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

Friday, March 30, 2012

What You Learn if You Do Your Own Taxes

     Most of the people I know do not do their own taxes. They throw up their hands, decide it's too complicated and go to an accountant with their tail between their legs. Or they use H & R Block or Jackson Hewitt. A lot of people use electronic services such as Turbotax. This is kind of like doing it yourself, but the electronic process does hide some details of the tax system and how it affects you.

     I have always done my own taxes -- except for a couple of years when I tiptoed into an accountant's office and found out they don't necessarily do a better job, and they charge you a pretty penny for the service. I have also used Turbotax, but find that it doesn't always make life easier.

     In any case, while it does take some time, and the process is not entirely painless, doing your own taxes can be an educational experience. And I'm not talking about practicing your arithmetic skills. I mean you find out what the government encourages you to do, and what it penalizes. In short, you find out how the world really works, rather than how they tell you it works.

     For one thing, the federal tax system rewards saving and investing, and penalizes working. (Other financial forces may do the opposite ... but I'm talking taxes here.)

     For example, I recall for the year 2010, the government wanted us to work. IRS Form 1040 featured a Schedule M called "Making Work Pay" that allowed you to deduct up to $400 from your tax bill if you had earned income (the IRS term for money you earn by working).

     Apparently, the Feds are no longer quite so eager for us to get a job. There is no Schedule M for 2011. No $400 tax break.

     Working is about the worst way to make money in this country. The main reason we do it is because most of us don't have much of a choice. Getting a job is the only way we know how to make money.

     Speculating in the stock market is much more socially beneficial and is an activity to be encouraged and promoted ... at least according to the Federal government. Some of the money you make from capital gains -- the profit from selling a stock for more more than you bought it for -- doesn't get taxed at all. The rest is taxed at a lower rate than the money you make on your job.

     Your salary is also subject to an additional tax -- Social Security tax, aka the payroll tax. If you have a job, your employer pays half your Social Security tax; and takes the other half out of your salary before you even see it. You're still paying 14%. But it doesn't hurt so much; in fact, you're barely aware you're paying it.

     I myself do not have a job. But I do work. Like a lot of 60-somethings, I do some consulting and freelance work to supplement my retirement income. Nobody deducts any tax from my checks and nobody's paying half my payroll tax. So when I look at my tax form I can see that I not only pay a higher rate on the money I make from working, but I pay an additional 14% on top of that!

     Do you think that's fair?

     The dividends you make from owning stocks also get taxed at a preferential rate -- at the capital gains rate, rather than the earned income rate.

     I honestly don't see the rationale for taxing dividends at a lower rate than earnings. Except for this reason:  Retired people often have their nest eggs in stocks or stock mutual funds, and they rely on dividends to bolster their meager Social Security benefits. This is especially significant these days, when nobody makes any interest from a bank account or from a government bond.

     I think it's a good thing to give seniors a little bit of a break, when they've pinched pennies all their lives so they would have a financially secure retirement. But what about the millionaires?

     Some people in political circles have made noises about raising taxes on dividends and capital gains -- so rich people, stock speculators, wealthy heirs and heiresses pay their "fair share." I don't think that's a bad idea. But I do not think seniors should be penalized. So maybe the best way forward is to keep the tax preference for dividends and stocks, but only for a limited amount of income, say the first $20,000 or $30,000 a year. After that, dividends and capital gains could be taxed at regular rates.

      Here's something else I learned. Apparently, it's okay to discriminate against people on the basis of their advanced age. I tried to use some free e-file software this year. One site offered free e-filing if your household income is less than $57,000, and you're 25 years old or younger. Another site advertised free e-file if your adjusted gross income is $57,000 or less and you are 52 years old or younger.

     I'm over 25; I'm over 52; I'm out of luck.

