Thursday, December 30, 2010

How to Find a Job

     We all know it's hard to get a job these days. The sick employment situation affects people like us -- baby boomers in their 50s who are finished with one career and may want to start a second career, or else post-career 60-somethings who need a part-time job to bring in some extra cash.

     The weak employment picture affects our children even more. Many of them are a year or two out of college and still living at home. They're either not working at all, or they're laboring away in a low-wage job for which they are ridiculously overqualified. (For the record, B and I have four children between us, ranging in age from 19 to 27. One's in college; one's in graduate school; two are working for not much money.)

     So what's going on? Will the unemployment rate get back to a more normal 4 - 5 percent in our lifetimes? Will it ever again be easy to find a job?

     I don't know. But I see three explanations that make sense to me.

     James Surowiecki in this week's The New Yorker argues that the main problem is the recent recession. The economy has been slow to recover, so employers are slow to hire new workers. This is the explanation we want to hear, because it suggests that as the economy cycles out of recession into a reasonable expansion, the employment picture will improve. And everything will get back to normal.

     But Surowiecki cites another problem called "structural unemployment." This unemployment comes from a mismatch between American skills and the jobs that are available. All those construction workers from the mid-2000s, for example, know how to install roofs and sheetrock and plumbing. But we no longer need people with that experience. We need workers with computer skills and medical training and environmental know-how.

     The other aspect of structural unemployment is the issue of what our schools are teaching and what young people are learning. Too many college kids major in history, English, art or sociology. Not enough in math and science and engineering. Then there's the language problem. Not enough people learn a foreign language. Being able to speak only one language really restricts your job opportunities in this global economy.

     There is one more issue. Pallavi Gogoi points out on the Huffington Post that, in fact, American companies are hiring people hand over fist. The problem is that they are not hiring Americans. They are hiring workers in other countries. Caterpillar, for example, hired more than 15,000 workers in the past year. But more than half of them were overseas. Gogoi cites a figure from The Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, saying that American companies created fewer than 1 million jobs in the U.S. while offering 1.4 million new jobs overseas.

     So . . . the good news, according to Surowiecki, is that a lot of American jobs will come back along with the American economy. The bad news is that a lot of jobs will not. Instead, as economic sage Paul Volcker has pointed out, our children will have to go out and get them. By developing their skills. Learning a language. And maybe even relocating overseas.

     Then, when our kids move up in their careers, there might be a job over at the mall for you and me!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What Do You Do When the Cable Goes Out?

     The storm that came up the East Coast knocked out our cable service. Usually, here in semi-upstate New York, we lose our electricity and we're thrown back into the 19th century, scrambling to find the candles and dashing outside to gather wood for the fireplace. But the electric company doesn't fool around. It gets the lights back on quickly. A night without electricity is kind of fun -- two nights without electricity is a real pain.

     Amazingly, this storm with 40 mph winds and eight inches of white stuff, didn't affect the electric grid. Instead, it shut down the cable. We had heat and electricity. But no TV. No phone. No computer. We were not thrown back into the 1800s; but we did spend two days living in the 1940s.
Oh no! A blank screen!

     I didn't realize how much time I spend on the Internet -- until I lost the Internet. I check my two email accounts several times a day. I write notes to people via email -- for work, for family, for friends. I read the news on the Internet; I buy things on websites; check the weather, look up train schedules, figure out if there's anything on TV or at the multiplex. I also waste time on the Internet -- the videos on yahoo!, the lists on aol; the meandering searches on google. And now I'm blogging as well.

     With no computer, I found myself with time on my hands. I picked up a book I'd gotten for Christmas, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I'd seen the reviews in the New York Times and Newsweek. They loved the book, but made it sound more like homework than an interesting read. I could see that the book is pretty thick. I figured it would be boring and hard to follow. Also, I'd tried to read Franzen's previous book, Corrections, and didn't get very far. So I had no intention of reading this one. But with no Internet and no TV, I hefted the book onto my lap and started reading -- and what do you know, I fell right into the story and spent three-plus hours with the Berglund family and enjoyed every minute of it.

     But the kids are home for Christmas, and they're not so easily entertained. When I'm without a computer, it's an inconvenience. For them, it's a life-altering disaster. At first they sat at the dinner table looking shell-shocked, as if they couldn't believe what was happening. They had no idea what to do without their electronic gadgets. They played listlessly with the dog; they shoveled a little snow; then they splayed out on the couch staring into space.

