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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Blogging Boomers Carnival # 231

Dateline:  Oct. 31, 2011 

Situation:  Day 2 without power

Place:  Panera Bread. Table in the back room, with wi fi and a free electrical socket, and hundreds of other survivors of the October snowstorm of 2011 waiting for a table.

     Nevertheless, Blogging Boomers Carnival marches on!

     And so, we have the Accidental Locavore, who wants to know what items in your kitchen scare you. And are you haunted by parchment paper?

     The Midlife Crisis Queen is excited to celebrate four years of exposing myths and stereotypes of "what we women over 50 do, think, and believe about ourselves." She enjoys empowering others through courageous, positive, self-confident images and messages about what 50+  looks like and feels like.

     Midlife Musings says the question of what makes you happy seems easy to answer on the surface, but for midlife women who finally have the time to do what makes them happy, recognizing what happiness is may not be as easy as it seems.

      Meanwhile, the Boomer Chronicles asks a simple question (one that I bet many of us have asked ourselves along with way): Do I spend too much money on my dog?

     And Vaboomer asks another question which may or may not scare you:  Is Temperance a Good Thing? (I wonder if she watched the Ken Burns special on Prohibition?)

     Over at Contemporary Retirement Ann knows that many people say the best thing about being retired is that they're finally "free to be me." So Ann asks: What does free to be me look like for you?

     Finally, So Baby Boomer brings up a real life-or-death subject. And I'm not kidding. He reminds us that the health reform law has made some important changes to Medicare that go into effect in 2012. For Boomers approaching 65, the annual enrollment period is right around the corner and it's starting a month earlier.

      And now, while I'd like to stay and chat a little longer, the manager at Panera's has come to the back room and is telling everyone they have to unplug and make room for new customers coming in, who want a table where they can eat lunch (and access wi fi).

     So for you, go check out these links to some great Baby Boomer material. For me, it's back to my cold, dark house. And I'll update you on the storm in a couple of days.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Something Strange Here Is Going On"

     The following clip has nothing to do with Baby Boomers or retirement, or anything else involved with "health, finance, grown-up children ... and how time flies."

     Nevertheless, in the spirit of the season ... is there a Zombie lurking around the corner? A ghost hovering over the proceedings? What is the significance of the haunting violin? I'm not sure, I only know that --

       "Something strange here is going on ..."


Monday, October 24, 2011

Rin Tin Tin Vs. Lassie

     A new book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean, is getting mentioned everywhere, including the front page of yesterday's New York Times Book Review. I happened to read the book a couple of weeks ago -- for complicated reasons, I was asked to look at it for a work assignment, even though it didn't immediately appeal to me. After all, Rin Tin Tin was long ago and to me at least, forgotten in the dim, distant mists of Hollywood past.

     I only knew of Rin Tin Tin as a TV star. I didn't know he had a whole life before the 1950s, with a radio show, and a whole string of movies under his leash. He was voted "most popular performer" in 1927. Once the talkies came in his popularity faded, but he made several comebacks, including a successful 1947 film called The Return of Rin Tin Tin.

     As a kid I was actually more of a Lassie fan. Not that I recall liking Lassie any more than Rin Tin Tin. It's just that while both TV shows, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, premiered at the same time, in the fall of 1954, Rin Tin Tin only lasted five seasons, while Lassie stayed on the air for 20 years.

     I also didn't know that Lassie was "just" a fictional character, who was then cast in Hollywood, played by a collie named Pal, born and raised in California, and later by his son Pal, Jr. But Rin Tin Tin was a real dog, a German shepherd rescued from near-death, brought to America and trained to be a movie star.

     During World War I dogs were routinely used by the army as messengers and guard dogs. They also served in the medical corps, roaming the battlefield with saddlebags full of medical supplies. If a soldier was wounded but conscious, he could call over a dog and help himself to bandages or water. Dogs were also trained to identify who was dead or alive, and if a dog found a fallen soldier who was still alive, it would alert the medical corps by barking or tugging on the unconscious body. Dogs were also trained as suicide bombers, released into enemy territory with explosives strapped to their bodies.

     One day in Sept. 1918, a U. S. soldier from California, named Lee Duncan, was inspecting the ruins of a German encampment when he stepped into a low-slung building. He was aghast at what he saw: a pile of 20 or more dead dogs, killed by artillery shells. Then, from the back of the darkened room, he heard a noise. When he carefully edged to the rear of the building he found a German shepherd who was alive -- a female surrounded by her litter of five puppies. Duncan picked up the dogs, maneuvered them into his army vehicle, and brought them back to the U. S. base. He gave away the mother and three puppies, and kept two of the puppies for himself, a female who he named Nanette, and a male he named Rin Tin Tin, after a pair of dolls that were popular at the time.

     On the way home after the war, Nanette developed pneumonia and died. When Duncan finally got back to Southern California, he began training Rin Tin Tin -- Rinty for short -- with the idea he could breed him, sell some puppies, maybe make some money at dog shows.

     But this was a time when the movie business was beginning to flourish in Hollywood, and Lee Duncan caught the bug. He wrote a screenplay and began taking Rinty around to different studios, trying to get someone interested either in his screenplay or his dog. Eventually he got a "bite" and Rinty landed a silent film role as a sled dog belonging to a Canadian Mountie. One role led to another until Warner Brothers signed Rinty, then agreed to produce Duncan's own screenplay Where the North Begins, with Rin Tin Tin as the hero.

     Rin Tin Tin's career was launched. He appeared in more than a dozen silent films, until he died in 1932. By then the "talkies" had come in, and demand for non-talking animals had waned. But Duncan kept going. He worked with Rin Tin  Tin, Jr., finding him smaller movie parts, developing a radio show, and bringing him to dog shows, county fairs and stage shows. Later, Rin Tin Tin III, was used during World War II to promote Dogs for Defense, a program encouraging people to donate their dogs to the army.

