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

Monday, October 29, 2012

Fall into Winter

     The Midlife Crisis Queen hosts this week's issue of Blogging Boomer Carnival from Colorado. She offers the usual links to interesting boomer blogs and introduces us to a new participant, Helene Bludman at Books Is Wonderful.

     Midlife Crisis is also "celebrating up a storm" because her blog has turned five years old. She's "loved every minute of it," she says, and has expanded her social media presence to include twitter and pinterest.

     I'm impressed. I'm a blogging baby compared to her, going on two years old, and while I do use facebook and linked in, I have yet to step into the waters of twitter and pinterest. I just do not understand why they are deemed useful or important. I have seen many tweets on the Internet -- it's hard to avoid them -- and have yet to read one that was the slightest bit interesting or informative. In fact, I find them annoying.

     Do other people feel the same way about twitter, or is this just another sign of my aging brain?

     In any case, Midlife Crisis Queen has begun using pinterest to give us a LOL minute every day, and that does indeed seem like a worthwhile use of social media. On her Midlife Mind page, she posts her favorite jokes and sayings, so go check her out if you are in the mood for a little chuckle.

     Speaking of "celebrating up a storm," it seems as if I'm right in the crosshairs of Sandy. They've been hyping it on the weather channel -- and almost every other news outlet you can think of -- but so far all we've seen here in New York is some wind. If it turns out to be anything like what they're predicting, however, we'll surely lose power, and possibly a few trees. I may have to take a forced vacation from blogging -- hopefully a short one -- but in the meantime, may everyone stay safe.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tackling the Fall Season

     B and I are going over to a friend's house this evening to watch the Giants play the Dallas Cowboys. We're not much in the way of football fans. We spend more time raking leaves (or these days, I admit, using our electric leaf-blower) and getting the yard ready for winter.

     For me, the playing field is my backyard, and has been for a long time. And my game is raking leaves.

     My thoughts first turn in this direction when the air becomes crisp in September and a few leaves start sprinkling down on the lawn. But I typically put off my raking until they have blanketed the ground, sometime in October. Then on a sunny Saturday, I don a pair of old gloves and pull out the rake from the back of the garage. Wiping off the cobwebs, I see two prongs are missing. Not bad. No need to buy a new rake this year.

     People think raking leaves in a mindless chore, but my father taught me early on to put some planning into the job. First, you decide where to begin, then you follow a game plan. For me that's easy, because my lawn slopes from back to front, and it's easier to rake downhill. I rake the edges of the lawn into the bushes -- all the less to carry out later -- then start herding the leaves down the side of my yard.

     When I was a kid, my town had a giant leaf loader that came around and sucked the leaves into the back of a truck, so we only had to carry the leaves from the lawn to the curb. We used an old blanket. We'd set it down and pile the leaves on top. Then we'd gather up the corners, heave the oversized load over the shoulder and stagger out to the street.

     Usually my father carried the leaves by himself; sometimes he'd hold one end of the blanket, I'd hold the other, and we'd carry the leaves out together. Three or four trips would do for our half-acre lawn.

     Today, things have become more sophisticated, if less efficient. In my town, people are required to stuff their leaves into expensive biodegradable bags and line them up on the street. My yard takes at least six or eight bags.

     The technique involves laying the bag on its side and pushing in armloads of crunchy leaves. Troubles come when I misjudge the piles and can't fit all he leaves into the bag. I rake some of  the leftovers into the bushes, and the rest go into the next pile.

     Toward the end of the day, I revert to the old method. Bags and patience gone, I haul out the old blanket and pile on the leaves. I can't put loose leaves on the street, though; they would just stay there all winter. So I carry them over to the empty lot down the street and dump them into the woods. The leaves are not really litter, I rationalize.

     But the technique of leaf-raking is not all in the bagging. There's also the question of the raking stroke. Around the edges of the lawn, a short, upright stroke works best for getting into nooks and crannies of the yard; out on the open lawn, a long, flatter stroke is more effective. Eventually, you get into a rhythm, and the movement becomes hypnotic. Sometimes the distant pounding of drums from a high school band accompanies my strokes. An occasional far-off football cheer breaks the monotony.

     There are moments when I begin to wonder why I don't live in a condo. I start thinking about problems involving my work, or issues with the kids, or resolving schedules at home, but I find the steady movement of arms and shoulders somewhow has a soothing effect that makes these problems seem less pressing, more manageable.

     Sometimes, I fantasize about industrious children who could be doing this for me, but my kids are grown up and gone. Sometimes B comes out and helps me, but she has her own way of doing things. I actually prefer doing it myself. I like being out there alone.

