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

Friday, December 30, 2011

Quiz: Are These Baby Boomer Icons Dead or Alive?

     Time seems to go by so quickly, and sometimes we get so involved in our own lives, we lose track of what's going on elsewhere in the world -- who is still with us and who has passed on.

     Do you think it's morbid to guess whether these people are alive or dead? All these Baby Boomer icons have seen their time come and go, whether they're still alive or not, but I think they would be thankful if we pause at the end of 2011 and remember their contributions to our life and our culture -- what they did, what they meant to us, and where they may be today.

     So in that spirit, can you guess: Who among these Baby Boomer icons is alive? And who is dead?

     1)  1972 presidential candidate George McGovern            Alive  or   Dead

     2)  1984 vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro      Alive       Dead

     3)  1950s crooner Pat Boone                                             Alive       Dead

     4)  Actor Fess Parker                                                         Alive       Dead

     5)  Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton                           Alive       Dead

     6)  Italian actress Sophia Loren               Alive     Dead

     7)  Actor Sidney Poitier                            Alive     Dead

     8) Twister Chubby Checker                    Alive     Dead

     9) Willie Mays                                          Alive     Dead

    10) Jaws writer Peter Benchley               Alive     Dead

    11) Elizabeth Taylor                                  Alive     Dead

    12) Heiress kidnapping victim Patty Hearst                         Alive     Dead

    13) Quarterback Roger Staubach                                       Alive     Dead

    14) Comedian Rodney Dangerfield                                     Alive     Dead

    15) Singer Gladys Knight                                                     Alive     Dead

     For the answers, check back here next week -- same time, same place. Meantime, Happy New Year to everybody, and may we all thrive in 2012!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Plus Ca Change ...

Reading about the dismal economy, the political weakness of the president, and the ridiculous antics of the Republican presidential contenders, I can’t help but think that I've seen it all before. In 1979, to be exact.

Not to make any political predictions -- it’s just that when you’ve reached a certain age, it seems as though you’ve seen it all before. Just consider:

In 1979, the approval rating for President Jimmy Carter limped along at 45% -- the lowest rating in a president’s first term since President Harry Truman in the late 1940s.

            In 2011, President Barack Obama’s approval rating, according to the latest Gallup poll, sits at 44% -- even weaker than Carter’s and, yes, the lowest rating for a president’s first term since Harry Truman in the late 1940s. (To be completely accurate, lower results were polled by Presidents Nixon and Bush, but only during their second terms.)

            In 1979, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was mired in the late ‘70s economic doldrums. After ten years of subpar performance, the stock market could still only manage a paltry 4% increase for the year.

            In 2011, the Dow is mired in continuing economic doldrums. Even after a decade of underperformance, the Dow today is higher by just 4% for the year.

            Because of economic uncertainty in 1979, the price of gold shot up from $220 per ounce to $500 an ounce, the equivalent of about $1,300 today. (It was on its way to an early 1980 peak of just over $800 an ounce, the equivalent of about $2,100 in today’s dollars.)

Because of economic uncertainty in 2011, gold increased from about $1,300 an ounce at the beginning of the year to $1,740 on December 1. The price has since sagged to $1600, but is still up over 20% for the year.

            In 1979, the price of oil reached a then-record price of $25 per barrel – today’s equivalent of about $70.

            In 2011, the price of oil bubbled back above $100 a barrel, for the first time since 2008.

In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in Pennsylvania. In 2011 nuclear disaster was revisited in Fukushima, Japan.

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected the first female prime minister of the U.K. Now in 2011 Angela Merkel, the first female German chancellor, rules supreme in Europe. And at the end of 2011 Meryl Streep stars in The Iron Lady, a bio pic about none other than ... Margaret Thatcher.

In 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, seized power from the autocratic Shah and declared an Islamic republic. Americans were taken hostage at the embassy in Tehran.

In 2011 revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere throw out long-standing Muslim autocrats. The latest election in Egypt pushes Islamists to the forefront of political power. Americans are leaving Iraq after ten years of "peacekeeping."

