Tuesday, December 30, 2014

If You Want Peace ...

     The Middle East is stuck between authoritarianism and extremism. The dictators of Iran and Saudi Arabia vs. the chaos of Syria and Iraq.

     But what about America? Is it any different? The Democrats are authoritarian. The Republicans are extremists.

     The so-called liberal Democrats want to control our lives so we behave in a way they believe is appropriate for modern civilized society. And to make us behave, they press for more government regulations, more government programs and the higher taxes to pay for them. They force us to get health insurance, force us to save for retirement, and in every way manage and manipulate our behavior with laws, laws and more laws.

     You can't smoke -- it's not good for you.
     You can't drink a large soda -- it's not good for you.
     You can't have a gun.
     You must go to school.
     You cannot discriminate against other people.
     You must help pay for my abortion.
     You cannot pollute the environment, or cut down a tree in your own yard.
     You only earn money because the government lets you.
     You must conform to our model of a good citizen.

     As they go about controlling us, our lives become ever more complicated. You cannot figure out your own taxes, or your own medical bill. The rules for retirement are complicated, and if you make a mistake you get penalized. You need an adviser to get into college, an agent to land a good job, a counselor to help you with Social Security and Medicare.

     They want us to hire experts who, for a fee, will guide us through the labyrinth of laws. A lawyer, an accountant, a social worker and psychologist will control our behavior and make sure we don't disobey orders, or engage in unacceptable behavior, or offend the established routine. The thought police even decide what we should say and how we should say it. Don't say, "illegal alien," say "undocumented worker." Meanwhile, you must get official approval before you name your club, design your logo, or open a nail salon or barber shop.

      But if Democrats are authoritarian, Republicans are extremists. Leave me alone, they say. Let me do what I want; let me be free to live the life I want, even if you say it isn't the healthiest, most self-actualizing thing for me to do. Let me associate with the people I like, people who are just like me and who believe in the same things I believe, even if they are old irrational myths or ideas that are not approved by science, and even if we want to exclude people of a different religion or skin color.

     I know smoking is bad for me. I want to smoke anyway.
     Guns are dangerous, but they make me feel powerful so I want one.
     It's not my job to care about the environment.
     I get my moral values from the church, not the government.
     I earned my own money; don't take it away from me.
     My family did it this way for generations; I want to do it this way too.
     We believe what we believe, and don't try to tell us any different.
    
      And why do we have these two poles -- the authoritarians and the extremists? Because they are the passionate people, the ones who will pressure the politicians and raise money for their cause. And they have this in common: They don't believe in the First Amendment; they ridicule and demonize people who don't agree with them.

     The politicians are not stupid. They raise money from people with vested interests on one side or the other, not from the majority in the middle. They know that for the most part people don't let facts determine what they believe. People believe what they want to believe, then choose the facts to support their opinions. So politicians choose a side, and then like their most avid supporters, they latch onto a few facts and distort them and extrapolate them and use them to prove their indefensible positions.

     But you know, the authoritarian vs. extremist problem in America is mostly a manufactured situation. Between the 20% ultra-liberal left, and the 20% radical right are the 60% who are roughly in the middle.

     Even as divisive an issue as abortion proves the point. According to the latest polls, about 20% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all cases. About 15% say it should not be legal under any circumstance. But the majority of Americans -- some 65% -- agree with the Supreme Court that it should be legal early in a pregnancy, but they balk at the idea of late-term or partial birth abortions, which they believe come just a little too close to infanticide.

     Didn't William Yeats say it in the aftermath of World War I, almost a almost a century ago? "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold . . . the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

     All I'm saying is: In the new year let's try to ignore all the hotheads and the media outlets that exploit them for ratings (you know what they say in the media business: if you want to draw a crowd, start an argument). And as we go along let's try to see the other person's point of view, without demonizing them, and respect our fellow Americans and go about our lives in a more reasoned and enlightened manner.

     In other words: Peace be with  you.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Age-Old Aphorisms

     The book has been sitting on B's bookshelf for years, and when I was looking for something to read the other day, I finally picked it up: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. The author is a former managing editor of Time magazine and current ceo of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank located not in Colorado but in Washington, DC. (He also wrote a book on Steve Jobs, as well as his latest, The Innovators, about the geeks who developed social media).

     Honestly, I didn't know much about Ben Franklin. I knew he was a printer and a Founding Father and that he "discovered" electricity.

     I did not know that he was a self-made man among all the powdered-wig aristocrats who created the new country. He was born and raised in Boston, but ran away to Philadelphia in 1723, when he was 17, and started in the printing business. He worked his way up -- occasionally employing some pretty "savvy" business acumen -- to become the head of what was then "a successful, vertically integrated media conglomerate," according to Isaacson, with a publishing house, the Philadelphia newspaper, an almanac series, an interest in the postal system, and eventually some valuable real-estate holdings.

     Franklin was in the vanguard of many American trends -- including early retirement. He retired from his printing business at age 42 in order to pursue his interest first in science (he made his famous kite experiment in 1752, which led to the development of the lightning rod) and then in politics and international relations.

     Today he is known as much for his maxims as his contributions to society. Some came out of his real life experiences. For example, there was once a rich and well-bred member of Philadelphia society that he wanted win over. So he approached the man and asked a favor. He wanted to borrow one of his rare books. The man lent him the book; Franklin returned it on time; and then later when they met "he spoke to me (which he had never done before) and with great civility, and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions."

     And from that experience Franklin developed his advice: "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged."

     But most of his aphorisms came from Poor Richard's Almanac -- which as best as I can tell was a series of pamphlets kind of like the special editions of magazines you see today at the checkout stand of the supermarket. Some of his maxims developed out of his own personal experience, some he made up, and others he "borrowed" from other sources and then polished up to make them more memorable. Here I've selected his Top Ten:

     He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.

     Where there's marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.

     Necessity never made a good bargain.

     He who multiplies riches multiplies cares.

     He's a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom.

     Vice knows she is ugly, so puts on her mask.

     Love your enemies, for they will tell you your faults.

     The sting of a reproach is the truth of it.

     Half the truth is often a great lie.

     God helps them that help themselves.

     Maybe you know a few others from Franklin, or elsewhere. I wonder how relevant they are to our lives today.

    

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

There's Something About Mary

     The name Mary is loaded with significance. To begin with, Mary was the mother of Jesus, and so we honor her on Christmas day.

     For a long time Mary was the most popular female name in America. According to Social Security's list of most popular names for the past hundred years, Mary was either the first or second most popular name for a newborn female, going back at least to 1914, and up through 1965.

     However, today the rank of Mary as a name has fallen to No. 152 -- ahead of Amy and Rachel, but behind Norah and Natalia -- although a variant, Maria, comes in at No. 80. Perhaps Mary has come to be seen as too ordinary, too plain, to run-of-the-mill.

     (Guess what the most popular name is for a newborn girl in 2014. The answer's below -- but don't cheat!)

     My grandmother on my mother's side (born c. 1880) was named Mary. When she went to name her daughter, my mother (born 1912), she wanted to name the girl after her; but also wanted something perhaps a little more sophisticated. So she gave the name a little French twist and named my mother Marie.

