Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Where Do You Shop?

     You'd have to have your head buried deep in the sand not to have heard all about Black Friday (so-called because that's supposedly the day when American retailers start making money, when they go in the black) and how this year American shoppers set some new sales records. That's good for the economy. Good for retirees who want a part-time job at the mall. Good for a lot of people -- although the sight of 20-somethings lined up around the corner at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving, waiting for Best Buy to open at midnight so they can buy a big-screen TV at $500 off the regular price, somehow seems a little crass and shallow and materialistic.

      Anyway, I did not go out shopping on Black Friday, although some family members did brave the crowds. ("It's like a party," they said. "No, thank you," I replied.) I did not participate in Cyber Monday, either -- the Monday after Thanksgiving when, presumably, everyone goes back to work and spends their time shopping on the Internet instead of doing their job.

     Yet, I admit I'm not completely free of crass materialism myself. Nor am I entirely exempt from the commercialism of Christmas. I like to see piles of presents under the tree. It's fun to sit around the living room with your family on Christmas morning and rip open the wrapping to find what Santa has brought. And if you're lucky, Santa brings you gifts right off your Christmas list.

     So I can't help but wonder, where do Baby Boomers and other elders like to do their Christmas shopping? Certainly not Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale or Hot Topic.

     I heard some commentators on CNBC remark that nobody goes to Sears anymore. The stores are old and boring, they said. The segment was in connection with the recent financial report of Sears Holdings (which comprises Sears and Kmart) showing that revenues were down in the most recent quarter, marking almost five straight years of declining sales.

My new laptop
     But I can attest to the fact that someone goes to Sears. Because I do. Whenever I go to the mall, I park at the entrance to Sears. There are plenty of parking spaces at the Sears end of the mall, so you can park close to the door. And once in a great while, I actually stop to buy something. Two weeks ago I scored a deal on socks -- buy one three-pack at the regular price and get another three-pack for half off.

     But I can tell you, unequivocally, that the most popular place at the mall is the Apple store. I was recently in the market for a laptop (my first one!). We have a local computer store, called Silicon Valley, where until now I've taken most of my computer needs. I checked out their laptops. They seemed okay. But I had to go take a look at the Apple version. You know ... I really do want to be cool.

     So on a Tuesday morning a few weeks ago I showed up at the mall at 10:05 a.m., five minutes after the mall opened. I parked at Sears, right next to the door. I walked through the mall and saw hardly anyone. After all, the place had only been open for five minutes. When I got to the food court I found a scattering of early shoppers getting coffee at Dunkin' Donuts and picking up Egg McMuffins at McDonalds. But as I walked around the next curve, I unexpectedly ran into a line. A line at 10:05 in the morning! It was outside the Apple store. They were waiting to buy an iPhone 4s.

     Since I wasn't buying a phone, I didn't have to wait in line. I entered the store through the big glass doors. The place was already crowded. I found a greeter who agreed to put me on a list to link up with a salesperson. While I waited I perused the Apple offerings. I already knew, from doing some homework online, that I wanted a MacBook Pro. Now, after surveying the options, I landed on the 15-inch version. Then I looked around for a salesperson. They were all busy. I fiddled around with a couple of keyboards, tried out a few functions. I looked around again; the salespeople were still busy.

     Eventually I got a salesperson who seemed very nice, but who couldn't bear to give me her full attention. The whole time she was explaining the benefits of the MacBook, and trying to upsell me to buy more Apple products, she was also checking her iPhone, texting someone, and basically annoying the hell out of me.

No sale
     I didn't get a MacBook. I instead went back to Silicon Valley and bought an Asus laptop, for just about half the price of the MacBook. It doesn't have quite as much power or memory, but it has more than I will ever need.

     The fact is, I try to buy local when I can. A small business in your community might not have quite the charisma of the national brand. But it typically offers better service and prices that are at least competitive, if not better than national chains.

     For that very reason, I try to patronize my local hardware store, which I do on occasion. But I must admit I do hear the siren call of the big box stores. I sometimes go to Lowes, but more often find myself at Home Depot. I love wandering up and down the aisles, picking out a few odds and ends for the house and getting ideas for home improvements we might make -- new flooring, perhaps, or a new bathroom, or some plants to improve our landscaping.

     For clothes I go to Macy's. They seem to offer reasonably good brands at almost-bargain prices. You can get Dockers. You can get Ralph Lauren. Izod. Tommy Hilfiger. Michael Kors. Kenneth Cole. Calvin Klein. Nautica. And a host of others. So on the one hand, why spend more for Bloomingdale's or Nordstrom's; on the other, why trade down to JCPenney or Kohl's?

     I heard B recently comment that she, too, shops at Macy's. "Why would you need to go anywhere else?" she asked rhetorically. I realized she was being rhetorical, because I happen to know she also goes to Talbots; and one time at the mall I saw her slipping sheepishly out of Saks. But she also goes to Target and Marshall's; and we've bought a few things for the house at Home Goods.

