"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Buy a Mutual Fund? Are You Kidding!

           Like many people, my problem is that I have a half-decent amount of money that over the years I've saved up for retirement. Now that I'm basically retired, I need to generate some income from that money. I do not have a pension. I still have a couple of years before I get Social Security. And while I do make some money from freelancing, it's not enough to live on.

      So where do you get income in this day and age? Gone are the days when you could put money in a bank and draw 5% interest.

     One friend of mine has almost all her savings in bank CDs. She vowed, in 2009, that as soon as the Dow Jones average got back above 10,000 she was taking her money out of stock mutual funds and and putting it all in something completely safe and secure. She followed through on her promise. But now she's missed the stock market rally of the last year, and is earning somewhere between 1% and 2% interest. After taxes and inflation, she's losing money.

            I don't know how much money she has. But if she's got, say, half a million dollars, it's producing $7000 or $8000 a year. That's $600 or $700 a month, less after taxes. Not much in today's economy ... certainly not if you live anywhere in the Northeast like I do. I need more than that to supplement my meager earnings from the work I'm able to get.

          My brother-in-law fancies himself a day trader. He spends quite a bit of time at it. He has about $50k to play around with, and he tries to use it to make money. He dabbles in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and occasionally gets a hot tip on a technology stock. When I asked him how he does, he responded, "Well, I, uh, actually, I guess I about break even."

          But according to my sister, who keeps a close watch on him, he actually loses about $5000 a year. "That's not so bad," says my sister. "It keeps him out of trouble, and it doesn't cost us any more than a two-week vacation."

          But my brother-in-law has a pension from the military, and my sister is still working. So they don't really have to produce income from their savings.

          Another friend got a settlement when he was laid off a couple of years ago. Instead of squirreling that money away in some bonds or a stock mutual fund, he decided to invest in a vacation condo in Myrtle Beach. He's been able to rent it out about six or seven months a year. But the rental agency takes half his revenue, and the other half goes toward paying his condo fees. Meanwhile, the price of condos in his complex have sagged another ten percent.

So I've been looking into mutual funds. Now I know everyone thinks that the stock market is rigged and it's no place to put money you ever expect to see again in this lifetime. Many of my Baby Boomer friends were spooked by the 2007-09 stock market crash. The value of their IRA and 401k plans swooned just at a time when they were starting to pay attention, when they were in their mid-50s and seeing retirement on the horizon. I myself took a hit in my retirement funds during that period.

But now that everyone is running the other way, just maybe it's time to dip a toe into the stock market. And since mutual funds are considered old and boring and passe, especially compared to sexier ETFs or internet stocks, maybe they are actually the smart way to play it.

If you say mutual funds are a scam, designed to enrich financial institutions, I'll respond: Yeah, tell me something new. There are over 10,000 funds. Most of them by definition are average, charging high fees and producing mediocre returns. But if you do even a little shopping on Schwab, Fidelity, Vanguard or Morningstar, you can find a relatively safe -- or at least a relatively conservative and dependably honest -- place to put your savings, a fund that will produce some half-decent income.

Laura Dogu on forbes.com says buying just three Vanguard index funds will “create a low cost, broadly diversified portfolio that is easy to manage.” That may be true. But these index funds will not produce much income.

          So I'm betting on something else -- Equity Income funds that produce income, that I can buy with no transaction fees and no loads, that are fairly well diversified, and earn four or five stars from the Morningstar rating company.

I'm going with funds like the Parnassus Equity Income (PRBLX), a five-star fund with management fees of 0.99%; the Fidelity Asset Manager Fund (FASIX), a four-star fund with fees of 0.57%; the Vanguard Wellesley Fund (VWINX), another five-star fund with a management fee of just 0.28%; and the Vanguard Wellington Fund (VWELX) a five-star fund with a management fees of 0.30%.

I can’t start recommending funds – these or any others -- I can only tell you that I've owned various mutual funds over the years, some good, some bad. Altogether they haven’t made me rich, but they’ve produced returns that easily beat the 1% you get from your friendly neighborhood bank, or the negative 10% my brother-in-law makes from day trading.

Wish me luck!

