Friday, October 31, 2014

Remember Him?

     His name was William Henry Pratt. He was born in London, the ninth child of a well-off English family. He went to local schools and attended King's College London, studying to go into the consular service like his older brothers, who all became distinguished members of the British foreign service.

     But William was the black sheep of the family. He was bowlegged, and stuttered as a child, and had a lisp. He dropped out of school and went to work as a farm laborer. Then at age 20, he up and left for Canada.

     Sometime around then he caught the acting bug, and he appeared in several stage shows around Canada. He made his way to Hollywood where he found work acting in silent films and film serials. But the movie business was pretty tough, even back then in the 1920s, and he had to support himself by digging ditches and unloading trucks.

     Around the time he landed in California he changed his name -- in part to seem more exotic, and in part to protect the reputation of his family back in England. He had, after all, become an actor. Nobody knows where his new name came from -- perhaps from a novel with a character called the Prince of Karlova. The actor himself claimed his stage name was actually a family name from one of his ancestors who hailed from Eastern Europe. But his only daughter didn't believe it.

     He slowly built up a reputation as a competent actor, specializing in playing the villain in his early movies (he made well over a hundred films in all). He appeared in two hit films of the time: a 1930 prison drama called The Criminal Code, and a 1931 movie Five Star Final, in which he played an unethical newspaper reporter.

     But it was another 1931 film, based on an old novel by Mary Shelley, that made him famous. The mad scientist was played by fellow English actor Colin Clive. The hunchback assistant was portrayed by American actor Dwight Frye (who was also Renfield in Dracula). And the monster himself was played by William H. Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff, who wore a bulky costume with four-inch platform boots, and plenty of makeup.
     Boris Karloff reprised his role in Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, and also appeared in different roles for House of Frankenstein and the 1958 version Frankenstein 1970.   

    Karloff appeared in other movies as well -- Scarface, The Lost Patrol, The Raven, The Body Snatcher, The Tower of London. And in the 1960s he narrated a TV special of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. But he remained best known for his horror films and particularly for his role in Frankenstein.

     Karloff was famous for playing sinister characters in the movies, but in real life he supported many charities, and every year he dressed up as Father Christmas and handed out toys to disabled kids. He was married five times, and had the one daughter by his fourth wife. He spent most of his life in America but never became a citizen. He returned to England in his final years and remained a British subject up until his death in 1969. He also never officially changed his name. All his life, on legal documents, he would sign his name "William H. Pratt, aka Boris Karloff."

     Boris Karloff followed in a rich Hollywood tradition started by Lon Chaney, who gained fame in 1923 as the tortured Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and also played the phantom in Phantom of the Opera. His son, Lon Chaney, Jr., followed in his father's footsteps, playing in The Mummy, The Wolf Man (and also portraying Lennie Small in the 1939 movie version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men).

     Then there was Bela Lugosi, famous for Dracula, who also appeared with Karloff in The Raven and Son of Frankenstein. The horror hall of fame also includes Vincent Price (The Pit and the Pendulum and The House of Usher); Peter Lorre (The Raven and Beast with Five Fingers); Claude Rains (Invisible Man and The Clairvoyant).

     Most of these old films have been updated and remade over the years. And we, in our contemporary movies, have our own monsters -- vampires, zombies and all those computer-generated ogres that crash across the screen. We also have other modern monsters, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, or Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lector. Or maybe our latest monster is The Ebola Virus.

     But they're not quite the same, are they?

     Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What's Life All About?

     I just finished reading a novel called Night Film by Marisha Pessl. What I didn't realize when I started the book is that it's a perfect story for Halloween.

     I won't trouble you with a review or plot summary, except to say the story stars an investigative reporter Scott McGrath, who goes in search of the secretive movie director Stanislas Cordova. The elusive director is celebrated for his artistry and brutal honesty. But he has also produced such awful and terror-filled films that regular movie houses have stopped showing them. Now people can only view Cordova movies by special invitation to clandestine underground locations.

     McGrath's search touches tangentially on the black arts and magic potions, and includes visits to a ramshackle tenement building, a spooky mental institution and a secret gathering in the dark of night at a remote castle far down a deserted, windy beach.

