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

Saturday, September 29, 2012

There's Something Going Around

     I came back from a short vacation on Cape Cod a couple of weeks ago with a wicked cold. I'm mostly over it now, but still have some leftover stuffiness and a lingering cough.

     My friend Peter was laid up last week. His wife came home from work with a cold and was out for a couple of days, then he got it from her, and since he never seems to be in great health anyway, he got it bad. He ran a fever and couldn't get out of bed for three days. What he had sounded different from what I had. Maybe the flu?

What works for you?
     "Did you get a flu shot?" I asked him.

     "Nah, I don't get those shots," he scoffed. "I got one when I was younger. Gave me a nasty case of the flu. I swore off the shots."

     I thought that might possibly be a coincidence. But nevermind. I asked him if he took vitamin C. No, he didn't do that either.

     I used to swear by vitamin C. But for some reason it seems to have lost its effectiveness with me. Maybe I've become immune to vitamin C, or maybe it never worked anyway. But still, I try to hang onto my belief, for lack of anything better, and I gobble down those chunky pills at the first sign of a sniffle.

     A few years ago when I got my usual autumn cold, I went over to my local CVS pharmacy. I stood there eyeing the dizzying array of cough medicines and throat lozenges and cough drops. I must have looked confused because eventually a young clerk sidled up to me and asked if he could help. I told him I had a cold with a bad cough and was looking for something to help me out.

     "Try this," he said, pointing to a pack of cough drops with zinc and echinacea. "I grew up in Buffalo, and that's what we always used up there."

     I figured anyone from Buffalo ought to know what cures a cold, and so I tried some. It seemed to work for me, so I've added zinc and echinacea to my list of supposedly-effective cold remedies. Like I said, I'm not sure how well any of it works, but you gotta do something.

     Actually, I've read that the best way to avoid getting a cold is not vitamin C or echinacea or anything else you might take. The secret is washing your hands -- often and thoroughly. The person who has the cold, so he doesn't spread his germs around. And the person trying to avoid getting a cold, so if he does pick up some germs he doesn't transfer them into his mouth or eyes or wherever.

     Anyway, something is definitely going around. B's coworker at the library was out for a few days last week. B's coworker takes a sick day if she breaks a fingernail, so it's hard to tell how bad she had it. But somehow, even with me being sick, and then her coworker, B hasn't come down with anything.

     But then B is a rock. The women in her family never get sick, and they live forever. Even when B does catch a cold she won't take off from work unless she's practically paralyzed. She's been working at the library for five years now, and you could count her number of sick days on one hand.

     Maybe it's the changing of the seasons, because it's not just around where I live. I talked to a friend in Washington, DC, the other day, and she told me she has a cold. And I was IM'ing with my ex-wife who lives in Georgia. She too is fighting a cold, and said her brother was sick as well. Her nephew has a young boy who goes to daycare. They're all sick. But then I know from experience, if you want to get sick, send your kid to daycare.

     Actually, B says it's good to get yourself exposed to all those germs. "Builds up your immune system," she claims. But that's easy for her to say . . . she never gets sick!

     I've got my annual physical coming up later in October. I'll make sure to get a flu shot then. Meanwhile, I'm going to wash my hands. May everyone stay healthy!


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What Can Go Wrong?

     We enter retirement with a financial plan that we've figured out will work for us. We have income from Social Security and our IRAs -- and a pension if we're lucky. We might have other investments, or plan to use some of the equity we have built up in our homes. Some of us will receive an inheritance; some of us will supplement our retirement income with part-time work.

     If we're smart we've devoted a good deal of attention to forecasting how much we'll spend in retirement as well, counting up our basic living expenses, then adding in travel and entertainment, car repairs and home maintenance.

     Whatever it is, if we've planned things out, we should be okay from a financial standpoint. Right?

     Not so fast. The question I'm worried about today is: What can go wrong?  What can upset your retirement financial plan?

     On the income side of the equation, we've already experienced one pretty drastic shortfall. Interest rates have collapsed. The savings you keep in a bank CD, or a garden-variety bond fund, used to pay out 4 or 5 or 6% in income. Now, thanks to Ben Bernanke, you're lucky to get 1 or 2%. I recall, when I first left work in the early 2000s, I moved my 401k plan over to an IRA at Vanguard. I was being credited with $700 to $800 a month in interest payments. Now I'm getting a measly $20 a month.

     You can also suffer from the vagueries of stock market, the real estate market, and the job market. It's fine to plan for part-time work. But what if you can't find a suitable job? And it's tough to cash out some of the equity in your home when the value of your house has gone down by $50k or $100k. I, myself, own a rental property -- something like 10% of retirees rely on rental property for a part of their retirement income. But that can pose its own problems (which I will tell you about in a future post).

     We worry about Social Security and our pensions, but in fact, those are probably our most reliable sources of income over time.

     Meanwhile there's the other side of the equation. Expenses. What are the unexpected expenses you might face in retirement? Last year I went to the dentist with what I thought was a routine cavity. I found out I needed to have the tooth pulled. I could have just left a gap in my teeth -- a lot of people do that -- but my dentist recommended an implant. I decided to go ahead. I have some dental insurance, but it didn't cover the implant. Goodbye to $5,000.

     So a big dental bill is one unexpected expense. You cannot put off spending money when you have a toothache.

     I've been lucky on the medical front. Yes, I've had a few problems. But so far they've been covered by my medical insurance. Last year I had to have two operations on my hand -- one because I cut my finger, the other for carpal tunnel syndrome. Neither one was a major operation, and my insurance company covered all but $200. But this year my deductible has gone up to $1,000, per incident. Would have cost me $2,000. So this year I'm trying to be real careful.

     In my state, the governor passed a law limiting real-estate tax increases to 2% a year. But, somehow, when we got our tax bill last month, the increase was 4%. Taxes are a major expense for us; but they are not unexpected. The difference between 2% and 4% is nowhere near the cost of a tooth implant.

     My insurance company tried to raise my car-insurance premium. But I took that auto-safety course, so this year my premiums will actually cost me a bit less than last year.

     But I'd like to know, from people more financially savvy than I am, or more experienced:  What are the financial pitfalls awaiting us in retirement? I don't have any grandchildren yet. Is that going to cost me? I'm just trying to get a handle on things.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Top 15 Auto-Safety Tips

     I took the American Safety Council safety course, on the recommendation of my auto insurance agent. No, I did got get a traffic ticket. He promised I would save 10 percent on my car insurance, for three years, which in my case will be a little over $70 every six months.

     The course cost $20 and took six hours to complete. You cannot go through it any faster, as the site requires you to spend a minimum amount of time on each page. If there's a way to beat the system, I didn't figure it out.

     Was it worth the time? I'm not sure. But I did learn a few things about auto safety. Some of the items were pretty high on the duh scale. But I found a few tips that, while pretty obvious, nevertheless involve driving errors that I make almost every day. And there were a few others that cover my own pet peeves.

     Will taking this test improve my driving habits? Obviously, the insurance company thinks so.

     Here are the top 15 things I learned from the course. You won't get any discount on your auto insurance by reading these. But you will save yourself about 5 hours and 55 minutes!

     1)  Don't drive if you've been drinking alcohol, especially if you've been taking drugs, such as heroin, at the same time. (Yes, they really had to warn us about this!) Alcohol is involved in 30% of fatal car crashes -- I actually thought it would be more.

     2) The American Safety Council advises, "Avoid roads with potholes, loose gravel and paving materials." I suppose that means you do not drive at all in Boston, New York or Philadelphia. Or in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago or St. Louis.

     Now on to the ones that surprised me, or gave me information I didn't already know.

     3)  The top three reasons for car accidents are:  inattentiveness, speeding, and tailgating. Inattentiveness can of course be caused by talking on the cellphone. But the main cause of inattentiveness is fatigue. Nearly half of surveyed drivers admitted to driving while drowsy. (Who's guilty of that one? I must admit that I am.) Two out of every ten drivers actually admitted they had fallen asleep while driving! Truck drivers, according to the American Safety Council, are especially susceptible to fatigue related crashes.

     4)  Inattentiveness also comes from drivers being emotionally disturbed. If you're angry or depressed, you're not thinking about the road. This is kind of obvious. What I didn't realize is that certain medications can affect your moods. The nicotine in a cigarette can affect your mood. And think of this:  the caffeine in your coffee is a stimulant, and like other stimulants can contribute to overconfidence, irritability, and more impulsive behavior.

     5)  Auto accidents are the Number 1 cause of death for Americans age 6 - 33. No surprise there. There were 32,788 Americans killed in 2010, and over 2 million injured. But get this:  Since the first documented auto fatality in 1899, some 30 million people worldwide have been killed in auto crashes.

