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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Best Time to Start Social Security

     I'm of an age where I am just becoming eligible to take Social Security. Hence, when to start my Social Security retirement benefit is a subject near and dear to my heart. There are roughly 15 million Baby Boomers in the 62-66 age bracket who currently face the same question. Another 60 million Baby Boomers are following close on our heels, wondering -- should I wait, or should I get it while I can?

     I did a post on the subject, Should You Take Social Security Early? back in December. Basically, for those of us born between 1943 and 1954, our full retirement age is 66. We are eligible to start payments as early as age 62. But there's a penalty. If you start at age 62, your monthly payments will be about 25 percent lower than if you wait until 66. Conversely, if you can delay Social Security until you're 70, you'll enjoy payments 25 percent higher than what you would have gotten if you started at age 66 -- and 75 percent higher than what you would have received at age 62!

     As an example, if you have a consistent work record and made a decent salary, at age 62 you might expect to receive a Social Security benefit of $1500 a month. If you do nothing else except wait until age 70, you'll collect over $2600 a month. You get fewer checks -- because you're not being paid for those eight years -- but it would seem that if you can make it to age 70, you'd be better off in your final years.

     But results, as they say, vary. So every year the government sends an update to you called "Your Social Security Statement," which details your own prospective benefit under various circumstances.

     It seems simple, doesn't it?  But life is complicated. Not all companies keep employees around until they're 66, so a lot of people in their late 50s and early 60s lose their jobs. (Age discrimination? I'm shocked! Shocked!) They might need the money now, and don't have the luxury of devising a strategy to maximize benefits over their lifetime. Also, not everyone works for money. If you rely on a spouse for benefits, things can get complicated, especially if you're divorced.

     Then, remember, Social Security is a government program, so it is ridiculously complicated. Your benefit depends on how long you have worked, how much money you earned, whether you're single, married or divorced, and it seems a hundred other variables. Plus, if as a beneficiary you make over a certain amount of money, your payment will be taxed -- are you surprised that the government gives with one hand, but takes with another?

     The bottom line is:  figuring out how to maximize your payments is virtually impossible. However, you can make some educated guesses. There's an article on yahoo! finance, by Linda Stern of Reuters, that tries to help you puzzle out what's best for you. She consults a couple of experts who analyze the situation. And, of course, they disagree. One argues it's better to start benefits early. The other says you're better off to delay.

     But there are a few rules of thumb:

     Take Social Security early if:

     1) Your income is low and you really need the money now.

     2)  You have a spouse who will be eligible for a larger benefit later on.

     3) You have good reason to believe you will not live into your 80s -- either because you're suffering from a life-shortening disease, or you figure your genes are just not going to get you that far. (I've seen a corollary point of view suggesting that men take Social Security early, and women wait, simply because women tend to live longer than men.)
     Delay if:

     1)  You're still working.

     2)  You're healthy, and have a family history of extended longevity.

     3)  You have a large nest egg ... at least $500,000.

     But wait! What if the government changes the rules? A lot of people worry that Congress will soon slash Social Security to help shore up the federal deficit. "Don't let 'the Social Security program going to disappear soon so I should take my benefits ASAP' argument sway you," says Linda Stern. "Even the most hawkish anti-entitlement politicos aren't talking about taking benefits off the table for anyone within 10 years of retirement."

     If the answer is still not clear for you -- as it won't be for most of us -- then take a look at this free retirement planner that will help you figure out your own situation. (Scroll down and click on "Link to Should You Start Social Security Early.") You can plug in your own numbers, and the calculator will give you some details.

     If it helps alleviate anyone's worries, I ran the numbers for myself and found that all my anxieties are for naught. In the long run, at least for me, it doesn't really matter much when I start taking Social Security. No matter what I do, I will have enough money to keep food on the table, and a roof over my head. But it doesn't look as though I'll be planning any grand tours to Europe in this lifetime.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Wine Flows, the Beer Is Flat

     There's dizzying news in the wine industry. For the first time ever in the history of mankind, wine sales in the United States are higher than they are in France.

What Baby Boomers want
      In 2010 sales of wine in the U. S. bubbled up a little more than 2 percent, to 330 million cases. In France, sales were 321 million cases. Of course, there are a lot more people in the Unites States, so French wine consumption drowns American consumption on a per capita basis. The average French person gulps 12.2 gallons of wine a year, compared to an American average of 2.6 gallons a year.

     American wine consumption has been increasing for decades. When I graduated from high school in the 1960s, Americans quaffed 200 million gallons of wine. Sales went up and up, until for some reason they took a dip in the early 1990s. Then they resumed their climb, and last year American vintners poured out some 770 million gallons of vino.

     Approximately one third of Americans drink wine on a regular or semi-regular basis. The core consumer group is affluent Baby Boomers. According to one study on winebusiness.com, almost 90 percent of wine drinkers are homeowners. More than half are two-earner couples, boasting household incomes over $100,000. Almost half of wine drinkers have graduated from college.