     At one point McGrath breaks in to Cordova's private compound in upstate New York, called The Peak, where he is trapped in a maze of underground tunnels. The only light he has to guide him comes from his book of matches. He strikes a match every few minutes, carefully rationing the matches so he doesn't run out and get left in complete darkness. He stumbles through the black catacomb, feeling his way along the wet, slimy stone walls. His foot bumps into something. A body? A pile of bones? He strikes a match to see. It's a discarded dress, which he bunches into his backpack. Then he accidentally drops his book of matches. He feels around frantically on the dirt floor. Nothing. He cannot find them.

     Now it's totally dark, as the walls close in, and he searches blindly for a way out . . .

     It's a long, rambling novel with many twists and turns -- you'll tire of the story if you're not ready to spend a considerable amount of time searching through the torturous and tangled web of another world. But it's a great read if you like that sort of thing.

     The book always seems to have something important to say . . . but it also always seems to be just out of reach. Until, I think, the end.

     The final pages bring us an interview with the mysterious director. Cordova tells us, "Our lives are flowers that bloom brightly, and then they are gone." And this is what he says, just before he excuses himself to step outside for a moment . . . and then disappears:

            "My films are just stories. But that is all
             we have. The stories we tell others and the
             stories we tell ourselves. When you talk to
             the elderly, men and women at the end of their
             lives, you see that's what's left behind as the
             body disintegrates. Our stories. Our children
             will decide whether or not to keep telling them."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why I Don't Like to Travel

     I think I'm feeling a little dyspeptic and curmudgeonly today, in part because I've been looking at expedia, homeaway and other travel sites. Also, this post is at least partly in response to my friend Meryl Baer's post called Top Ten Reasons I Travel. And so I hope this is taken with the tongue-in-cheek spirit in which it's intended.

     Besides, it's not that I hate traveling, detest vacations, or am afraid to be away from home. I say, if you want to travel, go right ahead! It's just that, sometimes, I get the feeling that if you're retired, and you don't travel, then people think you're not making the most of your retirement, and you're somehow letting everyone down.

Are we having fun yet?
     Now, I admit that I've been going to Florida, or else Arizona or southern California, every year since I left work in 2002. But the motivation behind that is not the search for adventure, but the search for warmth, the need to escape cold, snowy weather. I simply want to stop shivering for a couple of weeks.

     B and I have also taken some vacations that require a few hours of driving -- to Cape Cod, western New York, South Carolina. We've made many trips to Pennsylvania where B has family. But I do it . . . not reluctantly, really, but I do it hesitantly, because . . . well, because I don't really like to travel.

     Why not? Here are my Top 10 reasons:

     1)  I don't like to drive. I mean, I don't mind driving around town, but the prospect of a three or four or five hour drive leaves me with a feeling of dread. Driving is so boring, as you stare for hours at the unending and unvarying ribbon of road ahead of you, only punctuated by the drug-addled truck driver who lumbers uphill at 40 mph, then careens downhill at 80 mph (and you know his brakes don't work!), or else the occasional crazy NASCAR wannabe who suddenly jumps into your rear-view mirror, then tailgates for ten minutes before lurching around and shooting ahead, usually without so much as the use of his or her direction signal.

    2)  I hate flying even more. The long, traffic-choked trip to the airport; the police-state atmosphere of the airport terminal. And then . . . they pack you into this aluminum tube and jettison you off into the skies, whether it's dark or raining or snowing, no matter what. And that's before air turbulence sets in and the wings start flapping up and down!

     3) I do not like walking around and looking at things -- like a museum, a park, a "picturesque" neighborhood. Or, why-oh-why do we always at some point when we're on vacation, end up in a mall?

     4) We have friends who've been trying to get us to go on a cruise. See # 2) above, except you're trapped on a big smelly boat, not in a claustrophobic cylindrical tube, and you're not breathlessly waiting for the air pocket portending sudden death, but that first lurch in your stomach signaling a major episode of food poisoning and the subsequent violent emission of bodily fluids.

     5) Then you get to your hotel. I don't stay in the presidential suite of a five-star hotel. I'm in one smallish room that smells of disinfectants, with two big beds and barely enough room to turn around. It's simply not as comfortable as my bedroom at home.

