Sunday, August 9, 2020

Lessons from 60 Years of Living

     My wife and I Facetimed with my daughter and her husband and our baby granddaughter the other day. They're busy starting a family, moving to a different city, getting a new job, buying a house. It's great to see them, talk to them, but I had to bite my tongue because all I wanted to do is give them advice -- and they really don't need my advice.

     Nevertheless, I've been on this earth a long time and have learned a few things, although as my wife often reminds me -- ha, you don't know everything. So if you can add anything to these lessons, please, be my guest.

     So some lessons, learned the hard way:

     The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I learned this in high-school geometry. The principle goes well beyond mathematics and applies to everything from mapping out a trip to planning out a career

      Look to see what's coming. This comes from driver's education. Look both ways, and anticipate what the other drivers are going to do. This is especially important if you (as I did) learned to drive a stick shift, to avoid excessive shifting, excessive braking, and just generally knowing what's about to happen so you don't get blindsided. In driving, as in life, you don't want to get blindsided -- whether it's by a divorce, a layoff, a sudden accident or mishap that could have been foreseen and thus avoided.

     Don't piss into the wind. I learned this at Boy Scout camp. But aside from not getting yourself wet, the message is: don't buck the trend, whether it's the prevailing opinion at work or the prevailing opinion among your friends -- unless you want to lose your job or your friends. So . . . go with the flow.

     Know when to break the rules. Of course, there are always exceptions to the previous piece of advice. Sometimes the rules make so sense; they're holding you back, and you need to break out of the box. I learned this in my first job, when I broke some rules and catapulted myself into a promotion. But, I realized later, I was lucky. Because make no mistake. Most of the time you'll be opposed by the hidebound, the people with a vested interest, the people who can't see over the horizon.

     Stay on your toes. I learned this one in Little League. I played second base because while I was not afraid of ground balls, I had no arm and couldn't make the throw from shortstop or third base. But playing the infield, the ball comes at you pretty fast. You have to be ready. The coach would tell us, "Stay on your toes."

     How to make a decision. Some people make a list of pros and cons. Others flip a coin -- and know the answer when the coin is in the air and they're hoping for a particular result. But I learned the concept of "expected value" in business school. Suppose you have one die. It costs you a dollar to roll the die. You pick a number, and if your number comes up you win $10. Should you play? The answer is yes, because on average it will cost $6 to win $10. If you're expected value of an action is positive, then you should take the action. It works in business but also in other aspects of life including your love life. It also works in gambling. Or as Kenny Rogers told us: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

     Pick your fights. I learned this from my older sister. We used to fight all the time when we were little kids and I would always lose -- until one day when I got a bigger, I finally got on top of her and pinned her against a rock. We never fought again, because my sister was smart enough to know she wasn't going to win anymore. I learned it again later in life when I stood up to my boss when he was doing something wrong. He backed down, because he had to, but it wasn't long before I found myself with an early retirement package.  

     Go down swinging. Sometimes you have to fight even if you think you might lose -- if it's a matter of principle, or justice, or desperation. If that's the case, don't give up. You never know. You might surprise them. But if you do lose, lose with honor. So maybe if I hadn't picked that fight with my boss I'd have a more generous pension today -- but at least I can live with myself. 

     Get out of your rut. I learned this from tennis. It's easy when you're playing tennis to fall into the habit of hitting the ball back to your opponent. He's standing right there. So sometimes you have to remind yourself:  Hit the ball to the other side of the court! Make him run! Similarly, in life sometimes you have to shake things up -- to make people notice, to catch competitors off balance, to change the pace -- whether it's a career, a relationship, a vacation, an investment. Don't always just hit the ball back.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Is This Really Urban Renewal?

     I mentioned that my wife and I took a day trip up to Bethlehem, PA, to catch a sight of the so-called Steel Stacks. So here's what we saw as we turned into the parking lot.


     Pretty amazing, huh? We arrived the afternoon that Musikfest was to begin, held annually at the beginning of August. Gates open at 5 p.m., the music starts at 6 p.m. Below is a picture of the main stage, hard up against the Steel Stacks,. Usually Musikfest attracts thousands of young people -- it's located just down the hill from Lehigh University --  but this year crowds are limited, so the main stage is not being used.

 
      Instead the bands are playing at a secondary stage, across the street in front of the ArtsQuest center. The crowd is limited to 250 people in the main area, and another 250 in this secondary area. Foods tents have been set up in one of the parking lots. Again, only 250 people are allowed into the food area at one time -- all arranged around a one-way pathway. Take-out only. 


     We were not there for the music. We just wanted to see what this was all about. Musikfest is held at the site of the old Bethlehem Steel Company, founded in 1863 to make iron rails for the railroad. The plant was a major manufacturer during both World Wars and went on to produce steel used in modern bridges and skyscrapers. After the plant closed in 1995, it was left to the elements. But in recent years the site has slowly been renovated as an urban chic destination for tourists, music lovers . . . and gamblers. 


     Down the street, behind an abandoned building, we could glimpse Wind Creek casino, which in my mind illustrates the change in our economy from manufacturing (steel making) to services (games of chance). The casino, here since 2009, closed in March and re-opened in June to a Covid-limited audience. We didn't walk all the way to the casino. Instead, we circled back around the other way and found . . . a Roman ruin?


     No, just another post-industrial American ruin.. And beyond that, another one . . . 


     and yet another, whose falling-apart roof lends itself to a more abstract view.


     So as you can see, they have a ways to go in the renovations. Still, there are economic green shoots growing out of these old ruins. There's an industrial museum buried among these buildings. A community college has claimed one corner of an old building. Then, of course, there's always tourism, the great American pastime. 


     The Visitor Center was closed -- it was opening later in the day for Musikfest -- but we probably wouldn't go in anyway. We don't even use public restrooms these days. So we left for home, wondering all the way: Is the new American economy really better than the old one?

Sunday, August 2, 2020

"Oh, My God!"

     Laurie Stone woke up an hour later than usual. "Oh my God," she thought. "Where's Rocky?" Her kitty always roused her at the crack of dawn with his loud Meoooowww!

     A sense of dread rose as she got out of bed. She'd heard about older pets dying quietly in the night. She called for him as she looked around the bedroom. She walked through the living room, through the dining room, to the kitchen . . . .

     For the rest of  the story, you have to go over to The Morning the Cat Didn't Wake Me. And after you've done that, we can run down the posts of some other bloggers -- bloggers who are mostly staying home, sometimes sleeping late, but also venturing out, one way or another, to ponder different points on the compass.

      As for me, I've had to cancel several vacations due to Covid. Instead, my wife and I have been making day trips. We drove over to Princeton, NJ, and walked around the beautiful college campus. We traveled up to Bethlehem, PA, and took a tour around the old steel furnaces. We followed the Delaware River down to Bristol, PA, where the river meets up with the canal that once was used to haul coal from the mountains to the city.

     But other than these short journeys (okay, a secret -- we can't go for more than three hours total, because we don't want to "go" in a public restroom), we've been staying close to home.

Back home for Carol. But where is it?
     Carol Cassara, blogging at Heart, Mind, Soul, suggests that the pull toward "home" seems stronger than ever in our senior years. She left home when she was 21 and made a life for herself in California. But now something has shifted. She and her husband have been spending more time back home with family and old friends . . . all of which has led to a life-changing decision that she explains in Can You Really Go Home Again?

