Saturday, August 1, 2015

Summer Rain

     An afternoon thunderstorm comes on fast . . .

     blows through the trees,

     and hoses us with a flood of water.

      It's over quickly, but leaves its mark.

      Oops, here it comes again!


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

This Is Not Your Great Aunt's Retirement

     When I was younger, my view of retirement was informed by my Aunt Han (short for Hannah, and actually, she was my mother's aunt). In my eight or ten-year-old mind, Aunt Han was a true spinster -- she'd been married once, but had been widowed for a long time. Her claim to fame, she told us incessantly, was that she was in Paris in 1927, one of a hundred thousand people who thronged to witness Charles Lindbergh land at Le Bourget airport after making his historic trans-Atlantic flight.

     But by the time I knew her, in the 1950s, Aunt Han was a wizened old lady who lived in a far-off land called Florida and came north to visit in the summer. She lived with our family for about a month, then stayed with my Uncle Tom for a few weeks before returning to the land of the heat and the old.

     She was a dour old woman who never smiled. She spent most of her time drinking tea and scolding us kids. My mother would sometimes make me sit at the kitchen table to keep her company. That was an excruciating experience, sitting there, watching her sip  tea. I'd scarf down my snack in 30 seconds. "Tommy, don't bolt your food; you could choke," she'd warn. "You're supposed to chew each bite 30 times before you swallow."

     Meanwhile, it could easily take Aunt Han an hour to eat one piece of toast. They were the longest hours of my life.

     So . . . how times have changed! We don't associate Baby Boomers with spinsters. And most of the retired people I know are doing a lot more than sitting around the kitchen nibbling on toast.

     Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting says that one of the advantages of retirement is the opportunity to do things that a working schedule doesn't allow, such as attending a Broadway matinee in New York City. She recently enjoyed a reunion with four long-time friends, enjoying a long lunch (including dessert!) and joining throngs of other tourists in the Big Apple.

     If you want to know what show she saw, open the curtain at One Friendly Summer Day in the City. Here's a hint: all five of the retirees walked out of the theater "with smiles, memories past and present, and familiar songs ringing in their ears."

Colorado 4052
     Meanwhile, Laura Lee Carter is going one better. In retirement she and her husband are building a new solar-powered home in the Colorado foothills. This week they're putting on the final touches and moving in.

     It's a chaotic time. But she is thrilled that she's met a new friend who knows people in her small town. And now, after all the preparation and anticipation, she is reminding herself that "all of this stress will pass, and then we will be set for some serious rest and relaxation!"

     I don't know if my Aunt Han had to worry about her medical bills. In any case, I'm sure they would seem quaint by our standards. On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, writes about congressional restrictions on the government’s ability to negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry that causes Medicare Part D drug prices to be significantly higher than those paid by anyone else, including people on Medicaid and in dozens of other countries. Costs in the United States per capita for pharmaceuticals average $1,010 annually -- more than twice as much as in most other developed nations.

     That's enough to make us outraged, or in some cases even desperate. As Robison reminds us, Medicare Part D covers almost 40 million people, and an untold number of them do not fill their prescriptions for financial reasons.

     Kathy Gottberg of SmartLiving365 found a book, Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe, about how moms sometimes feel desperate and need hope and encouragement to help them carry on. But that made her consider: Don't we all need help and encouragement, now and then?

     We all face challenges at different phases of life, and while feelings of desperation might be universal, what we're currently facing and how we're coping are usually quite different. So Gottberg has come up with 5 Ways to Cope with Life at This Stage -- issues that most of us will likely encounter somewhere in midlife or later, along with some possible solutions for helping us get through them . . . and be able to breathe.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

How to Get Fat

     I saw an ad on TV last night promising that I could shed 40 pounds in 40 days. This seems to be a time of year when you see a lot of ads and articles assuring you that you can lose weight, fast and easy, without dieting. (Is there a time of year when there aren't a lot of ads promising that you can lose weight?) I think it might have something to do with fitting into a bikini, not that I personally have ever tried.

     I've lost a little weight in my day. For example, I lost eight pounds after my latest colonoscopy. But my true field of expertise is not losing weight. It's getting fat. I got fat in my 30s, because my wife got pregnant. I got fat in my 40s, because I was middle age. I got fat in my 50s due to my slowing metabolism. Now I've passed the 60 mark, and I'm getting fat because I don't give a damn anymore. You see? I always have an excuse!

     Since I know all about how to get fat, I thought I'd pass on some of my expert advice. Here are five of the fastest ways to pack on the pounds.

