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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Site to Remember

     I have no comment about what's going on in Washington right now, because, really -- what can you say? It's a manufactured crisis, and however it's solved it does nothing to address our very real problems involving the debt, health care, energy, unemployment, the environment, education -- not to mention issues overseas from Afghanistan to Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Hopefully, we (meaning Congress and the President) can begin to approach all these issues with more maturity, responsibility and effectiveness than this stupid debt-ceiling limit.

     So on another, perhaps more useful and delightful note, I thought I'd pass on a link to this new social-networking site called proust.com. It's a place "for you and your loved ones to share and pass on stories" to capture the "life stories and thoughts of the people you love -- to discover who they really are."

     The idea is for you and your family to visit the site, which offers questions for you to answer, or to ask your loved ones, that will encourage people to recall what's important in their lives. It has various prompts, such as, Dad, if you could go back to one age, what would it be and why? Or, Grandma, describe something mischievous you did as a child. Or,what advice would you give to your ten-year-old self? Or, you can ask questions of your own, different questions for different members of the family, or the same question for everyone to answer. Proust.com saves the answers and stories and photos on your own page, and eventually you can collect them into a personal memoir, or family history, or record of a group of people at a special time in life.

     The site, which does require registration, also offers various chapters to get you started, such as "Remember the Time," and "High School Years" and "First Loves." There's also a chapter called "The Proust Questionnaire" with 33 Proustian questions about attitudes and likes and dislikes. Your answers can be kept private or shared with the public.

     Of course the site is designed with older people in mind, so they (we) can share memories, advice and stories with family and friends. According to The Week magazine, co-founder Tom Cortese said the idea came to him after watching his grandmother battle dementia. "It was just this process of seeing memories go by the wayside," he said. "There were so many stories I wish I knew about her life."

     The site is named after French novelist Marcel Proust, author of the multivolume, 3000-plus-page novel about time and memory In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past.

     So go check out the site. And hopefully, no one will be moved to write about where they were in the summer of 2011 when the economy collapsed because of a stalemate over the debt ceiling and the Dow Jones Average dropped a thousand points and nobody got their Social Security checks for three months running.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ground Under Repair -- Update

     Update.  Okay, this is what I came up with for my new design. Er ... it's not all that colorful, is it? It's not exactly what I was going for, but it's kinda what I wanted, and I just ran out of time and patience diddling and doodling with the Blogger design template.

     The text simulates the kindle experience -- black on a gray background. That's not exactly what I was going for either, but I could not figure out how to get this text background any lighter, without changing the rest of the background. Meantime, I did make the print larger, with what I think is a cleaner typeface, and I retained the "map" background, which I wanted to do for the visual pun on my title. (Get it? Taking "sightings" using a map?) And, finally, the whole page is lighter and brighter and a little more cheerful, which is something I wanted.

     Anyway, I hope you enjoy the new design. I'll use this for a while and then ... hey, it's fun to change! I'll do it again in six months or so when I get bored with this one.

     I was getting sick of my rust-colored blog and so I started fooling around with the colors and the design of the page . . . and now I've made a holy mess!

     So if this blog seems at first glance to be unfamiliar, or looks like something that just flew in from outer space, that's because I'm working on the redesign ... you know, just to spice things up, make everything look a little zippier and snazzier -- but I don't want to get too carried away and make things confusing and hard to follow.

     Of course, I started working on it at the end of the day. And then B wanted to go out to dinner. And I have plans for tomorrow. So for the next couple of days I'll be experimenting, before I settle on something.

     In the meantime, let me pass on this Sign of the Times:

     Advertisement seen in the window of my local health club:  "Politicians -- come in and get in shape for your next scandalous photo."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Borders -- R.I.P.

     The bookstore chain Borders is filing for bankruptcy and going out of business. Apparently, Bookspan, the private company that owns Book of the Month Club, Literary Guild an other book clubs, offered to buy the faltering chain, but the offer was so low that the owners of Borders decided they'd be better off just closing up shop and selling off their inventory.

     I don't know about you, but whenever I had a little time to kill, I used to like to mosey on over to Borders and spend a half hour or 45 minutes browsing through their racks of books, checking out the bestsellers, flipping through the magazine stand. Sometimes I'd even buy a paperback, then get a cookie and cup of something at the snack bar, and sit down and read for a while.

     This is a great activity for retired people with some time on their hands, or for anyone who's not rushing through life. But I guess Borders has seen its day come and go.

My local Borders, in its last days

     I remember back in the 1970s, people were apoplectic because the big chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble were spreading out to cities and small towns across America and putting local independent bookstores out of business. I liked the local bookstores. They had character. The proprietor was often some crusty older woman who wasn't bashful about recommending the latest novel or political screed. She'd welcome you in the door with a smile, never try to rush you, and she'd be happy if you walked out the door with a $2.99 paperback or even a 50-cent used book. These storeowners liked to read, they identified with the authors, and they loved what they sold.

     I remember when my sister lived in Washington, DC. There was an old bookstore around the corner from where she lived, and she sometimes fantasized about quitting her high-stress but pointless job with the Federal government and buying the bookstore, envisioning herself sitting behind the counter, reading her favorite books, and making some money.

     Fortunately, she never took the leap. That bookstore closed a couple of years later -- put out of business by the new chain store down the street that was clean and well-organized and had a coffee bar, and brought in some famous authors to sign books.

     But, honestly, I liked the big bookstores, maybe even more than the independents. They never offered any used books, but you could still spend as long as you wanted roaming through the racks checking out this book and that. The new chains offered a bigger selection of books, as well as tapes and then CDs and DVDs. They also got the idea to put a coffee bar into the bookstores, and that added to the experience -- if you had the time.