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Cancer Millionaires

     Two weekends ago I took part in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. As I reported in "We Walked to Fight Cancer," I was very gratified to be a part of our town's contribution to the cause of conquering cancer. In the end, we raised more than $100,000.

     Our town is only one of some 5000 communities around the U. S. to sponsor a Relay for Life. The very next weekend the town next door to us held their Relay for Life, and I saw that the town of Ridgefield, over the line in Connecticut, held theirs as well. Ridgefield is a little bigger than my town, and a little richer, and the people in Ridgefield raised something in the order of $200,000.

     We're raising a lot of money to fight cancer.

     I happened to be in Ridgefield last week, and I picked up a copy of the local newspaper. I saw an editorial by a doctor who writes a weekly column. (The article should be here soon -- but the paper has a delay in posting to its internet site.) The doctor, Dr. Evan Levine, complained that when he recently had gone to the grocery store with a friend of his, they were accosted by a young woman asking them to buy a $1 raffle ticket -- proceeds to go to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. They were told the money would help children with cancer and fund research that might cure cancer. His friend immediately bought five tickets. The doctor reluctantly bought one, just to avoid any embarrassing situation.

     But Dr. Levine wrote that he really didn't want to buy a ticket to benefit Sloan-Kettering. Why? Because he's cold-hearted? No, because he had recently read that in 2009 the president of Sloan-Kettering took home a salary of over $4.4 million a year. The top five executives of Sloan-Kettering had pulled in almost $20 million for the year.

     Dr. Levine thought that was a lot of raffle tickets. Too many raffle tickets. And he wondered if the executives at Sloan-Kettering were sending kids out "to beg for money for the sick and needy, or for the fat and wealthy."

     "I think the execs at Sloan-Kettering are undeserving, overcompensated gluttons," he wrote. "Someone should demand that their salaries be lowered out of the stratosphere." He pointed out that if the top executives of this nonprofit organization satisfied themselves with only $1 million a year, then an extra $15 million would be available to help the poor children, and to help fund research to find a cure.

     Reading this column gave me pause. And I wondered if by participating in Relay for Life I had just been suckered into helping raise money not for kids, or a cure for cancer, but for executives who were enriching themselves in the name of a not-for-profit organization, and at the expense of poor children with cancer, women suffering from breast cancer and others facing this dreaded disease.

     I went on the Internet and did a little research on the American Cancer Society. I found one long multi-part article entitled: "The American Cancer Society Runs with the Money and Away from the Cure." It castigated the American Cancer Society (ACS) for being in bed with the chemical companies and the pharmaceutical companies, for pushing mammograms which may do more harm than good, and for failing to find a cure for cancer even though they've been collecting money and building a "bloated cancer industry" for over 40 years. The article also charged that the American Cancer Society "pleads poverty, [but] actually takes in more money than any other US charity," and it claimed that "high-ranking officers of the American Cancer Society were making as much as a million dollars a year."

     Of course, I realize that the American Cancer Society is not the same as the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and that apparently the American Cancer Society is, in fact, taking the Ridgefield doctor's advice -- paying its top administrators about $1 million a year, instead of $4 million a year. And just maybe the ACS ought to be coordinating with pharmaceutical companies that produce cancer drugs -- and are mammograms all that bad? The article may have made some good points; but it clearly had an ax to grind.

     I found the Charity Navigator, an organization that evaluates American charities, and saw that it awards the American Cancer Society three out of four stars -- a decent but not top-notch rating. Approximately 70 percent of the ACS budget goes to actual program activities, while 30 percent goes to administrative expenses and fundraising overhead. I also found that the American Cancer Society is not the richest American charity, as the critical article claimed. The richest is the American Red Cross. ACS comes in at number 5.

     Among the various activities of the American Cancer Society, apparently the Relay for Life rates as one of its more efficient fundraisers -- partly because a lot of the fundraising expenses (such as food, drink, shelter and entertainment) are borne by the volunteers themselves. Anyway, the popular overnight event only spends about 8 cents of every dollar on overhead.

     That's as much as I know. I can't pretend to have made a full-scale investigation of charitable giving in America, or the American Cancer Society, or the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. All I can say is that, as potential donors, we should probably be somewhat careful about where we make our charitable contributions. Because I, for one, want my dollars to actually go toward a cure for cancer and to help unfortunate kids, and not to bloat the salary of fat-cat administrators who are lining their own pockets in the name of charity.

