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

Friday, August 31, 2012

When Are We Old?

     If you read my last post, you know I got embroiled in one minor issue of the aging over the weekend. But it got me wondering: When are we old?

     I remember going through my own aging issue, a kind of mid-life crisis, when I was 28 years old. Yes, 28.

     At the time, I recall thinking that I was almost 30 -- and 30 was, oh god, 30 was middle age. I was married, had a job, had just bought a house. My life path was set. No more surprises. I might as well lie down and die.

     Of course, now with the wisdom of age, I can see that I was being ridiculous. My life was just beginning -- I went back to graduate school, had a couple of kids, watched them grow up and go to college, bought and sold a couple of houses; got divorced; got downsized; found a new life partner; bought and sold another house. And life goes on.

     But as I now look around at all the other people in my life, and those I meet in town or while traveling, I notice people with little kids, and guys going off to work, and I see the people making news on TV or in the newspaper. And I realize ... I am older than all those people.

     I'm one of the gray hairs who goes to the movies at 5 p.m. -- with all the other gray hairs -- because I don't want to stay out too late. I'm one of the people interested in Social Security, not as some theoretical benefit far-off into the future, but in the here and now. When I travel to Florida, I realize that I'm not one of those people going to see their parents. I am one of the parents.

     They say that 50 is the new 40. Well, that's irrelevant for me. I'm long past 40, long past 50.

     So when does old age start anyway? At 55 when places like movie theaters and public parks start giving you senior-citizen discounts? At 59 1/2, when the government lets you withdraw funds from your IRA without a penalty? Or at age 62, when you can start taking Social Security? Or 65 when you get Medicare? Or 66, which is now considered normal retirement age?

     Or, maybe it doesn't start until you go into an Independent Living facility, at age 80 or 85.

     Walking around everyday, I sure don't feel like I'm old. And, remember, they say you're only as old as you feel.

Anthony Hopkins will play Methuselah in the upcoming film Noah
     But, eventually, no matter how you feel, time does move on, and even if you're healthy, you're old. And there comes a point when, if you don't think you're old, you're just in denial.

     Then there are the moments when the knee acts up; or my ankle hurts; or the back begins to bother me. Or I can't stay up late to watch the Olympics; and we're the first to leave the party, at 10 p.m., because it's getting to be our bedtime. Or . . . we just don't want to go at all, because it's a half-hour drive, and who wants to be driving home in the dark anyway?

     The term "old" is a vague concept, I guess. Some people are old when their 50; others are still vibrant when they're 70. Depends on your health, your attitude, your interests and activities. When did old age start for Methuselah, who supposedly lived to age 960 or thereabouts?

     Maybe there are stages in getting old -- perhaps the same stages people go through in facing death. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. As for me, I'm in the denial stage. Well . . . maybe the bargaining stage, because every once in a while I find myself trying to make a deal -- okay, I can handle the toothache, as long as this pain in my side isn't a tumor.

     But here's what I've finally figured out. My kids constantly joke around about how old I am. How I should count my age in Roman numerals. How I know so much about the Civil War because I was personal friends with Abe Lincoln. How I blog about . . . retirement.

     That's okay. They've been making these jokes ever since they started to talk. The time to worry, I've decided, is when they stop making jokes about me being old, because they know it cuts too close to the bone.

     That's when I'll know I'm really old.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Consummate Hostess

     We had a slight disagreement over the last weekend. We were visiting family in Pennsylvania, where the matriarch of the clan, at age 96, lives in an independent living facility.

     She is still pretty healthy and lively. She takes a walk every day, has lots of friends, gets around without using a walker or even a cane. In fact, with a little help from one of her daughters, she can walk just as far as we can, and at the end of the day doesn't complain about her tired feet as much as we do.

     But she no longer has a car, she doesn't drive, and she can't get anywhere by herself. So she wanted us to come over to her place for dinner -- that was the only way she felt she could take her turn as host for the family.

     And that's where the disagreement came in. Her son, age 68, hates to go to the independent-living dining room. The food is pretty good, and the dining room is bright and new-looking. But . . . it's the people. They are, of course, all old. The average age is pushing 90. There are very few men (and they are usually falling into their soup). The women are hunched over with arthritis and osteoporosis. Their thinning hair is white. Many are in wheelchairs.

     In short, it's depressing as hell.

     Her two daughters were not fazed by the situation. One of them, who lives nearby and visits her mother once or twice a week to help her out, takes the whole situation in stride. The other daughter was ready to go. She thought the food was good, and joked that she was too busy burying her head in her plate to notice all the infirmities and indignities of the other people in the dining room.