In 1979 a gaggle of seemingly ridiculous Republican challengers were vying to unseat an unpopular Democratic president – including ultraconservative former governor Ronald Reagan, former CIA director George Bush, Sen. Howard Baker, Sen. Robert Dole, Reps. John Anderson and Phil Crane, and former Texas Governor John Connelly.

Remember how the Republican candidates competed with one another in a series of state caucuses that came to be known derisively as "cattle calls?" After George Bush won in Iowa he pronounced that he had the "Big Mo," until Reagan sponsored a debate in New Hampshire when he somehow stole headlines after the director tried to mute the frontrunner's microphone and Reagan snapped back, "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green."

Now, in 2011, a gaggle of seemingly ridiculous Republican challengers are vying to unseat an unpopular Democratic president – including former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Reps. Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul.

We don't yet have our age-defining sound bite. But no doubt it will come. And I wonder who among the Republican contenders will be left standing after Iowa? The pundits say three: Romney and two others. Any idea who they might be?

            Just a few notable differences: At the end of 1979 the inflation rate in the U. S. had ballooned to 13%, and interest rates floated along at 15%. Today the inflation rate is just 3%. Interest rates are closer to 2%.

And in 1979 the unemployment rate was considered high at 6%. Today, people are actually cheering that the unemployment rate has dipped below 9%.

Still, if I was French, I’d be saying, "Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose."

Meanwhile, a propos of nothing, here's the Smashing Pumpkins hit song 1979, released in 1996, that starts out, "Shakedown 1979, cool kids never have the time ..."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Mea Culpa for Christmas

     B's family is arriving tomorrow, two days earlier than originally planned. They will leave on Monday, the 26th -- as opposed to what I'd feared, which was that her family would arrive on Christmas night when my own two kids are coming for a visit, and the whole crowd would overlap for three frazzled, frustrating days.

     B and I do not have a blended family. We have two separate families. We each had two kids from a previous marriage when we got together in our 50s. Our kids were mostly grown up by that time, and we have never all lived together as a family. So, while the two sets of kids are cordial to one another, they have never really bonded. They have different interests and different friends.

     Meanwhile, B has a whole pack of siblings. My kids have met a few of her relatives, but not all of them by far.

     So now, anyway, the whole big crowd will overlap for only one night. B's family, now that they'll be here earlier, will actually have beds to sleep in. And when my kids arrive, at least after the first night, they will not be forced to share the beds, the kitchen, the couches and the TV with B's herd of relatives.

     B talked to her sister a couple of days ago. They rearranged the visit -- and I know B did this primarily for my benefit, and so first of all, a big apology for ever thinking she had a selfish bone in her body. And a big thank you for empathizing with my familial concerns. And I'm left to ponder: Who's now proved to be the selfish one?

     Part of the reason B rescheduled her sister's visit was because B has to work the week after Christmas, or most of the time her sister and mother were originally going to be here. And part of the reason is ... well, I think she took pity on me.

     I woke up Tuesday morning, and my back felt a little out of sorts. In the afternoon I had to run some errands. So around 2 p.m. I went into the garage, opened my car door, slipped into the driver's seat -- and something snapped in my lower back.

     My pain level jumped from an uncomfortable 2 or 3, to a debilitating 7 or 8. I limped upstairs, grabbed a couple of aspirin, then went back out to the car and drove off to do the errands that had to be done. Three hours later -- about 1 1/2 hours sitting behind the wheel -- I pulled back into our garage, crawled out of the car and made my way into the house. I spent the entire evening popping aspirin, sitting in my chair that has an electric massage attached to it, and moaning and groaning in front of the TV.

     I was trepidacious about going to bed. But I found that the back was okay as long as I lay on my side. I nodded off, but woke up around 4 a.m. and could not get back to sleep. I went downstairs, heated up some milk, read my book for a while. I returned to bed around 6 a.m. and managed another hour or two of sleep.