     Don't eat breakfast. You'd think if you skip a meal, it would help you lose weight. But it doesn't work that way. Everyone I know who pats themselves on the back for not being hungry in the morning (myself included) ends up with either a pot belly, or a rubber tire worthy of a hybrid car, if not a monster truck. I think it has something to do with balancing things out. If you don't eat in the morning, you implicitly give yourself permission to stuff your face at 10 p.m., just before you go to bed.

     Drink diet sodas. I don't know why – they only have 1 calorie, or sometimes no calories. But drinking diet soda conclusively and inevitably leads to gaining weight. It's not just what you consume along with the diet soda (for surely you've seen the person at the fast-food place with a double cheeseburger, french fries, a sticky dessert ... and a diet cola. Yes, that was me!). I don't know exactly how diet sodas add on pounds; I just know that they do. They must stimulate something in the sugar part of your brain that goes unfulfilled with the diet drink, and so you subconsciously make up your sugar quotient with more pie, or more whipped cream with your pie. In any case, whatever you do, if you're trying to gain weight, do not drink water. Water is just empty calories!

     Take full advantage of your spouse. When you're sitting on the couch watching TV – by the way, watching TV, playing video games and sitting in front of your computer are all fully approved activities for the aspiring fat person -- and want a snack from the kitchen, do not trouble yourself by giving up your comfortable seating arrangement and walking into the kitchen. Instead, call out to your spouse. Or a kid will do, if there's one around and they'll cooperate. Ask them to get the snack for you, and bring it to you on the couch. By the way, potato chips make an excellent snack, especially of you have dip to go with them.

     Do not own a pet. After all, you might have to change their bowl, clean up after them, take them for a walk, throw a stick for them. All of these activities burn up those precious calories you want to horde in your belly fat. So relax. If you want animal companionship, put up a picture of a pet as the screensaver on your laptop.

     Drive everywhere. You have a car. Why not use it? It's silly to spend 20 minutes walking down to the corner, which might be almost a mile, when you can jump in the car and be there in three minutes. Similarly, when you go to the mall, and have to shop at the two anchor stores at either end of the building, park at one end, and then when you're done there, get back in the car and drive around the mall to the other store. There's no point in walking the whole length of the mall. And by the way, if you have to go from one floor to another, never, ever take the stairs. Use the escalator or elevator. They're there for your convenience.

     I'm sure you know some other ways to gain weight. Drinking beer, for example. Or, as I once did, giving up beer – then making up for that sacrifice by indulging yourself in all the dessert you can eat. You probably have your own guilty pleasure, which is fine ... in moderation, of course!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Which New Taxes Would You Vote For?

     Hillary Clinton last week proposed raising the capital gains tax on long-term investments, and this got me thinking about taxes in general and income taxes in particular. Now I don't make myself out as a tax expert -- why, I've only read 30 - 40 pages of the tax code which by some measures is 70,000 pages long, by others "only" 2,600 pages long -- but I do have some background in business and economics. Don't take my views on taxes as any definitive analysis, just one retiree's semi-informed opinion.

     Clinton suggested applying a sliding scale to investment profits, based on how long people have held the assets. Currently, capital gains are taxed at personal income tax rates if the assets are held less than a year. Assets held more than a year are taxed at a preferential capital gains rate. The idea is to reward true investing, but discourage short-term trading.

     Also, as many retirees are well aware, dividends are taxed at a preferential rate, although income from bonds is not. Clinton's plan would increase the maximum rate on capital gains made on assets held between one and three years, currently 20 percent, to at least 28 percent.

     What would be the effect of this increase? Clinton did not say how much revenue would be raised; she said she'd offer more details at a later time. But clearly, it would increase taxes for people who own stocks and mutual funds. Wealthy people. Retired people. People saving for college or any other reason.

     It would not affect real estate, nor would it affect tax-advantaged retirement accounts. But in any case, it seems like the Clinton proposal is a trial balloon that is going nowhere fast. Even the liberal Huffington Post cast a dim eye on the plan, quoting Bob McIntyre, director of the progressive Citizens for Tax Justice, who said most wealthy investors avoid capital gains taxes by finding ways to defer asset sales but small investors in mutual funds would be penalized by Clinton's plan.

     A more sensible approach might be to tax investments on a sliding scale based not on how long they are held, but on how much income a person makes. In other words, to tax investments like earned income -- a lower rate for lower income people, a higher rate for higher income people. But nobody that I know is suggesting such a thing.

     Also, nobody is talking about raising the tax on co-called "carried interest." This is a fairly obscure, but very profitable tax dodge that allows partners in private equity firms to count a significant portion of their income as capital gains or qualified dividends rather than regular income. So instead of paying the top rate of 39.6 percent, plus the 3.8 percent Medicare surcharge on income over $200,000 (and you can bet these hedge fund managers make more than $200,000), they only pay the capital gains rate of 20 percent.