     I used to joke that my favorite store was 7-Eleven. Or Wawa, when we're in New Jersey or around Philly. It's got good coffee and cheap gas. What more could you ask for?

     But now I favor Costco. In fact, just last week I bought a copy of the new Steve Jobs book there, as a Christmas present for B's younger son. It was marked down from $35 to $19. Costco sells good meat, good fish, cheap cereal. They have clothes, electronics, everything. I also bought a big bottle of 500 vitamin tablets, for $14. How can you beat that?

     Gee, I wonder if vitamins are on B's Christmas list. Or ... I just saw online, Wawa offers a gift card. What'd'ya think?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Blogging Boomers Carnival #235

   For a special post-Thanksgiving edition of the best in Baby Boomer blogging, check out Midlife Crisis Queen. She offers some links to other blogs where Baby Boomers analyze the economy and what its effects are on our retirement plans, our long-term marriages, and our charitable donations.

     Other bloggers look at the other side of the equation. They count their blessings. They appreciate what they have instead of feeling disappointed at what they don't have, and they consider the beneficial health effects of feeling grateful every day. I especially recommend Katie Foster's post, Stop and Smell the Roses and Be Grateful, which features a short, inspiring look through the lens of a time-lapse photographer.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Did You Ever Wonder Why ...

 
     Sometimes you wonder why certain words mean what they mean, or you're puzzled by particular phrases or sayings. A few of the following queries are original, but most have been stolen ... I mean, collected off the Internet. Read 'em and scratch your head:

     Why . . .
     is "abbreviated" such a long word?
     is lemon juice made with artificial flavor, while dishwashing liquid is made with real lemons?

     Why ...
     didn't Noah swat those two mosquitoes?
     doesn't Tarzan have a beard?

      Why ...
     do they sterilize the needle for lethal injections?
     do they they call the airport a "terminal" if flying is so safe?

     And why ...
     is "phonetically" is spelled with a "ph"?
     is a round pizza delivered in a square box?
     isn't there a synonym for Thesaurus?

     Why ...
     do people say they "slept like a baby" when babies wake up every two hours?
     do we lose brain cells as we age, but fat cells last forever?
     does flammable mean the same as inflammable?

Why ...
     did Kamikaze pilots wear helmets?
     did they ever put an "s" in the word "lisp"?
     do we park in a driveway, and drive in a parkway?
     do women wear a pair of panties but only one bra?

     And finally, just ponder this point, which has been made before but is now truer than ever:  If con is the opposite of pro, does that make congress the opposite of progress?

     For more, similar ruminations, truisms and head-scratchers:  Try out some oldtime Steven Wright jokes, or go to Ruminations for a younger take on things, or else Lemondrop to see how women slice it up.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanks for ... Actually, More Than We Think

     I've been cogitating about Penn State, which seems to be developing into an even worse scandal than we thought, involving a long-time coverup of sexual abuse. I've been worrying about the U. S. economy and how it has impacted our lives and the futures of our children -- and how the stock market and our IRAs were down yet another 2 percent yesterday. And today . . . today is the 48th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

     But I'm tired of stewing over all the negative things in the world. It's Thanksgiving week. I'll be seeing my kids. We'll have some friends over for Thanksgiving dinner. There will be plenty of food. We'll cook on an electric stove; we'll be warm with central heating and comfortable with indoor plumbing. We'll have plenty of lighting, and we'll watch sports on TV and the kids will play video games on their computers, and they'll probably tweet and text with their friends while we old Baby Boomers use the phone to talk to far-flung relatives.

     Turkey is probably the first thing to be thankful for. With all the things going on in the world -- and even with recent increases in food prices -- it is still pretty cheap to eat in America, and most of us will have plenty to put on our tables. We don't have to grow our own food, or kill it, unless we want to. We can just buy it at the grocery store. For the most part it is safe and disease free. In fact, we have a bigger problem with obesity than we do with hunger (even though part of the problem is that cheap food is often fattening ... but that's a topic for another post).

     What else do we have to be thankful for, even as the Occupy Wall Street crowd protests (quite understandably, in my opinion) the inequality of income, the increase in poverty and the dwindling of opportunity in this country?

     For one thing, America is enjoying relatively peaceful times. Yes, our troops are fighting in Afghanistan. Almost 2,000 American military personnel have lost their lives in that far-off country since the conflict began in 2001. We are still in Iraq as well, although we're leaving, and tragically, about 4,500 American troops have been killed in that oil-rich nation since we arrived in 2003.

     We still do live in a dangerous world. Iran is allegedly working to produce a nuclear bomb; so is North Korea. The Pakistanis already have one, while the Arab-Israeli conflict simmers along as it has for the last 60-some years.

     But think back 70 years ago to 1941. We were about to enter World War II, which took the lives of almost half a million American soldiers -- and in its total destruction killed an estimated 60 million people. Or think back 50 years ago, when the Cold War reached its height and threatened to annihilate the entire world. Or 40 years ago, to 1971, when we were still in Vietnam, a conflict that took more than 58,000 American military lives -- nine times as many as have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

     Yes, 2,000 American lives are 2,000 tragedies. But Afghanistan is a skirmish compared to Vietnam or World War II. Can we be thankful that, this year, we've only lost 500 soldiers in hostile actions?