      I pointed out that they still had their cellphones; they could call their friends. But they don't call their friends. They use their cellphones to text, to email, to go on facebook and twitter. And all of that requires wi fi, which we temporarily didn't have.

     They spent quite a bit of time fiddling with the TV, hoping that if they pushed enough buttons the picture would magically appear. My son wanted to watch football. B wanted to see "Say Yes to the Dress." B's son was outraged that he was going to miss "American Pickers."

     But the cable system would not cooperate. No outside line. Nothing.

     The next day we solved the problem by getting out of the house and going to the mall, then the sports club. That evening someone suggested we could still use the TV to watch a movie. I thought that was a great idea. But the kids only care about movies they can download instantly from Netflix. "Movies on DVDs?" they scoffed. "They're old! They're from the '90s!"

My new interest
     We watched The Perfect Storm with George Clooney, and to be fair to the kids, the movie did show its age. But at least it was something to do. Then we walked the dog and B went upstairs, and so I decided to go upstairs as well to read some more Freedom. As I turned out the kitchen lights and glanced into the TV room, I saw my son staring intently at the screen, lights flickering off his face. He remembered he could still play a video game and was busy killing people on "Assassin's Creed."

     I woke up this morning and came downstairs. B was sitting at the kitchen table eating her breakfast. "So are the computers back on?" I asked.

     She looked up absently. "Oh, I don't know," she said. "I didn't check." B is not so addicted to electronics as the rest of us. "Pick up the phone," she suggested. "If you get a dial tone, you'll know."

     I reached for the phone, picked it up and heard the comforting buzz of a dial tone. Whew! We were back in the 21st century. The kids will be happy. I guess I'll finish Freedom another time. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

I'm Dreaming of a . . . Health Club

This is not me
     Last year, in Dec. 2009, I got myself a membership to a sports club for Christmas. I had to sign a one year contract, which made me nervous because I was afraid I'd start out with a burst of enthusiasm, exercising two or three times a week in February and March, then by July I'd never darken the sports club door again.

     It turned out I did go to the club more often in the beginning. But I still get over there once a week, sometimes twice a week, to take a spin on the bicycle and grunt and groan on the weight machines. The truth is, I really don't like to exercise. I just like to hit things. I like baseball and tennis and golf. The trouble is that these sports -- especially the way they're played by late middle agers -- do not provide much of a cardiovascular workout. And some of them can be dangerous for us aging baby boomers. Think tennis elbow, sprained ankle and torn cartilage. In fact, I've retired from the tennis court and now limit my racket sports to the Ping Pong table in the basement. And golf . . . well, golf you can play in your sleep.

     Last year my doctor told me that riding a stationary bike was easier on my brittle knees and ankles than running (not that I did much running) or playing tennis, or even walking. So that's what I do now.

That's not me either
     Some people can read while they use the treadmill or bike. I cannot. So I time my trip to the sports club to early evening reruns of half-hour comedy shows on TV. I am now more familiar with "Friends," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "King of Queens" than I'd like to admit. Then there's always "people watching." I enjoy the spectacle of the women's Zumba dance class that takes place Mon., Wed. and Fri. at 5 p.m. There are young male bodybuilders in the corner. Girls on the ellipticals with their ponytails bobbing up and down. Some middle age women seriously into the treadmill. And a few of us older guys huffing and puffing on the machines.

     The funny thing is, at first I thought I might feel self-conscious exercising along with a crowd that's younger, better looking, and in better shape than I am. But it turns out that everyone is very supportive. I never get a condescending comment or dirty look. Just some occasional helpful advice, or a friendly greeting. And when I see a guy even older than me, who's fat and out of shape and shaky on his feet, it doesn't enter my mind that I'm better than him. I think, good for him.

     I don't get to the health club as often as I should. But it's still worth it. I think I'll sign up again for next year.

 blogcatalog link

Thursday, December 23, 2010

High Price of the Future

     I might live another 30 years. I hope to live that long anyway. My blood pressure is good; my cholesterol floats around below 200; I gave up smoking a long time ago.