     I will most likely walk in the Relay for Life next year, because it does seem to be a worthwhile activity of a better-than-average charity. But as far as Sloan-Kettering goes, well, I think $4.4 million is too much to pay out in one salary. Don't you?

Blogging Boomers Carnival

Nancy Mehegan hosts Blogging Boomers Carnival this week at Vaboomer. Head on over to get your free tickets -- to some observations about older job seekers, a few helpful tips for caretakers caught in the sandwich generation, and ... instructions on how to stuff some hot Italians!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Who Lies About Their Age?

     I owe someone a big apology. I said in my previous post that B had started her new career at age 55. She's been working at it for four years, so that would imply that she is now 59 years old. That was a colossal mistake, because nothing could be further from the truth. B is unequivocally not 59 years old. She's nowhere near 59 years old.

     She actually started her new career at age 54. She is only 58 years old. She won't be 59 for ... let's see ... three more months.

     Why is it that women are so touchy about their age?

     It reminds me of my mother, who lied about her age her entire adult life. Okay, who allegedly lied about her age. Because she never admitted it.

     My dad was born in 1911. The date was on his license; he freely admitted it. There was no question about it. Not an issue.

     My mother always said that she was a year younger than my dad, making her year of birth 1912. However, the date on her license was 1911. It was a mistake, my mother insisted. Her birthday was 1912, not 1911. It wasn't a big deal to us children. Why would it be? Who cares whether your mother is 55 or 56 -- or 75 or 76? Occasionally we'd joke about it -- about the "mistake" on her license. But nobody ever really called her on it.

Hey, we're not that old
     But there was also her college diploma. She graduated from college in 1932 -- the same year as my dad, not the year after him. If she had been born in 1912, that would have made her 20 years old when she graduated from college. Was that a mistake too? While we were all impressed that our mother was pretty smart -- after all, she had gone to college, a relative rarity for a woman in those days -- we also knew she wasn't that smart, not smart enough to have skipped a grade.

     The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, occurred when my folks retired and moved to Florida. A certain document surfaced. It was my mother's official birth certificate -- and it recorded her date of birth as May 26, 1911.

     When we, the children, confronted her with this fact, she got on her high dudgeon. Oh, no, my birth certificate is wrong, she told us emphatically. She went on to explain that her original birth certificate had been lost, many years ago, and to get a new document she had to get her brother to testify to her date of birth. (Her brother was a lawyer and Notary Public; I don't know if that was a requirement.) Anyway, according to my mother, he made a mistake. He recorded that she had been born in 1911, not her real birthday in 1912. It was just that her brother was rather overbearing, and to correct the mistake would have been too much trouble. Of course by this time, her brother was quite elderly and lived in another state, and so was unavailable to either deny or corroborate my mother's story.

      We all pretended to believe her -- what was the harm? But in our minds, she was busted. We knew that she was a year older than she claimed. Yet she never admitted to her true age, even as she progressed through her 70s and 80s. And we children, in the midst of our own callow youths, could never understand why a woman would continue to shave a year off her real age, even as she lived on into her 80s.

     Still and all, I can understand why B doesn't want me to add a year to her age -- especially since she'll soon enough have to face crossing the big threshold of six-oh.

     Of course, that begs the question:  My blog is called "Sightings at 60." And, truthfully, I was 60 when I got the idea for this blog. But by the time I actually started it ... well, "Sightings at 61" doesn't have quite the same ring to it. But that's just a practical matter. It's not like I'm vain or anything -- not like my mother.

     But in any case, I feel I must set the record straight. B is not 59. She is in fact 58. You know ... kind of in her mid-50s.

     But honestly -- and I mean this -- to me she looks like she's 39.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What's the Problem with Retirement?

     I was playing golf with my buddy over the weekend. We had to wait a bit on the 9th tee, so we got talking and I asked him, just in passing, how his wife was doing. He said, okay, but she doesn't really do anything.

     For the record, my friend is semiretired. He's a 62-year-old lawyer who is bored silly with his job, and has arranged to work, essentially, three days a week. He works three days in the summer, four days in the spring and fall, and takes off two months to go to Florida in the winter. He takes home a pro-rated salary, which is still a half-decent amount of money.