     We can certainly be thankful that our life expectancy is longer than ever. This causes problems for Medicare and Social Security. But aren't those actually good problems? We could bemoan the fact that the U. S. is not among the countries where life expectancy is the greatest. (Japan has the highest, at 82.6). But shouldn't we be thankful that an American born today can expect to live to 78.3? And that death rates for the most dangerous diseases like heart disease, cancer and stroke are down significantly, even in just the last decade? If you're 70 today, you can expect to live, on average, until you're 88.

     Compare this to our parents, born in 1920, who at birth could only expect to make it to age 56. Or our grandparents, born in 1890, who could only look forward to living for an average of 45 years (although a large part of the improvement is due to a decrease in infant mortality).

     We can be thankful because our country is relatively safe. Crime rates have gone down significantly. The murder rate peaked in 1980, at 10.2 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Now the rate is back to what it was in the early 1960s, at less than half the peak rate. Despite the public outcry over Penn State, and the problems in the Catholic church, the incidence of rape actually peaked in 1992. It's not as low as it was in the early 1960s -- but only because, some argue, rape was a crime less likely to be reported back then.

     We are also a more educated population. High school graduation rates have gone up from less than 70 percent in 1960 to almost 90 percent today. And the proportion of our populace with college degrees has climbed from barely 10 percent to approximately 25 percent. To be sure, the improvement has leveled off in recent years, and the rates should be higher in this post-industrial world where education matters more than ever before. Nevertheless, we have made progress.

     Our cars are safer and more efficient than they've ever been. Our ability to communicate is better than ever. Our choices for news and entertainment are more varied. And despite the protests of OWS, we are a more equal society. Blacks have made great strides. More minorities have joined the middle class. Women have narrowed the income gap, and they've completely closed the education gap -- since 2000, and even before that, more women than men have been graduating from college.

     Now, if only the Green Bay Packers win on Thanksgiving, we'll really have something to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Just Wondering ... About Penn State

     I'm one of those people who sees the world in shades of gray, not in black and white, and I (almost) always believe that there are two sides to every story, that it takes two to tango, that nobody has a monopoly on the truth.

     However, I also tend to think that people are mostly responsible for their own behavior. The person does the crime; the mother of the person doesn't do the crime, nor does the lack of affection someone might have experienced as a child cause the crime. The person takes the drink or the drug; society doesn't make him do it. The smoker lights his own cigarette; the overweight person feeds himself. The sexual abuser is the one who unzips his own zipper -- nobody does it for him.

     But, I keep wondering about those shades of gray. It's more understandable, if not more excusable, for the black kid who suffers with a dysfunctional family, who has no access to a quality education, to rob a liquor store to put food on the table or even to buy himself a better TV, than it is for the upper-middle-class financial counselor to steal money form an old lady's retirement account.

     Social pressure vs. individual responsibility. Or is it a  disease? I used to smoke, back when it was cool. I know social pressure can exert enormous influence on people, leading them to do things that are self-destructive. And I know how hard it is to quit, which I eventually did. But I also know, deep in my heart, when and if I ever get lung cancer I'll have no one to blame but myself.

     I blame Jerry Sandusky for his horrible sex crimes (That's assuming he is guilty, as everyone seems to think he is, but we should still agree that he's innocent until proven guilty. There have been various reports -- check here for an update -- but all we know for certain is that somebody is lying, and that so far Sandusky's wife hasn't said a thing.)

     Yet I can't help but wonder, if the people who are so "shocked" and "revolted" over these allegations have ever considered whether the liberalization of our sexual attitudes and practices have helped to create an environment where this kind of abuse is more likely to occur. Research has demonstrated that it is easier for people to step over the line from ethical to unethical behavior when there is a gradual erosion of moral values and principles.

     Who cares, you might say. Even if our sexual attitudes have become more tolerant, that's no excuse for his behavior -- again, assuming he really did what they say. Everyone knows that no matter how casual we are about sex, you just don't force children, or manipulate children, into engaging in sexual activities. Probably, for most people it's not an issue -- they're not attracted to ten year olds. But even if someone is, they know it's out of bounds.

     If we do have sexual fantasies that involve illegal activities -- and perhaps many of us have -- we know that they are fantasies. We don't even consider trying to act them out.

     Yet I can't help but wonder, when people see those clothing ads featuring young teen girls in makeup and sexy dresses, and shirtless teenage boys, does it somehow blur the issue a little bit? Does the sexualizing of children in the media introduce the notion into people's minds, when otherwise it just wouldn't be there? Does it make the line between fantasy and reality a little bit fuzzy?