     Here's one that absolutely amazed me. I live in New York, which is considered a high-tax state. I have a rental property in Connecticut, so I have to pay some Connecticut state tax as a nonresident. In doing so, I had to figure out what my total state tax would be if I lived in Connecticut. I don't know how it works for other people, but for me the state income tax is actually higher in Connecticut than it is in New York!

     Every year, after I figure my state tax, I start thinking once again about retiring to a state that has no income tax. Back in the early 1990s, Connecticut had no state income tax. But it does now! In case you're wondering, according to the IRS there are still seven states with no income tax:  Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Wyoming and Washington.

     I did incur a lot of medical expense last year (fortunately, nothing serious ... a lot of dental expense added to a few extra medical charges), and I was heartened to see the IRS takes pity on those of us who are sick. You can deduct medical expenses over 7.5% of your income. If you have a business you can deduct the cost of medical insurance as well -- just like you do if you have medical insurance where you work. But you're out of luck if you're just an individual trying to pay for medical insurance -- no tax break for you!

     Apparently there are ways to deduct long-term-care insurance as well. This is something I've been thinking about getting for a couple of years now. I haven't bought any yet. Maybe I'll reconsider this year.

     There are plenty of other noteworthy items about the Federal tax form. The IRS offers tax breaks to save for retirement, to send your kid to college; to improve the energy efficiency of your house. Owning real estate is still a pretty good deal -- at least on paper, if the paper is Form 1040.

     The Federal tax code supposedly runs for some 13,000 pages, detailing all kinds of rules, regulations, breaks, penalties, advisories. Plus many more pages at your state tax level. I can't tell you about them all ... I just got an e-mail about a new job assignment, so I gotta go to work.

     I'll make about $3000 on this job -- and get to keep, maybe $1600 of it. But now I'm wondering, maybe I should spend my time checking out the stock market instead. I hear it's been doing pretty well lately.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Resources for Retirees

     For a while at the bottom of my blog, under the heading "Web Resources" I've been listing various links to other sites that address the needs and interests of the older population. Probably nobody ever scrolls to the bottom of a blog, so let me just prompt you here.

     Of course everyone knows about AARP which offers a pretty good website. But my links under "Web Resources" also include the New York Times site The New Old Age, and the travel site Road Scholar, and a site that indexes a number of helpful government pages, called Senior Citizens' Resources. If you poke around on that government page you'll find advice on a number of subjects, as well as some retirement planning calculators, references to state and local agencies, locators for various services, and other practical information.

     Recently, I've run across a few websites sponsored by academic institutions that offer information for those of us interested in aging, longevity and retirement. (Other universities, such as Duke, the University of Maryland and the University of South Florida do research on aging and offer degrees in gerontology, but they don't publish much practical information for the public on their websites).

     I've found the following five sites are both interesting and helpful, offering sometimes academic but usually fairly accessible articles, surveys and reports on issues facing the over-50 crowd.

     The Center for Retirement Research comes out of Boston College. The website highlights research that focuses on money and retirement, including Social Security, taxes, 401K plans, working in retirement. The site organizes its material under headings such as "Briefs," "Working Papers" "Special Projects," depending on how a topic is treated. The approach leans toward the academic, but will seem familiar to anyone who's been to college.

     The Sloan Center on Aging & Work is another project sponsored by Boston College. Its mission is to develop work and career opportunities for older Americans, and it covers such issues as age bias in employment, flexible work options, volunteerism. There's also a blog that fleshes out some of the issues, such as how older workers deal with younger bosses and ... how do we define older workers, anyway?

     The Legacy Project is run by Karl Pillemer, professor of gerontology at Cornell. He has collected practical advice, as well as plenty of words of wisdom, from more than 1500 Americans over the age of 70. The stories and reminiscenses cover love and marriage, work and career, living with loss, and a host of other topics. Some of this advice was published in his book 30 Lessons for Living, featured in a previous post of mine called How to Grow Old.