     He described his wife's day. She gets up and has breakfast. She reads the paper. Then she goes on the computer for a couple of hours. Then she'll go shopping, and by the time she comes home, her day is over. She has a glass of wine; they have dinner, watch a little TV and go to bed.

     He wasn't really criticizing his wife, not directly. And I know he still loves her -- or at least his marriage is solid. They've been married a long time, with two kids, and as he lives and breathes he is a real family man. But you can tell he doesn't approve of his wife's lack of activity.

     I pointed out to him that her schedule is a about the same as his, on his days off. He sits around and reads the paper and watches TV -- except instead of shopping, he plays golf, although he does go to the health club four or five days a week. Except for his heart condition (or maybe because of it), he stays in pretty good shape.

     I also pointed out that his wife is retired. They have a son, age 31, and daughter who's 25. The kids are grown up (although their daughter still lives at home.) So his wife's job as a mom is mostly over. Also, she worked for most of the years of their marriage, full time before they had kids, and for a while after; part-time for the rest of their marriage until she lost her job about six or seven years ago. After she got laid off, she decided she'd had enough. Still, she'd worked a good 25 to 30 years, while still raising a family.

     So what does he expect? Not only for his wife, but for himself?

     He thinks his wife is wasting her time -- although he's not concerned that he, too, is "wasting" the 40 percent of the work week that he's not working, reading the paper, watching TV and playing golf.

     I was thinking about this as I read a statistic, reported by Umair Haque in the Harvard Business Review, saying somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of today's employees are "disengaged" with their work, meaning they don't care much, if at all, about the work they do. A little like my friend, who used to care, but doesn't anymore.

     "But can you blame them?" asks Haque. "Perhaps they don't care not just because the work feels pointless, but because in human terms, it mostly is." He wonders, if you walked into any typical workplace, would you find people brimming with enthusiasm, feeling self-fulfilled, or would you find dour people stonily working for the accursed paycheck?

     I don't know if my friend is still working for the accursed paycheck, or if he's just afraid to stay home. But I do know that B, who started a new career at age 55, certainly enjoys her work. She doesn't get paid much, but she works with a dozen or so colleagues who occasionally drive her crazy but who for the most part she likes. She works with children, some of whom drive her crazy but most of whom give her many moments of sheer delight. And she's gotten to know a lot of other women in the community -- many of them 20 years younger than she is, who she would never have met otherwise -- and which, again, except for the occasional crank, she enjoys immensely.

     I remember when I was working -- well, a big part of it was to get the accursed paycheck. I had a family to support, from diapers to college tuition, and I certainly could not have afforded to go for long without a paycheck, or bring home much less of a paycheck, without a major change in our lifestyle and a major disappointment to my wife and two children. But I, too, enjoyed the camaraderie of my colleagues, and for the most part I enjoyed the actual work that I did, and I also occasionally felt a sense of accomplishment when I stopped to consider I was producing something that other people valued, that complete strangers were willing to buy with their hard-earned money.

     But if 75 percent of us are "disengaged" with our work -- or if a lot of us are "disengaged" with our work 75 percent of the time -- then what's the problem with retirement? Why should we be so worried about finding something to do in retirement that is fulfilling and meaningful and gives us a sense of accomplishment, or somehow makes us feel that we're improving ourselves? Doesn't that just put a lot of pressure on us retirees? If most of us didn't find that self-fulfillment at work, why should we find it in retirement? If we didn't solve the problems of the world while we were working, what makes us think we will when we're retired?

     Maybe it's enough to find a schedule that's pleasing to us and that we find enjoyable from day to day. If it involves taking a course at the community college or volunteering for Meals on Wheels, that's fine. But if it doesn't, so what? Shouldn't retirement bring freedom from the Puritan work ethic? Shouldn't we at last be free from the pressure of relentless self-improvement?

     Maybe it's okay to just relax ... like my friend's wife.

Blogging Boomers Carnival

     Midlife Crisis Queen is hosting Blogging Boomers Carnival this week. Stop over to find how they're using google earth in the Amazon, why you might not want to keep too much money in the bank, if it's raining in the fire-stricken west, and who should consider doing some seasonal work in retirement.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Thanks for the ... the ... uh, the Memory

     "I wonder if I'm getting Alzheimer's," B said to me the other evening as we sat at the table after dinner.

