"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Rite of February

     For the next three weeks I will be joining a group of primates who are sometimes distainfully referred to as Snow Birds. We are members of the human race who inhabit a cold, northern climate who make a habit of migrating to warmer weather for some period of time after the winter solstice, to return by the vernal equinox.

     Scientifically, we are classified as a legitimate part of the animal kingdom, in the phylum of invertebrates, because we do not have sufficient backbone to last through the northern winter. We are further classified as warm blooded mammals. And our order is homo sapiens -- meaning humans who know enough to come in from the cold.

     More specific classification puts us in the family called Snow Birds -- the colloquial name usually applied to us. And within that Snow Bird category, I am of the Florida genus, in the Gulf Coast species, sometimes grouped with the subspecies of golfer, other times in the subspecies of beachgoer.

     Some of the alpha members of the Snow Bird family -- dominant members of their group who enjoy more luxurious nesting locations -- migrate to places such as Hawaii, or Cancun or Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, or perhaps Malibu in Southern California, or Scottsdale, Ariz., or Palm Beach, Florida.

     I happen to rank among the less powerful and influential in the herd, and will therefore be staying at a Comfort Inn, somewhere closer to Highway I 75 than the albion sands of Siesta Key or Sanibel Island. That will be followed by a short period of time sponging off my sister, who has settled permanently in this frost-free zone. Nevertheless, I will be able to experience daytime high temperatures closer to 75 degrees than the 25 degrees recently recorded in the Hudson Valley of New York.

     Part of the attraction of a visit to Florida is that I will be out of touch with my usual linked-in life. Yes, I will have a cellphone. Who in this day and age can survive without one? But other than a few particularly enterprising and annoying telephone solicitors, the only people who know my cellphone number are family members and a few golfing buddies. Part of the attraction of this annual migration is to enjoy being out of touch with one's usual humdrum life.

     I will therefore not be carrying a laptop. So my access to a computer will be somewhat limited. I hope to post on my blog once or twice while I'm on vacation; but probably not any more than that.

     I hope my new friends in the blogosphere will not forget about me. I will be back -- as I promised my beautiful and much more hardy better half -- in time for Valentine's Day. She is a member of the phylum of vertebrates, people who do have the backbone to withstand the New York winters, and who think shoveling snow develops character rather than (as I believe) a bad back.

     Anyway, even though you won't be able to see it, I can assure you that when I do return, I will have a tan!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Our Parents Will Bail Us Out (Maybe)

     On the theory that one example is merely an anecdote, but two examples create a trend, I offer this as a solution to our financial problems.

     I have two friends who, I only found out recently, grew up in New York City. One in Queens; the other in Brooklyn. In both cases, their parents were middle class and lived in relatively modest attached houses. In each case, when their kids grew up and left home, the parents turned part of the home into an apartment. They continued to live in their houses for many more years, collecting rent and paying off the mortgage. The parents of one of my friends died about three years ago. My other friend's elderly mother died last year.

    These friends, along with their siblings, inherited their parents' homes. The houses, now mortgage free, were each worth maybe a little more than $500,000. But my friends didn't sell. Instead, they decided to hold onto the properties and rent out the apartments. Today, my friends live in the suburbs, but they're each clearing a couple of thousand a month from renting their parents' old inner city row house.

     Not bad for some extra income -- especially since one of these friends has an interesting job, but it doesn't pay particularly well; and the other one lost his corporate sales job a few years ago and now is trying to get by as a real-estate agent.

     So how does this help the rest of us? It doesn't, except it illustrates how many of us stand to inherit substantial assets from our parents -- even if our parents aren't rich. It could be real estate; part of a business; an art or antique collection; stocks and bonds; or a retirement account.

     I saw a statistic over the weekend saying that the national debt has now climbed up above $14 trillion. That's about $146,000 for every man women and child in America. Sounds like quite a burden. But then I saw a chart, published in Newsweek and coming from a study for MetLife from The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, that estimates the total inheritance baby boomers can expect to receive from their parents is $11.6 trillion, or a little over $146,000 per baby boomer.

     It's just about a wash. So what's the big problem? Why does everyone lament our national debt, and gnash their teeth about the economic burden we're passing on to our children? Sure, we have a lot of debt. But we have a lot of assets, too.

