Sunday, December 27, 2015

Just Asking a Question

     I was sitting in bed the other night reading Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, the 1999 Booker-prize-winning novel about a South African "communications" professor who leads a life that's pretty empty of meaning ... and pays a heavy price for it. There must have been something Coetzee wrote that triggered my curiosity.

     Whatever it was, it made me look up from my book, turn to B and ask, "So tell me what you think. If we went to sleep tonight and woke up 50 years from now, would we find that the country is better off than it is now, or worse off?

     She thought for a moment, then said ...

     Well, what do you think? Will all our problems be solved, or will we have a lot of the same problems, plus a bunch of new ones?

     B is not a cynic; she has a relatively sunny personality; she is not a negative thinker. But it didn't take her long to answer: "Worse off."

     I didn't say anything. I just went back to reading my book, and then fell asleep. But her response disturbed me. I admit I do not go around from day to day thinking deep thoughts, or worrying about the future. But I guess I just assume that we will solve the issues around global warming, energy and the environment. I believe that 50 years from now ISIS will be a history trivia question, that most people will be living longer and better lives. Am I being naive?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Seasons Greetings

    We are spending Christmas with B's family in Pennsylvania. We're staying at a bed & breakfast that is decorated wonderfully for the holidays.


    











     Our three days will be filled with eating, catching up, eating, exchanging presents, eating, listening to B's brother-in-law sing in a concert . . . and more eating.











     May your holiday bring you happiness, peace and togetherness.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Christmas Miracle

     As I reported in Weekend in New England, I lost my camera last week when we stopped off at a Christmas tree farm to cut our own tree. At some point while I was crawling around on the ground, first inspecting and then cutting a tree, my camera must have fallen out of the pocket of my coat.

     I discovered it was missing when we stopped for a cup of hot cider. I rummaged through all my pockets. B checked her pockets, just in case I somehow gave it to her for safekeeping. We trudged back up the hill and searched through the trees, brushed over the ground, peered along the path. All to no avail.

     It was a long shot anyway. You couldn't expect to find your camera that you dropped "somewhere" up on a hill crowded with Christmas trees and a couple of hundred would-be lumberjacks. Yes, I left my name and number at the office, just in case, but I knew it was nothing but a desperate move.

Then ...
     Unfortunately, this is nothing new to me. In the summer of 2014 I lost another camera while we were vacationing on Cape Cod. But that time I was lucky. A few weeks later, as I reported in Look What I Found! I brought our car in for a wash, and the guys found the camera . . . somewhere amidst the cracks and crevices of the car.

     And so to the "Christmas miracle." The day before yesterday our telephone rang. (Yes, we still have a land line.) It was a woman from the Christmas tree farm. Someone had turned in a camera. Was it mine?

     "A Canon Powershot?" I asked.

     "Yes, that's right."

And now
     "The last photos on the camera would be of some of your Christmas trees."

     "You've got it," the woman replied. "I can't mail it to you, but you can come by and pick it up anytime. We're open every day."

     And so yesterday B and I drove up to the Christmas tree farm, picked up my camera, drank another cup of cider, and stopped at the mall on the way home. We were in a very generous mood and so we bought lots of presents. (Besides, this year at least, everything is on sale.) We wanted to pass on our good fortune to our loved ones.

    

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

I am NOT Bald!

     We have a running controversy in our household. For some strange reason, B has developed this crazy theory -- based on false assumptions, unsubstantiated observations and non-peer-reviewed research -- that I am getting bald.

     I mean, it's just so obvious that she's wrong. I look in the mirror and what do I see? Hair! And if I look in the mirror, quickly, right after I get out of the shower and it's still wet, the hair doesn't even look all that gray. In fact, it looks pretty dark.

     Okay, after my hair gets dry, I'll admit, it's pretty gray. Even white. It's hard to tell. So let's just call it . . . silver.

     But there's still plenty of it, at least when I look at it from the front.

     There is one thing that puzzles me though. My forehead is bigger than it used to be. I figure it must be an optical illusion.

     When I went to the dermatologist last week, I noticed a brochure about frown marks. The cover of the brochure showed three women, one with mild frown marks, another with moderate frown marks, and still another with severe frown marks. Well, as soon as I saw that I had to inspect myself in the mirror. And I noticed, I don't have any frown marks at all! Instead, I have horizontal lines going across my face, right above my eyebrows. Which, obviously, make my forehead look higher than it did before.

     Nevertheless, B still insists that I'm going bald. And aside from the fact that she's obviously wrong -- delusional I would say -- what really bothers me about the situation is that she seems to derive some pleasure from her perception that I'm losing my hair.

     Now, like I said, I am not losing any hair. But just suppose I was -- I know it happens to some men. Why would that make her smile? Why would that make her laugh? I just don't get it. She thinks it's funny when we go outdoors in the summer, and she insists on rubbing suntan lotion over the top of my head. I mean, why is she doing that? It makes my hair all greasy. And, what? Does she think my hair is going to get sunburned?

     It's true that the sun can bleach your hair. I guess that's the real reason why my hair is turning lighter in color. Which means . . . I'm not going gray, I'm just sun-bleached.

     Anyway, in a recent post I described how I have gone to the doctor way too many times this year. And, now I'm beginning to think it's because doctors don't know what they're doing. As I said, I recently went to the dermatologist, for a growth on my back which he took care of, no problem. But then, toward the end of the session, he was standing behind me when he gently pulled my head back, saying he wanted to check my scalp while he was at it.

     What, is this guy some kind of phrenologist? I wondered. Feeling my head to see if I'm a criminal, or to diagnose some mental malfunction because I have a bump here or a dent there? I shifted my eyes up, trying to see what he was doing. "What do you need to look at my head for?" I challenged.

     "Not to worry," he said. "I'm just checking your bald spot."
   

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Searching for Santa

     I don't know how many of you still believe in Santa Claus. I know I do. And it seems like a lot of baby boomers are . . . well, at least they're open to the possibility that he really exists.

     Why else would I be looking out my window as a I sit here and see a statue of Santa Claus standing in my neighbor's lawn across the street? My other neighbor, three houses down, also has a figure of Santa on the front lawn, along with his companion Mrs. Claus. I can't say where in the Scriptures it says that Santa Claus is married. But knowing what I know about men and women, I honestly don't think Santa Claus could have come up with the idea of Christmas all by himself.

     With that in mind, I have greetings to you from a baby boomer in the Arctic Circle. Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting doesn't explicitly say that she is searching for Santa Claus as she continues her sea journey along the Norwegian coast. But she does report that one unexpected addition to her itinerary included the opportunity to experience Norwegian socialized medicine. She describes the medical interlude and life aboard ship in Traveling Inside the Arctic Circle. And then, if you want to find out about how they treat border crossings in the north country, try her latest at I Can See Russia from My Bus Window!
 
     P. S. If anyone is looking for a Christmas gift for "the hub," perhaps we've got a hint here: a new pair of socks.

     Blogger Linda Myers of Thoughts from a Bag Lady in Waiting also has Christmas on her mind. Is she sending a letter to Santa? No, not exactly. Instead she writes her Holiday Letter from Tucson, in which she reflects on family, gardening, playgrounds and traveling. I don't know about you, but all those things would rate high on my Christmas list. 