     Raking is not all work. It gets you out into the autumn air. It puts a little muscle on those desk-cramped shoulders, strengthens the legs, too. But the best thing about raking is the smell. The musky odor of fallen leaves brings back melancholy memories of days gone by -- of summers ending, of friends parting, of family members leaving for other far-off commitments,

     Carting the last bag down to the street, gathering up the rake and blanket, I look back over the lawn and think about the autumn days of my youth. I picture my father's lawn, and how I helped him rake the leaves. There he is, in an old hat and moth-eaten beige cardigan sweater, teaching me the basics of leaf-raking, watching me as I clear off a few square yards of lawn, then give up and tumble into the piles of leaves he has made.

     And there I am at a college football weekend, holding hands with my girlfriend, surveying the dormitory quad. Three men are making their way across the Pennsylvania lawn, pulling leaves into patches of canvas and hoisting them into the back of a truck at the end of the yard.

     And I'm in New York City. My first apartment. The lawn in front of the building is only a worn patch of crabgrass. The wind swirls the leaves around a stunted tree. No one bothers to rake the leaves here. But there aren't too many, and by mid-November they will have disappeared.

     And here I am today. I have done the job. The lawn is clean and surprisingly green in the waning light. Already a few new leaves have dropped from the trees, and next week the lawn will be covered once again. But for now I feel good; I have performed a rite of autumn.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Tax Hikes ... Yikes!

     Financial writer Lori Montgomery in the Washington Post noted that almost 90 percent of American taxpayers will see their tax bills rise next year, to the tune of about $2,000 for middle-income households earning between $40,000 and $65,000 a year, if Congress does nothing about the fiscal cliff.

     If you're like me, you've heard of the fiscal cliff, but you don't know exactly what it is. The term is shorthand for a series of federal spending cuts and tax hikes that will automatically go into effect on January 1, 2013, if Congress doesn't act to override them. These automatic measures originated in Congress last year as part of a compromise to pass the Budget Control Act of 2011.

     The tax hikes include ending the temporary 2 percent reduction in the payroll tax (which funds Social Security), ending some tax breaks for business, changing the alternative minimum tax and inaugurating some taxes to start paying for the Affordable Care Act. They will also affect certain tax credits for low-income families, as well as the college tuition tax credit.

     At the same time, budget cuts will go into effect for over 1,000 government programs, including $55 billion in defense cuts and $11 billion in lower Medicare payments. The White House detailed other spending cuts back in September. 

    Only you can figure out how the fiscal cliff will affect your personal situation. But financial experts say it will have a significant effect on the economy as a whole. They estimate the combination of tax hikes and spending cuts will slash half a trillion dollars off the national debt. But they will also cost an estimated 2 million jobs and will most likely throw the country into another recession. (Like we ever got out of the last one.)

     Of course, there's still time for Congress to agree on spending levels and extend the Bush tax cuts, or some of them. Most people trust that Congress will act during its lame duck session, after the Presidential election. I guess we should all hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

No Reason to Panic

     I make a habit of reading the news and trolling through retirement sites and perusing the financial pages, and I have to admit, sometimes they get me pretty discouraged. Actually, to be perfectly honest, sometimes they send me into a panic. Social Security is going broke. You're not saving enough to retire. Your medical bills will bankrupt you in retirement.

     But then I pause and realize it's time for me to stand back and try to gain some perspective. A lot of the advice we get about retirement comes from people trying to push a political agenda, or sell us a financial product -- two sources that we should take with a large grain of salt.

     I'm not saying we shouldn't live prudently and save for retirement. To paraphrase one comment I saw recently:  If you spend all your money while you're working, and save nothing for retirement, that's exactly what you'll have when you retire -- nothing.

     But too much anxious advice about retirement can be enervating and counterproductive. Because often what you see just isn't true, or it may pose a problem down the road but is nothing to panic about now.

     For example, some of our budget hawks in Washington run around telling us the sky is falling on Social Security. But Social Security has the resources to pay full benefits through the year 2032. That gives politicians 20 years to make some adjustments.

     Even if you believe (as I do) that politicians are more concerned with their own careers than they are about the future of our country, this still gives them plenty of time to argue out the issues, agree on a few compromises, and pass some laws amending the program. But even if politicians do nothing for 20 years, Social Security will be able to pay 75 percent of its obligations. Now, nobody wants to take a 25 percent pay cut. But that's not the same thing as going broke.

     Meanwhile, financial experts from banks and investment firms keep telling us we're not saving enough for retirement. According to a report from LIMRA, an association of insurance and financial companies, some 49 percent of Americans aren't saving for retirement. But that figure includes people in their 20s, who certainly have higher priorities.