     Of course, I also gave up working a few years ago, so I live on a "fixed income," supplemented by a little freelance work and a few consulting jobs. I can afford my lifestyle now. But I wonder, what happens in 10 or 20 or 30 years, when I don't have any supplemental income, and prices are a lot higher than they are now. Will Social Security keep up? Will my investments produce enough income?

     I got thinking about this because yesterday I heard on my car radio that in 1980 a Corvette cost around $12,000. Today it's priced at about $60,000. The price of the car has gone up 5 times. I recalled my own experience. When I bought my first new car, a Saab in 1979,  it cost $6200. Today, a Saab sets you back a little over $30,000. Again, it's increased by a factor of 5.

     Earlier this year, I bought a new Acura TSX for $28k and change. So at that rate, in 30 years that new car is going to cost over $140,000!

     How about a house? The house I live in is worth, according to zillow.com, roughly $600k, slightly above average for my area of New York. It was built at the end of the '70s when it sold for $60,000-and-something. That's a nine or ten-fold increase, even accounting for the recent slump in real estate. At that rate, in 30 years the house will be worth $6 million!

     Of course in 30 years, if I'm alive at all, I'll be too old and decrepit to drive, and the only people interested in the value of my house will be my heirs. But I'll still want to eat or mail some Christmas cards or help my grandchildren pay for college. And I'll surely be interested in the price of medical care. So if prices continue for the next 30 years the way they have in the past 30 years (and I'm not predicting they are . . . could be better, could be worse) this is what reality will look like:


Item                   Cost in:         1980                2010                 2040     

1 gal. milk                            $  1.60              $  3.29              $   6.77
box of cornflakes                 $    .69              $  2.99              $ 14.29

book of 20 stamps               $  3.00              $  8.80             $  25.80
15 gal. tank of gas                $17.85              $47.85             $171.00

1 yr. priv. college tuition $5,600.00       $35,600.00      $226,300.00

5 days in the hospital          $635.00       $25,000.00     $984,000.00

Consumer goods index       $100.00           $282.00              $795.00
Average mo. SS check        $320.00        $1,170.00           $4,300.00
S&P stock index                    115                  1,255                  13,700
    
       These figures, by necessity, are estimates. Some of them are almost unbelievable. Nobody thinks, given the pressures on Social Security, that our checks will rise to over $4000 a month. And it really is hard to believe that a routine hospital stay will cost a million dollars. But then, who in 1980 would have dreamed that a year in college would cost $35,600 . . . plus room and board!

     I don't mean to scare you. But forewarned is forearmed. And, hey, look at the bright side -- at least we'll be able to eat a decent breakfast!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Night Visitor

     I saw my old friend Phil last night. I was sitting in my office at work, behind my desk, looking out through the glass wall. Someone had pasted a notice on the outside of the glass, so I stood up to go see what it was. As I circled around my desk, Phil appeared at my doorway -- tall and thin with bushy black hair and a big smile. He came in as though nothing had happened. He was walking a little funny, but gave me his usual throaty laugh.

     "Phil!" I said in astonishment. "You're here!"

     "Yeah, I was just down the hall," he said, pointing outside my door. "Thought I'd come by and say hello."

     He had some papers tucked under one arm, and set them down on the corner of my desk. And that's when I noticed he was using crutches. They were metal, the kind that go halfway up your forearms.

     He saw me look at the crutches. His eyes followed mine down to his arms, then his legs. And then he lifted up his head and looked me in the eyes. He was squinting, with a sly grin on his face. "Yeah, I recovered," he said, acknowledging what I knew. "I'm okay, all except my legs. They don't work too well so I have to use these crutches."

     "Wow," I managed to say.

     "It's not too bad," he said reassuringly.

     I still couldn't believe he was here. But his laugh was real, for sure. I looked down at the papers he had dropped onto my desk. They were written in some kind of Chinese characters. "That's great, Phil," I said, trying to regain my composure, trying to be cool about it . "So what are these papers?"

     "Oh, yeah, I've got to hand these out to some people," he said. Then, seeing I was puzzled by the strange lettering, he explained, "I've been doing a lot of traveling."

     "That's good," I replied. "Where to?"

     "Well, I've got to get going," Phil said, ignoring my question. Then as he turned to leave, he dropped one of his crutches, but he kept right on going, walking out the door leaning on one crutch and turning the corner. I bent over and picked up the crutch. It was cold in my hand. Then Phil peeked back around the corner. "Oops, I forgot my crutch," he chuckled.