     Now there's a coach at Syracuse accused of "inappropriately touching two boys." He denies it. But people who are responsible for kids -- teachers, coaches, ministers, priests, camp counselors -- have an extra responsibility to be careful about what they do and how they present themselves. And we should know by now that the very people who are most likely to sexually abuse a kid are the ones who probably seek out those jobs -- either with intent and forethought, or possibly even subconsciously. People who, like Willie Sutton who robbed banks because that's where the money is, take jobs as coaches and counselors because that's where the kids are. So don't the people who hire and manage coaches have an extra responsibility to be absolutely sure that their assistants are law-abiding people who have a genuine interest in helping children, not in using them for their own selfish purposes?

     But I wonder what the people who condemn Joe Paterno and the Penn State administrators would have done in their situation. Would they have jeopardized their job to report the incidents? I'd like to think that I would have. But we do realize, don't we, that we all think we have better moral values than we really do; we are all quick to find fault with others while making excuses for our own behavior.

     I remember once, quite a while ago, having a discussion with a friend of mine. There had been a case in the news of some guy exposing himself to school children in a parking lot. And I recall being flummoxed by the whole thing. I could understand the usual kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior. I wouldn't condone it, but I could understand how guys might be sexually aroused by someone, or some situation, and they would try to have their way because they were selfish, or had poor impulse control, or for a host of other reasons. But I just couldn't understand what would motivate a guy to expose himself. What's the sexual charge? What kind of response could he possibly expect? I just didn't get it. My friend simply looked at me and said, "Well, that's because you're not a pervert."

     So I'm not a pervert, and I don't know what goes through a pervert's mind. I'm not a psychologist, either. I'm just asking some questions, possibly some of them not politically correct, but in addition to being "shocked" and "revolted" shouldn't we try to understand why this goes on if we're going to try to stop it?

     I wonder if our increasing acceptance -- possibly even encouragement, at least in the media -- of homosexuality somehow bleeds into people's minds. If homosexuals know that they are gay, even when they're six or eight years old, as they tell us, then doesn't that make them, in the minds of some people, sexual beings? Otherwise, how would they know? Maybe it's somehow more acceptable for a grown man to have sex with a young boy than it is with a young girl. I'm not saying it is. I'm just wondering, perhaps some people might follow that train of thought and get themselves and others into trouble.

     Coaches and others should examine their own motivations for doing what they do. They should be very clear in their minds about what behavior is acceptable, and what is not. And people should watch out for those who have sexual issues, who intentionally or not put themselves in a position to commit a sexual crime.

     Honestly, I really don't know what my point is here. I guess I can understand why people want to pursue their pleasures, why they want to fulfill their desires, even without regard to future consequences or to other people. What I don't understand is how anyone can get pleasure out of hurting someone else, how they can inflict pain, make them bleed, cause horrible psychological nightmares -- and still enjoy it and convince themselves that they're not doing anything wrong.

     But I wonder, how has the increased accessibility of pornography affected people's attitudes toward sex? When you can check into a perfectly respectable hotel and watch porn on TV (you pick, gay or straight) or subscribe to porn on TV in the comfort of your home (you pick, young or mature), or download pretty much any kind of shocking and revolting sexual activity onto your computer -- does this make sex about as common and everyday and no-big-deal as ... oh, say, throwing a football around with the guys?

     In my admittedly limited experience, I've never actually seen this problem. I've never run into a teacher or coach who didn't have the best interests of the kids at heart, who didn't genuinely want to help the kids. The problem is, I'm guessing, quite rare, at least on a percentage basis.

     Everyone knows -- don't they? -- that it's a crime to sexually abuse anyone, male or female, and it's especially heinous to sexually abuse kids. The line may be blurred in some respects, but with kids the line is pretty clear, no matter how people rationalize their own actions or make excuses for themselves.

     "We were just taking a shower." Yeah, sure.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Is America in Decline?

     There's been a lot of negative news coming our way for several years now.. A constant drumbeat of recession, foreclosures, bankruptcies, increases in poverty, sky-high prices for energy and health care; while, they tell us, the American dream is a fading vision for many young people who can't get jobs, can't afford college, have lost the Puritan work ethic and given up on American optimism.

     In fact, the drumbeat has been so loud, for so long, I'm beginning to wonder. I do not believe in American exceptionalism -- how narcissistic is that! -- but I do believe in capitalism, competition, entrepreneurship and the American can-do spirit.

     But I must admit, it's getting harder and harder to hang onto that.

     The list of seemingly insurmountable problems goes on and on: The stock market has gone nowhere for the past decade. Real wages are actually lower than they were in 2000, while unemployment is higher, the poverty rate is higher, and prospects for almost everyone seem more clouded. Meanwhile, Social Security is beginning to run up against its inevitable, long-term demographic problem -- too many recipients and not enough contributors -- while Medicare is facing even more daunting financial prospects.

     Health care gobbles up more and more of our financial resources, while many people are simply left out of the health care system because they don't have the money to pay a doctor, or because they don't have the right connections (work at the right company or belong to the right association) to get affordable insurance. Meanwhile, it could be argued, as a country we squander huge medical resources on the extremely elderly while we deny simple health care to many of our children and young adults.