     By 1954, when television got interested in Rin Tin Tin, Lee Duncan was training Rin Tin Tin IV. The dog was signed for the part, but by the time the show actually got on the air the directors had retired Rin Tin Tin IV and were using a repertory of other German shepherds as Rin Tin Tin. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin became a TV hit for ABC, second only to the Walt Disney show, beating out Lassie, which premiered the same year. Rin Tin Tin also helped usher in the modern world of marketing, as fans began buying up Rin Tin Tin lunch boxes, uniforms, hats and guns.

     Lassie was "born" as the hero of a 1940 book, Lassie Come Home, by British writer Eric Knight. The book became a hit movie in 1943, starring Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor, and was followed by several sequels. Lassie was a quieter, more domesticated canine than Rin Tin Tin, who was often involved in gun play, Indian attacks and knife fights. But it was Lassie that proved the more durable TV show, eventually topping Rin Tin Tin in the ratings and winning two Emmy awards before it was finally canceled in 1973.

     One more thing I didn't know is that Susan Orlean writes for The New Yorker. So she's well connected, and whatever she writes will pretty much automatically get the royal treatment from the press and the literati of New York. I actually could only give the book two or three "barks" out of five. The first half, focusing on Rin Tin Tin the first, is really good; the rest trails off into a grab bag of early movies, early TV, and the author's attempts to put the dog into some kind of perspective. So I'd recommend the book only to real dog lovers, or those interested in Hollywood history.

     Nevertheless, it offers up an interesting footnote to American history. And, you don't have to choose between the two dogs. In fact, in 1955, after "several weeks of negotiation," Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, along with their trainers, appeared together on the cover of TV Guide. And both dogs were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on the same day in 1960.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Survey: The Buzz on Coffee

     Some people might say we needed another poll like we need yet another Republican presidential debate. Nevertheless, I have the grounds to report on one survey. Because the results have filtered in -- from the most caffeinated poll in America!

     When I pressed the data, I found out that 51.5 percent of respondents to the coffee poll said they prefer regular home-brewed coffee. Just over 15 percent reported that their favorite drip is to be found at Starbucks.

Close-up view / of a Starbucks brew

     Almost 10 percent said that tea is their bag. Another 10 percent washed their hands of all of the above. These people (based on some comments I received) either prefer to sweeten the pot with hot chocolate (that's a good idea!) or else to bubble up out of bed by drinking a Coke in the morning. Coke? Never thought of that. But, yeah, I can see it, especially in the summer, or if you live in a warm climate. If I woke up in Phoenix, where my sister lives, and where according to her it's approx. 120 degrees, in the shade ... in January ... then I probably wouldn't want a hot drink in the morning. I'd quaff a Coke.  Especially since ... there IS no shade in Phoenix at any time of year.

     This poll has led me to make a few observations about the lifestyles of the retired and the blogging. But first ... apologies to Phoenix. This post is meant to be humorous. (We don't have to address the depressing economic situation in every blog post, do we?) So please don't be offended -- I'll be sure to make a New Jersey joke before it's over.

     Anyway, I'm surprised at how few retired bloggers live in the Sunbelt. As I've wandered around the blogs of Baby Boomers, I've encountered more people from Canada than I have from Florida or Arizona. Go figure. Maybe the people in Florida are too busy sailing their boats or sunning at the beach to stay at home in front of their computer. But then, Boomer Musings plays golf and he still manages to write a thoughtful and quite literate blog. So come on Floridians! If you're too on-the-go for blogging, then ... well, don't you have an iPad?

     I've also noticed that our retired bloggers do a lot of traveling. I mean, Thoughts from a Bag Lady in Waiting has traveled to every one of the 50 states, at least twice, and if we had 51 states, she would have gone there too. And I say: Good for her. A lot of people dream of traveling after they retire. And I salute anyone who follows their dream. We've had several bloggers, like Satisfying Retirement, go to Hawaii; while Retirement: A Full-Time Job air-mailed herself to Australia; and Retired English Teacher, right now, is trekking on a trip through New England to drink in the beautiful fall foliage.

     I, myself, also dream of traveling. But I have a problem. I don't like to fly. Oh, and I don't like to drive, either. So most of the traveling B and I do is close to home. In the past year we've been to Boston; Block Island; Cape Cod; Lancaster, Pa.; Manhattan; Montauk; Chincoteague, Va.; and Washington, DC.

     So we limit our drive time to just about five hours, or in other words ... just far enough to get past New Jersey.*

     I'm particularly impressed by people who have gone back to school in retirement. Schmidleysscribblings is my hero. So is my older sister -- not the one in Phoenix, the one who lives in Florida -- who is taking a course in statistics. (Why? We were brought up Catholic; I think she feels guilty for something.) Anyway, she was recently bemoaning the fact that she had to miss a class -- because she was getting a hip replacement! I remember when I went to school, I'd miss a class if I got chapped lips. Or a hickey.

     Gardening is certainly a common pastime among the retired. I'm not impressed with these people. I'm just jealous! I would like to be a  gardener, but as I've told B, it's a good thing I live in post-agrarian America because if I had to make my living as a farmer I would certainly starve to death.

     But I guess I follow a family tradition. Some of my ancestors tried to grow potatoes. Didn't work out for them. That's why they came to America in the first place.
No, you can't smoke this, it's parsley!
     Anyway, I've tried raising many different food crops, from lettuce to tomatoes to beans. Here's what I can actually grow:  parsley. And I don't even like parsley!

     As far as ornamental plants go, my expertise extends exactly as far as pachysandra. I can grow pachysandra. I can spell pachysandra. I'm a pachysandra kind of guy, because pachysandra is the instant coffee of backyard flora.