     But then along came Walmart and BJs and Costco, which would sell bestsellers at 50 percent off the list price. Then came amazon.com, again offering discounts that the big chains either couldn't, or wouldn't, match. So I found myself, at least sometimes, roaming through Borders and noting a few books that looked interesting, then going home and ordering them from amazon -- and saving $20 or $30.

     Then, of course, along came the kindle and the nook, which made bookstores even more irrelevant. I got a kindle for my birthday two years ago and have bought a number of books electronically. It's so easy. You get whatever book you want, right away. It's relatively inexpensive. And you don't have to carry around a thick heavy tome when you're reading on the train or at the beach. Perfect for Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, for example, or the Lee Child mysteries I like to read.

     Young people probably don't even know what a bookstore is. They don't read many books. They spend their time playing video games, texting their friends, or maybe watching or reading short snipets from youtube. And young people who do read -- they think the kindle is for old people. They have an iPad or Android.

     Most young people don't appreciate the joy of browsing through a bookstore -- and they certainly don't have the time. But I still like to wander up and down the aisles, checking out the latest political books (I don't read the books, but I like to read the jacket copy, just to see what's going on). I like to peruse the history books that are often featured on a table, or the social & psychology books that give me an insight into the current zeitgeist of the country.

     Honestly, I feel a little guilty that I never spent as much money at Borders as I probably should have, considering how much time I spent there. It would have helped if they'd only offered a little better prices. But I will miss Borders. Now I will drive over to the nearest Barnes & Noble. The store's a little farther away. It's bigger, a little more warehouse-like. But they have plenty of books, and a nice coffee shop. I'll try to drop a few more dollars while I'm there, so they don't have to fold their tent, too.

     In the meantime, if you happen to have a Borders gift card that you got for your birthday or Christmas, you'd better hurry on down to spend it. The company said the liquidation sale is expected to be completed by September. And anyway, you might finally get a bargain. Borders is advertising discounts of "up to 40 percent off" regular prices.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is Social Security In Your Future?

     When I tried to figure out when would be a good time for me to start taking Social Security, and then posted an entry on the topic, I was struck by how many people wondered if they would be getting any Social Security at all.

     Terry wondered if it'll still be around in 8 years when she's ready to retire, and Morrison sighed, "I just hope it's still there."

      Joanna Jenkins warned, "Cross your fingers that there will even be Social Security by the time you're able to collect." And JBO wrote, "Since I am in the 'you may lose it' category of 53, I have no idea when or if I will ever get any. I am pretty sure people my age will take it ASAP since they have been threatened to lose it."

     The worries are not without some justification. According to this report by the Social Security Board of Trustees, Social Security is already running a deficit. And largely because the number of beneficiaries will grow at "a substantially faster rate than the number of covered workers," the Social Security Trust Fund reserves will be "exhausted in 2036." 

     Of course, predicting the financial future is even more fraught with error than predicting the weather. The year 2036 is a quarter of a century from now. As a comparison, think about the world of 25 years ago -- 1986, when there was no internet, no email, no cellphones, when the Berlin Wall was still up, and so were the Twin Towers and nobody had heard of Osama bin Laden and Ronald Reagan was president. A lot can happen between now and 2036.

     All I know is that throughout my career, watching a pretty sizable deduction come out of my paycheck every two weeks, I assumed that Social Security would be there when I finally got to retire. I did not assume Social Security would cover all my expenses -- nobody I knew ever assumed that -- but we did believe it would at least be there as a base income if things went wrong for us, or as a nice supplement to our retirement income if things went well for us.

     But now, it seems, people are beginning to wonder if Social Security will survive at all. Many Baby Boomers intend to start grabbing payments as soon as they can -- not because they're greedy, but because they're afraid that Social Security as we know it is going away, and they want to get back at least a small part of their investment before the whole thing goes down.

     It's a shame, really, that people are losing faith in Social Security, just as they are losing faith in Wall Street, the American economy, American business, their elected representatives, their governments in the state house and Washington ... in everything, really.

     But does it make sense? Just how vulnerable is Social Security? What are the chances that a 60 year old, or a 50 year old, will never see a Social Security check? What are the chances that our sons and daughters, now in their 20s and 30s, will see a Social Security payment?

    In last Sunday's New York Times Richard H. Thaler, an economics professor at University of Chicago, wrote in "Getting the Most Out of Social Security" that most people would benefit by delaying when they start receiving Social Security payments. He agrees with my own analysis in "Did you Miss Your Social Security Check?"  It's a safe, guaranteed and inflation-protected annuity, he avers, an investment that more retirees should use to provide them with a stream of income.

     He argues that Social Security is inflation protected, fairly priced and "because it is run by the government is reasonably safe." Then he goes on to say, "Claiming that Social Security benefits are safe may sound naive, but my view is actually quite cynical. I believe that as long as the elderly continue to vote in large numbers, no Congress will renege on promised payouts for those already eligible to receive benefits."

     On the other hand, Alicia Munnell pointed out in a Smart Money article called "3 Ways Your Social Security Payments Are Already Being Cut" there are existing policies in place that will mean fewer and smaller payments to future retirees. One is the increase in the retirement age, slated to go up to 67 for people born after 1960. A second "pay cut" comes from the fact that Medicare premiums, which are deducted from Social Security payments, are increasing faster than benefits, resulting in less Social Security "take-home" pay. And finally, Social Security payments are taxed under the personal income tax for people above certain income levels, and the levels are not indexed to inflation. The result:  in 2002 the median earner did not pay any tax on Social Security benefits, but by 2030, under current law, the median earner will pay tax on half the benefits.