     At breakfast B asked me what had gotten me up in the night -- my back?

     "Yeah," I lied. But the truth is, I was really lying awake worrying about the awkward family gathering I was facing in a few days time.

     I switched my painkiller from aspirin to Advil. Seems to work better for the back. I spent the morning doing some light stretching, sitting in my massage chair and walking slowly around the house. My back hurt if I sat for too long; but it got tired if I walked around for too long. So I alternated between the two.

     Before she left for work on Wednesday, B showed me some back exercises -- which I did several times throughout the day. Also, I took a long hot shower, and went to the mall for a back massage from the Korean lady who has a chair outside the food court. By the time B got home for dinner, I was feeling better. But B already felt sorry for me. She had called her sister and rescheduled her family visit.

     In the meantime, I appreciate the advice I got as comments to my last post -- especially the ones reminding me that it's a lot better to experience a few family difficulties than it is to spend Christmas alone.

     I feel a little guilty that I complained and sulked until B decided she had to change her plans. (But, believe me, I wasn't faking about the back.) I think she'll be able to enjoy the visit with her family more this way, though, since she won't be working while they're here. I also feel bad because her family will have to leave really early on the day after Christmas -- her brother has to work later in the day. But all in all, I believe things will work out better this way. At least, I hope so.

     Meanwhile, I think I hear Santa loading up his sleigh. I wonder if it's too late to add one more thing to my Christmas list.

     Santa, can I have a healthy, pain-free back for 2012?

     The pain had ebbed a bit when I got out of bed this morning. Maybe it will be all better by Christmas day. In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Conflict

     I'm not sure if this problem is a function of our stage in life -- with the kids now living on their own and wanting to come home for Christmas. Or if it's a function of a second family -- her family and my family coming for Christmas, and not having enough room for everybody. And so ... what do we do?!?

     The irony is, of course, that as of yesterday -- just yesterday -- B and I are living alone, just the two of us. Her older son has finally moved out, after 2 1/2 sometimes-stressful post-college years.

Christmas will be stressful, but I hope not explosive.
     But as of right now, we have 9 people scheduled to be sleeping at our house for the three days after Christmas. And we only have 5 beds -- accommodating 6 people, assuming B and I are still sleeping together after this is all over.

     My daughter, who's in graduate school, is scheduled to arrive at our house on Christmas night. She said she's staying for three or four days. She'd arranged this a while ago. My son, who lives in New York City, said he'd like to come out to visit while his sister is here.

     B's older son now has his own apartment. But her younger son is coming home from college, and he'll be here for two weeks. And then B invited her sister to come for Christmas. B and her sister and their mother have always gotten together for a few days sometime around Christmas. This year B wanted her sister to make the trip to visit us, since B has to work the week between Christmas and New Year's.

     B's sister just emailed us this morning to say, great, she'll be arriving on Christmas night, and they'll stay for three days. And the good news is that, this time, her husband will come with her (he usually doesn't). And also their brother decided to come as well. And then -- icing on the cake -- their other brother in Boston decided he and his wife should come down to join the party, although they'll only stay one day and they'll spend the night in a hotel.

    I had suggested to B that maybe she should call her sister, and tell her the situation -- that if they come for the three days after Christmas, the house will be very crowded and someone will have to sleep on the floor. (No, B's sister and her husband do not stay at a hotel ... don't ask.) Maybe, instead, they could come for a couple of days before Christmas, or sometime the next weekend, for New Year's, after my kids had left.

     For some reason, B does not want to do that. But even assuming we figure out the sleeping arrangements, I'm not happy that my kids are going to be here, trying to visit with me, when the house is overrun with B's family. Won't that be awkward? Won't that make my kids feel as like it's not their home at all -- but this other family's home where their dad just happens to share a room?

     To be fair, B's family is very nice. I've met them all, and they are friendly and accommodating (which is why I thought they'd accommodate a slight change in their plans). But I'm afraid they'll just engulf the house, overrun the place, and make it their family Christmas, and my own kids and I will be pushed aside -- footnotes to the festivities. And I don't want my kids to be footnotes to the family. They are just as important as her kids, even if they don't spend nearly as much time here.