     Which reminds me. One last thing about the coffee poll. As I admitted from the outset, I drink instant coffee. (I have no shame.) I drink instant partly because B rarely drinks coffee (she specializes in decaf tea) and I'm too lazy to make real coffee for myself. The coffee pot; the grounds, the filters; the washing up. It's a lot of work! Besides, I like the taste of instant coffee. And I do not like the taste of Starbucks -- it's too strong, too bitter, too caffeinated for my delicate institution. Oh, and also, I'm too cheap to pay $4 for a single cup of java, even if they do list the cup sizes in French.

     But as the poll revealed:  there is at least one other person out there in the blogosphere who agrees with me, who admits to drinking instant coffee -- although, ahem, that person prefers to remain anonymous.

* There's the New Jersey joke.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Facts, Just the Facts

     I read and hear way too much rhetoric coming from politicos on both the left and the right. "Tax the rich," say the liberals. "They need to pay their fair share!"

     "The rich already pay most of the taxes," counter the conservatives. "Stop penalizing successful people who generate the jobs we so desperately need."

     I don't know who is right. What I do know is that whenever you read these rants and opinions, they are seldom accompanied by actual facts. A lot of people seem to choose up sides, focus on the numbers that support their point of view and ignore the other numbers And if there are no numbers, they just assert their position in stronger, more inflammatory language -- as if those who shout the loudest must be right.

     The point is, opinions are cheap. But facts are dear. Let's look at just a few facts.

     Fact:  The top 1 percent of wage earners (people now making over, roughly, $400,000 per year) take in some 20 percent of the total income in this country. They pay almost 40 percent of all federal income taxes. However, that's just federal income tax. When you include payroll (Social Security) tax and state tax, the top 1 percent contribute only 21 percent of taxes. -- Source: New York Magazine; also, see Tax Data chart below.

     Fact:  The top 10 percent (those who make over $115,000 a year) earn close to 50 percent of total income. They pay nearly 70 percent of all federal income taxes. But again, that figure does not count payroll or state taxes. -- Source: The Week Magazine and Tax Data chart

     Fact: Some 75 million households, or 46 percent of  Americans, do not pay any federal income tax. Approximately 2/3 of the no-income-tax households make less than $50,000 a year. About 1/3 make over $50,000 a year, and those people are mostly the elderly.  -- Source: The non-partisan Tax Policy Center

     The federal income tax is somewhat progressive. Higher income people do pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. But the figures in the table above are based on Adjusted Gross Income. And people with more income have more opportunities to adjust their income down by claiming education, business or health expenses. Therefore, the table overstates the portion of income that high income individuals actually pay. Or, as Warren Buffett has admitted, rich people know how to work the system.

     Fact: The above table counts only federal income tax. It does not include Social Security tax, which costs people in the bottom 90 percent a higher portion of their income than it does the top 10 percent. According to several studies, more than half of all wage earners pay more in Social Security and Medicare taxes than they do income tax. -- Source: New York Times and elsewhere.

     In addition, state income taxes tend to be less progressive than federal taxes. Local property taxes are only indirectly progressive -- typically, the more expensive house, the higher the local tax. But a rich person who lives in a modest house (again, think Warren Buffett) pays no more than the middle-class person living in a similar abode. And of course, property taxes vary widely by state and locality. Wealthy Texans pay less in property tax than middle-class people in New York or New Jersey.

     Finally, states and local municipalities rely to a large extent on sales taxes, which again, hit poor people with the same tax rate as the high earners. Some people argue that the poor spend a higher portion of their income on taxable consumer items, and thus pay more sales tax than high income people. That's a guess, though, not a fact. Low income people spend money on food and rent, which typically are exempt from sales tax. Rich people buy expensive cars and take luxurious vacations, which are often subject to extra sales tax.

     Fact:  In the two years since the so-called end of the Great Recession, in June 2009, the inflation-adjusted median income of American families has fallen 6.7 percent, to just under $50,000. Source: Kiplinger's Magazine

     And that, to me, is the most relevant fact. People's incomes are falling. Which is why I believe -- and this is opinion now, not fact -- that while raising taxes on the top 1 percent of earners, or the top 10 percent of earners, may be the "fair" thing to do, it is beside the point. Raising taxes on top earners will not increase employment; it will not raise middle-income wages.

     For what needs to be done, read That Used to Be Us by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Or the just-published The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Columbia University economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, who urges investing in education and infrastructure to help the U. S. compete in a globalized world.

     And finally, for a fun way to see if you really know the facts, check out New York Magazine's quiz Are You Smarter Than a Wall Street Occupier?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Where Do You Move When You Retire?

    As I wrote a couple of blog posts ago, B and I are planning some improvements to our kitchen. But we're going slow, because everything is expensive, and it's hard to justify spending too much on your house when the house keeps going down in value.

    Also, we don't know how much longer we're going to be living here. I assume we're eventually going to move. So does B. But we don't think about it very much because we have no immediate plans, no plans at all, actually. We're in no hurry, in part because B is still working and has no plans to retire, although every once in a while she complains that she's tired of her job, and I wonder if that's a precursor ... but also, our kids are still living around here in New York (one's living right upstairs!), so we are in no hurry to get out of town.

     Nevertheless, the subject comes up, usually at the least expected times. Like when we were standing around the kitchen the other day, discussing what we're going to do about our kitchen cabinets. They're decent cabinets, we're trying to redo this kitchen on a budget, and we've been trying to find someone to fix the cabinets rather than replace them. So we're in the middle of our discussion, and I stop to caution, "Remember, though, we don't want to cut too many corners on the cabinets. We've agreed to replace the hinges, but we've got to get something better than those flimsy things we have now, or we'll just have to fix them again in a few years."

     "No we won't," retorted B. "We won't be here when they give out next time. We'll be long gone."

     That brought me up short, since we hadn't mentioned anything about moving in months. But it also made me laugh. "We can't be long gone," I said, "until we decide on a place to go to."

     "Yeah, I know," she said, almost defiantly, as though she knows something I don't.