     Another survey from the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 44 percent of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are not saving enough for retirement. But that doesn't mean 44 percent of Americans are destined for a life of poverty in their old age. Many of the 44 percenters have built up some nest egg -- just not enough to satisfy the experts. Maybe they won’t have enough to live the dream retirement lifestyle, but they probably will have enough to stave off starvation and keep a roof over their heads. Furthermore, it's younger Gen Xers who are more likely to be behind on their savings than Baby Boomers. And those Gen Xers—people in their 40s—have time to catch up.

     How about the War on Seniors? Ben Bernanke has allegedly declared war on seniors by keeping interest rates low. President Obama has supposedly declared war on seniors by raiding Medicare to pay for his health plan. And a Romney economic adviser callously joked that outsourcing seniors to Third World countries might lower Social Security costs.

     A proposed Republican budget plan aims to balance the federal budget on the backs of the elderly—privatizing Medicare and getting rid of Social Security entirely. But remember 2005? A re-elected President Bush went on a tear with his idea to replace a part of Social Security with individual retirement accounts. He got nowhere fast. Of course, seniors should be watchful of politicians trying to target retirees for major cuts in benefits. But the idea that there is an organized war on seniors is the product of politics and paranoia.

     And finally, some so-called experts warn us that we're fools to think we will spend less in retirement. But while I think maybe that's true if you have a bucket list that includes extensive European vacations and shopping excursions to Rodeo Drive, it's not true for typical retirees. For example, as retirees with lower earned income and some investment income, we pay lower taxes. Our housing costs go down, especially if our mortgage is paid off. Our local government likely offers a senior discount on real-estate taxes. And many of us downsize our family home to live in a smaller, less expensive area. Also, presumably we will not be supporting our kids. And don't forget: We no longer have to set aside 5 to 10 percent of our income to save for retirement.

     Of course, I'm relatively new at this. I've been semi-retired for a while now, basking in the afterglow of my final college tuition payment. Do you think I'm living in a fool's paradise? Do you think I should be biting my nails and developing an ulcer and . . . paying more attention to the news?


Sunday, October 21, 2012

May the Last Be First -- at Least Sometimes

     I was at a college over the weekend attending an honors ceremony. B's son was chosen to deliver a short welcoming speech, and then he was among those being honored.

     There were approximately 160 students in the hall, being recognized in two separate categories. The provost called up the first group in alphabetical order, and when that was over he started again, calling up the second group in alphabetical order. And what suddenly struck me is how incredibly unfair this is. It's something we do all the time, without even thinking about it. We arrange people alphabetically. The A's always go first, then the B's and the C's and on and on, until we get to those W's and Y's and Z's who always, without exception, bring up the rear.

     Now you people named Abbott or Brown or Connors probably never thought it should be any different -- if you ever thought about it at all.

     But here's what I saw. As the A's and B's and C's mounted the stage, the audience paid rapt attention, drinking in the ceremony and the significance of the honors being bestowed. The smiles were big; the applause was loud and enthusiastic.

     But by the time the kids named Waters and Williams and Winters walked up on stage, the audience had already seen a long line of people come up and take their certificate and shake hands with the provost. The audience was getting tired and bored. They were anxious for the ceremony to be over and done with so they could go about the rest of their day. Now the smiles were merely polite, the applause weak. And you could just tell, instead of enjoying their walk across the stage, the kids at the tail end of the line were feeling pressure to hurry up and get it over with.

     Think of the poor boy named Yu. He was last to walk onstage in the second category. The attention of the audience -- including his fellow students -- was not on Yu, but on the end of the ceremony and what came next. So Yu rushed to grab his certificate. He made a quick handshake and heard his fellow classmates shift in their chairs and talk restlessly -- anxious for him to scoot offstage so they could break free of the stuffy auditorium and go out and enjoy the beautiful afternoon. These kids weren't being mean, not at all; they were just being kids.

     I remember when I was in high school, and then college. For many of the classes -- not all of them, but enough to notice -- the students were seated alphabetically. The A's and B's and C's sat in the front row. The S's and T's and W's were expected to file into the back of the room. How fair is that?

     I couldn't help but think, sitting there in the audience this past weekend, that the provost should have perhaps arranged the first category in alphabetical order, then the second category in reverse alphabetical order. Or, he could have picked a letter randomly and begun there, going alphabetically after that. Or he could have called up students in the order that letters are arranged on a typewriter keyboard.