     I took a step over toward the door and handed him the crutch. He reached out and took it, then slipped it onto his arm. He turned and hobbled out. "Good to see you, man," he called as he disappeared down the hall.

     What really happened? It took place ten years ago . . . yeah, it was just about ten years ago, maybe a little more. Phil came over to the office; he was going to treat me to lunch. He was a few years older than me and had taken an early retirement package from the company. But he lived nearby and had lots of friends and often came by to see old colleagues. He'd told me he'd pick me up; he'd be happy to drive. My office was right by the front door, so that day he pulled up in his Corvette and honked. I saw him out my window, and he waved to me.

     I threw on my jacket, went out the front door and jumped into the passenger seat. It was an old Corvette. He'd bought it for his wife on her 40th birthday, but I think he drove it more than she did. He loved that car.

     On the way over to the restaurant we talked about our friends and joked around about various things going on at the office. But I noticed, as he drove, that he handled the steering wheel kind of funny. Was there something wrong? I wondered. I didn't say anything. He was talking like the same old Phil. How could anything be wrong?

     Again at lunch, it just seemed as though he was awkward -- was there something the matter with his hands? I wasn't sure, and decided he should be the one to bring it up if he wanted to, so I kept my mouth shut about it. Still, I searched his eyes for some kind of recognition, trying to offer a non-verbal signal that it was okay to tell me if something was wrong. But he didn't pick up on it. His conversation, his attitude, his demeanor all said that everything was fine, perfectly normal.

     We finished lunch and Phil dropped me back off at work, laughing and joking and promising to meet up again soon. "So long," I called to him as I closed the car door.

     "Bye bye," he waved.

     It was the next day when I heard the news. Phil was dead. He had committed suicide. He had written a note to his wife and daughter, gulped down a bottle of pills, lay down in bed and died.

     Why? What happened? Everyone wanted to know.

     Phil had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Nobody knew about it except his family. He'd been hiding it. It's a progressive, fatal disease. No cure. No way out. We could only guess what went through his mind -- that he didn't want to be the object of sympathy from his friends, that he didn't want to become a burden to his family, didn't want to subject himself to the indignities of the inevitable heartbreaking decline.

     So he'd ended it on his own terms.

     Phil, I don't know if you did the right thing. Who am I to judge? But, goddammit, you had a lot of courage. It's been ten years and I still miss you. But thanks . . . thanks for coming to visit me last night in my dream.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Good News for Guys

     Well, now there's at least one place in the world where you never have to drink alone. In the Ukraine. A company with the there-must-be-something-lost-in-translation name of "Kind Fairy" hires out people to be your drinking companion. (There's no indication the service is involved in the gay community, or engages in any sort of prostitution.)

Hey, it's a job
     The charge for an evening of high times is about $18 -- which would seem to confirm that it's all above board -- although at that price it's doubtful the fee includes the price of drinks. The head of the company, a woman, suggests the simple payoff for customers is that the service provides cheap therapy.


     If you're not looking for a drinking buddy, but instead are searching for a job, maybe this will give you an idea!

     But if you're an older fellow, like me, maybe you don't need that job anyway. Another report, from Live Science, says that psychologists in Scotland have found that as women become more financially independent, they are drawn to older men.

     Conventional wisdom says that women search out mates who can provide them with financial security. Maybe that's why women get revved up by a guy with an expensive sports car. It's a symbol of his ability to fuel their lives with the finer things in life. But apparently that high-end sports car does not turn the heads of well-heeled women. They have more self confidence, and the freedom to choose who they want. And apparently what they want are older men, who they view as more secure and more powerful.

     One caveat about women's preference for older men, however. They still do like men who are attractive. So if you're older, but not particularly good looking -- well, then, maybe you can hire yourself out as a drinking buddy!
 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Should You Take Social Security Early?

     American workers are eligible to start receiving Social Security payments as early as age 62. However, you're penalized for choosing this early option. The penalty is about 6 percent a year. Just how "early" you are depends on the year you were born -- because that determines what the Social Security Administration calls your "full retirement age" or "normal retirement age."

     For people born from 1943 through 1954, "full retirement age" is 66. Those of us in that cohort take a 30 percent cut if we start Social Security at age 62. For a full schedule see this Social Security site.