     And thus ended our discussion of relocating in retirement. First we have to get the kitchen done.

     But, coincidentally, that very evening I got an email from AARP, touting the top ten most affordable places to retire. So, I had to take a look.

     But first let me say, while I have nothing against the AARP, I am not a member of that organization. I consider myself way too young!

     Why I keep getting emails from them, I don't know (maybe they know something I don't?), but anyway I might consider joining ... you know, when I get old enough, like maybe in a couple of years when I start Medicare, or the following year when I reach my "full retirement age" of 66. Or maybe when I get around to signing up for long-term-care insurance. You know, when I get old.

From the U. S. Census Bureau:  Median age of population by state. The darker the green the older the residents. The "oldest" state is Maine. Then Vermont, West Virginia, Florida. The "youngest" is Alaska, followed by Utah, then Texas.

     Anyway, I perused the list:  Winchester, Va., Portland, Maine. Looks from the map like a lot of old people live in Maine. Gainesville, Ga., Ithaca, NY. Wait! Have you ever been to Ithaca, NY?

     It's beautiful in Ithaca in the summer, for three or four months. But the rest of the year the weather will weigh on you until you sink into the depths of depression. It starts snowing in October. It can snow every day for weeks at a time -- never, it seems, enough so you wake up to a beautiful, clear winter wonderland, just enough to keep the sky gray, to make a slushy mess on the roads, and to chill you to the bone all day long. Ithaca might be a great place if you also have a winter home in Florida. But then, it wouldn't be too affordable, would it?

     Tulsa, Olka., Cheyenne, Wyo., Harrisburg, Pa. Huh? I just read that the city of Harrisburg went bankrupt!

     And that emphasizes, to me, the point that you have to develop local knowledge before you can pick a place to retire. It's not enough to say Florida, or Arizona, or Oregon. You gotta get down to the granular level. I happen to know that, while I wouldn't live in Ithaca, NY, for love or money, there are plenty of nice places along the Hudson Valley of New York where I would happily retire -- New Paltz, for example, where the weather is a little sunnier, the climate a little milder, where there's a campus of the State University of New York and there are plenty of parks, cultural activities, restaurants and medical facilities.

     I also happen to know, while you might not want to be in bankrupt Harrisburg, and you wouldn't want to live in depressed Reading, Pa., either, nearby Lancaster does offer a lot of amenities for retired people, including a college campus, a top hospital, several affordable options for independent living, and lots of shopping and restaurants and cultural opportunities.

     B has said she wants to move to Doylestown, Pa., some 30+ miles north of Philadelphia. I'm not sure why. We've been there. It's a nice enough place, but I don't see what's so special about it. And it's not as affordable as New Paltz or Lancaster or a hundred other places.

     I suggested to B that we take a couple of weekend trips to Philadelphia, and scout out the surrounding area to see if there's a place that "speaks" to us. I know people who've retired to Newark, Del., about 40 miles south of Philadelphia. I think it'd be neat to retire to Cape May, NJ. Mild winters, long spring and fall seasons, and the summer's not too hot. We've been there twice on vacation. But it's kind of expensive, and New Jersey has a reputation for not being particularly nice to retired people. But at least ... I'd get another vacation to Cape May, even if we decided it's not a good place to retire.

     I have erased Florida from my mind as the place to live out my golden years. I'd always just assumed I would retire to someplace like Jupiter or Jacksonville, or Naples or Sarasota, ever since the first time I traveled to Florida when I was in college. My parents retired to Florida. I have a sister living in Florida. But over the years as Florida has become more and more crowded, it just seemed to lose its appeal.

     And then, B has a "thing" about Florida. She just doesn't like it. It was all I could do to get her to take one Florida vacation a couple of years ago. We spent five days in Naples, in February 2010, and the weather was cold. We only got to the beach one day. That did it for B. Cross Florida off the list.

     We are planning a trip to Arizona and Southern California this winter. I doubt we're going to seriously consider retiring there -- too far from home and family. Southern California is too expensive. Arizona is out in the desert -- and I just don't see us as desert people. But, you never know. It's kind of fun "shopping" for a new place to live, where the next town over the horizon might just prove to be the place you've always wanted to live.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What Do YOU Drink in the Morning?

     The clock radio comes on around 6:30 a.m., my eyes crack open and I see the gray light sneaking in through the window shade. I slide my leg over to the other side of the bed to see if B is still there. If she is, it's not time to get up yet. If she's gone, then maybe I'd better wake up. Depends on how badly I have to go to the bathroom. Oh ... I can hold it in a little longer. Lemme get another ten minutes of sleep.

     And then I think of my morning cup of coffee. And that's what gets me out of bed.

     I imagine holding the warm cup in my hands, smelling the coffee flavor steaming up from the cup. I like my coffee with a little sugar and lots of milk -- almost like a nice, warm coffee milkshake. And if I'm going to climb out from under these warm comfy covers, I'd better have something warm and sweet to greet me when I get downstairs.

     I know everyone has their addictions ... or let's be generous and call them our favorite dishes or our usual drinks. B always goes for orange juice in the morning, first thing. I like orange juice. But, jeez, not first thing in the morning. Too jarring!

     B also likes tea. She drinks tea in the morning after her orange juice and cereal; tea in the afternoon at work; and tea at night before we walk the dog. She doesn't tolerate caffeine too well. But she doesn't go for the herbal stuff, just regular decaffeinated tea.

What gets you up in the morning?
     I like tea, too. I usually keep B company with a cup of tea in the evening. But it just doesn't make it for me in the morning. I need something stronger. Something to jump start my day. A reason for getting out of bed.

     However, for all you real die-hard coffee drinkers out there, I have to stop and issue a warning. The following statement may contain information or subject matter that you could find disturbing. Please confirm that, before you read the following paragraph, you are an adult, you do not have any heart issues, and you warrant that you are not easily offended. If you cannot so warrant, please skip the next paragraph.