     Or maybe we shouldn't do it alphabetically at all. Maybe kids should be arranged by oldest to youngest, or youngest or oldest, or some other way that doesn't always favor those at the top of the alphabet and treat those at the back of the alphabet as also-rans, postscripts, and bottom-of-the-barrels.

     It's not a big thing. It's a subtle thing. But I bet, over time, being stuck at the end can have an adverse psychological effect on many of those who are never first, but always last.

     Maybe I'm sensitive to this, since I'm in the second half of the alphabet. But if it bothers me, then it probably bothers many of the T's and W's, Y's and Z's even more. I don't know. I have a friend named Zahn. I'll have to ask him about it.

     What do you think?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Do Presidential Debates Matter?

   An item this week that caught my attention, and might catch yours . . . 

     The magazine The Week gave us some perspective on presidential debates, offering a brief history of past presidential matchups and wondering if they help decide elections.

     Most of us probably remember the first Presidential debates, which took place in 1960 between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communication, the first debate, on Sept. 26, drew a TV audience of some 70 million viewers. There were three more head-to-head debates in October, focusing on foreign policy issues covering two tiny islands off the coast of China -- remember Quemoy and Matsu? -- as well as Cuba, Castro and the Cold War.

     Everyone knows that Kennedy won the debates, on style points, and went on to eke out the election. He got 49.72% of the popular vote compared to Nixon's 49.55%, although he did better on the electoral side with 303 to 219.

     We've all now come to expect Presidential candidates to debate each other. But did you know that there wasn't another Presidential debate for 16 years after the Kennedy-Nixon contest? Not until 1976 when Jimmy Carter challenged Gerald Ford -- and Ford famously flummoxed, saying there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe at a time when dozens of Soviet divisions were based there.

     So do Presidential debates make a difference? They did in 1960 and 1976, but experts say they usually are not decisive. A 2008 Gallup study concluded that a good performance typically gives a candidate a temporary boost, but nothing more.

     This year, some 67 million people watched the first debate between Romney and Obama, which Romney won handily -- that's more viewers than any debate since the Carter-Reagan matchup in 1980. The second debate, when Obama made a comeback, drew slightly less, about 65 million viewers. Now there's one more, on Monday night.

     Do the debates matter? You be the judge.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Halloween Monster

     Over the weekend B and I took a trip over to Costco to stock up on paper towels, toilet paper, coffee, cereal, a few pounds of chicken and . . . Halloween candy.

     Halloween candy? Do you think I'm jumping the gun?

     Of all the holidays on the calendar, it's Halloween that I prepare for the farthest in advance. Not in terms of a costume or decorations. But you know, you can't take the chance that they'll run out of candy. And with all the risks associated with razors in the apples and LSD in the junior mints, you can't be too careful. So I take it upon myself to taste-test each batch of candy. Really . . . I do it for the kids!

Ready for Halloween
     My favorite is Kit Kat. I also like M&Ms -- the ones with peanuts -- and Hershey bars with almonds.

     But remember, I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing it for the kids.

     So what's your favorite candy? Do you have one? I know a lot of people lose their sweet tooth as they get older. Their tastes become more sophisticated, and they take just a small half-teaspoon of sugar in their tea, and don't put any sugar on the cereal at all.

     Not me. My sweet tooth still works just fine.

     I know, I know, too much sugar is bad for you. Nobody should consume too many carbohydrates. I am fully cognizant of this. That's why, a couple of years ago, I gave up drinking soft drinks and went over to bottled water. (I strained my neck because I was patting myself on the back for being so good.)

     Then B got on my case because all those plastic bottles harm the environment. So now I reuse my plastic water bottles two or three times -- filling them up out of the tap -- before cracking open the next one.

     But I'm getting off topic. Halloween candy. All of our kids are grown up now and out of the house. But I still like greeting the little ones at the door and watching them dig into our bucket and come up with a couple of candy bars . . . and seeing the big smiles on their dirty faces.

     "You shouldn't let them grab," B scolds me.

     "Oh, come on," I parry. "It's Halloween. Let 'em grab for goodness sake."

Hey, who opened the candy?!?
     And I know . . . I remember, from my own childhood, the point is to collect as much candy as you can. You don't eat the half of it. The real fun is dumping out huge piles of candy on the floor after you get home, and sorting through looking for the good stuff, and maybe trading with your brothers and sisters. In the end, half of it goes stale and ends up in the garbage. Oh, I know it's a waste . . . bah humbug.

     Parents may roll their eyes, but I remember as a parent with young kids, I loved seeing the joy in their faces -- all this candy, it doesn't get better than this! Doesn't every kid deserve a moment like that?