     Rebecca Olkowski with BabyBoomster.com felt a pull toward another kind of home. As she tells us in Escape to Tempe, AZ, she was invited on a virtual tour of the city, where both her mother and brother once lived. The city has changed a lot, she reports, and now offers festivals, fine dining, major sports events. But with temperatures currently hitting 118 degrees, and Covid running rampant (Arizona is averaging about 2,500 cases a day) it might be best to stick to wide-open outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking and golf . . . at least for now.

     Meryl Baer reminds us that the political hype continues to escalate as election day nears. By the way, did you know? Meryl Baer has a new blog called Beach Boomer Bulletin. Check it out -- it may be the only chance you get to go to the beach this summer.

     Anyway, Baer certainly echoes my feelings when she says that most of us can't wait until November 4 when the craziness ends. (Wishful thinking!) But political madness is not a new phenomenon. To give us all some perspective, she reviews in Political Scandals to Ponder a variety of scandals that caught the nation's attention over the years.

     To bring things up-to-date, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, offers us news and reviews of Trump's Four Executive Orders on Prescription Drugs. According to Peter Maybarduk of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines Program, she reports, the half-measures are weak and will make only small changes in some drug prices to some people.

     Finally, whether you're at home pondering politics, or taking care of aging pets -- or finding a way to travel in these treacherous times -- Jennifer Koshak has a simple message: Remember to laugh, don't be afraid of being silly, and Never Stop Having Fun

Sunday, July 26, 2020

We've All Canceled Plans

     My wife and I were supposed to leave for Wisconsin today, on a two-week trip to visit my daughter and grandchild. Instead, we decided to stay home.

     We'd booked the trip back in May, when Covid cases were going down from an average of 30,000 a day to 20,000 a day. The virus was supposed to take the summer off, with the experts only worried about a second wave that might come in the fall.

     So we booked an airbnb, and I told my daughter: "We've got reservations, and we'll be there ...  you know, unless the Coronavirus makes a big comeback and stops us from traveling."

     We carved out the time on our calendar and looked forward to a Wisconsin vacation -- we'd never been to Wisconsin. We were doubly excited because we'd already had two trips canceled because of Covid. We were going to take a long weekend back home in New York at the end of April, but the event got canceled, and we were wary of traveling anyway, so we didn't go. Airbnb was good to us -- it gave us a full refund.

     Then our summer trip to Cape Cod was canceled. We had signed up for a week in July, but the woman who rents us her house called us and said they'd decided not to rent at all during the summer.

     We found out later, from a friend who lives on the Cape, that a lot of Bostonians and New Yorkers who have summer places on the Cape have moved there for the duration. The Cape is pretty crowded -- not with tourists, but with second homeowners.

     B read that on nearby Martha's Vineyard, where the rich and famous summer, they're experiencing a surge in fall school registrations. A number of second homeowners intend to spend the next year there, working from home and sending their kids to the local school.

     Anyway, we had two trips canceled. But I bet we're not alone. I'd guess a lot of us have had to cancel travel plans because of Covid.

     Still, we were looking forward to the trip to Wisconsin. And we prepared. We checked with our airbnb host to make sure she cleaned and disinfected. We made reservations at a hotel along the way with a "CleanStay" program. We stocked up on disinfectants and masks, and even researched how we could avoid public restrooms on the highway.

Not going to Wisconsin
     But there was no way around it. Instead of going down, the cases of Covid began to rise again. Big time.

     On May 17 new cases were down to 13,000 a day nationwide. There were several other days at the end of May when new cases came in under 20,000. But then they began to go up again -- 21,000, 23,000, 25,000. They crested 30,000 again on June 19. They hit 40,000 on June 25. They climbed to over 50,000 by July 1. And over 60,000 by July 8.

     This was making us nervous. The virus was supposed to go to sleep for the summer; instead, it was raging back. I began to drill down, looking at the cases in Wisconsin -- and in Ohio where we'd have to spend a night in the hotel. In July, Wisconsin went from 500 cases a day to 700 cases a day, to 900 cases a day. On Friday new cases in Wisconsin numbered 1,058. Ohio was worse. The state has suffered over 1,000 cases every day since the beginning of July, hitting 1,560 on Friday.

     The numbers at home have also been going up. But more gently. Pennsylvania currently has about 800 cases a day. So we finally decided it would be foolish to drive into the teeth of the epidemic.  Even if we're careful, we realized, we'd have more contact when we're away and on the road, exposing ourselves to more public touch points.

     So it's back to stay-at-home, self-isolation, talking to people on Zoom. But that's better than contracting Covid, maybe ending up in the hospital, or worse, and possibly giving it to my daughter and her family.

     So this morning I woke up. And my first thought was: What about Thanksgiving? Maybe we could go to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving! And then there's our winter trip ...

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Do You Know Your Geography?

     We've been planning a trip to Wisconsin for a couple of months now, to see my daughter who moved there in the spring. So I've been spending a lot of time hunched over maps, drawing routes on google, checking out the states we will drive through -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

     It's still up in the air about whether we will actually hazard this trip, considering the rise in Covid-19. But for all the aching back I've suffered in the planning, I have come across a few geographic surprises. I thought I'd share them with you, in the form of a quiz. So how much do you know about these United States of ours? Answers are at the bottom of the page.

     1. I used to live in New York State which is larger in area than Pennsylvania. But is New York larger than Wisconsin? So you tell me, which covers a larger area, New York or Wisconsin?

     2. Then which of these states is larger -- Pennsylvania or Ohio?

     3. Going farther afield (and out of my way), how about Florida or Idaho -- which is larger, area-wise?

     4. Now to population. Which state has more people, Wisconsin or Indiana?

     5. How about Pennsylvania vs. Illinois? Which one has the larger population?

     6. Okay, back to Idaho. Which state has a larger population, Idaho or Hawaii?

     7. Do you know the capital of Wisconsin -- is it Madison or Milwaukee?

     8.  Like I said, I used to live in New York. But when I did, I actually lived closer to the capital of Connecticut than I did to the capital of New York. The capital of New York is Albany. What's the capital of Connecticut?

     9. Now live in Pennsylvania. But I live closer to the capital of New Jersey than the capital of Pennsylvania. The capital of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg. What's the capital of New Jersey?

     10. The other place I like to visit is South Carolina. Is the capital Charleston or Columbia?

     Bonus:  I'm sorry I had to research this question. But it turns out that Wisconsin has twice the rate of Covid-19 as Pennsylvania -- just as many cases, with half the population. Which state currently has the most cases of Covid: California, Florida or Texas?

     Answers:

     1. Wisconsin at 65 thousand square miles compared to New York's 55 thousand. 2. Pennsylvania edges out Ohio, with 46 thousand sq. mi. compared to Ohio at a little less than 45 thousand. 3. Idaho. This one surprised me. Idaho is larger than Florida, with 84 thousand sq. mi. compared to 66 thousand 4. Indiana at 6.7 million people compared to Wisconsin's 5.8 million. 5. Pennsylvania wins at 12.8 million compared to 12.7 for Illinois -- Illinois used to be more populous but it is one of the few states that has lost population in recent years. 6. Idaho wins again, with 1.8 million compared to Hawaii's 1.4 million. 7. Madison. 8. Hartford. 9. Trenton. 10. Columbia. Bonus: Florida, with a seven-day average of over 11,000 new cases; Texas is averaging 10,000 a day and California 9,000. Pennsylvania has fewer than 1,000 cases a day.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Is Joe Biden Good for Retirees?