     We face stronger and stronger competition from other countries around the globe. Third-World people who understandably want a bigger piece of the economic pie, are willing to work for wages much lower than workers in the Unites States. Yet, Europe is falling apart, threatening to bring the American economy down with it, while reports from Asia suggest China is slowing down, meaning less opportunity for our exporters and maybe less enthusiasm for buying our debt.

     The housing market is moribund, becoming a dead weight on the American middle class. Housing prices have fallen an average of 33 percent since 2006, and some people like Jennifer Bridwell at PIMCO and Robert Shiller of Yale see another 5 to 10 percent decrease over the next couple of years -- with no recovery in sight for years to come.

     State and local governments are going broke. Central Falls, a town in the economically devastated state of Rhode Island, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in August. Just last week Jefferson County, Alabama, was filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U. S. history. Meanwhile, by one estimate, budget shortfalls in 44 states could reach $140 billion for fiscal 2012.

     Many American households are no better off. Last year almost 3 million homes went into the foreclosure process because people either couldn't or wouldn't pay their mortgage. Consumer debt currently stands at 112 percent of income.

     Meanwhile, a record number of Americans are out of work. The official unemployment rate is calculated at 9 percent, but the real rate of people who want to work, but can't find a fulltime job, stands at about 16 percent. Historically, after a recession ends, it takes about six months to return to the normal employment picture. This time around, at the current rate of growth and job creation, McKinsey, the management consulting firm, estimates it will take another five years. Others calculate it will take even longer, as people who are unemployed for extended periods find that their job skills become outmoded, making them essentially unemployable. And the long-term unemployed tend to get depressed; they suffer greater health problems and have shorter life expectancies.

     Will small business perform its usual function as the engine of job growth? Loans to small business actually dropped somewhere between 8 and 14 percent last year. Are our young people being trained for future jobs? According to the most recent study from the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U. S. ranks 28th among 41 developed countries in math skills, behind most European countries (including the Slovak Republic) and Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. U.S. students rank 22nd in science, and 29th in problem solving.

     Meanwhile, we can't get anything done because of our polarized political situation -- some 25 percent of Americans sympathize with the Tea Party while, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 30 percent sympathize with the Occupy Wall Street crowd.

     A recent Yahoo! finance poll found that 41 percent of Americans say that the American dream has been lost. And only 45 percent of Americans believe that their kids will be better off than they are.

     Despite all these negative numbers, I'd still like to think America can find its way out of the woods. Remember the 1970s? They were pretty moribund. But then came the end of Cold War and the beginning of the Internet revolution, and we were back on the road to prosperity.. Can it happen again?

     What say you? Vote in the poll at right. Explicate below if you can offer any insights, explanations or suggestions.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wading into Nostalgia

     Last week I was in Myrtle Beach, SC, playing golf with a friend who owns a condo down there. When it was time for me to leave, he advised me to take Route 17 up to Wilmington, NC, then catch Route 40 over to I95. It would be faster than going straight out west, over country roads, to get to 95.

     So I took his advice and wended my way to Wilmington. As I approached the city, listening to some oldies on XM Sirius radio, I couldn't help but remember coming down here in the 1980s to one of my favorite vacation spots -- a remote, almost-untouched beach about 20 miles outside of this port city on the Cape Fear River.

     Back then a friend of mine -- an older colleague at work -- bought a little cottage up on the dunes, courtesy of her son, who had recently moved from the New York area to Raleigh, and he'd persuaded his mother to invest with him in some beachfront property.

     The place sounded intriguing, so my wife and I decided to take a vacation there. We went in September -- this was either 1981 or '82, long before Route 40 was put in -- driving down 95 through Washington, past Richmond and Rocky Mount, until we cut over on the back roads, past some tobacco fields and cotton fields, through the military city of Jacksonville, NC, and then out to the beach.

     We found the cottage along the beachfront road, perched up on the dunes overlooking the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.  A little front porch, two small bedrooms and a living room with a kitchen on one end. Old appliances and linoleum on the floor, a few dented-up pots and pans in the cupboard. No television. Out back was a screened-in porch that spanned the back of the house, just steps from the sand. The screens wore a constant covering of moisture, blown up from the sea below.

The porch overlooking the Atlantic
     The nearest telephone was a quarter mile down the road, at the little bar and grill at the beginning of the town pier. Between us and town stood four or five other bungalows, plus a small motel with room for a dozen cars to park out front. On the other side of our cottage was an acre of empty grass-covered sand, then a three-story cement structure -- an old, ugly gray military installation left over from World War II, where they used to watch out for German submarines.

     We'd rented the place for a week. We spent five days lying on the sand by day, sitting on the screened-in porch by night. There was no connection to the outside world. For dinner we'd walk down to the pier and eat fried fish, Southern style, and on the way home in the dark we'd see the crabs scurrying across the moonlit sand.

     Every day, the surf rose a little higher. We heard that a hurricane was coming. Local authorities advised tourists to evacuate, but we thought it would be fun to ride out the storm at the house.

     I loved wading into the ocean, then catching the waves and body surfing to shore. But I remember on the fifth day the waves broke with a force that scared me. We talked to some locals. What did they think about evacuating? Well, you never know, we were told, it could get bad.