     But still, as parents we do have to take some responsibility into our own hands. For example, a lot of kids have an allergic reaction to nuts. Can't let that happen. I'd better get those peanut M&Ms out of the bowl -- oh, and the Hershey bars, too!


Sunday, October 14, 2012

October's Blogging Boomer Carnival

     It's October, the month that includes Columbus Day, Canadian Thanksgiving, United Nations Day, and of course Halloween. My turn at the Blogging Boomer Carnival touches on some autumnal advice, but seems to focus mainly on health . . . of the mind, the spirit and the body. I hope these posts will open your eyes to some new perspectives, so page down and take a look.

     Laura Lee Carter over at Midlife Crisis Queen has decided to stick to her specialty: Midlife Psychology. Here's her take on the history of the idea of introverted versus extroverted, and what we all need to learn about relating to others.

     John Agno, a certified executive and business coach, observes on his SoBabyBoomer blog that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports 7 out of 10 Americans are not getting enough exercise. So what is the secret for how Boomers can get enough physical activity and actually enjoy doing it? He finds 7 "best practices" that are used by successful exercisers. They can help you identify what activities work best for you, and show you how to incorporate them into your daily life.

     Anne Maxfield at The Accidental Locavore has love and aging on her mind. Does affinage (the aging of cheese) make a good cheese great? Or is it the love the cheesemaker puts into it? And what are the bumps along the road? (And for one more bump, see below.)

     Katie Foster, our most peripatetic Baby Boomer, notes that since the beginning of time romantic journeys have been the beloved subject of novels, movies and stage. In Jordan Journey she takes us along on a trip with her and her husband as they wander through the desert and enjoy exotic dining, find spiritual awakening . . .  and experience romantic interludes that arise in unexpected places.

     Meanwhile, on the Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, offers suggestions on how to get your yard ready for winter. Feeding your lawn, storing garden chemicals, draining hoses, and winterizing lawn mowers are among the suggestions.

     So finally, as Rita Robison suggests, the air is getting cooler, the nights are getting longer, and the year is winding down. Is it any wonder that October also includes (on Oct. 8) the birthday of R. L. Stein, author of the Goosebumps series along with other haunting books, as well as National Grouch Day on October 15, Frankenstein Friday on October 26, and one other holiday of note . . . last week, though you may have missed it, we celebrated National Moldy Cheese Day.

     Why, it's enough to make you think that there's a full moon afoot. Which there is . . . on October 29.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

4 Reasons to Start Getting Social Security as Soon as You Can

     Most financial experts tell you to wait at least until full retirement age, and maybe longer, before signing up for Social Security. There's a good reason for this. Social Security is like an annuity, providing a guaranteed monthly payment for the rest of your life, no matter how long you live. It addresses the problem of:  What do I do if I run out of money? With Social Security, you never run out of money.

     For many of us – people born between 1943 and 1954 – our regular retirement is 66. We're eligible to start receiving Social Security as early as age 62. But if we do, we suffer a penalty. Anyone can also delay taking Social Security until age 70. Then you get a bonus.

     The penalty for taking Social Security early is a little over 7 percent a year, and the bonus for delaying is also slightly over 7 percent a year. So for example, if your normal retirement benefit at age 66 is calculated at the average of $1,236 a month, you'll only receive about 1,150 per month if you sign up at age 65, and barely $900 a month if you begin payments at 62. If you wait until 67, your benefit will grow to about $1,320 per month. And if you wait until age 70, your monthly benefit will balloon to more than $1,600 a month – for the rest of your life, even if you live to a hundred.

     For most people this is a good deal – a 7 percent increase each year, risk free. Compare that return to the risk-free rate on a bank CD or a U.S. Treasury bill of less than 1 percent.

     So why would anyone grab Social Security when it's first offered? I can see four good reasons.

     You need the money. Sure, you get a 7 percent return on Social Security if you postpone your benefit. But that only helps if you can afford to wait. It's kind of like putting money in a good, high-paying savings account. But if you need Social Security to cover your rent and buy groceries, then it makes sense to start benefits at age 62. You need it; you've earned it; and it's available.

     And by the way, you have plenty of company. The majority of people eligible for Social Security start drawing benefits before full retirement age.

     You're in poor health. A friend of mine just turned 60. He has diabetes. He's got high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and he's already had one heart attack. He realizes he probably will not survive to age 83, which is the life expectancy of the typical 60 year old male. (The average 60-year-old woman will make it to 85). So he intends to start Social Security as soon as he can, at age 62.

     Unfortunately, he's betting against his own longevity, but given his medical history, he's probably making the smart move. If, for whatever reason, you don't expect to live into your 80s and 90s, then it makes no sense to delay receiving your retirement benefits.