     Presidential candidate Joe Biden recently announced his economic plan for America. Normally, I try to stay away from politics on this blog. But a tax plan is something you can analyze, not just to judge whether you're for it or against it, but in terms of who it would help and who it would hurt.

     By way of full disclosure, I like to think I know what I'm talking about when it comes to these matters (I did get an MBA back in the dark ages), but I am not an expert so I invite anyone to correct or expand on my analysis.

     Here's a rundown of his proposals.

     Income taxes. Biden wants to take back the Trump tax cut. For example, he would increase the top individual tax rate for incomes above $400,000 from the current 37%  to the pre-tax-cut level of 39.6%. This might affect certain individual retirees ... but I doubt those individuals would get much sympathy from the rest of us.

     Payroll taxes. Biden wants to impose a 12.4% payroll tax on wages over $400,000. Currently, only wages up to $137,700 are subject to payroll tax. The new tax would benefit retirees since it would help shore up Social Security. It would benefit retirees even more if Biden didn't create a "donut hole" to exempt wages between $137,700 and $400,000, and just make all wages subject to the payroll tax.

     Capital gains taxes. He proposes raising the capital gains rate up to the same rate as earned income. Many people think this is perfectly fair -- why should investors get a tax break over workers? -- but make no mistake, it would be costly for anyone who has built up investments outside of an IRA or 401k.

     Itemized deductions. Biden would restore a higher limit, up to $400,000, on itemized deductions. This would be a favor for high income people in high-tax states such as New York and California, bringing them a tax cut. But who retires to New York or California? So theoretically it would hurt the rest of us, since we'd have to make up for those lost revenues.

     Corporate income taxes. Biden proposes raising the corporate income tax from 21% to 28%, which is halfway back to the old rate of 35%. Obviously, increasing the corporate rate doesn't affect individuals, except in a very indirect way. Some Wall Streeters warn a corporate tax increase could take down the stock market by 10 - 25%. But that's sheer speculation. If the stock market takes a tumble it's much more likely to be caused by the Covid economy than a corporate tax plan.

     Minimum corporate tax. He would create an alternative minimum tax on corporations with profits of more than $100 million. The idea is that it would tax at least some profits of companies, such as Amazon and Netflix, that have evaded taxes by the clever management of tax laws and business regulations.

     Special interests. Biden would offer tax credits to small businesses for adopting workplace retirement plans. This would not help current retirees, but it would help many future retirees who work for small businesses. He would expand some tax credits for renewable energy and restrict tax credits for fossil fuels. Again, this wouldn't affect current retirees; but it would make one small step toward helping the future of the planet. He's also proposing an $8000 tax credit for child care, eliminating some real-estate tax loopholes, expanding Affordable Care Act tax subsidies.

     Bottom Line. Only you can decide whether Joe Biden will make you richer or poorer, whether his ideas strike you as "more fair" or "more just" than the current system. But I can tell you two things:

     1) The plan is hardly radical. That may disappoint progressives, but reassure moderates. He is not proposing a wealth tax or even an increase in the estate tax. He is not proposing a single-payer medical plan. Instead, he calls for an extension of Medicare and an expansion of Affordable Care Act. He has put forth a more ambitious climate-change plan, but has not said how he would pay for it (so you have to question whether it's real). As a response to the economic upheaval caused by Covid-19 he claims he'll create at least 5 million "good paying" jobs in clean energy, research and development, and minority-owned businesses.

     2) Joe Biden's plan will not make the U. S. tax system any simpler. Unlike Amazon or Netflix, we will not be able to "game" the tax system, yet we will still need an accountant or Turbotax just to fill out all our tax forms. And the lawyers and accountants who feed off the complications of the tax code will not have to worry about any loss of business.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Is It a New World?

     Some people are acclimating themselves to the Covid-19 pandemic. They're going outside, eating at restaurants, playing sports. They've decided that the disease will be with us for a while. We can't continue living the shut-in life that we went through in April and May. And so we have to take measured risks just to live our lives.

     Others are more nervous than ever. They're realizing that over 130,000 Americans have died of the disease -- more Americans than died in the entire Vietnam war. They feel like they're playing Russian Roulette. They squeezed the trigger in April, and again in May, and it came up a blank. But how many more times can they squeeze the trigger before there's a bullet in the chamber?

     I know a few who have had the disease and survived. A 68-year-old fellow golfer was in bed for five days, then recovered. He's okay now. A couple in their 60s both had to go into the hospital. She was put on oxygen, he had to go on a ventilator. They both suffered terrible pain and fear. They, too, survived, but may suffer permanent effects.

     And the experts say we haven't yet reached the peak of even the first phase of the disease -- not to mention a second wave that may come in the fall or sometime next year.

The new normal
     So what are we doing? Some people are still in lock down. They are going out only to collect curbside pickup at the grocery store, or get takeout pizza. They're taking a walk down empty streets. But for the most part they're still staying home, closing themselves off like hermits.

     Some people are behaving selfishly. They are hoarding everything from groceries to toilet paper to hand sanitizer. Others display blatant disregard for both themselves and others. What, me worry? they say. And so they go out to parties or the beach or the amusement park and just have fun. They don't wear a mask because . . . well, it makes it hard to breathe.

     One couple in our community owns an RV. They are currently traveling out West and posting pictures on their Facebook page. Are they offering us some vicarious pleasures of their travels? Or are they just rubbing it in?

     Some people are going out of their way to be helpful. My town offers a program where people can call locked-down residents of senior living facilities to provide a friendly voice and give people news from the outside world. Some are going shopping for elderly or disabled people, or holding Zoom meetings for kids to help keep them entertained.

     Most of us are just being sensible. We go out when we have to, but stay home most of the time. I'm guessing our lawns and gardens look better this year, because we're spending time in the yard. Maybe we've used the time to clear out some clutter in the garage or basement; or we've organized our photo collection or knitted a sweater or scarf.

     Some people are thinking that our lifestyles have contributed to the problem. Are pollution, overpopulation, climate change and global warming contributing to increased pathogens and disease? Nobody really knows. We do know that less human activity associated with Coronavirus has cleared up the skies in some major metropolitan areas, at least temporarily.

     We also know that co-morbidity factors such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure can make us more vulnerable to the virus. Some people have taken this as a wake-up call to improve their lifestyles -- eat better, get more exercise, lose weight. I certainly see more people than normal walking and jogging up and down my street these days.

     Some people are trying to get creative, find new ways to do things. How many of us have learned how to Facetime or Zoom in the last few months? We have several teachers who live on our block, and they held spring classes on Google Classroom, exploring new ways to reach out to their young students using photos, games, videos.

     School administrators are trying to figure out how to hold classes in the fall. There are all manner of compromises and creative solutions being proposed. At my own Center for Learning in Retirement, we are holding all fall classes online. The good news: almost all the instructors have agreed to teach their classes online, and so far enrollment looks like it's going to be at least as good as last year, if not better.