      Meanwhile, blogger Laura Lee Carter sometimes thinks that Americans are the worst at doing nothing. We feel guilty if we're not producing something at all times. So she takes a lesson from the Italians in The Sweetness of Doing Nothing involving happiness, peace on earth, simplicity in our lives, and the joy of children singing  Her inner quietude might make us all yearn for the rural life amid the snowbound high country of Colorado.

     Rita Robison of the Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide offers no less than four posts focused on Christmas, warning us of hazards that consumers should look out for during the holidays and offering tips on gift cards and free shipping. And while I do not know what the consumer journalist is doing right now, today, I'm betting she's made a trip to the North Pole to test out the safety ratings of all of Santa's gifts and toys.

     Another baby boomer setting off on a journey is Kathy Gottberg of SmartLiving365, who clearly believes in Santa Claus and his folksy wisdom. How else could she do a post called 8 Smart Life Lessons from Santa?

     I'm not exactly sure where she's headed -- if you were searching for Santa, would you tell anyone exactly where you were going? -- but while she is gone she has invited a few of her friends to submit guest posts on her blog. This week there happens to be a very perspicacious post called "How to Age Gracefully" which, I hear, comes from a handsome young man who recently revealed that he lost his camera and has a wider than usual, but perfectly suitable bile duct. 

     Am I talking about Santa? Hmmm, you'll just have to sleigh over to SmartLiving365 to find out.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Am I a Hypochondriac?

     I went to the doctor yesterday. Everything is fine. I'm a perfectly healthy person for my age. So, I wondered, why is it that I've been going to the doctor so much lately? Am I a hypochondriac? Or is this just what happens when you get older?

     Because, even though there's "nothing wrong with me," I've been to the doctor ten times this year.

     My first visit was in May, for my annual skin check. I have a history of cancer in my family, and I've also had several pre-cancerous growths removed from my skin over the years, so the dermatologist wants to see me once a year. In May he checked me out, burned off (do they burn it off, or freeze it off?) one little growth from my head. Nothing to worry about, he assured me.

     A few weeks later, I experienced my episode of floaters, which I recounted in my post A Sign of Aging. I went to the ophthalmologist who checked my eyes. Floaters are normal, he said, but he was worried about a torn retina, so he told me to come back in a month. When I went back to him, he again peered into my eyes and said they looked good. But he was just a little worried about the flashes I was still seeing, so he had me schedule another appointment. Finally, on my third visit in September, he gave me the all clear. That was three visits to the eye doctor. And he didn't do anything except check me out. So, really, it turned out I didn't need to go to him at all.

     But even before I was finished with my floaters, one day I was startled to find a purple bulge on my arm. That got me scared, so I hurried over to our walk-in clinic. As I described in Don't Overdo the Pills, the doctor told me it was a burst blood vessel. Had I injured my arm? No. Had I been taking aspirin or Advil? Yes, I had. I'd been taking too much. So he told me to cut back on the aspirin. And, sure enough, that solved the problem.

     So that's five visits to the doctor, and the year was only half over.

     In August I started getting a little pain in my stomach. It was just a mild discomfort. But it wouldn't go away. So eventually, in October, I went to to see my primary care physician. He thought it was likely a muscle strain or something like that. He did some blood work. My blood was fine. But given my history, he wanted to make sure a tumor wasn't hiding in there somewhere. So he sent me for an ultrasound.

     The radiologist said I had gallstones. I didn't understand that, because the gallbladder is on your right side. My pain was on the left side. But when my primary care physician called me back he told me to make an appointment with the surgeon, for an assessment.

     So I went to the surgeon. She told me that she couldn't find my gallbladder. Some people don't have one, she explained, or mine could be shriveled up. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that my bile duct was too thick. It's supposed to be six millimeters wide. Mine was ten. That could mean a gallstone was blocking the duct. Or it could mean that a pre-cancerous polyp was blocking the duct. Or . . . it could be normal, since some people have a wide bile duct, especially if they don't have a gallbladder.

     She recommended I get an endoscopy. That's a procedure like a colonoscopy, except instead of looking at the lower digestive tract, the doctor goes through the mouth to see the upper digestive tract.

     So, next, I went for an assessment with the gastroenterologist, who agreed I should have an endoscopy. Then I went back again for the procedure.

     Is that what I did yesterday? Nope. I had the endoscopy on Dec. 1. That was my ninth doctor visit. The gastroenterologist couldn't find a gallbladder either. But he said my bile duct was fine. No polyp. He prescribed an over-the-counter anti-acid, in case I have acid reflux. But it seems that what I really have is . . . a muscle strain.

     A few days before I went for the endoscopy, B noticed a growth on my back. Now, she thinks I am a hypochondriac. But what did she say? You should get that checked out, she told me.

     So yesterday I went back to the dermatologist. He burned off -- or froze off -- the growth. It's nothing to worry about, he said. Some people have a predisposition for these things. I might get more of them as I get older. They are not pre-cancerous; but if they bother me I should come in and he'll take them off.

     That was my tenth visit. So . . . three weeks to go in 2015. I hope I can make it without an 11th. But please tell me, I'm not a hypochondriac, am I?

         

Monday, December 7, 2015

Weekend in New England

     B and I traveled up to Marblehead, Mass. to visit her brother and family this past weekend. They were singing in a Christmas concert with a community choral group, and on Saturday night we attended the performance in a beautiful old Congregational church.

     We spent the rest of the weekend taking in the sights of this historic town, located on a rocky peninsula on the North Shore about 20 miles from Boston. Marblehead was founded in 1629 -- remember, the Pilgrims only landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 -- and boasts many twisting, narrow streets and old historic buildings.

     We strolled through the King Hooper Mansion, home of the Marblehead Arts Association. Greenfield Hooper, a candlemaker, built the house in 1728. His son became a shipping merchant who was dubbed "King" Hooper by the local population for his wealth and benevolence (back when being a "king" was a good thing.)

     I took photos of the Hooper Mansion and some of the artwork inside, as well as a few other colonial buildings hugging the harbor. Unfortunately, those photos are not available.

     We also walked over to the Jeremiah Lee Mansion where we admired the many gingerbread houses cooked up for the Gingerbread Festival. There were ribbons in the children's and adult categories, as well as amateur and professional categories. I took several pictures, including one of the Best in Show which was an elaborate gingerbread-and-candy version of a Christmas village. Again, I'm sorry, I can't show you the photos.

     Jeremiah Lee was another wealthy merchant and shipowner who built his Georgian-style mansion in 1768. My sister-in-law was telling me it was the China trade that made Marblehead an important coastal town, and briefly turned nearby Salem into the largest city in the United States (where 20 people were executed for witchcraft in 1692). She maintained that the Marblehead merchants made their money importing goods from China. And maybe that's true. But I'm guessing a number of them were profiting from the slave trade.