     You're a financial genius. You don't have to prove any "need" to collect Social Security, you don't even have to be retired. It is perfectly legal to start benefits at age 62, then just stash the money away in your own private investment account.

     For most people this doesn't make sense, because remember, you get a risk-free 7 percent return from the government, and you probably can't do that well by yourself. But if you're the next Warren Buffett, or have a sure-fire investment opportunity that will produce over 7 percent a year, there's a case for taking Social Security now, and investing it on your own instead of letting the government do it for you. Remember, though, you might have to pay income tax on that benefit if you're still working or if you have too much other income.

     If benefits change. Social Security is billed as a certain benefit, safely put away in a proverbial "lock box," safe and secure for our old age. But of course we all know this isn't true. Social Security was put in place by the politicians of the 20th century. Future benefits depend on the politicians of the 21st century.

     In recent years economists and politicians have begun to worry that we can't afford all the payments promised to future beneficiaries, especially as Baby Boomers retire. There's nothing, other than political pressure, to stop Congress from "bending the curve" toward lower benefits – or more likely, to tax away your benefit, especially if you're affluent enough to postpone your payout beyond normal retirement age. If in your judgment the political risk of a lower benefit outweighs that built-in "risk free" 7 percent return, then it may make sense to take the money while it's still available. But again, remember that benefits are subject to taxation if you're below full retirement age and still working.

     The decision of when to begin Social Security benefits always depends on your individual situation. I've posted two previous items which look at other aspects of the issue:  Should You Take Social Security Early? and The Best Time to Start Social Security. And you may have your own story which affects when you did, or when you will, sign up for Social Security.

     Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration helps us all out with a retirement planner, which includes a link to your own personal account, and also offers its own page When To Start Receiving Benefits. Go take a look. Then you be the judge.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Dirty Little Secret

     I would like to take this opportunity to celebrate the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden -- a group of people that never gets rewarded or recognized for all their selfless hard work and unsung achievements. I'm talking, of course, about the dishwashers of the world.

     I don't mean, particularly, the group of guys who wash dishes in the restaurants and cafeterias across this great land of ours -- although I do feel a certain solidarity with these workers and bow my head to them as well. I'm talking about people much closer to home, people you may actually know: The person who does the dishes in your house.

     Why do I feel that these people do not get the respect they deserve? Why do I feel that they should finally get their fair share of the credit in the kitchen? Because I am one of them.

     The plight of the dishwasher hit home for me last night. We had friends over for dinner, a married couple. The man brought the wine. Everyone thanked him and inspected the label and congratulated him for his good taste. The wife brought an hors d'ouevre -- crackers in a very fancy box with some kind of homemade dip with little green things in it. Everyone oohed and aahed over the hors d'oeuvre, and ceremoniously dipped in their crackers and smacked their lips at how good it all was.

     Then came the main meal, cooked by my lovely B. It was good . . . it was really good. I made all the appropriate comments about taste and texture; the two women discussed where the recipes came from, and how B had tweaked them to give them a special flavor. Everyone heaped compliments on the chef as they asked for seconds.

     But who brought all those clean dishes to the table? Where were the compliments for the person who slaved over the sink, filled and emptied the dishwasher, hand-washed the big pots that won't fit in the dishwasher, and carefully soaped and rinsed the wine glasses and special cups that B says are "too good" to go in the dishwasher?

     Nobody thanks the dishwasher. Nobody congratulates the dishwasher for producing sparkling glasses and clean plates. Nobody waxes enthusiastic about how the dishwasher loaded the dishwashing machine so all the dirty dishes would fit in and still get clean.

   It's a thankless job. You never get a compliment. But nobody hesitates to criticize, usually in a slightly scolding voice, if a tiny bit of tomato sauce is left on the edge of a plate, or the handle of a pot is still a little greasy, or the glasses are cloudy.

     I've been a dishwasher for over 40 years . . . for most of my life. I blame it on my father. When I was a little kid, my older sister did the dishes in our family. When she left for college, my father took over the job.

     When I then went off to college, and later marriage, I thought that dishwashing was an important job -- after all, in my family it was a responsibility taken on by the eldest child, and then by the alpha male. So I stepped up to the kitchen sink manfully, ready to shoulder this important and serious obligation.

     Little did I know at the time that dishwashing is the duty assigned to the person judged to have the fewest skills in the kitchen. The person who can't do anything else. The person who can't measure or mix or roast or bake. The person who doesn't even command the basic fundamentals to set the table.

     You know the dirty little secret: No meal can be put on the table without clean dishes. So who does the dishes in your house? Take a moment to thank your dishwasher. Go buy him or her a present or some flowers.

     And next time you're in a restaurant, by all means send your compliments to the chef. But send them to the dishwasher too!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Who Should Get to Vote?

     I had this thought the other day. It came to me almost as a joke, but still I wonder . . .

     I saw a story about a 92-year-old widow in one of the states where they're trying to put in voter i.d. laws. The woman has been voting for 70 years. She sold her car a few years ago because it was getting difficult for her to drive, and now she no longer has a driver's license. She isn't planning any international trips, so she doesn't have a passport. So under the new legal restriction, she would no longer be able to vote.

     The clear message: Obviously, this woman has every right to vote, and the new i.d. law would deny her that inalienable right.

     Okay, I get it. On the other hand . . . what the story really made me think was that while many 92-year-olds are still sharp as a tack, many others are suffering from Alzheimer's or other problems that cause them to lose their mental faculties. Besides, to be brutally honest, what do 92-year-olds care about the future of the country anyway? Okay, they might give a thought to their children and grandchildren, but most 92-year-olds themselves will be gone before the end of the next presidential term.

     It's a cold, hard fact that the aging process often robs us of our mental and physical capacities. And if some of the 90-somethings have lost their mental ability and social consciousness, does it really help the future of our country to count their votes?

     If our dottering 92-year-olds shouldn't vote because they're forgetful and possibly confused, then why should we want other incompetent people to vote? Don't they just mess things up for the rest of us?

     Should Bernie Madoff or Allen Stanford get to vote? Why? So they can vote in favor of political candidates who want to legalize theft and fraud? Is a good idea for crack whores and pimps to vote? Are we supposed to take their views seriously? What about  people who are mentally challenged? Do they understand the political process? Do they know how the economy works?

     What about high-school dropouts? Should we let people who for whatever reason are so short-sighted, so unable to control their own lives, that they kill their own future prospects have a voice in killing our future prospects?

     I know the idea of "one man, one vote" is sacrosanct in our democracy. But just maybe it's not such a great idea to let the ignorant, the uneducated and the incompetent help us decide the future of our country.

     Last year Newsweek did a survey, giving 1,000 Americans the American Citizenship Test, the exam taken by immigrants who want to become a citizen. After the results came in, Newsweek could only conclude: "The country's future is imperiled by our ignorance."

     Among the results: Some 27% of respondents did not know who is in charge of the executive branch of government. Really? Should these people be allowed to vote for president, when they don't even know what his job is? Almost 30% could not name Joe Biden as the current vice president. Over half could not say how long a senate term is! Is it really helpful to the country for these people to help decide who the next group of senators will be?

     Maybe we should only let people vote if they have graduated from high school, or have a GED. Or people who are recent immigrants (after all, they've passed the American Citizenship test!)

     Or maybe instead of voter i.d. laws, which discriminate against people who don't drive, we should administer a simple civics test to people who want to vote. After all, you have to pass a test to get a driver's license. It's not a hard test. Over 200 million Americans (about 90% of the adult population) have passed it and qualified as licensed drivers. Is voting any less a responsibility than driving a car? Maybe we should require voters to pass a test every five years or so, to make sure they continue to be of sound mind -- so if you're in your 90s and can answer a few basic questions, then you can still vote, even if you've sold your car.

     I proposed this idea to a friend the other day while we were driving over to the mall. She's a registered Democrat and a firm Obama supporter. I was kind of joking, but she took me seriously. She thought it was a good idea!

     "But you couldn't really suggest something like this for real," I said. "People have given their lives for universal suffrage. Plus, you'd probably be accused of being a racist; a lot of the people failing the test would be people of color."

     "I'm not so sure," she said. "You can't assume most of the people failing a voter registration test would be black."

     "Uh, no," I said. "But I'm pretty sure the black population has a higher high-school dropout rate than whites."

     "That doesn't matter," she replied. "A free public education is available to everyone, whether you're white or black, rich or poor, so it wouldn't it be discriminatory to require a high-school diploma to register to vote."

     "Well . . . maybe," I demurred, but I wasn't sure if I really believed that. Poor kids with little or no family support have a hard time getting through high school no matter how hard they try. But it did make me wonder: Who would benefit politically from a rule like this? Republicans or Democrats? I honestly don't know.

     We arrived at the mall, and so we left it there. Just a silly idea that we tossed around as kind of a thought game. Later, in a more serious moment, I thought:  First of all, elderly people who really are incapacitated probably don't go out to vote anyway, so why deny anyone their right? And maybe it's a better idea for us as a nation to get more serious about education. Treat our teachers better. Get more males to teach in the public schools. Make our urban schools as good as our suburban schools. And try harder to make sure everyone, or almost everyone, does get a high-school education, does develop some skills, and actually does feel like they have a stake in the future of America.