     Well, it's not quite as simple as that. First of all, the studies predict that two-thirds of baby boomer families will receive some sort of inheritance. But that means one third of boomers will receive nothing. Even so, according to estimates, about half the people in even the very lowest income group can still expect to inherit some sort of estate from their parents or other relatives.

     Yet, as you might expect, the distribution of inheritance is unequal. Of those baby boomers receiving an inheritance, the top ten percent will receive an average of $330,000. The bottom ten percent will receive an average of only $8000. The studies say about 25 percent of baby boomers will receive a substantial inheritance, something over $100,000.

     Then, of course, there are the uncertainties. Our parents are living longer, which is a good thing. But that means they have a longer retirement to finance, and much more time to spend down their savings. And with medical bills climbing higher and higher, one serious medical problem could wipe out your parents' entire estate. If the medical bills don't, monthly payments to an assisted living facility might.

    So maybe we all won't get bailed out like my two friends. And, you know, you hate to think about the part where a loved one has to die before you get your windfall. Still, it's something to think about as we ponder our financial futures.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Would You Call It . . . Autobation?

     We had a couple of young males staying at the house with us over Christmas vacation, and I have to say, it was extremely discouraging to observe them salivating and drooling over TV shows like "Top Gear" that celebrate sports cars and fast rides. Not to mention playing aggressive video games like "Need for Speed -- Hot Pursuit."
Does a sports car make you hot?

     In their view, high speed is really hot. A big powerful motor under the hood is sexy. A car brand that sounds animalistic and aggressive engenders heavy breathing. The boys get flushed in the face when they see a Jaguar (which averages 18 mpg), or a Mustang (19 mpg). And they get positively orgasmic when they encounter something foreign and exotic, like a Ferrari (12 mpg) or Maserati (15 mpg).

     In other words, they're just like I was when I was in my 20s. But have we learned nothing?

     How are we going to solve the global warming problem, and our addiction to foreign oil, as long as our young men think it's really hot to drive 90 m.p.h. in cars that get less than 20 miles to a gallon of gas?

How about a big car?
     There should instead be a TV program that glorifies hypermiling -- the art of getting as many miles to the gallon as possible. A lot of it involves driving with simple common sense. Hypermilers always go the speed limit, or less. They don't rush up to red lights then jam on the brakes. Instead, they scope out the horizon for traffic lights and time their arrival to when they're green, often coasting the last quarter mile or so. They never step on the gas for jack rabbit starts; and you won't find them weaving in and out of traffic -- they're trundling along in the right lane at 50 m.p.h.

     Hypermilers, for the most part, are very safe drivers. Sometimes they can be annoying. But whatever they are, they are not considered hot.

    But to change behavior, first we have to change values. We need to teach our sons that it's not sexy to drive a fast car. It does not enhance your manhood to have a throbbing, pulsating motor rumbling under your hood. Or to pilot a car that's half as big as a house. A real man is, instead, the kind of responsible driver who gets 30 mpg. The higher your mpg, the sexier you are!.
The sexy Ford Fusion

     Women have a responsibility as well. We must teach our daughters not to eye the guy in the red sports car, giving him flirtatious flips of their hair. They shouldn't be ooohing and aaahing over a guy's big, powerful SUV. And women can no longer covet an SUV for themselves -- like the Suburban (15 mpg) or the Armada (14 mpg) -- because they think it's a safer way to drive around town with their precious kids. It's just as safe, if not safer, to ferry the kids in a Honda Accord (27 mpg) or a Ford Fusion (38 mpg). Both have achieved 5-star safety ratings.
The even sexier Prius

         And that guy in the Prius (50 mpg)? Is he
      obeying the speed limit? Going 55 mph in the
      right hand lane? Omg! Is he a hypermiler?
      Yowza . . . he's a hot one!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Get a Grip

     Oh man, I do not want to set myself up as some kind of know-it-all or holier-than-thou pontificator, but in the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy there seems to be a lot of hand wringing about how terrible things are in the United States, how civil discourse is at an all-time low, how violence is a way of life, how America is going to hell in a handbasket.

     Well, I happen to share some of that sentiment -- but primarily on the economic front. I think we're turning into another Europe, which I didn't think would be so bad until recently when Europe seemed to lurch from one crisis to the next. But that's a subject for a different entry.