     When my parents had their first child, a daughter, (born 1942), they named her Mary Elizabeth. (My dad's mother was Elizabeth.) But again, they wanted something just a little different. So they called her Marybeth.

     That didn't work for my sister. She did not like the name Marybeth, so at some point in her young adulthood -- either in college or shortly after -- she changed her name to Marcie. Everyone now calls her Marcie, except of course for my other sister and me. She changed her name 50 years ago. But we still call her Marybeth.

     The very first girl I kissed -- this was in 7th grade, walking up the hill from junior high school, coming home from a dance -- was my next-door neighbor, who was named Merry. "Not Mary," she told everyone with a roll of her eyes, appalled that people would think that she had so plain a name. "It's Merry, short for Meredith."

     I haven't seen or heard from Merry in 50 years. So I don't know if she's changed it to Marcie or Marie or something else by now.

    Now, drum roll please . . . the most popular female name for 2014 is:  Emma.

     Anyway, to all a Mary -- I mean Merry Christmas. Meanwhile, B and I are on our way to Pennsylvania to see B's mother for a couple of days. She was born in 1916. Her name is . . . you guessed it, Mary.

     Here's "Let It Be" a song that Paul McCartney wrote after dreaming about his mother, Mary McCartney (born 1909), who died in 1956.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Under the Christmas Tree

     If a blog is a present, then here is what's under the Baby Boomer Christmas tree this year . . .

     Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting reminds us that this is the season for catching up with friends and family. She notes that many folks carry on a tradition of writing a holiday letter, letting everyone know what was going on with their family over the past year. (My own B writes a Christmas letter, and always has. I've pointed out to her that she wouldn't have to do that if she just got on Facebook, but she's set in her ways.)

     Anyway, Meryl reveals that she never adopted the custom -- until this year. I don't want to give anything away -- you should go read My First Ever Holiday Letter yourself -- but let me just say that while she and her family are doing just fine, they sure did have a lot of accidents and sure did consume a lot of antibiotics in the past year!

     Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, reports that gift cards make great last-minute presents for holiday shoppers. They are practical and convenient and typically involve no extra expense. As a result, the sales of gift cards have skyrocketed in recent years.

     But she also warns that cyber-criminals don't just shoot out from North Korea. They can also skulk around the mall, stealing information from gift cards that they can then use to rip you off. She offers some tips on how to protect yourself in her post Gift Cards: Watch Out for Problems During the Holidays.

     And there's another cyber-problem for holiday shoppers. Have you ever placed a holiday gift order online, only to find that an ad for the item pops up later when your spouse or other family member logs onto the computer? It ruins your surprise. And it feels a little creepy, too, doesn't it? In her post How Targeted Ads Ruin Holiday Surprises Robison sponsors a guest article by David Vronay, founder and ceo of GoHeard.com, who explains how and why sites from Amazon to Google track your purchases through Big Data.

     For these and other holiday consumer tips check out Robison's blog The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide.

     Meanwhile, Laura Lee at the Midlife Crisis Queen tells us that she has moved over 25 times in her life -- and is in the process of doing it once again. So this year she is enjoying a simple, makeshift Christmas in her tiny in-town rental, while anxiously awaiting the completion of her new solar home in the Colorado foothills. She is powering through the Christmas season without a Christmas tree, but has summoned the Christmas spirit by mounting a few interesting holiday decorations around her walls -- and around her dog as well.

     Finally, from the Southwest desert, we hear that even where it never snows people still love Christmas -- as a time not so much to exchange presents but as an opportunity to celebrate life, wish for peace, and share with friends. In that spirit Kathy at Smart Living has compiled a few Christmas quotes from the likes of Taylor Caldwell, who said, "This is the message of Christmas: We are never alone."

     And Mr. Christmas himself, Charles Dickens who told us, "I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year."

    

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Listen to Me, Will Ya!

     I was the youngest of four children. I remember sitting around the dinner table when I was a kid, and everyone would listen to my dad, of course, because he was the father. And everyone would listen to my oldest sister, because she was supposed to be the "smart one." And my older brother, because he was . . . the older brother.

     And I remember trying to get a word in edgewise, trying to get people in the family to take me seriously. I tried my best, sometimes making a joke, or being disruptive, or just making pain out of myself. Sometimes I succeeded; but mostly, people ignored me.

     By the time I got to college, I had a strategy. I would wait for a couple of people to speak up in class, offering their disparate opinions, and then I'd step in and voice my own interpretation. People noticed that I spoke after the others, and it lent my opinion a greater air of authority -- as though other students were too anxious to talk, or had spoken without thinking, while it seemed as though I was judging the situation.

     There was one exception to my approach. If a teacher asked for comments, and everyone sat around awkwardly with no one daring to speak up, then I would jump in -- making it look as though the other students were afraid to speak, and I was the brave one to offer an opinion.

     The strategy didn't work all the time; but it worked more often than not and got me through a lot of literature classes, as well as history, philosophy, economics and sociology.

     Later, as an adult, I used to joke that the reason I finally decided to have kids was because it would mean I'd get extra helpings at dinner. I'd noticed, whether at home or a restaurant, that the kids never finished their meal, and it was almost always the dad who was picking food off the kids' plates.

     But that wasn't the real reason I wanted kids. The real reason was because I wanted someone to listen to me. If no one else would pay attention to me, then I'd breed my own listeners.

     Well, as anyone who has kids probably knows, that one backfired on me. Big time. Kids thrive on not listening to their parents; they make their name and reputation by how often, how long and how blatantly they ignore their parents' advice. (And to be honest, they listened to my wife more than they listened to me, anyway.)

     Actually, my daughter was a little different. She would make a big issue about how we shouldn't try to tell her what to do, or give her advice ("Oh, Dad, that's so obvious!"). She'd ignore what we said, or argue about it, or make fun of it. But, I noticed as the years went by, that actually, she rarely ignored my advice. She just didn't want to acknowledge that she was following our instructions. So she would ignore us for a suitable period of time, just to show that she wasn't doing what we said, and then when no one was looking she would go ahead and do her homework, or clean her room, or do her chores.

     My son. He was a different story. He marched to the beat of his own drum (literally . . . in middle school and high school he not only played the drums but also the saxophone, the guitar, piano, and anything else that made a lot of noise). He did listen to his mother occasionally -- and maybe he soaked up a little of our moral and ethical approach to life, just by living in our home and listening to us talk -- and in the final analysis he made the whole high school and college experience work for him. And now (much to my surprise!) he is gainfully employed and has his own apartment.

     Anyway . . . maybe that's why, subconsciously, I write this blog. Why else would we spend so much time pecking away into the night, or early in the morning? It's 60 years later. And I'm still trying to get someone to listen to me!

    

Monday, December 15, 2014

Was ist?

    B forwarded this clip to me on Friday. It may offend some people who are defensive about getting old and self-righteous about how people treat senior citizens. But I say, by now, we should be able to laugh at ourselves.

     Indeed, for those of us who have children, I think we know that embarrassing or flummoxing our children is one of our last lines of defense. That being said, I am NOT sending this clip to my daughter, who needs no more ammunition in her arsenal of ways to make fun of her dad.