     And Catey Hill, just last week at Smart Money, reported in "Coming Soon: Smaller Raises for Seniors" that Congress is considering a new way for Social Security to adjust benefits for inflation, resulting in -- you guessed it -- a method that produces lower estimates of inflation and thus smaller increases  in benefits. "Under the new calculations," she concludes, "after ten years, the average 73 year old would get a check that's about 3 percent smaller than he would get under the old calculations."

     Putting aside our varying opinions about what we feel should happen to Social Security, what seems most likely to happen to Social Security is that:

     1)  Social Security benefits will be there for future retirees. As Richard Thaler suggests, as long as the elderly continue to vote, Congress will be very circumspect about curbing benefits. Remember how far President George Bush got with his plan to replace Social Security with a voluntary retirement plan? Never got out of the starting gate. The Tea Partyers? They make a lot of noise, but they're nowhere near a majority. It seems pretty clear that Social Security will be around, in something very close to its present form, at least for anyone age 50 or over.

     2)  However, there are plenty of people -- Senators, Congressmen, government officials, economists -- who want to chip away at Social Security payouts as the great mass of Baby Boomers begins to apply for benefits and money starts flowing out of the Trust Fund at a faster and faster rate. They've already begun to trim wherever they can, and they'll continue to cut around the edges. They'll do it quietly, hoping that retirees won't notice too much. And they'll make more dramatic cuts for future beneficiaries, because younger people won't complain as much -- and don't vote as much.

     Who knows what natural disaster, economic collapse, or international conflict will drastically change our lives? But the most likely scenario seems pretty clear:

     Social Security will be with us for the foreseeable future. For 25 years at least, and probably more. Maybe even for our sons and daughters now in their 20s and 30s. But over time the benefits will slowly lose their purchasing power, one way or another, as they become a smaller and smaller part of our retirement income.

     Or, as we knew all along ... Social Security will be there as a bare-bones base income if things go wrong for us, or as a somewhat-less-significant supplement to our retirement income if things go okay.

   {An edited version of this article was first published on Technorati.}

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Best Songs of Summer

     According to the astronomical calendar, summer started on June 21. But according to the cultural calendar, it began on Memorial Day, and runs through Labor Day -- 14 weeks of picnics, barbecues, beach parties, gardening and outdoor sports, all accompanied by a blaring radio, or stereo ... or iPod.

     That puts us, right now, in the middle of July, smack dab in the middle of summer. And so I went in search of the very best summer songs ... Baby Boomer style, of course. For those of you with some time on your hands, here are the links; plus, my two favorites down at the bottom. Did I miss one?

# 14.  "In the Summertime" by Jerry Mungo -- a funky beat from a British singer, circa 1970.

# 13.  "Summertime Blues" by Eddie Cochran -- a top hit from way back in 1958.

# 12.  "Summer Nights" with Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta -- from the 1978 movie Grease.

# 11.  "Summer in the City" by the Lovin' Spoonful -- I had a friend in high school who loved this song, played it all the time. Annoyed the hell out of me. But it's still a classic.

#10.   "Surf City" by Jan and Dean -- co-written by Jan Berry and Brian Wilson, topped the charts in 1963.

# 9.   "Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer" from Nat King Cole -- how can you not sing along with this goofy song from 1963.

# 8.   "Summer Wind" from Frank Sinatra -- with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, it became a classic for the Chairman of the Board.

# 7.  "Under the Boardwalk" from The Drifters -- in 1964, "on a blanket with my baby's where I'll be..."

# 6.   "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane, a touchstone for the 1967 Summer of Love.

# 5.   "California Girls" by the Beach Boys -- top hit from their 1965 album Summer Days.

# 4.   "Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams -- a hit from 1985, but an ode of summers of yore.

# 3.   "School's Out" by Alice Cooper -- the 1972 rant captures the sheer thrill of getting out of school for the summer, a feeling none of us will ever forget, no matter how old we are. This song also energized the popular 1998 Cameron Diaz comedy There's Something About Mary.

# 2.   "Stand By Me," from Ben E. King -- the Number 1 song of 1961, and theme song of the 1986 movie about four young friends searching for a dead body in the summer of 1959, starring Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell and Kiefer Sutherland as the "bad boy" older kid.

# 1.   "Summertime" from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess -- It's been recorded by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and other greats, but my favorite version was rasped out by Janis Joplin, circa 1969.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Blogging Boomers Carnival # 216

     This week the Blogging Boomer Carnival covers a wide range of topics that will spark your curiosity on a sultry summer day. 

     So Baby Boomer suggests to us that every generation has life-defining moments. For Baby Boomers the questions are: "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" or "What were you doing when Nixon resigned?" For much of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, there is only one question: "When did you parents get divorced?" If this one doesn't get you thinking, nothing will.

     And according to the New York Times 81 percent of the adult population of America dreams of writing a book. If you consider yourself a writer, or have even ever fantasized about becoming one, you might enjoy learning more about the wild and crazy life path the Midlife Crisis Queen took to end up the author of several volumes. And along the way she encourages everyone to reconsider their options in midlife.

     Meanwhile, Nancy at Vaboomer blog asks mysteriously:  Is a rattlesnake one of your kin? Don't be afraid to step over to see what she's talking about.

     At Contemporary Retirement, Ann takes a look at how retirement is the ideal opportunity to look at who does what at home, and if necessary, make some changes. (Just as a side comment, in my household we, as Ann suggests, "gravitate towards jobs and chores we're best qualified to do." Since I have no skills, I wash dishes and take out the garbage; B shops and cooks. She also insists on doing the laundry, which I don't get, because it seems to me it's a pretty simple chore that anyone, even the unskilled, can accomplish.*)

     The Boomer Chronicles wonders why and when you should get a dog if you're over 50, and refers us to a new book for dog-owning Baby Boomers.