     The question here is violence. The Tucson shootings were just awful. And I share the opinion of people who call for more civil political discourse -- from both sides -- and for more regulation of guns.

     But the fact is, America is safer than it has been in a long time.

     The number of homicides in the U. S. peaked 20 years ago, in 1991. That was the year when 24,700 Americans were murdered

     Since then, despite all the right-wing rhetoric and left-wing outrage, despite whatever proliferation of handguns that has occurred, the number of murders has been going down, down, down. By 1996 the number of murders had declined to 19,650. By 2002 murders were down to 16,229. And the latest figures, for 2009, show that 15,241 homicides were committed in America. Let's not be complacent. That's 15,241 terrible tragedies. But it's a lot less than 24,700 terrible tragedies.

     The murder rate in America -- the number of murders per 100,000 people -- has gone down even more. The homicide rate in the U. S. actually peaked back in 1980 at 10.2 per 100,000 people. By 1996, the rate was down to 7.4 per 100,000 people. And in 2009 it was 5.0 -- less than half the rate in 1980.

     At the same time, the total number of crimes in the U. S. is also down, despite an increasing population, from over 14 million crimes in the early 1990s, to barely more than 10 million crimes today. Violent crimes are down. Rapes are down. Auto theft is down.

     Experts may differ on the reasons for the decline -- an aging population; better police work; better economic opportunity. Maybe even stricter gun laws, because we have developed some regulations (imperfect though  they may be), including the federal Brady Bill which starting in 1994 required background checks before a person could buy a gun. I don't know why criminal activity is down. But it is.

     Interestingly, when you compare Americans to those law-abiding people up in Canada, you find that the homicide rate in the U. S. is in fact much higher -- about 2 1/2 times higher. But other crime rates do not follow the same pattern. Rates of break-ins, auto theft and arson are actually higher in Canada than they are south of the border.

     And speaking of south of the border -- the murder rate in Mexico is more than twice what it is in the U. S.

     So next time someone tries to tell you that America has a culture of violence; that there's no hope for the future; that the right-wing extremists are encouraging assassinations. Take all that with a grain of salt. Yeah, there are too many guns in the hands of irresponsible people. Yeah, sometimes we glorify violence.

     But we're doing better than we were. And as long as people do get outraged at violence, both public and private, we're sure to do better in the future.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Not Much Has Changed

     If you're a "Seinfeld" fan you might remember one episode, "The Face Painter," where George claims that toilet paper has not changed in his lifetime. It's paper on a cardboard roll, he says. But Elaine and Jerry disagree. They point out that now we have toilet paper in a variety of colors. It's softer. There are more sheets per roll. It's much different from the toilet paper they had as kids.

     I'm mostly in the George Costanza camp. In fact, we did have toilet paper in a variety of colors back in the '60s. I remember my mother putting pink and blue toilet paper in the downstairs bathroom, trying to impress her friends. And today we still roll it out just like we always did, and use it exactly the same way we used it 50 years ago.

     And it's pretty much the same with everything else. Except electronics. I'll give you that. Electronics have changed a lot. The personal computer. The internet. iPods; DVDs. Cell phones. I mean, even the calculator. We didn't have a calculator to use in high-school math class.

     But think about it. Not much else has changed. We live in the same houses -- with the same central heat, the same plumbing and electricity, the same roof. Many of us still have a septic tank. The one significant change is central air. But I like window air conditioners better anyway. That way there are no family arguments over how to set the thermostat. The people who want it cold can go in one room; the people who like it warm can stay in another.
1967 VW Karmann Gia

     Cars. There have been some modifications -- especially safety features like seat belts and air bags, and we have better sound systems -- but basically we put our stuff in the trunk; open the car door; slide in, start the car, and drive off to negotiate the same stop signs and traffic lights that we did in the 1950s and '60s.. Except the traffic jams are even worse now than they were then.

2010 VW Eos
     Clothes. Sure, the fashions have changed. But otherwise we wear the same cotton or polyester pants and shirts and dresses. We wear Nike instead of Keds. But, really, are they that different?

     Vacations. We pack the same beach chairs and coolers; the same suntan lotion, and go off to sit in the the same sand.

     Furniture. Except for the computer module, it's not any different.