     6) The highest risk area is not the freeway, but intersections where there's congestion and crossing traffic. One third of fatal crashes are side impacts at intersections -- and you never see it coming.

     7) On a ten-mile trip, with average speed limit of 45 mph, going 60 should theoretically save you approximately 3 minutes. However; if there are lights, which are often timed to match speed limits, the speeding driver gets caught in more red lights, and ends up saving less than 1 minute on the trip.

      8)  And now one of my pet peeves. Picture this situation: You're at an intersection without a stoplight. A car is approaching on the cross road with its turn signal on. Can you go ahead and make your own turn? No! The other driver may have his blinker on by mistake, or change his mind and not make the turn. Or, there could be smaller car hidden behind the turning car that will smash into you if you pull out and try to make your turn.

     9)  Some 90% of car accidents are due to human error. But a few are caused by mechanical failure. We all know that properly inflated tires help a car grip the road. But did you know that tires lose one psi for every ten degree drop in temperature? When was the last time you checked your tire pressure?

     10) When you change drivers, do you check your mirrors? (I do most of the time, but sometimes I get lazy.) And do you regularly clean your windshield? According to the American Safety Council, "Windows are easier to see out of when they're clean." Okay, duh. But while I regularly clean the outside of my windshield, I do not keep up with cleaning the inside of my windshield -- and I bet you don't either.

     11) Per vehicle mile, motorcyclists are 34 times more likely to die in a crash than a passenger in a regular sedan.

     12)  You're supposed to adhere to the two-second rule when following another vehicle, meaning you're two seconds behind the car in front. You should increase it to three seconds if it's foggy, raining or snowing, or if you're following a tractor trailer.

     13) Another pet peeve of mine: failure to yield the right of way is among the top causes of accidents. How many times have you been traveling down the highway. You come up on an entrance and another car merges onto the highway . . . without signaling, without yielding, sometimes without even looking! Arghhh!

     14) Another pet peeve:  Vehicles not just tailgating but also traveling side by side. If cars are side by side, and something goes wrong -- a driver decides to change lanes for example --  there is no room to maneuver and no time to do it. So word of caution:  When merging or changing lanes, you should not rely on your mirrors alone -- quickly look to the side to make sure your blind spot is clear. And do not drive in someone else's blind spot.

     15) Believe it or not, there were over 300 car-related fatalities at railroad crossings. Now here's the advice, which seems kind of specialized, but it makes sense if you think about it:  If your car stalls on the railroad tracks, and a train is coming, and you can't move the car off the tracks, run away from the tracks. But don't run the way the train is going. Run at a 45 degree angle toward the train -- otherwise, the train might knock your car right into you as you're running down the tracks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The No. 1 Reason Why Retirees Move

     B and I were at dinner over the weekend with two other couples. One of the couples had, until recently, been a neighbor of ours. They lived in a big house, in a development more upscale than ours, about two miles from us. But last year they sold their home and moved away, right after their youngest child graduated from high school and went off to college.

     The husband, in his early 60s, lost his job a few years ago. Now he's semi-retired, doing some consulting, although his wife still works fulltime for a nonprofit. They moved into a smaller house in a lake community, about 15 miles farther upstate. The wife told us they love living on their little lake. They go swimming. They go kayaking. They love the view.

     But a while later, the husband offered his own reason why they had moved:  Taxes. The real-estate taxes on their new house, in a modest community with a not-as-well-regarded school system, are less than half of what they were at their old place. Who needs to pay those high school taxes, he ventured, when your kids are grown up and gone away?

     It made me wonder. Taxes? Do they make really that much of a difference?

     On the one hand, it does seem like a waste of money to pay thousands of dollars a year in real-estate taxes -- the majority of which go to the school system -- when you're not getting a benefit because your kids are no longer attending the schools. But, do we not have an obligation to contribute to our community and help pay to educate the next group of children growing up in our neighborhood?

     Tom Wetzel, president of retirementliving.com, cites high property taxes as the single most important reason why retirees living on a fixed income decide to move elsewhere. John Brady, editor of topretirements.com, agrees. "The most significant tax threat to most retirees is the property tax," he explains, "because it is based on the value of your home and bears no direct relation to your income."

     Meanwhile, I found this map showing relative state-and-local tax burdens, state by state. (Go to taxfoundation if you want a bigger, clearer version of the map.)


     I'm not necessarily advising anyone to move away from their high-tax town, or their high-tax state, if that's where they live. After all, I myself live in New York State, which by all measures ranks among the Top 10 highest-tax states. And, I'd argue, sometimes you receive a lot in benefits and services for those high taxes you pay. Besides, high taxes are just one factor in what makes a state financially attractive for retirees.

     For example, Pennsylvania which according to the Tax Foundation ranks as the 10th highest tax state -- due to its sales tax, an inheritance tax and relatively high real-estate taxes -- nevertheless offers other incentives to help keep its retirees solvent. According to a Kiplinger website article, The 10 Most Tax-Friendly States for Retirees, "Pennsylvania is one of only two states (Mississippi is the other) that exempts all retirement income -- including public and private pensions, IRAs and 401(k) distributions -- from its state income tax."

     And of course there are plenty of other reasons to live where you live -- family, friends, climate and a host of other factors. But then . . . I see that school tax bill sitting over there on my desk. It arrived in the mail last week. It's due at the end of September. It's the single largest bill that B and I face all year long, by far. And our youngest child graduated from the local school system three years ago.

     Hmmmm . . . forget the Red and Blue states. Lemme take a look at one of those White states up there on the map.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Here's a Suggestion ...

     Go take a look at the current edition of the Blogging Boomers Carnival, brought to you by Laura Lee Carter at the Midlife Crisis Queen. She points the way to some of the interests of her fellow Baby Boomers -- from meditation to experimentation to the election.

     And get this:  One Baby Boomer is being so bold as to list nine reasons why she doesn't like September. You may agree or disagree with her; but you will definitely be entertained. And she's right about at least one thing:  all those songs about September -- like Wake Me Up When September Ends, September Song, The September of My Years -- do tend to be pretty mournful melodies. Still, I do like this one . . .

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What Was It Like in 1958?

     Last weekend I started reading Stephen King's recent book, 11/22/63. I haven't quite finished it -- the thing is over 800 pgs. long! -- but the story has me entralled and so I enjoy plowing through it.

     The book tells the tale of Jake Epping, who in 2011 is a 35-year-old divorced teacher at a Maine high school. Epping is one of the few people in town who frequents Al's Diner, a silver trailer standing on concrete blocks near the railroad tracks. One day the owner of the diner, Al Templeton, calls Epping and asks him to come over. He has a secret.

     Epping arrives to find Al Templeton looking pale, coughing up blood. Al is dying of cancer. He escorts Epping into the pantry in back of the diner, and tells him to walk forward ... toward the steps.

     What steps? Epping wonders, as he slowly enters the pantry. But suddenly it seems as though he's stepping down, and down again. And then the warm sun comes out, and he has arrived in 1958.

     When Epping climbs back up the steps, back to 2011, Al Templeton explains how he's been going back in time for years. When he goes down the stairs, it's always 1958. While he's there, time proceeds normally. But whenever he comes back to 2011, it's only two minutes later. Al Templeton has been away for years, which is why he's now old and sick -- even though he has only been gone two minutes in 2011 time.

     Templeton was trying to stop the assassination of John Kennedy. But now he is too old, and dying of cancer, and he has missed his chance. His dying wish is for Jake Epping to do it for him.

     Epping travels back to 1958. He has a few scores to settle of his own; then over the course of the next five years he proceeds to put together his plan to stop Oswald from killing Kennedy.

     This explanation only scratches the surface of the book (remember, it is over 800 pgs.). But I was curious about the observations that Jake Epping makes regarding how the world was different back in 1958.

     The thing that first seduced him into taking on the project, into agreeing to go back in time, was the taste of the root beer. "I sipped through the foam on top, and was amazed. It was ... full. Tasty all the way through."

     As we look back on 1958, perhaps a lot of us can see that things were better then. (Do you have any opinions on that one?) I can certainly recall the sodas I drank when I was a kid. And I agree with Jake Epping. They tasted better.

     What else was different back in 1958?

     The first thing Epping couldn't help but notice. Everybody smoked their heads off, even on public conveyances. In 1958 nobody worried about smoke. They didn't worry about cholesterol either.

     As he settles in to his new (old) life, Epping notices that in 1958, you rarely saw a man in a supermarket. Men did not buy groceries in 1958. He also notices that the cars and the houses were not always locked up, and he observes, "People might not have been more honest, but they were more trusting."

     He also says there was less bureaucracy, and a lot less paperwork in 1958.

     Following on the trust theme, when Halloween rolled around he met a young girl with her dad, on the street, and to be friendly he bent down and offered her a piece of candy. The days of candy doctored with LSD, or spiked with a razor blade, were far in the future -- as were the days of "Do Not
Use If Seal Is Broken."

     In 1958, people read TV Guide. They read Life and Look and Reader's Digest.

     Of course, back then people had rotary dial phones; and there were pay phones at gas stations and drug stores.

     Milk was delivered to your door.

     According to Epping, in 1958, which was the heyday of Jayne Mansfield, full breasts were considered attractive on a woman, rather than the embarrassment they are today.

     And, yes, there is a love interest in the book. Apparently this was before birth control pills; but Jake Epping says the condoms back then were no better or worse than they are today. (I can't verify any of this myself; I was nowhere close to being sexually active in 1958.)

    Also, back then, there were plenty of good, fast roads crisscrossing the countryside. Many of them were new. By 2011 those roads were choked with traffic, but back then they were almost deserted, and driving was actually a joy.

     Epping doesn't offer an opinion about whether the cars were better or worse (although he seems to love the used 1954 Ford Sunliner convertible he bought for $315, when gas was 19 cents a gallon). He doesn't weigh in on whether the music was better or not.

     On a more serious note:  People worried about nuclear war, but no one worried about global warming or suicide bombers flying hijacked jets into skyscrapers.

     It was acceptable, back then, for people to make jokes about three jigs stuck in an elevator . . .  or three Yids on a golf course.

     Once, Epping stopped at a gas station in North Carolina to use the toilet. There were two doors and three signs. MEN was stenciled on one door, LADIES on the other. The third sign was an arrow on a stick, pointing down a small hill. It said COLORED. He walked down the path and saw, amidst some unmistakable signs of poison ivy, a narrow stream with a board laid across it on a couple of crumbling concrete posts.

     "If I ever gave you the idea that 1958's all Andy-n-Opie," writes Stephen King, "remember the path, okay? The one lined with poison ivy. And the board over the stream."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

This is Wicked

     We did go to Cape Cod, where the air was clear and the water was . . . warm? The first day we went over to a beach on the bay side, where a crowd of people splashed and frolicked among the little waves. B was content to sit on a chair in the sand and soak up the sun. I donned my wetsuit, waded into the water and dove in.

     I got a few bemused looks from the other swimmers, who told me, "Oh, isn't the water nice?" and "This is beautiful out here, isn't it!" They must have been hardy New Englanders.

     Like my sister in Florida, and fellow blogger Douglas at Boomer Musings, I don't consider the water warm until it gets up toward 80 degrees. But one of the advantages of age is that you're no longer self-conscious about these things. You don't mind being the only one splashing around in a wetsuit. After all, I got to go swimming; otherwise I would have still been sitting on the beach.

     The next day we went out to the ocean. But the beach was closed. Sharks had been spotted offshore. And indeed, we saw a seal bobbing in the surf only 30 or 40 feet from the beach. According to local wisdom, where there are seals, sharks lurk nearby.

     We also took a little kayak trip through the marshes, led by a crusty old Cape Codder whose major frame of reference was John Kennedy, who seems to still be alive on Cape Cod. Our guide told us we would have a wicked wind to paddle against on the way out, but the way home would be wicked easy. Wicked, he told us, is a common expression among people on Cape Cod (maybe it comes from Boston?)

     Anyway, we had a wicked good time for three days on the Cape. But I came home with a wicked bad cold. I'm feeling miserable, and it will be a few days before I come up for another blog post.

     So I'm going to go collapse on the couch and watch some of the 9/11 ceremonies. I suppose feeling wicked miserable is the appropriate frame of mind for a commemoration of this wicked, wicked event.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Summer's Not Over Yet

     Well, I thought the weekend before Labor Day was going to be our last summer fling, when we traveled to Pennsylvania to see B's sister and spend a few days with them in their century-old stone farmhouse. They're not farmers. They're teachers (one of them just retired). But they have a little cornfield in their front yard and a major kitchen garden out back, and we feasted on corn and tomatoes and vegetables for three days.

     But, somehow, it didn't seem like enough. We yearned for the seashore. So B has managed to get a couple of days off from work, and we're headed to Cape Cod for a different kind of weekend. Fish and clams and lobsters, and sand in our clothes, and a bike ride along the coastline.

