Thursday, December 29, 2016

Happy Holidays from Our Worst President

     B and I are visiting family in Lancaster, Pa. We all got together for Christmas dinner and the exchanging of gifts. Then yesterday we were looking for something to do, so we drove over to Wheatland, the home of our 15th president James Buchanan.

The Lancaster Historical Society, next door to Wheatland
     We checked in at the Lancaster Historical Society, then walked down to the house itself. It is nice, but relatively modest, and the Christmas decorations were muted. Buchanan was a Presbyterian and apparently, at the time, they considered it inappropriate to celebrate the holiday with too much festivity.

     Buchanan was a Pennsylvania lawyer who ran for Congress, then became a U. S. Senator. He was named Secretary of State by President James Polk, then served as ambassador to the United Kingdom for Franklin Pierce. He came home to run for president in 1856.

     First he beat out incumbent Franklin Pierce and Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas for the Democratic nomination, then he won the presidency in a three-way race, defeating Republican John Fremont and the Know-Nothing candidate, former president Millard Fillmore.

We walked down to the mansion
     Buchanan was known as a "doughface," a Northerner with Southern sympathies. In the fiery years leading up to the Civil War he tried to maintain the peace between North and South, between abolitionists and slaveholders. Instead, he earned the enmity of both. He pushed for admitting Kansas as a slave state and secretly intervened in the infamous Dredd Scott case. The decision denied blacks the right of American citizenship and ruled that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories.

     The division between northern and southern Democrats allowed Republicans to take control of Congress in 1858. Buchanan had pledged not to run for re-election, and in 1860 Lincoln won in a four-man race against two competing Democrats and another candidate.

     Buchanan went back to Lancaster and lived out his days hosting dignitaries at Wheatland and defending his political legacy. He was the last president to be born in the 18th century, the only president from Pennsylvania, and the only president who was a lifelong bachelor. He is also consistently regarded as one of America's worst presidents for his failure to address the most important issue of his time.

The parlor, with a docent in period costume
     There were rumors that he was gay -- he roomed with a male friend in a Washington boardinghouse for ten years from 1834 to 1844. But the story goes that as a young man he was engaged to Ann Coleman, daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman. However, due to Buchanan's busy legal and political career, they were not able to spend much time together.

     Some people gossiped that Buchanan was only marrying Coleman for her money; others insinuated that he was seeing other women. In any case, in the fall of 1819 Coleman found out that Buchanan had stopped in to visit a friend's wife, and Coleman, suspecting the worst, called off the engagement.

     Soon after, on December 9, 1819, Coleman fell sick and died. Her doctor attributed her death to "hysteria," while others suspected she overdosed on laudanum, a form of opium, either by accident or on purpose. Heartbroken, Buchanan never courted another woman, and resolved to live out his days as a bachelor.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Useless Things We Know

     B and I were in New York City for the weekend and went to the Rubin Museum which features art from the Himalayas. I stopped by a meditation booth, sat in a comfortable chair and listened to the recording of wind from the Himalayas. I was supposed to meditate. Instead, for whatever reason, I started recalling the initials of the people I used to work with at a publishing company some 20 - 30 years ago. In the office we used to sign off on papers with our initials, rather than our names, and I could recall the initials of almost every person in my division.

    I reprimanded myself for not being able to meditate properly, for exhibiting such a shallow Western mind. And, besides, what possible good can knowing all those initials do for me now?

     Later, when I got home, I began to think of all the things I've learned over the years, all the skills I've developed, that are now outmoded, out-of-date, completely useless. I'm sure you've got plenty of your own.

     For example, how to drive a stick shift. Nobody drives a stick shift anymore . . . it's an odd car company that even makes a stick shift anymore.

     Or know what a Nash Rambler is?

     Why you're not supposed to light three cigarettes on the same match.

     How to carefully place the needle on a record player between the songs on an 33 rpm LP.

     How about writing cursive script? Those beautiful flowing f's and s's and r's. Gone the way of the do-do bird. My fourth-grade teacher was so proud of the penmanship she taught us, using those guidelines on the chalkboard for upper case, lower case and descending lines in the q's and g's.

     How to change a typewriter ribbon . . . or use whiteout.

     How to maneuver the rabbit ears to get the best reception. Do your kids even know what rabbit ears are?

     How to refill a fountain pen, or replace the cartridge in a cartridge pen.

     That there's such a thing as an electric blanket. (What ever happened to electric blankets, anyway?)

     Where Route 66 goes? And what it means.

     Who the "nattering nabobs of negativism" are, and who made the charge?

      Do you remember the name of William Randolph Hearst's sled in Citizen Kane? I do, for whatever good it does me.
    
    And the problem is, you simply can't get rid of useless information. How can I prove it? Okay, I bet you can fill in the blanks about what she was singing when you remember:

     There she was just a-walkin' down the street, singin' . . . .

     Snappin' her fingers and shufflin' her feet, singin' . . . . 

     She looked good (looked good), she looked fine (looked fine) and I nearly lost my mind.

     Before I knew it she was walkin' next to me, singin'. . . .

     So I close with another the bit of useless information I remember from Latin class: Quod Erat Demonstrandum.
    
    

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Blogging: Is It All About Me?

     Last night B had a few of her women friends over for a potluck Christmas dinner. This morning she was telling me about some of the conversations that went on over the egg casserole, broccoli quiche and spinach salad. And several bottles of wine.

     There's one woman in particular who annoyed her. "All she does is talk about herself," B complained.

     It reminded me of a post I did a few years ago, about one of the dangers of blogging. Are we just talking to ourselves?

     Last night, whenever anyone at the dinner table brought up a subject, any subject at all, this woman felt compelled to present her own experience with the subject at hand -- and if she didn't have any experience herself, she'd go on at length about her husband, her children or some other relative. All without the slightest regard for whether anyone else at the table was interested, without any empathy or connection to other people's experiences.

     Someone in the group mentioned that she'd had a knee operation. "Oh, well, let me tell you about my husband and his knee operation," she insisted. "He had his knee replaced. It was awful!" And on and on and on.

     It reminded me of how an old colleague of mine used to make fun of people who were too self-absorbed, too caught up in themselves. "Okay, enough about me," my colleague would say loudly, imitating the person and mocking them at the same time. "Let's talk about you now. So ... what do you think about me?"

     Does this relate at all to our own blogging? I've seen comments in the media making fun of bloggers, referring to them -- us -- as a narcissistic bunch of people who insist on posting to the Internet every little detail of our lives, and how wonderful our kids are and how cute our pets are, without any consideration whether or not anyone else in the world was interested in our lives, or our children or pets.

