Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Ten Commandments of Retirement

     Most of us are familiar with the Ten Commandments, even if we don’t remember them all, or follow them all. But they are universal truths, going back as far as the ancient Mesopotamians around 1000 BCE, who had laws incorporating the same sentiments as those later found in the Bible.

     The Ten Commandments may be a good place to start in advising us about any aspect of our lives, even retirement, although they have to be adapted to make sense in 21st century America. So here are the Ten Commandments for retirement, as inspired by our philosopher ancestors.

     1. Save for retirement. Most of us have Social Security, and some of us have a pension. But benefits can be changed, and besides, nobody ever promised that Social Security would provide anything more than a safety net. If you want a comfortable retirement, start saving early in life, presumably with an employer program or an individual IRA, and resist the temptation to rob your retirement fund to buy a new car or new boat.

     2. Invest your money. Experts recommend you have up to ten times your annual salary socked away by the time you retire. That’s almost impossible to do by saving alone. But if you invest early and consistently, you can grow your nestegg 5 to 10 percent a year, which is a realistic way to achieve financial security. If you're in your 60s or 70s, keep on investing, because you may have to finance another 20+ years of living expenses.

     3. Do not retire too early. Social Security offers a siren call when we first become eligible for benefits at age 62. In Greek mythology the Sirens were beautiful creatures who lured sailors with their enchanting music to wreck their ships on the rocky coast. Similarly, if you start taking Social Security early, you receive a smaller monthly income for the rest of your life, leaving you exposed to a shipwreck on the rocks of unexpected expenses.

     4. Downsize. You no longer need a big house to shelter your family. You may no longer need two or three cars to ferry the kids to school or soccer practice. So consider downsizing your home and your possessions -- especially if you broke any of those first three commandments.

     5. Eat right. When you’re retired you have more time to take care of yourself. So make the effort to buy and prepare healthful foods, and make sure to get the nutrition you may have neglected when you were too busy working and raising a family.

     6. Get some exercise. A reasonable amount of light-to-moderate exercise will extend your longevity, so you’ll be around long enough to collect on the Social Security you’ve been paying for your entire working life. Exercise also makes you feel better by improving digestion, soothing aching joints, and increasing energy levels.

     7. Hold your family close. Your kids are out of the house, but that doesn’t mean they should be out of your life. Loneliness is one hazard of retirement, so make an effort to stay close to family -- especially your grandchildren.

     8. Make new friends. Old friends will die or move away – or perhaps you will move away. Wherever you find yourself, try making new friends, for a strong social network supports both physical and mental health as you get older.

     9. Do something you like to do. Loneliness is one threat in retirement; boredom is another. So after you retire, recommit to your long-time hobby, or find a new one. Become active in your community; find a part-time job; volunteer to help those in need. Do something to make you want to get out of bed in the morning and take part in the bright new day.

     10. Make sure to . . . Wait a second. Look who I'm talking to here ... a lot of people who have more retirement experience than I do. What's your favorite retirement commandment?

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Feeling Guilty?

     Cape Cod has a fragile environment. It's just a spit of sand sticking out into the Atlantic ocean, with enough tourists in the summer, you'd think, to weigh it down and swamp it in Nantucket Sound. Hurricanes and Nor'easters have eroded some of the beaches. And since most of land mass has an elevation less than 50 feet, when the glaciers start melting, Cape Cod will be very vulnerable.

     Many people here think of themselves as environmentalists. Bicycle paths crisscross the landscape. Every town has protected some conservation land from development. People pick up after their dogs. A lot of homeowners go without air conditioning. The local ice-skating rink claims: "Our ice comes from the sun."

A windmill in Falmouth, MA
     I've actually seen a few solar farms on the Cape, which is a surprise since there isn't all that much sun here. And I've counted at least a dozen windmills spread out among the trees. There's plenty of wind on Cape Cod, and so those practical New Englanders have put it to use.

     I recall reading a book, Cape Wind by Robert Whitcomb, during one of our previous visits to the Cape. A consortium was proposing to build a wind farm out on Nantucket Sound, maybe 10 or 12 miles offshore. It would have produced almost enough electricity to replace the oil-and-natural-gas-burning electric generation plant on the Cape.

     However, the Cape Wind project ran into a lot of opposition. It would interfere with boating traffic; it would endanger migrating birds. But most of all it would spoil the view of the well-heeled waterfront property owners in and around Hyannisport.

     One opponent of Cape Wind was Sen. Ted Kennedy, who of course had a family compound in Hyannisport. Senator Kennedy eventually met his maker. But the Cape Wind project has not. While there is still no sign of a windmill in Nantucket Sound, apparently plans are still going forward for a wind farm sometime in the future.

     Meanwhile, there are already a number of windmills scattered across the landscape. So good for the Cape Codders who are progressing along the lines of clean energy, energy independence, and intelligent use of natural resources.