     So where do we go next? I'm still hoping that researchers will come up with a cure or a vaccine -- and in a year or 18 months this will be but a bitter memory. My wife B thinks Covid-19 will be with us for a long time. In her opinion, we will have to learn how to adapt. Be cautious. Be safe. Wash hands. Use hand sanitizer. Wear a mask. But there are still going to be people who get sick and die. We'll have to live with the toll of Covid as a price of modern life, just as we live with the toll of crime or car accidents.

    That's why I'm at home right now, pecking away at my computer. And she is out this morning, taking a walk down to the farmer's market. It has reopened -- restricted to 50% capacity, with mandated face masks -- even though the number of new cases is rising again in our state.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

You Think THAT'S an Insult!

     One thing people probably agree on is that our world has become coarser. People don't hesitate to insult people on Facebook or anywhere else online. As Vivek Murthy and Alice Chen wrote on CNN.com, "The values of social media [are] sensationalism, us-vs-them rhetoric and curating one's life to look perfect."

     And no matter where you go you can't get away from the cursing. It used to be the most common word in the English language was the. Now it's a word that begins with F.

     Of course, insulting people is nothing new. But it used to be done with more class, more panache. Here are some examples:

     Said New York theater critic Walter Kerr about a rival: "He had delusions of adequacy."

     Or Winston Churchill about a fellow politician: "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."

     Winston Churchill was always good for a laugh. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once sent a note to Churchill: "I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend, if you have one." Churchill's reply: "Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second ... if there is one."

     Or how about another retort. A member of Parliament told Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease." To which Disraeli responded, "That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

     William Faulkner insulted fellow novelist Ernest Hemingway: "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

     Another writer, Moses Hadas, sent this response to a colleague: "Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I'll waste no time reading it."

     Okay, here's a groaner from movie director Billy Wilder: "He has Van Gogh's ear for music."

     Some go for the jugular, like this one from lawyer Clarence Darrow: "I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."

     Or Mark Twain: "I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."

     And then American journalist Irwin S. Cobb: "I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial."

     Some insults are fairly subtle, but no less cutting. Oscar Wilde remarked about one person: "He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends."

     Or British statesman John Bright: "He is a self-made man and worships his creator."

     Then the old Samuel Johnson who said of a fellow Englishman: "He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others."

     Actress Mae West was always good for an insult: "His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork."

     American actor Forrest Tucker along the same lines: "He loves nature in spite of what it did to him."

     Here's one from Scottish writer Andrew Lang, to keep in mind whenever you're reading something on Facebook or anywhere else on or offline: "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts ... for support rather than illumination."

     And finally, another from Oscar Wilde: "Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."

     And so ... I'd better go!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

More Stuff I Don't Understand

     I wrote a few months ago about several things going on in the world that I just don't understand -- how prices keep going up, but there's no inflation; how we have so many new ways to communicate, yet Americans suffer from loneliness more than ever; how we're not having enough babies to replace the population (or pay Social Security benefits), yet there are too many people in the world causing global warming -- and breeding pandemics.

     I have to admit that there are a few more things I just don't understand. For example, the U. S. unemployment rate is over 15%, yet the stock markets are near record highs. It's not just stocks. CNBC recently reported that banks are taking in record deposits -- an increase of over $2 trillion in the last six months -- and the savings rate among Americans recently hit 33% of income. I guess what we need is . . . more unemployment?

     Also, I marvel in our age of super-fast electronics. You don't even have to go to the bank to deposit a check. You can do it on your phone. And when was the last time you even used a check anyway? Yet even with the high unemployment rate there is one job category that's expanding -- couriers and messengers. I thought couriers and messengers went out with the Civil War. But according to the U. S. Labor Department there are now 904,000 Americans employed as couriers and messengers, up from 859,000 in January. Go figure.

     Something else I don't understand. In April there were roughly 30,000 new cases of Covid-19 per day. Victims were flooding hospitals. People were panicked. They stayed home as schools were shut down and stores and restaurants were closed. Roads were empty of traffic. Only essential places like supermarkets and pharmacies were allowed to stay open.

     Now, today, new cases of Covid-19 are over 50,000 a day. Almost twice as many as April. Hospitals are still crowded; the death toll mounts. Yet the stores are open (yes, with restrictions). The restaurants are crowded. Traffic is back to normal. People are having parties. What am I missing?

     Like I said, all this just adds to what I've already admitted in that previous post Things I Just Don't Understand.

     The polls only bring more confusion. Something like 40% of Americans approve of our current president. About 55% disapprove. But Congress scores even worse. Only about 20% of Americans approve of Congress. Yet where do the political parties go to find new presidential candidates? To the one place even less popular than the presidency -- Congress (i.e Gabbard, Gillibrand, Booker, Harris, Warren, Sanders -- and remember, before that, Cruz, Rubio, etc.).

     I admit I thought a few of those candidates were okay. But don't you think it would be better to look elsewhere? Doctors, dentists, engineers, teachers, firefighters, accountants and nurses all enjoy higher approval ratings than politicians. 

     Well, we did turn to a real-estate developer once. Didn't work out too well. Meanwhile, I couldn't find any data on approval ratings for former vice presidents. But I'd guess they do okay. After all, for the most part they're unobjectionable.

     One last thing. When pollsters ask people if they approve of the direction of the country, only about 25% now say it's going in "the right direction." Over 60% say our country is on "the wrong track."

     Say what you want about the now-uncool Bill Clinton, and George Bush the first before him, but according to the polls the last time a majority of Americans agreed the country was going in "the right direction" was back in the 1990s. Is there anything to be learned from that? 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

How Do You Cope with Change?

     The Coronavirus has brought dramatic change to all of our lives. But change is nothing new. We had a discussion about change last week in one of our classes at the local Center for Learning in Retirement. We didn't come up with any definitive answers. Instead, we all realized that change -- though always with us -- is a complicated thing.

     Most of us like to think that we embrace change. We're supposed to be progressive and look to the future. But some people admitted that they like their current routine -- they don't want to be jolted into a new regimen.

     Or as one woman said, "The only person who likes change is the baby with the wet diaper."

     Many of us have retired in the past few years. The change in our priorities, and even our routines, is still fresh in our minds. Some people have had difficulty coping with this change. They feel as though they are drifting, even wasting their lives, without a job to do, a reason to get up in the morning. Others have greeted retirement with open arms, pursuing new activities, developing new relationships -- and now they think they were wasting their lives when they were working for someone else, following someone else's dreams.

     One person said that he used to like change, when he was younger and change meant greater opportunities, new experiences, new relationships. But he's not so sure about change anymore. He just turned 70, and now he foresees that the changes in his life are going to be more challenging -- managing on a smaller fixed income, dealing with illness or injury, coping with the loss of family and friends.

     But another 70-year-old said that change is a good thing. She acknowledged that we sometimes face personal loss -- but we also get grandchildren! And look at our larger society. We see women becoming more empowered, non-traditional lifestyles becoming more respected, people of color demanding not just equal rights but equal treatment.

     Besides, isn't the alternative to change just stagnation, boredom and resentment? Sure it's sometimes hard to step out of our comfort zone. But that's what keeps us vibrant, engaged and looking out to a world larger than ourselves. Change nourishes growth. And if you don't grow, you die. 