     "Alzheimer's?" I said. "Where does that come from?"
     "I've read all these books recently, and they're just a blur. I can't tell one from another. I can't remember the plot or the characters or anything."

     "Hmmm. Do you keep a record?" I wondered. "I keep a list of the books I read, with brief plot summaries and my reactions, just for that reason."

     "Yeah, I do that, too. But still ... " she trailed off. "I think they can tell, based on what kinds of things you remember, compared to the kinds of things you forget, whether you're getting Alzheimer's or not."

     "Well, if it's forgetting where you put your wallet and your keys, then I've been suffering from Alzheimer's since I was 18 years old."

     She gave me a look and rolled her eyes. She's mentioned this before, about forgetting things, and she knows I don't take her seriously. She's just a perfectionist -- if she forgets one name, or the title of one movie, she gets upset with herself.

     "I get discouraged that I read these books," she went on, "and I can't distinguish one from another. They all seem the same to me. I really don't understand why they have to publish all these new books, anyway. They're all the same. There are no new themes."

     "The same?" I wondered.

     "Yeah, a woman gets divorced or loses her husband; she feels all alone, then she meets someone new. Or, there's a quirky kid, and he finds another quirky kid, they get in trouble, then they learn a lesson."

     "Hah," I said. "You ought to read one of my books, then. Whole different thing. A detective finds a body, then meets a sultry women, uncovers a secret and gets captured by the bad guys. Then he beats up some people, corners the bad guy and says goodbye to the woman because that's the honorable thing to do."

     "You see!" she said, as though I were proving her point. "There aren't any new themes or plots. We should just go back and read the classics -- what's wrong with Jane Austen and Charles Dickens?"

     "Nothing. But, come on, there are plenty of new themes." I didn't know how the conversation had taken this new twist, but I knew she was now on a rant. She knew it too, because I could see she wasn't entirely serious.

     "No, there aren't," she insisted. "Just new technologies and new fashions."

     "Well ..." She had me now. I didn't know how to respond.

     "I read recently that there's a controversy among teachers and educators," she went on. "Is it a good thing to let kids read anything they want, just to get them to read? Or should we insist that they read good books?"

     "That's a tough one," I replied. "But I say it's good to read. So get the kids reading, that's the first step, then worry about what they read later on."

     "But then they only read junk."

     "Better to read junk than watch junk on TV, or play junk video games."

     "I guess."

     "Eventually, they'll stumble onto something good," I continued. "Like, if they watched that movie where the guy was obsessed about Charles Dickens. Remember? Then they'd get interested in Dickens and want to try reading one of his novels."

     She gave me a puzzled look. "What movie about what guy who liked Dickens?"

     "You know, last week," I said. "We saw a movie where the guy was always reading Dickens, talking about Dickens, quoting Dickens."

     "We did? What was the movie?"

     "Ah ... I don't remember the name of the movie," I confessed. "Or the actor. I thought you might remember."

     "No idea. Dickens? So what movies have we seen recently?"

     "Er ..."

     "The King's Speech," she offered. "That was a while ago. Uh, Something Borrowed. No, I didn't see that with you, I saw it with my girlfriend."

     "Black Swan?" I offered. "Remember? We rented the DVD last weekend."

     "There was no guy in Black Swan," she scoffed. "That was about the two women. You know, what's her name. Natalie Portman. And the other girl."

     "How about Crazy Heart?" I suggested.

     "Crazy Heart?!?" she exclaimed. "Are you crazy? We saw that ages ago. Besides that was, uh ... Bridges. What's his name? Jeff Bridges. There was nothing about Dickens in the movie."

     B called in to her older son, watching TV in the other room. "What movies have we seen lately?" Sometimes we use his Netflix account to rent a movie, or watch a movie that he's ordered for himself.

     "I don't know," he called back.

     B and I looked at each other. Then her son appeared in the kitchen doorway, his arms resting on the door jam. He laughed. "You guys are having such a typical old people's conversation."

     We laughed with him, although I wondered -- how come it's okay for 20-somethings to make fun of "old people's conversations," but we can't make fun of their conversations -- which typically consist of sentences of less than 140 characters, the limit on Twitter.