     This clip has been around for a little while, so maybe some of you have seen it, and if so, my apologies (although I'm sure it will make you laugh, even the second time around). There's an English version, but for some reason, the original version, in German, seems even funnier.

     The daughter is visiting her father, helping him in the kitchen. She says, "Tell me, Dad, how are you doing with the new iPad we gave you for your birthday?"

     The rest is self-explanatory . . . 

   

Friday, December 12, 2014

I Guessed a Christmas Present!

     B likes to shop, but what with her job, and church, and a house and two kids -- plus, she has me to contend with -- she doesn't have a lot of time. So she shops mostly online. We have packages arriving at the house from UPS and Federal Express and sometimes the U. S. Postal Service, especally in advance of Christmas.

     So last night B and I went out the front door to walk the dog, as we do every evening, and I noticed there were two packages right outside on the front porch. One small box, and one big box.

     We walked the dog and as we came back in, I picked up the smaller package and opened the door. I went inside, put the package down, unleashed the dog, then went back outside to get the other box. It was big, so I lifted it up with two hands . . . but it didn't weigh much.

     "Oh, this is light," I said to B, as I elbowed my way back inside.

      "What?" she said. She was in the kitchen, taking off her coat. "Don't go feeling those packages!"

     "Oh . . . I'm not," I said. "It's just that it's so big, and so light. I wonder what it is."

     "Never you mind," she said, turning toward me as I entered the kitchen. "Just forget about the box."

     "Hmmm," I wondered. "Is this a present for me?"

     "Who wants to know?" she teased.

     "I hope that big box isn't full of styrofoam peanuts," I said. "They're a pain to throw away."

     "Just don't worry your pretty little head about what's inside the box," she said.

     I'd placed the big box on the floor by the door, and I was now in the kitchen, taking off my coat. Then I did a double-take back to the box. There was writing on it. It was upside down, but I could make out Travelpro. "Wait a second, here," I said. "I know what that is!"

     "No, you don't."

     "It's the suitcase you were going to buy for Richie!" Richie is her younger son, and I knew he'd been asking for a new suitcase for Christmas.

     She got red in the face. She was a little embarrassed.

     "Why, you were leading me on!" I suddenly realized. "You were pretending this was some mysterious present for me!"

     "No, I wasn't." But her red face gave her away.

     "Hah, you can't fool me," I stated proudly. "I wasn't born yesterday, you know."

     "Well," she said, ending the conversation. "That's for sure!"

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What Are Your Least Favorite Foods?

     Yesterday B sent me up to the store with a short shopping list. I thought I knew all her preferences. Tropicana orange juice with no pulp. Twinings tea, not Lipton; decaffeinated. And we both drink only 1% milk.

     But I made a mistake. I brought home Hunt's ketchup instead of Heinz.

     "Well, what's wrong with Hunt's?" I asked. "Besides, you didn't specify Heinz."

     "You never looked in the refrigerator, and noticed what kind of ketchup we have?"

     "Um, I guess not," I confessed.

     So do you have your favorite foods, and your favorite brands? And the ones you simply cannot tolerate? It seems silly. What's the difference between Hunt's and Heinz? And yet, I know, Coke and Pepsi are essentially the same thing -- sugar water with food coloring. But I like Coke, not Pepsi.

     When I was a kid, each of us was allowed to "reject" one food that we didn't like. If my mom served it, we didn't have to eat it. But otherwise, we were expected to eat what was served to us . . . because, you know there were people starving in China. My parents were children of the Depression. And they did not like to waste food, or anything else.

     I rejected broccoli. But when my mother served cauliflower, I would claim that, no, it wasn't broccoli I'd rejected, it was cauliflower. No, not broccoli, cauliflower!

     But now, ironically, I actually like both broccoli and cauliflower.

     Today, there are a lot of cheeses I do not like. Blue cheese, for example, and Parmesan. And I do not like goat cheese. B and I were out the other evening, and we split a sandwich. B asked me if I liked it. "Yeah, it was pretty good," I replied.

     "It had goat cheese in it," she said.

     "It did?" I replied, startled. "No, it didn't. I didn't taste any goat cheese."

     "I'm pretty sure it did." She was enjoying this . . . maybe she thinks I'm a finicky eater. I swore off red meat a few years ago. I don't like garlic. I don't like a lot of New Agey stuff like couscous and hummus.

     I couldn't believe there was goat cheese on the sandwich. Goat cheese has such a distinctive flavor -- it tastes like a barnyard. I would have noticed it. So I asked the server. And he informed me that, yes, the sandwich did indeed have goat cheese in it.

     So don't tell us your favorite food -- it's always chocolate, right? Don't tell us what you're allergic to -- like gluten or peanuts. Tell us: What foods do you just not like? The foods you cannot stomach. I do not like foods that stink (like goat cheese or blue cheese). I do not like croutons in my salad or soup. (Why would you put toast in your soup?!?)

     And despite what B thinks, I believe I'm being perfectly reasonable -- not like, you know, making a big deal out of ketchup.

     Anyway, I guess the French have a phrase for it: a chacun son gout. But I have a new theory -- I think that goat cheese gave me bad dreams the other night!


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Am I Going Crazy?

     Do you have vivid dreams? Do you even remember your dreams?

     Some people ask: Do you dream in color or black and white? I don't quite get that question, because it suggests you're sitting there watching your dream, like you're watching a movie. But when I dream, I'm not watching the movie, I'm in the movie.

     But honestly, most of the time I do not have very vivid dreams, and I usually don't even remember them. Or if I do, I think about them briefly when I wake up -- but they are forgotten by the time I sit down for breakfast.

      But recently -- for the past week or ten days -- I've been having very dramatic, action-packed dreams. So right away, what's that all about?

     So, last night . . .

     I was in a park, walking down a grassy hill toward the parking lot. My three kids were running ahead of me. (They were my three kids in the dream, but they weren't my real-life kids -- I only have two real-life kids.) Then they were running out across a frozen pond, and I called to them to wait up for me. "And get off that pond -- you don't know if it's frozen all the way!"

     I ran down to the pond and climbed up on a big rock, with a wooden walkway going up the side, trying to get around the shoreline. Suddenly I saw a car across the pond, and it turned and came screaming across the ice, right toward me. It crashed into the wooden scaffolding below me, then turned around and sped back across the ice, kicking up the ice behind it, leaving a skid-mark trail of black water.

     I scrambled down off the rock, circled around the side of the pond and chased two of my kids -- the oldest one had made it across the pond and was waiting for us at the edge of the parking lot. I caught my middle child -- a girl, maybe around ten years old, who was skinny and stick-like. I tackled her and grabbed her arm before she could run away . . . and I woke up.

     Then . . . I was shopping in New York City, along Fifth Avenue. I went into one store and looked around. I walked back out onto the street. I was killing time, waiting for someone (my wife?) who was also shopping. I continued uptown a little way, ducked into another store, then I bought something, and I remember I was shuffling my coat and my bag and a couple of other things -- an umbrella maybe? Finally, I left the store and walked home to the Upper West Side. I got inside my apartment and took off my coat, and felt my front right pocket. My wallet was missing!