     Do people change depending on their circumstances? One person cited their mother who was a homebody when she was living in the super-competitive environment of a New York suburb. The mother was never assertive enough to get involved in the community. But then she retired to Florida, where the social environment was more friendly, more relaxed. She stepped forward and volunteered in town, even heading up a local women's group. Had she changed? Or had her environment changed?

     Somebody else wondered if a major event can make you change -- a divorce, job loss, or having a child. One women reflected how she has changed since her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She'd been kind of a control freak her whole life. If there was a problem, she'd roll up her sleeves and fix it. But now she knew there was no fixing her husband's problem. There was coping with it, adapting to it -- something she had to learn.

     Some people wondered if we really even ever change at all. Yes, perhaps we react differently under certain circumstances, but our core beliefs and values don't really change. If we're an introvert we probably don't turn into a social butterfly just because we move down the block. If we are ambitious and crave success, we probably don't change just because we get a new job or move to another neighborhood. The Type A personality who thrives at work probably becomes the super-volunteer in retirement. The nurturing person who cares about other people will find ways to help others no matter where they are.

     But we do evolve, don't we? One man felt that he is a very different person now compared to what he was in his 20s and 30s. He recalled a line used by President George Bush to explain away his youthful indiscretions: "When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid." This man could identify with that . . . and actually, so can I.

     So I don't know. Do you feel like you're the same person you were when you were young and . . . well, not as smart as you are now?

     We do mature, become more responsible as we get older. Perhaps having children makes us more responsible and socially aware. Or maybe we just mellow as get get older.

     Of course, the most recent change is the pandemic that's been thrust upon us these past few months. Some people are secretly happy to have the excuse to stay at home. As one women said: "I love our Zoom meetings. I don't have to get up and get ready and go to class. I can just sit around in my pajamas and still talk to people!"

     I guess change will always be with us. So I suppose we should make the best of it. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

What Are We Doing?

     We're still in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, so what are we doing about it? How do we fight an enemy that we can't see, and where the best strategy is to stay home and do nothing?

     Some of us have been cleaning our homes and reorganizing our garages. Others have been working in their yard or garden. (Oh, my aching back!) We've been using social media.and spending lots of time on Netflix and Amazon Prime. (Has anyone signed up for HBO Max?)

     I have gone onto Coursera and found a few interesting online courses . . . and I've learned a few things in the process. I took a statistics course from a woman at MIT, a history course from a professor at University of Virginia, and a psychology course given by a Yale professor.

     B does a lot of walking, sometimes with me, sometimes with a friend -- no masks, but plenty of fresh air and social distancing.

     We go to the supermarket once a week now. But we are eating better than ever. B likes to cook; she has more time to cook; and so we've had well-prepared meals instead of a sometimes-rushed dinner thrown together after a busy day. Actually, eating a good nutritional diet will keep us healthy -- and help us fight off the virus if we do get exposed. However, I read that the average American has gained five pounds since mid-March. Being overweight is one of those underlying conditions that makes us more vulnerable to the virus. (Damn, I eat too many desserts.)

     Most people are being sensible. They socially distance; they wear masks; they wash their hands and use disinfectant. But it does seem as though many people are becoming complacent. Here in Pennsylvania -- like in much of the Northeast -- our case count is way down and restrictions are slowly being lifted. Restaurants are now open, but for outdoor seating only. Stores are open; but you're required to wear a mask to go inside. (Sorry, I'm a  wimp; we're still only doing curbside pickup.)

     My golf group has started up again. We're outdoors. We try to stay at least six feet apart. We're supposed to have a mask to wear when we're close together -- checking in, when we're all on the tee. This all works out pretty well. But sometimes people forget to don their mask, or they thoughtlessly wander too close to another person. (I know, I should walk the course, not ride in a cart.) But so far there have been no cases of Covid among the 30-some members of the group. So that's good.

     B and I had our first outdoor get-together this weekend when my son and his girlfriend came to visit. We did not wear masks. But we were vigilant about the six-foot distance. And they only went inside our house to go to the bathroom. Afterwards, we wiped down surfaces with a bleach solution. (It seemed very strange to be disinfecting after my own son.)

     But some people are getting complacent. (No comment about the Trump campaign rally.) And I've heard a few macho-sounding comments coming from some neighbors -- ah, whaddaya worried about, don't be a sissy. But I think our response has more to do with our personal psychology. If you believe in fate, that whatever's going to happen will happen, then you're more likely to ignore the virus and go out and live a normal life. If you believe that your actions have consequence, that you to some extent create your own destiny, then you're more likely to take precautions. 

     This disease is hard on people. It's hard for front-line workers, hard for people who've lost their jobs, hard for families with young kids at home. It's hard for people who want to confront a problem and do something about it -- because you can't see the enemy, and the best way to fight it is to do nothing.
What good is an old-fashioned hero like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in fighting this disease?

     But it is very real, and very much still with us. We've had over a hundred thousand deaths, and some are predicting another hundred thousand by October. In places like Arizona, Texas, Florida, and the Carolinas, where restrictions have gone out the window, the virus seems to be coming back with a vengeance.

     So I guess the best thing to do is continue to stay home, wash our hands, keep our distance, try to take care of ourselves. And do nothing. (Maybe I'll take a  nap.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"If You Wish to Preserve Yourself ..."

     I normally wouldn't be doing this, except, you know, I have a lot of time on my hands.

     I'm watching a series of lectures on Amazon Prime called The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague, given by Dorsey Armstrong, professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University. I'd recommend the course only to those who are really into this sort of thing. While Armstrong is obviously well-versed in her subject, the material is very historical, extremely detailed, and somewhat repetitive.

     Nevertheless, for whatever reason, every day for the last week or so I've found myself falling down the rabbit hole of the 14th century, when the bubonic plague was creeping across Asia and Europe. The Great Mortality, as it came to be called, killed some 100 million people or roughly half the world's population.

A danse macabre
     The silver lining to the period was a blossoming of certain types of art. For example, the ghoulish art form of danse macabre, showing people meeting up with their skeletal counterparts, came out of this period. There was also memento mori -- "remember you must die" -- which involved tomb art  depicting the decayed corpse of the diseased. And you might already know that The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales were written in this era -- both collections of tales told by people on a journey to escape the plague. 

     But what impressed me most about the presentation was a letter written by Louis Heyligen, a Flemish monk in the Papal Court in Avignon. (In case you don't remember from high-school history, for a time during the 1300s the Papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon, France.) Heyligen sent his letter back home, where the plague had yet to hit in full force, giving advice to friends and family.

     "I am writing to you most dearly beloved so that you should know in what peril we are now living. If you wish to preserve yourself the best advice is that a man should eat and drink moderately and avoid getting cold and refrain from any excess -- and above all mix little with people unless it be with a few who have healthy breath. But it is best to stay at home until the epidemic has passed, as it is to be feared that in the end it will encircle the whole world . . . "

     I found this a curiously personal reminder that we are not the first, and we won't be the last, to suffer from a great pandemic. In fact, while the Black Death was at its most virulent when it first showed up in 1347, there were recurring outbreaks for another 200 years.