     We also went to a craft fair at Abbott Hall, the historic town hall (sorry, no photos), and we took in a children's Christmas concert at Old Town Hall, built in 1727. The kids were cute as anything, all dressed up in their Christmas garb. But again, no pictures.

     So where are the photos?

     Well . . . on the way home on Sunday we stopped at a farm in Connecticut where you can cut your own Christmas tree. I brought my camera along to capture the scenery. We cut our tree, brought it down to the parking lot, and stopped for a cup of hot cider. And that was when I stuck my hand in my pocket and found it was empty. I searched all through my pockets. Nothing. I had lost my camera.

     I hate that. Don't you?

     Yes, we retraced our route and looked all around. I left my name and phone number in case someone finds it. But I don't hold out much hope.

     So here's a rather unexciting picture of the Christmas tree we cut and brought home, taken with my phone. We'll decorate it sometime later in the week. Meanwhile, now I know what to put on my Christmas list!


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Remember Him?

     He was born in Pittsburgh in August 1928. He did not have an easy childhood. His parents had immigrated from Ukraine -- his father in 1914 and his mother following later in 1921 -- and his father worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The family lived in a rowhouse in a working class section of the city.

     As a child he apparently contracted scarlet fever, which caused his skin to be blotchy for the rest of his life. He subsequently suffered a bout of Sydenham's chorea, also known as St. Vitus Dance, a disease that causes involuntary movements in the arms and legs. He had to stay home for extended periods of time, and while sitting there alone, he drew pictures and designs, and he listened to the radio and collected pictures of movie stars.

The Pittsburgh museum
     It's no surprise, then, that he was an outcast at school. And after his father died, when he was 13, he developed a strong bond with his mother -- he lived with her on and off, even as an adult after he became rich and famous.

     He graduated from high school in 1945 and went to Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie Mellon University) where he studied commercial art and was art director of the student magazine.

     After college he headed to New York, where he began a career as a designer for advertising and magazines. He was recognized for his whimsical ink drawings of shoes, and then he began designing promotional materials and album covers for various recording companies. He experimented in a number of different media, including printmaking techniques and silkscreens, often intentionally leaving mistakes or stray marks in his final works.

     He began to exhibit his paintings in galleries in New York and then Los Angeles. The artwork focused on everyday items and even commercial products, including Coke bottles, dollar bills, and also more controversial items such as electric chairs, mushroom-shaped clouds and police dogs. Then he went on to do portraits of celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali.

     Are you beginning to sense who this fellow was?

     In the early 1960s he founded his studio called The Factory, where he gathered together a loose group of avant-garde artists, including sculptors, filmmakers, actors, as well as writers like Truman Capote and Allen Ginsberg and musicians like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. The Factory also attracted assorted counterculture eccentrics, and became known as a place where people experimented with mind-altering drugs.

     He helped found and briefly managed a rock group called The Velvet Underground. He made a number of experimental films, including Kiss, a 50-minute silent movie showing nothing but people kissing. Sleep was a six hour film showing a friend of his sleeping, and Eat focused on another friend consuming a mushroom for 45 minutes. He also made a few slightly more mainstream movies such as a take on a Batman film and an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, as well as several more sexually explicit films including homoerotic films that played in New York porn theaters.

     Yet his most famous and prolific work came in painting, as he developed a reputation as the Pope of Pop. We're all familiar with his rendering of a Campbell's soup can, for example, and a banana, as well as his flowers, cats and ice-cream cones. He also did many self-portraits as well as memorable paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mao Zedong, Queen Elizabeth.

A PBS documentary on Warhol
     Andy Warhol was controversial from beginning to end; yet he remained a practicing Catholic and went to church for most of his life. In 1968, a radical feminist who favored doing away with all men shot Warhol at The Factory. Warhol was severely wounded and underwent emergency open-heart surgery. He suffered after-effects of his injuries for the rest of his life.

     After the shooting, security at The Factory was tightened and some said The Factory '60s were over. But Warhol kept on working, painting pictures, making movies, and starting the magazine Interview which featured long conversations with celebrities, musicians and artists.

     Warhol received his share of criticism from both traditional art critics as well as those who thought he was too commercial, too focused on celebrity ... and made too much money. But his legacy today is secure, as his works are displayed in top museums including the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and other venues around the world. He is also remembered for his famous 15-minutes-of-fame pronouncement: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

     Warhol died in 1987 of cardiac arrhythmia after gallbladder surgery. He was 58 years old. Today he is remembered not only for his artwork, but also in books and movies -- including the "revelation" in Men in Black 3 that he was an undercover MIB agent. In 2002 the U.S. Postal Service comemmorated a stamp in his honor. And today the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is the largest museum in the world devoted to a single artist.



Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Simple Question

     I have just one simple question. Maybe you think it's silly. But the question intrigues me ... and also stumps me. So I hope I get a few thoughtful or creative answers from some wise and venerable readers.

     The question is borrowed from Paul Auster's story "City of Glass," a mystery of sorts involving writer Daniel Quinn, aka William Wilson, aka Paul Auster, who tracks down a father who had imprisoned his son for years in a dark room, and who has now been released from prison. The father is a former professor who is likely insane and might presumably pose a risk to the son.

     The issue is posed by the father, who also holds himself out to be something of a philosopher, who thinks he has the answer to solve the problems of the world.

     We have the word umbrella, he poses. The word is a noun. It has a meaning that refers to something that's typically made out of a stick, with some collapsible metal spokes, covered with a waterproof cloth. We all know what an umbrella is. It has a function. It keeps us dry in the rain.

     Now, suppose the cloth is ripped off. We are left with just the stick and the spokes. The device doesn't work anymore. So the question is:  Is this thing still an umbrella? Or is it now something else?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

How Safe Are We?

     In the aftermath of police shootings of African Americans in several cities around the country, as well as terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, some people are beginning to question just how safe we are these days.

     I don't know about you, but I feel safer than ever. I remember living in New York City as a young man in the 1970s. My wife was mugged in the vestibule of our brownstone. I also recall a time when I was walking down West 88th Street, approaching three young guys hanging out by a streetlamp. It was dark, about 7 p.m. As I walked past I noticed one of them was holding a handgun down by his side. It was too late for me to turn around, so I just kept going, not making eye contact, trying to remain calm. But by blood pressure shot up by about a hundred points.

     Then there was another time I ran down the steps into the subway. It was in the morning; I was late for work. I was stopped cold when I saw three cops surrounding a black man who was lying on the platform. One of the cops had his knee in his back. Another held a gun to the guy's head.

     I don't live in New York City anymore. I haven't for years. But I do go visit occasionally, and now the people I see on the street are young, well-dressed, and innocently if eagerly going about their business. The Lower East Side used to be a slum. Now it's upper middle class. Brooklyn is obviously and pleasantly multicultural, and feels as safe as my neighborhood in the outer suburbs.

     The fact is, violent crimes in New York City rose throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s. They peaked at 212,000 violent crimes in 1990. They've been going down ever since. Last year the official report counted 75,000 violent crimes in New York.

