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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Speaking of Cliches

     My kids have been visiting and they reminded me -- with all the politeness and sensitivity you'd expect from 20-somethings -- that I tend to offer up a lot of free, gratuitous advice in the form of tired old cliches. I don't think they take much of it to heart (although it is all excellent advice), but when they're not ignoring me they do sometimes find my offerings amusing.

     For example, I try to tell my two kids to remain friends as adults, even as they get older and their lives diverge both professionally and geographically. Don't you think that's important? I do. Friends come and go, I tell them, but you always have family. Remember, blood is thicker than water.

     However, my advice typically elicits no more than a big sigh and an obvious eye roll.

The usual reaction
     I'm sure I was no different when I was a young adult. But I do recall my mother's favorite bit of advice. She always told me, A stitch in time saves nine. But then, she was a Depression baby. She also would trot out another chestnut: You can't have your cake and eat it too. Which I thought was a terrible piece of advice, since I figured the whole point of having cake was to eat it. But then, eventually, I did learn that if you eat the cake, you no longer have it.

     My mother also warned me many times not to be a bull in a china shop (come to think of it, B sometimes tells me the same thing!), and when I got too anxious about something she'd warn me, Don't count your chickens before they hatch.

     My dad used to say: There's more than one way to skin a cat. He was a crafty old soul, who felt that you had to take the world as it is, and figure out a way to carve out a place for yourself. And if you couldn't do it one way, you had to try another. He would also sometimes warn me that a person might have an ace up his sleeve. I could never quite figure out if my dad thought a person with an ace was dishonest, or whether he secretly admired the guy for being smarter than he looked.

     There was one more my dad used, when he was trying to counsel me to be patient: Rome wasn't built in a day. I found that one particularly puzzling, because while I knew my dad counted his birthdays in Roman numerals, I couldn't figure out what Rome had to do with me. (Of course, now my kids count my birthdays in Roman numerals.)

     My best friend's dad had a favorite phrase. He always talked about how some young fellow needed to cut his teeth on something -- meaning the fellow was green and had to get some experience. But what that had to do with teeth, I never did figure out.

     I also remember once when I was in high school, a girl with an unfortunate skin condition who was also too-obviously overweight, took a shine to me. I was trying to avoid her without hurting her feelings. My friend smirked at me and said I should go out with her because, after all, beauty's only skin deep. Later, when I suggested to my friend that maybe he should ask her out, he retorted, yeah that'll happen when hell freezes over.

     Of course, I hate to think what cliche Janie Smith, the prettiest girl in our class (or so I thought), trotted out when she found out I was smitten with her prepubescent charms. Probably something along the lines of, eeeww ... not in a million years.

     When I was a kid, I found many of these old sayings annoying, even if they were sometimes instructional. But once I had my own kids, I found myself trotting out these old phrases like -- well, like I had an ace up my sleeve, even though I was really laying an egg.

     But the one my kids find most laughable is:  A penny saved is a penny earned. Like most kids (and adults too, I might add) if they see a penny on the sidewalk, they won't even bother to stoop over to pick it up. Not worth the effort.

     So what's your favorite cliche, or favorite piece of advice? My kids still have a few problems in their lives, a few big decisions to make, and I would like to be able pass on some cogent advice to them. And who knows, maybe someday I'll have grandchildren, who will be eager for my words of wisdom.

     In the meantime, let me pass on another favorite:  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Friday Front

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

     I saw two articles this week that seem to offer dueling views on the economy, and what it means for Baby Boomers and our children.

     In "The Baby Bump" from the New York Times, two former members of the Obama administration, Kenneth S. Baer and Jeffrey B. Liebman, argue that there's really no good reason to worry about the federal budget deficit and the nation's high unemployment rate.

     The reason the government is spending so much money, they point out, is not because Congress has gone on an out-of-control spending spree, as some have charged. It's because of a demographic shift.

The unemployment rate has started to go back down
     We're spending more on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, because Baby Boomers are getting older, so there are a lot more retired people with a lot more medical problems. But aside from this demographic shift, the government has actually been fiscally responsible in recent years. Spending on discretionary items, such as defense, agriculture and education, has gone down, at least as a percentage of our gross domestic product (GDP).