     It made me wonder:  Is this what we retired bloggers are doing -- we Baby Boomers, who are incessantly accused of being interested in only ourselves, and what we are doing and how we impact American life?

     I am not criticizing anyone (least of all myself -- eeegads!). And I am not fishing for reassurance or compliments about my own blog. (Who me? Fishing for compliments? Never!) But there's nothing wrong with a little self-examination every now and then. And it makes we wonder: How do we talk about the issues in our lives, our day-to-day concerns as well as our more fundamental issues, without falling into the quicksand of self-indulgence? How do we include other people in our conversations? How do we keep ourselves relevant as we talk about our families, our ailments, our travels, our finances, our politics?

     The bloggers I know hardly ever talk about their kids. We do hear about people's travels -- but I like reading about trips to Hawaii and Ireland and Thailand and elsewhere (although they do make me envious). I actually don't think the important thing is the subject matter itself, but the way it's handled. Can other people relate to the experience, or are we just bragging about what we've done?

     What about nostalgia? Can we delve into the morass of nostalgia, or are we being self-indulgent Baby Boomers if we do that? I dunno. I like the occasional trip down memory lane. Don't you enjoy listening to Sinatra or The Beatles or Jim Morrison every once in a while?

     Anyhooo ... B told me I didn't have to leave the house when her friends came over last night. "These women are not as raucous as my book group," she assured me.

     Nevertheless, I didn't want to be holed up in the bedroom, in our little one-bedroom condo, while all these women were talking and laughing and eating and having a good time. So I went out to a movie. I saw Arrival with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

     But I'm not going to tell you if I liked it. I don't want to be self-indulgent.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Love, Love, Love

     B and I made the trip into New York City over the weekend to see Love, Love, Love, billed as an "intricate, funny and deeply intelligent play." I'm not sure I quite agree with that, but anyway, it's a play about Baby Boomers, taking its name from the opening line of The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love."

     And it brings up the question: Do Baby Boomers love themselves, at the expense of everyone else?

     Act one takes place in the summer of 1967. Kenneth is a freewheeling college student spending the summer loafing around his older brother's apartment in London. The earnest older brother, Henry, has a job, his own flat, and is hoping to have a girlfriend in Sandra, who is coming over to his place tonight.

     Henry is trying to get rid of Kenneth, but Kenneth outwits his dour brother at every turn. Sandra arrives and soon falls for Kenneth, throwing over Henry for his more playful younger brother. She excuses her move, saying everyone needs to be free, to follow their own desires -- "Young people, our age, we're in the moment," she coos -- and besides, Henry will get over it soon enough.

     In act two it is 20 years later and the two kids who believed in free love have now grown up. Sandra and Kenneth are married with two teenage children of their own -- who they evidently neglect in pursuit of their own dreams. It's the daughter's birthday. But Kenneth doesn't even know how old she is, and Sandra, with her high-powered job in London, is too busy to attend her daughter's violin concert. Nevertheless, Sandra insists that everyone have birthday cake, whether they want it or not.

     In act three it's 2010 and the daughter, now 37, bitterly complains that she has nothing in her life -- no career, no boyfriend, no home -- and blames it all on her parents. I won't tell you anymore, in case you ever want to go see the play. Suffice it to say that things work out just fine for Kenneth and Sandra. Not so much for everyone else.

     Of course, B and I thought the play presented a pretty broad indictment of Baby Boomers as selfish, narcissistic people who don't care who they hurt so long as they fulfill their own desires. Boomers are bad parents who were lucky to enjoy an economic boom, and who don't care, or even acknowledge, that their children are struggling to even approach their parents' lavish standard of living.

     Afterward, B and I decided that we, as Baby Boomers, actually sacrificed more for our children than our parents ever did for us. We paid more attention, spent more money, did more for them. Our parents just told us to go outside and play. We signed up our kids for piano lessons and swimming lessons, for summer camp and SAT courses. But . . . maybe we're just fooling ourselves? Or, maybe that's part of problem?

     Today CNN reported that in international student rankings, Americans scored 22nd in reading skills, and 39th in math, the lowest in years.

     And an article in the New York Times "The American Dream, Quantified at Last" cited a report from Stanford showing that the chances of someone earning as much as their parents have been declining for over half a century -- from 92% for people born in 1940 to 79% for people born in 1950 to barely 50% for those born in 1980.

     In other words, achieving the so-called American Dream, of doing better than our parents, was virtually guaranteed for those of us lucky enough to be born in the 1940s. But for our children, born in the 1980s, the road to prosperity has been filled with many more potholes.

     Of course, so much depends on the individual children, and the parents. But a rising tide lifts all boats, and presumably we enjoyed a rising tide, while our children do not. Or . . . maybe we should have just told our children to go outside and play?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Remember Pearl Harbor

     When I was in high school, back in the 1960s, our teachers would occasionally spring a surprise, unannounced quiz on us, just to see if we were keeping up on our homework and staying on top of the subject matter.

     We called these surprise quizzes Japs.

     I suppose that would be considered politically incorrect these days. But there was nothing quite like the rumor of an upcoming Jap quiz to recreate terror in the minds of high-school kids something like the horror of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago today.

     I don't mean to be politically incorrect -- we all know that the Japanese are our friends now, and they have sometimes bested the Americans in many ways from the economic to the academic. And I certainly don't mean to make light of the horrors of World War II which killed an estimated 60 million people -- more than any other conflict in history -- including some 400,000 Americans and 2.2 million Japanese.

     But I don't think people remember World War II quite the way we did in the '60s. Back then the war was much more recent history. We knew fathers and other relatives who'd actually fought in the war, and we were awash in books and movies about the War.

     To my kids, the War refers not to World War II, but to the Vietnam War -- the one they constantly heard about from their parents. But Vietnam, as scarring as it was, took much less of a toll compared to World War II. Some 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, and the total number killed, both North and South, is estimated at "only" about 3 million.

     The amazing thing is that it didn't take long for the Japanese and Americans to mend their wounds and develop into international friends. We've now become partners with Vietnam as well.

     Today we're embroiled in the Middle East. I wonder if the day will come when Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Israel, and all the others, as well as the United States, will lay down their arms and figure out a way to live peacefully with one another.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

6 Things Retirees Can't Afford

     The big day arrives, and we're off on that new adventure called retirement. Hopefully we've got our finances in order, and maybe some dreams of traveling the world or resettling in the Sunbelt.