     It's not just New York City. Nationally, violent crimes have followed a similar arc. They peaked in 1992 at almost 2 million. But by 2014 violent crimes in the U. S. had fallen to 1.2 million, even though there are plenty more people around today than there were in 1992.

     You're also safer in your car. The motor vehicle death rate peaked in 1969 at a little over 26 per hundred thousand population. Then seatbelts came in, and airbags, and stricter DUI enforcement. Today the motor vehicle death rate has been cut by more than half, to just over 10 per hundred thousand population.

     Then there's smoking and many other health hazards. The rates of lung cancer have leveled off and started to go down, because so many people have given up smoking. Now, if only we could do something about the rising obesity problem.

     Ultimately, the bottom line of life expectancy proves my point. And it's something to be thankful for, even if we don't always appreciate it.

     If you were a 60-year-old male in 1970, you could expect to live another 16 years. But if you're a 60-year-old man today, you can expect to be around for 21.5 more years. That's an extra 5.5 years. Females haven't gained quite as much, but they started out with better numbers. The life expectancy of a 60-year-old woman was 21 years. Now it's 24.5 years -- so women are still outpacing men by three years.

     And as far as terrorism goes, figures from CNN show that you are 400 times more likely to die from a fall than from a terrorist. So, of course, if you see something, you should say something. But be even more vigilant at home when you're negotiating the stairs or going to the bathroom.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Who Really Benefits from Charity?

     America is one of the most generous nations in the world. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) about 60 percent of Americans regularly engage in some kind of charitable activity, compared to 40 percent in other developed countries.

     A study from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that Americans donated some $358 billion last year, and most of it came not from corporations but from individuals and families. In addition, Americans spent 8 billion hours volunteering for charitable causes, ranging from church activities to political organizations to helping out neighbors and strangers.

     While Americans of all races and ages contribute their money and time, retirees are the ones who reach out the most. Some two thirds of retirees say that retirement is the best time to give back. Why? Because retirees have the extra time, and many also have the extra money. On average retirees are sitting on four times the net worth of their children in their 30s and 40s who are working and raising families, and so the result is that retirees account for some 40 percent of charitable giving.

     Last week the New York Times reported on the Purpose Prize, for Americans age 60 and over, created ten years ago by Encore.org, a nonprofit group focused on those "in midlife and beyond." The Purpose Prize is given to older people who do charitable work to improve their communities.

     This year six prizes, ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, were awarded, along with 41 "honorable mentions." One prize went to Jamal Joseph, 62, an ex-con who co-founded the Impact Repertory Theater in New York City.

     Joseph provides a safe place where young people can talk and write about how their lives are affected by bullying, gangs, violence and drugs. The participants learn ways to convert their experiences into dance, plays, poems and music. But the program is no comfortable liberal-arts type seminar. Participants first attend a three-month boot camp where they learn leadership skills, conflict resolution and time management. Then they do community service, participate in exercise programs, pledge to get good grades in school and keep daily journals.

     Another prize went to Belle Mickelson, 67, a science teacher turned Episcopal priest who lives in Cordova, Alaska. Her program, Dancing with the Spirit, aims to help rural children and connect them with their elders. She travels to remote villages in Alaska, and through music and art, helps teens develop confidence and cope with the adolescent depression that is often masked by alcohol and drug abuse.

     The Merrill Lynch/Age Wave survey also found one other benefit to charitable activities. They offer significant payback to the donors.

     Some 70 percent of retirees said contributing time and money makes them feel as though they are making a difference in other people's lives, which in turn makes them feel like they have a greater purpose in their own lives. Those surveyed also signaled that being generous provides a significant source of happiness -- more so, for example, than spending money on themselves.

     Retirees who are active in charities also have a stronger sense of purpose and higher self-esteem. They have lower rates of depression as well as lower blood pressure and lower mortality rates. So . . . it seems that those who lend the hand get just as much support as those who accept the hand.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's the 1940s Again

     I've mentioned before that B and I take ballroom dancing lessons. We go to an adult education class at a local middle school one evening a week during the school session. We also occasionally go to a dance held at an American Legion hall, or at a dance school, or very occasionally at a bar/restaurant that features a live band.

     Last weekend we went to a 1940s dance, sponsored every year by an army surplus store and held at a recreation center a few towns to the north of us.
 

     This is the third year we've gone to this dance. Each year commemorates a 70th anniversary. So last year the theme looked back to D-Day. This year the focus was on 1945 and the end of the war.

 

     After a buffet-style dinner the dance started out with the band playing The Star Spangled Banner. Then there was a moment of silence to honor those who served and to commemorate those who never came back. It seemed especially poignant this year because of the events in Paris just a few days ago. It makes you wonder, what are we dealing with now?


     Many of the people came to the dance in period costume -- which included a lot of military-type gear, since the dance was sponsored by an army-navy store. There were also some actual vets who arrived in real uniform.


     The band played hits from the 1940s, and everyone began to dance. As you might imagine, this event appeals mostly to an older crowd. As far as I could tell, there was no one at the dance who'd served in World War II -- they would, after all, be in their 90s. But one of the men in our party was born on V J Day, August 15, 1945.

     Most of us are rank amateurs; but a few really knew how to cut the rug.


      But the majority of people just came to have a good time, including the fellow in the kilt.


     I remember, when I was younger, I was almost always the last to leave a party. But B and I left early, because now we always leave early. Come 10 p.m., and it's our bedtime!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Think About It

     A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

     Do you have an answer? Most people come up with ten cents. It seems obvious, doesn't it? You don't have to do a lot of math.

     This problem is offered by Philip Tetlock in his book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. He offers this simple problem to illustrate one of his central tenets, that we all have two kinds of thinking. System 1 is automatic -- rapid-fire processes that we use all day long to read a book, walk down the street, decide to duck into a coffee shop. System 2 is the realm of conscious thought, when we stop and focus and try to figure something out.

     System 1 always comes first. It is fast and ready with an answer. System 2 is the critic. It looks at the evidence, breaks things down, analyzes what's really going on.

     So now that you know about System 2, is the answer ten cents correct? Ten cents feels right. But it is wrong.

     Here's another problem that Tetlock poses. How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

     Does the problem seem ridiculous? How would anyone know? Well, start using System 2. Here's a hint: There are about 2.7 million people living in Chicago.

     So how many pianos do you think are in Chicago? A piano is pretty expensive; and a piano wouldn't fit in most city apartments. Maybe one out of a hundred people? But then you have to add in pianos at schools and bars and concert halls. So, maybe two pianos per hundred people? That would give us 54,000 pianos in Chicago.

     How often are pianos tuned? Probably once a year on average. How many pianos can a piano tuner tune in a day? Maybe three or four? We don't know. That's a guess. The average person works about 225 days a year. So a piano tuner can tune somewhere between 675 and 900 pianos a year -- for an average of, let's say 800 pianos. If you have 54,000 tunings, and each tuner does 800, you simply divide 54,000 by 800, and you get 67 piano tuners.

     So how many piano tuners are actually in Chicago? About 70. (The exact number is elusive because of the inaccuracies of listings). So . . . not a bad guess.