     But of course, nothing is ever quite so simple. Every year the town of Orleans holds an end-of-summer bonfire on Nauset Beach. It's a spectacular sight and lot of fun for the kids. But it seems like enough smoke billows out from the wood fire to cause global warming all by itself.

     I also noticed a conflicted attitude toward automobiles on the Cape. I saw many a Toyota Prius (50 mpg) and Honda Insight (40+ mpg) on the streets of Falmouth, along with other smaller cars that probably get 30 mpg. But there were also plenty of Jeeps (20 mpg), Chevy Tahoes (18 mpg), and Ford Expeditions (16 mpg).

     In other words, a lot of Cape Codders choose to ignore any warnings about air pollution or global warming, and they seem unconcerned that we derive a lot of our gasoline from the dubious practice of fracking, while we still import a lot from our frenemies in the war-torn Middle East.

     I figure, if you drive an SUV, you're a libertarian who believes that people should be able to do what they want, without restrictions on their freedom and despite any consequences to others. But  everybody, no matter what their political belief, agrees on one thing. They want to be able to drive 70 or 75 mph, not 55 mph, and they don't care that it burns up more gas that way. (A typical car engine is most efficient at around 50 or 55 mph. If you get 30 mpg at 55 mph, you will be getting about 25 mpg at 70 mph.)

     I know, I know, you're in a hurry. And gas is not that expensive. And what difference does one car make? But according to mpg for speed, if the national speed limit were set to 55 (as it was in the 1970s) it would save 1 billion gallons of oil per year.

     Of course, I'm like everybody else. I don't want to live near a nuclear power plant; I don't want anyone fracking in my backyard, and I don't want them drilling for oil in the Arctic. But I also want to be able to drive wherever I want, whenever I want . . . and not have to pay too much for gasoline.

     Most of us try to be good. As for me, I console myself that I don't drive an SUV; I drive a sedan and I don't drive as fast as many other people, so I get a little over 30 mpg on the highway. But let's face it, convenience often wins out over conscience. And I wonder. Cape Cod is a nice place to visit. But will it be swamped under water when our 16-month-old grandson wants to come here 20 or 30 years from now?

     P. S. For those who want to follow up on the topic, the New York Times Aug. 5 Sunday magazine devotes the entire issue to an article "Losing Earth" by Nathaniel Rich which focuses on the causes and dangers of climate change.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Simple Pleasures

     B and I are vacationing on Cape Cod for two weeks. We're renting the same house we rented last year. We're here by ourselves right now, but soon some family will be visiting us.

A portrait of the harbor
     B and I have been coming to Cape Cod ever since we met, about 15 years ago. By that time she had already been to the Cape a few times with her kids. On my part, I first came here when I was in college, and have been coming back almost every year ever since.

     We like the salt air, the picturesque towns, the shoreline on Nantucket Sound, and farther out, the more rugged beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. And, not incidentally, our favorite ice-cream shop just happens to be right around the corner from our house. And a half mile the other way is George's Fish Market. We had steamed lobsters for dinner last night.

My crib sheet
     We've read a few books. I reviewed the signal flags that I learned last year. And as we rode our bikes past the local Congregational church, B told me the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery. A graveyard is located at a church; a cemetery is not.

     A few people actually live out here year round. We have friends, originally from the Boston area, who have lived in Falmouth for over 25 years. They raised their two kids here.

Graveyard at Harwich church
     But most of the crowds on the Cape consist of vacationers -- some families and a lot of retirees. In some ways, it's a fairly insular group. Almost all of them come from the Northeast. Actually, almost all of them come from Massachusetts. There are some people from Connecticut, and then there's a smattering of outliers from Maine to Maryland, from Ontario to Ohio. I saw one California license plate -- I bet those people grew up in Boston.

     There's also a contingent of retirees from Florida. (Most of them are originally from New England as well.) They spend summers here, but make sure to maintain their residency in Florida to avoid the heavy Massachusetts taxes. So you see a lot of Florida license plates dotting the landscape.

We went swimming in Seymour pond
     Honestly, the weather hasn't been that sunny (hence, the reading). We spent an hour the other night standing out in the rain waiting for a local baseball game to begin. It never did.

     But one afternoon we did go swimming in one of the kettle ponds, the bodies of water left behind by the glaciers some 18,000 years ago. We also rode the Shining Path bike trail from Falmouth to Woods Hole. We saw a summer stock production of Altar Boyz, which was a hoot. And a performance by Hyannis Sound, a college a cappella group that sings its way around the Cape for the summer.
Looking across to Martha's Vineyard

     None of this is very sophisticated. One of B's nephews, a high-school principal from New Jersey, is coming to visit for a couple of days. He and his wife just got back from Paris. I doubt we'll measure up.