     We finally decided to leave, a day early, to make the long drive home. We later heard that the hurricane did skirt the barrier island, but caused minimal damage.

     Two years later, we were back at the cottage. This time we made it a family vacation. First, my wife's brother came over from Atlanta for a few days. After he left, my sister came up from Florida. And by that time my wife and I had a young daughter, so we were loaded up with toys and buckets and shovels, along with extra sunscreen and hats and all the paraphernalia that young families bring to the beach. I still remember taking my daughter by the hand and walking along the beach; wading into the water; building enormous sand castles; burying one another in the sand.

     We went one more time, but could only go during a week when the cottage was booked up. But by this time, now the late '80s, a condominium had sprouted up at the end of the island. So we booked into the condo, where we had a pool and two bathrooms and other comforts that a family -- now four of us -- would appreciate. But the condo was back  from the water, with no salt spray limning the screens, no sound of the surf lulling us to sleep at night.

     After that trip, the kids were growing up and other activities took precedence, and we never went back. We took vacations closer to home because the kids didn't like the long drives; and then the kids started going to camp.

The ocean cottage used to be yellow
     Now my two kids are well into their 20s. My wife and I got divorced. We moved out of our old house. We've all moved on with our lives. But as I headed toward Wilmington last week, I could not resist the pull. Perhaps like the tide. The little island was only, maybe, 30 miles out of my way. I had to go see.

      Would the place be the same? Or was it all developed by now? I found the main road on the other side of Wilmington. As I approached the turn-off, I saw a big high school back off the road. That wasn't there before, was it? As I turned onto the beach road, leading out to the barrier island, I saw a shopping center, complete with a Lowe's big-box store. Then I came to the bridge over the Intracoastal, and that looked the same. As I drove down off the bridge and rolled into town, I saw the pier straight in front of me, with the same old bar and grill.

     But what was that wall of buildings, just to the north? I saw a lineup of half a dozen four-story condominiums blocking a view of the water. I turned down the beach road, and saw new homes built on stilts, one right next to the other. I drove to the end of the road, about a mile, and could not find our cottage. I turned around, and spied an old man tending a little park on a corner. I stopped and asked him if he'd lived here a while.

     Yes, he assured me, he had.
The submarine tower, now with decks

     I asked him if he knew about the old cement submarine tower. Was it still here? I couldn't find it.

     He explained that the tower had been bought up by someone who built a new house around it, incorporating the tower into the house. It was just down the block, he said, pointing somewhere along the solid line of beachfront homes.

     I slowly drove along the beach road, down and back, until I spotted it. Yes, I could see the cement tower joined to the wooden house. Nearby were a few older homes, low and squat next to the new and much bigger beachfront homes.

     And then, there it was, looking a little run down, with paint peeling off the porch. I had no idea if my friend's family still owned it. I'd lost touch with my friend after she retired in 1996. That was 15 years ago. She might even be dead by now, I didn't know.

     But there was her cottage, bringing back those memories of a time gone by, when the beach was a lonely solitary place, cut off form the rest of the world, and I was young and and newly married with little kids, and I thought I had all the time in the world.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Remember Him?

     His daughter was in the news earlier this year because she was breaking up with her high-profile husband, after being married for 25 years and having four children. In 1953, he himself married a high-profile woman, from an even-higher-profile family. But he remained married to the same woman for 56 years, and together they had five children.

     Today is his birthday. He was born on November 9, 1915, in Maryland, the descendant of a man who in 1776 signed the Maryland Constitution and Bill of Rights. He was a Catholic and attended Canterbury, a Catholic prep school in Connecticut. From there he went to Yale and then Yale Law School, where he was a vocal opponent of American involvement in the European war that started in 1939. He joined the America First Committee, along with fellow student (and future president) Gerald Ford, a group that worked to keep America out of World War II.

     Nevertheless, he joined the Navy even before Pearl Harbor, because he felt it was his patriotic responsibility, and he spent four years in active duty throughout the Pacific. He served on the USS South Dakota, reaching the rank of lieutenant and taking home a Purple Heart for injuries sustained at Guadalcanal.

     After the war he met Wall Street tycoon and famous anti-World War II activist, Joseph P. Kennedy. The billionaire from Boston hired him to manage the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, part of the Kennedy business empire. He also met Kennedy's daughter, and after a seven-year courtship, they were married in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

     When his brother-in-law ran for president in 1960, he was tapped to spearhead the primary campaigns first in Wisconsin, then in West Virginia. After winning the election, President John F. Kennedy turned to him to start the Peace Corps, and he served as its first director.

Daughter Maria
     After the assassination of JFK, he stayed on with the Johnson administration, becoming Special Assistant to the President, then director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, all the time working to help craft Johnson's War on Poverty. He was active in creating many seminal social programs including Head Start, VISTA, Legal Services, and the Jobs Corps. As a Catholic, he was a public opponent of abortion. He also became involved in the Special Olympics, founded by his wife Eunice.