     Women, more than men, choose wine as their preferred alcoholic drink. Some 55 percent of women in the 50 to 64 age group choose wine as their favorite alcoholic drink. The figure rises to 63 percent for women 65 and older.

     Less than 20 percent of men say wine tops their list of alcoholic drinks. "Apart from the cultural issues (i.e., beer and football, beer and 'getting together with the guys'), the way we market wine makes many men feel insecure," sniffs one report, saying the wine industry intimidates male customers. Wine is caught up in status, and apparently a lot of men don't think they know enough about wine to order it in a social occasion. They fear they'll make the "wrong" choice, so they tend to turn to a brand name of liquor or else a premium grade of beer.

     One reason for the increasing popularity of wine is that Americans are paying more attention to food, and that has brought greater interest in what gets poured into their glass. "We’re becoming a nation that enjoys food culture,” says Stephanie Gallo, vice president of marketing for the California-based Gallo wine company. "As people embrace cooking and enjoy delicious meals, wine is a natural beverage that accompanies those meals.”

A drink for young males
     It also seems that wine, more than beer, is resistant to recession. While wine sales increased in 2010, the sale of suds had a sobering year, down by 3 million barrels, from 183 million to 180 million. The most popular beers like Bud Lite and Miller fizzled by more than 5 percent. Only 4 of the top 30 brands increased sales for 2010.

     Why are beer sales down while wine sales are up? One headache for beer is the recession, which has hit young males -- the prime beer drinking group -- harder than other groups. Meanwhile, established middle-class wine drinkers, especially those with two incomes, are more likely to have made it through the recession without a financial hangover.

     But it could be that Americans are simply becoming a more sophisticated, upscale bunch. Fewer people work traditional blue-collar jobs and identify with the beer-drinking working class. Americans also crave innovation. There's nothing innovative about Budweiser, which might explain why those beers that are increasing sales are the microbreweries like Boston Beer, or else the cheapest beers like PBR (and if you don't know what PBR stands for, ask a 20-something).

     Just so you don't think we're a nation of boozers, I should assure you that neither wine nor beer is the most popular drink sold in America. That category goes to soft drinks. Followed by bottled water, then coffee, then beer, followed in turn by milk and fruit drinks.

     But if you want to be classy, if you want your neighbors to think you have a college degree and make over $100,000 a year, then wine is your choice of beverage.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

And They Thought I Was an Old Joke!

     If you have kids, you know they take some kind of perverted pleasure in letting you know in no uncertain terms that you're square, you're out of it, you're about the lamest excuse for a human being that ever lived.

     Honestly, I remember when I was a teenager and in my 20s, I pretty much thought the same thing about my parents. The difference is:  I was right -- my parents were pretty lame. But my kids are all wrong -- their parents are pretty cool.

     I've pointed out this discrepancy to my kids several times -- about how my parents were square as a checkerboard, but even though they don't always appreciate it, their parents are pretty cool. They know I'm saying this kind of tongue-in-cheek, that I'm trying to be humorous, but they're not buying it. And they typically convey their sentiment with a few eye rolls, a big sigh or two, and then some kind of snicker. They just want to make it clear -- they're laughing at me, not with me.

     Well, I know an old joke when I see it. And it's not me. I ran across a couple of articles recently reporting on the discovery of the world's oldest joke. (Apparently there was a study done a couple of years ago in England, and it's just now being reported in the U.S.) Anyway, hold on to your horses ... the world's oldest joke is a Sumerian fart joke, dating to approximately 2000 BC. I'm not going to tell the joke here, because it's kind of tasteless and not particularly funny.

     Is it any surprise that the oldest humor leans toward the crude side? Here are a couple of examples. The first one comes from Egypt, dating back to circa 1600 BC:  "How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish."

     Then there's the old British joke, popular in the 10th century: "What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before? Answer: A key."

     How about one from the Roman Empire: "Augustus was touring his Empire and noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to himself. Intrigued he asked: 'Was your mother at one time in service at the Palace?' 'No your Highness,' he replied, 'but my father was.'" 

     If you really want to read the Sumerian fart joke, or some other ancient thigh-slappers, go to England's Daily Mail online. And taste thee of a boisterous and jesting gamenian.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are Gas Prices Really That High?

     Who's concerned about the price of gasoline? I sure am. It cost me $55 to fill up my tank the other day, with medium grade gas at $3.99 a gallon.

     I've often thought -- usually late at night, sometimes after I've had a glass of wine -- that gasoline prices should actually be higher, that the state and federal governments should increase gasoline taxes to foster conservation.

     I'm usually on the side that says we should not raise taxes, because those of us in the middle class (not people making over 250K per year) get taxed too much. I work for myself and have to pay 15 percent of my earnings right off the top for Social Security. Then there are federal, state, local, real estate, sales ... well, you know the lineup.

     But let's face it, if gas was more expensive, we might buy cars with better gas mileage; we might live closer to work; we might car pool or take the train to work. We might think twice before driving 20 miles to go to the mall, or just to meet someone for lunch. We might convert trucks to use natural gas.