     Entertainment. We have more channels on our HD televisions -- the electronics again -- but the TV shows are not that different. Isn't "Two and a Half Men" kind of like "The Odd Couple"? And "American Idol" like the old talent shows? Okay, we now have "Jersey Shore." But I wouldn't brag about that one. And movies? They just remade True Grit for cryin' out loud

     School. We still go to high school and play football and take SATs and apply to the same colleges. A lot of all-male schools and all-female schools went co-ed. But state universities, where most of us went, were co-ed to begin with. Harvard, Yale and Princeton were the most prestigious schools 50 years ago. They still are.

     Not to mention our emotional, psychological and intellectual lives. We're still arguing over creationisn and evolution, just like our grandparents were in the John Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s. We're still trying to figure out nature vs. nurture. We still disagree about abortion, which was supposed to be settled by Roe v. Wade in 1973. And of course, gun control. We were wringing our hands over guns in 1981 when James Brady got shot, and long before that, but as the Tucson shooting illustrates, it's still not a settled question. Race relations. Most people think we've come a long way; but that is subject to debate. Go to the Bronx, or to Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta or LA, and you'll see plenty of segregation.

     We've made some progress. Most of it good (except the traffic; and "Jersey Shore"). Let's not deny that. But if you're thinking the world is moving too fast; if you're afraid your skills are outmoded; if you worry you're being left behind, go take your dog for a walk. You do it the same way people were doing it 50 years ago.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Answers to: Are You a Baby Boomer?

1)  Ed Muskie, the Senator from Maine. Sargent Shriver replaced Tom Eagleton as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972. Walter Mondale ran with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Bob Dole was a Republican, and Henry Hawkins was an English judge in the 19th century (but Augustus Hawkins was a California Congressman who in 1978 co-sponsored the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which commits the U. S. government to strive to balance the budget and produce full employment).

2)  Phil and Don.  Dan and Dick were Dan Rowan and Dick Martin; Tom and Dick were the Smothers Brothers.

3)  Davy Crockett. David Bowie was a pop star in the 1970s and 80s; but James Bowie was a Texas pioneer who died in 1836 at the Alamo with Davy Crockett.

4)  The Brady Bunch, on ABC TV from 1969 - 1974. Shirley Jones was the mom in The Partridge Family; there was no mom in My Three Sons.

5)  John Lennon’s son Julian. The ballad evolved from a song Paul McCartney wrote to comfort Lennon’s son during John's divorce; the 1968 song was the Beatles longest-running hit. The first Beatles drummer was  Pete Best, replaced by Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr, in 1962.

6)  Many celebrities stopped over at Laugh-In, but Johnny Carson never left the Tonight Show. Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin were regulars. Joe Namath and Richard Nixon each made three guest appearances.

7)  April 30, 1975. Richard Nixon started his “Vietnamization” program in 1969 designed to bring home American troops. Ground troops were withdrawn in 1971; the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973; and in 1975 the South Vietnam government collapsed as North Vietnamese troops overran Saigon and the last American personnel were evacuated by helicopter.

8)  Dr. No, starring Sean Connery, came out in 1962; followed by From Russia with Love in 1963 and Goldfinger in 1964. Octopussy, the 13th Bond film starring Roger Moore, hit the theaters in 1983.

9)  Yuri Gagarin. On April 12, 1961 the Russian was launched into space in Vostok I and orbited the earth. Alan Shepard went up 116 miles on May 5, 1961, but did not make an orbit. Ten years later Shepard commanded Appollo 14 and walked on the moon. John Glenn was the first American, but only the third human, to orbit Earth in 1962. Valentina Tereshkova flew in 1963, the first woman in space.
10) Midnight Cowboy with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Butch Cassidy was nominated in 1969. The Graduate lost to In the Heat of the Night in 1967; Five Easy Pieces lost to Patton in 1970. Easy Rider, nominated for two Oscars in 1970, did not win.

11) Sara Jane Moore, who was released from prison on Dec. 31, 2007. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a Charles Manson follower, drew a pistol on President Ford, also in 1975, but she didn't fire. She was also sent to prison, released in Aug. '09.

12)  Patty Hearst. It was her nom de guerre after being taken hostage by the SLA in 1974. Rocky’s girlfriend was played by the actress Thalia Shire; Dorothy’s dog was Toto; and Malcolm X had five daughters, none of them named Tania.