     Stanford Center on Longevity studies "the nature and development of the human life span, looking for innovative ways to use science and technology to solve the problems of people over 50." The center benefits from research by some 140 Stanford faculty, as well as "visiting scholars" such as Barbara Strauch, science editor at the New York Times. Some of the topics involve global aging and public policy. There's also a link to a youtube channel that features various Stanford lectures, and you can sign up to receive longevity news email updates.

     The Center on Aging at the University of Utah offers to the public "open access materials" on the study of aging through its college of nursing. Several online learning modules are available. They each run about ten minutes, and offer a broad overview of issues in retirement, health, geriatric medicine and other topics that appeal to the mature audience.

     When you have a few minutes, search around on these sites. They are not purely practical; there aren't many catchy titles, but they all offer in-deph analysis on some of the issues that are important to us.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

There Are Two Kinds of People

     I spent most of yesterday buying and setting up a new printer. I found the entire process really annoying, and I got no satisfaction at all from finally seeing my new printer spit out a few sheets of paper -- printing the way it's actually supposed to print.

     My old printer gave out four days ago. I found out that in this day and age you don't last long in life without a printer. Our basic human needs are:  air, water, food ... and a printer.

     So I went down to my friendly neighborhood computer shop, bought myself an HP printer, and carried it home -- with a promise from my friend at the computer store that I could call him if I had any trouble.

     I called a total of eight times.

     First, the pop-up window didn't show up. Then I got confused about Step 5 in the instructions. After I got my desktop hooked up with a USB cable, I went to connect up my laptop via wi fi. I couldn't fit the disk in; I couldn't identify the right cable to plug in temporarily; and on and on. But I finally did get the damn thing working. I should feel proud of myself. Right? But I don't.

The beauty ...
     I'm all thumbs with mechanical things, I admit it. I think part of my problem is that I don't really want to do the job. And I derive absolutely no satisfaction in fixing something, in finally getting some damn thing to work.

and the beast
     The odd thing is that I do not have much of a green thumb either, yet I enjoy gardening. I do not get annoyed when the grass doesn't grow in the shade under the trees in the corner of the back yard., I just go out, every spring, and plant more grass seed. And I actually do take some satisfaction in planting a bush or a tree, and watching it grow. As often as not, it dies. No matter. I must not have dug the hole deep enough, or I didn't give it enough water; or maybe the spot was too shady, or too sunny. I try it again, maybe with a different plant, or the same plant in a little different location.

     And when it does grow, I feel an enormous sense of accomplishment. Okay, maybe "enormous" is a bit of an exaggeration, but I joke that I spend about three times as much time admiring my gardening as I do actually doing the work. But so what? It feels good to admire your own work -- but what's to admire about a new printer that's working, just the same way as the old printer was working?

     Whereas, when you plant a bush or a tree or some grass, you have something there that didn't exist before. If you grow vegetables, you have something good to eat!

     I have a row of bushes on the far side of the driveway that I've planted over the past five years. I admire them every time I back the car out of the garage (although it kills me when B runs into them). I prune the fruit tree in the front lawn -- and admire the trim of the branches, and all the flowers that bloom as a result. I even admire my lawn which, if you don't look too closely, actually looks like grass.

     B's son is the exact opposite. Her brother, too. They both love working on a carpentry project, or figuring out electrical connections, or puzzling over a computer problem and coming up with the right answer. They get big smiles on their faces when the cables are all in their proper place, the computer lights up, and the printer starts whirring.

     The old joke is that there are two kinds of people in the world -- those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't. But maybe it's really divided into people who take pleasure in fixing things; and people who like to garden.

     Why do I get a sense of accomplishment out of one, not the other? I dunno. You tell me.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Doing My Bit to Create Buzz

     First of all, for those of you who don't know, the South by Southwest conference, also known as SXSW, is a gathering of people from the worlds of technology, music, film and fashion. It began in the 1990s, and now takes place every year in March in Austin, Texas. This year the festival runs from March 9 through March 18.

     Honestly, I only know about it because my son works in the music business. He went to the conference last year for the first time. And this year he again traveled to Austin to spend the weekend schmoozing and networking. But aside from that, SXSW apparently really is a gathering of hipsters, geeks and cool cats -- people who, for better or worse, are developing the future of our social and virtual universe.

     SXSW is famous for introducing many new things in our lives, from the singer John Mayer, who wowed the audience in 2000 and because of that signed his first recording contract, to Twitter, which captivated the crowd in 2007 and began its rise to social media stardom. (For the record, while I do Facebook, I do not do Twitter, because it just seems kind of silly to me. I'm not a real John Mayer fan either -- but then I'm not the target audience of the SXSW crowd.)

     But anyway, for those of you who want to know, I have it on good authority that this year's most talked-about item is something called "ambient social networks." These are location based applications for your smartphone -- one is called Highlight -- that merge Facebook and GPS technology to tell people who in their social network is currently located in their vicinity.

     So, with an ambient social network app, you can be sitting in the food court at the local mall, and just by glancing at your iPhone you can see if any of your friends -- or friends of your friends -- are sitting nearby. Maybe the guy at the next table went to the same college as you did. Maybe the woman in line over there shares two friends with you.
     Does this sound cool to you, or a little creepy?

     The idea is that the way we meet people in our lives tends to be random and inefficient. This application gives us the tool to target people we want to meet, and people we want to keep in touch with.

     Of course, the flip side of that comes not when you're tracking other people, but when other people are tracking you. Just as you can see somebody else's name, and their photo, and the names of their friends, so others can see your photos and background and friends. And do you really want other people at the mall to be walking around knowing where you went to college, and who your friends are? Isn't that kind of weird?

     I can see this application being very useful to young guys at a singles bar. It could really improve their pickup lines. But that's not going to be helpful to me -- I'm long past that phase in my life.

     But I do see another concrete benefit. You are introduced to someone at a meeting, but of course you forget their name. A week later you see them again at a party. You panic. You should remember their name ... and where did they say they work? Presto. Check your iPhone. "Well, hello Mr. Jones, how's your son doing at Stanford? Did you get out to play golf last weekend?"

     If you think I'm making fun of "ambient social networks," I'm not the only one. Check out "The Highlight SXSW Drinking Game."

     But maybe people making fun of an application actually helps create the buzz. That's okay with me. I myself don't plan on using this app. anytime soon. First, I'd have to get a smartphone! But I don't mind doing my bit to promote technological progress.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Take This Job ... and Love It?

     Back in January I offered to help out with our local library book sale, which is to take place in early April. So now, in March, I'm involved in my volunteer activity, which consists of writing up flyers, sending out notices to local organizations, printing up posters and signs, and planning out how we're going to set up tables and handle the money. In the meantime, we're advised to collect all the boxes we can, because after the sale is over we're going to have a lot of leftover books and we'll have to box them up and either give them away or throw them away.

     So I've been prowling the liquor stores, asking for their empty boxes, and if you looked in my basement right now, and saw all those empty wine boxes and vodka boxes, you'd think I was a serious alcoholic.

     Then when I got back from vacation, I received an email from an old colleague of mine, offering me a paying job to help out on a project. Deadline: April 1st. Most of my work is being done from home on my computer. But I did go into the office to consult for one morning, the first time I'd been in any kind of office in about two years.

     It seemed very strange. I'd spent over 30 years in an office; the territory is very familiar; yet I've set foot in an office only about a dozen times in the last ten years. Even though I'd never been in this particular office before (but they all look the same, don't they?) it felt like it does when you go back to visit your old hometown and walk around the neighborhood and see your old house and check out your old haunts.

     But actually, it was kind of fun to be in a real office -- you know the kind, private offices with glass walls around the perimeter of a big room with a bullpen of desks jammed up one against another. Kind of like the TV show "The Office."