     Of course, then in the light of day I have to fill up my gas tank, and I go, "Fifty five dollars. Yikes! What's the world coming to?!??"

     Still, it might be worth it to keep ourselves out of trouble in the Middle East. So we don't have to send soldiers to die in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya.

     I did a little research. The average price right now for a gallon of regular unleaded gas in the U.S. is $3.81. Of course, it varies from place to place. It's more than that in New York, where I live. It's less in New Jersey, because New Jersey has lower gas taxes.

     But first thing to realize is that, adjusted for inflation, gas is not much more expensive than it was when we were kids in the 1960s. It's gone up a little more than inflation; but less than housing costs or medical costs or college tuition costs. The other issue is that almost everyone else in the world pays more than we do for gas. As you can see from this first list, Europeans pay more than double what we pay. And they have fewer soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

                                 Country                    Price/gal. of gas 

           Spain ............................. $7.50
           United Kingdom............ $8.00
           Denmark ....................... $8.70
           Italy ............................... $8.75
           Germany ....................... $8.80
           The Netherlands ............ $9.65
     How about elsewhere in the Americas? All these countries produce a lot of oil. But with the exception of heavily-subsidized Venezuela, nobody gets a bargain on gas prices.

     Venezuela .................... $0.10
     Mexico ......................... $2.70
     Brazil ........................... $5.80
     Canada ......................... $6.90 

     There is one region of the world where gas is cheap, even cheaper than in the U.S., and that's the Middle East. Except for Turkey and Israel, where there's little or no oil.

            Saudi Arabia .............. $0.65   
            Kuwait ....................... $0.85
            Iraq ............................ $1.50
            Israel .......................... $7.50
            Turkey ........................ $9.70

      We could easily slap another dollar of tax onto a gallon of gasoline, and we'd still be better off than the Europeans and most of the rest of the world. Then maybe we'd have fewer soldiers fighting for oil wells in the Middle East. We might reduce carbon emissions. And maybe our local governments would have some extra money to fix all those potholes!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Most Popular Song at the Dance

     B and I went to a dance last night. We do a little ballroom dancing now and then. Some Swing and Foxtrot. Cha cha and Salsa. We're not particularly good at it, but we have fun and meet a lot of nice people.

     There's a whole subculture of ballroom dancing, populated mostly by an older crowd. At every dance there's a small group of  real good dancers.  The women show up in backless dresses and skirts that twirl around; the men wear suspenders and dancing shoes. You can tell, they've been doin' it for 50 years.

     Most of the other couples -- well, they look like they're trying real hard. Clearly, the women have dragged their spouses into the program. And the women look pretty good, turning and dipping and twisting. But the men are slow and awkward. They clomp around the dance floor like Frankenstein trying to escape from his Transylvanian castle. (Count me among this crowd.) But, you know, the guys are all smiling and laughing, having a good time. And so are their dancing partners -- a lot of them wives, but a number of girlfriends and a few singles as well.

     There's also a "younger set". The freshmen. The greenhorns. The newbies. These are the people in their early 50s.

     We meet in church basements, the back rooms of restaurants; in the summer we go outdoors on the terrace. Last weekend there was a big dance at a ballroom in Manhattan. A few of the more sophisticated dancers from our group boarded a train and went in for that one. We didn't make it.

     One fellow at last night's dance celebrated his birthday. He was turning 98 years old. Not kidding. And he was out there cutting the rug with the best of them. So there's your prescription for staying young and healthy, fit and happy.

     This is last night's most requested song. Now get up and dance!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Feel-Good Ways to Save Money

     Most of us don't have the option to suddenly go out and make more money. We're settled into a job and a paycheck, or we're retired and have our fixed income all arranged. Sure, you can get a job at the mall for $8 an hour, but you may not want to do that.

Don't pour money down the drain
     However, we can control our expenses, at least to a much greater degree. It seems there are two ways to go about that. One is the skinflint way -- the way our parents and grandparents did it during the Depression. You watch your pennies; never splurge on yourself; trade down on food and other necessities; and beat back any generous impulse you have to overtip or cut someone a break in an economic transaction or make a charitable contribution.

     But all that is kind of depressing. We Americans like to be expansive, generous, and feel like we're growing and getting richer. There must be ways to save money that are not skinflinty and pennypinching, but are actually kind of clever. For example, finding a way to avoid check-writing and ATM fees at a bank (as suggested on this money-saving site). Who needs them? And doesn't it make you feel good that you're not letting the bank take advantage of you?

     The idea is not to stretch your dollar -- that's depressing. It's not to throw your money down the drain, which is wasteful. I have a few suggestions. But I'm betting* that other people have some better ones. So please step up and offer your own creative ways for seniors to save a buck.