     And, finally, for those of you who are in the mood for something a little crustier to chew on, our favorite culinary artist asks: Have you ever tossed a pizza? The catching is the hard part. She learns all about pizza at The Accidental Locavore Tosses Pizza: The Secret  of a Moe's Classico.

     *apparently it's something about dryer sheets and ... okay, I admit it, she is a better folder than I am.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Did You Miss Your Social Security Check?

     Wait, don't panic! I'm not talking about your monthly payment if you're already receiving Social Security. I'm talking about the annual check-up of your prospective benefits, called "Your Social Security Statement," which the Social Security Administration has been sending out for years, usually in April.

     I have all my statements safely tucked away in my filing cabinet, going back to 1998. Every time I look at them, I am amazed that the Social Security Administration has a record of all my earnings, going back to that summer of 1967 when I earned $109 as a camp counselor. And, yes, as you can see, I am paying close attention to Social Security. Yes, I am counting on those checks to help me through retirement. And yes, I like to check the "balance" in my account once a year, which gives me a feeling of comfort that I will have at least some income to pay my bills even though I won't be working, that I will have income to keep a roof over my head, no matter what happens, even as I begin to lose my faculties and my abilities to take care of myself.

     But this year, in an apparent move to save money, the Social Security Administration did not send out the benefits statements. Instead, to get an estimate of your benefits, you must go on the Social Security website and "do it yourself" with the Social Security Retirement Estimator. The estimator is useful for those who qualify but are not currently receiving benefits. (If you're already receiving benefits, presumably you know how much you're getting and you don't need any estimator.)

     The estimator gives you three key numbers:

     1)  What your monthly benefit will be if you stop working at age 62 (or, your current age if you're over 62 but under full retirement age).

     2)  What your monthly benefit will be if you wait until your full retirement age. As a reminder, for people born between 1943 and 1954 full retirement age is 66. Then full retirement age increases in two-month increments for those born after 1954, until it reaches 67 for those born in 1960 or later. (Presumably if Congress decides to raise the retirement age it will affect only people born after 1960.)

     3)  What your monthly benefit will be if you delay taking benefits until age 70.

     These three numbers dramatically illustrate how much it pays to wait. Your benefit increases about 8 percent a year, or over 30 percent from age 66 to age 70. And that is a pretty amazing rate of return in this era of 1 percent interest rates on bank CDs or U.S. Treasury bills. Indeed, the current rate on a 2-year Treasury bill is less than 0.5 percent. The rate on your Social Security benefit is 8.0 percent. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that it's better to delay Social Security than to invest in a U. S. Treasury bill.

     But, you say, maybe Social Security payments will be cut. Maybe they'll be taxed. Maybe the debt ceiling won't be raised and Social Security checks won't go out at all! (Or to be accurate, electronic disbursements since actual checks are a thing of the past.)

     But remember, it's the same government that's paying you, whether you're getting 0.5 percent from a Treasury bill, or 8.0 percent from Social Security. If the government isn't going to pay, we're all in trouble. If it's going to raise taxes, it's more likely to raise taxes on interest payments than on Social Security payments. And anyone who's proposing changes to Social Security is only talking about benefits for people who are under 50 or 55 years old. So, while that may be a legitimate policy issue to discuss and argue over, it's not really our problem, is it?

     Of course, the other thing to consider is that you may die when you're 64 or 68. So if you wait, you won't get any Social Security at all. But let's face it, if you die, you lose your savings as well ... it doesn't go to you, it goes to your heirs.

     But the fact is, if you're a nonsmoking 60-year-old female, you can expect to live to age 87. If you're a nonsmoking male, to 84. Wouldn't it be nice to have 30 percent more money for those 15 or so years -- not to mention the insurance of knowing you'll enjoy the extra income if you do happen to live longer, especially since running out of money in your 80s or 90s is the biggest financial worry of all.

     If you want some kind of scientific estimate of how long you are going to live, fill out the free life expectancy calculator. You'll see, you're probably going to live longer than you think. (Just be ready for some scolding. According to the calculator I'll be around until age 92, but it's still telling me to cut back on sweets and get more exercise!)

     I have to confess, there's a little part of me that wants to apply for Social Security RIGHT NOW, to start getting that money into my arthritic little hands, and to make sure I get at least some of what's due to me. After all, I've been paying into the system since 1967, and it's about time I got some of it back.

     Unfortunately, according to a report on retirement income from the U. S. General Accounting Office, roughly three quarters of eligible people fall for that short-term thinking and elect to start receiving Social Security benefits before their full retirement age. Three quarters of us! Even the GAO says that these people are cheating themselves.

     For most of us between ages 55 and 65, unless we have a life-threatening disease, or really need the money to pay room and board, it's better to hold'em than to fold'em. So don't get scared into cashing in your chips too soon. Hold out for that 8 percent return.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Busted on the Fourth of July

     This Fourth of July made me think back to another one, many years ago, back ... sometime in the 1950s ...

     My dad thought of himself as a very "serious" person, even though as a parent he was completely clueless. He was tall and dark and thin, with wavy black hair parted in the middle, 19th century-style, and when he was not at work he spent most of his time at home, sitting by himself folded up in a chair, reading a newspaper or else with his nose buried in a book. But he was a volunteer fireman. I don't recall him ever actually going to a fire, or hanging out at the firehouse, but he did march with the firemen at the Independence Day parade.

     My dad also thought of himself as fair and evenhanded, and my mom and dad always took pains to treat their kids, all four of us, as equally as they could. They wanted to be fair. But it didn't always work out that way.