     I drink instant coffee.

     Okay, there, I said it. I do not grind my own coffee beans. I do not brew coffee in a coffee pot. I do not have a French press. I just dip my spoon into the instant coffee jar, scoop some up, throw it into the cup, pour in the hot water. And, bam, there we go. Coffee!

     Most of my coffee friends are horrified when they find out my dirty little secret. I have one friend, a real coffee addict, who downs 10 or 12 cups a day. Black. He practically has a heart attack every time I remind him I drink instant, with milk and sugar. (I'm too polite to suggest that maybe he almost has a heart attack because he drinks way too much coffee.) But even B, who rarely touches coffee, makes fun of me for drinking the instant kind. I don't care. That's what I like -- it's not too strong, not too bitter, not to insulting too the tongue.

     I do not frequent Starbucks, except on rare occasions when someone wants to meet me there. But I will admit to driving up to our local 7-11 to put together a cup from their coffee bar, which features at least a dozen different ways to adulterate coffee with all kinds of flavors and sweeteners.

     But not often. I usually drink two cups of instant in the morning. Sometimes three. And then I'm done for the day. I've read up on the health effects of coffee. The Mayo Clinic points out that high consumption of coffee can lead to high cholesterol levels, but for "most people the health benefits outweigh the risks."  According to the Harvard Medical publications, "in moderation -- a few cups a day -- coffee is a safe beverage that may even offer some health benefits," possibly lowering your risk of getting diabetes, contracting gallstones, developing colon cancer or liver disease. Coffee may also improve cognitive function. And I can certainly use that!

     If I get cold on a winter afternoon, I'll brew a cup of tea or make a hot chocolate. And, like I said, I usually have a cup of tea at night with B. I drink the caffeinated tea. Doesn't keep me up. Besides, I believe tea has a lot less caffeine than coffee -- although someone recently tried to tell me different.

     However, there is that photo of a cup of coffee. I'm writing this post in the afternoon. I wanted a picture of my coffee. So I had to make an extra cup today. (It wouldn't do to show you an empty cup!). And then, of course, I didn't want to waste it. So I drank it. But really, hardly ever in the afternoon. It's not like I'm addicted or anything.

     So ... what's your favorite drink? Take the poll at the top of the column on the right.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Know I'm Fakin' It

     I am not a "techie." I am not computer person. I know how to type pretty well (I took a class the summer after 11th grade) and I can process words. But most of the time I have no idea how to figure things out on the computer.

     We have a 20-something male in the house who helps me sometimes, as long as I'm willing to put up with a long, extended and not-so-subtle eye roll. But most of the time I'm pecking away on my keyboard, just hoping that nothing will go wrong.

     I've been working on this blog now for about ten months, and I like to think I've figured out a few things. But, honestly, I feel just the way I did when I took calculus in college -- always on the edge of understanding what was going on, but never mastering the subject, never getting comfortable with it. I'd learn just enough to answer the questions on the tests, then heave a sigh of relief and try to cleanse my mind of the anxiety and feelings of incompetence that came with calculus.  

     So it is with blogging. Not the writing part; I can deal with that. But the technical part.

     For example, one of my relatively frequent commenters was recently kind enough to notify me that a few people were having trouble making comments on my blog posts. I'm glad she notified me. But, OMG, I had no idea what I could do about it!

     I poked around blogger for a while and found that there's a spam folder on the comments page. Who knew? When I opened the spam folder I saw a few obviously commercial comments, along with a couple of notes that seemed a little sketchy. But nothing in the spam folder looked like anything from my familiar blogging names. That wasn't the problem, but I didn't know what else to do.

     So I did what I do best. I stuck my head in the sand and hoped the problem would go away. It didn't. And eventually, after another notice, I poked around some more, and found a place where blogger lists "known problems." There were problems relating to the "embedded form" of comments, and a suggestion to switch to either "full-page" or "pop-up forms." I stumbled around and figured out how to do that, then shrugged my shoulders and made the change. Lo and behold ... it worked! Don't ask me why. And ... for how long, who knows?

     I'm just not comfortable with technical things. I don't want to tell you how long I fiddled and faddled with the design function of blogger before I was able to devise something presentable. And there are still blogger functions that baffle me. Links? I see them, but I don't know what they are exactly, much less how to create them.

     So I procrastinate. When I first started my blog, I saw there was an adsense option to place ads on your blog. I thought, why not? It only took me ten months to get around to doing that. Now I worry the ads are intrusive -- but I don't think they're too bad. If people do think they're obnoxious, please let me know. I'm not doing this for the money. Besides, if I were to make any, then I'd have to set up a Paypal account. I have no idea how to do that. And it would be another ten months before I even tried!

     Like Paul Simon, I know I've just been fakin' it, not really makin' it. But ... is there any danger ... no, no not really ... I'm takin' time to treat my friendly neighbors honestly. But still ... this feelin' of fakin' it. I still haven't shaken it.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Redoing the Kitchen -- Is It Worth It?

     B and I have been having a spirited discussion lately. About our kitchen. She wants to renovate it. She started out with the idea of gutting the whole thing. She'd put in a new floor, new cabinets, new appliances, a new granite countertop, and a fancy new sink and faucet.

     It would cost a lot of money. But she renovated her kitchen in her old house, back in the mid-2000s, and it really improved how the place looked, and paid off when she sold the house in 2007.

The sign on the fridge says: "Out of Order. Do Not Use."
Can you see the cracks in the tile floor?
     I hate to disappoint B. I don't want to argue with her. I want her to have whatever she wants. But all I'm thinking is, oh man, we've already lost so much money on this house of ours -- the house that we bought in 2007 -- do we really want to put yet more money into it so we can lose even more?