     I've found that one feel-good way to save money is to spend more on items that have not gone up as much as inflation. An obvious example is technology. You can buy a good computer or TV for half the price you used to pay. Another is clothes. Back in the 1990s, I paid $25 or $30 for a pair of pants, and maybe $15 for a nice shirt. Today, I buy clothes on sale at Macy's. It's a nice store, but I rarely pay more than $25 or $30 for a pair of pants, or $15 for a shirt. And given the modern-day casual look -- as well as being semi-retired -- I haven't had to buy a suit in over a decade. My clothes budget is just not very high anymore, even when I splurge.

      Another thing I did, since my kids are grown up and on their own -- I canceled my life insurance. Not a big deal, but it saves me $30-some per month.

     One thing I will never do, unless we do get another Great Depression, is give up restaurants. I like going out for a nice meal, and then no one has to cook (B's job) or do the dishes (my job). And I will not stoop to eating dinner at 5 o'clock just to grab a senior citizen discount. We instead to go out for breakfast or lunch. We get the same benefits at half the cost -- without feeling like we're some poor, ragged pensioners who can only afford to eat dinner in the middle of the afternoon.
     Another easy saving for me. Cancel the health club membership. I didn't use it as much as I should have anyway, and it's just as much fun to take a walk around the neighborhood, meet the neighbors, enjoy a few pleasant conversations.

     The key is not to feel like you're cutting back, but to save money where it doesn't hurt. Of course, what hurts one person may not hurt another. Maybe you don't mind eating dinner at 5 p.m., but you'd never give up your gym membership. The point is, if you have plenty of choices, you can find places to save where you'll barely notice the difference. So I'd love some more ideas for expenses to avoid -- 'cause, you know, we ain't getting any younger, or richer.

* As for betting, I've been to Foxwoods; I've been to Atlantic City; and I know who goes there -- a lot of people on Social Security. If you have to gamble, play cards with your friends or get a pool going on March Madness, and cut the house out of the action.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Modest Proposal About Debt

     I saw over the weekend that the national debt has now climbed up above $14 trillion. That comes down to about $146,000 for every man women and child in America, or over half a million dollars for a family of four -- and that's on top of your mortgage, the car loan, the credit card balance and your college loan.

     Honestly, that's too big a problem for me to handle. I'll leave that one to someone else.

     However, as we all know, state and local governments have also run into a lot of financial trouble. New York's budget gap this year is $9 billion. New Jersey has an $11 billion gap. Illinois $12.5 billion. California $25 billion. The Badgers -- who have gone very public with their family financial fiasco, and where things have gotten pretty nasty -- suffer a gap of only some $3 billion.

     Now, while I don't have a clue how to solve the problem of $14 trillion, I do have an idea for how states can cover their billions.

     Have you been out on the road recently? If so, you know everyone speeds. So here's my debt solution:  Every municipality in America should issue a speeding ticket to every licensed driver in in their jurisdiction

     Don't try to tell me you're not guilty. Everyone speeds! You don't need a judge and jury to figure that one out.

     If you go out on the highway for just a few minutes and travel the speed limit, you'll get run over by people in the left-hand land, people in the middle lane, and people coming behind you in the so-called slow lane.

     Not to mention local drivers. The lady down the street from me, in our little development, hits 40 mph between the corner and her driveway -- a stretch that's maybe 200 yards. And where the speed limit is 25 mph. And believe me, she's not the only one.

     I live in the State of New York. There are more than 11 million drivers in New York. In my town, if you get a ticket for going, say, 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, the ticket costs $80. (Don't ask me how I know . . . let's just say I know.) On top of the local fine, the state imposes a surcharge of $125. Yeah, the surcharge is more than the actual fine!

     Anyway, so this plan -- which, let's face it, is perfectly fair and reasonable; who among us has not exceeded the speed limit at least once in the past year? -- would result in the State of New York taking in a little over $2 billion. But as you can see, that's not nearly enough to cover its budget shortfall.

     So the state government will have to do what governments do best -- expand the program. We can give a ticket for aggressive driving to every person who commutes to work more than ten miles a day. Have you seen those commuters? Guilty!

     We could issue a ticket for tailgating to every male driver under the age of 30. Is anyone going to try to claim they're innocent? Add to that a ticket for driving while distracted -- you know, while talking on a cellphone, or combing your hair, putting on makeup, eating a Big Mac or drinking a Starbucks. I'm not sure if all of those activities are illegal -- it is illegal to drive while talking on a cellphone in my state -- but all of them are very dangerous.

     And so, you know how they talk about "unintended consequences" of the most well-intended laws and regulations? Well, one unintended consequence of this plan might just be that drivers will slow down a bit out on the highway. Maybe even save a few lives. That wouldn't be a bad thing, would it?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Grammy Never Smiled

     I grew up in a suburb of New York, and was for the most part protected from the grittier details of the urban landscape. All of us were. Our parents wanted it that way. The days of war and depression, and the roots of our parents’ humble beginnings, were left behind, just a distant memory.