      I myself (I'm embarrassed to admit) agreed with the brother. I had been to the dining room once before. First of all, they insist on eating dinner at 5 p.m. Way too early for me. (Remember the old Seinfeld episode when Jerry visits his parents in Florida, who want to get to the restaurant for the 5-o'clock special? Jerry whines: I'm not going to eat dinner in the middle of the afternoon, just to save a dollar! When they do go to the restaurant at a normal time, Jerry's father's friends think he's so rich he must be embezzling funds from the condo association.)

     Anyway, I admit the food was pretty good, and the dining room was pleasant. But I can't stomach a meal when the people at the next table are sitting in wheelchairs looking like they should be in the hospital, not in the dining room.

     You see all those old people. You see your future. And it kills your appetite.

     Besides, there's another issue for us men. You can't help but notice all those aged women, and so few men, reminding you that as horrible as it is for these women to get old and infirm, they're better off than the men, who have already died.

     Do you think I was being insensitive? Callous? Selfish? Impolite?

     It's not that the men categorically refused to have dinner at the mother's place. We would have gone if we had to. And it's not that the women were adamant about eating at the independent living facility. But they thought it was important for their mother be able to play hostess, to feel that she was part of the family, involved in the activities, and not just the poor, helpless relation people felt obligated to visit.

     We men could understand that, so we finally hit on a solution. We drove down to the independent living facility and picked her up. Then we headed over to a little place nearby called Mt. Gretna, comprising several small communities dedicated to "the promotion of cultural and religious activities, recreation and entertainment."

     We took a walk; got caught in a light refreshing rain; we saw the theater where they were rehearsing a musical, and ate dinner at a modest but popular local spot called the Jigger Shop, where they serve hamburgers, sandwiches and the best ice cream in the world.

     And the girls' mother got her way. She was the host, as she happily paid for dinner.

     Later, when we got back to her apartment at the independent living facility, we wondered if we should just drop her off, or should we go inside for a visit. Was she too tired? Did her legs hurt?

     "Oh no, no," she replied. "Come on in for a few minutes," she offered gladly, like the good hostess she was. And so we did.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Going to the Country

     It's the last weekend before Labor Day, and so B and I are taking a long weekend, leaving our suburb behind and going to the country. We'll be staying with her sister who lives in a 150-year-old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, with no air conditioning, but stone walls four-feet thick and an attic fan that keeps the whole house comfortably in the 70s, even if it touches 90 outside.

     There's a corn field out front, a big kitchen garden in the back, and a couple of shade trees hanging over the screened-in porch.
Home-grown tomatoes!

     B will help her sister put up some corn, and they'll probably go to a quilt sale or a craft fair. We'll take walks down a country lane past all the wildflowers, smelling the cows in the distance, then head over to the wood shop where old men build hand-made wood tables, benches and chairs.

     We will eat fresh salad with lettuce from the garden and home-grown tomatoes. We'll get up early and go to bed early, and spend the weekend breathing in the country air. Our last great gasp of summer.

     See you next week.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Prosper and Live Long

     I always thought that your personal habits as well as your whole attitude toward life helped determine how healthy you are and even how long you live. For example, I figured people who are cheerful and happy, the life-of-the-party types, had a leg up on the rest of us in terms of life expectancy. I mean, if you're really happy, doesn't that give you a strong incentive to live as long as you can?

     But it turns out that is wrong. In fact, cheerful people are less likely, on average, to live to a ripe old age than people who tend to be more serious. Why? Because happy-go-lucky people are prone to "illusory optimism" -- they underestimate health risks and don't follow medical advice. These people are less likely to wear their seat belts, for example, and they also tend to drink, smoke, and party hard.

     I was actually reading a story about life insurance when I stumbled on a reference to this longevity study, started at Stanford University in the 1920s and completed last year by two University of California researchers, Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin. The results were published in a book called The Longevity Project. They have also developed a consulting firm, Longevity Insight, which specializes in "informational products with a focus on longevity."

     The results from the 80-year study show that people who are conscientious -- careful, hard working, maybe even a little neurotic -- are the ones who live longest. These people on average do more things to protect their health. They're more likely to go for their annual physical and recommended tests; they're less likely to smoke or drink to excess; they're even less likely to speed or break other traffic laws. These are the people who also tend to arrange their lives for their own benefit. They somehow find their way into happier marriages, better friendships, healthier work environments.

     It may come as no surprise to discover that successful, wealthy people live longer. Part of the reason is access to top-notch medical care, a better diet and healthier lifestyles in general. But the other part of the equation is that success did not necessarily bring on overwork and more stress. Instead, those who lived a long time tended to work hard and strive to overcome obstacles. Apparently, striving to accomplish a goal, achieving success, and then setting new goals, are characteristics of people who tend to live long, healthful lives.