     I dunno, I keep telling myself to be fair; to be considerate of B, to welcome her family and we can all have fun together. But, honestly, I'm a little pissed off that she won't even try to reschedule things. She cannot bear the thought of asking her sister to change any plans, of inconveniencing her family. My family just has to fit in around her schedule.

     But I'm still trying to look at the bright side. Maybe we can all play table tennis. We have a Ping Pong table in the basement, and all the guys play. (Why is it girls don't like table tennis -- or is it just in my family?) The two best players in the crowd are my son, and B's brother in law. They've never met, and I wouldn't mind seeing them go head-to-head. See who would win.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Blogging Boomers Carnival

     The most recent contributor to our Blogging Boomers Carnival comes from the far-off sands of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where she has lived for the past two years. Today she's gathered together under her Christmas tree all kinds of Boomer postings that address seasonal issues ranging from family to food to finances.

     You don't have to wander through the desert to find our newest blogging boomer. Just rub on this magic link, Arabian Tales and Other Amazing Adventures, and you will instantly be transported to this welcoming oasis that awaits you with exotic tales from distant lands.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Just Tell Me the Real Price, Please!"

     Something's been bothering me lately. It's all the extra surcharges that seem to have cropped up, anywhere and everywhere you buy something.

     It hit home when I started booking my February trip to Arizona and California. Forget the airline, which is going to charge me for having the audacity, the sheer nerve, to bring a suitcase along with me. I'm thinking of the one-week rental I'm taking in San Diego. There's the base price of $1,299 for the week. It's expensive; but four of us will be there for at least part of the time, so we need two bedrooms, and when we split up the cost it's not all that much.

     But wait ... that just scratches the surface. There's an 11 percent hotel tax. Okay ... you gotta pay the government. Then there's a $125 cleaning fee. Don'cha think that's kind of steep for a two-bedroom townhouse?

     But that's not all. There's a "Peace of Mind" damage insurance fee of $25 that covers breakage. It's mandatory. You pay $25 whether you break something or not.

     You can opt for additional coverage, at more expense of course. And you can buy travel insurance -- because if you cancel for any reason, including serious illness, the rental office will only refund your money if they rent out the premises to someone else. And even then they'll exact a 10% penalty.

     There are yet more optional charges, but you get the picture. The $1,299 rental will really end up costing north of $1,600.

     Okay, you say, don't deal with these people if you don't like it. But, unfortunately, I see this kind of transaction becoming the norm, rather than the exception.

     It used to be only car dealers who tried to pull these shenanigans. They advertise one low price. But before you drive out of the showroom, they’ve somehow added on a list of fees like the “sports package,” the “safety option” and the “destination charge.” Then there’s the sales tax. And the financing charges. And if you lease a car? The extra fees just pile up faster.

     Last year I bought a car through one of the big box stores. I refused all the extra options. It was about as simple a purchase as you can get. Yet even with that, there was quite a difference between the advertised price, or what I think of as the “base price” and the real price I had to pay.

     The price of the car was $27,653. But that was the base price. Once we added the destination charge, the state tax, and three or four hidden charges (including something called a “Dealer Optional Fee,” whatever that is) the actual cost was $30,385. An extra $2,732. Almost 10 percent more. And that’s without the financing costs.

     Unfortunately, instead of the car companies getting better, the rest of the consumer universe is getting worse. I bought two new tires. “Oh, it’s not bad,” the auto mechanic assured me, “only 99 bucks a piece.” But once he added the weight charge, the EPA tire fee, the balancing fee and the local tax, the real price for two tires was $258. An extra 30 percent!

     Auto insurance? By the time they tote it all up, it’s twice what the basic rate is. And the bill adds insult to injury with a $5 “Law Enforcement Fee.” I don’t know what that is, except it probably makes it easier for the police to give me a ticket.