     The authors also say the high unemployment rate is a temporary problem that will correct itself over time. The economy is currently generating about 150,000 jobs a month. According to critics that's not enough to employ all the new high school and college graduates entering the workforce. The critics point to the falling labor participation rate, and say the only reason the unemployment rate is going down is because so many people are discouraged and have given up looking for work.

     But the authors claim that 200,000 Baby Boomers are retiring every month -- and it's all those retirees, not discouraged workers, who account for the falling labor participation rate. They figure that 200,000 replacement jobs, plus 150,000 new jobs, offer plenty of opportunities for newcomers to the employment rolls.

But the labor participation rate has not improved
     The authors don't say where they get a figure of 200,000 Baby Boomers retiring every month. Honestly, I don't believe it. Maybe it's possible that 200,000 Baby Boomers are leaving the workforce (although that figure still seems inflated), but no doubt a lot of them are getting laid off or packaged out.

     Regardless, just try to tell any of this to young people, says Robert Samuelson in his Washington Post article "Is the Economy Creating a Lost Generation?" His analysis shows that for young people jobs are scarce, and those that are available pay low wages with few benefits. The result is some 20% of young workers are underemployed -- either officially unemployed, working part time, or so discouraged they've stopped looking for a job.

     Furthermore, the stagnant job market blocks the traditional path to better jobs and higher pay. Historically, young people moved up the economic ladder by changing jobs, learning new skills, developing their business network. But today, with  jobs so scarce, those who are employed are clinging to their old jobs. They're too scared to jump at new opportunities, the time-honored way to increase pay and responsibility.

     As a result, fewer young people are getting married, buying houses and starting families. In 2011, the birth rate dropped to its lowest level since numbers started being reliably recorded in 1920. The expected fertility rate (the number of children born to a woman in her lifetime) has now fallen for four years in a row, down to 1.9 (the replacement rate is 2.1).

And young people are left behind
     Samuelson does not hold out a lot of economic hope for our children, at least for the immediate future. He points out in another article, "Job Creation's Glum Arithmetic," that even if you take the official unemployment rate at face value (ignoring all the underemployed), given current job-creation rates, it will take until  2018 to get the unemployment rate back down to a barely acceptable 6.5%. Even if we start generating 250,000 jobs a month, it will be the end of 2014 before we reach that rather modest goal.

     And that's assuming we fix the fiscal cliff, reform the tax code, avoid future energy shocks, and do not suffer another recession.

     I don't know whether to believe Baer and Liebman from the Times, or Samuelson from the Post. But all this is somewhat disconcerting to me. I'm no longer looking for a job myself. But as someone who was forced out of the labor pool prematurely, as someone who is officially counted as retired but is really just underemployed, what I really wonder is:  If those young people don't start making more money, who's going to pay my Medicare and Social Security?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gun Safety, Not Gun Control

     People have been talking about gun control, and how we treat the mentally ill, ever since last Friday when the Newtown shootings took place. I've seen various comments in the media and postings on Facebook like the ones below.

     The Newtown wound is still very raw -- the first funerals were held yesterday. Nevertheless, I think we should keep the conversation going about how to stop these killers. And before we all get too depressed, we should also keep things in perspective.

Some 8,800 of those U. S. handgun fatalities were murders; almost 2,000 were accidents
     First of all, remember that violent crimes in America have gone way down since they peaked in the early 1990s. Murders have declined from over 24,000 per year to less than 15,000 per year, even though we have a larger population. The violent crime rate has dropped from over 700 per 10,000 residents to less than 400 per 100,000 residents.

     And we also have to remember that mass killings have a long tradition in this country. Don't you remember Charles Whitman picking off students from the observation deck of the main building at the University of Texas in 1966? He killed over a dozen people -- and was killed at the scene by a police officer.

     But of course the fact that mass shootings almost rate as an American tradition is cold comfort to the latest victims. Indeed, if anything, what it says to me is this: It's about time we finally do something about them.

     In 1994 the U. S. Congress passed a law banning automatic assault weapons. But the law sunsetted after ten years, in 2004, when Congress did nothing to extend or renew it. So presumably it was perfectly legal for Mrs. Lanza to have all those weapons in her house -- the ones her disturbed son took and used to kill her and the young students at the school.

I saw this table on the Internet. It is wrong. CDC figures for 2009 do say 11,493 firearm homicides, but the 16,799 number is for TOTAL homicides -- meaning only 5,306 were non-firearm homicides
     I have seen a few articles making essentially the same argument for guns that my brother-in-law makes -- that if more people were armed, then potential mass murderers might think twice before they initiated their attacks. See this article by John Fund at National Review if you want to follow the reasoning.