     President Johnson rewarded him in 1968 by naming him ambassador to France, where he represented American interests in Paris from 1968 to 1970. Then, in 1972, when Sen. Thomas Eagleton was forced out of the vice presidential race, presidential candidate George McGovern turned to him as his running mate. The Democratic ticket lost that year in a landslide, leading to Richard Nixon's second and ill-fated term of office.

Sargent Shriver, 1915 - 2011
     And if you don't know who is is by now, you must have been asleep in the early 1970s. After the election Sargent Shriver, affectionately known as Sarge, went on to practice law in Washington, DC. He briefly sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1976, but dropped out early in the race when he garnered less than 2 percent of the vote. He returned to private practice in Washington. With his eldest son Bobby Shriver, he invested as part-owner of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. He became president of the Special Olympics in 1984 and chairman of the board in 1990. In 1994 President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

     Shriver was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2003. In 2004 his daughter, Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger, published a book, What's Happening to Grandpa? which explained the complications of the disease for the benefit of children. He nevertheless survived his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died in 2009.

     Sargent Shriver died in January 2011, at the age of 95. A Job Corps center in Massachusetts is named after him, as well as an elementary school in Silver Spring, Md., near where he was born, 96 years ago today.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Who Knows How to Drive?

     I spent a couple of days driving to Myrtle Beach, SC, and back home, and I've made a few observations about the people who drive certain cars and trucks up and down our highways.

     I might offend a few people here. Just remember, I'm no different from anyone else. I think that I'm a good driver, but that everyone else on the road is a complete idiot. Furthermore, the guy driving in front of me is always going too slow -- what's the matter with him?!? -- while the guy in back of me is without a doubt a menace to the road, speeding, tailgating, flashing his lights.

     So . . . to the survey. Yes, there are still young men out there driving old, dark colored Pontiacs or Chevys or Ford Mustangs -- usually with scored paint, a spoiler mounted on the rear, and smoke belching out the back -- who drive like they think they're NASCAR drivers, weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating people, and pushing 30 miles per hour over the speed limit. These guys (and they're always guys) have been with us since the automobile was invented, or at least since James Dean came on the scene, and they probably will continue to be with us until the last gas station closes its pump and the final drop of oil is sucked out of the Middle East.

     Speaking of which, I was on the lookout for bad SUV drivers, because I am anti-SUV for all the obvious reasons. But I must admit that people driving SUVs do not think that they own the road; they do not try to run other cars off the highway. They are, in fact, mostly normal drivers, and many of them are safe and responsible behind the wheel. Still, I don't have to like SUVs.

     For some unknown reason, Ford drivers speed more than Chevy drivers, at least according to my admittedly unscientific survey taken mostly on I95 up and down the East Coast.

     The drivers of white delivery vans are often pretty reckless. I assume that's because many of these drivers work for someone else; do not own the van and therefore just don't care as much how they treat the vehicle, or whether they bring it back to the company lot with a dent or two. Drivers of the big tractor trailers tend to be speeders -- I  guess time is money for them, but they scare the hell out of me when they barrel down the hills at 80 mph. For some reason, car carriers seem to be the worst.

     I noticed a few Hondas go flying by me. But there are lots of Hondas out there, so I'm thinking, percentage-wise, they're no better or worse than anyone else. I did notice that Acura drivers are a cut above Honda drivers. But then . . . well, I'll tell you in a minute.
Volvo drivers don't speed

     VW drivers seem to be pretty good. But the best are Volvo drivers. Those Volvo owners are concerned about safety, and they are careful on the highway.

     But I have to tell you about the very worst -- the car that I witnessed speeding more than any other -- and it is the BMW. These people obviously do think they own the road; they plant themselves in the third lane, step on the gas and woe be to anyone who gets in their way. Not to be unkind, but watching those BMWs fly by reminded me of the old joke, which I hope won't offend anyone (except the BMW owners):  What's the difference between a porcupine and the owner of a BMW? With a porcupine, the pricks are on the outside.

     Okay, okay, before you BMW owners come after me, I can say not every BMW driver is a pri . . . . I mean, an antisocial speeder who recklessly endangers everyone else on the road. I have a friend who recently bought an eight-year-old BMW convertible, and I happen to know that he's a nice guy. Besides, it must be just a regional problem -- I never saw a BMW south of Washington, DC, so the issue must be restricted to the Northeast.

     So just in case you're wondering, I obviously do not drive a BMW. I do not drive a Volvo. I drive an Acura, which is, as I suggest at the opening, probably the closest thing to the perfect car, for the (ahem) perfect driver.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The End of the World

     I have seen the world after the economic collapse. The world without light, without heat, without internet access, with no water and no food. It is the world of the Northeast, after the October snowstorm. The storm dumped heavy, wet snow from Virginia to Maine -- onto trees that still had their leaves, and the combined weight of the snow and leaves brought down branches and whole trees, making a tangled mess of electric lines splayed all over the ground.