     One day, when I was in first grade, my dad came home from work and when we sat down for dinner he placed his briefcase on the table, ceremoniously opened the case, and unveiled four small black boxes. He opened one of them to reveal a bright silver fountain pen. He then opened the other boxes to show the pens were all the same, each one encased in its own leather-covered wooden box. The pens winked at us from the blue felt that lined the boxes. Dad picked one out of its case and showed us how it worked.

     He unscrewed the cap to reveal the ink container inside the pen. He showed us how the clip hinged up to draw the ink out of the ink bottle, and how the silver tip of the pen would glide across the paper to leave an elegant line of dark blue ink. It was magical.

     Dad basically bought the pens for my brother and older sister. My older sister was graduating from elementary school and preparing to make the big leap to junior high (now middle school). My father thought that giving her a fancy fountain pen was the perfect way to mark the occasion. But if he got his daughter a pen, then he should get one for his elder son. And, well, if he got his two older children pens, he should be fair and get pens for his two younger children as well.

     But, in addition to being fair and evenhanded, my father was sensible and practical. He knew a first grader like me had no business owning a fountain pen. So that night at dinner when he presented the pens to my older sister and my brother, he leveled a gaze at his two younger children, Nancy and me, and said, yes, these pens were for us as well, but we weren't old enough to take on the responsibility of owning a pen, so he would give us the pens when we got into fourth grade. In the meantime, we should know that the pens were there, waiting for us.

     Nancy was closing out third grade. Fourth grade may have seemed like a long way off to her – on the other side of a long summer vacation -- but she could nevertheless see fourth grade, and the fountain pen, on the dim distant horizon.

     But for me, just finishing first grade, the notion of fourth grade was beyond all imagination. It was too far in the future. I couldn't picture it, and thus, to me, the pen was out of reach. I would never get my pen.

     A month or two rolled by. School was out; summer arrived. On July 4th  my dad was marching in the parade with the volunteer firemen. Mom and Dad left the house early. My brother and older sister were going to the parade with their friends. My sister Nancy was supposed to take me down to the parade and look after me.

     But I knew my sister. As we got to the parade, or even before, she would ditch me to go hang out with her friends. And so I got an idea.

     The morning of the fourth I sneaked into my parents' bedroom, pulled a chair up to my father's dresser and opened his top drawer. The dreaded paddle he used to spank us peeked out from under the socks in one corner of the drawer. I saw a stack of $20 bills propped against the other side of the drawer. My parents’ weekly cash. That’s not what I was interested in.

     Then I carefully lifted up one corner of the handkerchiefs. There was my prize. Two little wooden boxes. I opened one of the boxes. The pen lay in its blue velvet bed, sparkling like a jewel.

     I slipped the pen out of its velvet nest. I felt the hard metal in my hand. I flipped the clip and heard the reassuring snap as it clicked up, then back. I then slipped the pen into my pants pocket. I closed the drawer slowly, so as not to disturb anything inside, moved the chair back where it belonged and melted back into my room.

     Nancy soon came along and said it was time to go. We went out the front door, walked down Corona Ave. to the railroad tracks, then along First St., past Billy Crispin’s house and the railroad station to Fifth Ave. It was about a half-mile walk, and all the time I kept fingering the secret in my pocket – my silver fountain pen.

     Nancy and I watched the parade for a while. We saw my dad march by with the other firemen. But as soon as my dad waved to us and then continued on, Nancy ran off to find her friends, leaving me to get home on my own. I didn’t mind. That's what I was used to. That’s what I was counting on.

     As soon as Nancy disappeared into the crowd, I pulled my pen out of my pants pocket and proudly clipped the pen to the pocket of my shirt.

     The pen was supposed to rest inside the shirt pocket, with only the clip showing on the outside. But I didn’t know that. And besides, I wanted to show off my shiny new trophy, to make sure people saw it. I wanted everyone to ask me about it. I wanted to impress my friends.

     So I clipped the pen onto my shirt with the pen on the outside of the pocket, with the clip on the inside. Just to make sure everyone noticed.

     I walked proudly along with the crowd, following the parade. I look around for friends who might stop and admire my pen. I saw Billy Crispin, and when at first he didn’t notice the pen, I pointed it out to him. He looked at it. "Nice pen," he said.

     I was hoping for a little more than that, but I nevertheless continued along the parade route, looking for more friends while keeping an eye out to avoid my family. I ran across Dennis Rawlings and his parents, who lived across the street from us. I made sure Dennis saw the pen. Then his dad asked me, "That’s a nice pen. Shouldn’t you put the pen inside your pocket to make sure you don’t lose it?"

     "No, no" I assured him. "This is the right way."

     "Mr. Rawlings just nodded. "Are you here by yourself?"

     "My family’s around," I said. "My dad’s in the parade."

     The Rawlings walked off, and I continued to mingle in the crowd. I didn’t see anyone else I knew. But I was sure I cut quite the figure, with the pen adorning my shirt pocket. And I was pretty sure that I saw several admiring glances from other kids I didn’t know, as well as a few adults who clearly thought I must have been quite a grownup to be sporting such a fine writing implement.

     I finally turned for home, climbing up the hill along the railroad tracks, past Billy’s house. I turned the corner onto Corona Ave., and finally, as I approached my driveway, I thought I’d better put away my pen. I needed to sneak it back into the box in my dad’s drawer before anyone saw me.
     I felt my shirt pocket. There was no pen.

     I looked down. My pocket was bare. The pen was missing.

     I patted down my pants pockets, in case I'd forgotten that I'd already put the pen away. Nothing. I turned the pockets inside out. Empty.