     My father was one of eight children born to immigrants from central Europe. My grandparents arrived in this country just before 1900. They started out in New York City, moved to Ohio, then came back east, where they struggled to make ends meet amidst the smoke and smog of Ansonia, Ct., a small industrial city along the Naugatuck River.
Ansonia, Ct. library

     My father rarely talked about his growing-up years. He never mentioned his father, who had died before I was born. But I knew that my grandparents had scrimped and saved and, in 1915, were able to buy a two-family house within walking distance of the factories on the river. The only conspicuous consumption in their lives was a telephone. They were one of the few families in town who were listed in the telephone book.

     It must have been a hard life. My grandmother, who we called Grammy, lived well into her 90s. But I never saw her smile. Not once. My grandfather was sent to his grave at the age of 60, the victim of a chronic lung ailment contracted, no doubt, from his years working in a metal factory.

     Grammy had lost a daughter as a little girl. She later lost her eldest son to the great flu epidemic of 1919. That left her with four sons and two daughters, and she took great interest in what was going on in their lives.

     Her daughters were married off early. But Grammy poked and prodded and beat and bullied her sons to do well in school, go to college and make something of themselves. Even into middle age, she would scowl at them and order them around in a language that no one else understood – a smattering of English mixed with some German and her native Czech. She did speak enough English to tell us grandchildren more than once about how proud she was of her boys. And also about their shortcomings.

     "Your father," she told me with a scowl. "He came in second in his high school class. Only second. And he lost to a girl."

     Grammy had emigrated from a little town called Boliarov in what is now Slovakia. She was an ethnic Czech, and proud of it, taking a dim view of the other Eastern Europeans who populated Ansonia and the other factory towns in the Naugatuck Valley.

     She especially didn’t like the Poles. "Those Pollacks," she’d grimace. "They’re lazy. Good for nuthin'." Then she’d shake her head for emphasis, "They even smell bad."

     No one ever identified the exact ethnicity of my grandfather. When I asked my dad, he put me off. "I don’t know," he said offhandedly. "It was a long time ago."

     When I pressed him, my dad told me my grandfather was German. "He was an ethnic German who came from the Sudetenland," he told me, sounding very authoritative at the time. "Sudetenland is a section of Czechoslovakia," he explained, "a part of the country where a lot of Germans live."

     I knew my dad spoke some German. So maybe he was right. But my Uncle Johnny spun a tale of how their father was really Russian, a runaway from the Czar’s army. Later, he amended that to say he was actually from Belarus, born in the city of Minsk. Not that I knew the difference between Russia and Belarus. But Uncle Johnny still insisted that my grandfather had resisted joining the Czar’s army and fled to America.

     It was much later when my older sister told me, "Actually, I think he was Polish."

     When I was a little kid, my dad would herd the family into our Buick and drive two hours up to Connecticut to visit his mother. My dad, always the dutiful son, regularly paid his respects to the family matriarch, like a Mafia captain to his don, and he insisted on dragging all of us along to make sure we were dutiful and respectful as well.

     For me, as a kid from middle-class suburbia, a visit to Grammy’s house seemed like a trip to a foreign country. We’d wind up the Hutchinson River Parkway and roll over the hills of the Merritt Parkway. All that seemed perfectly familiar. But then, after crossing the Housatonic River, we’d exit onto a local highway that cut around a cemetery. We’d drive down past some industrial buildings and along a big cement wall until it brought us to the main street of Ansonia, lined on one side by old stone churches and ramshackled wooden storefronts, and on the other by hulking factories that backed onto the river.

     Grammy’s house sat in a row of low-slung tenements that marched up the hill from the river. We’d park on the street, walk down the sidewalk along a chain-link fence and turn onto her little wooden front porch. Dad led the way. He’d open the door and pack all of us inside a dark hallway that smelled of boiled cabbage and old potatoes. Then we walked down a long, narrow corridor and turned into a doorway on the right. It seemed strange that Dad never knocked or rang a doorbell. But then I’d remember – he’d grown up here. This was his house.

Factory in Ansonia
     The door led directly into Grammy's kitchen,   the main room of the house. It was always hot   and steamy. Pots and pans hung from the walls.   Worn linoleum covered the floor.

     A metal table rested against one wall, with room enough for two chairs. A bowl of walnuts sat on top of the table, along with a metal nutcracker and a dusting of leftover walnut shells.

     A door behind the old stove gave way to the living room. We rarely ventured in there, because it was dark and dusty and kind of scary. Another door, off the back of the kitchen, led to Grammy’s bedroom. We never went into Grammy’s bedroom.

     A back door off the kitchen led out to a small wooden porch covered in chipped green paint, then down a flight of creaky wooden steps to the backyard.

     By the time we’d arrive Aunt Alice, my dad’s younger sister, was usually bustling around the kitchen, helping Grammy cook and clean. They cut quite a pair. Grammy was fat and proud of it. In her view, if you were fat, it meant you had enough money to eat well – you were rich.

     Aunt Alice was also fat. But she was embarrassed by her girth. My sister insisted that when Aunt Alice was younger, she was pretty and had a nice figure. I couldn’t see it. To me she looked like a younger version of Grammy – short and fat, with a wide Slavic face. Like my grandmother, she wore a dumpy-looking housedress and an apron.