     Marital state did not necessarily help people live long, productive lives. A happy marriage was found to produce healthy side effects for men. But not necessarily for women. A bad marriage raised health complications for both genders. But it was women who were more likely to stay healthy after a divorce, as they found it easier to turn to friends and family for social support. Men who got divorced, and did not remarry, were at high risk for premature death.

     The researchers confirmed that people who go to church tend to be healthier than those who don't. But the benefits derived primarily from the increased social interactions people enjoyed at church, not from the religious experience itself. So presumably any other regular social engagement would be just as beneficial.

     Kids who started formal schooling at an early age typically had health problems later in life. But many kids who suffered a childhood trauma -- the divorce of their parents, for example -- were able to bounce back and, perhaps because of the resilience they developed, lived to a ripe old age.

     It turns out that your personal habits and your whole attitude toward life do affect your longevity. Just not in axactly the way we thought.

     So eat your broccoli. That can't hurt. But it's more important to be conscientious about your life, set some goals for yourself and work to achieve them; make it a point to build a happy, positive intimate relationship, and a good, supportive group of more casual friends.

     Oh yeah . . . and be sure to get your flu shot this fall.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The August Blogging Boomers Carnival

      This edition of the Blogging Boomers Carnival touches on a variety of subjects from the gustatory to the spiritual, from the world of business to the world of good works. So page down and take a look.

     Laura Lee opens by saying that summertime is novel reading time for the Midlife Crisis Queen, who's an ex-librarian. Here's a review of her favorite read this summer.

     In honor of what would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday, the Accidental Locavore turns her literary attention to the how-to shelf. She decided she was going to make a French-inspired dinner. But instead, she may have discovered the one ingredient that the French rarely use. What do you think it was?

     On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, wrote about trends in aging that could affect baby boomers. Among them are more women working, and increasing housing costs and rates of diabetes.

     Eliza at her blog, Silver and Grace, teases out one aspect of those trends, claiming that the beauty industry makes a lot of money by creating a fear of aging. Case in point are promoters of hair dye, who make sweeping statements like, "The truth is, natural gray hair makes people look older." But is that really true? Find out at: Will gray hair make you look older?

     Meanwhile, the Vaboomer has a few answers if you're wondering, What Businesses Thrive in a Recession? If you think it's businesses that are lean and mean, you're on the right track, but you'll have to check out her post to see how they fit in with . . . Spam.

     Waxing more philosophical, So Baby Boomer believes that our lives are shaped by something, and that each boomer has the ability to discover the something that will give meaning to their lives. As an outgrowth, your life experiences have taught you valuable skills that you may now be ready to apply in your encore career.

     Finally, our Arabian baby boomer reports in from Dubai. She believes that even one person can make a difference in the world, and then asks you to contemplate what happens when no less than 11,000 volunteers show up. On her blog, Arabian Tales, Katie Foster relates her experience with the overwhelming generosity of the Emiratis and expats who call Dubai home. And her post Adopt a Camp Ramadan Care Package Project demonstrates the enormous power of a generous idea.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

What, Me Worry?

     The kids were over for a while last weekend. Saturday night they came in late, and of course they left the front light burning, as well as the one in the kitchen, and the fan in the TV room. When I came down in the morning, I sighed, and muttered something about how they wouldn't leave the lights on if they were paying the electric bill, and then I flipped off the lights -- and opened the windows to let in some cool early morning air, before we cranked up the air conditioner later in the day.

     The hotter it gets, the more we turn on the a/c, which in turn means more coal and oil burned up by the electric company. Which means more CO2 in the atmosphere, so it gets even hotter, which in turn leads to more air conditioning. And on and on.

     I don't think the kids get that. Meanwhile, do they lust after a Nissan Leaf (99 mpg) or Toyota Prius (50 mpg)? No, they salivate over a Ferrari (14 mpg) or a Maserati (15 mpg).

      The ice caps are melting. The Midwest is burning up. The Middle East is a cauldron. And the economy is sputtering.

     But wait a second! It occurred to me the other day, while I was worrying about unemployment ticking up again to 8.3%, that none of this really makes any difference in my life. Or any of our lives, for that matter. As long as the Social Security deposits keep coming, why should we retired people be concerned about all the problems going on in the world today?

     Health care? We've got Medicare. Income? We've got Social Security. And hopefully some savings, and some capital gains leftover from the halcyon economic days of the 1980s and '90s. Some of us might even have a pension.