John Oliver from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
     These arguments make a certain kind of internal logic. But they just don't square with reality. First of all, many of the killers like Adam Lanza are on a suicide mission. What do they care if someone else has a gun? Besides, they typically outarm any potential gun-carrying citizen. Plus, the proof of the pudding is that, with all the guns in America, it's never a civilian who stops the killer. It's always the cops.

     In 1966, a civilian joined the police officers who attacked Charles Whitman on the observation deck. But the civilian's rifle went off prematurely by mistake. It was the cops who actually took down the killer.

     Furthermore, I don't see any justification for allowing normal citizens to carry automatic weapons. There's nothing in the 2nd Amendment about automatic weapons. We banned them once before; we should do it again. Here's a report on what some U. S. Senators are beginning to propose.

     I understand that Americans want to be able to hunt, and go take target practice, and the 2nd Amendment clearly gives them the right to do that. But I don't see why the ownership of guns can't be regulated on the basis of public safety, just like we do with drugs or automobiles. After all, it's not hard to get a driver's license, or buy a car. Nobody is trying to "take away" our cars by requiring us to have a license and register our cars with the state. But if a car is used in a crime, or a driver hurts someone in a hit-and-run, we at least know how to track them down. And the fact that people know this likely has some deterrent effect against reckless driving and criminal behavior.

     Obviously, regulating guns more effectively is not the whole answer to the Newtown type of crime. But instituting some reasonable safety regulations is absolutely part of the solution. Certainly, we can also work to improve our schools and our mental health facilities. But that's a long and uncertain road.

     Some people have fingered violent video games and violence in the media as contributing factors to violence in the real world. I'm sure there's some truth to that. But I doubt we're ready to start down the road to censorship, so we have to rely on the media to police itself, which you know is not going to be very effective.

     You might have seen the following message on the Internet, supposedly from Morgan Freeman. I read it and thought it made some sense. Then I found out the message is a hoax. It did not come from Morgan Freeman. But whoever posted it ... maybe they weren't so very wrong.

The apocryphal message from Morgan Freeman
     I hope we keep the conversation going. I hope those Senators are successful in banning assault weapons. And I hope the U. S. continues the trend of less gun violence, and less violence in general, as the months and years go on. Because I don't want to be the next victim. And I sure don't want my kids to be the next victims.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Blogging Boomers

     Just a note to prompt you to head over and take a look at the Midlife Crisis Queen to check out the Winter Solstice edition of the Blogging Boomers Carnival.

     She's got some news from the writing front; plus, you'll of course find links to several interesting Baby Boomer posts.

     One entry discusses how as a general rule Baby Boomers talk more frequently to their adult children than their parents did. Another offers a few tips on how to cut holiday costs. And there's a new member, with a blog called Life After Married, who covers all the vicissitudes of Baby Boomer relationships.

     Go ahead, click on the link. It's worth the trip.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What the Future Holds

     Whew! Well, that's over and done with. I'm good for another five years.

     The strangest thing happened on our way out of the medical office. As we exited the elevator, we ran into a friend of mine. He moved to the city a few years ago after he got divorced, but still comes out here to the suburbs to see the doctor. He was just going in for his physical. (I asked him later how it went. He frowned and said, "My doctor wants me to lose weight." I told him: "Well, just get yourself a fatter doctor!")

     Half a minute later, in the lobby, we saw a woman I used to work with. Hadn't seen her in at least five years. We exchanged startled hellos, and briefly caught up on what we'd been doing. I don't know what she was there for, but she looked happy enough, and so it couldn't have been anything serious.

     Then before we even got to the parking lot, we saw our dance instructor, who was coming in to the facility with her mother. More surprised hellos, and quick catching up.

     Is this what happens when you get older -- you see all your friends at the doctor's office?

      Anyway, B and I have already made a date, for December 2017, for our next colonoscopy. But, I wonder, will we still be living here then? Will we be somewhere else? But at least it's likely that we'll be alive.

     It seems embarrassingly petty and self-centered to be worrying about a possible polyp in my colon when 20 little kids are being shot and murdered up in Connecticut. What are my problems compared to theirs? Just think of the lives cut short, the horror the parents must be going through. Our hearts obviously go out to them.

     My brother-in-law would say that if more people were armed, then maybe these things wouldn't happen. Somebody with a gun might have stopped the shooter; and besides, if the shooter knew there was a good chance he'd run into someone who'd shoot back, maybe he wouldn't try to kill these kids and their teachers in the first place.

     My brother-in-law spent 20-plus years in the military, and I know he owns at least one gun -- he showed me his license once -- and is comfortable carrying a lethal weapon. He's a conservative who believes in individual freedom and personal responsibility, and the right to carry arms. He talks the conservative line in general, and since he's a mature, responsible person his outlook works pretty well for him. And honestly, for the most part I respect his beliefs. I even share some of them, at least to some reasonable extent. I certainly don't think he's a stupid kuckledragger -- the way a lot of liberals think of people who don't agree with them.

     But I do think my brother-in-law is wrong on guns.

     How can anyone seriously think that arming more people would prevent incidents like the one in Newtown, Conn.? We're not in the wild west anymore -- and besides, that wasn't such a safe place anyway. Is a civilian really going to pull out his gun and confront a killer? And if he did, how would he fare against a shooter who's wearing combat gear and carrying semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle?

     Did any armed bystander pull out a gun and stop the killing in Tucson in Jan. 2011? Or in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012? Or at Virginia Tech in July 2007?

     No, instead we hear news like we did last week, of a man in Pennsylvania who accidentally shot and killed his son in the parking lot of a gun store. He thought the gun was not loaded.

     It's time to interpret the 2nd Amendment in the light of the 21st century, instead of the 18th century, to make sure we keep semiautomatic guns out of the hands of people who are mentally disturbed, or even just careless. Would it be that horrible to require people to be trained and licensed before they could shoot a gun? After all, we don't hesitate to require that of people who drive an automobile. Would it be that horrible to register guns, like we do automobiles, and require owners be responsible for them and to carry liability insurance?

     And while we're at it, do we have to all be so resentful and angry all the time? Do we have to call people nasty names when they don't agree with us? Do we have to be so aggressive when we're on the road and cloaked in the anonymity of our cars? Do we have to beat people up (as they did in Michigan last week) when they vote on legislation we don't like?

     I think we all need to be a little less self-centered, a little more caring of others, a little less insulting to people who don't agree with us. Let's do it for the kids.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Getting to the Bottom of Colon Cancer

     There's no way to put a pretty face on it, and no way to stem the tide:  I've been scheduled for a colonoscopy.

     B and I each had a colonoscopy a little over five years ago. B is blessed with good genes and a clean alimentary tract, and was told she didn't need to get another test done for ten years. But I had a few bits and bumps that the doctor judged had to be removed. He told me I had to come back for another round in five years.

     Now my time is up. [But don't worry, in the interest of discretion, and retaining my PG rating, I am not including a photo in this post.]

     So in preparation for my test  -- no, not that preparation, but getting ready for it emotionally and psychologically -- I've done a little research into this disease, which according to my gastroenterologist is the second most common cancer killer in America today.

      Colon cancer and cancer of the rectum -- sometimes lumped together as colorectal cancer -- typically begin with the growth of a polyp, small abnormal tissue that can appear on mucus membranes. You can get polyps in your stomach, your sinuses, your uterus, bladder or vocal chords. Or in your colon. Most are benign. Some can eventually progress to cancer, but it's a slow process that usually takes five to ten years.

     The symptoms of colorectal cancer include a change in bowel habits, bleeding, anemia, bloating or unexplained fatigue. But the sneaky thing about colon cancer is that the symptoms often don't show up until it's too late. There is one test -- for fecal occult blood -- that can detect bleeding in the colon long before it becomes visible to the naked eye. But the test is not particularly accurate -- the bleeding may not show up, or it could be due to something as simple as hemorrhoids.

     If you test positive for occult blood, or for those of us over age 50, especially if there's any family history of colon cancer, doctors typically recommend going on to the next step, which is a colonoscopy. There are variations on the procedure -- for example, one option is the virtual colonoscopy, done with computer imaging -- but the usual method involves a doctor snaking a thin tube equipped with a camera and cutting instrument up the length of your colon. If there's a polyp . . . snip, snip, and it's gone, long before it turns into cancer, and the procedure is done with minimal risk and usually no adverse effects.