     And I woke up. I was sure my wallet was missing. I was so sure that I started to get out of bed to go find my wallet. But then, I remembered placing it on the desk in my office downstairs when I got home last night. I wasn't really missing my wallet, I finally realized, it was a dream. And so I went back to sleep, although it took me quite a while to drop off again . . .

     And now I am sitting at a table in a coffee shop -- or maybe it's a bar -- again in Manhattan, but downtown in Greenwich Village or someplace like that. It is summertime, and people are sitting at tables on the sidewalk. I am expecting someone.

     I gaze out the window, and I see Bob Hope at one of the tables, and he's talking to some people and laughing and obviously regaling them with a funny story. Then Al Sharpton walks in and sits down at my table. We know each other (not in real life, but in the dream). He wants my advice on the political campaign he's about to launch. "Oh, so what are you running for?" I ask. "The Los Angeles City Council?"

     "No, of course not," he says. "For the City Council in New York. Can you help me? What's my strategy?"

     I am a little taken aback, because I'm not a political consultant. I tell him, "Well, I know public relations (which I do not in real life), but politics is not my specialty. But let's talk this out and see if we can come up with some ideas."

     Then we both look outside and see Bob Hope. I ask Al Sharpton if he likes being famous, if he's ever intimidated when he's around other famous people. He shakes his head, no. And I wake up.

     B is coming into the bedroom, heading for the shower. She usually gets up before me, around 6:30 or 7 a.m. I usually get out of bed between 7 and 7:30 a.m.. "What time is it?" I ask.

     "It's quarter to nine," she replies, and ducks into the bathroom.

     So I get out of bed. I haven't slept this late in years, and I started to wonder:  Am I going crazy?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Remember Her?

     I remember her as an old lady who was always cited in the most respectful terms and regarded as an intellectual par excellence. But of course, she wasn't always an old lady. In fact, she made her mark at a fairly young age.

     Who was she? She was born in December 1901, the eldest of five children. Her father served as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and her mother was a sociologist who studied Italian immigrants. She was a good student and went to Barnard College in New York, majoring in psychology, and then got her Master's and Ph.D. from Columbia University. 

     "One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don't come home at night."

     In 1925, she set out for the South Pacific where she observed and analyzed the local culture, particularly the lives of adolescents. She wanted to figure out if teenage behavior was inherent to itself, or if it was shaped by society. In other words, she was studying whether behavior is shaped more by nature or nurture.

     She focused particularly on a group of girls, age 9 to 20, observing the practices of child rearing, education, discipline, gender roles and sexuality. She described a number of specific skills a girl would learn, and then noted that "all of her additional interest is expended on clandestine sexual adventures." She concluded that in this particular society, a reputation for laziness made a girl a poor candidate for marriage, and that a good work ethic was a more highly prized criteria for marriage than virginity. 

     "I have a respect for manners as such, they are a way of dealing with people you don't agree with or like."

     She went on to describe a number of other aspects of the island dynamics. Family relationships were crucial, and friendships were based more on family connections than personal choice. The society frowned on young people showing a lot of pride or individuality, or "presuming above one's age" as they put it; and yet in singing and dancing the normal rules were ignored, as the teens were allowed to let loose and preen and swagger and take the limelight. 

     "Instead of being presented with stereotypes by age, sex, color, class or religion, children must have the opportunity to learn that within each range some people are loathsome and some are delightful."

     She published her findings in a book called Coming of Age in Samoa. Americans were shocked when they read her descriptions of how young girls enjoyed casual sex. The book became a bestseller. But some academics challenged her findings, calling her fieldwork impressionistic and charging that she was gullible in believing what many of the girls told her. Some critics even suggested that she was projecting her own sexual ideas into her analysis. 

     "As long as any adult thinks that he can ... invoke his own youth to understand the youth before him, he is lost."

    But the woman, Margaret Mead, went on to become a famous and well-respected anthropologist. And her book, along with her subsequent studies, demonstrated that adolescence is not experienced in the same way in all societies, and it clearly supported the idea that nurture held a more prominent role in determining a person's behavior than nature.

     Mead went on to argue that personality characteristics, especially as they differ between men and women, are shaped by cultural conditioning rather than heredity. And she concluded that gender roles differed from one society to another, depending at least as much on culture as biology.

     "I believe that the only thing worth doing is to add to the sum of accurate information in the world."
     
     Margaret Mead was named a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and she taught anthropology at Columbia and Fordham University.  She wrote more than 20 books, and was also a popular speaker, as she helped shape the broadening sexual mores of the 1960s.

     Her own personal life echoed her philosophy. She was married three times, to highly respected academics. She formed a "close personal relationship" with one of her female former instructors, and in her later years she lived with another woman anthropologist in New York City.

     Mead herself never identified as a lesbian; but others suggested that -- perhaps consistent with her views on cultural influences -- it was to be expected that an individual's sexual orientation could evolve over a lifetime.

     "Always remember that you are unique. Just like everyone else."

     Margaret Mead died of pancreatic cancer in 1978, at the age of 77. The following year President Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, fittingly, several schools are named after her. And the American Museum of Natural History holds an annual Margaret Mead Film Festival, showcasing documentaries and other films that "increase our understanding of the complexity and diversity of the peoples and cultures that populate our planet."
   

Monday, December 1, 2014

It Takes a Village

     It was Hillary Clinton who told us that "it takes a village" to raise a child. And I think she was right. What we should also realize is that it takes a village to support us in our old age.

     I saw an article in this weekend's New York Times called Retirees Turn to Virtual Villages for Mutual Support, by Constance Bustke. The piece explains how a new organization called a "virtual retirement village" can help seniors access resources and develop social connections to make it easier to age in place. A village is a local, membership-driven organization that posts information about affordable services involving health and wellness, transportation, home repairs, and social and educational activities. Most villages charge dues, but they are non-profit organizations.

     The article focuses on the Capital City Village, in Austin, Texas, along with a couple of other villages in New England where the idea originated. Capital City Village provides referrals to over a hundred member-recommended service companies, and to dozens of volunteers who are on call to help out with dog walking, yard work, and other homeowner needs.

     The village also hosts social activities such as concerts, restaurant gatherings, lectures, group trips. The whole idea of the village is to support the 90 percent of seniors who want to age in place rather than go into an independent or assisted living facility.

     There are more than 120 active villages around the country, with over a hundred others in development stages. They are supported by the Village to Village Network, a consortium of villages that offers background information on what villages do and how they work. There's a page on the website that offers advice and support if you're interested in starting a virtual retirement village in your own community. Most importantly, there's a membership directory where you can locate a village near you.

     If you go to the website, click on Village Map in the upper right section of the page, then select your state and hit search. You will get a list of local villages with contact information. Some of the organizations -- they have a variety of names often alluding to "At Home" or "Aging in Place" or "Good Neighbors" or "Connections" -- are members of the virtual network (which offers special benefits), others are non-members, and some are still in development. I looked up my state of New York, and found two dozen listings -- one in my own hometown and several others nearby.