     B and I bought this house together in 2007, just as the real-estate market was rolling over. Okay, we both sold our old houses, and had made money from them over the years, but it's still hard to watch the value of this house keep sinking like it's stuck in quicksand. We know what it's worth, because our old real-estate agent sends out a newsletter once every two months, updating us on the price of homes in town, and what's sold in our neighborhood. Besides that, there are these sites on the Internet, like zillow.com, or trulia.com, where they list the market value of your house. I know I shouldn't look at these sites. We're not about to sell our house. Besides, their so-called market price is just an estimate ... a wild guess. But I look anyway.

     That's just the point, B tells me. We're not going to sell the house anytime soon. She wants a new kitchen because we hang around the kitchen every day of our lives, and she wants to make our surroundings look a little nicer. Not so we can improve the sale price of our house, but so we can enjoy it while we're here.

     But B is a reasonable person. After we got an estimate to replace the kitchen cabinets, without my even prompting she quickly decided it wouldn't be worth it. "Are they kidding?" she said. "Over $20,000 for cabinets? That's way too much. Besides, our cabinets are perfectly good."

     But she doesn't like the design of the cabinet doors, and even I'll agree that a lot of the door hinges are not working properly. Some of the doors are crooked. The doors are supposed to close by themselves, but a lot of them don't. So we looked into refacing the cabinets. But that would cost almost $15,000, and that seemed outrageous as well.

     So we "tabled" the question of the cabinets. But B was more insistent when it came to the countertop. She doesn't like our countertop. It's not worn out or scratched up or anything. She just thinks it's ugly. It's made out of Corian, which I think is pretty fancy. But it's not as fancy as granite. I suggested to B that she didn't think the countertop was ugly when we bought the house.

     "Yes I did," she replied. "I just didn't say anything about it."

     So we went shopping for granite countertops. They range from about $50 a square foot, to over $100 a square foot. Guess which one B liked the best. And you don't have to have a lot of countertop to start adding up to major dollars -- $3000 or $4000, easy. Then you have to buy a new sink and a new faucet, which ain't cheap either. (I know, because when we moved here in 2007, we replaced the old faucet with a new faucet from Home Depot, for around $200 -- and at $200 it's a cheap faucet that never has worked very well.)

     We were both taken aback by the price of the countertop. I said to B, "You know, I wouldn't mind spending a fortune on a countertop, if I thought we were going to get some of it back when we sold the house. But our house is worth, probably $100,000 less than what we bought it for in 2007. Do you think a new countertop is going to make the house worth any more?"

     "No, I don't," she replied honestly. "But we will enjoy the countertop for as long as we live here. And when we do get ready to move, a nice countertop will make the house more saleable. We probably won't get more money. But we will be able to sell it."

     I thought about the issue for a few moments. "Yeah, we will enjoy the countertop. But I don't think I'll get $3000 or $4000 more enjoyment out of granite than I would out of an old-fashioned Formica countertop. I mean, either way, you set your dish on the counter. End of story. They both work equally well."

     B looked at me balefully. "You don't want a Formica countertop."

     "You know, I don't understand it," I said. I was getting exasperated. "My parents weren't rich, but they were solidly middle class. They were satisfied with their station in life -- in fact, they thought of themselves as pretty well off. But they never had a granite countertop. They never had anything but Formica. And they still managed to get through life quite comfortably."

     B looked at me. "I know what you're saying," she replied understandingly. "But that was then. This is now. Don't you remember when we were looking at houses? You were the one who looked down your nose at a house that had Formica countertops."

     "Yeah," I laughed. "But that was in 2007. That was then. This is now!"

     And I meant it. Back in the housing boom, everyone wanted a granite countertop ... because they never really thought they'd have to pay for it. But now, when homes do not appreciate, you really do have to pay for the countertop -- and I wonder if Formica won't become fashionable again.

     The same goes for linoleum floors, versus wood or tile floors. I think my parents did finally have a tile floor in their kitchen -- when they moved to the retirement complex in Florida. But it's not as if they required a tile floor in their kitchen for them to be happy. They were perfectly satisfied with linoleum floors. I grew up with a linoleum floor. I never felt disadvantaged because of our linoleum floor. I never felt like we were the poor people in the neighborhood. I never suffered injury or aesthetic insult because of our linoleum floor.

     Yet when we stopped by the floor store and asked to see linoleum, the clerk looked at us as if we were on welfare. Still, I wonder if linoleum floors will make a comeback ... you know, now that people actually have to pay for their floor.

     Finally, we have the appliances. We bought a new dishwasher when we moved here -- the old one gave up the ghost. But B had a vision of a new cooktop and a new oven -- the one we have, according to her, doesn't heat evenly and the temperature gauge isn't accurate. But when we gave up the idea of the new cabinets, she gave up the idea of a new oven.

     We still need to get a new refrigerator. The old one is ... well, it's kind of old (duh). And it's small, and the icemaker doesn't work.The problem is, if we want to get a full-size refrigerator, then the cabinet above it has to be changed -- and we're back to changing the cabinets again!

     Yesterday, B's son came home from college for the long weekend. This morning B and I were standing around the kitchen, trying to decide if we needed to make a trip to the tile store. "Oh, you're still talking about redoing the kitchen?" asked B's son. I think he was smirking as he made his inquiry.

     "Yes, of course," answered B.

     "I thought you'd given up on that idea," he said. He looked around. "I've been gone for quite a while ... but nothing's happened."

     "There are a lot of decisions to make," said B defensively.

     "I know, I know," he said dismissively. "It's just that you guys seem to be moving even slower than usual."

     "Well, it's complicated!" we both said, in unison.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs, We Hardly Knew You

     Steve Jobs was a computer entrepreneur, a marketing genius and an inspiration to all Americans. He died yesterday at age 56 of pancreatic cancer.

     I thought it appropriate to revisit a post from earlier this year that I did on the former Apple ceo. From April 2011:

     I've never owned an Apple computer. I don't have a iPod or an iPhone or an iPad. Yet Steve Jobs has changed my life immeasurably, simply because of his impact on the personal computer and the electronics revolution.