     We are lucky to be able to retire. It's an opportunity not available to many others in the world and, except for the rich and famous, was never available here in America either, until well into the 20th century. The problem is, there are no guarantees that come with retirement. So as we go forward we should remember that there are a few things retirees simply cannot afford to do . . . and maybe you know a few others that I haven't identified here. 

     1)  We can't afford to ignore our finances. It doesn't matter how big our nest egg is or how generous our pension, we have to remember that we could easily live another 20 or 30 years -- all without a paycheck. We will inevitably go through a financial crisis or two, and perhaps another bout of inflation. The purchasing power of a pension that looks good today could dwindle if inflation returns. Ask your parents who lived through the 1970s and 80s. So we need to make sure our investments are diversified and our incomes derive from several sources, so if one asset runs into trouble the others will pick up the slack. 

     2)  We can't afford to ignore our health. This is right in front of our eyes, but sometimes we don't see it. As we get older, our bodies become less tolerant of injury and more susceptible to disease. An injury we could recover from in two weeks when we were in our 30s now takes two months -- or we may never fully heal at all. So we need to get our checkups, eat right, sleep well, avoid stressful situations and get some exercise. But don't be foolhardy. Say yes to walking, hiking, playing tennis or golf. But don't go skiing, skateboarding or skydiving unless you really know what you're doing. 

     3)  We can't afford to hold on to a large home. We like our suburban house with its backyard and tree-lined street. Perhaps we want to keep the old place so the kids will come home and show the place to the grandchildren. There may also be sentimental memories attached to the house. But again, remember that we now are getting older, and we are less able to clean and maintain a big three- or four-bedroom house, especially if it's showing its age and may need a new roof and new windows. We don't want to end up rattling around in a big old house that's falling down around our feet. 

     4)  We can't afford to skip planning ahead. Retirement is not a destination; it's a starting point and may involve some time for transition. Life goes on, and so we can't think that all our decisions have been made. Someone may need to plan ahead for their creaky knees or painful hip and live in a place with a bedroom on the first floor. Maybe a divorced child will want to come back to live at home, or perhaps there's a grandchild in the future (as there now is in ours). Our job is to look ahead, as best we can, and set ourselves up for the most likely possibilities. We're retired, but we still may have to adapt our lifestyle to new situations.

     5)  We can't afford to lose our friends. Many older people are lonely. They've lost some friends and others have moved away. The kids may be halfway across the country. So we can't just plan where we're going to live and what we're going to do. We have to figure out who we're going to do it with. So we can't be shy about signing up at the local senior center or trying out a new activity where we can meet new people, whether it's joining a card group or taking a dance class. If we're going to relocate, we need to consider where our friends are going and whether we want to join them. Also, we need to make sure to find a community that will welcome us as newcomers, whether it's a retirement mecca, an over-55 community, or (what we're looking for) just a neighborhood with lots of friendly people. 

     6)  We can't afford to take our family for granted. Our kids, or our siblings, may have been around so long that we assume they will always be there for us. But they can move away for a job or a new lifestyle. We need to make the effort to stay connected to family. Before anyone retires to Hawaii, Key West or another country, they should think about the family. And (as I keep reminding B), we shouldn't underestimate the pull of children and grandchildren. For most of us, they're worth sticking around for.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Remember Him?

     He died from cancer 15 years ago today, at the age of 58. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India, according to Hindu tradition. Surely you remember him, since we still hear his voice all the time.

     He was born in 1943, the youngest of four children, into a household that had no indoor toilet and relied for heat on a single coal fire. His father was a conductor on a bus and his mother worked in a shop. His mother was an enthusiastic music fan and was known for her loud singing voice, which at times startled visitors by rattling the windows in their apartment. Reportedly, when she was pregnant, she listened to the weekly broadcast of Radio India, hoping the mystical sounds of the sitar and tablas would bring peace and calm to her baby in the womb.

     Later on, the boy would become interested in transcendental meditation and Hindu philosophy, and he developed an association with the Hare Krishna movement. But first, he became interested in music, and in particular the guitar.

     His father bought him an acoustic guitar, and a friend taught him how to play. He listened to American jazz and rockabilly music. In 1956, while riding his bicycle, he heard Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" playing from a house, and that song set him on a course of rock 'n roll.

     Before long he had formed his own group with his brother, Peter, and a friend. Then one day on the school bus he met another avid guitar player, Paul McCartney, who was a year older than him. They quickly became friends, and McCartney introduced him to John Lennon. Soon after George Harrison -- for surely, you know by now this is George Harrison -- auditioned for their group called the Quarrymen.

     Harrison was not immediately invited to become part of the band. But he started hanging around with McCartney and Lennon, filling in from time to time, until he became a full-fledged member of the band. He quit school when he was just 16, worked for a bit at a local store, then joined the group on their first tour of Scotland in 1960.

     The rest, as they say, is history. Harrison played lead guitar for The Beatles, but wrote no songs, at least at first. Even later he had a hard time getting his songs on their albums, but eventually some of his work proved among Tthe Beatles most popular selections, including "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," and "Something" which is The Beatles second-most-covered song after "Yesterday."

     He developed an interest in Indian music in the mid-1960s and learned from Ravi Shankar how to play the sitar. As the 1970s dawned he learned the slide guitar and began to work with other musicians such as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and The Band. After The Beatles broke up, Harrison recorded All Things Must Pass, a triple album featuring his hit single "My Sweet Lord" that topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

     Harrison went on to organize the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, produce several more albums, and appear in a number of concerts. In 1988 he formed a new group, The Traveling Wilburys, with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. The group never performed live, but did record two albums.

     In 1997 Harrison was diagnosed with throat cancer, which he blamed on years of cigarette smoking and drug use. In 1999 a man broke into Harrison's palatial English home, called Friar Park, and attacked Harrison with a knife. His wife, Olivia, subdued the assailant by hitting him with a fireplace poker, but Harrison ended up in the hospital with some 40 stab wounds.

     In May 2001 his cancer came back, this time in his lungs, and then again in his brain. He died a few months later, on November 29, 2001, in Los Angeles. His final album was finished by Jeff Lynne and his son Dhani, and the notes featured a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: There never was a time when you or I did not exist. Nor will there be any future when we shall cease to be."

     The official George Harrison website offers plenty more information if you're interested, and also a link to a Spotify play list of Harrison originals. You can also find on youtube the 2002 Concert for George Harrison which features Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and a great version of Harrison's "A Horse to Water" by Sam Brown.