     But we like the simple pleasures -- hanging around in shorts and t-shirts, slurping clam chowder and licking ice-cream cones, riding bikes and playing in the sand.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

If We're So Rich, How Come We're Not Happy?

     We are better off in almost every way than at any time in history. Yet to read the headlines -- even to talk to your friends -- you'd think the world is coming to an end.

     Jeremy Kisner, an investment adviser with Surevest Wealth Management of Phoenix, AZ, recently addressed this phenomenon, and, I think, put the world in better perspective. I am summarizing (another word for stealing . . . but with his permission) his thunder here, but for more wisdom direct from him, you can go to

     Kisner reminds us that the world has improved dramatically over almost any time frame you can consider. But it doesn't always feel this way because negative headlines attract eyeballs and sell advertising. Granted, there are tons of very real problems. Nevertheless, Bill Gates nailed it when he said, "Headlines are what mislead you, because bad news is a headline and gradual improvement is not."

     Human progress occurs because every day a few billion people go to work and figure out ways to improve living standards. Individuals do not always recognize the gradual improvements. But one place you can see the progress is in the stock market which has been going up for most of our lives (with, granted, a few bumps in the road) and is near all-time highs.

     People get scared reading the news -- North Korea, Iran, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, refugees, economic disparities, global warming -- and then they get even more scared thinking about the things that might go wrong. But meanwhile, people buy more things, companies grow, wealth is created, and billions of people live longer and better lives.

     Here are a few of Kisner's examples of human progress,:

     Life expectancy: Consider this: If you were born in 1900, you would have had a 23% chance of dying before age 20 and a 38% chance of dying before age 45. Kids born today have about a 1% chance of dying before age 20 and a 4% chance of dying before age 45.

     Modern Conveniences: When our grandparents were born, virtually no one had electricity ... or telephone or indoor plumbing. They didn't have a car and couldn't fly in an airplane. Today, 85% of the people in the world enjoy the benefits of electricity. And two-thirds have a cellphone.

     Poverty: Twenty years ago 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Today it's only 9% . . . and the rate is still falling.

     Crime: Violent crime has been on a downward trend in the U. S. since 1990. Almost 14.5 million crimes were reported in the United States in 1990. By 2016 that figure was under 9.5 million.

     Retirement: Some 90% of 65-year-old American men who were still alive in 1870 were working. Today only about 20% of 65-year-old American men are still working ... and many of them are working by choice not necessity.

     Housework: The average family spent 11.5 hours a week doing laundry in 1920. That has fallen to 1.5 hours a week as of 2014.

     Safety: Americans became 95% less likely to be killed on the job over the last hundred years. Seat belts, air bags and other safety features have brought down auto fatalities from 50,000 a year in the 1970s to about 37,000 today, despite more cars on the road. The auto fatality rate per 100,000 people has dropped from 25 to 11 -- less than half what it was in the 1970s.

     Disease: In the past century, vaccines and antibiotics have brought miracles for modern medicine. Just since 1990, the control of infectious disease has saved the lives of an estimated 100 million children.

     Food. Between 1961 and  2009, the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12%, but the amount of food grown has increased by 300%.

     Kisner maintains that people who think the best days for America, and for our economy, are behind us are essentially saying that human innovation is going to slow down or stagnate. He says that doesn't seem likely, at least over the next 20 to 30 years. Don't you agree?

     But that begs the question: With all this good fortune, why is everyone so disconsolate?

     We live in a society with the freedom to make our own decisions -- and our fundamental belief is that freedom to choose makes people happy. The more affluent we become, the more choices we have and, in theory, the happier we should be. The problem is that the average American in less satisfied with their lives, and clinical depression has exploded in the past 30 years, while our economy and standard of living has grown.

     Why? Kisner points us to the paradox of plenty. Now, there's no question, there are some benefits to more freedom of choice. But there are negative effects as well.

     Paralysis. The more options we have, the more difficult it is to choose, and we end up procrastinating, or just freezing up. For example, an analysis of over 600 corporate retirement plans showed that the more mutual fund choices a company offered in its 401k, the fewer people participated in the plan. This is because the task of selecting the right funds became overwhelming. There's more choice, but people actually end up poorer.

     Second guessing. The more options we have, the less likely we are to end up satisfied with our choice. For example, assume there are three salad dressings. You know you don't like bleu cheese or honey mustard, so you pick Italian, and you're happy. What if there are 24 salad dressings? You are likely to be filled with doubt that you picked the best one, regardless of which one you pick.

     Escalation of expectations. With all our options, we expect to find the "perfect" choice. When our choice is less than perfect, we are less satisfied. And then, instead of blaming someone else for the shortfall -- the producer, the provider, whoever -- we blame ourselves, because we somehow failed to make the right choice.