      For each year you delay retirement, you make an extra 6 percent -- every year for the rest of your life. That's pretty good. When was the last time you got a 6 percent raise? Or the last time you received 6 percent interest on a risk-free investment? (For comparison, the rate on a 5-year Treasury bill is less than 2 percent.) One caveat: I assume future changes in Social Security, such as extending the age for eligibility, will not affect people currently retired, or people in their 50s and 60s who are nearing retirement. But if you're in your 20s or 30s, all bets are off -- you shouldn't be reading this blog anyway!

     I can see several reasons why you would jump on Social Security when you're 62.

     1) You're in poor health and don't expect to live much beyond your full retirement age.

     2)  You hate your job so much that you're willing to quit, even though you don't have another job or other source of income, so you have to rely on Social Security to pay your bills. But you'd have to be pretty desperate to do this, since you're permanently lowering your standard of living by a substantial amount.

     3) You're trying to "game" the system by collecting payments at age 62, then planning to pay them back later on. The Social Security Administration has allowed people to do this, without penalty or interest -- in effect offering people an interest-free loan. This strikes me as a fairly complicated procedure, not to mention dangerous. What happens if you can't repay the "loan?" You're stuck with the lower payments. In any case, the Social Security Administration recently announced stricter rules covering the Social Security payback option. So this is now a moot point.

     4) Because you have to. Here are some sightings of 60 year olds who applied for Social Security early. A continuing refrain from people in this last group, people forced to start their benefits early, is that they have lost their job and have been unable to find another one, due at least in part to age discrimination.

     But that's a subject for another post.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Just Because You're Over 50 . . .

. . . doesn't mean you're stuck in the past with the Beatles or Billy Joel. Try this new band.




Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Different Rule Book

     B and I are having a dinner party tonight.Well, it's not exactly a party. It's my poker group, and it's my turn to host.

     There's a crowd of nine of us, and we play once a month. We take turns hosting. The host provides the house, the dining room table, some poker chips -- and when we first started out the host would also supply pizza and beer and a couple of family size bags of potato chips.

     Now we've been playing together for quite a few years, and slowly, over time, people have started cooking. It began about ten years ago when one of the wives decided that pizza was too low class, and she made it her job to broil up a platter of chicken legs and wings, and mix a green salad.

My idea
     Then one of my poker buddies got interested in cooking, so he ditched the pizza and developed a specialty involving some kind of fancy Italian pasta with olives and tomatoes and peppers.

     Eventually, one of our original players dropped out of the game, and we replaced him with another friend who turned out to be a vegetarian. His wife prepared a sophisticated vegetarian stew, preceded by appetizers featuring various cheeses, flavored hummus and  European-style crackers. She also put out a bottle of wine -- for the more refined palates.

     Meantime, while this gradual improvement in our culinary routine was going on, I was getting divorced, moving into a condo, and sticking resolutely to the routine of pizza, chips and beer.

     But when I got together with B, and she found out about the poker game, she immediately decided that pizza wouldn't do. She would cook.

     I tried to discourage her. "Really," I told her, "slaving over a hot stove for my poker group is not part of the deal. You don't have to do that."

     "Oh, yes I do," she responded. "And I don't mind. I like to cook."

     "Yeah, but I don't want to be the one causing you to have to do a whole lot of extra work."

     "It's no big deal," she assured me. "I enjoy doing it. I'll cook a turkey, that'll be fun. I'm just wondering if I should serve hors d'oeuvres."

     "A turkey?" I wondered. "Isn't that a lot of work?"
   
     "Not really," she said. "I've got nothing else to do all afternoon anyway."

     "Okay . . . I guess," I said. "But we surely don't need hors d'oeuvres. These guys expect pizza from me, nothing else.You're already exceeding expectations."
   
     I was thinking about people's expectations and their judgments, and . . .  what's good enough? In my mind, these guys were expecting to have a good time; they were not expecting a perfect meal.

    "So remember," I reiterated. "These guys are expecting pizza-level food; anything better than that is a bonus."

Her idea
     But B plays by a different rule book. She looked at me and said, "It's okay for you to serve pizza. It's not okay for me to serve pizza."


     "Why not?" I asked innocently.

     "Because, like it or not, we live in a society that still judges women differently from men.You can serve pizza. I can't serve pizza."