Which one is mine?
     6)  Along the same lines, a lot of things you do when you travel are exactly the same things you do when you're at home! You eat; you sleep; you go for a walk; you sit on a lounge chair and read a book. Why is reading a book on a hot sandy beach, slathered in creams and oils, while still exposing yourself to skin cancer, any better than sitting at home and reading a book in the comfort of your own well-worn easy chair? Then there's golf. I like to play golf. I have my usual group at home, and we play at any one of about a dozen perfectly good public courses available to us within a half-hour drive. You go on vacation, you end up with a bunch of strangers on a golf course that's too difficult, too unfamiliar, too frustrating . . . and to add insult to injury, it's too expensive!

     7) You inevitably get lost.

     8) I don't like being a "tourist." I don't know what I'm doing. So it makes me feel like a "mark."

     9) The alternative is the packaged tour. And that makes me feel like a "customer" who's buying a standardized "product" . . . and the person who's smiling at me is smiling only because they're angling for a generous tip.

     10) A lot of places you go -- especially if you go too far -- they don't even speak English! What are you supposed to do then?!?

     Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to expedia and homeaway and figure out what I'm going to do this winter. Florida, or Arizona? I gotta book a flight, and find a place to stay, and figure out what I'm going to do. Hey . . . I said I didn't like it. I didn't say I don't do it!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The 1.7 Percent Solution

      The government announced yesterday that our Social Security benefit for next year will increase by 1.7 percent, reflecting the 1.7 rise in the Consumer Price Index through September of this year. The average benefit will go up by a little more than $20 a month, which will barely cover average increases in Medicare and allied medical insurance. 

     Inflation of 1.7%? Who are they trying to kid? Have you shopped in a grocery store lately? Everything has gone up and the packages are getting smaller. Meanwhile, have you checked on the increases in college tuition? Or seen how healthcare prices have gone up? What about property taxes? Don't believe these fake government inflation reports. Inflation for seniors is closer to 10 percent if you look at the real world.

     Does the general rate of inflation truly reflect the real lives of senior citizens? One reason the CPI is so low is because of the decrease in gasoline prices. By definition, retired people no longer commute, so we don't use as much gasoline, and don't benefit from the lower cost of fuel. But we do travel. We do heat our homes. Then, how do you factor in the cost of food and health care? The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare touts a different way to determine increases in Social Security. It recommends using a measure called CPI-E, rather than the CPI, arguing that the CPI-E more closely resembles the inflation measure for people over 62. On average, the CPI-E runs 0.2 percent higher than the general CPI. That would mean, instead of getting $20 more, you'd get about $22. A small amount. But it would add up over the years.

     But where would we get the money? And are seniors getting greedy?

     A lot of retirees don't understand that they didn't contribute nearly as much into Social Security as they are taking out, assuming they live a normal life span. Social Security was never meant to be your sole source of support, but it was supposed to help those who didn't have a pension or could never save enough to get by. But today's recipients are receiving more than they put in, while younger generations are getting screwed. Remember, people who are currently working and paying into Social Security are not getting much in the way of raises either. To a lot of people a 1.7 percent increase doesn't seem bad. Many workers have not had any raise at all for two or three years.

     It's true that Social Security was designed as a supplemental program -- not to replace all your income, but to put a floor on your income. And it has worked. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for people over age 65 clocks in at 9.5 percent, compared to 14.5 percent among the population as a whole, never mind the poverty rate for single mothers or inner city minorities. The poverty rate for children is 19.9 percent. Do we really want to take money away from poor children in order to send more to middle-class seniors? Do we want to increase the payroll tax on our kids, who don't even believe they'll get the same benefits that we do out of Social Security? 

     A statement like, "I can't get by on Social Security" is ridiculous because the program was never meant to be the primary source of income during your retirement years. It's a safety net, no more than that. That's why you save for retirement starting early in our career using 401Ks and IRAs. Look, the choices are clear:  Save systematically, lead a frugal life, always spend less than you make, and this will allow you to maintain your lifestyle in your sunset years. If you're depending on Social Security alone, then plan to downsize your lifestyle drastically. The choice is yours.