     And so if you're not disposed to heed the cautious advice about Corona from Governor Cuomo or Governor Wolf or Governor Brown, maybe you'll pay attention to the counsel sent out so long ago by the forlorn friar from Flanders.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

What's On Your Mind?

     Are you getting fed up with the Coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders and wearing masks and social distancing? Well, if you are, so are we.

     Yes, a roundup of Baby Boomer blogs starts with the pandemic -- how can it not? -- but then it goes on to the personal, the practical, the political and more.

     The Pandemic -- Carol Cassara realizes that everyone has responded to Covid-19 differently, but the root of their behaviors might not be so obvious. In her post Discovering Hidden Ways the Pandemic Is Impacting Us Cassara reveals some of her own sometimes-mysterious pandemic behaviors -- and what she discovered about where they actually came from.

Responding to pandemic
     The Personal -- For Laurie Stone of Musings, Rants & Scribbles, summer reminds her of Cape Cod. And Cape Cod reminds her of her grandmother Nana. In her essay Summer of Pineapple and Tuna Fish she reflects on a special time she spent with Nana on the Cape a long time ago.

     Another personal note. For the first time since 2004, B and I will not be vacationing on Cape Cod. The woman who owns our usual rental told us that because of Covid-19 her family decided not to rent the house at all this summer. So we are trying to do a different trip . . . more on that in an upcoming post.

     The Practical -- Rebecca Olkowski with BabyBoomster.com comes to the aid of any retiree who might want some extra income, or who is bored staying home with no work to do. She interviewed a business coach with the unlikely name of Winton Churchill who helps Baby Boomers work online and "earn from anywhere" as he puts it. Check out Become a Freelancer for some tips on how to profit from the gig economy, even if you're a retiree. And if you hang on until the very end you can catch the "almost" live stream of the interview itself.

     The Political -- Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting says we can't avoid  the political season, the hype is everywhere. She has been bombarded not only by the national ads but by local campaigns as well. In Primarily Voting from My Couch she summarizes a noteworthy local contest -- one that involves a very familiar name.

     The Price -- On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide Rita R. Robison reminds us in Price Information About Funeral Costs that funeral homes are required to provide their price lists to consumers. Yet a 2018 investigation by the Federal Trade Commission found failures to disclose timely information in 20% of the funeral homes they visited. So you should know: Some funeral homes post price information on their websites; but whether they do or not, you should be able to get prices over the phone before you make funeral arrangements.

     The Pondering -- Jennifer Kolshak of Unfold and Begin says she has been pondering a lot of things lately. Some of us bloggers might relate to the latest issue she's considering: Do I Really Have a Niche-less Blog?

A real progressive
     The Philosophical. Kathy Gottberg on SmartLiving365 offers something different -- a vlog called Why Rightsizing Is More Important Than Ever. Tune in for the discussion she has with her husband about . . . well, like I said, it's philosophical, so it's about how to live your life.

     The Progressive. Finally, I think of myself as a progressive (with a small p), but not necessarily a part of the current capital-P Progressive political movement. Be that as it may, if you've been affected at all by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd and everything else, I'd recommend watching I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin that is now available on Amazon Prime.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Social Security FAQs

     The last substantive change to Social Security occurred in 2015. That's when Congress eliminated the file-and-suspend and restricted-application strategies that gave married couples the opportunity to increase their lifetime benefits.

     But still, people often have questions about how the sometimes-complicated retirement system works, and how long it will be able to pay full benefits without some changes to the system. So here are a few Frequently Asked Questions, brought to us by Jeremy Kisner, Director of Financial Planning at Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, AZ. For those who are interested, he also writes a financially user-friendly blog called Clear and Concise Financial Advice.

     1. Can I collect benefits even if I continue working?
     Once you reach full retirement age, you can earn as much as you want without affecting your Social Security benefits  However, between age 62 and the year of your full retirement age you can only earn up to a certain threshold ($18,240 as of 2020) before benefits are reduced. For every $2 you earn above the threshold, your benefits are reduced by $1. But remember, only earned income from working counts towards the threshold. And also, if your benefit is withheld, Social Security will make it up to you with a higher monthly benefit after you reach full retirement age.

     2. How much are payments reduced when claiming retirement benefits early?
     They are reduced by approximately 0.555% for each of the 36 months you collect prior to full retirement age, and 0.416% for each month more than 36 months before full retirement age. So if your monthly benefit would be $1000 at full retirement age of 66, you would collect only $750 a month if you claimed benefits at age 62, for a 25% reduction.

     3. Are spousal benefits also reduced by the same amount for claiming early?
     Spousal benefits are actually reduced more. For example, claiming Social Security at age 62 would reduce the worker's benefit by 25%, but a spousal benefit by 30% -- or an average of 0.625% for each month prior to full retirement age.

     4. How much are benefits increased if I delay benefits until age 70?
     You accrue Delayed Retirement Credits which increase your benefits at a rate of 0.667 for every month you wait beyond your full retirement age. That works out to 8% per year simple interest.


     5. If I get married, am I immediately entitled to spousal benefits?
     No. You have to be married for one year before your are entitled to spousal benefits.

     6. What if my spouse dies prior to collecting benefits?
     You have to have been married for nine months to collect survivor benefits, and you have to wait until you are at least 60 years old (unless accidental death). There are also family benefits available to an unmarried child if one of their parents dies while the child in under 18., and spouses are also eligible to collect family benefits prior to age 60 if they are taking care of a child under 16.

     7. What happens to spousal benefits in the case of divorce?
     You can claim benefits on your prior spouse's record if you were married for at least 10 years, and are not currently remarried. It is not uncommon for two or more people to be claiming spousal benefits on one person's work record.

     8. Can I pay back benefits I collected prior to age 70, then get a higher payment as if I'd never collected?
     No. You used to be able to do this, but the option was eliminated in 2010.

     9. Are the ages of eligibility for benefits the same for widows and divorcees?
     Widows or surviving divorced spouses can claim survivor benefits at age 60. Divorcees can qualify for benefits at 62, even if the ex-spouse (age 62 or older) has not yet filed for benefits. You have to have been divorced for at least two years to file for benefits on an ex-spouses's record.

     10. What is now considered full retirement age?
     It depends on when  you were born:
     Year of birth       Full retirement age
     1942 or before          65
     1943 - 1954              66
     1955                         66 and 2 months
     1956                         66 and 4 months
     1957                         66 and 6 months
     1958                         66 and 8 months
     1959                         66 and 10 months
     1960 and after          67

     Bonus Question. Should I factor in the possibility that Social Security will go bankrupt in deciding when to start my benefits?
     Despite some reports to the contrary, Social Security is not in danger of going bankrupt. However, if no changes are made to the system, the trust fund (which has been built up over the years by collecting extra payroll taxes) will be depleted sometime around 2034. That's when benefits will have to be reduced -- by about 25% from their current level. There are ways to fix the system. But that's a topic for another post. Just one thing to keep in mind in this political season: If anyone is proposing a payroll tax holiday, that might put more money in workers' pockets, but it would also further deplete the Social Security system.