     It's also nice to have a paying job for a change. First of all, I could use a few thousand dollars, especially since the credit card bills will soon be coming in for my vacation out west. But then at one point I wondered: Am I trading a month of my life, just for a few thousand dollars? What kind of deal is that? But when I really considered it, I found it's a good feeling to be engaged in a specific assignment, working on a project that someone is actually willing to pay for -- you know, compared to volunteering at the library, or blogging.

     So I'm pretty busy this month for a change -- after having done nothing but hang around since before Christmas, then go on vacation. The benefit to you:  I have to keep my posts short.

     It's a delicate balance, trying to work in retirement. You want some jobs, but then when you get them, you're not quite sure you're ready. Do you know what I mean?

     By the way, remember the band Men at Work? I dunno what this song is about (maybe it's about drugs; wasn't everything, back in the '80s?), but I prefer to think what's knocking at my door is opportunity.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Can You Finally Sell Your House?

     Recent reports tell us that the news on home sales is still bad ... but it is apparently getting a little better.

     According to a report from the Associated Press, "In January sales of previously occupied homes reached their highest level in nearly two years, and they have risen more than 13 percent in the past six months."

     The National Association of Realtors agrees, saying that in January sales rose for the third time in four months. The NAR also reports that existing home inventories have been trending down from their record high of 4.04 million in July 2007. Currently home listings stand at 2.31 million units, which is 20 percent below a year ago.

     Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said strong gains in contract activity in recent months show that buyers are responding to favorable market conditions. “The uptrend in home sales is in line with all of the underlying fundamentals – pent-up household formation, record-low mortgage interest rates, bargain home prices, sustained job creation and rising rents.”

     Unfortunately, the average price of an existing home has fallen some 2 percent since last January. And so-called distressed homes -- ones in foreclosure, or short sales -- still comprised 35 percent of January 2012's home sales, down just a hair from 37 percent in January 2011. 
     I assume most people in our age bracket are more interested in selling their old home than in buying a new one. But, really, we only want to sell because we want to move ... and many might wonder, if I can sell my old house, should I buy another one, or just rent for a while?

     So let's look at the idea of buying a home from a broader perspective.

     Despite the bust of the last six years, most of us Baby Boomers have probably had good experiences owning our homes over the course of our lives.

     For most of us -- and for our parents as well -- the rationale for owning our own home centered around the American dream, the white picket fence and the friendly neighbors. Owning a home placed you in a community, provided a school system for your kids, and gave your family a stable lifestyle. And in the long run, everyone told us, it was a good financial decision as well. The mortgage was tax deductible; your real-estate taxes were tax deductible; and over the years the value of your house would increase -- some years more than others, but except for a few brief recessionary periods, always on an upward trajectory. The rule of thumb was that is was better to own than to rent, as long as you were going to stay in the place for at least five years.

     But that was then. What about now? Some people argue that owning a home is not all it's cut out to be, that people are better off renting. These days, it seems, people seem more interested in mobility than stability. They want to be able to retire to a warmer, less expensive place. But they can't sell their house. Or they want to be able to move somewhere else to take a better job. But their mortgage is under water. Meanwhile, local taxes keep going up, our utility bills keep going up, and the traffic just keep getting worse.

     I saw a report of a single woman in her early 30s, making a pretty good salary, who wondered if she should buy her own townhouse. But she's worried. Maybe the prices will continue to drop and she'll lose her investment. Maybe she'd be better off putting her savings in the stock market, rather than making a down payment. She wondered why the upfront costs were so high -- not just the down payment, but the mortgage fees and the lawyer's fee and the transfer taxes. And then, even after spending all that, she'll have to pay taxes and insurance and condo fees and maintenance fees.

     On the other hand, she feels like she's "throwing away" over $1000 a month to rent her current place. She's not building any equity; plus, the people in her complex tend to be transient. She admits she'd feel more comfortable if her neighbors stuck around for a while and she could get to know them. She also feels that, while it's nice that she doesn't have to worry about upkeep, the landlord often cuts corners on maintenance with a "quick fix." Plus, she feels like she'd like to "put her own stamp" on a place -- decorate the kitchen the way she'd like it, rather than the way the landlord has it. And she yearns to have walls that have some color to them, instead of the institutional white that's exactly the same no matter what apartment she lives in.

After a decade when it was cheaper to rent (purple) than buy (blue), things have evened out

     This woman does have some decisions to make. We all do. How important it is to to be able to fix up a place the way you want it? And how long do you plan to stay there? Are you going to get married -- or sign up for independent living -- and want to move within the next year or two? Are you settled into a job, or are you going to change jobs, or retire, and to want to move across country next year?

     Above all, the choice of whether to rent or buy is a lifestyle decision. What kind of home and neighborhood you want to live in, and how long are you going to stay there.
     The New York Times offers a calculator that compares the costs of renting or buying a home. You plug in the price of the property, along with the taxes and your down payment and your mortgage rate, and compare it to the rent you'd have to pay for the same place. But as with any calculator, you have to make certain assumptions, chiefly about how much the property will appreciate over the years, and how much the rent will rise over the same period. (Who, in 2006, would have entered negative10 percent a year for the expected appreciation?)

     But, to me, any calculation fails to answer an obvious question. How could it possibly be cheaper to rent than to buy? Somebody owns that property. They're not going to rent it to you for less than what it costs them. Sure, there might be a temporary situation, where the owner is stuck, and the renter can take advantage of the situation. But in general, if the owner couldn't rent it for more than what it costs ... why would anyone own it in the first place? You wouldn't do that, any more than you'd take a job where to have to pay to work, rather than get paid to work.

     I did the calculations for my old condo, which I sold in 2007, and which I know now happens to be for rent. If I assume that the value of the property will go up at 2 percent a year, and the rent would increase at the same rate, then the line crosses at the five year mark. If someone is going to move in there and stay for more than five years, it's cheaper to own than to rent.

     In other words, the new rule of thumb isn't any different from the old rule of thumb. But I'd just twist it around. Don't buy a house, or a condo, unless you're going to stay there for at least five years.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Death Be Not Proud

     Last weekend, on the train ride home from New York City, B and I spent a good hour talking about end-of-life issues.

     We'd gone to New York to see Wit, starring Cynthia Nixon, about a woman dying of cancer. You may have heard of it, since the play, written by Margaret Edson, was originally produced off-Broadway in the late 1990s and won the Pulitzer prize for drama in 1999. Then in 2001 HBO produced a TV movie of the play starring Emma Thompson.

Cynthia Nixon as Dr. Vivian Bearing
    I'm not a true Cynthia Nixon fan. I saw a few episodes of "Sex and the City" and I've seen her in "The Big C" -- but I'm mesmerized by Laura Linney, not Cynthia Nixon.

     Nevertheless, Nixon does an amazing job as Vivian Bearing, a woman with a PhD in English who specializes in John Donne (1572-1631), the poet famous for his lines: "Death, be not proud ..." The play chronicles Dr. Bearing's story, from a diagnosis of stage IV ovarian cancer ("there is no stage five") to her death. She embarks on her journey with no friends and no family, just her uncompromising academic standards. Along the way she meets her match in an equally impersonal and disinterested medical student, and in the end only finds some measure of solace in an unlikely companion.

     The final moment of the play presents the audience with a brief nude scene, as Cynthia Nixon completely disrobes. But by that time, she has exposed such raw emotions, with such complete abandon, that the idea of nudity seems almost ... anticlimactic.

    After the play was over, it was impossible not to discuss some of those end-of-life issues, including the "Do Not Resuscitate" option, and that's what B and I were talking about on the way home. B is all in favor of the DNR order and other health directives aimed at dying with dignity. She also has long-term-care insurance, a power of attorney, and some other health documents as well.

     I'm not quite so organized. Nor am I quite so ready to look death square in the eye. Perhaps it's because B is more religious than I am, and a little more comfortable with the notion of death. I guess I would opt for a DNR order, if I really and truly knew I only had a few days to live, and I was in excruciating pain, and I knew there was no hope at all of recovery. In other words, I'll sign those papers when I get to be 90.

     Coincidentally, author Ken Murray, a retired doctor, wrote an article appearing in The Wall Street Journal, "Why Doctors Die Differently." He reported that many doctors, who know all about the treatment options and have access to top medical care, often decide against undergoing cutting-edge medical procedures. They accept death, and instead go home to live out their lives as best they can and spend their last days with their loved ones.

     "It's not something we like to talk about, but doctors die too," writes Dr. Murray. "What's unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared with most Americans, but how little."

     He cites the case of an orthopedist who found out he had pancreatic cancer. Instead of opting for aggressive treatment that would give him, at best, a 15% chance of surviving, with a poor quality of life, he focused on spending time with his family. And Murray cites the case of his own cousin, diagnosed with lung cancer. The cousin decided against radiation or chemotherapy, and instead spent the next eight months going to Disneyland and hanging out at home watching his favorite sports teams -- then dying peacefully in his sleep.

     I remember by own dad, who died ten years ago at the age of 91. He'd developed shingles, and when he didn't get better the doctors found he had cancer in his bones, his lungs and everywhere else as well. The doctors were ready to give up on him -- after all, he was 90. But he wasn't ready to go. He wanted treatment. We got him to the hospital where he received some radiation therapy. No one ever said it would be a cure. But it did arrest the tumors for a while, and gave my dad an extra couple of months of relatively pain-free life -- which we all appreciated, my dad most of all.

     There's no easy way to get out of this world. And if you think there is, go see Wit. The play will cure you of any illusions you have on that score. But I'm sure it would help if you have some control over the process, if there's a way to make death less painful and desperate.

     I should go make out some health directives ... I really should.

     So ... here's the John Donne sonnet which features prominently in Wit:

Death, be not proud

by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Blogging Boomers "Souq"

     In March the Blogging Boomers come in like a lion. Not because of cold, unpleasant weather (although the Midwest has suffered deadly storms, and our hearts go out to the victims), but because more than ever the world hears the roar of the Baby Boomers. On serious subjects like Social Security, politics, taxes. And on no-less-serious subjects like shopping, dating, eating ... and laughing. The point is, every issue that affects America, affects Baby Boomers first and foremost.

     What's a souq? It's a Middle Eastern open-air marketplace. And this week our blogger from across the seas, Arabian Tales and Other Adventures, takes us on a little tour of an exotic Dubai souq.

     In 2010, one of our own made-in-America Baby Boomers up and moved to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where her husband managed to get a job involved with a major airport expansion. Since then, she has been blogging about their adventures on the Arabian peninsula and beyond.

     Dubai, she reports, has many amazing shopping venues, including a mall with an indoor skiing area. But she invites us to come with her and step back in time to explore the traditional Arab souqs. "Wander deeper," she says, "through the narrow alleyways that twist and turn." And, if you need a road map to find your way, join her at Dubai Souq Shopping.

     Here at home, The Boomer Chronicles wonders what happens when a man who is a top executive at a Fortune 500 company suddenly finds himself out on the street. How does he deal with that kind of blow to his pride, his psyche -- and his wallet? For the answer check out How a Top Executive Recovered from His Firing. There's a little twist at the end, when you find out who this top executive is and what he did more than 40 years ago.

     Meanwhile, the Midlife Crisis Queen offers us a couple of life lessons. One comes from what she learned from the Amish in The Power of Forgiveness. The other addresses the subject of Divorce and Forgiveness.

     But, to look at the other side of that coin:  Have you been thinking of dating online? If so, you might want to take some advice from one of our younger Boomers who publishes a site called The Art of Toad Kissing.

     "Single Boomers beware," she says, "those younger love prospects may not be as exciting as they seem." On her blog, she continues her quest to Never Kiss Another Toad and warns us of the March Toad of the Month -- carefully advising us "how to recognize signs that he may be infesting our Loveseats."

     In a remarkable instance of synchronicity, Boomer blogger Lucie, at Midlife Musings, reports this week on one of her early experiences with online dating -- and how she learned a lot more than she bargained for when as a mom of three teens, she took her first step out to a world she knew nothing about. Fortunately, she could laugh at her lack of finesse -- and is still having fun as she laughs her way through the Art of Toad Kissing.

       And, on yet another subject, what's the latest trend in food preparation? The farm-to-table movement. So The Accidental Locavore has been trying to add more local foods to her family's diet, and she tells us how she recently shared a grass-fed cow from a beautiful nearby farm.

     Compared to all these adventures, from local farm to exotic souq, my own recent postings seem pretty tame (more like a lamb than a lion, if you will). Still, you might want to check out my latest in the Remember Him/Her series, simply by scrolling down to the next item, or clicking on the link to see the other Remember Her? postings.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Remember Her?

     After watching the Academy Awards the other day, I was reminded of a quote from a woman:

     "Sometimes I can't figure out designers. It's as if they flunked human anatomy."

     Can you guess who said it?

     She was a writer whose popularity crested in the 1970s and '80s, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine in 1984.

     She started out writing a column for her high-school newspaper and also worked part time as a copy girl for the Dayton, Ohio, Herald, where she eventually got a chance to interview Shirley Temple for the paper. She went to Ohio University, but her material was rejected by the college newspaper and she did not do well in her classes. She left school after only one semester. Later, she enrolled at the University of Dayton, where she did write for the university paper and also met her future husband, who went on to become an educator and school supervisor.

     She also once quipped:  "Marriage has no guarantees. If that's what you're looking for go live with a car battery."

     When doctors told the young couple they were unlikely to have a baby, they adopted a daughter. That was in 1953. Of course, two years later they had a biological son, and three years after that, in 1958, they had a second son.

     Perhaps that in part gave thought to her warning:  "Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died."

     She devoted her life to her children and her home, as a garden-variety Ohio housewife. But she kept up her writing skills by occasionally publishing a column in the Dayton Shopping News.

     As a mother, she noted,  "One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child's name and how old he or she is."

      And as a housewife she observed:  "The odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one."

     In 1964 she began writing for the Kettering-Oakwood Times. The next year she moved to the Dayton Journal and started to write a weekly humor column. Before long, the column was picked up for syndication to other newspapers, under the title "At Wit's End."

     Through her syndicated column, she grew to become a popular humorist around the country. She began giving lectures in cities where her column appeared, and then became a guest on Arthur Godfrey's radio show. In 1967 she published a book, a collection of her columns -- and ultimately she would go on to publish a dozen books. In 1976, she hit the national bestseller lists with The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank and she followed that in 1978 with her even more popular If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?

     And speaking of food, she also advised:  "Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart."

     By 1978, some 900 newspapers were using her column -- and by now you know she's Erma Bombeck, right? -- and she was also writing for Good Housekeeping, Reader's Digest, Family Circle and Redbook. She moved to an upscale community outside of Phoenix, Ariz., and from there did brief commentaries for ABC's "Good Morning America." She also stepped forward as an advocate for women's rights, becoming involved in President Carter's Advisory Committee for Women and pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment.

     Erma Bombeck had been diagnosed with an hereditary kidney disease when she was just 20 years old, but for years it didn't affect her health. In 1992, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after that the kidney disease did catch up with her. In 1996, at the age of 69, she went to the hospital for a kidney transplant. She died three weeks later, on April 22, 1996.

     But by then she'd lived a successful, fulfilling life and, as for any setback, she seemed to toss it off by responding:  "If you can't make it better, you can laugh at it."