     Meanwhile, here's my favorite.



         

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What Did You Do Over Thanksgiving?

     We drove up to B's brother's house, outside of Boston, where . . . no, we didn't see any Pilgrims, but it did feel very Thanksgiving-like, with the scudding clouds, cold air and bare-fingered trees. We had dinner with her brother and his wife, their three children and nine grandchildren, then stayed overnight and left the next morning.

     On the way home we stopped for another night in Sturbridge, MA, which features Old Sturbridge Village, a re-creation of a New England village of the early 1800s.

     The docents are dressed in period costume. They do not play the role of their historical characters (like the guides at Plimouth Plantation, who speak in a 17th century dialect). But they do demonstrate some of their crafts, such as this woman who was carding wool.


     B got to try some carding (do you know what carding is?), while I went next door and viewed the loom and the spinning wheel.


     By the 1830s the factories and railroads were starting to transform the way things were done in New England. Still, if you wanted to go from Hartford to Worcester (about 65 miles) you'd get on a stagecoach and, making stops every 12 to 15 miles to change horses, arrive at your destination a mere 12 hours later.


     As you probably know, there were other aspects of 1800s life that lacked the creature comforts we enjoy today. No central heating. No indoor plumbing. We went into one small house, and noticing no bathroom, I asked the guide, "Oh, is there an outhouse?" She shook her head and pointed outside. "They used the trees over there behind the wood pile." I was aghast. "Really? Even the women?" She nodded. "Only the bigger houses had privies."

     We stopped at the bank, which was originally built in the 1830s and later moved here from Thompson, CT. There was no ATM. But there was a modest collection of old coins, a tiny wood-burning stove and a small but very formidable-looking safe.


     After carding, B made a candle; I looked at the old rifles and guns and then visited the printing house. I also was interested in the clock collection -- which has nothing to do with Sturbridge Village except the Wells brothers, who owned an optical company and founded Old Sturbridge in the 1930s, also had a collection of old clocks, some of which are now displayed in the welcome center.


     There is a Protestant church and a Friends Meeting House (I was surprised; apparently there were some Quakers in New England in the 1830s, although Catholics were still frowned upon) and a General Store.


     A few animals roam the grounds -- chickens and . . . I don't what these are, but we got out of there fast!


     So what about you? How did you celebrate the holiday and give thanks for all our progress and all our modern blessings?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Is Thanksgiving Different This Year?

     Some people are giving thanks for the outcome of the election; others are horrified. Many are just thankful it's all over. But we'll get to that in a minute.

     Meantime, Laura Lee Carter gives thanks for her new lifestyle in an article One Baby Boomer’s Dream Come True that was published on The Boomer Cafe website. 

     Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting, like many others, is grateful for her grandchildren. But (it occurs to me) she does the whole thing backwards.

A princess in Florida
     Usually it's the kids who live in New Jersey and fly to Florida to visit grandma. But in Baer's case, it's the grandparents who live in New Jersey and fly to Florida to see the little ones.

     Anyway, this past weekend, as she reports in Spending Time With the Future, they spent four fun but exhausting days with the grandkids -- which provided a change from the less hectic, more laid-back lifestyle of the retiree.

     But if your Thanksgiving involves the appreciation of eating rather than travel, look to Carol Cassera for a simple and yummy stuffing recipe in Easy Chestnut Stuffing.

     Or if you're looking for a bit of nostalgia, Carol recommends an article by Charles Brady, which begins with his short, charming poem Once There Were Peaches. I leave it to you to decide if Brady is entirely serious, or if he has a bit of tongue in cheek.

     Finally, to more serious things. The election.

     On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison is thankful for our consumer protection laws – and expresses her concern that Republicans typically water down regulations and Trump seems to be filling his transition team with lobbyists and insiders, despite his promise to “drain the swamp.” Her latest covers Trump University Fraud Cases Settled for $25 Million. 

     Meanwhile, Kathy Gottberg on SmartLiving365 steps back and takes a more philosophical approach. She begins: "As the dust settles, emotions are running high. Mine included."

     But then she goes on, "It is tempting to make those who see things differently as the enemy, and to self-righteously soothe myself with my so-called intellect and reasoning skills as being morally and mentally superior. But where is the compassion? And what does retaliation do except build a wider chasm in a world in desperate need of unity, peace, and understanding?"

     For her full perspective go over to Is It Possible to Be for Something and Against Nothing? And be thankful that, despite our differences, we can all live together if not in complete unity or understanding, at least in peace and with some degree of compassion.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Roll of Honor

     There's a recent article in The New Yorker "The Enemy Next Door" about how life seems to develop along two streams -- the neighborly stream where we're all friendly and polite to one another and treat any problems in a simple, practical manner; and then there's the political stream which is much more poisonous, where people identify with a particular group, almost like a sports team or a religion, and they are passionate about their sometimes abstract beliefs, they get angry at people who don't agree with them, and believe their opponents are untrustworthy, harmful and downright evil.

     I wonder if a similar dualism takes place within ourselves when it comes to automobiles. I've often wondered why someone who's perfectly nice, who might wave you ahead in the grocery line if you only have a few items, will as soon as he gets in his car, start breaking the law by casually ignoring speed limits and other traffic regulations.

     On the way home from South Carolina we stopped at a rest stop in Maryland. On the way out, we got to our car, and a man sitting in a brown Toyota had his car door open next to me. He smiled. "Oh, you go ahead," he said. "I'm waiting for somebody."

     I noticed he was wearing a Boy Scout uniform, and saw a scouting sticker on his back bumper. He closed his door, gave a little wave, and waited politely as we pulled out of our parking space. As we we leaving, I saw a couple of young scouts climb into his car.

     B and I merged back onto the interstate, and about 15 minutes later I noticed the scout leader in my rear-view mirror. I was doing the speed limit, 65 mph on this stretch of I95. He was coming up behind me in his brown Camry. He moved into the left-hand lane, passed me by, then disappeared down the left-hand lane. The problem? He was doing at least 75, maybe 80, or 10 or 15 miles over the speed limit. With Boy Scouts in the car. So what lesson was this scoutmaster teaching the kids? What would their mothers say if they knew their boys were hurdling down I95 at 80 mph with their scoutmaster?

     Anyway, as a follow up to my last post, I thought it would be interesting -- perhaps a little morbid, but interesting -- to see what famous people lost their lives not to a drug overdose or alcohol, not in a plane crash or some violent act. But from the lowly, boring, but no-less-deadly car crash. See if your favorite celebrity is on this dubious honor roll. Then if you're really morbid, you can get a longer list at ranker.com.