     Then a thought flashed into my mind. "I know! It was the movie we got from Red Hat!"

     Which brought a gaffaw from B's son. "Red Hat!" he laughed. "It's Red Box!"

     "Right," I acknowledged. "Red Box. It's the movie we rented at Red Box. Remember, we drove over to 7-Eleven and got the movie from the machine."

     "Yeah, actually I do remember that," B said, her eyes brightening. "But what was the movie?"

     I still couldn't remember. So B called into her son again. He informed us, in condescending tones, that he hadn't gone to Red Box; he hadn't seen the movie; he knew nothing about it.

     "We could google it," suggested B. So I got up and went into my office. I sat down at my computer and googled: "Movie where the main character likes Charles Dickens." I got a screen full of references to Charles Dickens. But nothing about a movie.

      Then a name popped into my mind.  Matt Damon. And so I called into the kitchen: "It was Matt Damon! The movie had Matt Damon in it. Remember? It was something about death."

     "Oh! That rings a bell!" B exclaimed. "There were the two boys, and one of them got run over."

     "Right! And Ron Howard's daughter was in it-- what's her name? Uh, Bryce Dallas Howard."

     "Wait ... wait... " said B. "I got it. I know it ... Hereafter!"

     "Yeah that's it!" I agreed. I paused a moment, then brightened. "And you thought you were getting Alzheimer's."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Are You Liberal or Conservative?

     I found a reference to this subject on minyanville.com, an economics and finance website that I consult periodically. But the idea was based on a survey from a website called hunch blog. The premise is that there is a correlation between your taste in food and your taste in politics.

     What, you don't think so? Remember during the last Presidential campaign when Barack Obama referred to the price of arugula at Whole Foods, while making a campaign stop in Iowa? As hunch blog reminds us, he was roundly ridiculed by conservatives for his effete, liberal, almost un-American preference in lettuce.

     So anyway, what I did was turn the survey around, massage it a bit and make it into a quiz. It was not a scientific poll. It was based on a limited and selected group of people. So please don't hold me to a scientifically sound quiz. Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun . . . and besides, just thinking about it intuitively, it seems there's probably some truth to the whole thing.

Do you eat off the liberal menu?
     With that in mind, all you have to do is answer yes or no to each question. Then, at the bottom, you tote up your score to find out if you're liberal or conservative. It doesn't necessarily mean you're a Democrat or Republican -- presumably there are a few conservative Democrats (remember the Reagan Democrats?) and a few liberal Republicans (like Rockefeller Republicans -- remember them?)

     Anyway, the point is not to argue politics, but to play a little cultural game. So ...

     1)  Do you like meatloaf?
     2)  Do you drink wine?
     3)  Do you like beer?
Or swallow the conservative line?
     4)  Do you like McDonald's French fries?
     5)  Do you eat seafood?
     6)  Do you like fresh fruit?
     7)  Do you like grape jelly?
     8)  How about strawberry jelly?
     9)  Do you grill your burgers?
    10) Do you drink tap water?
    11) Is Chinese your takeout of choice?
    12) Do you like oatmeal cookies?

     Okay, figure out your answer. The next election depends on it!

     If you answered "yes" to questions no: 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, then you are a liberal. "Yes" to questions no: 1, 4, 7, 9, 11 and 12, means you're a conservative. Question 10 is a "wash" -- everybody drinks tap water!

     But like I said, don't take the quiz too seriously. I myself said "yes" to Questions no. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 and 12. So I said "yes" to 3 liberal questions and 3 conservative questions. Which makes me kind of independent ... which is exactly what I am.

     And you know what else? I'm gettin' kinda hungry. Think I'll go make myself some lunch.

Monday, June 6, 2011

We Walked to Fight Cancer

     I went on the Relay for Life on Friday night, sponsored by the American Cancer Society. I say Friday night, but the relay lasted until Saturday morning. B was a team captain. A friend of hers had breast cancer last year, underwent surgery and chemotherapy, and came out a survivor. Now she was active in the Relay, and B wanted to show her support by fielding a team.