     Virtual villages is a grass-roots movement that seems to be addressing some of the crucial issues involved in growing older in our own communities. As one of the Times sources, Dr. Marc Agronin, a psychiatrist in Miami, says, "Having a local network of people to engage with opens up whole new worlds. It's about discovering your strengths and the joy of living."
    

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Europe -- Are You Kidding?

     Sometimes I hear people make the argument that we here in the United States should do something because so many other developed countries, especially in Europe, are doing it. Social welfare programs. Universal health care programs. Higher minimum wages; stronger unions; longer vacations; more civil political discourse; certain attitudes about sex, drugs, education, homosexuality, military power, immigration.

     I believe the United States does need to reform many of its systems and develop more civil discourse. And I think everyone should have access to a good public education and at least a basic level of medical care . . . and a decent job and decent housing and decent everything else, for that matter.

Europe then
     But, with apologies to my European friends . . . come on, we should never do anything just because the Europeans are doing it. After all, most of our ancestors left Europe, and not because it was a great place to live, with equal opportunity for all. They left because there was little or no economic opportunity, and very little ability to move up in a stratified, petrified class system. Governments were dysfunctional, religions were intolerant; armies were threatening -- and the place was generally a rotten place to live.

     My own grandparents, on my father's side, left the Austra-Hungarian Empire back in the late 1800s. No one knows for sure, but family rumor has it that my grandfather sneaked away just as he was about to be conscripted into an army he wanted no part of. On my mother's side, my ancestors left Ireland, circa 1850, because they had no land, no crops, no job, no prospects -- and they were starving to death.

     And then what happened? Europe brought us World War I, thousands of people dying every day at Verdun and the Marne and a lot of other places. Then the Europeans brought us World War II, costing roughly 60 million lives. Then there was the Cold War, and Northern Ireland, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And whenever the Europeans weren't arguing, squabbling and fighting amongst themselves, they were setting sail to the Americas or Africa or Asia to bully any other people they could possibly take advantage of.

     We Americans feel a collected guilt about slavery and the slave trade. But who were the biggest slave traders? Not the Americans. It was in this order: The Portuguese, then the British, French, Spanish and Dutch.

     I remember my first trip to Europe, as a college student in 1969, bumming around with a friend of mine. Yes, the trains were good. Everyone says the trains are good in Europe, and they are right. But the bathrooms were totally antiquated. It was hard to get hot water. And do you know what they used for toilet paper over there? Stiff brown paper that was about the same texture as a paper bag from a grocery store. I really don't know what they use now; but I was back to Europe in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, and the toilet paper wasn't much better.
Europe now

     Okay, you say. But the Berlin Wall came down, and the Europeans are so sophisticated, and socially progressive, and we hear that the education system in Finland is so effective and forward-leaning.

     Maybe. But remember, a lot of those countries still have royalty -- kings and queens and princes and such -- including those so-called progressive Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. And as for the socially progressive economies that reward employees with so much vacation time? Some of that is true. But first you have to get a job. The unemployment rate in France is 10%. In Ireland it's 12%. In Italy it's 13%; in Spain it's 24%; and in Greece it's 26%!

     As for the educational system in Finland? The population of Finland is 5.4 million people. That's smaller than the state of Wisconsin. Smaller than Maryland or Missouri. How can you compare a system that works for a population of 5.4 million fairly homogenous people with a system that has to process 60 times that many people of all different races, creeds and colors?

     There are a lot of things we could do to improve our public education system, starting with more early education and including longer school days, longer school years, and more emphasis on academics and less emphasis on sports.

     But the idea that we can look to Europe as a model is ridiculous. I'm not saying Europe is bad; I'm saying it is no better than the U.S., and for all its social programs, it is in many ways a backward, conservative place, full of people who are every bit as self-interested and self-centered as we are.

     Europe is a great place to visit. Lots of museums and tourist spots. But I wouldn't want to live there. And I certainly wouldn't recommend using Europe as a model on which to build our own political, educational or social system.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The One Thing I'm Thankful For

     I'm not a big fan of Thanksgiving. I don't like watching football on TV. It's usually too cold to do anything outside. And there's something that strikes me as a little weird about a holiday focused entirely on stuffing as much food into our mouths as humanly possible. Plus, I try at all costs to avoid traveling around the Thanksgiving holiday, when flying or driving bring on not just the usual anxieties but outright, full-fledged panic.

     But there's nothing wrong with taking a day to count our blessings, to be thankful for what we have, rather than complaining about what we don't have, or feeling envy for what others might have. And after spending the last year and a half volunteering to help kids at our local community college, I can wrap up all my thank-yous into one big package:  I am thankful that I was born into the American middle class.

     Saturday Night Live and satirists of all stripes have a field day making fun of the middle class -- how bland we are, how boring, how conformist, how white and pasty we are, how earnest we are in our ticky-tacky houses, etc.

     But I volunteer at our local community college, helping mostly underprivileged kids learn how to read and write and analyze and organize and think about things. A few of the students I see are middle-class kids who typically exhibit some kind of mild learning disability. But most of the kids are people of color who live in the poorer sections of our county, and who come from the American underclass. Many originally came from another country, and English is their second language. Some were born here; but their parents speak Spanish or something else at home.

     A few of the students are women in their late 30s or early 40s, who have come back to school to get their degree. They are grandmothers. They live with their daughters and their grandchildren. One of my favorite students is Mary, who writes children's stories for her creative writing class. Her command of grammar is very basic and extremely flawed. Yet she comes up with simple but charming, and often very imaginative, stories based on the exploits of her own grandchildren.

     What strikes me about these students -- whether they're black or white or something in between -- is that they all grew up under challenging circumstances. Probably some of them have suffered discrimination. But the real common denominator is that their parents are poor, or near poor. They were not read to as little children. They did not go to enriching nursery schools. They grew up in apartments, and their backyards were the streets. They went to marginal public schools, and their attendance was sometimes interrupted for one reason for another.

     In short, these students, who range in age from 18 up to about 45, did not benefit from a middle-class upbringing, with good local schools, private music lessons, soccer camp and SAT preparation courses. And yet, their clear ambition is to struggle their way to get a better education, which will lead to a better job, which will eventually help them achieve the much-ridiculed, but also much-sought-after middle-class lifestyle . . . aka the American Dream.

     Maybe there are some "welfare cheats" and "welfare moms" out there who play the system and plan to live on the dole for the rest of their lives. But not these kids. I have enormous respect for my students -- especially (as I remember my own unsuccessful attempts to learn a foreign language) those for whom English is a second, or sometimes third or fourth language. But all these students have hope; they have ambition; and they also have a road ahead of them that I don't think I could have successfully struggled through when I was a young man.

     All of these people are trying hard. Some of them will go on to four-year colleges and careers in business or computers or social services. Some will be disappointed. But all of them deserve our respect, our support and our encouragement. 

     On this Thanksgiving, I give thanks that my road was an easier one, that I was lucky enough to be born into the middle class, and not the underclass. And so, especially now, I wish them the very best.