     Okay, maybe you don't feel rich, but according to figures reported in the New York Times, the wealth gap between households headed by someone over 65, and someone under 35, is wider than ever. The income gap is also at a record high. Median inflation-adjusted income for households headed by people between 25 and 34 has dropped 11 percent in the last decade while remaining essentially unchanged for people over 55.

     And unemployment? Our careers are over. What do we care about the unemployment rate? Sure, we may be looking for a part-time job, or a consulting gig, or maybe we're interested in volunteering at the county park. But we only want to keep busy and earn a few extra bucks to stretch our fixed income. We're not looking for a career, with benefits and bonuses and promotions.

     Why are we so worried? Why is the Boomer anxiety index so high?  All these problems don't affect us very much. They affect our children.

     I recall a friend of mine, several years ago, who was obsessing over his daughter getting into college. But his daughter wasn't particularly concerned, she was busy having fun in high school. He pressed college guides on her and dragged her around to college trips, showing her small liberal arts schools, large urban universities, and everything in between.

     Then, finally, he realized he was more interested in college than she was -- and that equation just doesn't work. So he backed off and left her alone. Eventually she got motivated by herself, took her SATs, applied to several colleges, received a few acceptances, and picked one out.

     So it makes me wonder. Are we too concerned about the economy, the environment, health care and unemployment? Would we be better off just leaving it to the kids?

     It's an irony that older people, who have little stake in the future, vote in much greater proportions than younger people -- those who do have a stake in the future. Even in 2008, when Barack Obama supposedly galvanized young voters, only 51% of people age 18 - 29 managed to get to the polls, while 70% of people over age 65 got out to vote.

     Perhaps we retired folks shouldn't be more concerned about energy or the environment than our children are. We shouldn't be more concerned about the economy. We shouldn't be more concerned about politics.

     Maybe it's time we left it to them.

     By the way, my friend's daughter ended up going to the University of Maryland. She did fine, and now has a good job at an advertising company in New York. She also has a nice apartment in Brooklyn (one that I couldn't afford), doesn't even own a car, and is planning to get married later this year.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Is There a Doctor in the Kitchen?

     Anyone who reads my blog knows that I don't hesitate to moan and groan about the high cost of health care and medical insurance. In my defense, part of the reason is that, as an early retiree, I'm part of a minority of Americans who pay the full cost of their own medical insurance. I'm not among the majority of public workers, corporate employees and Medicare-covered seniors who typically pay only 10 - 20% of the real cost.

     The other reason (according to my kids, at least) is that I'm cheap.

     But part of the reason I'm cheap is because, for the past ten years, ever since I was forced into early retirement, that monthly health-insurance bill has eaten up a big chunk my income (along with college tuition, but that's a whole other issue).

     So I ran across an interesting article in last week's New Yorker, "Big Med" by Atul Gawande, that makes an interesting case for how we might control medical costs and improve results as well. Dr. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, and a staff writer for The New Yorker.

     One Saturday the doctor dines at the Cheesecake Factory, and he wonders why a medical facility can't operate more like a chain restaurant -- one that serves 80 million people a year with over 300 menu items, and where most dishes are made from scratch and the waiters are efficient and friendly.

     Restaurants have been able to bring the efficiencies of chain production to the complicated business of serving sit-down meals, but medicine still operates like a collection of "mom and pop" stores. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory, medicine has been "unable to deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality."

    Chain restaurants have an advantage over small independents because they are big enough to enjoy buying power, they can centralize common functions, and they adopt innovations faster than a random group of individual restaurants.

     Doctors have historically worked for themselves or as part of small groups. Hospitals were community based. Doctors have traditionally billed patients for services rendered, and they therefore have had various incentives to order more, unnecessary tests and procedures, to pad their bills, practice defensive medicine or to satisfy nervous test-seeking patients.

     But in the last decade, Gawande notes, more and more doctors have begun to join larger medical groups or else sign on as employees of hospitals that are merging into larger hospital chains. Hospitals are beginning to benefit from economies of scale, and they increasingly sign contracts with Medicare and the insurance companies to be paid not on the number of procedures performed, but on the basis of how well they meet certain cost-reduction and quality-improvement targets.

     What especially struck Gawande about the Cheesecake Factory was that there are precise instructions that cover the ingredients of all the menu items and their presentation. But each cook has considerable leeway about how to turn the ingredients into the final product. Plus, each restaurant has a kitchen manager who checks the final product, making sure that standards are being met. Managers are respectful of a cook's skills and experience, but oversight is fairly tight. There are guidelines for how many employees a restaurant should have, based on the number of customers, as well as strict measures of how much waste can be tolerated. The company target is 97.5% efficiency -- in other words, they throw away only 2.5% of the food they purchase. (Think about your own kitchen, and how much of the food you bring home form the grocery store gets thrown out.)

     A common complaint among medical patients is that they are shuffled from specialist to specialist, with no one person taking overall responsibility for their care. Gawande says that hospitals would benefit from "kitchen managers" who are responsible for getting clinicians to agree on precise standards of care, making sure that they follow through on them, and ensuring that the final results maintain the agreed-upon standards.

     Gawande notes, for example, that there is no standard practice for knee surgery. Even within the same hospital, different doctors use different makes of artificial knees; they use different procedures, different protocols for anesthesia, different strategies for post-operative pain management and physical therapy. There is no organized effort to identify the best products and procedures, then figure out how to standardize them and disseminate them to a broad range of medical practitioners.

     There should be one best standard way to do knee replacements -- or any other medical procedure -- a method that everyone follows. Beyond that, he argues, customization should be 5% of what the doctors do, not 95% of what they do.

     In medicine, new procedures have traditionally taken a long time to trickle down to the majority of patients. He cites the example of beta-blockers, used after a heart attack. It took some 15 years between the time the studies confirmed the benefit, and the time the majority of Americans were offered the new treatment.

     But the Cheesecake Factory puts out a new menu every six months. It takes them only seven weeks to roll out the new menu, including finalizing recipes, purchasing and distributing the new ingredients, changing the menus and training the staff.

    Gawande admits there is no guarantee that increased size and tighter controls will improve medicine and bring down costs. Sometimes bigger institutions lead to monopolies that raise prices, stifle innovation and benefit owners rather than customers. But he feels that larger, more uniform medical organizations, following standardized rules and regulations, with some government oversight as well as transparent methods that are open to public scrutiny, could provide better, more consistent care for everyone, at lower cost. Just like the Cheesecake Factory.

     If you don't want to read the full, lengthy New Yorker article cited above, try this npr interview with the doctor from last week.

     As for me, I've never been to a Cheesecake Factory. I googled it. There's one a little over 20 miles from my house. Dr. Gawande makes it sound good -- I'll have to go try it out.



Friday, August 10, 2012

The Strongest Force on Earth

     You might think the strongest force on Earth is a hurricane or a tornado or an earthquake. But you'd be wrong.

     So what do you think it is?

     I'll reveal the answer in a minute. But to explain, I first have to tell you the story of my leaf blower.

     I acquired a leaf blower about 20 years ago -- a handheld blower, not the heavy duty kind you push like a lawnmower. At the time I lived in a four-bedroom house with a big lawn to take care of, in a fairly upscale neighborhood. But perhaps we were living above our station, because unlike most of the people on our street, we couldn't afford a lawn service, so I took care of the yard myself. Once my son got to sixth grade he started cutting the grass, although not without a bribe . . . I mean, an increase in his allowance. I also got my son, along with my wife and daughter, to help rake leaves in the fall. But to be frank, they were neither enthusiastic nor effective.
My new leaf blower

     So anyway, I bought a gas-powered, handheld blower to help me with the leaves. It also proved helpful in cleaning off the patio and blowing out the garage. I even used it to clear off snow if the storm wasn't too bad and the snow wasn't too wet.

     After my wife and I got divorced I moved to a condo. And I brought my gas-powered blower with me. I no longer had leaves to get rid of, but I still had a garage that got dirty, a deck that needed clearing off, and a short walkway that got dusted with snow.

     When I moved in with B, she had two boys who mowed the lawn and did yard work. But B's theory was that you couldn't get a male to do any work around the house unless he had a toy to play with, preferably something that made a lot of noise. She had a riding mower, which the boys enjoyed driving around the yard pretending to be race car drivers when they were really cutting the grass. She had a weedwacker, an electric hedge clipper, and even a gas-powered edging tool. What she didn't have was a blower.

     So now she not only had me, but she had a blower as well.

     The problem is that my 20-year-old blower gave up the ghost a few weeks ago, when I was tasked with cleaning off the deck in preparation for some guests coming over for a cookout. You know what B made me do?!? Sweep the deck. By hand. With a hand-powered broom. I couldn't believe it -- that's technology from the 14th century!

     But, being a gentleman, I did the job with aplomb . . . and without complaint. (No, you may not speak to B to verify this statement.)

     So anyway, this morning I was sitting comfortably on the TV room couch, drinking my coffee, reading a magazine and getting ready to watch the Olympics. There was some handball, field hockey kind of thing, pitting the Ukrainians against the Netherlands (I think). You know, must-see TV. So B steps into the doorway, dressed for work, looks me up and down and says, "Are you by any chance thinking of getting another leaf blower? Or were you just thinking we could coast along without one?"

    "Why, thank you for the compliment," I smiled, "by assuming that I was doing any thinking at all."

     She gave a polite little laugh to show she was being patient, then continued looking at me.

     "I guess, now that you mention it," I went on, "a blower could come in handy. But do we really want to invest in new equipment when, you know, we're not going to be here too much longer?"

     (We're thinking of moving, so we're hesitant to start buying new stuff for the house -- well, actually, I'm the one who hesitant about buying new stuff, even though there's no way we're moving for at least five years.)

      "Well, that's what I kind of want to know," she said. "Because there's debris all over the driveway. And I figure if you're going to buy a new blower, you could blow it off. But if you're not, then I'm wondering if it's up to me to sweep it off."

     "Oh, I see," I responded slowly. "Gee, I could have asked for a blower for my birthday." I paused and looked down. "But my birthday is over."

     "Yeah, you'd have to go buy one yourself."

     "On the other hand, your birthday is coming up," I ventured. "Would you like a leaf blower for your birthday?"

     "You're not getting me a leaf blower for my birthday."

     "But you just said you were going to have to sweep the driveway," I explained patiently. "If I got you a leaf blower, it would save you a lot of work. To me that sounds like a pretty good birthday present."

     "Very funny," she retorted, although it seemed as if she didn't really appreciate my dry, sophisticated humor.

     "Well, maybe I should buy one for myself," I finally allowed. She nodded agreement and said goodbye and went off to work.

     The long and short of it is, I hightailed it down to Sears later in the day and bought myself a leaf blower. An electric one this time. On sale for $69. I brought it home, anxious to try it out. I assembled the machine, got out the extension cord, and started by blowing off the deck, then the front walk, and then I did the garage. Actually, it was kind of fun, and it was plenty noisy.

     Which brings me back to the strongest force on Earth. I blew the dust and dirt and leaves out of the garage, no problem. But no matter how much I blew at those cobwebs and spiderwebs, they did not budge. They swayed and bent under the force of the air coming out of the blower at 250 m.p.h. (or, so it was advertised), but they did not break. I knocked a few down with the end of the blower -- but even then they didn't really blow away, they just stuck to the wall.

     And so, you're thinking, finally the answer:  It's the spiderweb that's the strongest thing in the world.

     But that's not true, either. The spiderweb is the third strongest thing in the world. What's the strongest? That, you can decide for yourself. Is it the inertia of the male lying on the couch, drinking his coffee and watching TV? Or is it the female force, levering the husband off the couch to perform a routine household chore?

     I think you know the answer.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Men Are Gone

     At first I thought it was just me. I lost my job at age 53, never to find full-time employment again. Now ten years later, I find myself sitting at home, working around the house, playing golf with my friends and picking up a few freelance assignments which I can do from my computer -- while my better half goes off to her full-time job every day.

     B works at the library. I called her the other day and a man answered the phone. I thought I had the wrong number, because the library is staffed entirely by women. One man worked at the library a few years ago, but they ran him out because he didn't get along well with his fellow staff members.

     But no, it was the right number. The library director, a woman, had hired a temp to fill in for the day. Meanwhile, the president of the library board of trustees is a woman. The board consists of seven women and three men.

     In our town, the town supervisor is a woman. The president of the board of education is a woman. The PTA is run completely by women -- although the men still dominate the volunteer fire department.

     I look around at my friends. One lost his job in his 40s. He tried to start his own business, then had some health problems, and now in his 50s he's being supported by his wife who commutes to the city every day. Another friend is a writer. He sits at home while his wife goes off to work. My friend Joe was forced into early retirement a few years ago, when he was 58. His wife went back to work after their kids had grown. Now he's the house husband; and she's the bread winner.

     According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 1970 the female participation rate in the workforce has increased from 43% to almost 60%, while the male participation rate has gone down, from 80% to 71%.  

     Does it sound like I'm complaining? I don't mean to. I'm happy sitting at home, piddling away my time, picking up a few jobs here and there. After all, I punched the time clock for 30 years. That's enough for me.

     But the issue came up again this morning. B is helping to run the charity auction at her church. She's looking for an auctioneer. "For some reason I think a man would be better," she mused. "But there aren't too many men at my church." Then she paused. "And the men who do go to church aren't very charismatic, that's for sure."

     "What about the elders?" I asked, "Isn't there an elder who could do the job?" I was thinking there must be at least one self-confident man, used to public speaking, among the group that runs the church, a man who would feel comfortable hosting an auction, serving as master of ceremonies.

     She paused for a moment, and I could see her thinking. "Actually, there aren't many men who are elders, either." She counted them up -- ten of the elders are women, only four are men. "Gee, it used to be all men. Now there are hardly any." She gave me a significant look and asked, "Where are all the men?"

     I didn't have an answer for her, but it reminded me of the time I first took my daughter to veterinary school, a few years ago. In the big hallway of the main building hung a row of photos of graduating classes, going back to the 1950s. Those old black-and-white photos showed graduating classes that consisted exclusively of men. One photo after another marched down the hall, showing well-dressed, clean-cut men graduating from veterinary school. Then, sometime in the 1970s, a few women began dotting the pictorial landscape. By 1990 the classes were half men, half women. And in more recent photos, the graduating classes are overwhelmed with women -- my daughter's class was more than three-quarters women, barely 20% men.

     Today, more women than men go to college. Some 58% of undergraduate students are women, even though there are more college-age men than women in American today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for 2011 high-school graduates, the college enrollment rate was 72.3% for young women and 64.6% for young men. (Interestingly, in higher income groups, men and women go to college in roughly equal numbers; it's among lower-middle-class and poor families where women go to college in much larger numbers.)

     One Minnesota college admissions officer noted ruefully that the admissions pool had recently fallen to just 30% male. In the past year it had increased to 34% because, he admitted, "We actually did a little affirmative action."
     Meanwhile, in 2009, for the first time, more women than men earned doctoral degrees -- 28,962 women to 28,469 men. But hold on. Men still do "win out" in one statistic. The female high-school dropout rate is only 7%. The male dropout rate stands at a little over 9%.

     Don't ask me what's going on. I'm just sitting here, happily retired. But something is going on.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Remember Her?

     She was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in January 1943. Her mother worked as a registrar for a local business college; her father was an engineer for the oil company Texaco. Can you figure out who she was?

     She sang in her church choir, but as a preteen spent more time perfecting her painting skills than practicing her scales. She went to her local public high school where there must have been something in the water. One of her classmates was actor G. W. Bailey (Rizzo in the TV series "MASH", currently Detective Louie Provenza in "The Closer") as well as football player Jimmy Johnson (who played for the national championship team at University of Arkansas and later coached the University of Miami to a national championship and the Dallas Cowboys to two Superbowl championships.)

     However, she was not a standout in high school -- at least not for the right reasons. She gained weight and suffered from a bad case of acne, and instead of listening to current pop music, she fell in with a crowd that listened to African-American Blues singers like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. She was taunted with nicknames like "Pig" or "Freak" or "Creep." Later, looking back, she simply described herself as a "misfit."

     She went to Lamar State College in Beaumont, Texas, then to the University of Texas, where she recorded her first song, "What Good Can Drinkin' Do." A 1962 article in the Daily Texan called "She Dares to Be Different" began: "She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levi's to class because they're more comfortable and carries her autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song it will be handy."

Her psychedelically painted Porsche
     She left college in 1963 and headed to San Francisco, where she teamed up with fellow up-and-coming musicians to record some blues standards. In San Francisco she also launched herself into the drug scene, taking amphetamines and psychedelic drugs, washing them down with Southern Comfort.

     In 1965 she tried to clean up her act. She returned to Port Arthur, Texas, and went back to school at Lamar College, while occasionally making the trip up to Austin to perform solo, accompanying herself on the guitar.

     The following year a music producer from San Francisco recruited her to join a band, and so she moved back to California and began to play at the Avalon Ballroom and other venues. The band released its debut album in August 1967, which included the hit single "Down on Me." They toured the East Coast where they appeared on the "Dick Cavett Show" and performed with Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens. Time magazine called the lead singer "probably the most powerful singer to emerge from the white rock movement."

     The band, called Big Brother and the Holding Company, put out a second album, Cheap Thrills, which was almost immediately certified gold and reached Number 1 on the Billboard charts. It featured the hit single "Piece of My Heart" and a version of the George Gershwin song, "Summertime," the kind of soulful rendition that could only have been performed by . . . Janis Joplin.

     When Janis Joplin first joined Big Brother, after returning to San Francisco from Texas, the band resolved not to take drugs. The resolution was well-intended, but soon was diluted by alcohol and eventually by the harder stuff. By the time Janis Joplin appeared at Woodstock in August 1968, she was injecting drugs intravenously.

     Joplin broke with Big Brother at the end of 1968 and formed a new group, The Kosmic Blues Band, which lasted a year and recorded one album. Joplin then started the Full Tilt Boogie Band, which she took on tour across Canada, ending in Boston, playing her last live performance at Harvard Stadium on August 12, 1970.