     I looked around the sidewalk. I retraced my steps, going all the way back to Fifth Ave., searching the sidewalk, scouring the lawns and hedges that lined the street, kicking along the gutter. The pen must be somewhere, I thought.

     The sidewalk was bare. The grass revealed nothing. The gutter in the street was littered with pebbles and a few leaves and a couple of candy wrappers. I found a small flag, the kind you hold and wave at a parade, but no pen.

     I finally turned for home and skulked into the house. My dad was home from the parade, waiting for me. I didn’t know how he’d found out so quickly, but I could tell from the look on his face that he already knew the pen was missing.

     When he confronted me, I started to deny everything. But my face flushed with guilt. I quickly realized I would get nowhere with denial, so I threw myself to his mercy. The pen was so nice, I told him, and it wasn’t fair that my brother and sister got theirs, but I couldn’t have mine, and I didn’t steal it, I just wanted to borrow it for the afternoon to show my friends, and then I was going to put it back.

     "I promise, Dad," I pleaded, looking into his long solemn face peppered with dots of whiskers that had already started growing out since he'd shaved that morning. "I was going to put it back."

     My excuses fell on deaf ears. Soon I was climbing the stairs to take my punishment, with the wrong side of the paddle. I don't know if I just knew how to take a paddling, having been through this a few times before, or whether my dad took it easy on me that day. But for some reason, the paddling didn't hurt as much as it had before.

     After the paddling I went into my room, and a little later made my way downstairs. My brother was standing in the front hallway. He had his pen clipped to his shirt pocket -- the right way, with just the clip showing outside his pocket, like a small understated piece of jewelry. He didn't say a thing, just gave me a withering look, as if to say I was about the stupidest person walking on Earth.

     I never gave that pen another thought, until later that fall, when I came upon my older sister doing her homework at the kitchen table. She was taking notes with a pen.

     I watched for a moment, then suddenly realized she wasn't using the pen Dad gave her, but some kind of ballpoint pen instead. "Hey," I finally said to her, "How come your not using the pen Dad gave you?"

     She gave me a blank stare, then a look of understanding. "Oh that," she replied. "Are you kidding? Nobody at school uses a fountain pen. I wouldn't be caught dead with that thing."


Friday, July 8, 2011

Should I Give Them a Break? (And at What Cost?)

     I have an ethical dilemma, or maybe it's just a practical question, I don't know. The problem is, I have a check sitting on the corner of my desk. And I don't know what to do with it.

     Here's the issue.

     A long time ago, around 1985, I bought a one bedroom condo as an investment. I was thinking at the time that I could use it to pay for my young daughter's college tuition. I ended up not using it for her tuition, because she got some scholarship money and I had some other funds, and besides, the value of the condo didn't go up nearly as fast as the cost of college, and after I'd paid the capital gains taxes on it, there would be no way it was going to cover the bill, so I just hung onto it.

     I just kept renting it out, making a little profit that gradually increased over the years. These days it costs me around $750/month to carry the condo, including everything. A couple of years ago, during the boom, I had it rented at $1250/mo., giving me a tidy $500/mo. profit. When that tenant left during the downturn, I dropped the rent to $1150 to make sure it got rented. Now, in April 2011, I rented it to a new young couple, pushing the rent back up a bit to $1200.

     The couple were moving back north from Florida, where they'd been living for only about 9 months. When they first arrived to look at the condo, they rolled up in an old beat-up Toyota stuffed with a lot of junk in the back seat. Looked kind of sketchy. But the two of them seemed very nice, and they liked the condo, and didn't hesitate over the amount of the monthly rent. They gave me the deposit in cash -- literally, a fistfull of hundred  dollar bills.

     I did ask for references. The young man said he worked for himself -- some kind of computer consulting -- so they gave me her references, implying that she had a job. I called their current landlord, a big apartment building in Tampa, FL. They said they didn't give out information about any tenants. Period. I called the previous landlord, and he had only nice things to say about the couple. They paid their rent on time, didn't cause trouble, didn't wreck the place. I think he might have been related to the woman in some way -- I don't know, just an impression.

     I called her work reference, to find out that, no, she didn't actually work there. She used to work there a couple of years ago. She'd been an employee for two or three years, and the person vouched for her saying she'd been an honest hard-working member of their team.

     So I rented the condo to the young couple; we signed a lease and they moved in. They paid the next month's rent in full, on time. And the month after that, on time.

     Meanwhile, however, my tenants complained that some new neighbors upstairs were making a lot of noise, clomping around in the middle of the night, waking them up. I had had a problem with upstairs renters once before, a few years ago. The problem is that our building is kind of old, and cheaply built, and then the owners of the upstairs unit installed a wood floor -- to make their place look nicer, but it resulted in conducting more noise down to my unit below. But it hadn't been a problem recently because the next upstairs renters, who'd lived there three or four years, were nice and quiet.

     I hadn't mentioned the upstairs noise problem to my new tenants -- because it hadn't been an issue for several years. I did tell them in general that they had to expect some noise, with people living all together in one building, and it wouldn't be the same as living out in the country, but I did not talk specifically about any previous problem with upstairs neighbors.

The living room, when it did have furniture
    And there wasn't a problem, not until the new people moved in upstairs. So my tenant talked to the building management, and I talked to the unit owner, and everyone agreed the renters upstairs would try to be more quiet, and they'd make sure to get some rugs on the floor. The result -- it's a little bit better, but it's still pretty creaky when they walk around upstairs, enough to still disturb my tenants.

     Now July 1 rolls around. My tenant calls me and says the wife's unemployment check is delayed because of the holiday. Would it be okay to either delay the rent check until July 7, when her unemployment check clears, or else to pay part on July 1, and the rest on July 7? They had $1000 that they could pay now.