     Why is nobody -- not Democrat or Republican -- talking about abandoning carried interest? I do not know. But do you think, just possibly, that campaign contributions might have something to do with it?

     And while we're on the subject -- a subject near and dear to every retiree's heart -- why is there so little talk about "saving" Social Security by getting rid of the salary cap on the payroll tax? Everyone who works pays 6.2 percent Social Security tax, plus 1.45 percent Medicare tax, on the first $118,000 of earned income. Employers pay the same amount for each employee, again up to the limit of $118,000 per year. After that, people don't pay any more Social Security tax. How fair is that? The more money a person makes, after $118,000 per year, the lower their tax rate.

     Finally, I saw that Bernie Sanders also has a tax proposal. I'm no fan of Bernie Sanders -- he wants to take money away not just from rich people but from middle-class people like me, and give it to other people he likes better; plus, he's against gun control, and I'm in favor of gun control -- but this particular tax plan, which he calls a Robin Hood tax, may have some merit. He wants to place a 50 cents tax on every $100 of stock trades, plus lesser amounts on bonds and other financial instruments.

     The question I have is, does he mean 50 cents for every $100, which basically is an additional half percent tax on all our investments? That seems a bit steep to me, adding to the punishment that savers already suffer. Or does he mean a 50 cents tax on every trade worth over $100? That seems more reasonable: He wants to skim a little off the top from major investors and give it to a worthy cause.

     He says the tax could slow down automated high-frequency trading, which might be a good thing. And he wants to use the money to give everyone a free college education. He doesn't say whether his Robin Hood tax would actually raise enough money to support college education for everyone; but that's a whole other issue ... how much college really costs and what the effects of free tuition would be.

     Well, there's plenty more on taxes, but that's enough for now. You can't bite off all 2,600 pages, or 70,000 pages, all in one gulp.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Who Is More American?

     I don't know why I am so fascinated by the Dutch experience in the New World. As far as I know, I do not have a drop of Dutch blood in my lineage. And my ancestors came nowhere near the New World in the 1600s or the 1700s. They didn't arrive until the 1800s.

     On my mother's side, there were two brothers, Thomas and Patrick, who left Ireland around 1850. They traveled to New York together. Thomas, my great great grandfather, made his way upstate and settled in for a while somewhere around Albany. His brother Patrick shipped out again as a deckhand on a freighter. He spent six or eight years working at sea, traveling as far as Australia, before finding his way back to New York. He then reunited with Thomas and the two of them started a tugboat business in New York Harbor.

     My grandparents on my father's side of the family arrived here in the 1890s, both from Central Europe. They met and married in New York, then wandered around Pennsylvania and Ohio looking for work. After a few disappointing years they settled in Connecticut where my grandfather found a steady job in a metal-fabricating factory. They had seven children. The oldest died in the 1917 flu epidemic. The youngest, the last surviving sibling, served in World War II and died in Las Vegas in 2003.

     So I sometimes wonder: When I'm reading about our Founding Fathers, or the Puritans in New England or the Dutch in New York, am I even learning about my own heritage? My ancestors had nothing to do with America at that point; they were trying to scratch out a living somewhere in Europe.

     But then, I think, in a way I'm more American than the Daughters of the Revolution, or anyone else who claims ancestry back to colonial times. After all, my immigrant experience is much more typical than someone who claims some faint connection to the Founding Fathers. The population of the United States in 1776 was around 2.6 million people. But some 4 million Irish immigrated to the U. S. in the 19th century. And there were even more from Central Europe. The total figure I found put the number at 30 million Europeans who migrated from Europe to America between 1836 and 1914.

     Maybe I find the Dutch interesting because, according to Robert Shorto, they deserve credit for bringing the first seeds of democracy to the New World -- the seeds of freedom, opportunity and self-rule -- and that above all is what defines our aspirations, whether we're from the Netherlands or Nicaragua, or England or Estonia or Ecuador.

     Also, the Dutch also gave the word for cookies (originally koekjes), which in my book is reason enough to celebrate their culture!

     And as Robert Shorto points out, the Dutch also brought us the word for boss (originally baas) which he says is a uniquely American concept. The word does not connote any divine favor or royal lineage. It just refers to the person who's in charge. There's the Mafia boss, the political boss, the boss at work -- all of whom attained their position not by any royal connection, but by some combination of talent, hard work, street smarts, and maybe a little luck. The boss is no better than we are, and if things change, as they often do, the boss could be gone tomorrow . . .  and maybe we'll become the boss.

     Then there's The Boss. American icon Bruce Springsteen, from working class New Jersey. According to Shorto, the Springsteens were among the original Dutch settlers of New Netherland.