     Aunt Alice’s husband, Uncle Larry, would sit at the kitchen table, cracking walnuts from the bowl. Their two boys would be playing in the backyard.

     Uncle Johnny, my dad’s older brother, would usually swing by the house as well. He looked kind of like Aunt Alice -- not fat, but short, with a wide face and light curly hair. He came over from New Haven with his wife and three kids.

     Grammy’s kitchen was dominated by a big wood stove made from heavy gray iron. She’d open the little iron door to reveal the wood fire inside, flames dancing away. Sparks would fly when she tossed in another log or two. The fire got hotter, and the soup in the pot on top of the stove would begin to bubble.

     Grammy had an indoor bathroom off the kitchen, but no flush toilet. There was no plumbing. The toilet led to a hole in the ground. I tried not to use the bathroom while I was there. But if I just couldn’t hold it any longer, I’d take three or four deep breaths, yank the door open, step inside and hold my breath while I unzipped my pants and peed. It doesn't take that long to pee -- but it seems like forever when you're holding your breath.

     I’d push real hard, trying to make it go faster, but hardly ever could I hold my breath long enough. I’d be forced to let it out and take in a lungful of hot stinky air. I’d breathe through my mouth. But it didn’t matter. The stink got inside me. It was awful. Afterward, I’d leap out of the bathroom, run through the kitchen and tumble out the back door, falling down the steps into the fresh air.

     The entrance to the celler was around the corner from the bottom of the back stairs. Three stone steps led down into a dark and damp enclosure with a dirt floor, where Grammy kept bags of potatoes and carrots and rutabagas. She’d use these for the noodle soup that always simmered on top of the stove. She also cooked a kind of sausage she called kielbasa, served with clumps of cabbage. My dad loved Grammy’s noodle soup and kielbasa. That was strange, because at home my mother cooked normal American food. I never saw my dad eat noodle soup, much less kielbasa, except when he was at Grammy’s house. Uncle Johnny ate it up, too, and so did Aunt Alice. But my mother, who was Irish, hardly ate anything at Grammy’s house.

     When we visited Grammy, my older sister hung out with Grammy and my parents. But the rest of us would escape outdoors. The backyard was enclosed by the house on one side and a fence on either side of the yard. At the rear was a six-foot stone wall, topped by a chain-link fence. Behind the fence was the school playground.

     We were supposed to stay in the yard, and we usually did. We played hide and seek, and softball and touch football. But when we got bored and needed other distractions, my brother and me and my cousins would scale the stone wall, climb over the chain-link fence and go play on the swings, climb the jungle gym and ride the seesaw.

     We didn’t make friends with any of the kids in the neighborhood. First of all, there weren’t many kids in the neighborhood – most of the residents were, like my grandmother, old immigrants from Eastern Europe. We didn’t think Grammy was particularly popular in the neighborhood anyway, so we thought it best to keep to ourselves.

     Besides, I would never want to bring back a Polish kid to Grammy’s house. And since none of us could tell the difference between a Czech, a Slav or a Pole, we couldn’t be sure who was who.

     But it made me wonder:  How could Grammy hate the Poles? How could she even tell the difference? All these old immigrants looked the same to us kids. Later on, when I was in college in the early '70s and came back to visit when Grammy was in her 90s, I could see there really were different kinds of people moving into her neighborhood. There were blacks and Hispanics and a few Asians.

     The funny thing is, Grammy didn’t seem to mind them at all.

Monday, March 7, 2011

But Will Boomers Buy It?

     A few years ago, back when I was working, my college alumni magazine asked me to be on the Board of Advisers, a volunteer job that involved traveling to campus twice a year and sitting in on a meeting to critique the magazine and offer up ideas to make it better, more relevant to alumni.

Alumni magazine too small to see
     One of my suggestions was to make the type size larger. I was pushing 50 at the time. My eyesight was not getting any better, and I was tired of having to turn on all the lights and squint down on the print to read the latest news from campus. "One objective of the magazine," I pointed out, "is to keep older alumni feeling connected to the college, but how can they feel connected if they can't read the articles?"

     The magazine staff consisted of college students, led by a post-grad teacher in her late 20s, and most of the other people on the Board of Advisers were under 40. They had no trouble seeing the small type and thought my suggestion was kind of lame, so the print stayed small allowing them to squeeze more of their precious prose onto the page.

     These days, however, people are beginning to pay attention to older consumers. Companies are quietly overhauling their product lines to accommodate aging baby boomers.

     One example is an investment firm where clients are offered coffee in a cup with a handle, rather than in a Styrofoam cup (easier to hold.) The firm uses lamps rather than overhead lights (less glare) and has turned off the piped-in music (background noise hampers hearing).

     Many retail stores have better lighting and offer more seating. They post displays in larger print, and in bolder colors that are easier to see. Sometimes packaging is made simpler. Jars have indented sides to make them easier to hold. Tops are easier to open for arthritic hands. Other stores have installed carpeting so people won't slip on the floor. And shelves are lower so older women don't have to reach up so high.