     Steve Jobs, at age 56, is one of the most influential Baby Boomers. I don't want to write his obituary prematurely, but apparently he's in real trouble. And I don't submit this post to give any credence to a sleazy newspaper that may sensationalize his health problems, but to pay homage to a brave and creative genius. And honestly, until I saw this item, Ten Unusual Things I Didn't Know About Steve Jobs, I didn't know much about him. But Steve Jobs is one fascinating guy.

     I didn't realize that he was adopted. His biological father's name was Abdulfattah Jandali. His mother was an unmarried graduate student who felt too young to raise a child. So she put him up for adoption, with the only proviso that his new parents be college graduates. But after the first adoptive parents fell through, the next in line was a couple -- one of whom didn't go to college; the other didn't even graduate from high school. This couple ended up getting the boy only after making the promise that they would make sure he would go to college.

     I did have a vague awareness that Steve Jobs was a college dropout. He spent a semester at Reed College, a good but not especially highly rated college in Portland, Oregon. The reason he dropped out? He felt he wasn't getting that much out of his experience, and he knew that paying the tuition was impoverishing his parents. So he dropped out, but stayed around campus auditing courses for a couple more semesters, sleeping on the floor of friends' apartments, picking up some knowledge and skills at little to no cost.

     Before he started Apple with partner Steve Wozniak, he worked briefly for Atari, creating those primitive shooting and "pong" type games we all remember from the '70s. He then co-founded Apple Computer in 1976, when he was just 21 years old.

     We all know about the success of Apple. But who remembers that Jobs was unceremoniously fired in 1985? He was the loser in a corporate power play, and found himself publicly humiliated and out of work at the age of 30. Some people thought he was washed up. But he quickly prove them wrong. He immediately founded another company, Next, followed by Pixar, the animation company eventually acquired by Disney. Jobs went back to Apple after Next was bought out by Apple in 1996.

     Jobs was first diagnosed with cancer in 2004, and underwent surgery to remove a tumor on his pancreas. In 2009 he had a liver transplant, and reportedly went to Switzerland to receive an experimental treatment for pancreatic cancer. In January 2011, Jobs took yet another medical leave of absence "so he could focus on his health." Since then he has been observed, according to Mail Online, looking "thin and frail," and he has been seen going in and out of Stanford University's state-of-the-art cancer center.

     People have written Steve Jobs' obituary before. Literally. Apparently Bloomberg news published a Jobs obit. in August 2008, much to their embarrassment. Let's hope he will defy the odds one more time.

     For a look at Steve Jobs, here is the graduation speech he made at Stanford University in 2005, where he talks about the three pivotal moments in his life. When he dropped out of college. When he was fired. And when he was diagnosed with cancer and learned to ask himself:  If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?

    "Remembering  that you are going to die," he says in his speech, "is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Remember Her?

     In August over 500 people were arrested in Washington, DC, when they took part in a sit-in outside the White House to protest against a pipeline that would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. In September, gay advocacy groups organized celebrations across the country to commemorate the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, allowing openly gay people to serve in the military.

     Now, in October, crowds of young people are gathering in New York's financial district and in other U. S. cities to support "Occupy Wall Street," which started as a movement to get money out of politics, but expanded to become a general protest against corporate greed.

     It's enough to make you think you're back in the 1970s, when protest was part of the political landscape, and was even brought into the halls of Congress.

     Do you remember Ms. Savitsky? She was a leading social activist in the 1960s and 1970s. She joined other feminists to create the National Women's Political Caucus and at the age of 50 was elected to Congress. In response to criticism that a woman's place was in the home, she famously said, "This woman's place is in the house -- the House of Representatives."

     She was born in New York in 1920, of Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father died when she was 13. Since she had no brothers, she was the one who stood up and said the Kaddish at his funeral, usually the son's role. It wasn't her first act of feminism. She was a natural leader who played marbles and checkers with the boys on the streets of Manhattan, where she earned the nickname "Battling Bella." But she was also a top student who played the violin, learned Hebrew, was elected president of her high school class, and raised money for Zionists.

     She attended Hunter College in New York, where she was elected student council president, and earned a law degree from Columbia University, where she was editor of the law review. She took a job with a New York law firm, specializing in labor union law. She was routinely ignored by the union members because she was a woman. So in order to get noticed, she began wearing her trademark hats.

     She also began to take on civil rights causes, and appealed the case of Willie McGee, a black man convicted of raping a white woman in Mississippi. He'd been sentenced to death by an all-white jury that deliberated for 2 1/2 minutes. She won two stays of execution, but eventually lost the appeal and McGee went to the electric chair.

     In the 1960s she was active in Democratic politics and, with other feminists, created the Women's Strike for Peace. She was also an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment; she lobbied for a nuclear test ban treaty, and protested against the Vietnam War. 

     In 1970 she ran for Congress, representing a district in Manhattan that included Greenwich Village, Little Italy and the Lower East Side. She beat out the establishment Democratic incumbent, Leonard Farbstein, and entered the House of Representatives in 1971.

     In Congress she continued her efforts to get the U. S. out of Vietnam, and along with Congressman (and later Mayor) Ed Koch, she introduced the nation's first gay-rights bill, known as the Equality Act of 1974. She also co-authored the Freedom of Information Act, and was one of the first members of Congress to call for President Nixon's resignation after the Watergate scandal. She was recognized as the "third most influential" member of Congress and one of the 20 most powerful women in the world.

     In 1976 she ran for the U. S. Senate, but was edged out in the Democratic primary by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who went on to win the election and serve out four terms in the U. S. Senate. She ran for Mayor of New York in 1977 but lost out to her friend Ed Koch. She later ran again for Congress but was defeated.

     She nevertheless remained politically active throughout the 1980s, working for women's rights, supporting Israel and becoming active in the environmental movement. She also made brief appearances in several movies, including Woody Allen's Manhattan.