     What's the point of all this? We make forecasts, based on incomplete information, pretty much all the time. When should we start our Social Security benefits? To answer that, we have to assess our current situation, estimate what our expenses are going to be, figure out the tax consequences, forecast how long we're going to live.

     If you're going to invest some of your IRA in a mutual fund, you need to forecast what will happen to the American economy over the next several years. If you're faced with a decision about going to college, or taking a new job, or moving to a new neighborhood, how do you decide if it's a good move without considering what the effects are going to be, without forecasting the future?

     Or if a politician is trying to sell you a program, whether it's constructing a wall or offering free college tuition, you need to make a judgement about whether it's credible or not. You can't do that with any accuracy by just making a snap judgment based on System 1. You have to engage System 2. Keep an open mind, consider the evidence, look at the arguments against the question at hand, and be ready to change your mind if your System 1 answer does not hold up to scrutiny. Changing your mind is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of intelligence.

     Or as Tetlock puts it, if you want to live in the real world, your beliefs are "hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be protected."

     Finally, the answer? Five cents. Right?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Do Something Different

     For those who were asking . . . my book, You Only Retire Once, is now available on amazon for kindle or other electronic device. Hope you find it informative and entertaining!

     But I'm here to tell you about something else. B and I spent this past weekend in Pennsylvania visiting her family. We decided to stop off and spend a day in Philadelphia on the way home. We toured through a couple of neighborhoods, including Fishtown where we had lunch at a coffee emporium called La Colombe.

     It turns out La Colombe is a small chain -- there are other restaurants in New York, Washington and Chicago -- but this one is housed in an old factory building, with ceilings about 30 feet high. Most of the diners were 20-something hipsters -- the only ones over 30, besides us, were a few women with long, gray tangled hair wearing flowing cotton dresses, and guys in jeans sporting bald spots and gray ponytails.

     We stayed at a Doubletree, right downtown, and were headed out to our usual sedate, mid-priced dinner when we saw, across the street at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, there was a show called So You Think You Can Dance.

     "It's a TV show, right?" I said to B.

     "Yeah, kind of like American Idol, except it's dancing," she offered.

     So you know we'd never seen this show; didn't know anything about it. The show is not to be confused with Dancing with the Stars, which we have seen a few times.

     Now, B and I do go dancing sometimes. We take ballroom lessons through adult education at our middle school. Our class consists of six gray-haired couples. About once a month we go to a dance at the American Legion. It's all very mild and proper.

     Anyway, we're standing on Broad Street in Philadelphia and I looked at B, and she looked at me, and then, as if by mutual understanding, we acted on a whim and stepped inside, just to see if there were any tickets available. And sure enough, we soon found ourselves in Row E, waiting for the action to begin, hoping that we didn't do something stupid and waste our money.

     This was completely uncharacteristic for us. We go to restaurants, movies and events where the other people, as we joke, are "in our demographic." But the people here were not over 60, like us. Most were under 40, many of them under 20.

     Now maybe some of you have followed So You Think You Can Dance on TV. The show just finished its 12th season. But we had no idea what to expect. Still, we couldn't help getting a little excited, because the Academy of Music holds 2,500 people, and it was full of enthusiastic, sometimes screaming fans. The music started and it was LOUD. But we got used to it, and we were charmed by the young men and women who came leaping and jumping and flying across the stage.

     We both liked Hailee Payne, a bleached-blonde Miley Cyrus look-alike who could do amazing things with her body. I liked Ja Ja, who looked like a cute girl-next-door type; but actually her background is the street, not the stage -- hip hop, not ballet.

     This is the live show that is touring the country, after the TV show finished up its contest in September. A young woman named Gaby Diaz was the winner. She did an impressive solo tap dance on the Philadelphia stage, along with all the other acrobatic routines.

     But it was a young man named Virgil Gadson who stole the show. He could dance with the best of them; he had a winning smile and his personality jumped off the stage. Virgil was the one who consistently got the most audience reaction. I was going to say applause. But applause was the least of it -- there was cheering, whistling, laughing, screaming.

     It was only after the show, as we all stood up to leave, that a man in the row behind us turned to the middle-age couple next to him and asked if they knew Virgil. Apparently their cheering had given them away. The woman replied that, yes, they were his parents. You must be so proud of him, I ventured. And they nodded, their broad grins widening even more.

     So we had a memorable time in Philadelphia, just because we took a chance and decided to do something we don't usually do, something beyond our comfort zone.

     This is not necessarily to recommend you run off to see So You Think You Can Dance. Just to go out and do something different for a change. Go ahead, take a little chance. You might like it.

     Here are Virgil and Ja Ja.




Sunday, November 8, 2015

Turning a New Page

     I have just published a book, You Only Retire Once, now available in paperback from amazon, and soon (I hope) also as an electronic version.

     The book is a collection of the "best and brightest" posts from Sightings Over Sixty, along with my most popular columns from U. S. News Retirement -- adapted, updated and organized into ten categories all focused specifically on retirement.

     What are some of the myths about retirement and aging? What do retiring baby boomers want, and what do they worry about? Do you have issues with your grown-up children? How do you get the most out of Social Security, and what are the pros and cons of long-term health insurance? How to lose weight. How to get a good night sleep. How to prevent Alzheimer's.

     We bloggers are familiar with a lot of these issues -- and I hope you'll be interested in exploring them further. And here's an idea:  You Only Retire Once could make the perfect Christmas gift for a spouse, relative or friend. It's just the right size, and just the right price at $11.50.

     But enough about me. Other bloggers have a few things going on this week as well. For example, Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting recently got to check off one item on her bucket list, which was spending several days touring Florence and Venice with three girlfriends. She was enthralled with the plumbing, so she snapped pictures of various toilets and flushing mechanisms now featured in Flushing Around Florence. Then she dove into the magical city of Venice, and posted highlights of her stay on Visiting Venice Italy.

     Linda Myers reports that she is confined to living indoors because of the November arrival of darkness and rain in the Pacific Northwest. In this week's post, called A Matter of Synchronicity, she relates a story about herself, her friends, and her mission with the homeless, all of which made her consider her spirituality, health, community, and other personal values.

     Meanwhile, Laura Lee Carter writes about the importance of Midlife Change -- which is one of the issues that eventually led her to Experience Living in a Passive Solar Home.

     And . . . get this report from Rita R. Robinson on the Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide: Paper Coupons Still Preferred, Even by Millennials. Of those surveyed, some 63 percent said they use coupons from newspapers, mailings and other paper products -- and even 18 - 24 year olds use paper coupons twice as often as any other method. Who would have thunk?!?

     Finally, in case you don't appreciate just how important your attitude is when it comes to retirement and aging, check out Kathy Gottberg and her post 9 Reasons Why What You Think About Aging Matters. One of those reasons:  "Believing that aging offers opportunities for continued growth, rather than a decline or social loss, results in better subjective health, higher income, less loneliness, and greater hope."

     Kathy also offers some helpful actions we can take to feel better about ourselves as we age which, according to research, could add another 7.5 years to our lives.