     And have you looked at your cable bill, or your cellphone bill? My basic phone and email charge is $101. But add up all the service charges, administrative charges, usage charges, surcharges and state and local taxes, and the monthly bill comes to $155.

     I bought two tickets to a sports event, for $60 each. They wanted to charge me extra -- to print the ticket from my computer! I skipped that (they sent tickets by mail for free), but still got assessed a “convenience fee” and an “order processing fee” and instead of $120, it was $139.25.

     I purchased two tickets to a Shakespeare production. In addition to the ticket price, I had to pay a “facilities fee” and an “online processing fee.” What would the Bard say about that?

     I’m not detailing all these annoying, and ultimately expensive, fees just to complain. Instead, consider this a warning. A wake-up call. When you budget for a new purchase, make sure you account for the difference between the “base price” and the real price. And you might consider this:  The bigger the difference, the more the business is being dishonest. It’s trying to “bait” you with a seemingly low price, then “switch” you to a higher price.

     Avoid those fees if you can. If you can’t, say something, just so they know you’re “on” to them.

     Unless . . . if we could figure out how to add some extra fees into our paychecks or Social Security checks. Imagine looking at your pay stub and seeing a couple of extra line items – you collect an extra $140 as a “work optional” fee and another $75 as a “showing up” fee.

     Yeah, that’ll happen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Blogging -- What Is It Good For?

     Last night B had a group of her women friends over from work for a potluck Christmas dinner. This morning, she was recapitulating some of the conversations that went on over the cheese noodle pudding, the broccoli quiche and the spinach salad.

     There's one woman in particular who annoyed her. "All she does is talk about herself," B complained.

     Apparently, whenever anyone at the table brought up a subject, this woman just had to present her own experience with the subject at hand -- and if she didn't have any experience herself, she'd go on at length about her husband, her children or some other relative. All without the slightest regard for whether anyone else at the table was interested, without any empathy or connection to other people's experiences.

     Someone in the group mentioned that she'd had a knee operation. "Oh, well, let me tell you about my husband and his knee operation," she insisted. "He had his knee replaced. It was awful!" And on and on and on.

     Later, the woman was telling a story to B, while the two of them were standing in the kitchen. Another guest wandered into the room. The woman stopped, turned to the other guest, and started the story all over again, from the beginning, while B politely nodded and inwardly groaned.

     It reminded me of how an old colleague of mine used to make fun of people who were too self-absorbed, too caught up in themselves. "Okay, enough about me," my colleague would say loudly, imitating the person and mocking them at the same time. "Let's talk about you now. So ... what do you think about me?"

     B's experience last night, and recalling my old friend joking about self-involved people, made me  think of my blogging. Our blogging. I've seen comments here and there in the media -- usually the mainstream Internet media -- making fun of bloggers, referring to them -- us -- as a narcissistic bunch of people who insist on posting to the Internet every detail of our lives, and how wonderful our kids are, and how cute our pets are, without any consideration whether or not anyone else in the world was interested in our lives, or our children or our pets.

     It made me wonder:  Is this what we retired bloggers are doing -- we Baby Boomers, who are incessantly accused of being interested in ourselves, and only in ourselves and what we are doing and how we impact American life?

     I am not criticizing anyone (least of all myself -- eeegads!). And I am not fishing for reassurance or compliments about my own blog. (Who me? Fishing for compliments? Never!) But there's nothing wrong with a little self-examination every once in a while. And it makes we wonder: How do we talk about the issues in our lives, our day-to-day concerns as well as our more fundamental issues, without falling into the quicksand of self-indulgence? How do we include other people in our conversations? How do we keep ourselves relevant as we talk about our families, our ailments, our travels, our finances, our politics?

     The bloggers I know hardly ever talk about their kids. We do hear about people's travels -- but I like reading about all those trips to Hawaii and elsewhere (although they do make me envious). I actually don't think the important thing is the subject matter itself, but the way it's handled. Can other people relate to the experience, or are we just bragging about what we've done?