     But then the government hits us when we're down. Because inflation is so low, and the government is still trying to pump up the economy five years after the recession ended, interest rates are close to zero. Those of us who scrimped and saved and built up a reasonable nest egg to supplement Social Security (like they told us to), get nothing from our investments -- not if we try to keep them safe by putting them in the bank (at less than 1 percent interest) or keep them in "safe" government or corporate bonds (at 2 percent interest). Yes, we can invest in the stock market. But that puts our nest eggs at risk. If the market tanks like it did in 2008 or 2001, then we'll be the ones who have to downsize our lifestyles drastically. 

     Everyone knows that it's not low inflation (which is anything but low) but negative real interest rates that steal from savers to support the stock portfolios of the 1 percent. If not for the government bailouts and the artificially low rates, would the price of gas, food, medicine, tuition, and stocks go up? No, everything would be much more affordable. Who would benefit? Everyone who is a consumer and not an investor -- including most seniors. Who would lose? The 1 percent. But so what? They lose a little, but would still be left with their millions.

     So where do we stand? Well, we have Social Security (even though it could be more); we have our IRAs (which are doing pretty well, at least for now); and most of us (80 percent) own a house that's worth less than it was a few years ago, but is still a pretty decent asset ... and also keeps us warm and dry all night long.

     Here's the way I see it. Lots of anxieties. Lots to complain about. But overall, we've got it pretty good, don't you think?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What's the Risk?

     I will admit that I don't like to fly. I don't like the airport experience. I don't like being cooped up in that narrow, cylindrical aluminum tube. I don't like being 30,000 feet up in the sky with only a cushion of air holding me up. And I sure don't like sitting in the middle seat.

     The analytical, left side of my brain knows that flying in an airplane is safe. But the more impressionable right side of my brain imagines how sometimes, very quickly, things can go wrong.

     Things can go wrong in a car. But I can get out and walk. Things can go wrong in a boat, but I can swim. But in an airplane . . .

     So now people are saying they are reluctant to board an airplane because of Ebola. You never know if one of the passengers has been to West Africa or is a health worker who has treated someone with the disease. They may not show any symptoms, but they could still be carrying the virus.

     But what are the chances of getting Ebola? About the same, I read recently, as getting hit by lighting while picking up your multimillion-dollar winnings from the lottery.

     Exactly one person has died of Ebola so far in this country. But every year over 50,000 people die of flu and pneumonia. And of course, like most things, these diseases hit older people a lot harder than they hit young people, proving infinitely more deadly. (So get your flu shot!)

     Recently, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published its latest list of most common ways to die in this country. The list doesn't change much from year to year, or even decade to decade. Heart disease is still No. 1. Cancer is No. 2.

     We have made some progress on cancer -- as much because people have given up smoking as because of medical advances. But medical treatment has definitely improved the survival rate for breast cancer, colon cancer, and skin cancer -- especially if they're caught early. (So get your breast exam, your colonoscopy and your skin screening!)

     But we know the risks that are familiar never seem as threatening or scary as those that are new or unusual or dramatic. I'm scared of stepping onto an airplane, which if you average it out kills about 140 Americans a year. But I'm not afraid to get in the car and drive to the grocery store, when over 30,000 Americans are killed on the road every year.

     Although I have to amend the statement. Sometimes I have a crisis of confidence when I'm out on the highway, and all around me people are speeding, tailgating, changing lanes without signaling, etc., etc. etc. Sometimes I'm amazed that the death rate on the roads isn't higher than it already is!

     In fact, while overall, accidents are the fifth leading cause of death in America, killing over 120,000 people a year, auto accidents do not kill as many people as accidental poisonings. The top three in 2011, according to the CDC:

                Accidental falls:  27,483
                Auto accidents:  33,783
                Accidental poisonings:  36,280

     But the poisoning figures are so high because they include drug overdoses -- and according to the CDC those numbers have gone up in recent years largely due to prescription pain medications. Heroin overdoses mainly affect younger people. But older people are definitely at risk when it comes to pain medications. (So dispose of those old prescriptions in a proper manner!)

     I don't know. After reviewing all these figures, now I'm scared to get out of my chair. What's the death rate for people sitting in front of their computer?