at my shirt -- actually, it's the top of a set of long underwear. I thought maybe it was made of polyester -- a petroleum product, right? Maybe that would explain the sudden flash of flame. But the shirt was made of cotton. Maybe it has some coating sprayed onto it -- to make it wash-and-wear? I don't know.

     The shirt still smelled in the morning, and B identified a slight brown patch where it had been singed. We never could explain what happened, really, although I resolved to be more careful in the future. As my mother used to tell me -- never play with matches.

     And I realized, it's never what we worry about that gets us in the end. It's always something unexpected, something we never thought was coming.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What Happens When Social Security Goes Bankrupt?

     Social Security is a program that's near and dear to our hearts. I think we all know there are some issues with the system. Maybe some of us figure we'll be long gone before Social Security runs into real trouble, so it doesn't really affect us. Others think everything is just okay the way it is, and their only concern is how to squeeze the most money they can out of the system. Still others are sure there's a government conspiracy, or a right-wing conspiracy, or a corporate conspiracy -- or some kind of conspiracy -- to deprive us working men and women of the benefits we've earned and deserve.

     I don't pretend that my own views can stand up as an authoritative voice on Social Security. So instead, I've gone to my financial consigliere, Jeremy Kisner of Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, AZ. He is a Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Retired Plans Specialist, with a degree in economics from UC Santa Barbara.

     I have no financial connection to Kisner (although I might be a little more flush if I did!) But last year he helped me out by penning a post for Sightings Over Sixty called Is Long-Term Care Insurance for You? Recently, I saw on his Weekly Insight a very clear, concise and straightforward analysis of how to "fix" Social Security. And so with his permission I have reproduced it here:

What Happens When Social Security Goes Bankrupt
Jeremy Kisner

     It’s a trick question. Social Security will not go bankrupt. However, if no changes are made to the current system, the “trust fund,” which was built up by collecting more payroll taxes than it paid out, will be depleted. Benefits would need to be reduced at that point to match the payroll taxes being collected. That would happen sometime between 2033 and 2037 if we do nothing. Once the trust fund is depleted, benefits would be cut to approximately 75% of their current level to keep the system solvent through 2087. The reality is this “do nothing” approach is unlikely as there is growing pressure to “fix” the system.

     So, let’s fix the system. The options are:

     1) Increase payroll taxes. This is the simplest and most effective. The current payroll tax collects 6.2% from employees (and another 6.2% from employers). This would need to be increased to 7.6% to keep Social Security benefits fully paid for another 75 years, according to a study by the National Academy of Social Insurance. It will take some cash out of workers’ pockets, which is never popular and will hurt economic growth. Imagine that…if we put more away for the future, we have less to spend today.

     2) Eliminate the cap on taxable earnings. The cap currently limits the 6.2% payroll tax to the first $118,500 of earnings. We could close approximately 70% of the Social Security funding gap if the cap were eliminated entirely. This would only affect about 5% of the workforce, who have wages above $118,500. These people may be a bit perturbed because they already have the worst return on their Social Security contributions.

     3) Raise the retirement age. This seems logical since people are living so much longer than they did in 1935 when Social Security began. Unfortunately, this solution is surprisingly ineffective. A three-year increase in the full retirement age from 67 to age 70 for people born after 1960 would only cut the funding gap by 25%.

     4) Means-testing for beneficiaries. This would mean that high income retirees would have their benefits reduced or eliminated since presumably they don’t need the benefit. Polls found this option to be highly unpopular with voters who thought it was unfair.

     The likely scenario is some combination of these options. While Congress is figuring out all of this, I encourage you to save as much as you can. After all, the maximum Social Security you can collect at full retirement age in 2015 is only $2,663 per month and I have a feeling most people reading this article will want to spend more than that.

*       *       *
     I don't know what your preferences are, but as a person who works for himself, part time, and therefore pays the full amount of the Social Security tax himself -- which is basically 15% on top of everything else -- raising the tax would be pretty punishing, a real disincentive to work at all. (Plus, remember, even if you work for someone else, the "employer's" half of the payroll tax really comes out of your pocket, not their pocket.)

     Also, the payroll tax is a regressive tax. If you make minimum wage, it takes 15% from your paycheck. If you make $50,000 a year, it takes 15% from your paycheck. If you make $250,000 a year, it takes about 7% from your paycheck. If you make more than that, it takes even less.

     So to me, the obvious solution is #2 -- eliminate the cap on taxable earnings, so everyone pays at the same rate. But like I said, I'm no authority. Maybe you have some other ideas.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Who Is Older?

     As many of you know, I'm fond of quizzes. (If you don't know, take a look over to the column on the right where you can test yourself on retirement, Baby Boomers, and several other topics.) The idea is that a quiz can offer up some information, and do it in a fun kind of way.

     This quiz is mostly for fun. The answers are below. So, do you know . . . who is older?

     1.  Judi Dench or Maggie Smith?

     2.  Arnold Schwarzenegger or Henry Winkler?

     3.  Angelina Jolie or Amy Adams?

     4.  Joe Biden or Joe Pesci?

     5.  Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter?

     6.  Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush?

     7.  Johnny Depp or Jon Stewart?

     8.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein or Sen John McCain?

     9.  Matt Damon or Ben Affleck?

     10. Jan of D-Janity or Bob Lowry of Satisfying Retirement?



1.  They both star in the Marigold Hotel movies, they're both from England, and they're both the same age. But Judi Dench, born on Dec. 9, 1934, is 19 days older.

2.  Henry Winkler, the former Fonz, is 69, two years older than the former Governator.

3.  Fresh-faced actress Amy Adams, 40, is actually one year older than the strong-willed Angelina Jolie.

4.  Both are 72; but Biden is two months older.

5.  Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter is retired at 40; Tiger is struggling through injuries at age 39.

6.  Hillary Clinton is 67; Jeb Bush a still wet-behind-the-ears 62.

7.  Jon Stewart, at 52, edges out 51-year-old Johnny Depp.

8.  Sen. Feinstein, 81, is one of five senators in their 80s. McCain, three years younger, still makes the grade as one of the 23 U. S. Senators over age 70.

9.  Matt Damon, 44, from Cambridge, Mass., is two years older than the Berkeley, Calif.-born Ben Affleck.

10. Honestly, I don't know (I'd guess Bob Lowry); but anyway, they're both stars in my book!