General George S. Patton, in 1945 at age 60.
Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, in 1949 at age 48.
James Dean, actor, in 1955 at age 24
Jackson Pollack, artist, in 1956 at age 34
Julia Lennon, John Lennon's mother, in 1958 at age 44
Mel Ott, baseball hall of famer, in 1958 at age 49.
Albert Camus in 1960 at age 46
Ernie Kovaks, actor, in 1962 at age 42
Jayne Mansfield, American actress, in 1967 at age 34
Mary Jo Kopeckne, in 1969 at age 28
Duane Allman, in 1971 at age 24
Steve Prefontaine, runner, in 1975 at age 24
John D. Rockefeller III, in 1978 at age 72
Harry Chapin, singer, in 1981 at age 38
Grace Kelly, princess of Monaco, in 1982 at age 52
Jessica Savich, journalist, in 1983, at age 36
Billy Martin, baseball manager, in 1989 at age 61
Dottie West, Grammy winning country singer, in 1991 at age 59
Sam Kinison, comedian, in 1992 at age 38
Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, in 1993 at age 84
Jerry Rubin, '60s activist, in 1994 at age 56.
Princess Diana, in 1997 at age 36
Alan J. Paluka, movie director, in 1998 at age 70
Pete Conrad, astronaut, in 1999 at age 69
Steve Allen, in 2000 at age 78
Linda Lovelace, porn actress, in 2002 at age 53
Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez, American rapper, in 2002 at age 30
David Halberstam, Pulitzer-Prize journalist, in 2007 at age 73
Stephen Covey, author, in 2012 at age 79
Paul Walker, actor, in 2013 at age 40
John Nash, Nobel-Prize mathematician, in 2015 at age 86
Bob Simon, CBS news, in 2015 at age 73
Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake ceo, in 2016 at age 56

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Go Ahead, Ignore Me . . .

     But only at your own peril.

     The problem is always there, almost anywhere in America, but it is more starkly drawn for me when I drive one of the most perilous stretches of American highway -- which is I95 from Richmond, Va., up through Washington, Baltimore, and on to the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

     It's a problem the presidential candidates totally ignore. So do senators and congressmen. They turn a blind eye to this biggest threat to the American public -- as does the public itself.

     That problem is the lawlessness on the roads of the United States -- the refusal of the American public to obey traffic laws, and the inability of authorities to enforce traffic laws. So drivers speed. They tailgate, pass on the right, talk on the phone, change lanes without signaling. See my recent post Close Call on I78 if you don't believe me.

     They do it all with impunity, and with the belief that they are not doing anything wrong, that they are not hurting anybody -- and besides, they are in a hurry. Some people brag about it, like my neighbor who laughs off the speeding tickets he has received over the years, as he makes a game of trying to cut his commute time from 33 minutes to 31 minutes. Or the woman I met at a recent party who cursed the cops on the Taconic State Parkway because they'd given her a ticket for going 70 mph in a 55 mph zone . . . then she smirked and admitted she was really going closer to 80.

     You may think I'm joking, or just crazy. But the most lethal problem facing us today is not Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not AIDS or terrorism or even guns. It is the American roads. For the roads kill far more innocent people than any of those more-publicized threats.

     According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, traffic fatalities were actually going down for over a decade, due in large part to seatbelt use, the availability of airbags, and the effort to reduce drunk driving. However, between 2014 and 2015 fatalities increased by 7.2 percent, from 32,744 to 35,092. People injured in auto crashes -- including children, old ladies and everyone else -- climbed from 2.34 million to 2.44 million.

     This year the numbers look even worse. For the first half of 2016 auto fatalities went up from 16,100 to 17,775, or an increase of 10.4 percent.

     This death toll dwarfs American casualties suffered in the Middle East. It makes war in the Middle East seem insignificant. There have been 4,800 Americans killed in over ten years of conflict in Iraq. In Afghanistan 2,344 Americans have lost their lives. Of course, any premature death is a tragedy. But why have so much ink and airtime and personal angst gone into the fewer than 10,000 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, while virtually no one cares about the hundreds of thousands killed on American roads?

     Compare auto deaths to AIDS, which at its peak in 1995 took 41,699 lives. At its worst, AIDS took about as many lives as an average year on the American roads. But then, since 1995, deaths from AIDS dropped to 6,955 by 2013. Would that the automobile epidemic had half as good a cure.

     How do car crashes compare to guns? According to the CDC, between 2000 and 2010, a total of 335,609 people died from guns, including homicides, suicides and accidents. In dramatizing the issue, the CDC points out that is more than the population of St. Louis or Pittsburgh or Orlando. It's more than 85 people every day, killed by firearms.

     But over the same period 444,648 died in car accidents. That's more than the population of Cleveland or Omaha or Minneapolis. Or more than 110 people every day, killed in car crashes.

     So why is everyone up in arms about guns, but they steer clear of the issue of the mishandling of automobiles?

     A couple of years ago I got a ticket for sneaking through a red light in Orlando, FL. They caught me on camera. It annoyed the hell out of me. But maybe it's time to get serious about the traffic laws, even if it does cause us inconvenience, even if it does slow us down a bit. Because  . . . does it really matter whether your commute takes 31 minutes or -- horrors! -- all of 33 minutes?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Boy, Was I Wrong!

     Like everyone else, I was predicting a win by Hillary Clinton. So much for conventional wisdom. I think I'll retire again from the forecasting game, since I'm so bad at it. I just hope that Trump gets a prescription for Valium, calms down and becomes more reasonable (hoping there was method to his madness?) or, if not, that the Democrats and the Republicans who don't agree with him can shut down his more outlandish proposals.

     With that, I'm going back to what I was doing -- which is looking for a place to retire. For the past two weeks B and I have been in Charleston, SC., or more precisely, at the beach about ten miles outside the city.

     We've been enjoying the warm sunny days, soaking up the salt air, walking on the beach, and sampling local cuisine such as crab cakes, shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes. Last weekend we went to a jazz festival. The other day we rented bikes and rode down to the state park.

Looking down King Street.

     And we've also gone into downtown Charleston a couple of times, to walk around, go shopping, visit the art galleries.

Caviar and Bananas, a gourmet shop on George St. We know someone who works there.

     The main shopping area runs along King Street. Yesterday, while B was buying a couple of new items for her wardrobe, I found the nearby College of Charleston and walked around campus.