     And let's face it, if you're going to be around that long, you may need a guide to help you live life to the fullest, which brings me back to . . . well, remember, You Only Retire Once.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Remember Her?


     She made her true mark in the world when she took over the reins of a popular literary magazine. That was 50 years ago, in 1965. But by then she had already written a bestselling book that became a movie starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis.

     She was born in Arkansas in 1922. Her father headed the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission, and later won election to the Arkansas state legislature. He died in an elevator accident in 1932, and not too long after that his family -- his wife and two daughters -- moved to Los Angeles.

     After she graduated from high school, the family moved back east to Georgia, but she didn't last long in the conservative, slow-paced South. She turned around and headed back west, spending one college semester in Texas, then transferring to Woodbury Business College in Burbank, Calif.

     She graduated in 1941 and landed a job at the William Morris Talent Agency in Los Angeles. She then worked for the Music Corporation of America (MCA), then Jaffe Talent Agency. From there she got a job as a secretary at an ad agency. Her bosses soon recognized her writing talents and promoted her to copywriter. (Shades of Peggy Olsen on Mad Men?). She married film producer David Brown, and using her talents and her contacts, worked her way up to become a top copywriter in the advertising business.

     Still, for her, that was not enough. She had an idea, and in 1962 when she was 40 years old, she published a book urging young women to become financially independent and sexually liberated. She raised many eyebrows at the time by telling women it was okay to have sex before marriage, or even without marriage.

     The book, Sex and the Single Girl, sold 2 million copies within the first few weeks. It quickly mounted all the bestseller lists and stayed there for over  a year. The book offered advice on fashion, fitness, entertaining, cosmetics ... and how to have an affair. She also detailed her "Twelve rules for squirming, worming, inching, and pinching your way to the top."

     Just as fame and fortune from the book began to crest, she took the job as editor-in-chief of an oldline literary magazine that was struggling and looking for a new direction. And the magazine sure did get a new lease on life when Helen Gurley Brown took over and recast it as a lively and sexually explicit guide for modern young women.

     Maybe I don't have to tell you any more about the magazine, maybe you know more than I do. How many of you will admit to reading Cosmo as a young woman? But the point is, Brown revamped the monthly magazine along the lines of her bestselling book. She featured articles that spoke frankly about sex and relationships, and she developed an image for the magazine and her readers that she called the Cosmo Girl -- a young woman who was "self-made, sexual and supremely ambitious," as described by New York Times.

     Many people credited Brown with helping women to reconsider their role in society, and empowering women to take control of their lives. But Brown's views were controversial -- not just with uptight conservatives, but with some feminists as well. They felt her approach went no further than an adolescent sexual fantasy, that it still left young women defining themselves as sexual objects in a male-dominated world.

     In 1997, at age 75, Brown was ousted as editor of Cosmo, and "kicked upstairs" to a job at the parent company; although she remained editor of the interantional editions of the magazine.

     Helen Gurley Brown died in 2012, but not before winning several media awards, founding the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University, and being selected as one of the most powerful women in the world.

     Where she is now, nobody knows. For as Brown once quipped, "Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

News on Medicare and Social Security

     Last week's agreement on the federal budget brought two new developments for retirees -- one about Medicare, the other on Social Security.

     According to a report in the Washington Post, the premium increases for some Medicare customers will not be as punishing as previously reported (see my Oct. 13 post Who Pays More for Medicare).

     Under the first proposed plan, most people who do not have their Medicare premium deducted from their Social Security benefit would have seen a 52 percent increase in their premium for Medicare Part B, from $104.90 to $159.30. (The exception: individuals making over $85,000 a year, or couples making over $170,000 a year, who pay more.) Medicare recipients who do have their premiums deducted from their Social Security payment were "held harmless" -- in other words, they were protected from any increase at all.

     The reason for the disparity: a federal rule says that Medicare rates in a given year cannot increase more than Social Security checks. Since Social Security benefits are not going up next year (because inflation is judged to be zero) Medicare charges cannot go up. That meant people who are on Medicare, but who do not receive Social Security, had to pick up the difference. That would have punished approximately 16 million people, or 30 percent of Medicare recipients, with the 52-percent increase..

     The new agreement still holds harmless anyone who has Medicare deducted from their Social Security. But it limits the increase for the rest to some 17 percent, raising their premium from $104.90 to about $123 per month. The extra money to cover the difference will come from "a loan from the U.S. Treasury to the Medicare trust fund." The loan will presumably be paid back over five years with a $3 per month "surcharge" embedded in the new premiums.

     Please don't ask me to explain any further details, because I do not have the wherewithal to dig deep into the weeds of Medicare financing. Do any of us? But personally, as one of the 16 million, I do appreciate the financial shenanigans that will save me $30-some per month next year.

     And speaking of shenanigans, the New York Times reported yesterday that the federal budget deal also closes two "loopholes" in filing for Social Security. One is called the "file and suspend" strategy. This maneuver allowed two-income married couples to boost their benefits. One spouse would file for benefits, then immediately suspend them, allowing them to collect while the spouse's benefits continued to grow at the Social Security rate of about 8 percent a year.

     The other loophole was known as "restricted application." This allowed married people who reach full retirement age (66 for most of us) to collect a spousal benefit while their own benefits continued to increase -- again, at the 8 percent rate.

     Starting in 2016 filers will no longer be able to utilize these strategies. But don't worry. If you took advantage of either of these methods in the past you will be grandfathered in. Apparently, there aren't that many -- something less than 1 percent of Social Security recipients used one of these strategies to boost their benefits. But, presumably, it will save the Social Security system billions of dollars in future obligations. And, assuming the file-and-suspend people were not the neediest among us, that's probably not a bad thing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How to Age Gracefully

     Let's face it, soon or later we all get old, assuming we're still around at all. There's nothing we can do about it -- except maybe try to do it with some class, and not burden ourselves or our loved ones with all the consequences and complications.

     It doesn't matter if we're 55 or 75. We can still approach our senior years with some style and grace. Here are a few suggestions that have occurred to me. Maybe you have others.

     First of all, we've already heard all the jokes about colonoscopies, senior moments and midnight bathroom breaks. We're not going to add anything new, so let's just skip on to other things -- topics that don't so indelibly stamp us as an old geezer. Sure, other people may share your health issue and want some information. But let's not dwell on infirmities and disabilities. There must be other things in our lives to talk about-- the books we've read, the movies we've seen, the places we've been, the plans we're making.

     Also, let's try not to harbor regrets or grudges. Are you still pining for an old boyfriend, or feeling disappointed because you didn't get into your first-choice college -- or didn't go to college at all? Are you holding a grudge against a colleague who was once promoted over you, or regretting an opportunity you were too dumb to take? There's nothing we can do about it now, so let it go. And we shouldn't feel that we have to keep our old mistakes a deep, dark secret. Talk about them. Share them with friends. Even Frank Sinatra had a few regrets. We might even find humor in what we once thought was an embarrassing or humiliating episode.