     What about nostalgia? Can I delve into the morass of nostalgia, or am I being a self-indulgent Baby Boomer if I do that? I dunno. I like the occasional trip down memory lane. Don't you enjoy listening to Sinatra or the Beatles or Jim Morrison every once in a while?

     Anyhooo ... B told me I didn't have to leave the house when her friends came over last night. "These women are not as raucous as my book group," she assured me. Nevertheless, I didn't want to be holed up in the bedroom while all these women were downstairs talking and laughing and eating and having a good time. So I went out to a movie. I saw The Descendants, with George Clooney, at my local arthouse movie theater.

     But I'm not going to tell you if I liked it. I don't want to be self-indulgent. 


Sunday, December 11, 2011

It's Not Nice to Fool Social Security

     The good news:  In 2012 senior citizens will receive a Social Security cost of living adjustment, banking bigger payments for the first time since 2009. The increase for retirees is slated to be 3.6%, or an average of $43 more per month.

     The bad news: There's no way the government is paying for it, except to add it to our credit card bill.

     Up until this year, the payroll tax -- which pays for Social Security -- sliced off 12.4% from the first $106,800 of an individual's salary. Income above $106,800 was exempt from Social Security tax. (There's an additional tax to help pay for Medicare, which brings the total payroll tax up to 15% for most workers.) Half of the Social Security tax, or 6.2%, was paid by the employer, the other half by the worker.

     For 2011, President Obama and Congress got together and passed The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010. (Snappy title, isn't it?) The act lowered the worker's part of the payroll tax from 6.2% to 4.2%. The objective was to put more money into people's pockets, and hope they would spend it to spur our faltering economy. No one knows for sure if this strategy has worked. Democrats argue yes; Republicans argue no. But it's hard to believe that it didn't have some impact on the economy. The tax reduction left average American families almost $100 a month more in their paychecks. And you know, most of them spent it.

     The Administration hoped that lowering the payroll tax would help the economy. But it also recognized the lower tax would take funds away from Social Security -- to the tune of about $120 billion for the year -- and Social Security is already paying out more than it takes in via the payroll tax. So the Tax Relief act was voted in for only one year, as a temporary measure. In the meantime, the missing payments to Social Security would be made out of general government funds ... meaning the government would borrow more money to pay into the Social Security system.

     On January 1, 2012, the temporary tax reduction is scheduled to expire. President Obama and the Democrats are worried that bumping the payroll tax back up from 4.2% to 6.2% will hurt the economy -- and will be seen by voters as a tax increase. So they're pushing not only  to keep the lower tax rate, but lower it further, to 3.1%. That will let workers take home still more money, about $500 per year per family. It will, theoretically, allow consumers to buy more products and help the economy. But that's yet another $500 a year denied the Social Security fund -- to be made up by the government borrowing yet more money.

     In the meantime, the amount of salary subject to the payroll tax is inching up from $106,800 to $110,100. Applying the tax to this additional $3,300 will make up for a small portion of the money lost to the tax reduction.

     Most Republicans are against the Obama proposal to lower the payroll tax. Presumably, Republicans are fiscally responsible and do not want to incur more government debt. Besides, they argue, the program hasn't worked, and Social Security is already looking at a huge deficit looming on the horizon as Baby Boomers retire. Lowering the payroll tax will make future deficits even bigger and more unwieldy.

     But, let's face it, many Republicans are philosophically opposed to having the federal government finance people's retirements. They consider it socialism. They want to do away with Social Security entirely, and for better or worse let people manage their own retirement funds.

     Some liberal Democrats have worried that the payroll tax reduction will, in fact, actually undermine Social Security. Up until now, Social Security has paid for itself. People pay into the system, then they take out benefits. It's a retirement program, not a welfare program. But if general government funds start paying for Social Security, the system might get tainted as welfare program and lose the support of young people, the upper middle class -- anyone who pays into the system but won't get anything out of it.