     "Well, at least let's try to keep it simple," I said, giving up, "so you don't have to do too much extra work."

     "You're not making me do extra work. I want to do this. Now, I'm thinking about the hors d'oeuvres.

     "Ah," I said, brightening. "Don't worry about the hors d'oeuvres. I've got it covered. I got a family size potato chips."

     "Yeah, yeah," she murmured, turning away from me. "Maybe I still have time to get to the deli and buy some cheese."

    

  

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Aspirin Reduces Cancer Risk

     It seems there are two kinds of people who comprise the over-50 world:  those who suffer heart disease, and those who fear cancer. Cardiovascular disease kills more than 30 percent of Americans. Cancer is the culprit for 23 percent of us. No other disease even comes close in its mortality -- diabetes kills some 3 percent of Americans; Alzheimer's about 3 percent, accidents less than 5 percent.

     Scientists have known for a long time that low doses of aspirin can prevent heart disease. Now research suggests that aspirin may retard cancer as well.

     CBS News just reported on the findings, saying that "aspirin reduces risk of death by about 30% for lung cancer, 40% for colorectal cancer and 60% for esophageal cancer." The report was based on an article in the British journal Lancet which reviewed a number of studies originally done not for cancer, but for heart disease. The journal was careful to caution that "proof in man is lacking."

     Nevertheless, it makes you wonder: Should we take a daily aspirin to stave off cancer as well as heart disease? The analysis  in Lancet concluded that the reduction in cancer was apparent only after five years, and the benefits increased with the duration of treatment. That suggests you should start taking a daily aspirin when you're 30 or 40, and not wait until you're 50 or 60.

     But CBS correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton noted that the American Cancer Society says no, not everyone should start gobbling aspirin tablets, concluding: "It would be premature to recommend people start taking aspirin specifically to prevent cancer." There are risks in taking aspirin, especially for people prone to bleeding or to liver or stomach problems.

     "Balancing the risks and benefits of aspirin is really important and probably something that needs to be done on an individual basis," advised Ed Yong, of Cancer Research UK. He said anyone considering taking aspirin on a regular basis should talk to their doctor first. Also, no one should think that aspirin is a panacea for cancer. Prevention strategies like not smoking and keeping a healthy body weight are crucial. For more info. see an interview with Prof. Janusz Janowski of Cancer Research UK.

     You know what would be really interesting to find out? Dr. Ashton, Ed Yong, Professor Janowski. Have they started swallowing aspirin with their morning cereal?

  [blogcatalog link]

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mr. Bernanke, Raise Our Interest Rates!

     The U. S. government, courtesy of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, is stepping on interest rates, crushing them down as low as they can go. Interest rates, in many cases, are below inflation rates -- which means if you don't spend your money right away, you're losing purchasing power. This is a good situation if you, like the federal government, owe lots of money. It's also good for young people who are borrowing to pay for college, or taking out a car loan or applying for a mortgage to buy a house. Of course it doesn't help -- as many young people have discovered -- if you don't qualify for the loan. And it hasn't trickled down to people who owe a balance on their credit cards, since those rates remain painfully high.

Bernanke -- No friend to Seniors
     It's also not a good thing for senior citizens, retired people, early retirees or the unemployed who are trying to supplement a fixed income with interest they receive from a bank CD or money market fund, or who are in the process of buying an annuity or getting a reverse mortgage. Low interest rates add insult to the injury of Social Security. Already, for the second year in a row, Social Security has frozen benefits. Now, in addition, seniors are taking a "pay cut" in the form of less interest on their savings.

     A couple of years ago, when I took early retirement (okay, to be honest, when I was forced to retire; okay to be perfectly honest, when I was unceremoniously tossed out of my corporation by the top executives who were looting company coffers for their own options and bonuses) I left with a reasonably respectable lump sum payment. I took a chunk of that money and stashed it in a nice, safe money market fund. It paid $700 or $800 a month in interest and provided me with a little financial cushion. But today, that same amount of savings pays me a paltry $25 a month.Thank you, Mr. Bernanke.

     In the U.S. today an estimated 25 to 30 million people live on a fixed income and rely on interest from their savings to supplement their standard of living. Mr. Bernanke has forced all of them to take a pay cut. Some of these people are well off and can afford to take a hit -- and maybe they have other investments to make up the difference. But the overwhelming majority are merely taking in a few extra dollars to supplement their pension or Social Security check -- and those supplemental dollars are getting squeezed down to nothing.