     The Kohler plumbing company is doing a land office business in bathroom grab bars, which they call a Belay shower handrail (suggesting the rugged outdoors rather than the threat of a broken hip).

A stylish grab -- er, Belay handrail
     Kimberly Clark has redesigned adult diapers to make them seem like underwear. They are made to look more like normal underwear; they are sold in smaller packages like underwear -- and advertised that they "fit like underwear, but protect like nothing else."

     Last month the New York Times did a story on organizations that help businesses understand the needs of older people and design products that appeal to them. The key, according to researchers at the Age Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is to design products with features that are useful to older consumers, without being too obvious about it. As one MIT professor said, "You can't build an old man's product, because a young man won't buy it and an old man won't buy it."

     One example is toothpaste that promises whiter teeth and healthier gums. Another is the car with blind-spot detection. Both of these are useful for everyone, but especially appealing to older consumers.

     Researchers from MIT, Stanford University and elsewhere are also brainstorming products designed to help seniors live at home as they get older -- to save money on institutional care, and also because that's what most people want. Scientists are devising technological solutions to promote wellness and independence, such as devices to alert a loved one if a person has fallen and can't get up; or wireless pillboxes to remind people to take their medications; or in-home sensors to monitor an elderly person's activities.
     Now, if I could just get my college alumni magazine to use larger print -- or, I know, I can read it online where I can adjust the type size myself.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

You Are What You Drink

     I used to quip that before I was 40, all I cared about was sex. After age 40, all I cared about was money.  But now that I'm entering my 60s, I have to say my interest in money is beginning to fade, and I'm becoming more interested in health.

     In pursuit of better health, I've been trying to improve my diet. We all know what to do, of course. Just do what our mothers told us:  Eat your vegetables, lay off the candy, drink water instead of soda. But that's easier said than done.

     However, I have recently found success in one area. I've been drinking more water. My lovely partner B, who's big on hydration, sets a good example. She drinks it right from the tap. Straight up.

     I used to guzzle a couple of soft drinks a day. At some point I switched to diet drinks, thinking that would help me avoid all those empty calories. It didn't seem to make any difference, either in the way I felt or in my weight. I also tried non-carbonated drinks -- Snapple, Gatorade, Arizona iced tea. But they didn't give me the same buzz (I guess I like the caffeine); plus, B gently pointed out that they contain just as much high-fructose corn syrup as soda. (We're talking over 50 grams of sugar -- or about 12 teaspoons -- in a 16-oz. serving.)

     I looked at the can of Coke I happened to be drinking. Sure enough, the first two ingredients are carbonated water and high-fructose corn syrup. I thought ginger ale might be better. I found a can in the refrigerator. Nope. Again, carbonated water and high-fructose corn syrup. A bottle of Snapple? Water and high-fructose corn syrup.

     "Well," I replied to B defensively, "What's so bad about high-fructose corn syrup? It's made from corn, right? It's a vegetable. Must be good for you."

     "Hah. I don't think so," she scoffed. "It's even worse than regular sugar. It's processed somehow. At least sugar is natural." She ticked off the problems with high-fructose corn syrup. It makes you fat. Gives you cavities. May cause diabetes.

     "Diabetes?" I mumbled. "I had an uncle who had diabetes."

     "Plus, it gives you a sugar high, then you crash and feel worn out and lethargic for a couple of hours."

     I never noticed it before, but after I finished my Coke I did begin to feel kind of sluggish.

     "What about this new stuff, the vitamin water," I wondered aloud, sidling over to the sofa and lying down. I'd seen the claims for a "nutrient enhanced water beverage" that has "b vitamins + potassium." I wasn't so sure about the potassium, but the vitamins seemed like they'd be good for me. B brought me a bottle from the refrigerator. I looked at the label. It's made from "reverse osmosis water" and "crystalline fructose" as well as cane sugar.

      Hmmmm. Seemed like the same stuff. "But what's wrong with Diet Coke?" I asked defensively. There is no high-fructose corn syrup. Instead, the first two ingredients are carbonated water and caramel color, followed by aspartame.

     "Aspartame, huh?" said B. "I think they decided it doesn't cause cancer."

     So, finally, I started drinking water. I'd noticed that my kids drank a lot of water. They don't think twice about spending $2 for a bottle of Poland Spring or Evian. At first I didn't get it. Why spend $2 when you can draw water out of the tap for free?

     Then I realized, they bought bottles of water because the packaging and the process of buying it somehow made it special and more fun to drink. And, honestly, I didn't mind. I figured it was the same $2 they'd spend for a soda-- and they were getting a better beverage.

     So finally, with the example of my kids, and the encouragement of B, I switched from soda and iced tea, to bottles of Poland Spring. And I quieted my conscience (I should be saving this money for retirement!) by purchasing Poland Spring for $4.99 a case at the supermarket, instead of $2 a bottle at the convenience store.