This used to be a bookstore in Charleston. Now it's a College of Charleston communications building.

     I came out on Calhoun Street, then continued on to Marion Square -- both named after historic South Carolina figures who were heroes to some, but judged more harshly by history.

     Francis Marion (1732 - 1795) better known as "The Swamp Fox" fought in the French and Indian War and later served as a military officer in the Continental army. He was hailed as a hero, pioneering guerrilla war tactics against the British in South Carolina, but he was also a slaveholder and found to have persecuted the Cherokee Indians.

Monument to John C. Calhoun, located in Marion Square.

     The nearby Francis Marion Hotel is also named after him, along with Francis Marion National Forest and Francis Marion University, as well as towns and cities in more than a dozen states.

     John C. Calhoun (1782 - 1850) was a U. S. congressman, Secretary of War, and later a U. S. senator. He ran for president in 1824, lost to John Adams and instead became vice president, first under Adams and then under Andrew Jackson. Calhoun was a slaveholder and a staunch defender of southern states rights against the federal government and perceived Northern threats.

Mother Emmanuel AME church.

     A little farther down Calhoun St. I came to another landmark, the Mother Emmanuel AME church. It was here that Dylann Roof shot and killed nine parishioners -- not sometime before the Civil War, but just last year on June 17, 2015. Roof is currently undergoing competency evaluation even as a jury is being selected for his trial.

     Yes, there is an ugly side to history, especially southern history, and to our current society as well. But we try not to dwell on that too much, and instead enjoy the more positive aspects of life. We did not take a carriage ride in Charleston, but a lot of people do.

Carriage ride down Queen St.

     We did patronize one of the popular restaurants in the city. And then what did we do?

Magnolias restaurant on East Bay St.

     We headed back to the beach.

Back home at the end of the day.

     

    

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Election? What Election?

     One of the benefits of being at the beach is that you don't see the news. (At least we haven't.) We did hear that the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in the World Series -- in fact, we watched part of the game at a sports bar in town -- but other than that we have not turned on the TV in two weeks, except to view one episode of "Madam Secretary" on Netflix.

     So it was a surprise when we woke up this morning to find that we were supposed to turn back the clocks last night. And also, that the election is only two days away!

     I am not a fan of Donald Trump. He is vulgar, crass, obnoxious and narcissistic. In other words, he is emblematic of a particular type of American. He's the loud, obnoxious fraternity brother. He's the aggressive driver with a souped-up engine and purple lights shining on oversized tires and high suspension. Or, as I read somewhere, he reminds many women of the guy they once dated who was pushy, overbearing, sexually aggressive and completely full of himself and nobody else.

     The liberals and the media are beside themselves about Donald Trump, and they call him -- and those who support him -- all kinds of nasty names. According to a lot of people I know, Trump voters are a bunch of racist, ignorant yahoos. Liberals seem to think that they score points by being more anti-Trump than the next person, and there's more than a hint of class bias in their attacks.

     Liberals fear what will happen if Trump wins -- although I think they are just trying to scare people into not voting for Trump. The pundits suggest that gun-toting Trump supporters will claim the election was stolen and they will riot in the streets. But the fact is, I've heard of more Trump campaign signs being defaced and torn down than Clinton signs being vandalized by Trump supporters.

     I actually think it's amazing that despite Trump's obnoxious behavior, and despite his vilification by all but the most conservative media, he still garners support from more than 40 percent of the American public. Support for Trump somehow goes way beyond the angry old white males who resent the loss of their so-called favored status in society.

     It's also ironic that the media have turned so vehemently against Donald Trump. Because they are the ones who created him in the first place, by paying attention to his antics, his outrageous statements, his blatant attempts to manipulate media outlets as they reached for ratings and ad dollars.

     Honestly, the only reason why I am not beside myself about Donald Trump is that I don't think he's going to win. He consistently runs behind Clinton in virtually every poll. The electoral map favors Clinton who starts out with an electoral advantage and seems to be winning most of the battleground states, from Colorado to Florida, from Pennsylvania to Maine. And the stock market is predicting a Clinton win, since it's gone down a little bit in nervous trading, but nothing like the swoon it likely would suffer if it really expected a Trump victory.

     To be honest, I'm not a big Clinton fan either, because she's too much the political hack and not enough the inspirational leader. But I'd take her over Trump any day. As for hoping for someone better, I'll fall back on what Cleveland fans must be saying:  just wait till next time.

     Liberals are in a panic about  a possible Trump victory. But what would really happen in the unlikely event that Trump does win? Honestly, I don't know. Except I'd hope that an obstructionist Congress would stop Trump in his tracks, and therefore we'd have the same do-nothing government we've had for the past four years. So if Trump wins, I'd think after an initial shock, not as much as you'd think would really change in America.

     What will happen if Clinton wins, as I expect? There will not be riots in the streets. That's just professional paranoia. Instead, I agree with the pundits and critics who say business will be done as usual, with a continuation of traditional self-dealing and political favors. What I hope is that Clinton and the Democrats will not dismiss and ignore the 40 percent of Americans who supported Trump. Because . . . do you really think that 40 percent of the American public is racist, homophobic and misogynistic?

     I hope the new administration will see that those "deplorables" have a lot of legitimate complaints about politics as usual, and I'd urge the new (old) leaders to address a lot of their concerns, from lost wages to lost jobs, lost opportunities, and the loss of a way of life.

     Of course, I realize that I have just opened myself up to the possibility of looking pretty stupid in a few days. Maybe I've just had too much sun, and not enough news, in the last two weeks. I should reveal some of my previous political predictions. I predicted that they would never get Nixon. I said Reagan was too conservative, he'd never get elected. And I predicted that Bill Clinton could never win a second term.

     After that I gave up forecasting for a while. But it just seems to me everyone is in such a state of hysteria that they need a voice of reason, a dose of common sense. Besides, maybe this time I'll be right. Even the Chicago Cubs win one once every hundred years or so.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Three Times a Day

     As I said, not much goes on here at the beach. I awoke to capture the ocean in the morning, the sun rising over the Atlantic.



     And here's what the same beach looks like at mid-day.


 
     Then at the end of the day, looking southwest along the coast . . .

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Not Much to Do

     Here we are at the beach in South Carolina, outside Charleston. The weather is beautiful, sunny and high in the low 80s.

     There's not much to do, except sit here and watch the tide roll in.

The tide is out

     The night before last brought us a new moon, which means we had a spring tide -- a greater than average tide occurring during the new and full moons (as opposed to a neap tide, when the difference between high and low tide is least, in the first and third quarters of the moon.).
 