     It was a lot of work. B recruited about a dozen volunteers to either contribute money, or walk in the relay, or do both. She registered her team, collected the money, organized her campsite for the overnight walk. She went to three or four meetings, made dozens of phone calls and sent endless emails.

     I was happy to make my contribution and volunteer to walk. I know B's friend, and also wanted to show my support, and of course I was going to help B. And there was something else lurking in my mind. My older brother died of Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was 23 years old. My mother had breast cancer, not once but twice, and it ultimately killed her. My dad lived to age 91. But what got him in the end? You guessed it: cancer.

     The point of Relay for Life is to raise money -- for research, for hospitals, for support groups, for victims who don't have sufficient medical insurance. But it seemed to me that way too much of B's work went into ancillary activities that didn't matter -- getting people registered; making sure the forms were filled out properly; scheduling people to make the walk. I have to confess, by the time the event finally rolled around, I had a bad attitude about it. Too much bureaucracy, I thought.

     "So how many teams are there?" I asked B. We live in a small exurban town. I thought there might be 10 or 12 teams.

     "I heard, 39 teams," she told me.

     "Wow! You got a dozen people on a team, you're talking maybe 500 people."

     "Oh yeah, a lot of people are involved, for sure. I heard one team has 58 people on it."

     This thing was bigger than I thought.

     Friday evening arrived. B assigned me the job of buying drinks and ice and hauling our big ice chest over to the middle school, where the relay was taking place. B's co-worker was furnishing a tent. B was staying overnight with two of her friends.

     We pulled into the middle school about 5:30 p.m. It looked like a scout jamboree was going on. We found our preassigned spot on the field, unloaded the car, set up a card table and some chairs. B's co-worker arrived with her husband and they set up the tent. We saw a neighbor in the next tent over from ours. The town supervisor was sitting with half a dozen people under a tarpaulin behind us. A trailer from the county parks department was parked up against the main road, facing the field, and soon a rock band started playing.

     Groups of people sat by their tents. Other groups wandered around. Team leaders like B wore their official t-shirts, saying:
     Fight Back

     The mission of the relay is to celebrate the survivors and caretakers, remember those who have died, and urge people to fight back against cancer, not only by giving money, but by raising awareness, getting tested, supporting those who have the disease.

     An opening ceremony featured a speech from the husband of a woman who had recently died of cancer. He spoke of "the monster" that had invaded their lives and taken the life of his wife.

     A group of kids performed a dance; a karate group gave a demonstration; a man and woman sang folk songs. Then the walk began. The first lap of the relay was taken by cancer survivors and their caretakers. Not that many. About 30 - 40 people. Then a bagpiper led the rest of us around the track. Each team would have at least one member walking on the track, all night long, until early Saturday morning.

     After a while, B sent me out for Kentucky Fried Chicken, which I brought back for our team. A couple of women in our group were selling homemade cookies. People at other tents sold food and drinks, books and t-shirts -- all the money going to charity. A 20-something boy climbed up on stage to play guitar. B and I took a few more laps around the track. More team members came in; a few left.

     Around 10:30 p.m., on a lap around the track, B and I met up with her friend's husband, who was helping with the lights and the sound system up on stage. He looked happy -- happy that there was a good turnout, that all these people were out to support his wife and the others he now knew who were fighting cancer. He told us, at last count, there were 42 teams, and the event had raised over $90,000.

     B was staying all night, but I was going home to walk the dog and get some sleep. She was expecting another friend of hers later on, a nurse who was stopping by to take a few laps on her way home from work, around 1 a.m.

     As I headed back to the car I looked at some of the lanterns, called luminaria, that lined the track -- paper bags with sand on the bottom, and a candle inside. As darkness fell, kids from the high school circled the track to light the lanterns. Each one was dedicated either to a cancer victim, a survivor, or a caretaker. Each candle lit up the message written on the side of the bag.

     The lanterns produced a soft glow around the track. I was amazed at how many there were. I took one more lap around the track -- I had to count them. To be honest, I lost count, but it was somewhere around 720 lanterns, one for each person, plus a few that offered more general messages of encouragement:  "Live Life to the Fullest." Or, "Stay Strong."

     Most of the messages were very brief and personal: "In memory of Poppa." Or, "Aunt Anna, We Will Miss You Always."