     Ms. Savitsky met her husband, Martin Abzug, after graduating from college, while visiting relatives in Miami, Fla. They were at a concert by classical violinist Yehudi Menuhi. The couple was married in 1944, and remained married until Martin's death in 1986. Bella Abzug developed breast cancer. She died in 1998 at the age of 77.

Ed Koch, Bella Abzug and President Jimmy Carter, in 1978

     Martin and Bella Abzug had two children, Eve and Liz. In 2004 Liz founded the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, to mentor and train young women to become leaders in political, corporate and community life.

     To this day, Bella Abzug is remembered as one of the most powerful voices in the fight for women's rights. She wrote laws that banned discrimination against women in obtaining credit cards and mortgages, and she spent her life helping mothers obtain comprehensive child care, ensuring that homemakers were eligible to receive Social Security and fighting for abortion rights for all women.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Making a Retirement Wish List

     I noticed a few of our blogging colleagues have recently gone to Hawaii. Wow! That sounds like a  retirement dream! I've never been anywhere near Hawaii, never been west of California.

     My gut reaction was jealousy -- man, I wish I was going to Hawaii, too. But after I thought about it for a while, I decided, you know, I don't really care all that much about Hawaii. Especially since I don't like to fly -- and there's really no other way to get there.

     But it made me wonder. What are my dreams for retirement? Is it the same as a Bucket List?

     The Bucket Lists I've seen mostly revolve around traveling or doing something really exciting. Going to see the Pyramids or visiting Australia. Or jumping out of an airplane in a parachute. I guess I wouldn't mind seeing the Pyramids. But there's no way you're getting me to take a parachute jump. I don't even like roller coasters!

     I have thought about taking a trip around the world. I think that would be really cool. I've wrestled with the idea of not liking to fly -- but I figure if I get to age 70 or so, what the heck, if I go down, I've still had a nice life. Besides, I do fly occasionally, and it doesn't bother me too much, once I've popped a few of those Lorazepam pills. Plus, an around the world trip would involve, maybe, eight or ten back-to-back airplane flights. Once you've done two or three, taking off gets to be old hat.

     One problem with that particular retirement dream:  I've mentioned the plan to B, my life partner, and she wasn't very keen on the idea. I don't know why not -- she doesn't mind flying. Maybe it's just  too ambitious for her, out of her comfort zone to travel so far away. Anyway, I wouldn't go without her. So it's not my my list.

     Because, you see, the very first item on my wish list for retirement is to travel on this journey into old age hand in hand with B, in a relationship that, hopefully, stays just as good as it is now. We've discussed a little bit what the aging process will do to us, and we're ready to take on the challenge together, one with another, she providing a crutch for me, and I providing a crutch for her. We will suffer the indignities of old age together, with love and no shame. If we do spend some time together as tourists, that's fine. If we don't, that's okay too.

     Item two on my retirement wish list is to keep my health as long as I can. To that end I have joined a health club and I'm trying to get more exercise, and I watch my diet. I'm a few pounds overweight; but not any more than that. I lost ten pounds last year and have managed to keep it off. It helps a little bit with my arthritic right ankle (old injury) and my arthritic left knee (old age). I've almost completely given up eating red meat. I eat lots of chicken and fish and pasta, and try to consume fruits and vegetables and salads. I do pack away too much ice cream. Haven't found a way or the will to cut back on ice cream.

     Number three would be financial security. I realize in this world, there is no total financial security. But we're working on it, and feel that we're doing okay ... so far. We live relatively modestly, a little bit below our means. I also know that I have no problem "doing without." I could cut my expenses and downsize my life without much suffering, if I had to. If we had to sell our house and move to a smaller place, it wouldn't bother me. When I was divorced and living on my own, I lived in a condo -- and I kind of liked it. If I had to drive a clunker, it wouldn't bother me. Actually, I kind of like the idea of not driving at all.

     My two kids are important to me. I want to see them happy and successful. Neither one is married; I don't have any grandchildren, or any on the horizon. There's plenty of time for that a little further down the road. I'm in no hurry. But yeah, I'd say grandchildren are on my wish list.

     I'd also like to have some friends in retirement, and this does worry me. My old friends are either recently retired, or will be retiring in the next few years. And I'm afraid we will drift apart. One already has a place in Florida, another bought a condo in South Carolina. They already have "one foot out the door." If my old group falls apart, where will I find new friends? And if B and I end up moving somewhere else in retirement -- a good possibility -- would I find any new like-minded people to become my friends? I wouldn't want to move someplace that's too settled, where everyone already knows everybody else and they aren't interested in welcoming a newcomer. I don't make friends all that easily. And I want some guys to hang out with, who will engage in interesting conversation, make jokes, play some golf and drink some beer (or maybe it'll be Metamucil by that time).

     I'd like to keep working in retirement. (Is that an oxymoron?) Right now I work about half time. And that suits me fine. I could see scaling back, maybe to a quarter time. But working gives me a sense of purpose, a feeling that I'm worth something to someone besides myself and my little family. It makes me feel good when the phone rings, or I get an email from one of my job contacts. Usually the assignments are interesting; they give me something to focus on for a week or two. And it's nice to get a check (or, more usually, an electronic credit into my bank account). It shores up my monthly budget, and makes it easier to pay those extra expenses like a big dental bill or car repair or request for money from one of my kids.

     Beyond all this, am I missing something? Should I be more ambitious? I do have plenty of books I want to read. I keep thinking I might take a class, but so far have not made the leap back to academia. I did volunteer to help older people do their taxes next year, but I don't know if they'll actually call on me.

     B and I plan to visit Arizona and Southern California this winter. Since I left work -- almost ten years ago -- I've managed to escape to someplace warm, usually Florida, for a couple of weeks in February or March. Who knows? Maybe one of these days I'll get as far as Hawaii!