     For more on this paradox, you can go to a TED Talk by Barry Schwartz, who explains the theory further. But the bottom line is this: Material affluence enables more choice, but it frequently makes people less happy.

     This doesn't mean we should all take a vow of poverty. It means that we will all be better off if we keep the following in mind: Most of us are better off than we think. But less can be more. Don't be paralyzed by the pressure to make perfect decisions. Don't blame yourself when the solution you choose is not perfect. Don't feel bad if there's some "new thing" that you either don't want or can't afford. And share more with other people.

     As with most things in life, good can be good enough, and acceptance of that can lead to greater life satisfaction. And . . . don't pay too much attention to those negative headlines.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

With Our Thoughts We Make Our World

     It's the middle of the summer doldrums, yet this week seems to have brought out a positive attitude among Baby Boomer bloggers.

     Kathy Gottberg is at the beach right now. But that does not keep her from thinking about her blog, SmartLiving 365, and how she inspires people to face and then overcome their challenges. So she offers a selection of you-can-make-it quotes that will help us through the summer. My favorite? Well, perhaps you can guess, but my favorite doesn't matter. Check out her post and decide what's your favorite.

     Along the same lines, Sue Loncaric from Sizzling Toward 60 & Beyond shares thoughts on why It's Never Too Late to Embrace Life. The topic should resonate, if you just challenge yourself to finish this sentence for your own life: "It's never too late to . . . "

     And while Gottberg and Loncaric inspire us by word, Meryl Baer inspires us by action. She admits to not being a computer geek, or even particularly computer literate. However, at times she tries to help her 93-year-old mom troubleshoot her computer issues. The latest problem was easy to figure out, but not so easy to fix. Read about the dilemma, and how they handled it, in 69,000 and Counting.

     And speaking of challenges, Laura Lee Carter got evacuated from her home for a week while an outrageous wildfire terrorized her small, rural Colorado county. In case you've never been evacuated with 1800 government personnel invading a county of only 5000 people, she decided to share her experience in Home Again: All's Right with my World!

     In If You Could Save Someone's Life, Wouldn't You? Carol Cassara of A Healing Spirit interviews Elaine Schock, the wife of a man who received a diagnosis of Stage IV HPV-related cancer. But not all was lost, and Schock's participation in his treatment proved hugely significant in his remission.

     On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison might inspire us to use less energy ... and save the planet. She cites the states that are the most expensive, and least expensive, for energy, including electricity, gasoline, home heating. FYI: Wyoming, Connecticut and Georgia are at one end of the spectrum, while Oregon, Washington and Colorado are at the other. Click on What Are the Most and Least Expensive Energy States? to find out where your state stands.

     And finally, lest we forget the most inspiring story of all, Rebecca Olkowski turns to the rescue of the 12 boys from a Thailand cave by a group of courageous divers facing almost insurmountable odds. Her post is about How to Overcome Tough Challenges in Life, and she draws lessons from the harrowing Thailand experience that we can all use in our own lives.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Listen In ...

     Here's an interview I recently did with Vanessa Peng of Retirement News Today, a new series from Sequence Media News out of Scottsdale, AZ. I guess it's pretty self-explanatory. Just . . . if you decide to comment, please take it easy on me. I'm an amateur, not a professional!

     So take a listen, as they say . . .

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Time Goes By ...

     The other day I was in the kitchen and B was doing something in the living room. I heard her whistling, although I wasn't paying attention to what it was. Suddenly I heard her screech: "Oh My God, I've become my mother!" There was a pause, and in a much lower voice I heard, "I can't believe it, I'm singing her song."

     I don't think I've become my father -- although every once in a while I see a ghost of him when I look in the mirror. What I see mostly, when I look in the mirror, is the gray hair, and how it's thinning, especially on top. And I think: Hmmm, maybe I don't have brown hair anymore, after all.

     So do we become our parents? I don't know about that. But, to me anyway, it does seem that in recent years, time has taken on a different quality.

     When I think back to when I was growing up . . . that does seem like a long time ago, I have to admit. It was over 50 years ago when I was in high school. That's as long as an historic era -- as long as the period between the Civil War and World War I.

     But it doesn't seem that long ago when my kids were in high school, and Bill Clinton was president. And yet, my daughter has been out of high school for half her life. And my son almost so.

     More recently, I recall our trip retracing the Oregon Trail. We spent several months planning the vacation -- deciding where we wanted to go, setting out the route, figuring where we wanted to stop, making reservations, contacting people. And then, suddenly, we were on the trip. The planning was over, and we were actually doing it. And now we're back. Did we really even ever do it? It is just a memory . . . or was it a dream?