     Some were tough to read. "To Dad, My Strength and My Hero." I wondered, was he dead or alive? There was no doubt about the next one, but the future looked daunting: "Uncle Abe -- Keep Fighting." Then I saw this one: "Dear Grandpa, We will love you for every second of every hour that we breathe on this earth. We know you are now in a better place . . ."

     I was back at the field at 6 a.m. on Saturday, to bring coffee to B and her two friends and two teenage girls who'd spent the night with them. We broke down the tent, cleaned up after ourselves, and watched the closing ceremony, featuring a thank you from a local organizer and a prayer from a clergyman.

     Finally, a little after 7 a.m., B slumped into the car, looking pretty tired. "Did you get any sleep at all," I asked her.

     "Ummmm, I didn't think so. But then, I remember I finally went in the tent and lay down. I looked at my watch and it said 3:15. When I looked again, it was 4:30. So I must have dosed off."

     "Well, you look kinda tired. You feel okay?"

     She leaned her head back against the seat. "I remember when I went into the tent. I slipped into the sleeping bag, pulled up the extra blanket. I thought I would be exhausted. But I lay there for a minute. And I realized -- I was doing something important. I felt great."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Remember Her?

     She was born in Detroit in 1946, and became one of the most recognizable faces on American TV. But certainly not as a fashion model. "I base most of my fashion taste on what doesn't itch," she said about her clothing style.

     She recalled that as a child she coped with stress by developing an eating disorder. She overate constantly, then dieted obsessively, When she was ten years old her mother took her to a doctor who put her on Dexedrine. She later recalled that as a child she weighed as much as 160 pounds, and as little as 93.

     Her father was the one who introduced her to the world of entertainment. He operated the Seville Hotel in Detroit, where actors and nightclub performers stayed when they came to town. Her dad also took her to the theater to see Broadway shows.

     She went to the University of Michigan where she studied drama and found a spot as the college radio station weather girl. She dropped out her senior year to follow her boyfriend to Toronto. In 1972 she made her professional acting debut in a production of Godspell, with fellow actors Martin Short and Eugene Levy. Soon after, when she joined Toronto's Second City comedy troupe, the die was cast.

     She then landed a job with a syndicated radio show, a comedy based on the humor magazine National Lampoon. She told jokes and did skits with comedians such as John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.

     In 1975, when NBC was putting together the groundbreaking Saturday Night Live, creator Lorne Michaels picked her as a featured actor in the original cast, along with Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Garrett Morris -- and two other women. "I'd much rather be a woman than a man," she quipped. "Women can cry, they can wear cute clothes, and they are the first to be rescued off of sinking ships."

     She stayed on the show for five years, creating several memorable characters. In 1980 she married G. E. Smith, who played lead guitar for the rock band Hall & Oates and also became musical director for Saturday Night Live.

     She left TV in 1980 and went on to star in several movies and Broadway shows. During the filming of Hanky Panky she met Gene Wilder and, as she admitted, "fell in love at first sight." She and Smith were divorced in 1982. She married Wilder in 1984 during a trip to the south of France. The couple made two more movies together, but had no children.

     While filming the movie Haunted Honeymoon in 1985, she experienced recurring pains in her legs. She went to the doctor, and after a long series of tests was eventually diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She underwent a painful series of chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments, and was pronounced in remission.

     During this time she wrote her autobiography, called It's Always Something, a catchphrase from her Saturday Night Live character Rosanne Roseannadanna. "I wanted a perfect ending," she wrote of her life. "Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next."

     She was (as you certainly know by now) Gilda Radner. Unfortunately, in 1988 she learned that her cancer had returned. She was scheduled for a CAT scan on May 19, 1989. She was nervous, with premonitions that she would somehow not survive the test. The doctors prescribed a sedative. During the procedure she passed into a coma, and never woke up. She died three days later, with husband Gene Wilder at her side.

     Gilda Radner's death helped raise awareness of ovarian cancer and the importance of early detection. In 1991, Wilder co-founded Gilda's Club, a network of groups where people with cancer, along with their families, can meet to build emotional and medical support. The center was named after a Radner quote: "Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I'd rather not belong to."

P.S. The two other women in the original cast of SNL were Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman. Meanwhile, I am walking in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life tonight. Wish me luck!