     We lost power on Saturday afternoon. I was sitting there, innocently pecking away on my computer, when the screen suddenly went blank. The lights went off. It wasn't dark yet, but we hustled around the house gathering candles and flashlights, and I found my special hats with LED lights mounted on the brim. Of course the reason the lights went out was because of the snowstorm, dumping about eight inches on the trees and the wires and the ground. It was cold out. And soon it started getting cold inside.

      I went outside and brought in some wood from the woodpile. We started a fire in the fireplace, and by that time it was 6 p.m. I volunteered to go out and get some food (since we couldn't cook), and took B's four-wheel drive crossover up to the strip, where we have two malls and a row of gas stations, stores and eateries. Chili's was closed. McDonald's was closed. The diner was closed. I found a pizza place, elbowed my way into the crowd and bought a large pizza for the three of us.

     We spent the evening huddled in front of the fire, then went upstairs and bundled under lots of extra covers. B and I used our LED-lighted hats to read, then we went to sleep.

     We slept okay, but getting out of bed in the morning required a monumental effort. The bed was warm. The room was like a refrigerator. We had no hot water; indeed precious little water at all, since we have a well, with an electric pump that wouldn't be working. We had whatever water was in the water tank. No more.

     On Sunday we headed out to Best Buy and Barnes & Noble and Panera Bread. We knew Panera's had wi fi, and electric sockets, and we thought we might be able to charge up B's laptop and our cellphones. However, several hundred other people had the same idea. We did get something to eat, but there was not an electrical socket to be had.

     Monday brought no relief. I went to my health club, which had heat and electricity, but no hot water. I took a (very quick) cold shower. B's son went to a friend house to have dinner -- they'd lost electricity, too, but had gotten it back. B and I found a coffee emporium where we dined on a wrap and a piece of pumpkin cheese cake -- remember, it's not winter, it's still October!

     Halloween was called off in our town, because too many tree limbs were down, too many wires crisscrossed the streets and too many houses were still dark. Halloween night we went over to a friend's house. They'd lost electricity as well, but they have a gas-powered generator which allows them to run their furnace, use their stove, and turn on a few lights. B brought over some defrosted chicken, and we all had a nice friendly dinner. The silver lining to our storm cloud.

     The first day, with the fire, was kind of fun. The second day, trying to hook up our phones and computer at Panera's, was more stressful. By the third day, we were out of patience, out of good cheer ... and out of water. I did manage to get into Panera's (where I wrote my last blog post) and power up B's laptop, and we sat in bed that night, freezing our fingers and ears and noses off, but watching an episode of Doc Martin on the laptop. We thought the laptop might warm us up a little. It didn't.

     So what do you do when you feel neglected, when you thought that it was over , when everyone's out to get you, when everything is lost, and you're counting up your demons? What I did was ... beam myself off to Myrtle Beach, SC!

     My buddies and I had actually been planning this trip for a couple of weeks. So it wasn't just me abandoning my family for warmer, more pleasant clime. You see,we were all doing it!

     B and I had heard rumors on Tuesday that the power would be coming back that night. By 11 p.m. we heard. We went out to dinner at a local hamburger joint, driving home around 9 p.m., hoping for the best. It didn't happen. It was still dark at 11 p.m. Still dark and cold when we went to bed at 11:30.

     "I sure hope the electricity is back by the morning," I told B. "I don't want to feel guilty leaving you here in the cold and dark."

     "Oh, yeah," she shot back, but with a laugh. "I bet you'll feel guilty. For about five minutes. then you'll be going, 'Woo hoo! I'm outta here!'"

     I chuckled. "Well, you see, that's what I mean. If the electricity is back in the morning I won't have to feel guilty for those five minutes."

     But she really didn't mind too much that I was going. She was back at work by then. Electricity, heat and water were all back on at her office. So I left early Wednesday morning with a (semi)clear conscience.

     B called me Wednesday evening. She reported that she'd gotten home from work around 5:15 p.m. The electricity was still off. The house was dark and cold. But just as she was heading to the hall closet to find another coat (yes, we were actually putting on our coats when we came into the house), the lights blinked on. The furnace started rumbling. The well pump started pumping. All she had to do was wait an hour or so, and then she was going to take a nice, long hot shower.

     And at my hotel that evening, I stood in the hottest shower I'd taken in years, for the longest time -- the first hot water I'd felt in 4 1/2 days.

     I now appreciate my modern conveniences more than ever. Halloween night, I sat in bed, watching the candlelight flicker against the wall, and I understood how our ancestors concocted stories about ghosts and other shadowy creatures. They seemed so real in the dark, dancing against the wall. I was reminded that electric lights -- and all our other modern conveniences -- are really very recent developments. When my mother and father were born, less than half of the households in America were electrified. Many rural areas didn't get electricity until FDR's electrification project in the 1930s.

     I'd seen all those electric trucks out on the street, straightening out the spaghetti of wires on the street. I'd observed the Verizon trucks fixing the cables, the fire trucks and tree-trimming trucks, and the volunteers working through the night. I don't know about you, but I'll never again say anything bad about my electric company, or Verizon, or the fire department, or even the oil companies that deliver heating oil to the tank by my garage. In my opinion, after the last four days, these people are true American heroes.