     On a smaller scale, I got the same feeling about my colonoscopy. It seemed like I had just had a colonoscopy. But, sure enough, five years had gone by. So I found myself making the appointment, doing the preparation (which seemed to take forever while I was doing it); then suddenly I'm there in the medical pavilion ... and it's over. I had two small polyps; they're gone; I'm good for another five years.

     Of course, I'm glad that one's over. But . . . everything these days seems to slip by so quickly.

     And now we're planning our summer trip to Cape Cod. Will it be over before I know it?

     Pink Floyd isn't making exactly the same point -- and it's sure not the song B was whistling -- but if you're a Pink Floyd fan like I am, you'll appreciate what they're saying. For they remind us, "Every year is getting shorter ..."

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Bottom Line on Colon Cancer

     There's no way to dress it up, no way to paper it over. I'm scheduled for a colonoscopy next week. I've already started my preparation -- no aspirin or Advil for a week ahead, no raw fruits or vegetables for five days. But I've yet to start in on the heavy stuff.

     B and I have both had a colonoscopies. B is blessed with good genes and a clean alimentary tract, and only has to get tested once every ten years. But I always seem to have a few bits and bumps that the doctor has to remove. I'm on the five-year rotation.

     Now my time is up. (I actually have a close-up photo of my colon from my last test. But don't worry, in the interest of retaining my PG rating, I am not including that photo . . . just a picture of an innocent-looking box).

     So in other preparation for my test  -- getting ready for it emotionally, rather than physically -- I've done a little research into this disease, which according to my gastroenterologist is the second most common cancer killer in America today.

     Colon cancer and cancer of the rectum -- sometimes lumped together as colorectal cancer -- typically begin with the growth of a polyp, small abnormal tissue that can appear on mucus membranes. You can get polyps in your stomach, sinus, uterus, bladder or vocal chords. Or in your colon. Most are benign. Some can eventually progress to cancer, but it's a slow process that usually takes five to ten years.

     The symptoms of colorectal cancer include a change in bowel habits, bleeding, anemia, bloating or unexplained fatigue. But the sneaky thing about colon cancer, as in many forms of cancer, is that the symptoms often don't show up until it's too late. There is one test -- for fecal occult blood -- that can detect bleeding in the colon long before it becomes visible to the naked eye. But the test is not particularly accurate -- the bleeding may not show up, or it could be due to something as simple as hemorrhoids.

     If you test positive for occult blood, or for those of us over age 50, especially if there's any family history of colon cancer, doctors typically recommend going on to the next step, which is a colonoscopy. There are variations on the procedure -- for example, one option is the virtual colonoscopy, done with computer imaging -- but the usual method involves a doctor snaking a thin tube equipped with a camera and cutting instrument up the length of your colon. If there's a polyp . . . snip, snip, and it's gone, long before it turns into cancer. The procedure is done with minimal risk and usually no adverse effects.

     I have undergone four previous colonoscopies. They were always covered by my old insurance, after a $50 copay. Now I'm on Medicare. Honestly, I haven't checked. But I believe Medicare will cover most of the cost. But even if I end up getting billed for a few hundred dollars, I figure it's worth it if it, literally, saves my ass (oops, there goes my PG rating).

     I first heard of this test back when I was 50 years old and went for my usual physical checkup. The doctor asked me if I had a family history of polyps. I didn't know. We didn't talk about such things in my family. When he explained the procedure, I was horrified. I really couldn't believe he'd do that to me!

     I drove home in a panic and called my parents. Did they ever hear of this? Did they ever have polyps? "Oh yeah, sure," they told me offhandedly. "We go in every few years. The doctor usually finds something, but he takes it out, cleans us up, and we're good to go. No problem."

     My parents were never very good at talking about the facts of life. These were the real facts of life.

     I managed to put this indignity off for a while, but eventually I went for the procedure. And now -- proving that human beings can get used to almost anything -- it no longer seems quite so shocking to me. It's become almost routine, like it did for my now dearly departed parents. Okay, the preparation is a little nasty. You do, after all, have to clean out your colon so the doctor can see what he's doing. But, hey, let's be mature about this.

     If you want to know more about colon cancer, the WebMD page on colorectal cancer is a good place to start.

     In the meantime, about ten years ago, I gave up eating red meat, in part because the consumption of red meat, especially processed meats like bacon or lunch meats, supposedly increases your risk of contracting colon cancer. I gave up smoking long ago, and I try to get a decent amount of exercise and keep my weight at close to normal levels (with limited success) -- all of which is supposed to help you avoid the perils of colon cancer, as well as any other kind of cancer.

     If I sound flip about what is really a serious disease, I just don't know how else to approach it. And beyond taking the usual precautions, I guess there's nothing else to do but hope for the best. Wish me luck!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

No News Is Good News

     When we were on vacation traveling the Oregon Trail, my wife and I found that we didn't seem to have much access to the news -- and we weren't particularly interested anyway. Somehow, the facts from 175 years ago seemed more relevant than the gossip and chatter that passes as news these days.

     At home, we get the weekend editions of the New York Times. I occasionally read the local paper and The Wall Street Journal. We subscribe to a couple of magazines. Then I find that the TV is invariably on, for at least a little while almost every day, and we're not even aware that we're listening to Fox News dig up some dirt on the Democrats, or someone on MSNBC getting apoplectic over an outrage they think they've heard from the Republicans.

     Then there's the internet. Yahoo and both remind me of the old supermarket tabloids. And most other so-called news sites -- from vox to huffington to whatever -- are dishing out nothing but opinions, one more outlandish than the other. And of course we all know about opinions . . . everyone (ahem) has one.

     On vacation we were spared almost all of the blathering that passes for news these days. Yes, we heard about the volcano in Hawaii. But mostly, the only thing we checked was the weather. I hate to admit it, but it was very refreshing.

     But just to make sure I didn't miss anything important, when I got home I spent a few minutes catching up on the last few weeks. There was . . .

     A celebrity wedding in England. A New York attorney ranting in a coffee shop. Some teachers on strike. More back and forth between Mueller and Trump. Roseanne making a racist joke. Elon Musk tweeting something about Tesla. A chef/TV star committing suicide. Bill Clinton and James Paterson collaborating on a political thriller.

     And, as long-advertised, Trump actually met with Kim Jung Un . . . although did anything come of it?

     Did I miss anything else? And (though I feel bad for Anthony Bourdain) does any of it really matter?

     How about you . . . have you found yourself getting sucked into the news more and more in the last couple of years, and then thinking perhaps you've wasted a lot of time and emotional energy on things that don't really matter? Do you think the news has improved your life, or made you more knowledgeable? Or have you tuned out, or consciously gone on a news diet because you've decided too much modern-day news is simply not good for you?

     I'm of two minds. I've certainly enjoyed my news hiatus. But then I wonder, was I shirking my responsibility as a citizen and voter? Is sticking your head in the sand the best way to approach the modern political scene, no matter how nasty it has become?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

End of the Journey

     After driving some 3800 miles, we arrived at the end of the Oregon Trail, located in The Dalles, OR. The emigrants were headed to Oregon City and the Willamette valley, another hundred miles farther on. But the official end-of-trail marker is here because for the last hundred miles there is no trail.

Marker erected in The Dalles, OR, by Ezra Meeker who retraced the trail in 1906

     The emigrants had a choice to make in The Dalles. They had to get over the Cascades, which at times run right down to the river, so they could not follow along the banks. One choice was to load their wagons onto a raft and float down the river. Unfortunately, they often had to leave their oxen behind ... animals they needed to work their farms in the Willamette valley. But with or without the oxen, the river was pretty wild in the 1840s, before all the dams were built, and a lot of the rafts hung up on the rapids and were broken apart. The river route was a dangerous choice.

View today of the Columbia from The Dalles

     The alternative was the Barlow Road, constructed in 1846 by Sam Barlow and some 40-odd men, which skirted around Mount Hood. But this route also proved a rough ride. It took an extra week or ten days and involved a steep and exhausting climb for the already exhausted people and animals.

Brave the Columbia, or trek around Mt. Hood?

     We ourselves couldn't make that choice. There's no way to get our car down the river, and we were told that while some of the old Barlow Road still exists, it's pretty rough, even for an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

     Still, we couldn't help but wonder, traveling all this way in a modern four-door sedan, how the emigrants did it. By most estimates, some 30,000 people died on the trail, mostly from cholera and other diseases, others from accidents and a few by Indian attack. But most of them made it -- some 500,000 of them during the 1840s and '50s, all in search of a new life in Oregon, California or Utah.

Two modern-day pioneers
     It was a tough journey -- for them, not for us. But they were up to the challenge. And it made us wonder if we modern Americans are prepared for the challenges we face, which sometimes seem intractable and unsolvable, but which, let's face it, are less daunting than what our forebearers faced on the Oregon Trail.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Trail Weary

     By the time the emigrants had reached what is now present-day Oregon, they were plenty trail weary. So were we. There are about 350 miles left to go. For them it was a couple of weeks. For us, four more days. Then we'll be off the trail -- continuing up to Seattle to see family and friends.

Farewell Bend on the Snake River

     The pioneers said goodbye to the Snake River at Farewell Bend to travel, as the sign says, overland to the Columbia River. They only had a few narrow valleys to ease their way, along the Burnt River, the Powder River, the Grande Ronde River.

Sign at Farewell Bend

     But none of these proved much help when they had to climb over the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. We stopped at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center which sits atop on Flagstaff hill, outside Baker City, OR.