     Meanwhile, if you're interested in improving your own financial system, I can recommend Kisner's book A Good Financial Adviser Will Tell You ... from which these questions were drawn. And if you really want to get into the weeds, check out IRS Publication 915 for even more detailed information about Social Security benefits.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

What We've Learned

      I'm taking a course this summer through our senior learning center -- via Zoom, naturally -- that focuses on President Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

     The instructor set the stage by reviewing what was happening in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and how the world was so very different then. Participants in the class were encouraged to offer their own memories of the times -- including a woman who grew up in Boston as an ardent Kennedy supporter and a man who spent several years in the National Guard facing off against war protesters.

     We all acknowledged a few things about those days. For example, despite the general impression that the 1950s were a time of prosperity and conformity, and the 1960s a time of idealism and freedom, people who lived through that era actually had different experiences and held different points of view. Not everybody was a hippie. Not everyone attended a protest march. Not everyone took part in the sexual revolution.

     We also realized that people's memories are colored by later experiences. What we remember may not be how things actually happened. And we were young. We were more idealistic, more hopeful. The world was in front of us.

     So what have we learned in the past 50 years?

     For one thing, we all probably thought that we'd live forever, that we would always be young, that nothing would change. But life can and does move on. All things are temporary. Friends come and go; children grow up; jobs that once held meaning now seem irrelevant.

     We had friends in school who drifted away after we graduated. I remember going through the ritual of becoming "blood brothers" with my best friend in sixth grade. Friends forever. And we were . . . at least through high school. But we went to different colleges, followed different careers. We caught up at our 25th high-school reunion; but we haven't seen each other since.

     We've had friends from work who seemed important to us . . . until we weren't working there anymore. I'm reminded of the line from Fleetwood Mac: "Players only love you when they're playing."

     Now we know. Certain people are important in our lives . . . until they aren't. Maybe today that drives us to redouble our efforts to keep up with old friends. Or, maybe now that we're older, we don't feel as if we need as many friends. We no longer need to be "popular" or "cool" -- do we? Maybe it's enough to be with family, or just one or two best friends. Does life get smaller as we get older?

      We had dreams as kids. Did we go on to live those dreams? Develop new ones? How much did we compromise in order to keep a job, raise a family, or maybe live a life that our parents dreamed for us, rather than the one we dreamed for ourselves?

     We also know about the choices we've made, both the good and the bad. They've affected our careers, our relationships . . . and often our health. I think back to the days when I smoked cigarettes, at first because it was cool, and then because I was addicted. Now my reaction is: How could I have been so stupid?

     I've gotten away with it, so far. But sometimes I wonder if the stupidity of my 20s will end up killing me in my 70s.

     What I do know is that my old ankle injury from a car accident, and the knee injury from playing tennis, are coming back to haunt me. We do not all age at the same rate. Maybe it's our genes, or maybe our lifestyle, but some of us are healthy well into our 80s; while others are limping around in our 60s. But I'd venture to say that most of us have something going on to remind us that the body doesn't last forever.

     We also know that life offers no guarantees. Sometimes, when you least expect it, things can go terribly wrong. One day you're healthy, the next you're in the hospital. One day your friend, or your spouse, is alive. Then they're gone.

     Perhaps, by now, we've been cured of our addiction to ambition. Does it really matter so much that we did or didn't get that promotion, that our kids did or didn't get accepted to their first-choice college, that we maybe should have jumped at that opportunity to start our own business, or live overseas, or have another child? We know that life is not a race, it's a journey. We've moved past the disappointments. There will be good times, and bad times, and "this too shall pass."

     We also know -- as revealed in our memories of the '60s -- that people live under different circumstances and experience events in various ways. Perhaps we become more tolerant as we age, more understanding of those who have different points of view. We can "agree to disagree" with friends or family members, and maybe understand why they've chosen an unusual lifestyle, or hold onto ideals that don't make sense to us.

     Finally, I hope we can appreciate what poet Robert Frost wrote: "But I have promises to keep / and miles to go before I sleep." No matter what our age, we can make new friends, try new things, contribute to society, find meaning in family, and seek out joy in unexpected places.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Scare in the Night

     I heard about this incident when I was in Florida in January. It happened to someone I've known for years. I don't see them much anymore, but we still keep in touch.

     They have a 30-year-old son who still lives at home. He had some learning disabilities growing up, but nevertheless managed to graduate from high school. He went to community college, took some photography courses, culinary courses, health classes. Meanwhile he worked on and off, mostly at restaurants.

     Last year he started to exhibit some mental-health issues. At one point, he got into an argument with some other young men -- nothing physical, just verbal -- and he decided that these guys were coming after him for revenge. Whenever a car came down the street he would peer out the windows, wondering if someone was casing out the house.

     At first his parents were wary, on the lookout. But nothing happened. There was nobody. So the parents tried to downplay the whole thing. But the son couldn't let it go and seemed to be getting more paranoid as time went on. He stayed at home more and more, afraid to go out, because he thought people were following him.

     His parents arranged for him to get some therapy. He was prescribed some medications. He took them most of the time, but complained they made him sleepy and lethargic, so he occasionally skipped his doses.

     Then one day, he woke up in the middle of the night. He thought he heard noises somewhere in the kitchen or living room. He convinced himself that someone had broken into the house. He panicked. He thought intruders had come to attack his family; but he was too afraid to go out of his room. Then he decided they were after him, going to kill him. So he decided to do it first.

     He had some kind of knife in his room, and he started to cut himself on his arms. He bloodied himself but didn't do any major damage. Then he stopped. He smoked a cigarette in an attempt to calm himself down.

     Next thing he knew, his mattress was smoking. Apparently, he had dropped his lit cigarette on the bed. And now it was on fire.

     His dad woke up -- maybe from the noise his son was making, maybe from smelling the smoke. He got out of bed, quickly checked around the house. It was dark and empty. There were no intruders. Then he saw the smoke coming out of his son's room.

     The dad got his son out, along with the rest of the family. He called 911. The fire department showed up in a few minutes. The fire was mostly contained in the son's bedroom, but between the fire damage, the smoke damage and the water damage, the house was a complete mess.

     The family suffered some smoke inhalation, and some emotional trauma. But no one was burned; everyone's okay. But they had to find someplace else to stay for the time being, and wait for the insurance company to assess the damage and then begin the long process of repairing the house.

     The son was sent to a mental-health facility where he spent a few weeks undergoing more intensive therapy. He understood what he had done, and was remorseful, but also knew that he couldn't always control himself.

     Now he's back out, living not with his family but in an apartment in a home. He is still under the care of a psychologist, with more careful monitoring. The family is in the process of putting their lives back together, which has only been delayed by the Covid-19 epidemic. But the prognosis is good, for both the young man and the larger family.

     Fortunately, there was no gun in the house. What do you suppose might have happened if there was?

Saturday, May 23, 2020

When Can We Reopen?

     My wife B is going more crazy than I am during the Coronavirus pandemic. She has less tolerance for staying home and doing, essentially, nothing.

     So B, who is more of a bleeding heart liberal than I am, is arguing in favor of reopening the economy. She says people should be able to go to the store if they wear masks, meet up with friends if they keep a six foot distance, attend concerts if they're held outdoors. She of course is worried about the virus. But she is also worried about the people who are losing their jobs or losing their businesses, who can't pay their rent and who may soon be out on the streets.