    

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What Boomers Worry About


     The transition from the working life to the retired life can be difficult and disrupting, so it should come as no surprise that anxieties have blossomed among Baby Boomers concerned about the financial, social and physical challenges of growing older. Those anxieties begin to bud when middle managers realize their gray hair is no longer a mark of distinction, but a liability for the next job interview. And they grow as people suffer diminished physical capability, loss of control over their lives, and perhaps feelings of invisibility and irrelevance.

     Boomers were born during a time of post-war national prosperity. But the fact that there are so many of us has created a competitive world -- a battle for resources that we have waged throughout our lives, from college admissions to landing a job to buying a home, and now to the struggle for resources in retirement as we begin to put financial pressure on Social Security and Medicare.

     Recent surveys by the Center for Secure Retirement, AARP, and other organizations suggest some of the issues that worry middle class Baby Boomers.

     High Anxiety. According to a poll by AARP Baby Boomers are more worried than any other age group about retirement security. Over 70% of Boomers expect that they will have to delay retirement, and half of us fear we will never be able to give up the 9-to-5. The organization used a number of economic factors, from inflation to affordability of health care, to create an anxiety index. People between ages 50 and 64 topped 70% on the index, while younger people (too young and stupid to worry about it?) scored 50% and the 65-plus crowd (who are covered by Social Security and Medicare, and grandfathered into pensions) came in at a relatively contented 46%.

     Young at Any Age. Ironically, most Baby Boomers do not worry too much about how long they're going to live. Surveys suggest that Boomers feel as much as 15 years younger than people the same age a generation ago. Boomers peg "old age" somewhere around 78 or 80, and most Boomers without major health problems assume they're going to live to about 86. And that's a reasonable assumption. The life expectancy of a current 60 year old, according to government statistics, has reached a record 84 years.

     Health Care. Boomers believe that their health is pretty much out of their control. According to the Center for Secure Retirement, 65% of middle-age Americans think their health is mostly determined by their genes, as opposed to 46% who say it's largely controlled by diet and 44% who credit exercise as the key to health. However, we Boomers still do worry about declining health in our advancing years. Nearly four times as many Boomers worry about health more than they worry about finances or outliving their money. Most of us are concerned about escalating health care costs -- at the very time when we are beginning to have increased needs for medical services and costly prescription drugs.

     Money Matters. Yet, Boomers have very mixed emotions about their finances. Despite our worries, few of us have calculated the actual amount of income we will need in retirement, and fewer still have figured out how much savings we need to produce that income. But many Boomers say they already have downsized their lifestyle and curtailed spending so they will have enough money in their sunset years. Many have also come to terms with the prospect of delayed retirement, and say they are willing to either stay in their current jobs longer, or work at least part time in retirement in order to make ends meet.

     Message Delivered. Boomers in general cite a desire for a simpler, less expensive lifestyle. That dovetails nicely with the fact that many do not have enough savings to support their current spending in retirement. The Boomer desire to continue working in some way during retirement also helps. Still, with the mobility of modern life and the fraying of American families, many Boomers wonder who will take care of them when they eventually become old and incapacitated.

     Meanwhile, some 70% of current retirees rely on Social Security for at least half of their income. Yet almost 80% of Boomers worry that the future of Social Security is in jeopardy, and a third believe that in 20 years Social Security as we know it will be a thing of the past.

     So what are you worried about? To me, it seems that among all the different anxieties, one message rings out loud and clear:  Protect Social Security and Medicare . . . on behalf of all of us.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

$185 Worth of Medical Advice

     I had my annual physical the other day. I decided to go to my primary care physician (which my medical group told me would cost $185) rather than a physician's assistant (which would have been free of charge), for two reasons. I went to this doctor last year for the first time, and there were a few little issues that came up, and so I wanted to follow up on them with the same doctor. The other reason? Well, to be blunt, I figured a doctor would know more medicine, and give me a more authoritative checkup.

     The long and short of it is ... I'm fine. I have no idea if the doctor gave me any better service than a PA would have done. Still, I like the idea of developing a relationship with my doctor, however slight, so he knows my body and my history, and therefore is more likely to sense if and when something is "off." I had that kind of relationship with my old doctor, who I'd been seeing for about 20 years. Unfortunately -- and tragically -- my old doctor, who was the same age as me, got an aggressive form of cancer a little less than two years ago and he died within six months.

     So last year I found a new doctor in the same medical group. He's in his early 40s, and looks very young to me, but I have to believe he knows what he's doing.

     Anyway, I'll pass on a couple of insights from my visit (at no charge!). First, I went in looking for a shingles shot. My sister has been pushing this on me for a while. She got the shingles vaccine a couple of years ago. "You know, Dad got shingles before he died," she reminded me. "So I got a shingles shot, and you should get one too." (In case you're wondering, she's my older sister, and so has no reservations about trying to boss me around.)

     But instead, I came out of the doctor's office with a shot for pneumonia. My doctor said I could get the shingles shot, and yes, he did recommend it for people my age. But his enthusiasm for the shingles shot seemed somewhat measured, while he thought the pneumonia shot was more of a must-have. Honestly, he thought my risk profile for either disease is very low. Nevertheless, he said, if you get shingles, it can be painful. But pneumonia can kill you.

     I could have had both vaccines at the same time. But I decided to get the pneumonia shot now (it's a one-time vaccination); and do the shingles shot next year.

     The other thing he told me is that the scholarly literature has suggested that annual physicals do not, in the aggregate, extend our life expectancy. There are two theories. The annual physical approach is based on early detection. The doctor catches something early, and therefore is more likely to be able to cure it, or at least manage it. The problem is that there are many false positives, resulting in a lot of unnecessary medical tests and treatments, which (again in the aggregate) can often cause more harm than good.

     The other theory says you wait until something goes wrong. Then medicine runs it down, and in most cases is able to treat it successfully.

     All that may be true. But here's my story. I had my first colonoscopy at age 51, and the doctor found a precancerous polyp. He removed it, and I went on with my life. If it hadn't been detected, and was left to develop into cancer, I'd probably be dead by now. So I am firmly in the camp of early detection.
   
     The other advice the doctor had for me? He said that all we know about improving and extending our lives can essentially be boiled down to one paragraph. Eat a good diet with plenty of fluids, fruits and vegetables, and get a decent amount of exercise on a regular basis.

     And so with that ... I'm heading to the gym.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Slice of Boomer Life

     What are you gonna do . . . we all get older. This serving of the Best of Baby Boomer blogs offers a generous helping of advice about how to cope with the perils and pitfalls of aging -- and the opportunities that go with them.

     Aging can be a bummer (do you have trouble driving at night?), but Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting prefers to concentrate on the positive aspects of life at a mature age, such as being able to go on vacation whenever you want. Check out her post A Retiree’s Life to get all the details -- which (if I'm interpreting her correctly) allows us to eat all the chocolate cake we want, whenever we want.

     Could that possibly be right?

     On a more realistic note, record numbers of Baby Boomers are retiring, and Rita R. Robison, blogging at The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, realizes that many Boomers are business owners who plan to cash out and use the proceeds to fund their retirement. But she says:  Not so fast! More than 80 percent of business owners have no formal transition plan, and, in the end, only about 25 percent of businesses up for sale actually do sell.