     I had to cover my $750 monthly cost, so I said I'd take partial payment now. The guy said they were going to be away, but he said I could stop by and he'd actually leave two checks, one for $1000 which I could cash right away. The second check, for the balance of $200, he'd post-date to July 7.

     So I went over to the condo on July 1 and used my key to get in to pick up the two checks which would be on the dining room table. I go in -- and there's no furniture in the place! They had a tiny table in the dining area with two chairs, a small desk in the living room with a computer on it and another little table with a TV. No couch, no chairs, no bookcases, nothing on the walls. The place looked empty. And kind of sad. In the bedroom there was a only double mattress on the floor, plus a few clothes strewn around on the carpet. The closet was open and full of clothes.

     I found the two checks. I deposited the $1000 check and it cleared, no problem. Now I've paid my condo fees. And I have this $200 check sitting on the corner of my desk. Yesterday, my tenant called and left a message on my cellphone, saying the money was in the bank, I could now deposit the $200 check.

     But I'm wondering if I should.

     I'm wondering because I don't really need the money -- after all, I covered my condo fees and then some -- and this young couple seem like they're struggling, and I also feel a little guilty that they've had to put up with the noise from upstairs that they hadn't bargained for.

     Or ... are they "playing" me? And if I don't deposit this $200 check, will they take it to mean that I'm lowering the rent for the rest of their year-long lease? Yikes! That would raise my "nice gesture" from $200 to more like $2000. And then, what if they want to renew the lease?

     So, if I cash the $200 check, am I being a nasty old skinflinty landlord? If I toss the check away, am I caving unnecessarily, and being played for a sucker? It's hard to figure.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lifestyles of the Retired

     I myself am not quite retired. I was downsized in 2002 when I was in my early 50s, and have been working part time from home ever since, making enough money to get by (with a little help from my retirement fund) and not really thinking about a "retired" life that is much different from the life I've been living for the past 30 years.

     I don't go to an office anymore, and that's a big difference. My children have grown up and gone to college and graduated and moved away. But they aren't married, do not have their own families, and they still come home periodically, so it still feels like they're around. Then there's B. She does go off to work every day; and her kids are still around. One is away in college. The other graduated in 2009, but still lives with us.

     So the point is, even though I'm not working full time anymore, I don't feel like I'm living a retired lifestyle. But, as B and I have discussed, one of these days ...

     So I look at my retired friends, and what I see are several different options available to us.

     1)  Retire in place. Your children are gone; you stop working; but you stay in the same community, even the same house, that you've been living in for years. We have a few couples like this right in our own neighborhood. I guess these people love their neighborhood and feel that they're a part of the community; and they just don't want to move. Either they have a modest house with a modest yard, or they are young enough and rich enough to continue to take care of the old homestead. Or, maybe they're too lazy to move; or too indecisive about where else they would go, so they just stay where they are.

     2)  Retire to the Grandchildren. My brother-in-law took this option. He lived in a four-bedroom suburban house outside of Boston where they'd lived for 30 years and raised three kids. He and his wife both retired about the same time a few years ago, and they moved to a smaller house with a smaller yard, in the seacoast town where their older daughter lived with her two (now three) kids. They now see their daughter two or three times a week; they babysit for the grandchildren; and they have integrated themselves into this new community largely through their daughter, but also by joining a church and volunteering in town. Meanwhile, their son lives about an hour and a half away, with three other grandchildren, and they see them once a month or so. (The third child lives halfway across the country, so that apparently wasn't an option.) They have found a new lifestyle that suits them perfectly, with a new community and essentially a "new" family.

     3) Retire to a Senior Community.  Some people want to stay in the general area (though not necessarily in the same community) where they've been living for years, perhaps all their lives. But they no longer want the responsibility of taking care of a house; they don't want the noise of kids in the neighborhood, or school buses rumbling down the street, or dogs barking in the backyard. They move to an age-restricted community, often a condominium, that is located somewhere around where they live. We have one of these in our town, a big one with about 400 homes -- mostly attached units with two bedrooms, all on one floor. There's a golf course and a swimming pool and a clubhouse with a restaurant. And it's just down the street from a little "four corners" with a post office, a bank and a big drugstore. There used to be an "over 55" policy, but I think that was judged to be illegal -- but still, really, nobody under age 60 would be caught dead living there. These people always vote against the school budget -- because they're on fixed incomes and can't deal with increased local taxes -- but otherwise they continue to live in their familiar surroundings, with familiar stores, and people they've known for years.

     4) Retire to the Sunbelt. Of course a lot of people in the north have been dreaming of the sunshine for years, and as soon as possible they bolt the cold winters for the Carolinas or Florida or Arizona to enjoy the sunshine, play golf, and, usually, to live in a senior community. They've cut the ties to their old community and are starting a whole new life. Usually, the cost of living is a lot less than what they experienced in their old lives. This is the siren call of the Sunbelt, and it has a lot of appeal. But I would think it would be difficult to move into a place where you don't know anyone, and have to build a whole new social network and a whole new support system.

Albion Shores
     5) Retire Internationally. I have two or three friends who want to retire in another country. One wants to go to Mexico. (No, thank you! It's the murder capital of the Western Hemisphere.) Another wanted to go to England. But the Albion Shores wouldn't let him in. (England is not as welcoming to immigrants as the U.S. is.) So instead, he and his wife live in England six months a year -- which apparently is as long as they'll let them -- and spend the other six months in a one-bedroom apartment in a town about 40 miles from where they used to live. Another friend of mine wanted to go to France. And he did. But again, I don't know how welcoming les Francais are. My friend and his wife managed to stay there a little over a year before they got thrown out. Now they live in Western Massachusetts.