     At the end of August she checked into the Landmark Motor Hotel in Los Angeles and began rehearsing and recording a new album. The last recording she completed, on October 1, 1970, was the a cappella "Mercedes Benz", in which she asks the Lord to buy her a Mercedes Benz.

    Three days later Joplin's producer grew concerned when she didn't show up for rehearsal. He sent the band's road manager to the Landmark to see if anything was wrong. The manager spied her psychedelically painted Porsche sitting in the parking lot, and when he got up to her room he found her lying dead on the floor beside her bed. The official cause of death was overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol.

     Janis Joplin was cremated, her ashes spread over the Pacific Ocean from an airplane. Her last album, Pearl, came out posthumously in January 1971.

     She died at age 27, but her legacy lives on -- in her style, in opening new opportunities for women in rock music, and in influencing later popular singers. Current female vocalist Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine is one who, along with Stevie Nicks, Nina Simone, Bette Midler and others, acknowledges her debt to Joplin. Said Welch of Joplin: "There was always a sense of longing, of searching for something. She really sums up the idea that soul is about putting your pain into something beautiful."

     Tony Award winner Nina Arianda is scheduled to play Janis Joplin in a biopic film directed by Sean Durkin, scheduled to begin production early next year. 

     But here is the original Janis Joplin, with that soulful song appropriate for the season:

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Is Anyone Watching the Olympics?

     Picture this. We had some relatives over for a late lunch last Sunday. So B's two sons came by the house. Afterwards, the guests left, and after clearing the table her two sons drifted into the TV room. I stepped up to the kitchen sink, like I usually do, and wrestled with the dirty dishes, while B scurried around straightening up, putting leftovers away, drying special dishes that don't go in the dishwasher.

Missy Franklin now has two gold medals
     I finished the dishes and went into our TV room, where the boys were watching the Olympics. I sat down, and found myself drawn into this one particular match.

     A few minutes later B came in and sat down. She watched for a minute or two, then lost interest. She reached over to the coffee table, picked up the newspaper and started reading through the arts section.

     Some time later -- one minute? ten minutes? I don't know, time stood still as I watched the ball being batted back and forth over a net -- I looked up from the TV. B's older son was sprawled across a chair, eyes glued to the screen. B's younger son, ignoring the iPad on his lap, stared at the TV with his entire face glazed in wide-eyed wonderment. B's head was still buried in the paper.

Two British beach volleyball players, in uniform
     Can you guess what event we were watching? Women's beach volleyball.

     But aside from what I thought was this humorous insight into human behavior, the Olympics in our household have been rather unremarkable. And I've noticed that there are almost no blog entries among our crowd of retirees involving the Olympics (besides this one from Gabbygeezer). So I wonder if people are watching.

     B and I missed the opening ceremonies. But I heard a report saying the TV audience was larger this year than it was for the Bejing Olympics in 2008. B's younger son went to an Olympic party with his friends that first night to watch the event, and he reported back: "It was cool, especially when they lit the torch."

Ryan Lochte, challenger to Michael Phelps
     So I must admit our viewing of the Olympics has been somewhat sporatic. I watched a few minutes of a bicycle race but got tired of staring at the cyclists' butts, which is all they seemed to show. I have seen a little bit of the women's gymnastics. I like Gabby Douglas from Virginia; she's cute. But even though the team won the gold medal, there didn't seem to be any surprises -- and no breakout stars.

     I like swimming and diving. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have done pretty well, but not spectacularly. Colorado's Missy Franklin was fun to watch. I saw the synchronized diving (I have an interest in diving because my daughter was a diver in high school and college) and I enjoyed the show. Synchronized diving seems a bit contrived; but it is amazing to watch. The Chinese dominate all the diving events, but the Americans have done well so far, winning a few medals. I especially look forward to seeing women's springboard (scheduled for this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday) because my daughter knows American hopeful Cassidy Krug from Pittsburgh. I met her once; she's a long shot, but we're all rooting for her.

Cassidy Krug will compete in springboard diving
     I also saw a bit of ping pong. Again, the Chinese dominate. We have a ping pong table in our basement, and the boys and I can get pretty serious about it. I beat B's older son most of the time; her younger son some of the time; and I lose to my own son almost all the time. But even though we're amateurs, and play kind of a different game, I really do appreciate just how good these Olympians are.

     For us, the Olympics is just a show on TV, with an occasional controversy. But when you think about it; when you consider the talent and hard work and total dedication to their sport that these people commit to, and how fast and strong and skilled they all are, it's absolutely amazing. And it's (ahem) a great place to see the human body in its most perfect form.

     There's still plenty more Olympics ahead of us. Is anybody watching?