     It's after Labor Day. The summer crowds are gone. Rates are down a little. And we don't have kids in school, so we can go.

     A few years ago, after we spent a week in Montauk where the ocean water is cold, B bought me a wetsuit as a Christmas present. So I'm bringing along my wetsuit. They say the water off Cape Cod stays warm into September.

     I'm not sure I believe them. But I'll give it a try.

     See you next week.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Moral Dilemma

     The other day I faced a moral dilemma. Actually, it wasn't me, it was a friend of mine. And he had no qualms about it. But I did.

     The background:  Four of us were playing golf, and two of my friends started talking about how they had played golf together the previous weekend, and had been hooked up with two other strangers. One of the guys turned out to be kind of a boor. There was a foursome of Asians in front of them, who were holding them up, making them wait from time to time (which is not unusual on a golf course) and the guy started complaining. At first he just grumbled to himself. Then he complained to my friends. And then he started in with the derogatory racial terms. Not loud enough so the Asians could hear him. But plenty loud enough for my friends to hear.

     "The guy was a real jerk," one of my friends said. "I was glad when that was over."

     But my friend Peter, who hadn't been there, challenged them. "So, you didn't do anything about it?"

     "Not really. He was just making us very uncomfortable."

     Peter shook his head. "If I'd been there, I'd have told this guy he was way off base. I wouldn't have played with him anymore."

     My other two friends gave a knowing laugh. "Maybe. But we didn't exactly want to get into a fight about it."

     "Oh, you're being ridiculous," Peter said. "I wouldn't have gotten belligerent with him. But I would have let him play ahead. Or just walked off. A guy like that has to get the message -- maybe it's okay to go up and politely ask people to hurry up, or ask to play through, but it's unacceptable to start in with the racial slurs, calling people derogatory names."

     I completely agreed with Peter, although if I'd actually been in my friends' situation, I don't know if I would have had the moxie to actually confront the guy, say to his face that he was being inappropriate, and tell him to get lost.

     But anyway, we played a couple more holes. Then Peter turned to me, with a sly smile on his face, and told me what he had done a few days before. He'd been driving home on a major state road, a few miles from his house, when he saw a sign. It was obviously homemade, painted on a piece of plywood. It said: "No Mosque." It had a red circle around the words, with a line drawn through it.

     Peter knew there was a proposal in his town to build a mosque. He'd seen it mentioned in the newspaper, but hadn't paid much attention. He really didn't know any of the details about the proposal.

     But, he told me, the sign really offended him. So he pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. He got out of his car, grabbed the sign and wrestled it out of the ground. Then he threw it into the trunk of his car.

     "So where is it now?" I asked.

     "It's in my basement," he laughed. "I just couldn't stand seeing that sign there. I had to take it down."

     "So," I said, "I guess you don't believe in freedom of speech."

     He looked at me. I was kind of kidding him, teasing him a little. "You know, I actually considered that," he replied seriously. "But I just thought it was too nasty. I couldn't let it stand."

     When he got home, he told me, his wife applauded his action. "Good for you," she'd said. And when he brought up his one qualm, the freedom-of-speech issue, his wife retorted, "The hell with their freedom of speech."

     She obviously considered it hate speech. But I wondered if the sign really qualified. Maybe there was a zoning issue. Maybe there were environmental issues about building the mosque, involving wetlands or traffic.

    Anyway, I found the whole issue interesting. In my own mind, I couldn't decide if Peter had done the right thing or not. If the sign really was hate speech, then he was probably right. But if other issues were involved, then maybe he was wrong -- not to mention the fact that he was stealing someone else's property.

     Later that night at dinner, I brought up the issue with B. "Yeah, sure, a zoning issue," she scoffed. "It was obviously an anti-Muslim message. I'm glad Peter took it down."

     "Yeah, you're probably right," I said. But as you can see, the question is still going around in my mind. And I wonder, whatever happened to the notion that you can strongly disagree with what someone is saying, but still defend their right to say it?

     I don't know. But now you know as much about it as I do. What do you think?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Remember Him?

     Today, September 2nd, is his birthday. He's turning 60 years old. But you haven't heard much about him lately. He retired almost 20 years ago.

     He was born and raised in Belleview, Ill., across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He was raised by two women, his mother Gloria, and his grandmother Bertha Thompson, who he called "Two Mom."

    His mother was a coach, and she began teaching skills to him when he was just a toddler. "My mother rolled balls to me," he later explained, "and I swung at them."