     As a response Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed a new tax on Americans earning more than $1 million a year. It would be a temporary tax, to cover the temporary payroll tax cut. But the proposal doesn't seem to be going anywhere. It's hard to say; the situation is still very fluid.

     Does this temporary payroll tax deduction seem like a good idea to you? Most of us are Social Security recipients. Does it make you feel more comfortable that the government is borrowing more money to pay your monthly benefit?

     Honestly, I can't decide. The economy needs help. So do American families. But it's a dangerous game to starting fooling around with Social Security.

     I, myself, am eligible to collect Social Security. I'm trying to hold out for a couple of years -- to get a bigger benefit when I'm older. But I'm beginning to wonder if that's such a good idea. Maybe I should take the money now ... because in 20 years, when I'm in my 80s, the money might not be there.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Remember Her?

     Her husband is the one who gets all the credit, but like most wives, she does more than her share of the work. That doesn't tell you much about who this woman might be, though, does it?

     Nevertheless, it was through her husband that she became famous. He arrived in America from Europe, changed his name and expanded his business into a worldwide operation. Only later did she come along, and was married into the family business.

     She was born in Pennsylvania, to a religious family. She appeared in the Yale Literary Magazine, long before the university went co-ed, and was later featured in other more popular periodicals, from Harper's to Good Housekeeping. She eventually made it into children's books, comic books, poetry, as well as virtually every other media.

     She has been described as the original Good Wife, although she is not a lawyer like the Good Wife on TV. She took a more traditional role as, to this day, she designs and maintains a modern kitchen, cooks the chicken and turkey, bakes the cookies, takes care of the children's toys and at times chauffeurs her husband around on his job. Yes, her husband does a lot of traveling, but there is still plenty of work to be done back home at the workshop. By all reports, she assists in managing the staff of helpers, and contributes to the care and feeding of the animals.

     She made her Hollywood debut in a 1964 movie about Martians. She went on to make a cameo appearance in the 1993 movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, and has presented a strong female character in several more Christmas films. She was a teacher on television in a 1970 special, when she was shown meeting her then-young husband, who was illegally trying to spread cheer in a town run by a despotic ruler.

      Her character made an appearance in A Charlie Brown Christmas, as well as two Charlie Brown sequels. She also showed up in A Chipmunk Christmas, buying Alvin a new harmonica after he'd given his old one to a sick boy. In this made-for-TV movie, Alvin repays her by offering up his rendition of "Silent Night."

     She was also the subject of a 1996 television musical, starring Angela Lansbury. Feeling neglected by her husband, she decamped to New York City where she sang and marched in support of women's voting rights, and against child labor in toy manufacturing.

     As you've no doubt figured out by now, the woman is Mrs. Santa Claus -- wife of St. Nicholas, the man previously known in Europe as Sinterklaas but whose origins reach back to pre-Christian Germany as well as Turkey and Greece. Mrs. Claus was first mentioned in a short story called "A Christmas Legend" by the Philadelphia missionary James Rees (hence, "born" in Pennsylvania.) Now, of course, she lives at the North Pole with her husband. And like Santa himself, she has come to be depicted as a roly-poly older woman who is incredibly kind and infinitely patient.

     But Mrs. Claus has occasionally been portrayed against stereotype. She has been depicted as a vampire, and in one briefly-aired TV commercial she was shown ... in bed with a snowman!

     Yet for most of us she will remain the compassionate grandmotherly type, the kind who is always glad to see us and welcome us with a plate of warm Christmas cookies. But we can envision -- can't we? -- that she might not always be completely content sitting in the background baking cakes and pies. We can imagine that she, like the rest of us, might have a few complaints about her lot in life, yet still have a sense of humor about it. If you can, as they say, then take a listen ...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

America Is Down -- But Is It Out?

     The results of my poll, "Is America Declining?" reveal some interesting results. Perhaps the first one, and most telling, is that I received 19 percent fewer responses to this poll than I did to "What Do You Drink in the Morning?"

     Does that mean people are more concerned about their morning coffee than they are about the future of America? Perhaps. Some people have blinders on, and are only interested in what's on their own kitchen table. Others fret that the problems we face are just too big. They throw up their hands and say, "Oh, what the hell ..." And I confess I sometimes find myself in this category. Many people are just complacent. Or they figure, "I've got mine," and they don't care much about what happens to anyone else.
     It really does seem that there is a significant strain of what's-in-it-for-me politics these days. It's probably always been there, but seems more pronounced than usual.

     Social Security recipients scream bloody murder if someone tries to touch one thin dime of their benefits -- and let someone else fix the funding problems after they're gone. Young people occupy Wall Street to protest that if they have to pay for medical insurance they won't be able to buy the latest iProduct, and their student loans are too big, too expensive, and too much of a burden. And the affluent rant and rail against raising taxes, because they've worked hard for their money and can't bear to see the fruits of their labors go to someone else. A lot of these complaints might be legitimate, but they are are self-interested, not focused on the common good.

     And, oh yeah, in the meantime, someone do something about the price of oil, since we want to drive our SUVs 15 mph over the speed limit, because we have to get to work, or get to the mall, or get the kids to their playdate. And meanwhile, as the New York Times pointed out in an editorial today about the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, despite all the best intentions to decrease fossil fuel emissions by 5 percent by 2012, emissions from burning fossil fuels actually increased by 38 percent between 1990 and 2009.

     But the good news is that, by a margin of 63 percent to 37 percent, respondents to my poll do not think our problems are insurmountable. They do not believe that America is inevitably on the down slope. That's according to the admittedly unscientific poll conducted in the post "Is America in Decline?"

     The consensus seems to think that we have problems, sure, but we've seen problems before, and we've always come out on top. Remember the 1970s and the Misery Index? The index was created by Arthur Okun, economic adviser to President Johnson, and it simply adds the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. It hit 16 in 1974 and 17 in 1975, and crested at 20 in 1980.

     But we turned the country around after the dismal 1970s. Economic expansion, the advent of personal computers and the internet, and the end of the Cold War dropped the Misery Index down to a low of 6 by 1998. Since then it's been going up again, hitting 11 last year and topping 12 this year. But if we turned things around after the 1970s, can't we do it again after the miserable early 2000s?.

     Several people in the poll suggested the the biggest problem we face today is energy -- how to fuel our economy without choking ourselves to death in pollution and being held hostage by sometimes-hostile oil-rich nations. We faced the same problem in the 1970s. But we went on to make some progress by developing solar panels, wind farms, more efficient homes and cars.

     The problem has come back -- big time -- and the easy answers have already been tried. Now comes the hard part:  developing new innovations and making hard decisions in terms of alternative energy; cars powered with something other than gasoline; electricity produced with something other than coal. As a first step, Thomas Friedman lauds the recent EPA decision to require auto companies to reach a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 -- up from today's average of 27.5 mpg. But that's just one small step. Many more need to be taken.

     A few other respondents pointed out that we got used to unusual prosperity starting in the mid-1980s. But a good part of that prosperity stood on the spindly legs of too much debt, a stock market boom and a real estate bubble. It's unrealistic for us to expect the good times to last, especially when we've been borrowing from the future. We just have to get over that unrealistic view and look forward with more modest expectations.

     And that may not be a bad thing, several people suggested. There's more to life than unbridled consumerism. Perhaps our 20-somethings do not have to get their own apartments; and our 80-somethings do not have to move into independent living facilities. As Jono pointed out, many Europeans live in very nice homes, with several generations under the same roof (they also drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars), and they seem to lack for nothing.

     Perhaps that's the positive message to take from our current dismal economic climate and fractured political scene. The materialistic mindset that celebrates record-level shopping days does not serve us well. What we need instead, as Nance said, is "the potential for Americans to innovate, to grow ethically as a culture, to employ more of its people."

     Or, as Janette from Kansas wrote in to say: "Are we declining? No. Are we changing? I sure am, and so are my adult children. The U.S. continues to be a great place to live."