13) Decathlon. Jenner set a world record at the time and was dubbed the world’s greatest athlete.

14)  Snake River, at Twin Falls, Idaho. He didn’t make it; and survived with minor injuries.

15)  Carl Stokes, elected mayor of Cleveland in 1967. Walter Washington was appointed mayor of Washington, DC, in 1967, but didn’t take office as an elected mayor until 1975 when home rule took effect. Bradley and Young both won election in 1973; Dinkins not until 1989. Richard Hatcher also was elected in 1967, as mayor of Gary, Ind.
13 – 15 correct:  Excellent, you’re a true baby boomer!
12 – 13 correct:  Hmmm. You’re probably on the cusp.
10 – 11 correct:  Are you from the Silent Generation, or a Gen Xer?
below 10:            Omg! you’re a millennial!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Quiz: Are You a Baby Boomer?

     Stories about the status of Baby Boomers like the one in today's NY Times leave me cold. Who cares that the first boomers are turning 65? It doesn't mean anything, especially since full Social Security  retirement age is now 66, and will be moving to 67 for younger boomers.

     But this begs the question:  Are you a Baby Boomer? Sure, you can check your birth date. But it's more of a cultural thing. Take this quiz to see if you make the grade as a true Baby Boomer. I suggest printing out the quiz, circling your choices, then checking back here -- answers will appear in a few days. Have fun!

1)  Who ran with Hubert Humphrey as the vice presidential candidate in 1968?
a)  Henry Hawkins
b)  Bob Dole
c)  Walter Mondale
d)  Sargent Shriver
e)  Ed Muskie

2)  What were the Everly Brothers first names?
a)  Dan and Don
b)  Phil and Don
c)  Dan and Dick
d)  Tommy and Dick
e)  Paul and Artie

3)  Who was king of the wild frontier?
a)  John Wayne
b)  Daniel Boone
c)  Andrew Jackson
d)  David Bowie
e)  Davy Crockett

4)  Florence Henderson played the mom in what TV show?
a)  The Brady Bunch
b)  Ozzie and Harriet
c)  My Three Sons
d)  The Partridge Family
e)  Father Knows Best

5)  Hey . . . who's Jude?
a)  Paul’s girlfriend
b)  John’s father
c)  John’s son
d)  Ringo’s real name
e)  the original Beatles drummer

6)  Who did not appear on Laugh In?
a)  Goldie Hawn
b)  Richard Nixon
c)  Joe Namath
d)  Lily Tomlin
e)  Johnny Carson

7)  When did Saigon fall?
a)  1969
b)  1971
c)  1973
d)  1975
e)  1977

8)  What was the first James Bond film?
a)  From Russia with Love
b)  Dr. No
c)  Octopussy
d)  Goldfinger
e)  Diamonds Are Forever

9)  Who was the first person to orbit the earth?
a)  Alan Shepard
b)  Yuri Gagarin
c)   John Glenn
d)  Neil Armstrong
e)  Valentina Tereshkova

10) What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1969?
a)  Easy Rider
b)  The Graduate
c)  Midnight Cowboy
d)  Five Easy Pieces
e)  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

11) Who shot President Ford in 1975?
a)  Sara Jane Moore
b)  Charles Whitman
c)  Kathy Boudin
d)  John Hinckley
e)  David Berkowitz

12) Who was Tania?
a)  Mary Jo Kopechne
b)  Patty Hearst
c)  Rocky’s girlfriend
d)  Dorothy’s dog
e)  Malcolm X’s daughter

13) Aside from giving us TV's "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," starring his step-daughters, Bruce Jenner is famous for winning the 1976 gold medal in what sport?
a)  cross country
b)  diving
c)  pole vault
d)  triathlon
e)  decathlon    

14) In 1974 daredevil Evel Knievel attempted to jump over a canyon at what river?
a)  Colorado
b)  Columbia
c)  Snake
d)  Red
e)  Green

15) Who was the first African American elected mayor of a major U. S. city?
a)  Carl Stokes in Cleveland
b)  Thomas Bradley in LA
c)  Coleman Young in Detroit
d)  Walter Washington in Washington, DC
e)  David Dinkins in New York