     The days of office parties, long lunches and business trips with people we don't even like are over. We have no more obligations, except perhaps to your family -- so we shouldn't feel as if we have to accept a dinner invitation from a boring neighbor. We should be able to socialize with people who make us happy. Go where we want to go, as the old song goes, do what we want to do.

     Along the same lines, we often read retirement advice urging us to stay productive, chalk up more achievements. That's great, if you're motivated in that direction. But many of us feel we've been doing that for 40 years -- and now we want to kick back and enjoy life. What's the point of retiring if you have to get up early, rush off someplace where you might not want to go, and then stumble home at night tired and exhausted and stressed out? Some retirees only want to sit around the kitchen table and read the newspaper, then lie around the backyard an watch the clouds drift by. There's nothing wrong with that!

     Our days of trying to impress others, trying to keep up with the Joneses, should be long gone by now. If you want to start an exercise program, or a diet, or zen meditation, do it because you want to, not because a friend or neighbor is pressuring you into it. There are lots of reasons to eat right, exercise regularly and challenge your mind. But we should do it only if it makes us feel better, not because we think we'll fit in better. In other words, be yourself. If you want to let your hair go gray, who cares? If you don't want to wear a tie anymore . . . hey, there's no dress code for retirement!

     Finally, in retirement I think we should all be able to look ourselves in the mirror -- and like what we see. When we were young we might have wanted to look like a movie star or an NFL quarterback. But now, guess what? You're not a movie star. You're not a quarterback. So we can finally become comfortable looking like ourselves. That's not to say we shouldn't try to look our best -- but it's our best, not someone else's idea of what looks acceptable. A few lines on the face give us character. Age spots show maturity. Gray hair proves we've got some gravitas.

     You should listen to me. Because all I've got is gravitas!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

How Deep Is the Well of Compassion?

     Does a person who has experienced personal difficulties develop more sympathy for others, or does the very fact of surmounting those difficulties make a person less sympathetic toward people in a similar situation?

     That was the question asked in the New York Times last week by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. In an article called "The Funny Thing About Adversity" he analyses the varying and sometimes unpredictable human reactions to adversity.

     Think of the stereotypical self-made man or woman. They often think that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, so other people should be able to do the same, if only they worked harder or studied more or had more self-discipline. Or consider the abused child, who then as an adult goes on to abuse their own children. But then think of the person who's survived a serious illness. They often join a support group, help others get treatment, raise money for the cause.

     Are some people just naturally more sympathetic, while others are hard-hearted and self-absorbed?

     No, says DeSteno. The answer is not in our hearts so much as it's in our self-interest. "Compassion isn't as purely selfless as it might seem," he concludes after years of study. While it might, in part, be a genuine response to the suffering of others, "It is also a strategy for regaining your own footing -- for resilience in the face of trauma. After all, having strong social relationships is one of the best predictors of psychological well-being, and so anything that enhances your bonds with others -- like expressing compassion for them -- makes you more resilient."

     He and a colleague conducted several experiments, and they concluded in general people who experienced adversity in life -- who were a victim of violence or a natural disaster, or who lost a loved one -- were more likely to empathize with others in trouble. They felt more compassion for victims, and donated more money or were more likely to help out victims.

     The wrinkle in the equation comes when people encounter someone who has suffered the exact same hardship as they did. Then they show less compassion. Why? According to DeSteno the answer is because people remember their past problems with a fuzzy lens. The problems are recalled as less distressing than they actually were. And therefore people don't appreciate just how difficult the challenge is for other people.

     So, for example, people who had been bullied earlier in life felt less compassion for the victims of bullying -- although they felt more compassion for the unemployed. Meanwhile, people who had previously gone through a period of unemployment felt less sympathy for people currently unemployed, but felt plenty of compassion for victims of bullying.

     What do you think about this? Does it make sense?

     In my case, I have a history of cancer in my family. Both my parents died of cancer; but they were old. My older brother died of cancer in 1964, when he was 23 years old.

     One of my daughter's best friends came down with the same kind of cancer when she was in college. But now, almost 50 years later, the friend was cured. At first, I found myself resenting this girl. It just wasn't fair. Then one day my daughter brought her friend over to the house. I saw how the girl had lost weight and was wearing a wig to cover her bald head. And I didn't resent her anymore. I felt sympathy and compassion.

     Even so, to this day, when I hear of an acquaintance who gets some kind of cancer, my first reaction is relief. Better them than me. Like the soldier whose comrade gets shot, and feels relief that it wasn't him. But then, when I face the reality, I feel plenty of compassion. Which is why I try to do the cancer walk every year.

     There's another element to it, I think. The closer to home the problem, the more it disturbs us. If someone we know in town dies, it's sad. If someone in our own family dies it's devastating. But when a hundred people are blown up in Africa or the Middle East, we may not even hear about it, and if we do, it perhaps only registers as a sad shake of the head.

     Maybe there's only so much compassion to go around. Still, I think we all need more of it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lessons Learned from the 1950s


     Recently I've been reading some history about the 1950s, including the exhaustive book The Fifties by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. We lived in a different world back then, when we were kids and cars had fins, men went off to work, women stayed home, and children were not chided not for texting too much but for watching too much TV.

     Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice some of the themes running through that decade more than a half century ago are still relevant in 2015 . . .

     For example, today we're all encouraged to "to our own thing" and "follow our bliss." But Halberstam reminds us about Alfred Kinsey, an entomologist who transformed himself into a sex researcher. He was criticized by conservatives and liberals alike, until he was forced to give up his teaching job and lost financial support for his research from the Rockefeller Foundation. Through it all Kinsey believed he was doing something important and he kept on conducting his studies.

     He lived in Bloomington, Ind., where he tended his garden, helped raise his children and was married to the same woman for over 30 years. Ultimately his work was recognized. The Kinsey Reports were bestselling books, and despite some later criticism of his methods, his work won him high regard among many in the scientific community. The lesson? You must believe in yourself before others will believe in you.

     Similarly, today, we're all products of self-help promoters and self-actualization preachers who encourage us to be all we can be, to not just talk-the-talk, but walk-the-walk. Reach for the stars, we're told, and even if you fail, you'll reach the moon.

     Back in the 1950s entrepreneurs like William Levitt, Kemmons Wilson and Ray Kroc all made their fortunes, sometimes in the face of critics who berated them, because they felt confident betting on the future of America. Today Jeff Bezos and Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are doing the same thing. It's just that instead of building houses, motels and hamburger stands, the new entrepreneurs are building out the internet -- but they're still plenty optimistic about the future of the American consumer.

     Today we hear both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as well as half the American public, complain about media bias. But media bias is nothing new. The 1950s saw the usual East coast liberal bias in the voice of Edward R. Murrow on CBS and from the pages of the New York Times.

     But, according to David Halberstam, Time magazine under Henry Luce was the unofficial mouthpiece of the Republican party, and flagrant media bias came from the Chicago Tribune under publisher Robert McCormick. The newspaper was the FOX news of its day, opposing the New Deal, pushing post-war isolationism, supporting the anticommunism of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Also, as TV took over from print, people began to realize that news in the media was becoming less about actual news, and more about its entertainment value -- a trend that continues today, ad absurdum.