     Those odds are likely to become worse as millions of Baby Boomers attempt to sell their businesses over the next decade in what she terms an "exit bubble." Combine the lack of readiness with the historically low success rate for selling a business, and you could be looking at a perfect storm for business owners. So in an attempt to help them out, she enlisted guest author Tensie Homan, a CPA, to offer Five Tips for Selling Your Business.
     
     Next we move on to smaller, more compact matters. According to Amy Blitchok at Modern Senior the recent release of AARP’s tablet, the RealPad, was a bit of a bust. So in her post Great Deals on Tablets for Seniors she offers some recommendations for the best affordable tablets that are perfect for seniors -- and people of any age or skill level -- who want to use a tablet to communicate with their families, share photos and check email.

     Laura Lee, aka the Midlife Crisis Queen, poses more philosophical questions. First of all, in How We Boomers Have Changed with Our Culture and the Music, she contrasts the "pathetically optimistic" tunes of our childhood with the grittier lyrics of more recent times, and wonders if our taste in music has evolved with our worldly wisdom.

     Then (to add insult to injury), she recently walked into a restaurant. The server immediately assumed she was there for the Senior Special, which left a bad taste in her mouth, and made her ponder Do I Really Look Like a Senior Now?

     Finally, on a more serious note, Kathy, at Smart Living, reveals that she is a former smoker in Why I'm a Grateful Quitter. "No I won’t pretend it was ever smart or healthy," she says, "but back when I was a smoker we didn’t think much about it." Yet she admits that every time she coughed she suspected there would be a price to pay.

     Kathy quit over 25 years ago. But her mom wasn't as lucky, and she paid for it with her life. That’s why today Kathy is a strong supporter of the Great American Smokeout and its theme “Quit Together. Win Together.” The smokeout event occurs every year on the third Thursday of November, which this year falls on November 20. As Kathy concludes, "I don’t regret much in my life but I do regret not being able to help my mother quit so we could both have won against this addiction together."

Friday, November 14, 2014

Always Finish What You Start

     On Wednesday it was sunny and in the 60s. Then last night B and I took our dog out for her evening walk . . . and it was snowing! Just the first flurries, but enough to signal that winter is coming.

     There's nothing like curling up with a book on a snowy night. And last night I started reading a new book. B and I always read for a while before we go to sleep, sometimes only for ten minutes, other times for half an hour or more. But we both find that reading a book is absolutely the best way to fall asleep.

      But last night I was having a bit of trouble -- not falling asleep. Something else. Let me explain.  

"What's that white stuff?" asks our fall scarecrow.
     Maybe this seems familiar to you. First, about two weeks ago a friend of mine -- the friend I call Peter -- gave me a book to read. "It's really interesting," he said. "I'd love to know what you think."

     The book is The Burn Palace, a novel by Stephen Dobyns. I'd never heard of this writer before, but he's written a couple of dozen books, so he's not exactly new. The book is a mystery that takes place in Rhode Island, and the problem is: I did not like this book at all. I got through to about page 200 before I thought about giving up on it completely. Then I thought, well, I'm halfway through, so I should finish it. Besides, Peter's going to want to know what I think, and I can't tell him if I don't even know what happens at the end.

     So I plowed on, day after day -- because I find that if you don't like a book it takes a lot longer to read. I felt like I was doing homework the whole time. But I'll be seeing Peter tonight at our monthly poker game, and I know he'll ask me about the book, so I had a deadline.

     I dutifully went back to the book, over and over, reading maybe 20 pages at a time before giving up again. Finally, on Wednesday, I forced myself to finish it. Done! But then, I thought, why do I feel like I have to finish a book if I don't like it? And what am I going to tell Peter (who obviously liked the book)?

     So anyway, last night I joyfully picked up another book. This time I wanted one I would actually like. I grabbed In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien, which was sitting on my son's bedroom bureau. It has an intriguing cover -- and I thought I'd read something by Tim O'Brien before, and liked it.

     I went into the bathroom, washed up, brushed my teeth, then slipped into bed. I showed the book to B. "Have you ever read this one?" I asked.

At least this one I will enjoy
     "Oh, yeah," she nodded.

     "Is it any good? I need something that will really hold my attention, something I can get lost in."

     "That should work," she replied. "It's a really riveting book."

     "I think I read something by Tim O'Brien before. Something about Vietnam, maybe?"

     "He had that other bestseller," she said. "I don't remember the name."

     I looked at the book cover. "It says he also wrote Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried."

     "The Things They Carried. I think that was on Vietnam. A big bestseller."

     So I opened the book and started reading. And . . . wait a second, this seems familiar. John Wade and his wife Kathy are on vacation in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. Wade has just lost the primary election for U. S. senator: "loser by a landslide" at age 41. Then there was a section called "Evidence" and his mother says, "He was always a secretive boy." And by about page 10, I realized I'd read the book before, only a couple of years ago.

     I don't know if that's ever happened to you. But boy, did that make me feel stupid.

     And yet, by now I had started the book. So I have to finish it!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Weekend to Remember

     For someone who claims he doesn't travel -- see last month's post  Why I Don't Like to Travel -- I seem to do a lot of traveling. Okay . . . in my defense, I usually don't go very far. My comfort zone is a couple of hundred miles, a three or four hour drive.

     Last weekend we journeyed to Lancaster, Pa. B has some family in the area, including her 98-year-old mother who lives in an assisted living facility. Lancaster, she tells me, has become a destination for many retirees because it has top-notch health facilities, a variety of independent and assisted living options, and a notably caring community.

     We didn't stay with her mother. We stayed in a very nice B & B a few miles outside of town. And I was surprised -- the place was full! Who would go to Lancaster, Pa. in November?

E. J. Bowman House Bed & Breakfast

      The area is a tourist destination for people who go to see the Amish riding in a horse and buggy. We didn't see any Amish on our long weekend, but we did see a few Mennonites (I think of them as Amish-lite). And we also saw a few other attractions. For example, there is a lot of history connected to the area. Lancaster was the capital of the Unites States for exactly one day during the Revolutionary War. It was also the hometown of a U. S. President . . . President James Buchanan, who is never considered among the best of the U. S. Presidents. But still, he was a President.


Home of James Buchanan, U. S President, 1857-61

     There's also a college on the edge of town. Franklin & Marshall is a small liberal arts college that's part of the Centennial Conference, which includes Swarthmore, Haverford, Johns Hopkins, Gettysburg, Bryn Mawr and a few others.


Kind of screams college campus, doesn't it?

    There's an historic downtown area with a theater and an arts hotel and a stadium for a minor league baseball team. I didn't take a photo of the baseball stadium (not very interesting), but I was very impressed with the train station.

One impressive train station ... and I like the bicycles

     An interesting thing, in my book, is how you can be walking along the city streets . . .


Street scene in the city

      . . . and then drive out just a few miles, and you're in the country, with corn fields all around. A corn field probably doesn't seem very exotic to most people. But I never see a corn field where I live. Any undeveloped land around where I live is covered with hills and woods, not farms and fields.