Now it's high tide (the old pilings are almost covered in water)

    Watching the waves and the ebb and flow of the tides is, for me, a form of meditation -- no worries, mind empty, focused on the pulse of the ocean, at one with the universe.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Stopover in Raleigh

     They say you should learn something new every day. Yesterday I learned that there have been three U. S. presidents who were born in North Carolina. Can you name them?

NC State Capitol, as seen from the NC History Museum
     I confess, I only knew one, and only because I'd read a book about him a few months ago called American Lion by Jon Meacham.

     We are on our way to Charleston, SC, and we stopped off in Raleigh to see my daughter who's a vet at the North Carolina 
State Veterinary Hospital. She had a day off, so we went to the North Carolina History Museum, and then walked around the capitol building.

     I don't have much more to report, except an update on traffic conditions. Once we got 20 or 30 miles south of Washington, DC, then I95 was a breeze, and so was Route 64, until we got to the Raleigh beltway, which is . . . well, it's a beltway.

What's NC famous for? Here's a replica of the Wright plane
 
     So the three presidents? Andrew Jackson, aka Old Hickory, was the American Lion. He was born in North Carolina, became a military hero, settled in Tennessee and served as president from 1829 to 1837. There was an interesting article a few days ago in The Wall Street Journal about how Jackson was denied the presidency in 1824 in what he perhaps rightfully called a "rigged election."

     James Polk was also born in North Carolina before following in Jackson's footsteps to Tennessee. He pledged to serve only one term as president, and did from 1845 to 1849, thus keeping his promise. His major accomplishments? He negotiated the 49th parallel as the border with Canada and annexed Texas as the 28th state in the Union.

Monument to Jackson, Polk and Johnson
     Andrew Johnson was the last of the three to follow a similar route from North Carolina to Tennessee to the White House. Johnson remained with the Union after Tennessee seceded, and as a Democratic senator was chosen to run for vice president on a unity ticket with Lincoln in his 1864 re-election bid. Johnson soon took over the presidency, after the assassination of Lincoln, and fought bitterly with Republicans who wanted to move more quickly in granting rights to former slaves. Johnson was impeached, acquitted by one vote, but failed to get his party's nomination for a second term. He then returned to Tennessee where he was re-elected to the Senate.

     And that's enough about North Carolina. Now it's on to Charleston where . . . where the Civil War began at Fort Sumter. But we're going to the beach, not a museum.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Close Call on I78

     Is it me, or do our highways seemed ever more hellacious than ever? I recently noted that CBS reported roadway fatalities are up by about 18 percent over the past two years, because of speeding, distracted driving, and driving under the influence (of drugs more than alcohol these days).

     We are on our way to Charleston, SC, where we will spend two weeks on the beach . . . and perhaps a little time looking for our retirement home as well. We know that I95 is a horrible place to drive, especially in Delaware, Maryland and down to Washington, DC. So we came up with the idea of traveling west through Pennsylvania on I78 and then south on I81.

     Not a good idea. I78 is a major truck route, and the trucks these days seem worse than ever. It used to be you could count on the trucks plodding slowly uphill, then barreling down at 10 or 15 miles over the speed limit. But some of the trucks must have a new kind of technology. Because some trucks follow the old pattern, but others can now maintain their speed uphill, challenging those slopes at 70 or 80 m.p.h. For the regular car driver, it's harder to predict what the trucks will do; harder to negotiate your way around those big behemoths.

     Adding to the problem:  there is construction on Route 78 (as there is on a lot of other highways). The speed limit is normally 65 m.p.h., but with traffic cones in some areas and no shoulder in others, the signs now post 55 m.p.h. Of course no one pays attention to the signs. The flow of traffic in my lane, the slow lane, is between 60 and 65. In the left lane the cars and trucks are chugging along at 70 m.p.h., with the occasional outlier weaving in and out at closer to 80 m.p.h.

     Truth is, we almost bought the farm when I got caught behind a slow truck going uphill, and merged into the left lane to pass him. It was the day before yesterday, a little after 6 p.m. Dusk.

     I was driving and had slowed to 55 m.p.h., stuck behind a slow-going semi. I flicked on my blinker, sped up to pass, checked the rear-view mirror, then started to move over. I didn't see the black Dodge Charger coming up to pass me at almost the same time. The Charger must have been going close to 80.

     A car horn honks. I see a black shape suddenly fill up my side-view mirror. I can tell he is braking because I see the front end of his car dip down. It's all over in a half a second; and I'm passing the truck with the Dodge Charger inches from my tail.

     I get by the truck. Move back over into the right lane. The Charger follows me for a minute in the left lane. Maybe he's been chastened for a moment by the instantaneous close call. Then he apparently switches back into his usual damn-the-torpedos mode, and speeds past me accelerating up to 75 or so.

     We make our hotel in Harrisburg for the night. But I am still a little unnerved, and I realize that my close call was as much my fault as it was the Dodge Charger's fault. Even though he was speeding, even though he wasn't very visible in his dark car in the darkening road, I should have looked more carefully, should have seen him coming. Good thing I'd used my blinker to change lanes -- at least that gave the Charger time to react.

     Regardless, B and I almost became a statistic -- one of those 18 percent -- for even with airbags and seatbelts and crash zones, I don't think we'd stand much of a chance in a pileup with a ten-wheeler and a speeding Charger.

     Our experiment to travel south via 76 and 81 is over. I instead cut back down a secondary road and catch the Washington Beltway going south to Virginia. (Also known as the Outer Beltway.) Traffic around DC is always bad, although honestly I've seen worse. It was just crowded, with cars and trucks changing lanes constantly, and a confusion of signs that can do nothing but perplex those of us who are unfamiliar with the traffic lanes of the Beltway.

     But they now have HOV lanes south of Washington, DC., which makes the traffic flow more smoothly. By flow more smoothly, I mean the traffic moves at all, and is no longer backed up for miles while construction closes lanes and redirects traffic.

     But honestly, I like the way they do it in New Jersey better. Instead of HOV lanes, they have one set of lanes for trucks, and another for cars, separating the ten-wheelers from normal folks in normal cars. The New Jersey Turnpike used to be a horror. Not quite so much anymore. Now it's a decent highway out of New York to Philadelphia and beyond. Unfortunately, there are no separate truck lanes south of New Jersey . . . or on Route 78 either.

     Now, if only they could create special lanes for Dodge Chargers rocketing along at 80 m.p.h.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Remember Her?

     When you find out who this is, you're going to remember her under another name. Is that confusing? Maybe. But it's also a hint.

     She was born on July 4, 1918, the older of identical twin sisters, in Sioux City, Iowa. She was named Esther Pauline, and her sister was called Pauline Esther. Their parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who made good as her father built up a successful movie theater business.

     The two sisters were close as children. They graduated from high school together; they both went to Morningside College in Sioux City; and on July 2, 1938, they celebrated a joint wedding ceremony. Then Esther and her husband moved to Eau Claire, Wis., where she became active as a volunteer in Democratic politics.

     By the 1950s Esther was living in Chicago. Her husband, Julius Lederer, had founded the Budget Rent-a-Car business, and they were quite well off, but Esther was getting tired of being a stay-at-home wife and mother. She offered to help out in the Chicago Democratic party but was rebuffed. Then she queried a local newspaper, asking if there were any job openings on what was then known as the "women's" page. What she found out was that the woman writing the advice column had just died, and the paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, was looking for a replacement.

     The paper held a contest. More than 20 women, mostly employees from the Sun-Times, sent in their entries. But it was Esther who won the contest, largely because she didn't just give her own opinions, but also offered advice from experts, including a judge and a college president who she knew from her earlier days in politics.

     Her first column appeared in October 1955. It opened with a letter from a "non-eligible bachelor" who'd been disappointed in love and did not want to get married. Her advice: "You're a big boy now ... don't let spite ruin your life."

     So it was that Esther "Eppie" Lederer became Ann Landers, which was actually a fictional name created a decade earlier by Ruth Crowley, a Chicago nurse who had first written a child-care column for the Sun-Times and then expanded it into a syndicated advice column. Crowley had borrowed the name Landers from a family friend, while keeping her own name a secret, even making her kids promise not to reveal her true name.

     Eppie Lederer was not so circumspect about her true identity -- everybody in the journalism world knew who she was -- but for the public she was forever Ann Landers. In her column she answered whatever questions readers lobbed her way, taking on a broad range of topics, from dating to drugs, acne to AIDS. She mostly took a practical, common-sense approach, writing in colloquial terms, sometimes offering up a sharp one-liner, while leaning liberal on social affairs and more conservative on personal behavior.

     However, she was not a complete stranger to controversy. She was against the Vietnam war. She was pro-choice, pro-gun control, and in favor of legalizing prostitution. She supported equal civil rights for homosexuals -- although she never got on board for gay marriage since, "it flies in the face of cultural and traditional family life as we have known it for centuries." She also shared some of her own struggles, informing her readers of her own divorce in 1975 and airing some personal conflicts in public.

     In an odd twist, soon after taking over the column, Landers found herself competing with her own twin sister. Under the name Abigail Van Buren, Pauline began writing the "Dear Abby" column which also gained widespread popularity.

     "I felt betrayed," Landers said later, "because she didn't tell me that she was considering it -- she just presented it as a fact." Landers severed ties with her twin, and their estrangement became bitter and widely publicized. The two sisters didn't speak for almost a decade, but reconciled in 1964 in advance of their mutual 25th wedding anniversary.

Photo: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram - Lib. of Congress
     Eppie Lederer wrote the column until she died of cancer in June 2002. The Ann Landers advice column died with her. However, her editors brought out "Annie's Mailbox" which was syndicated to newspapers, until it finally ended in June 2016. Her twin sister continued to write Dear Abby until she retired in 2002, when her daughter took over. Pauline died in 2013.

     Eppie Lederer -- who often worked from home, and sometimes in her bathtub -- never received the respect she deserved from the journalism establishment. But in its heyday the Ann Landers column was carried in over 1200 newspapers around the world, with a readership of some 90 million people. The 1978 World Almanac named her the most influential woman in America.

     Which for her was great success, for as she once said, "I would rather have my column on a thousand refrigerator doors than win a Pulitzer."

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The 0.3 Percent Solution

     The Feds just announced the increase for Social Security benefits for next year. The increase is 0.3%. So in 2017 the average beneficiary will see an extra $4 in their monthly benefit.

     Of course even that measly $4 -- and more -- will likely be taken away from recipients to pay for Medicare. So far as I know, Medicare has not announced any increase for next year. But wait . . .

     I can't say that this post is primarily designed to be informative; it's simply meant to further the discussion.

     The typical reaction I've seen around the Internet reads something like this:  I worked all my life and paid Social Security taxes for almost 40 years, and now Social Security gives us virtually no increase to help us pay our bills. They say the reason is because there's no inflation, mostly because the price of gas has gone down. Well, that's great for truck drivers and uber drivers. But what about the seniors who actually rely on Social Security? Food prices are going up, medical costs keep climbing, and pretty much everything else (except for gasoline which we don't even use much anymore since we don't commute) is more expensive than last year. What are we supposed to do?!?

     Well, to revive an old Clintonism, I feel their pain. I just paid the latest installment of the tax bill on my condo. I noticed it went up $100 from last year. That  doesn't seem too bad. Except it comes to 3.5% -- or more than ten times the rate of the Social Security increase. My sewer tax went up from $300 to $330 for the year. That's a 10% jump!

     Honestly, I do not follow my own budget that carefully, so I can't really portray myself as a good judge of how much "real" inflation is, compared to the official figures. I do remember the 1970s, when prices seemed to increase every month. Inflation these days is nothing like that. And yet, we're planning a trip to South Carolina in a few weeks. The hotel prices seem huge! And prices on airbnb and homeaway don't look much better. Predictions for the death of inflation may be premature.

     My medical insurance has not increased. And when I moved to Connecticut from New York, the bill for Medicare advantage actually went down by a few dollars. That's good news!

     But then I went to the doctor yesterday for my annual physical. It seems that, instead of raising prices, Medicare may be stealthily cutting services. I used to get an annual physical, complete with blood tests and an electrocardiogram. But now, I'm told, Medicare will only pay for a Wellness visit. The Wellness visit does not include a blood test for cholesterol, triglycerides or other factors -- unless you already have a history of heart disease. In other words -- in a switch from the previous situation -- Medicare will pay for a pre-existing condition; but it will not pay to diagnose a new condition.

     That seems kind of backwards, doesn't it? Fortunately, I don't have a lot of medical issues, so it's not a big problem for me. But the doctor did prescribe one drug. I'm going to pick it up at the pharmacy later today. I'm holding my breath, wondering how much it's going to empty my pocket.