The view from Flagstaff hill ... where old wagon ruts scar the hillside

     We stopped again at Hilgard Junction State Park where many of the emigrants made camp along the Grande Ronde. But first they had to get down this hill, one of the many dangerous descents in the Blues.
Emigrants unhitched their oxen and used ropes to lower their wagons down this hill

     We met David and Vicki, a retired couple volunteering to take care of Hilgard for the month of June. David moved to Oregon from New York 12 years ago, and now he and Vicki, from South Dakota, live fulltime in their RV. They summer in eastern Oregon and winter on the coast. 

David and Vicki sell wood for $5 by the cart-full to Hilgard campers

     They seem to like this lifestyle. But I'm a little trail weary. So I don't know if I would. Would you?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Hot Springs, Lava Beds and Sand Dunes

     I'd never in my life been to Idaho until four days ago when we followed the old Oregon Trail, crossing over from Wyoming north of Bear Lake, to Montpelier and Soda Springs. According to most reports from the trail, the emigrants were thrilled to be done with the rough and boring landscape of Nebraska and Wyoming, and welcomed the smoother terrain of the Snake River valley.

     Furthermore, after leaving the cholera-ridden Platte River and gasping across the dry high prairie, they were glad to see fresh water in the Snake River, its tributaries, and the fresh springs that bubbled out of the ground.

Hooper Spring

     We stopped at Hooper Springs, outside of Soda Springs, ID.

Potable, but not so great

     We were allowed to sample the water. There were a few bubbles, and it tasted faintly of minerals. Not the best, in our opinion, but to the pioneers it was manna from heaven.

Are they crazy?

     A little farther on, in Lava Hot Springs, there's the cold, clear Portneuf River, which draws a lot of visitors to this day, many from Salt Lake City which is only two hours away. Some people raft the river.

Looking down on the hot baths

     B and I just took advantage of the hot springs. There are four different pools. The water temperature ranges from 105 to 115 degrees.

View across the lava beds

     After Lava Hot Springs we angled north to see Crater of the Moon National Monument. Most of the emigrants kept to the south, along the Snake River. But others followed the Goodale cutoff which skirted the northern edge of the lava beds and rejoined the main trail south of present-day Boise.

Rough going

     The lava beds themselves were almost impassable for the wagons.

Indian cave

     They'd be impassable for modern hikers as well, but for the paths that cut through the beds and lead up the hills and down into the lava caves.

Looking from the bottom

     We stopped at Bruneau Dunes State Park. The dunes were actually not on the path of the pioneers. But we wanted to see them.

Looking down at our car from the top

     Then it was a night in Boise, which got its name from the old mountain men of the early 1800s. Set in the high desert area, the tree lined valley was an oasis dominated by cottonwood trees. They called it la riviere boisee, which means "the wooded river."

Boise River runs through the city

     And now . . . it's on to Oregon!

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Rocks and Ruts, Ridges and Bridges

     Again, for those who were dropped by "Networked Blogs" as followers to this blog, you can still follow by scrolling down to Follow in the right-hand column if this page and clicking on "Follow" or you can follow through your own email by submitting your address.

     So anyway . . .  when you follow the Oregon Trail you spend a lot of time and effort looking for the old wagon ruts. Usually they are hard to spot and not so obvious. You're searching for eroded and grown-over swales that look to the untrained eye like any other uneven landscape.

     But sometimes, as in Guernsey, NE, they are much more obvious.

     You also look for landmarks that were noted time and again by the pioneers, such as Independence Rock in Wyoming. It got its name from the pioneers who needed to get this far by Independence Day in order to assure that they could make it over the California or Oregon mountains before the snows fell.

     Below is a closeup of the rock, which many emigrants climbed to view the landscape and sometimes carve their initials. Actually, visitors are still allowed to climb up the rock today. We thought about making the ascent, but decided at our age that discretion was the better part of valor.

     Not too long after Independence Rock comes South Pass, the long shallow rise over the Continental Divide, at 7550 feet above sea level. Here is the view from South Pass, looking east from where the emigrants came.

     Here is the view going west, where they were going.

     And here is the view to the north -- the Wind River peaks that the pioneers were avoiding.

     After traveling down the west side of the Divide, and turning south, we came to Fort Bridger, named after Jim Bridger, a fur trapper who opened a trading post here in 1843. The Fort Bridger State Historic Site has built a replica of his post, which was later, in 1858, turned into a military fort.

     Below is a replica of his store. It served the emigrants who, Bridger said, "In coming out were generally well supplied with money but by the time they get here are in need of all kinds of supplies, horses provisions, smithwork, etc." After the emigrants left Fort Bridger they all split up -- the Mormons heading south to Salt Lake, the miners southwest to California, the farmers northwest to Oregon.