     When he started playing against other kids, he found out he was small by comparison. But he didn't let that bother him. He made up for his size with determination and feistiness. When he was only 8 years old he entered his first official contest, playing in a group of 11-and-unders, and from then on he was a regular on the junior circuit, winning more than his share of games.

     In 1968, when he was 16, his mother took him to California to benefit from the tutelage of top-notch coaches. He entered UCLA as a freshman in 1970. He immediately made the team, became a star, and at the end of the year won the NCAA championship.

     He left school in 1972, turned pro and joined the tour. He hit his way to the top of the leaderboard in six tournaments that season, as a promising 20 year old playing against veterans a decade older than he was. The next year he won 11 tournaments.

     In 1974, he stepped up to dominate his sport. He won in Australia. He won in England. And he won in New York. At only 5 feet, 10 inches, 155 pounds and 22 years old, he beat tennis great Ken Rosewall first at Wimbledon and then again in New York to win the U. S. Open.

Stadium at the U. S. Open
     He won three-quarters of the Grand Slam that year, but was denied a shot at a full Grand Slam. He'd signed to play for World Team Tennis, instead of the Association of Tennis Pros. French officials opposed WTT, and banned WTT players from the French Open. But this young tennis player had his own ideas, and he wasn't going to be pushed around by a bunch of aging tennis bureaucrats.

     He climbed to the Number 1 ranking in men's tennis. Then he started dating Number 1 female tennis player Chris Evert. The relationship between the two American tennis greats only boosted his star power -- he made the cover of Time Magazine in 1975 -- as well as his popularity among the fans.

     Yet some people were put off by his on-court antics. He once gave the finger to a linesman after a disputed call. He argued with umpires, referees, officials, and other players. Nevertheless, his talent won out, and he stood atop his Number 1 ranking for an astounding 263 weeks during his prime years in the 1970s. Still, like any athlete, he suffered some heartbreaking defeats as well. He made it to the finals at Wimbledon three more times during the 1970s, but lost first to Arthur Ashe in 1975 and then to Bjorn Borg in 1977 and 1978.

     The U. S. Open was always his favorite venue (the 2012 Open is being played this week at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing, NY). He was victorious over Borg in the finals in 1976 and 1978. He beat out rival Ivan Lendl in 1982 and 1983 to take two more titles -- giving him a total of 5 U. S. Open titles, a record only later matched by Pete Sampras who won four times in the 1990s and a fifth time in 2003, and Roger Federer, who won 5 straight titles from 2004 through 2008. This coming week Federer has a chance to break the Connors-Sampras-Federer record with an unprecedented sixth win.

     The man I'm recalling is not John McEnroe, who won the U. S. Open four times. He is McEnroe's arch rival, Jimmy Connors, the original bad boy of professional tennis.

     Connors went on to win a second Wimbledon title in 1982, beating McEnroe in a spectacular come-back performance. Connors was three points from losing in a fourth set tiebreaker. Then he won the tiebreaker, and took the fifth and deciding set 6-4.

     But perhaps Connors finest hour came in 1991. By that time he was 39 years old. He had suffered several injuries, and was ranked way down at Number 194, needing a wild card to get into the tournament.

     In the first round he faced Patrick McEnroe, John McEnroe's younger brother. Connors lost the first set, then the second set. He was down 3-0 in the third set when he finally found his footing, hitting the ball with more power and accuracy. He started winning games, and at 1:35 a.m., after more than four grueling hours of play, he won the fifth set 6-4 and walked off a winner.

     He then won two more matches and found himself, on Sept. 2, 1991, his 39th birthday, facing top-ten player Aaron Krickstein. Connors was down two sets to one. He won the fourth set to tie it up. He fell behind 5-2 in the fifth and deciding set. Then once again Connors roared back, with the crowd cheering for their aging champion, and won the match in a tiebreaker.

     Connors later lost to Jim Courier in the semis, who in turn lost to Stefan Edberg in the finals. But the most memorable match of the year, perhaps of the decade, was the time when the aging star made magic happen once again on center court.

     Jimmy Connors retired from tennis in 1993 and went on to become a businessman and investor in gambling casinos. He married Playboy model Patti McGuire in 1979, and together they have two children. Over the years he has also done some tennis coaching (he briefly coached retiring American ace Andy Roddick) and tennis commentary for TV. He currently lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., with Patti, now his wife of over 30 years.