     Also, the 1950s remind us that fighting over politics is as American as apple pie. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public school violated the 14th Amendment. Thus began the long, contentious and sometimes violent march toward desegregation. The idea of feminism was being born, and the Beat generation foretold the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s.

     Meanwhile, in what might have been a precursor to Vietnam, America was pulled into the Korean war, with some people even advocating the use of atomic weapons, until Gen. MacArthur was fired and an uneasy stalemate was reached that continues to this day. The Cold War was gathering urgency, and Joseph McCarthy tore the nation apart with his accusations of communist activities in government and the arts. All this makes our current battles over health care, gun control, Afghanistan and the Middle East seem like just another, rather mild chapter in the ongoing American debate about policies and politics.
  
     And finally, in the 1950s, with people fleeing to the suburbs, it did not pay to invest in inner-city real estate, nor was it profitable to buy stock in railroads, steel or textiles. The "next big thing" at the time -- the investments that were to make money -- were in packaged goods companies that sold products to the parents of the Baby Boomers; in car companies that rolled out new models every year; in office product companies like Xerox and IBM.

     Similarly, today you don't want to invest in declining industries like automobiles, chemicals, media, or old-line department stores like Sears or J.C. Penny. You're better off focusing on the future, in the form of technology and the internet -- or perhaps betting on those same Baby Boomers by investing in finance, insurance and health care, or in inner city real estate as their hipster kids move back into the city.

     The French have a phrase for it, don't they? Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

   

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dressed for the Occasion

     Jerry Seinfeld has a comedy bit about how men wear the same clothes for most of their lives. Whatever they were wearing when they were in their 30s -- that's the style they wear for the rest of their lives.

     It was certainly true of my dad. He started his career in the late 1930s. He worked in an office. By the time I came along he was wearing his 1940s-style suit with wide lapels. He had a white shirt, oxford shoes and fedora hat.

     I remember he used to pay me 10 cents to shine his shoes. I would watch him shave in the morning, using a shaving brush and a mug of shaving soap. In the winter he wore a vest, complete with a pocket watch, with a thin chain draped across his stomach. And this was his style, right up until the day he retired in the mid-1980s.

     You can see the kind of clothes he wore if you watch a black-and-white movie from the 1940s. Or, maybe featured on Mad Men, which was channeling the 1950s, although I'm sure the Mad Men suits were cut with a little more style.

Standard fashion
     Then, after he retired to Florida in the mid-1980s, my dad adopted the leisure wear look that had been popular in the 1950s -- the Polo shirt, casual Polyester slacks and loud sports jacket. He never went so far as to wear the white shoes. Too flashy. But he did sometimes don a straw hat -- the kind Dick Van Dyke wore in Mary Poppins.

     My mother was marginally more up-to-date . . . but not by much. She never wore slacks, only a dress or skirt. And I remember she wore a hat in church. It was a big day (whenever that happened, sometime in the 1960s) when the ladies were no longer required to wear a hat in church. Horrors! But you'd never catch my mother in church with a bare head.

     I make fun of my parents, but in truth, I'm no different. As I confessed a few blog posts ago, I'm a man of the 1990s. I still wear my Dockers, my polo shirt -- my corporate casual dress shirt when I go out to a restaurant. For special occasions I still wear the navy blue blazer that I bought in the 1990s  (although B made me buy a new suit for her son's wedding last spring). And dress shoes for me? Penny loafers.

Fashion of the future
     At least I'm better than my friend Mike. He's recently retired, but when he was working he went to a lot of meetings, conferences, conventions and golf outings. His style of dress? Whatever they gave him for free at one of his meetings 10 or 20 years ago. Hats, shirts, jackets, umbrellas. He's a walking advertisement for corporate and government meetings from the last decade.

     But what has me worried is my son. He wears a black cap emblazoned with the word "Devil" across the front. He sports a hipster's short beard. He invariably dresses in skinny jeans and a black t-shirt with the name of a rock band on it --  "Bad Breeding," "Fight Like Apes," "Warm Brew," "Rat Fist," "Night Riots."

     Now, to be fair, my son is not quite 30 yet, and he is in the music business. Still, is he going to be wearing a "No Brain" or "Karma Killers" t-shirt 40 years from now when he goes in for his Medicare checkup?

    

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Who Pays More for Medicare?

     Medicare premiums are going up 52 percent next year. But only for 3 out of 10 people. The other 7 beneficiaries have no increase at all.

     Before you panic, here's the background. The experts have told us that we should wait as long as we can before signing up to take our Social Security benefits, even to age 70 if we can last that long.

     The idea is that the longer you wait, the bigger your monthly payment. You can start Social Security as early as age 62, but you take about a 25 percent pay cut compared to what you'd get at full retirement age, which for most of us is 66. Or you can hold off past your regular retirement age and collect a bonus. Every year you wait, up until age 70, you get almost 8 percent more in your check.

     Of course, you give up the income in the meantime; but still, an 8 percent raise every year. Where else can you get that?

     And then Social Security pulls a fast one on you.

     First of all, the government says there will be no increase in Social Security benefits next year. Benefits are tied to inflation; and the government claims there has been no inflation for 2015, so the increase for 2016 is zero.

     But medical costs have gone up, and Medicare needs more money. So, as reported in USA Today, as well as a follow-up article, here's what happens next year. Everybody who's already receiving Social Security benefits -- who has Medicare payments deducted directly from Social Security -- will be "held harmless" from an increase, because Social Security is not going up.

     But everyone else on Medicare will face premiums that will be raised high enough to make up the difference. Those are the people who will pay the 52 percent increase. That includes people on Medicare who have not yet signed up for Social Security, as well as anyone who first enrolls in Medicare next year. Altogether, about 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will pay the higher amount.

     So for example, if you're on Medicare and make less than $85,000 a year as an individual or $170,000 as a couple, you paid $104.90 this year for Part B of Medicare. For 2016 you will also pay $104.90.

     But if you've taken the so-called expert advice to delay Social Security, then your Medicare premium will jump from $104.90 to $159.30 -- for the 52 percent increase.

     There are a few ways to get around the increase, as outlined in this Kiplinger report. One way is to quick, sign up for Social Security before the end of October. But before you do, make sure you know what you're giving up, which is all those future 8 percent annual increases.

     So of course I'm one of the 30 percent. Am a sucker for not signing up for Social Security sooner? Well, here's what I'm trying to remember. The reason for the increase is because there's a mandate that premiums cover 25 percent of the actual cost of Medicare. Think about it. Those of us on Medicare only pay a quarter of the actual cost of our care.

     Even at $159 a month, we're still only paying a little more than a quarter of the cost of what the medical insurance should really be. If you'll still be paying $104.90, you're getting an even better bargain, paying less than 25 percent of the actual cost.

     So I can't complain (even though it sounds like I am). But as mystery writer Michael Connelly says, "Can't complain, because nobody listens."

     Here's a chart of 2016 premiums, courtesy of Medicare.gov, Boston College and USA Today: