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

Monday, January 30, 2012

Blogging Boomers January Carnival

     The end-of-January version of the Blogging Boomers Carnival is now up in lights over at the Midlife Crisis Queen. She congratulates all of us for making it past the holiday season, and now turns her attention to the next milestones that we all have in common -- The Super Bowl, the Oscars and Spring!

     So head on over and pick up some different perspectives on the art of aging -- ranging from suggestions for part-time jobs, to how Super Bowl ads cater to Boomers, to why one blogger has decided to write what she wants, rather than what she "should." Enjoy!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Economic Myths from the Political Campaign

              I avoid about 99.5% of the blather that comes out of Fox and MSNBC, and I managed to miss about 95% of the Republican presidential debates. But even tuning in for a few minutes here and there, I've heard my share of political punditry, social commentary and economic posturing -- not to mention the opinionated reports one gets from newspapers and magazines. (By the way, I recommend The Week magazine. It's succinct, reasonably thorough, and not larded with too much political bias.)

           People promulgate their points of view and often try to present them as facts. Even when someone says, "But the fact of the matter is ..." usually what follows is just an opinion or unexamined assumption. Here are some of the things I've heard recently, repeated over and over -- things that are just not true, or (at least in my opinion) mostly not true.

Rich people create jobs. This is a favorite canard of certain politicians, but it’s not really true – unless you count the hiring of a few English butlers and undocumented gardeners. The people who really create jobs are middle-class consumers.

          Investors and entrepreneurs do create small companies. But most small companies are funded by family funds, not rich people's money. Think of Apple or Microsoft. They were started by college dropouts, not wealthy hedge funds. Or think of a local store or restaurant, or even a franchise. The capital to start these businesses typically comes from the person's family, supplemented by a bank loan or a credit-card loan, not a wealthy benefactor.

But aside from how a new company is funded, what a new company needs more than anything is customers to buy its products. The largest portion of customers, by far, is the middle class, which spends most of what it earns, as opposed to the superrich who save a lot of their money and store it in banks and non-productive assets like art or real estate. A lot of poor people create successful businesses if they have the customers. A rich person with no customers -- that's the DeLorean. 

Social Security is dead. Social Security has started paying out more than it takes in from the payroll tax -- especially now that the employee portion of the tax has been lowered from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. But according to latest reports, Social Security will be able to pay all of its obligations for the next 26 years. After 2037, it will still be able to pay 78 percent of promised benefits – and that’s assuming no change to the system. Congress has more than two decades to make adjustments that will keep the system whole, such as raising the retirement age, increasing the salary cap on the payroll tax, or changing inflation adjustments.

But let's not get complacent. Some people shout and scream that Social Security should never be touched because it does not add to the budget deficit. Actually, Social Security never did add to the federal deficit ... until recently. Now it does pay out more than it takes in from the payroll tax, so it's cashing out some of the surplus that it's been paying over to the federal budget for the past 75 years. But the real problem lies in the future, when beneficiaries overwhelm workers and, if things don't change, Social Security, along with Medicare, will add mightily to the federal deficit.

Another rallying cry you hear: "You can't cut my benefits, because I paid for them!" I sympathize with this point of view, but it's not entirely accurate. Sure, we all paid in for many years. But our payments went to our parents, not to any "lockbox." Now we're relying on our younger siblings and children to pay our benefits -- and there aren't as many of them. We are also living longer, and on average receiving more payments than our parents and grandparents ever did. Most beneficiaries get more out of Social Security than they ever put in, and the way to maximize your benefits is not to argue for a bigger check -- that's a hard sell in this economic environment -- but to take care of yourself and live a long time.

College is too expensive. Tuition has climbed over $50,000 a year at many private universities, leaving students deeply in debt. But, on average, college still pays off. Just consider the current unemployment rates as tallied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:  Less than high-school education: 14.9%; high school education: 10.3%; college degree: 5.4%; professional degree: 2.4%.

Plus, on average people who pay top-dollar at the most-expensive universities also earn more money. One survey of Ivy League students graduating in the 1970s and ‘80s found that people from these high-priced schools earned 15 to 40 percent more than their counterparts from less competitive, and less expensive, schools.

But it's important to remember that not all graduates of prestigious colleges earn more than students from state universities or community colleges. A lot of a person’s earning power depends not on the size of his or her college tuition, but on the choice of major. Students majoring in engineering, business and management are the top earners. Those majoring in education, religious studies and fine arts earn a lot less. College is only “too expensive” if you go to an exclusive private school and major in a subject with little economic value.

Saving the environment costs jobs. Research says that environmental regulations make production more expensive, thus reducing demand and costing jobs. This is true, as far as it goes. However, studies have also shown that environmental technology creates even more jobs, ranging from blue-collar construction jobs to high-paying scientific research jobs.

          One 2009 study concluded that solutions to climate change – investing in renewable energy sources, building out high-speed rail, creating a smart-grid infrastructure – could generate over 1 million new jobs in this country. Another study calculated that a $100 billion decrease in oil imports would create 900,000 new jobs. 

The U.S. economy is in permanent decline. Despite recent financial problems, the U. S. still boasts the largest economy in the world, accounting for a quarter of the globe’s economic activity. The U. S. is the largest trading nation, provides the most reliable reserve currency, and is home to more major international corporations than any other country. Even with relatively high unemployment, America attracts the most foreign investment, and its net migration is among the highest in the world. The U. S. also ranks near the top in the global competitiveness index produced by the World Economic Forum.

           For a quick review of the challenges facing the U. S. economy, and how we can thrive in the midst of global competition, check out Thomas Friedman's piece in today's New York Times.

Experts project that China’s economy will catch up to the U. S. by 2020. But not because the U. S. economy isn’t growing. It’s because China is growing faster. With more than four times the population of the U. S., it only makes sense that China will eventually have a bigger economy. But even then, the average American will be a lot richer than the average Chinese.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sit on the Fence -- or Walk a Fine Line

     First of all, let me admit that I'm as guilty as anyone. I had a desk job for over 30 years, for which the primary qualification was the ability to sit still for eight to ten hours every day, with an occasional break to attend a meeting ... where the main requirement was the necessity to sit still for somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour. In addition, I commuted to work, which for the first few years of my career involved sitting on a train for 45 minutes every morning and evening; then after that, sitting in a car every morning and night.

     "Sitting 6+ hours per day makes you up to 40% likelier to die within 15 years than someone who sits less than 3. Even if you exercise."

     For all my efforts what did I end up with? A 401K plan, an IRA account; a herniated disk in my neck and a case of carpal tunnel syndrome. Last year I had to undergo surgery for carpal tunnel, followed by six weeks of occupational therapy. Now, at night, I wear a flexible brace on my elbow to prevent further nerve damage in my arm. Also, when the disk in my neck acts up, causing back pain and tingling down my arm, I strap on a neck brace when I go to bed to keep my spine straight while I sleep.

     "People with sitting jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease as people with standing jobs."

     Now that I'm retired, what do I do? I sit at my computer for about six  hours a day. However, now I make sure to stand up and take a walk at least once an hour -- in the winter I do six or eight loops around the house, through the kitchen, dining room, living room, around past the laundry and back into the kitchen. In the summer I walk around the yard. (I also walk the golf course, but that's another story.)

     "Those who sit 3 hours or more per day watching TV are 64% more likely to die from heart disease."

     The point is, too much sitting is very bad for you. I know this. We all know this. So last year I joined my local sports club. I now try to head up there as often as I can to ride a stationary bike and "pump iron" on a weight machine. The trouble is, life gets in the way, and I'm not very disciplined. I only get to the health club about once a week, and I know that's not nearly enough.

     "Obese people sit for 2.5 more hours per day than thin people."

     When I had kids at home, we had a dog, and it was my job to walk him every night. That helped some. But I was younger then; it was before I'd developed back problems and nerve problems. After my kids had grown and our dog died, I did not get another pet. But when I met B, she had a dog, and she got me to go with her when she walked her dog in the evening. But she couldn't get me to go with her in the morning. And that's when she walks two or three miles around the neighborhood. B doesn't have any back problems; she doesn't have any nerve problems, because she walks every day, rain or shine, summer and winter.

     Occasional exercise is better than no exercise. But it's walking every day that keeps you in shape, keeps the weight down, and keeps the muscles and ligaments and bones working through your 6th and 7th and 8th decades.

     "The human body simply isn't built to sit for long periods of time."

     I always knew I needed to sit less and walk more. Since discovering this graphic, I've redoubled my efforts. I'm getting better. I don't want to be 40% likelier to die in the next 15 years. But I'm also open to suggestions ... about how people manage to put more walking in their lives, and less sitting around watching TV or typing into the computer.

     For those of you who want to read the fine print of this graphic, step over to "Sitting Is Killing You" on this Medical Billing and Coding website. (For some reason, this is as large as I could get the graphic to reproduce via Blogger.) Go ahead, take the walk. It's good for you.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Myth of the School Budget

     I was going to write about several economic myths that have circulating around lately, largely due to the political season. But then on Friday, B came home from work and she was outraged. "I heard they have to cut $3 million from the school budget," she harrumphed. "That's terrible!"

     "Where did you hear that?" I wondered. We'd been talking about the schools a few days ago, even though our kids are well past high-school age, and we no longer use the schools.

     "They were talking about it at the library," she said.

     "Wow, it's hard to believe," I replied. Not because I don't know that times are tough. It's just that I had written a check for the school tax, only a few days ago, due at the end of January, to the tune of $4,700 -- and that's only half of the annual school tax, the second installment. It seemed like a big check to me, so I'd dug out my files and compared it to last year's bill, which was $4,440. That's an increase of $260, or 5.9 percent.

     Plus, the other thing I'd noticed, last week, was that the parking lot at the town park is full of potholes, while I know that the school parking lot was recently repaved, one of the last steps in a multimillion dollar renovation. The contrast was so great it got me thinking that, in our town at least, the schools are rich, while the town gets along as a poor relation. When I'd gone into town hall to hand in my check, I remarked to the secretary that the town parking lot looked pretty chewed up, that the school tax bill was a lot bigger than the town tax bill, and it seemed to me that the school was rich and the town was poor.

    "Oh, well," she shrugged. "The school gets whatever it wants."

     Later, I saw the local newspaper. It turns out that the school superintendent is proposing a budget increase for next year of 6.77 percent, or $4.6 million. The alternative budget calls for a 2.2 percent increase. If the alternative budget is passed, it would total $3.3 million less than what the superintendent is proposing -- but still $1.3 million higher than this year's budget.

     So the rumored cut of $3 million is a complete myth. The $3 million cut is actually a $1.3 million increase. By the way, the reason the superintendent wants a 6.77 percent increase in this difficult economic time is because he needs the money to fund the pension program and, without it, he says he will have to lay off 25 "fulltime educators." What are fulltime educators? I don't know, but it seems they're not all teachers (as he's trying to suggest). Some are assistant coaches for the sports teams and others are classroom "helpers." It also seems that the majority of teachers would sacrifice 25 of their own -- 25 layoffs -- rather than take a smaller increase in their pensions.

     I don't mean this to be a diatribe against the schools or the teachers. I happen to think that teachers are important, and that we need to invest in the education of our kids. I just don't like administrators threatening the public that if they don't get what they want, then they're going to lay off a bunch of teachers. And I don't like the dishonesty involved in trying to say that a budget increase is somehow a budget decrease.

     I also like to think that I'm a liberal -- or at least, fairly so. And liberals are usually in favor of the schools and the teachers. But I don't know why it's "liberal" to back the interests of a superintendent making $200K a year over the interests of regular people who make a lot less than that -- many of them retired on fixed incomes that are a tiny fraction of $200K.

     This school taxes issue hits home, in part because I pay pretty high school taxes already, and I don't even have any kids in the school system. And while I want to support the local schools, and education in general, it seems that school administrators everywhere exploit the fears of the public, and the innocence of the kids, in order to gobble up more and more money into their system.

     Like I said, I think teachers do an important job and should earn good salaries (although as you can see, I'm not quite so supportive of school administrators). I also know that, around here at least, teachers do get paid pretty well. It's not unusual for a veteran teacher to pull in a salary of over $100K a year plus all the benefits -- and then make more coaching a sports team or teaching summer school.

     And I'm pretty sure it's not just around here. I recently drove through several depressed towns in upstate New York and central Pennsylvania, as well as parts of Virginia and North Carolina, where the houses are kind of shabby and the storefronts run down, but the school buildings are brand new, with nice landscaping and top-notch playing fields. Obviously, these school budgets are big. The school is the nicest building in town. 

      So sometimes I wonder how well all our tax money is put to use ... how effective the schools are in actually teaching kids, how much money is eaten up by administrative costs, and how many resources are spread around for nonacademic purposes.

     If the school system was really putting kids first, maybe the high school should start classes later in the day, because numerous studies have shown that adolescents do not learn as well early in the morning. Maybe school systems could start teaching foreign languages in first grade -- as they do in many other countries -- because many studies have shown that the younger you are the easier it is to learn a language.

     And maybe the highly paid administrators could lengthen the school year, which currently relies on the agrarian school calendar of the 19th century. Maybe with more days in school, our kids could start catching up with the Asians who are outscoring Americans at every turn.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Never, Ever Buy a New Computer

     Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit. But please, do yourself a favor. Don't listen to that guy in the computer store who tells you, "Oh, don't worry, the new one will work just the same as the one you had."

     I collected a virus on my computer the other day, and when I couldn't get rid of it myself, I called my local computer store. I know the people there. I visit them once or twice a year, and I bought a new laptop just last month. (But the truth is, I prefer my desktop.) The guy who owns it is friendly and helpful. He doesn't focus exclusively on the 20-something crowd, and he's happy to spend a little extra time with a customer to explain how things work. And, perhaps most important, he doesn't look down his nose at people like me, who have a little gray hair on their heads (okay, a lot of gray hair) and are not MIT graduates (okay, who had trouble in high school algebra).

     So I tell the computer guy on the phone what's gone wrong, and he instantly knows what it is. But it's not something he can help me with over the phone. I have to bring it in.

     I unplug my computer and, on my way out the door, grab the old receipt from when I bought it. I notice the computer is four years old. Driving over to the store, I wonder, maybe I'd be better off getting a new machine, rather than spending money to fix this old one.

     So I make this suggestion when I get to the store. It will cost between $125 and $150 to fix this four-year-old white elephant, my computer guru tells me. Or I could get a new one -- faster, better, with more more memory, more options, more capabilities -- for just over $600.

     "Okay," I said. "But I don't need anything fancy. I mostly surf the net and use word processing. I don't need anything that will, you know, make the gunfire on my video game look more spectacular, with more realistic blood spurting out from the aliens I slaughter."

     He laughed. "I get it," he said, "something simple."

     "And, honestly, I don't want to have to learn a whole new system, either. I just want to be able to use it."

     "Don't worry. The new one will work just the same as your old one. You won't even know the difference."

     I go home happy, looking forward to an upgraded machine. I go back to the store the next day. "So, is there anything I have to know?" I ask.

     "Nope," he said. "This will work the same as your old computer."

     "What about hooking up the printer?" I ask.

     "It will do it automatically," he replied. "Just go to your 'Start' button and follow the instructions."

     I take home the computer and go to plug it in. The first thing I notice is that there are fewer ports on the back of the computer. There's one cable back there that I can't plug in, because there's no spot for it. But I try out the computer, and it seems to work. Still, I wonder, what's that orphan cable all about?

     I go to the "Start" button to hook up my printer. I can't find the instructions the computer guy told me would be there.

     So I call him up. First, he tells me not to worry about the missing port. That one is for sound -- and I've got the right ones. I guess he's right. The sound coming out of this new computer seems okay. But I'm still slightly unsettled about that cable hanging out there behind my computer desk.

     He then leads me to the right place to hook up the printer -- I'm glad I called because I never would have found it myself.

     We hang up, and I go back to start work. As I said, I mostly do word processing, so I call up one of my files -- and I don't have Microsoft Word, like I did on my old computer. I have something called "Libre." It looks completely different from what I'm used to, and also from what I have on my laptop.

     So I'm back on the phone. "What's this word processing?" I ask. "I use Microsoft Word."

     "Oh, you don't get Microsoft Word. You have to pay extra for the Microsoft Office Suite. This is what we give you instead."

     "How much extra for Word?"

     "It's about $130. But really, Libre works just the same. You won't even know the difference."

     He then leads me through a swift introductory course in Libre -- which, of course, is entirely different from Word. It looks different. The functions are located in different places, It even saves files with a different label. He shows me how I can "trick" Libre into saving something as a Word file. But later, when I try to do it on my own, I can't make it work. I cannot save it as a doc file, or docx file, but only as something that looks like it's part of the Russian alphabet.


     Then last night I went to the movies. When I got home I went to check my email. My computer was off. That's funny. I didn't turn it off. Had we lost power for a while?

     I turned it on and checked my email. This morning the computer was off again, and later it shut itself off when I took a break to have breakfast.

     Apparently, this computer -- this computer that will work just the same way as my old computer (despite having a completely different word processing program) -- has an automatic shutoff function. So if you leave the computer to take a bathroom break or get a drink, you have to be quick about it. No more malingering in the kitchen.

     Right now I hate my new computer, and I hate my computer guy. I just hope I get used to it. I'm trying to look on the bright side. Who knows? Maybe the automatic shutoff will mean I'll take fewer, shorter breaks -- and I'll end up improving my productivity!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hot Topics at the Lunch Table

     I'm one of those older guys -- not really old, but plenty of gray hair -- you see having lunch by himself during the week at the food court at the mall, reading his kindle. Or having a weekday lunch with a couple of other "beached males" at Chilis. Did you ever wonder what three retired guys in their late 50s or early 60s were talking about over at the next table? Don't get your hopes up. Not sex. Not wives. Not children. We don't brag about our children in my group, even though (I like to think) most us probably could.

     One guy has a microbrew beer from the tap. One has a glass of house white wine. One drinks a Diet Coke with a straw. Three guys, about 200 pounds each, taking up a whole table and then some at Chilis. At one point we looked at each other, and wondered if we were a parody of ourselves. But then we thought, what's so wrong about three guys having lunch? So here are the hot topics at our Chilis Roundtable.

     1) One of us, I'll call him Peter, has just come from physical therapy. He's had a pinched nerve, or bulging disk, in his neck, with pain in the shoulder and tingling and numbness down his right arm to his hand. He's asking me about my experience with the same problem -- from which I suffered for five or six years, until I left work, when it miraculously cleared up. Peter complains that the pain is worse when he's sitting at the computer. But what's he gonna do? He has to spend a lot of time at the computer.

     The third guy, who I'll call Joe, chimes in that he has a similar problem -- he really can't lift his right arm above his shoulder, and when he tries to pick up anything heavy with his right hand, he gets a shooting pain in his elbow. He illustrates how he can't pick up a full mug of beer with his right hand, taking a big gulp using his left.

     "John McCain has that same problem," I deadpan, looking at Joe. "Were you a prisoner of war during Vietnam?"

     Joe laughs. I don't know what he was doing during the Vietnam war. Probably still in school. He's a little younger than me, and likely didn't graduate from college until after the draft was abolished in 1973. But anyway, I know he was never anywhere near the army.

     Yes, our number one topic of conversation is our health -- or rather, our medical complaints. We thus prove that older men are no different from older women, who are notorious for going on and on about their medical issues. Our conversation then turns to the drugs we are taking. Joe suffers from diabetes, and, it seems, a whole list of other problems, and both Joe and Peter are on blood thinners for their hearts. Joe reminds us that he had his first heart attack at age 47, almost exactly one year after he quit smoking.

     2)  A pause in the conversation brought a change of subject. Joe is considering buying a gas-powered generator for his house. We had that Halloween snow storm this year, which left a lot of people without power for three or four days. We usually lose power out here in the country, in the northern suburbs of New York, about two or three times a year. A few people in the neighborhood have generators just for that purpose.

     For a lot of people, including Peter, the Halloween storm was the final blow. Peter has ponied up $10K to install a whole-house propane generator that goes on and off automatically when the power is cut. This seems ridiculous to me. But Peter says, "What happens if you're away in the winter, and the electricity goes off for three or four days, and the temperatures are in the 20s? Your pipes freeze, and you could cause $100K worth of damage."

     Peter has lived in his house for about 20 years. That problem hasn't happened yet. And he doesn't even do that much traveling. But, apparently, he's a belt-and-suspenders man.

     Joe doesn't want to do anything that spectacular, and doesn't want to spend that much money. He's shopping for an 8000-watt gas-powered generator. But he wants the one with an electric starter (rather than the pull cord) so his wife or daughter would be able to turn it on if he's not around. This will set him back "only" around $3500.

     B and I have talked about the possibility of getting a generator. But I'm not much of a "technical" guy. If the power goes off, I'm happy to spend a night in the dark, and if it goes on for any longer than that, spring for an overpriced hotel room. As for B, she says, "My grandmother didn't have any electricity at all in her house. I think we can handle a couple of days, if it comes to it."

     That B. She's a tough one.

     3) The generator talk exhausted, our conversation turns to a more pleasant subject. Where are you going this winter? I'm headed to Arizona and Southern California. My two friends want to know some of the details, and Joe offers a little advice from when he was there a few years ago.

     Joe is talking about making a trip to Florida. We have a friend who bought a place near Ft. Myers last year. He's already left for three months in the sun, and he's invited us all down for a visit. Joe's wife is still working. She's got a trip planned to Florida for business. He's thinking of going down with her; then sending her home and taking an extra few days to play golf with our friend.

     Peter is thinking about a trip to the Dominican Republic. I tease him: Isn't there a lot of crime in the Dominican Republic? Don't the locals resent the tourists and pull hold-ups? But Peter doesn't take the bait. He only worries about his pipes freezing, not getting robbed on vacation. He and his wife went there a few years ago and had a great time. He wants to go back, probably sometime in March.

     So what do you think? We've caught up on one another's lives. Health. Generators. Vacation. We'll reconvene in late March or early April, to make plans for golf season.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What Can You Do About Noisy Neighbors?

     My tenants are having a noise problem again. They called the other day and said they'd been woken up on Saturday night about 3 a.m. by some loud banging and thumping coming from upstairs.

     We've been through this before. The upstairs neighbors have a wooden floor. When the current tenants moved in, they had no rugs. The condo policy says at least 70% of a wooden floor has to be covered by carpeting. So eventually, after much prodding from us, the upstairs neighbors got a rug. Or so they tell us. We don't know how big the rug is, or whether it really covers 70% of the wood floor, or if there's proper padding under the rug to dampen the noise of their footsteps. We're attempting to find out through the condo association.

     The condo association has a regulation banning excessive noise, especially at night. The upstairs tenants got a letter from the condo management, asking them to please be quiet and considerate of their downstairs neighbors, especially during the hours between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. It seems they were getting the message and being considerate for while, but slipped up the other night.

     Have any of you suffered from excessive noise from neighbors? It's a bitch, isn't it?

     B and I had a conversation about this last night. But she blames my tenants. They live in an apartment building, she says, and everybody knows you get noise in an apartment building. She recalled, during her single days, renting an apartment in an old building, and actually being amazed at how quiet it was. Then one evening she came home from work, only to hear clomp, clomp, clomp on her ceiling.

     It turned out the apartment above her had been empty. Now a big strapping single guy moved in, and treated her to plenty of noise. "I remember, every night, I could hear him take off his shoes," she told me. "I'd hear a little creak from the bed as he sat down. Then, clunk, as he took off one shoe. And another clunk, as he took off the other one."

     She continued, "But what do you do? You live in an apartment. Someone's right on top of you. You've got to expect some noise."

     I have more sympathy for my tenants. I recall in my divorced days, 2002 - '07, I moved into a townhouse. My next-door neighbor (we shared a wall) was a quiet guy who kept to himself, and I never heard a peep out of him. Then he sold his place. A fellow in town bought it, and moved his sister-in-law in, with her two children and two dogs.

     The kids were fine. But the dogs were a horror. I don't know what kind they were; but they were tall and sleek, weighing probably around 80 pounds. They had short hair and big mouths. And they used them. Every time a neighbor walked past her townhouse, the two dogs would jump at her windows and bark aggressively, lunging at the glass. Then she would tie them up outside (against the development's policy), and when people went by they charged toward them until they were stopped by the end of their chains, and again, lunge and bark aggressively until the person got at least 100 feet away.

     I complained a dozen times to the woman; and another several times to the management. Fortunately, some other residents also complained (lending credence to my story, so I didn't come across as just a complaining neighbor). After about six months, the woman finally moved out. I don't know what went on behind the scenes, or who talked to her, or her brother-in-law, the owner. But she was gone. The place eventually went back on the market; a normal person bought it and moved in.

     Currently, at our house, we have a next-door neighbor with a dog. The neighbors have a fenced-in backyard and they occasionally let their dog out. And he barks. But it doesn't bother us. He's not outside very much, and he only barks when he sees another dog, which isn't that often. And also, their dog is not ten feet away from us; he's 100 feet away, and we barely hear him when we're inside our house, especially in the winter with the windows closed. Plus ... our dog is in love with the next-door neighbor's dog. It's cute!

     So, I don't know what's going to happen with my tenant. Noise levels are pretty subjective things. What bothers one person may not bother another. And how many rules can you put in to ensure peace and quiet? If people are noisy and inconsiderate, is anything going to make them easy to live with?

     People complain about the noise level of the political scene. But you can turn off your TV; you can avoid the nasty, opinionated websites. You can't get away from your noisy neighbor.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Problem with Our Economy

     I sometimes think that the modern notion of "economic growth" is fiction. The experts tell us our economy is much bigger now than it was when we were kids. Economists obsess about GDP, and whether it's gone up 2 percent or 3 percent, and measure how per capita income is higher (although not that much higher) than it was a decade ago, or two decades ago.

     But it seems to me that economic growth is based largely on accounting for things that in the old days we just didn't account for. A mother used to stay home and take care of her own kids. She wasn't getting paid; the activity wasn't counted in the economy. Now she works outside the home and gets a paycheck, and then turns around and pays someone else to look after her kids.

     We used to take in Grandma when she got old. Now we pay an Independent Living facility to take care of her. We used to fix our own cars; now someone else does it. We used to do our own taxes; now we pay an accountant. We used to save for our own retirement; now there's such a dizzying array of options that we need the experts to do it for us. A lot of so-called economic activity. But are we any better off? Maybe a little ... but not as much as we think.

     Nobody produces anything anymore. We all just pay one another to do things that we won't or can't do for ourselves. People in Asia make our cars, our computers and our Christmas ornaments. We drive people around, give people advice, process information, offer people therapy, or help them with their finances.

     This is what I thought. Then I read Boomerang by Michael Lewis, the respected author of Liar's Poker, Moneyball and The Big Short. And I discovered the problem is worse than I thought. It's true, nobody produces anything anymore. But otherwise, we all just work the system.

     Lewis is very smart, very funny and very cynical. He reviews the recent debt cycle and shows how different countries, from Iceland to Greece, fell victim in their own different ways. But the universal problem, he concludes, is that the people who had power in society, who were supposed to run things for the common good, were instead bleeding the society to death. "It's a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences," he writes.

     But he really hits a nerve when he turns his laser eye back to the U. S., and California.

     "It's not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans," he says. "Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of society to the bottom. They grabbed as much as they could. Afterward, the people on Wall Street would bemoan the low morals of the people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans."

     And I think that's a key point. He says it's not just the greedy bankers (who the liberals blame), and it's not just the greedy public employees (who the conservatives blame.) It was, and perhaps still is, everybody.

     Lewis focuses on Arnold Schwarzenegger who in his opinion tried mightily to put California on a sane financial path -- and failed miserably. "He tried everything he could to persuade California state legislators to vote against the short-term desires of their constituents for the greater long-term good of all," Lewis argues. Legislators acknowledged that the state had big problems and that the governor proposed some reasonable ideas to solve them, but they wouldn't vote for any of them because in every case a powerful interest group would get mad at them and threaten their chances for re-election.

     California has highly partisan legislative districts and voters elect highly partisan people to office. The legislators, beholden to their special interests, cannot compromise or agree on anything. So nothing gets done. The voters become disgusted. And yet, the system ended up working very well in giving Californians exactly what they wanted -- a lot of services for many different constituents and better salaries for public employees -- all without anyone having to pay for it because the government just took on more debt.

     In San Jose the problem finally bubbled over after public safety workers used union power, binding arbitration and sympathetic judges to make deals that included pay raises over 20 percent, extra pay for "terrorist training" and generous retirement programs. "Our police and firefighters will earn more in retirement than they did when they were working," said San Jose's Democratic mayor, who asked, "When did we go from giving people sick leave to letting them accumulate it and cash it in for hundreds of thousands of dollars when they are done working?"

     The result: In order to pay the pension costs, San Jose had to cut a quarter of its workforce, from 7,400 workers to 5,400 workers. The libraries were closed three days a week, and parks got no maintenance.

     How will it all end? In Vallejo, CA, when public workers took 80 percent of the city's budget for their pay packages, it finally ended in bankruptcy. Real-estate values plummeted 60 percent. Creditors settled on 5 cents to the dollar, and public employees were paid off at around 25 cents on the dollar. The fire department  was cut from 121 to 67 employees, who were left to handle 13,000 calls a year.

     Lewis is by no means one of these small-government Republicans. He is just as hard, if not harder, on the wild eyed bankers in Iceland and Ireland, and he took on Wall Street in The Big Short. He in fact has sympathy for public workers who now have to do more with less, precisely because of the government's financial problems. The irony is that those who pushed for better pay for public employees -- beyond what the tax base could support -- were the very ones who in the end caused the layoffs and cuts in services.

     What happens when a society loses its ability to regulate itself, Lewis asks, when everyone is sacrificing their long-term interests for a short-term reward? One possible outcome is that the environment will regulate us -- and the environment regulates by starvation, like farmers who fail to fertilize and rotate crops and thus leach out their land. Or ... like what happened to the people in Vallejo, CA.

     The other way is to realize what we have been doing to ourselves in this country, then come together and regulate our own activities -- when leaders will run things for the common good, instead of lining their own pockets at the public trough, and when regular people take more pride in their contributions to the community than they do in accumulating paid sick days for early retirement.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Family Fights

    B came home this evening and reported that she'd had lunch with a friend of hers today. I know her friend, and her family, a little bit anyway. And so I asked: Any news?

     B told me that her friend's sister-in-law is getting divorced. It's strange, reflected B, because this woman had lived with the man for about ten years before they got married. Then they had a baby. Now the kid is eight years old, and they're getting a divorce.

     Hmmm, yeah, that's kind of strange, I agreed. Seems like they could have figured out after ten years whether they were compatible or not. But, you know, a kid changes things.

     B shook her head. Well, I've met this woman, she said. And I can see how it might be kind of difficult to live with her.

     I laughed. Yep, that's strange.

     But that's not the really strange thing I wanted to tell you about, said B. What happened was, my friend told me that she's friends with this other couple. And they have another couple they're friends with, and the two couples and their families went on vacation together over Christmas. I guess their families had been on vacation together before, several times, but this time the two sons got into a fight. The boys are around 22 or 23 years old. They've been friends their entire lives. And they got into a fight. Over a girl.

     Apparently, the kids had been drinking, and they got into an argument and ended up outside in the hotel parking lot in a fist fight. One of the boys was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he got up and went after his friend with a bottle. He hit him, he broke the bottle, cut his friend and drew blood. Both the boys ended up in the hospital.

     B and I both shook our heads. How do two kids who've been friends for their whole lives end up getting into a real fist fight? Not just a shoving match, or yelling at each other. But punching each other until they were bleeding and knocked out and taken to the hospital?

     I remember the last fight I had. I was in sixth grade. I lost. I'll tell you about it sometime. But the point is, I was 12 years old, not in my 20s.

     I do recall, once, two of my uncles getting into a fight. When they were in their 40s. We were at a family gathering -- it must have been Thanksgiving, when my grandmother was still alive and the whole group got together at my aunt's house and played touch football and hiked in the woods behind my aunt's house and spent the rest of the afternoon eating and -- yeah, the adults did a little drinking, too.

     My dad's family was a large immigrant family with lots of kids -- my dad had three brothers and two sisters. They were a competitive bunch, especially the males, and even I knew as a child that they had lots of built-up resentments, because the two older brothers were more successful than the two younger brothers, and they were richer, and they felt that they were better than their two younger brothers and made no secret about it.

     And I remember one day I was sitting outside on my aunt's front porch, and my dad's older brother was arguing with one of the younger brothers -- I think it was something about their kids. And get this -- the younger brother had had polio as a kid, and now walked with a cane, but suddenly he lunged at his older brother, pushed him back and shoved him up against a stone wall, yelling at him all the time, until my grandmother stomped out of the house and called to them to stop, right this minute -- and my dad, who was the skinniest and nerdiest of the bunch, finally ran up and stepped between them.

     But that was, literally, 50 years ago. And a rough-hewn immigrant family. By now, I thought, fighting was a lost art -- that we've all become too civilized to actually get into a fist fight anymore. Instead, we argue, harbor resentments, talk behind people's backs, pass on malicious gossip, withhold affection or give our enemies the silent treatment.

     I don't know where I'm going with this. I guess I'm just wondering:  Have you gotten into any fights lately? What is really worth coming to blows about? Fighting over a girl? Over money? Over long-held resentments? It all seems like something out of an old black-and-white movie, not something that happened last week over Christmas vacation, among modern, civilized, suburban middle-class families.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Answers to: Are These Baby Boomer Icons Dead or Alive?

     A few have passed on, but many are still with us, living out their lives in peace and obscurity. How many did you get right?

     1)  George McGovern remained in the U. S. Senate after his 1972 defeat. He was reelected in 1974, but lost in 1980. He entered the Democratic presidential primaries in 1984 but dropped out after trailing Gary Hart and Walter Mondale. McGovern went on the lecture circuit and focused on fighting world hunger. His daughter Teresa, an alcoholic, fell into a snowbank in Madison, WI, in 1992 and died of hypothermia. His wife, Eleanor, died in 2007. But George McGovern is still alive at age 89, living in Mitchel, SD, and St. Augustine, Fl, where he continues to write and lecture.

     2)  Geraldine Ferraro twice ran for the U. S. Senate from New York, after her losing bid for the vice presidency. She faltered both times, in part because of her husband, who pleaded guilty to fraud and was later accused (but acquitted) of bribing a Queens politician. Ferraro remained active in Democratic politics and supported women's causes, and in the 1990s President Clinton named her U. S. Ambassador to the U. N. Commission on Human Rights. In 1998 she was diagnosed with bone cancer, and she died in March 2011 at age 75. She is survived by her husband, a son and two daughters.

     3) Pat Boone, a devout Christian, remained active in country and Gospel music from the 1950s through the 1990s. He and his wife Shirley had four daughters, one of whom, Debby, had her own career highlighted by the 1977 megahit "You Light Up My Life." Pat Boone has been active in Republican politics; he has hosted a long-running charity golf tournament in Chattanooga, TN, and also, as a well-known basketball fan, has been part owner of two basketball teams. At age 77, Boone currently lives with long-time wife Shirley in Los Angeles.

     4)  Fess Parker leaped to fame playing Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, a Disney miniseries in 1954 and 1955, and went on to portray Daniel Boone on TV from 1964 to 1970. In the 1980s Parker became a real-estate developer, building a resort hotel in Santa Barbara, CA, and later a winery and vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara. He died at age 85, in 2010, and is survived by his wife and two children.

     5) Michael Crichton was already wildly popular by the time Jurassic Park came out in 1990. He'd written his first medical thriller, The Andromeda Strain, while still a student at Harvard Medical School in the 1960s. He went on to write a dozen bestselling books, several movie scripts, and the NBC TV medical drama "ER". His controversial 2004 book State of Fear questioned the politically correct concern about global warming. Crichton was diagnosed with throat cancer early in 2008 and he died on Nov. 4, 2008 at age 66.

     6)  Sophia Loren, who won the 1962 Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Two Women, was one of the most popular movie actresses of the 1950s and 1960s. She scaled back her acting after she became a mother, and instead branched out to cookbooks, eyewear, jewellry and perfume. Her longtime husband, Carlo Ponti, died in 2007, but Ms. Loren is still very much alive, with two sons and three grandchildren. She lives in Switzerland, with other homes in Naples and Rome.

     7)  Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field, went on to star in To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. He later directed several movies, including the popular comedy Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Poitier, whose parents were from the Bahamas, was appointed Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1974, and later served as "nonresident" Bahamian ambassador to Japan. In 2009 Sir Sidney was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. A prostate cancer survivor, Poitier, now 84, lives in California.

     8) Chubby Checker, famous for his 1960 song "The Twist," went on to record "Twistin' USA" and "Let's Twist Again" and "Slow Twisting" and "Twist It Up." But he did not do "The Peppermint Twist" -- that was Joey Dee and the Starliters. In 2008 "The Twist" was named the biggest single chart hit of all time by Billboard magazine. At age 70, Chubby Checker is still on tour, appearing in Oregon and Washington in January, heading to The Villages in Florida in February.

     9) Willie Mays retired from baseball in 1973, and was elected into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. In retirement Mays became an accomplished amateur golfer (with a 4 handicap), worked for an Atlantic City casino, and went on to serve as Special Assistant to the President of the San Francisco Giants. He currently lives in California and also serves on the Advisory Board of Baseball Assistance Team, a nonprofit organization that helps former baseball players with financial and health problems.

    10) Peter Benchley, grandson of the famous humorist and Algonquin Round Table cofounder Robert Benchley, worked at the Washington Post and Newsweek before writing the bestseller Jaws, and then co-writing the screenplay for the movie, the top-grossing film of 1975. Benchley went on to pen The Deep, The Island and The Beast, but nothing could plumb the mysteries of the depths like his seminal shark tale. He was an active environmentalist and supported Wildaid, an organization protecting sharks. Benchley died in 2006 at age 66 of pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lung tissue, survived by a wife and three children.

    11) Elizabeth Taylor was a dual citizen of the United Kingdom and the United States -- born of American parents, in 1932 in a London suburb. The screen legend won two Best Actress Academy Awards, for Butterfield 8 in 1960 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, and survived eight marriages (counting Richard Burton twice). She converted to Judaism and in her later years became an advocate for AIDS victims. Taylor had a history of weight gain and various health problems. In 2004 she was diagnosed with congestive heart disease. She had heart surgery in 2009, and died of heart failure in March 2011.

    12) Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress, dominated the headlines in 1974 after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. She later helped rob a San Francisco bank and, when arrested, she listed her occupation as "Urban Guerrilla." In 1976 she was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years in prison, later reduced to 7 years. She was released after serving 22 months, when her sentence was commuted by President Carter. Hearst married her former bodyguard, wrote her autobiography and produced a documentary. She currently lives in New York, where her husband is head of security for the Hearst Corp., and her daughter Lydia Hearst, 27, is a model and actress.

    13) Roger Staubach, star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys from 1969 to 1979, turned his fame into fortune when he started a commercial real-estate business in Texas. In 2008 the Staubach Company was sold to Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicago real-estate firm, for over $600 million. Along the way, Staubach did color commentating for CBS sports, invested in auto racing and dabbled in politics. He currently serves as executive chairman of Jones Lang LaSalle’s Americas division.

    14) Rodney Dangerfield, born Jacob Cohen in 1921, gained some respect for his 1980s movie roles, most memorably in Caddyshack, but continued his career with his moneymaking line: "I don't get no respect. No respect, no respect at all." In 2001 Dangerfield suffered a mild heart attack while backstage at "The Tonight Show." In August 2004 he went into a coma after surgery, and he died in October 2004 at the age of 82.

    15) Gladys Knight was the front person for Gladys Knight & the Pips from 1959 to 1978, when they began to record separately, and again from 1980 to 1988, after they reunited. Knight became a Mormon, and now leads an American Gospel choir. At age 67, Gladys Knight has had four husbands, and she has three children, one of whom, son Shanga, owns a chain of restaurants in the Atlanta area, Gladys Knight and Ron Winans Chicken & Waffles.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Blogging Boomers Carnival -- 2012!

     The first of the year Blogging Boomers Carnival brings us wishes for many happy returns from all corners of the globe and the blogosphere.

     Lucie from Midlife Musings recognizes that New Year's Eve means many things to many people -- but it's how you celebrate that makes it special. She describes the intriguing way she, herself, celebrates the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

     The Midlife Crisis Queen wonders if anyone else feels a bit of a slump once the party is over, and offers her own take on the issue in her last post of the year, "Are You Suffering from Post Holiday Let Down?"

     Ann at Contemporary Retirement offers to help out if you still haven't made your New Year's resolution. She has a thought-provoking one you can borrow from the late Duane Allman, at her post "New Year's Resolutions."

     Meanwhile, wishes for a better 2012 come from faraway Dubai. Katie Foster in the Arabian Tales and Other Adventures shines a light on Quincy Jones and his new charity single "Tomorrow/Bokra." an Arabic re-adaptation of his Grammy award winning song "Tomorrow (A Better You, A Better Me)." The song features 24 Arab artists from 16 nations harmonizing for a better tomorrow. Funds raised from the sale of "Tomorrow /Bokra" will finance arts and culture scholarships as well as projects for children throughout the Middle East and North Africa through the Quincy Jones Foundation.

     In the spirit of year-end round-ups, the Accidental Locavore offers up her top 10 list for 2011. The first half the list highlights her most popular blog posts of the year, while the second half features the Accidental Locavore's personal favorites.

     John Agno at So Baby Boomer takes on a slightly different train of thought when he points out that we don't know what we don't know -- and that can cause us and our social network friends trouble. So, he asks, what can people over age 50 do well on social networks?

     And the Vaboomer asks: Remember the Nancy Drew mysteries? Now, we Baby Boomers have our own sleuth. Her name is Sandra Troux. Read more about her and how three retired Boomers cross the world to run down art thieves and sex traffickers.

     As for my own blog, I'm featuring my annual year-end quiz -- this is a tradition that goes back a 50th of a century! Last year I did "The Baby Boomer Quiz." This year it's "Are These Baby Boomer Icons Dead or Alive?" See my last post for the questions, and my next post for the sometimes-surprising answers.
     And so, from blogging Boomers everywhere:  Thanks for a Bloggerific 2011. And here's to a Happy 2012!