Recently plowed under

     Finally, I have to make one confession. Most people, when you ask them what their favorite store is, say Nordstrom's, or R.E.I., or something like that. My favorite store is the local convenience store. We have 7-11 and AM/PM, and they're both perfectly adequate as far as convenience stores go. But they don't hold a candle to Wa Wa, which you find in New Jersey and around Philadelphia. But even better than Wa Wa is Turkey Hill, and we ran across several of them around Lancaster. And, by the way, regular gas was selling for $2.93 a gallon. Now there's a trip worth making!

My favorite store, esp. when gas is $2.93!!

     

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Surprise in the Mailbox

     Sure, I'm interested in social issues and economic questions. But I'm not particularly interested in politics, because politics represent the advertising and public relations aspects of governing, focusing on deceptive messages, irrational appeals, oppositional research and negative labeling.

     In my opinion the Democrats are terrible. The Republicans are even worse.

     I'm also not particularly enamored with the current state of our economy -- the low wages, the lack of opportunity, the reliance on fossil fuels and other resources that will likely get all used up, but not before fouling our environment, choking our air and super heating the atmosphere.

     Nevertheless, I was very impressed when I went out to my mailbox on election day -- although not for the reason you might think.

     Our mail usually arrives in the afternoon. So on Tuesday, as usual, I took the dog out to our mailbox around 3 p.m. Sometimes the mail has been delivered by 3 p.m., sometimes not. (The dog doesn't care.) The mail hadn't yet arrived on Tuesday.

     Like everyone else, we've been receiving truckfuls of negative political ads in the mail, mostly oversized postcards with draconian messages about candidates who are STEALING MONEY FROM OUR SCHOOLS! (photo of crazed middle-aged white male with dollar bills hanging out of his pockets), politicians UNDER FEDERAL INVESTIGATION!! (black and white photo that looks like a mug shot), candidates with MONEY LAUNDERING MACHINES!!! (photo of $100 bill hanging from a clothesline).

     There are candidates who are GIVING AWAY OUR PARKLAND, who WON'T PROTECT OUR FAMILIES, who have VOTED TO RAISE PROPERTY TAXES, who are AGAINST THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE, who have RAISED THEIR OWN PAY, who are part of the WAR ON WOMEN.

     So anyway, I stopped back at our mailbox on Tuesday evening, as B and I were getting home after voting, and I saw yet another pile of junk mail crammed into our box. Oh jeez, I said to myself. Will these politicians ever stop? For Chrissakes, the election is over!

     I reached in, pulled out the pile of mail, stuck it under my arm, and brought it up to the house where I dumped it on the kitchen table. Wait a second, I thought. I didn't see the familiar dark, black, ghostly warnings of the negative political ads. Instead, the pile looked cheerful and colorful and happy. What's going on?

     So I reached down and spread out the mail on the table. No political ads at all. Not one! Instead I glimpsed green triangles and red splotches and bits of silver. Yes, what we had instead were at least a dozen catalogs featuring . . . Christmas items!

     So, yeah, by Dec. 25 we'll probably be just as sick of Christmas as we were of politics on Nov. 4. But I have to hand it to them. They are efficient! The switchover was timed perfectly. The very day of the election, the changeover from political advertisements to Christmas catalogs was accomplished seamlessly. No overlap. No wasted effort. Our capitalistic democracy in action!


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Can Medical Care Be Free?

     I'll start with a personal note. I recently made an appointment for my annual checkup and was told that if I wanted to see a physician's assistant, then the checkup would be free -- fully paid for by Medicare -- but if I wanted to have the checkup with my doctor, then it would cost me $185.

     Would my Medicare Advantage plan pay the $185? No. Medicare Advantage only applies when Medicare has already paid its share. If Medicare doesn't pay, then Medicare Advantage doesn't pay. So, if I want a checkup with the doctor, I have to pay $185.

     At first, I was appalled. I thought medical insurers want us to focus on prevention, which is what an annual exam is all about, because prevention costs less than treatment. And my doctor knows me a lot better than a physician's assistant who's never even seen me before. So I feel like I'm trying to do the right thing, yet am being penalized for it (although I do not know if this policy is set by Medicare, or somehow set by my medical group).

     But I recalled a conversation I had with a friend of mine recently. Honestly, I wouldn't want to trade places with him. His wife has Parkinson's and a few other medical issues. He has a family history of heart problems, and has been wearing a pacemaker for several years now.

     Last spring he went into the hospital to have his pacemaker replaced. He was complaining about the bill. He said the original bill came to $135,000 for the procedure. His insurance company (he's not yet on Medicare; he still has medical insurance through work) negotiated the fee down to $70,000. Then the insurance company paid $63,000, or 90 percent.

     So my friend got billed for the $7,000 balance. He refused to pay it. In his view, if the insurance company was only going to pay $63,000, then it should have negotiated a $63,000 price. Why should he be stuck in the middle?

     Now, mind you, my friend could afford to pay $7,000. He's a lawyer. He's not rich, but he makes a good salary (even though, at age 66, he's scaled back his working hours). Anyway, his pay is at least good enough for him to own a second home in Florida and drive an Infinity.

     But I could see, he really didn't think it was fair for him to have to pay $7,000 for his pacemaker. Then he revealed that the hospital is now suing him for the money. And he expects to turn around and sue his insurance company.

     Now, put aside the fact that he's a lawyer and is more familiar with the court system than most of us. He's disputing the bill his way. But I wonder if I was in his position, would I dispute the bill? I'd do it my own way -- probably call them up and plead poverty and try to settle for a lower amount -- but would I be right in trying to get out of paying that $7,000?

     Then I read a story in the NY Times called "Unable to Meet the Deductible or the Doctor." A woman got insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but the policy has a $6,000 deductible. (By comparison, according to a survey by the Kaiser Foundation the average deductible for individual coverage in employer-sponsored plans is $1,217.) She had a brain aneurysm in 2011. Now she's supposed to get a brain scan every year. But according to the report, she skipped the brain scan this year -- because she'd have to pay for it herself, since she's responsible for her first $6,000 of medical bills.

     The idea behind a high-deductible plan is that it protects people from going bankrupt if they get a severe illness. But it leaves them on their own for less-than-catastrophic situations. And in many cases, people will simply skip the care they need, because it costs money. Sometimes they can't afford it at all; sometimes they can afford it but it would cause some hardship; and sometimes they just don't feel like they should have to pay.

     The Times story cites another woman who has a plan with a $1,000 deductible. She avoided going to the doctor for an ear infection, because she'd have to pay for it herself. Another person was "shocked" when they were billed "over $1,000" for an emergency room visit. And the list goes on.

     No one expects doctors and nurses and medical technicians to work for free, do they? And all that machinery costs a lot of money. We're not outraged when we have to pay our rent, or use our own money to buy a car or go to the grocery store -- all expenses that are just as necessary as accessing medical care. So why are we outraged when we have to pay a few hundred, or even a few thousand dollars to save our lives, or extend our lives, or alleviate excruciating pain?

     One problem with medical bills is that they are so arbitrary, so random, so completely out of our control . . . and so ridiculously high that they seem unreal. It's like funny money.

     I don't know the answer. But I'm not so outraged anymore that I have to pay $185 to see my doctor. I just hope he doesn't find anything wrong with me . . . I'm not sure I can afford that!