     Of course, Ben Bernanke's low interest rate policy is a good deal for the federal government, which is borrowing money like an addicted gambler. And it's been a boon to banks and financial institutions on Wall Street, and maybe some people who have been able to refinance their mortgages. But for the 60-plus crowd it's meant nothing but financial distress. And do you really think it's fair that senior citizens who've saved up a bit of money for their retirement should be the ones bailing out Wall Street?

     So, Mr. Bernanke, help out some older people. Raise those interest rates!

     Besides, a lot of retired folks, if they got a little better yield on their CDs, would go right out and spend that money. I think they'd do a better job than the banks in stimulating the economy. Don't you?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Elvis vs. the Beatles

     I'm a Beatles fan, not an Elvis fan. I'm too young to have been a part of the Elvis craze. I wasn't even ten years old when he burst onto the scene in 1956 with "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Love Me Tender."

     By the time I was in high school -- that period when popular music seems to take over your life -- Elvis had already left for the army and come back wearing sequins, playing Vegas and getting fat. He was a joke.

      But credit where credit is due. The other day was the anniversary of George Harrison's death. (Can you believe it? It was nine years ago on Nov. 29, 2001.)

     And in connection with that I saw a clip where Harrison claimed it was the Beatles who in 1964 basically invented the music video, the art form that changed the way we listen to music and made MTV the cultural phenomenon it was in the 1980s. The Beatles did it, according to Harrison, with Hard Day's Night.

     But I remembered seeing another clip a while ago. It was from 1957. Elvis doing Jailhouse Rock. You can't tell me that's not an early version of a music video. So let's not forget how original and creative Elvis was in his early days. Elvis Presley was not only the king. He was the one who created the modern music video.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It's a Strange, New GPS World

     I promise not to spend too much time on this blog complaining about the kids. But this is something that has to be said. Our kids don’t know where the hell they’re going.

     They don’t know how to read a map. They have no sense of direction. They are completely lost if they don’t have a GPS glued to their foreheads – or at least to the dashboard of their car.

     Even then, it’s questionable.

     I remember teaching my daughter how to drive. We lived about 2 miles outside of the town of Mt. Kisco, NY. She’d lived there all her life and traveled into town thousands of times. When she got her learner’s permit, we first drove around our neighborhood, then when I thought she was ready I told her to take us to Mt. Kisco.

     She turned onto the access road, stopped at the stop sign, then looked at me blankly. “Um . . . which way do I turn?”
           
     “To Mt. Kisco,” I repeated. “Don’t worry. You’re ready. Let’s go.”
           
     “Uh, how do I get to Mt. Kisco?”

     “You know, just into town,” I said. “It’s two turns.”

     She looked up the road to the right, then down the other way. And I realized she had no idea which way to go.

     Now she’s in graduate school. She got a GPS as a Christmas present a couple of years ago. She still doesn’t know where she’s going. She just follows her GPS. She came home for Thanksgiving and went two exits past our turnoff from the parkway, then around through town and past a dozen lights, because that’s the way the GPS told her to go.

     B’s son is no better. We were going to meet him at the mall. He wanted to stop off at his favorite hamburger joint on the way. “Why don’t I leave my car there,” he suggested. “You can pick me up and I can ride to the mall with you, then you can drop me at my car on the way home.”

     “Okay. . . ” I responded. “But the hamburger place is several miles up Route 22. With the lights, it'll be an extra 10 minutes up there, an extra 10 minutes back. Then another 10 minutes up and another 10 back, to pick up your car.”

     “Really? That much?” he said. “I thought it was on the way.”

     “Kind of on the way,” I said. “But going up and back twice will take -- yeah, probably an extra 40 minutes.”

     “Is it north or south?” he wondered.

     “North,” I replied.

     “Really? I thought . . .” Then he gave a little laugh. “Actually, I never have any idea where I am. So, I guess I’ll stop and eat, then just meet you at the mall.”

     “Okay,” I replied agreeably. “But are you sure you know how to go – to the hamburger place, I mean, and then the mall?”

     He shot me a look, like I was an annoying speed bump in his life. “Of course I know how to go,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I have my GPS.”