     It's easy for us to stay at home, she says, because we still get our Social Security, our pension checks and annuities. But what about Manuel? He works for our landscaping company. He was "furloughed" back in March. The company sent out an email to customers inviting them to send a donation to Manuel -- but it doesn't sound like the landscaping company is paying him, or if it is, it's a fraction of his usual salary. We sent in $50; but no matter how many customers joined us, it's not going to last very long. Manuel has a wife and a child. How long before they have to give up their car? How long before they get evicted from their apartment?

     Or what about the restaurants in town that employ waiters and cooks and dishwashers? These people are now on unemployment, with an extra boost from the federal government, but all that's going to end before long. And what about the people who own and run the restaurants and small shops? These shops often represent lots of dreams and years of hard work, and now a lot of that is going down the drain because the only thing they are allowed to provide is curbside pickup -- and business is down by 50% to 80%.

     The reopen vs. stay-closed debate has been framed as a political argument. Republicans want to reopen . . . because they are greedy. Democrats want to stay closed . . . because they like the government to tell them what to do.

     For example, in Why Are Liberals More Afraid of the Coronavirus Than Conservatives? Ezra Klein analyzes some of the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. He points out, quite correctly I think, that conservatives tend to be more skeptical of change and less welcoming to outsiders, while liberals are more comfortable with novelty, disruption and diversity. But by that reasoning conservatives should be more fearful of the Coronavirus than liberals. The author twists himself in knots trying to provide an explanation, but it doesn't make sense -- because the difference is due more to an individual's personal experience. Not everything is political.

     I myself think we should continue to self-isolate . . . not because I'm liberal or conservative but because I'm a bit of a hypochondriac. B, who is more liberal than I am, wants to go out . . . because she's antsy and doesn't think it can happen to her.

     It's not just us. Look at Sweden. If Sweden is as socialistic as it's supposed to be, why is it one of the few countries that didn't issue stay-at-home orders at all?

     No, I think the question of reopening is more a function of personality, and personal circumstances. Some people simply have to stay busy. It drives them crazy to sit around at home all day. They can't do it! They have to get in the car, go to a store, meet up with a friend. Others can sit at home, read a book, watch TV, they are comfortable with their own company.

     Also, B has never been sick a day in her life. She has no conception -- and thus very little fear -- of what's it's like to feel so horrible that you can't get out of bed, to be lying helpless in a hospital, to be unable to breathe and choking on some claustrophobic machine. I don't even think she's ever had an MRI.

     People who want to reopen just think it won't happen to them. Perhaps they care more about the new unemployed. They also likely have more at stake in the economy. If you're over 65 and especially if you have an underlying medical condition you should be worried about Covid-19. But if you're in your 20s or 30s, and you're perfectly healthy, but you have car payments and a college loan and rent due at the end of the month, you might think it's worth the pretty minimal risk of disease in order to keep your family together. After all, they might reason, you're more likely to be injured in a traffic accident on the way to work than fall victim to Covid-19.

     As the summer unfolds, no matter what our personal beliefs, we will all be going out more, seeing more people. So take a look at The Risks -- Know Them -- Avoid Them by Erin Bromage, biology professor at the University of Massachusetts. He has better advice than I could ever give about how to understand the virus, how it spreads, and how to protect ourselves as we do reopen.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Does Anyone Like Us?

     I remember my Aunt Hanna. She was a widow with no children, who lived by herself in a small apartment. She came over to our house to visit as often as she could -- not because she liked us kids, in fact I think we annoyed her -- but because she was lonely and my mother was one of her few friends.

     Feelings of loneliness and social isolation have been around for a long time. Even under normal, non-Covid circumstances, surveys say that somewhere between 20% and 30% of us admit that we lack regular companionship and feel lonely on a regular basis.

     This is a particular problem for older people. According to the U. S. Census, less than 10% of Americans in their 30s and 40s live alone. But 18% of 60-year-olds and 25% of 75-year-olds live all by themselves.

     Now I know that living alone does not necessarily mean you're lonely -- and conversely, you can be lonely even if you live with a large family or in a group home -- but being forced into isolation during this time of Coronavirus can bring on loneliness even for those who are most socially engaged. It's especially true for people with hearing loss and mobility issues, and for people -- like me -- who don't always like their own company, who tend to brood about their regrets and past mistakes.

    Loneliness is different from solitude. Solitude is a voluntary and enjoyable experience that can lead to creativity, spirituality and self-growth. Loneliness is more a state of mind, a feeling of being unwanted and unloved. It can be a chronic problem that leads to feelings of emptiness and pointlessness.

     "Loneliness leads to poorer mental and physical health," according to the New York Times. Lonely people feel helpless and abandoned, separated from the community and discriminated against by other people. Loneliness is  associated with higher stress levels, as well as depression and dementia. It can adversely affect the immune system and the cardiovascular system.

     Fortunately, there are a number of "interventions" to improve our social well-being. It's a "treatable rather than an irreversible condition," as the literature says. Strategies to ward off loneliness include keeping busy, sharing feelings, involving yourself in activities, helping others, joining interest groups, staying in contact with family and friends.

     Of course, a lot of these "interventions" are easier said than done, especially these days when we're prohibited from gathering in groups, and the opportunities for meeting new people are limited.

     But here are a few practical ideas that we've found useful. Maybe you have some other ideas.

     We've found that we've been able to Zoom or Facetime with our kids. During normal times, they are often too busy with work and their own kids to have much time for us. They only afford us a quick phone call, or the dreaded text. But now they are as bored as we are, and happy to spend 30 or 40 minutes sitting with their phone or computer and entertaining the folks.

     We've also found it easier to keep in touch with old friends who, again, are looking for things to do to fill their hours. They're not rushing off to play pickleball or to try out a new restaurant, and so they're happy to spend time with us. We've also reignited some old friendships for the same reason.

     Ditto with family. I'm talking with my sister in Phoenix every week now, when before it was more like once in a month or two. I've also been in touch with three long-lost cousins -- first by email, then by phone -- to catch up on their lives, find out what their children are doing, and laugh about some old escapades we stumbled into when we were kids.

     We've also joined up with a few new groups in town. For example, we belong to our local independent movie theater. But we don't really know anyone there. When the theater management arranged a Zoom meeting for members, we ordinarily would not have attended. No one knows us. But now? What the heck. We've got nothing better to do. So we met a dozen fellow theater-goers -- and now when the theater does reopen we will have someone to talk to.

     Our regular volunteer activities are curtailed. But again, we've paid attention to some emails that we would normally have ignored. And now we have an opportunity to help with some online ESL training.

     One thing we have not tried is online chat, such as quarantinechat, which offers people the opportunity to find like-minded strangers -- kind of like a dating app, but just to give people a chance to talk with a friendly voice. But we may very well get to that before this is all over.

     Finally, we live in town. People walk past our house all the time. Normally we ignore them. But B put a teddy bear in our window and a sign out front that says, "Wave to the teddy bear." Now people stop and smile, and sometimes, if we're out in the yard, we end up talking to them and sharing stories -- always keeping our six-foot distance. We've met several neighbors just standing out in our front yard, talking and joking about our current absurd situation.

     Covid-19 is no fun, and neither is self-isolating and social distancing. But there is a silver lining. And maybe when things get back to normal, we'll have a few new friends, closer ties to our town . . . and fewer times when we're sitting at home feeling like no one likes us.