     Meanwhile, we're still picturing those wagon ruts, carved into the stone so many years ago.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Three Signposts

     A quick housekeeping note. I've been informed that Google no longer supports "Networked Blogs". So if you've been following this blog with that Google network, and want to continue following, you'll have to sign up through the regular Follow channel (see the right-hand column).

     Also, don't forget, at the very bottom of this page I offer links to a number of retirement resources, including the Center for Retirement Research, The New Old Age, the Stanford Center on Longevity, and many more.

     Anyway . . . back to the Oregon Trail. After the pioneers had traveled over the prairie for 30 or 40 days, they started looking for signposts that signaled they were making progress. We'd traveled a little more than 500 miles when we saw the first of them: Courthouse rock, along with its smaller companion Jailhouse rock.

     A little farther down the road came the even more recognizable Chimney rock.

     And then Scott's Bluff, below on the right. Mitchell Pass runs through Scott's Bluff and South Bluff, on the left.

     We were able to drive up to the top of Scott's Bluff and walk around the summit. Just stay on the path, we were told, and watch out for rattlesnakes. We saw no rattlesnakes, but got a great view of Mitchell Pass from on high.

      After passing Scott's Bluff we soon crossed the line into Wyoming, where we were booked into Fort Laramie Bed & Breakfast.

      Little did we know that the Fort Laramie B&B is actually a 10,000-acre cattle ranch. We could have stayed in the teepee if we'd wanted . . .

     But instead we chose the main building, with the bedroom in the back.

    We experienced our first rainy day of the trip, and we sat around and read our books. After it cleared up the proprietor took us on a tour, explaining that around these parts a 10,000-acre ranch isn't really that big. You need at least 15,000 acres to run enough cattle to support a family.

    Then the next day, as we looked at the view out our front door, we realized we needed to continue heading west . . .

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Following the Rivers

     The Oregon Trail, we learned, was never one single trail leading across the plains and mountains. Instead, it consisted of a network of trails leaving from various places along the Mississippi. The trails then converged on the Platte River near Kearney, NE. Then, after following what became known as the Great Platte River Road for several hundred miles, some emigrants turned southwest to California while others continued northwest to Oregon. Starting in 1847 groups of Mormons also joined the trail, traveling up along the Platte River until they diverged south to Salt Lake.

     The earliest pioneers left from Independence, MO, as we did, and followed the Kansas River valley to the Blue River, and then up to the Platte.

     A few days out, the emigrants ran across Alcove Spring, located in northeastern Kansas. We found Alcove Springs the first day, tucked well off the main highway. Today it is still a nice, shady area with water flowing over the rocks -- "as cold and pure as if it had just been melted from ice," according to Edwin Bryant who was there in 1846 with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party. The water was high in the Blue River that year, which delayed their crossing, and was one of the reasons the Donner party fell behind schedule and got caught in the early winter snows of the Sierra Nevada.

     At Alcove Springs there is a monument to Sarah Keyes, a member of the Donner party who expired from tuberculosis here in Kansas, long before the party was stranded in the Sierra Nevada. Originally there were 87 members of the Donner party. Only 48 survived to reach California, many of them that winter of 1847 resorting to cannibalism to avoid starvation. This monument reads: "God in his love and charity, has called in this beautiful valley, a pioneer mother."

     But all that was far in the future for the Donner party for, as you can see, when you're in Alcove Springs, you still have a long way to go.

     The Pony Express shared the trail with the emigrants for its short-lived life. For all of its lore and legend, the Pony Express ran only 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861. We saw this statue in Marysville, KS, commemorating those trailblazers who carried messages between the Pacific and Atlantic in a then-record time of ten days. The Pony Express closed down in 1861 after the transcontinental telegraph was completed.

     Next stop for us was Rock Creek Crossing, over the border in Nebraska, where we saw true ruts from the Oregon trail. It turns out that the small creeks were sometimes harder for the pioneers to cross than the major rivers, because the banks were too steep for the wagons. The emigrants either had to lower the wagons with ropes, or else cut away the banks to make a more gradual incline. Eventually, enterprising settlers built bridges over the creeks and charged a toll to cross. This bridge is not original, but the trail is -- although it's been worn down considerably more over the years.

     We finally reached the Platte River, a waterway that the emigrants would follow all the way from Fort Kearney to Wyoming.

     Fort Kearney was built on the Platte in 1848 to serve as a way station for the settlers. The very next year, 1849, more than 4,000 wagons stopped by on their way to find gold in California.

     Fort Kearney also later served as a station for the Pony Express, and still later was there to protect workers building the Union Pacific railroad. But after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Oregon Trail fell into disuse, and the fort was discontinued as a military outpost in 1871. There are no original buildings left at Fort Kearney, but a stockade and several buildings have been reconstructed.

     And now we leave Fort Kearney, heading off along the Great Platte River Road toward Wyoming . . . .