     And I wonder . . . if all this happened, maybe the candidates would stop producing ads that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Possibly the cable news channels would raise their level of discourse. Maybe the candidates would discuss real issues instead of speaking in sound bites and calling each other names.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Remember Her?

     She was born in Jamestown, in far western New York state, in 1911. Her father worked for the telephone company, so the family moved a lot, first around New York, then to Montana and Michigan. Her father died when she was four, and she moved back to upstate New York with her mother and younger brother.

Jamestown theatre named for her
     She was introduced to the theater by her grandfather, who brought her to vaudeville shows and encouraged her to take part in school plays. Later, her mother remarried. Her stepfather was a Shriner, and he arranged for her to appear in a couple of their local productions.

     When she was 14, she started going out with a local hood. Her parents tried to put a stop to that, and when they failed they sent her to New York City to study at the John Murray Anderson School for Dramatic Arts. She was a schoolmate of Bette Davis, but apparently she failed to impress her teachers. She later said, "All I learned in drama school was how to be frightened."

     She nevertheless scrounged a few jobs here and there, and found some success as a fashion model. But just as her career was starting to blossom, she fell ill with a mysterious rheumatic-type disease. She went home to convalesce; it was two years before she was finally healthy and energetic enough to return to New York.

     She went back to modeling. She took the name Diane Belmont and tried to work in the theater, for the Ziegfeld company and the Shubert brothers, but she was fired as quickly as she was hired.

As Diane Belmont
     In 1933 she moved to Hollywood and became a contract player for RKO pictures. She appeared in a movie with the Three Stooges and another with the Marx Brothers. She also appeared in several films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and then in the 1940s she went over to MGM where she found a career in a string of B movies. She became known as "Queen of the Bs."

     In 1940 while filming one of her B pictures, Too Many Girls, she met her husband, a band leader six years younger than she was. They hit it off immediately and got married the same year. Her husband was drafted into the army, but because of a knee injury was restricted to limited service. He stayed in Los Angeles and performed in USO shows for GIs returning from the Pacific.

     In 1942 she appeared opposite Henry Fonda in The Big Street, and the following year she starred in Dubarry Was a Lady, a film for which the natural brunette dyed her hair the flaming red that would become her trademark.

     In 1944, she filed for divorce, but she and her husband reconciled. A few years later, she was cast as the wacky wife in a radio comedy. The show was successful, and CBS asked her to develop the show for what was then the next new thing: television. She wanted to cast her real-life husband as her TV husband, but apparently CBS executives were not agreeable. Instead of appearing on TV, she went on the road to perform the act in live shows -- she played the zany housewife with no talent but plenty of ambition, who wanted to sing and act in her husband's shows.

     The comedy act became a hit with live audiences -- surely, you've guessed who she is by now -- and so CBS executives changed their minds and put I Love Lucy into their weekly lineup. The show debuted on TV in October 1951. It pioneered several new TV techniques, including performing and producing in front of a live audience. The comedy quickly rose to the top of the ratings where it remained for most of its run, up until 1957.

     Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz formed their own production company Desilu. They agreed to take a pay cut to help with the expenses of filming the show; in return they retained the rights to the film after it was aired. In 1951, no one thought about reruns. But I Love Lucy was syndicated to TV stations for years, with the proceeds going not to CBS, but to Desilu.

     The hectic schedule further strained the marriage, and in 1960 the couple again filed for divorce. This time it was for good, although Lucy and Desi remained friends for the rest of their lives. They had two children, Lucie in 1951, and Desi, Jr., in 1953. Ball's second pregnancy was written into the show -- but due to the standards of the time, they could not use the word "pregnancy"; it was said that she was "expecting" instead.

     After their divorce, Ball bought out her ex-husband's interest in Desilu, and she stepped up as the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio, which produced several movies and TV shows including Star Trek, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible and Ball's own follow-up series The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy. (Desilu was later sold to Gulf & Western, which became Paramount, and ironically the rights to the early shows ended up back in the hands of CBS.)

     In 1962 Lucille Ball married fellow comedian Gary Morton, who remained her husband until her death in 1989 at age 77.

     Lucille Ball has been heralded as one of the most successful stars in Hollywood, with two stars on Hollywood Blvd. -- one for her work in TV and one for motion pictures. She won numerous awards, including four Emmys, and appeared on the cover of TV Guide more than any other person. She was voted the greatest TV icon of all time, and later Time magazine named her one of the hundred most influential people of the 20th century.