     6) Retire in the Last Place You Land. A lot of people never settle down to live in one place for 20 or 30 years and raise their kids in a single community. It's no longer just military families that move from place to place, never living in any one town for more than a few years. My sister had this lifestyle. She grew up in New York. She went to North Carolina, then Oregon, then California and Alaska. Then she moved back east to Washington, DC, where she stayed for about ten years, but then she left again for Oregon, and finally moved to Phoenix when she was 58 years old. She just retired. And, she says, she doesn't see moving again. She likes Phoenix; she's finally settled down. But it took her until retirement to do it.

     7) Retire Back Home. One friend of mine grew up in Texas but went away to college and spent most of her career working in Washington, DC. Her husband died a few years ago; and she retired and moved back to Texas. Not to her hometown, but to a place nearby where ... where she felt like she belonged. Another friend grew up in Illinois, landed a job in New York where he worked for 30 years, and then he moved back to Chicago. Still another grew up outside of Cleveland. During his career he drifted farther and farther south, first to southern Ohio, then Kentucky, then South Carolina, ending up in Georgia. But he never really acclimated to the Southern lifestyle, and now that he's retiring he can't wait to go back north

     It seems that these are the main destinations for people who are retiring. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages, which are different for different people. Of course, there are variations on the theme. I remember a friend of my parents, who when they retired years ago, bought a motor home and spent one year traveling all around America, living out of the motor home, trying out various places for their retirement destination. They ended up in the Greenville, SC, vicinity. They liked the area, so they sold their motor home and settled into their retirement years.

     But since I'm "shopping" for my own retirement lifestyle, I'd love to hear about any other alternatives, or about the pros and cons of these various options. Because I'm one of those indecisive types. And I'll end up just sitting where I am unless I research the situation, think about it for a while, and come to some sort of obvious conclusion.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Remember Him?

     His birthday is coming up next Friday; he would be 103 years old. He was proud of the fact that he shared a July 8th birthday with his famous grandfather, known in the family as JDR. He also had a distinguished grandfather on his mother's side: Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich, U. S. Senator from Rhode Island from 1881 to 1911.

His home office has a rotary phone
    He was born in 1908 in Bar Harbor, Maine, attended school in New York City, then went to Dartmouth College where he graduated cum laude with a degree in economics and a Phi Beta Kappa key. He worked at Chase Manhattan Bank and Creole Petroleum, a Venezuelan oil company. He learned Spanish and developed a lifelong interest in South America.

     But his home was on a hill above the Hudson Valley, just north of New York City, an estate called Kykuit (Dutch for "hill."). Today it is a landmark where the public is welcome to tour the house and grounds. (I went last week.) One room in the house served as his office, and it is today preserved just the way it was in 1979 when he died.

     He entered public life in 1933 as a member of the Westchester County (NY) Board of Health. In 1944, President Roosevelt appointed him Assistant Secretary of State for American Republic Affairs, in an effort to encourage cooperation among the countries of North and South America.

     After the war, he established the American International Association for Economic and Social Development to disseminate technological and managerial skills to underdeveloped countries in the Americas. He established companies to stimulate local businesses, and created model farms in Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil.

     In 1950 President Truman appointed him Chairman of the International Development Board, and later President Eisenhower turned to him as the first Undersecretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Eisenhower then brought him into the White House as Assistant to the President for Foreign Affairs.

     By this time he had a full education in politics, and went home to New York to become involved in state government. He worked on several committees and commissions until he entered the 1958 governor race and beat incumbent W. Averell Harriman, by the healthy margin of 55% to 45%.

     As governor he developed SUNY into the largest system of public education in the United States, expanded the state's highway system and created New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority. He supported the New York State park system, built low-income housing and outlawed racial discrimination in housing and public accommodation.

     Some of his initiatives were controversial, but he was popular enough to be reelected in 1962, 1966 and again in 1970. Perhaps his most contentious issue was crime, as he introduced strict new drug laws which were credited with slowing down organized crime, but also criticized for mandating jail time for small-time recreational users.  Then on Sept. 9, 1971, when inmates at the state penitentiary at Attica rioted, the governor ordered the police to take back the prison by force, at a cost of 39 lives.

     The governor was considered a liberal Republican, and he even gave his name to a particular branch of the Republican party -- "Rockefeller Republicans" who were culturally liberal, supported reasonable regulation of business and the environment, but who also believed in competitive capitalism and rejected socialism and the redistribution of income.

     After winning in New York, Nelson Rockefeller ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President, losing out to Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968. Rockefeller did make it to Washington in 1974, after Richard Nixon resigned, when he was nominated by Gerald Ford to be vice president. He served to the end of Ford's term in 1976 -- choosing not to join Ford's bid for reelection. (His place was taken by Sen. Robert Dole and, of course, they lost to Jimmy Carter.)

     Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller had five children with first wife, including son Michael who disappeared while on a trip to New Guinea in 1961. Rockefeller divorced his first wife, and married Margaretta "Happy" Murphy in 1963. The couple had two children.

Nelson A. Rockefeller
     In Jan. 1979, Rockefeller died of a heart attack at the age of 70, in his office at New York's Rockefeller Center. At least that's how it was first reported. But he actually died in another office, in the presence of one of his aides, 25-year-old Megan Marshack. Rumors of a relationship between the two were never proved, but apparently never officially denied.

     Rockefeller's nephew Jay Rockefeller -- the son of Nelson's older brother John D. Rockefeller III -- is a Democrat and has served as Senator from West Virginia since 1984. JDR, who shares Nelson's birthday, was of course the original John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, purported to be the richest American who ever lived.