     I had come a long way. But not far enough for B. She wasn't so worried about the money. But she felt that I was doing more than my part to choke the landfills with plastic bottles while contributing to our dependence on foreign sources of energy. The plastic to make the bottles. The fuel used to ship those bottles to the store. The energy used to keep them cold. I pointed out that Poland Spring has a new campaign to lower its environmental impact. She pointed out that water from the kitchen faucet has no environmental impact at all.

     So we've reached a compromise. I still buy my bottles of Poland Spring. No sugar. No high-fructose corn syrup. But after I drink a bottle, I refill it from the tap two or three times before I throw it away and crack open a new one.

     I still get to quench my thirst from a fancy bottle. And you know what? I don't get that sugar low anymore ... and I think I've lost a few pounds.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Should We Extend the Retirement Age?

     If you read a newspaper or magazine, or watch TV news, you can't go five minutes without seeing a warning about the burden of 70-some million Baby Boom retirees that looms over the Social Security system. The financial crisis, great recession, ballooning federal budget deficit -- and now soaring oil prices -- have only seemed to make matters worse.

     One suggestion for solving the problem is to extend the retirement age. In fact, the retirement age has already been increased for anyone born after 1938 -- which means most of us. For those born between 1943 and 1954 (including me) the full retirement age for Social Security is 66. For people born after 1954, the retirement age increases by two months per year, until it reaches 67 for those born in 1960 or later.

     Now there have been calls to increase the retirement age even more. To 68, or even 70. House Majority Leader John Boehner has said, "We're all living a lot longer than anyone ever expected, and raising the retirement age to 70 is a step that needs to be taken."

     It's not just conservative Republicans. President Obama's deficit reduction commission also called for raising the Social Security age. They are proposing 69. Other experts have chimed in, including former deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration Andrew Biggs. The American Academy of Actuaries has also come out in favor of extending the retirement age.

     I can see the logic of the proposal. After all, we are on average living longer than the retirees of the 1930s, when the retirement age was set at 65. In 1940, the average 65-year-old person lived 12 more years. Today, the average 65-year-old retiree can expect to live another 18 years. That's a big increase -- 50 percent. Social Security was meant to provide a safety net to elderly people for the last few years of their lives. It was never meant to finance a retirement lasting 20 or 30 years.

     Here's the problem:  It works in theory, but not in real life.

     In real life, many people find it difficult to work past the age of 60, let alone 65. If you've got a physically demanding job, it can get pretty rough. Do you think it's a good idea for 65 year olds to be climbing ladders or lifting heavy construction materials?

     What about office workers? You'd think it's not physically demanding. But I was an office worker, and by the time I retired I had bulging discs in my neck from sitting behind a desk for 30-some years, and carpal tunnel syndrome from working a keyboard for 30 years.

     Even some professionals. Do you want a 70-year-old surgeon with shaky hands operating on your brain? Or even a 70-year-old plumber trying to bend and twist his way under your kitchen sink so he can fix a leak?

Pres. Obama with Commissioners Bowles & Simpson
     And then there's the other side of the equation. Many people are ready and able to work into their 60s and beyond, but their companies don't want them. Corporations often ease out workers in their 50s, because their salaries have increased with seniority and they're perceived to be not as efficient, and maybe they have higher health costs, and besides, some 30 year old will do the job at half the price -- even if the younger person doesn't do as good a job, it's good enough.

     Employers are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of age. But you know damn well they do -- they just hire a few lawyers to muddle the situation.

     You can find plenty of retirement advice suggesting to Baby Boomers that they work a few extra years in order to make up for any lack of savings. "Stop Saving So Much for Retirement" suggests you spend more money on cruises and other indulgences -- then, to make up for it, just work until age 70 instead of retiring at 62.

     That's fine if you happen to have a job that doesn't tax you either physically or emotionally. And if you work for a company that's happy to have you stick around until you're 70. But who has that option? Maybe lawyers and accountants; certain corporate managers and government employees; people who work for a family business. But it's not an option for most of us.

     A report from federal government auditors points out that raising the retirement age would "create a financial hardship for those who cannot continue to work because of poor health or demanding workplace conditions." Adds David Certner of the AARP, "Some people just can't continue to work beyond age 62 for either health reasons or they're just not able to find jobs. Just because we tell people they should work longer doesn't mean there are employers willing to hire people."

     Under current conditions, the people who find it convenient to work longer are the very people who have better, higher paying jobs. This means extending the retirement age will make the rich richer, and the poor poorer. I don't think we need more of that in this economy.

     If we're going to extend the retirement age -- and I agree there's a legitimate argument to do that -- then we have to change our entire business culture. Corporations will have to stop forcing out workers in their 50s. Employers will have to offer legitimate retraining. More job sharing. More part-time work. More workplace flexibility. And perhaps most of all, a change in attitudes -- that it's okay to slow down, take less pay, perform an easier job, and find value in older workers' skills, perspective and experience.

     Until then, let's keep the retirement age at 67.