     I have undergone three colonoscopies in my day. Up until now they were covered by insurance, after a $50 copay. But I've found out that my plan has changed -- now it's subject to my $1000 deductible. And since I've been lucky enough not to use up my deductible this year, it's gonna cost me. But I figure it's worth it if it, literally, saves my ass (oops, there goes my PG rating). Next time  around, I'll be on Medicare. Does anyone know if Medicare covers colonoscopies?

     I first heard of this test in 1999, when I was 50 and went for my usual physical checkup. The doctor asked me if I had a family history of polyps. I didn't know. We didn't talk about such things in my family. Then, after he explained the procedure, I was horrified. I really couldn't believe he'd do that to me. I rushed home in a panic and immediately called my parents. Did they ever have polyps? Had they heard of this test? "Oh yeah, sure," they told me offhandedly. "It's no big deal. We go in every few years. The doctor usually finds something, but he takes it out, cleans us up, and we're good to go. No problem."

     So I went for the procedure, and now -- proving that human beings can get used to almost anything -- it no longer seems quite so shocking to me. It's become almost routine, like it did for my now dearly departed parents. Okay, the preparation is a little nasty. You do, after all, have to clean out your colon so the doctor can see what he's doing. But, hey, let's be mature about this.

     If you want to know more about colon cancer, the Webmd page on colorectal cancer is a good place to start.

     In the meantime, about six or eight years ago, I gave up eating red meat, in part because the consumption of red meat, especially processed meats like bacon or lunch meats, supposedly increases your risk of contracting colon cancer. I gave up smoking long ago, and I try to get a decent amount of exercise and keep my weight at close to a normal level (with limited success) -- all of which is supposed to help you avoid the perils of colon cancer, as well as any other kind of cancer.

     If I sound flip about what is really a serious disease, I just don't know how else to approach it. And beyond taking the usual precautions, I guess there's nothing else to do but hope for the best. Wish me luck!


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Are You Fragile, or Antifragile?

     Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who famously warned of the Great Recession in his earlier book The Black Swan, now advises us how to thrive in an uncertain world in his new book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.

    Taleb, a former Wall Street trader and currently a professor at NYU Polytechnic Institute, specializes in probabilities and uncertainties. His singular insight in his first book was that unlikely and improbable events sometimes do occur, and when they do they cause huge, sometimes catastrophic consequences.

     Most of us think that the future will basically repeat the past, with perhaps a few minor variations. But he says the really important events are rare and unpredictable. He calls them Black Swans, a reference to a 17th century truism that all swans were white. What was the chance of seeing a black swan? It was impossible to calculate -- until 1697 when explorers found the black Cygnus atratus in Australia.

    Taleb says that predicting the future by extrapolating past events -- which is what economists, political operatives and marketing gurus do -- may be reasonable and plausible, but the exercise is practically useless. Who predicted September 11, or the financial crisis of 2008? But not all Black Swans are bad. There was the end of the Cold War. The smart phone. "History does not crawl," says Nassim, "it jumps."

     In his new book, Taleb looks at everything from individuals to corporations to governments, and he finds that systems tend to get stronger when they're routinely subjected to minor stress, disorder and turmoil. People and organizations that face up to challenges on an ongoing basis are able to survive the large events. They are antifragile. Conversely, if you're fragile, you're disproportionally harmed by large events.

     Fragile entities can't handle outside threats because they haven't been tested. They can't accommodate change from within because differences are suppressed or ignored. The Soviet Union, which suppressed dissent, was a fragile state. The industrial towns of the Midwest were fragile, because one change killed the town. Silicon Valley is antifragile. Detroit is fragile.

     Democracies are antifragile. They not only tolerate argument and dissent, but actually thrive on the give-and-take of various interests. They trade short-term predictability for long-term stability. A country like Saudi Arabia, which does not tolerate dissent, is a fragile state.

     Who's more fragile -- the loyal 50-year-old corporate employee with 25 years of service and a $100,000 salary, or the cab driver or restauranteur who works for himself and makes $50,000 a year?

     The loyal employee.

     The cabdriver and restauranteur control their own work flow; they're constantly in contact with customers; if things change they know right away and can adapt. The corporate employee is at the mercy of the bureaucracy; he or she doesn't control sales or new products and may not even know about a developing accounting scandal. Typically, loyal employees who get laid off haven't dealt with the changes and the disorder of the outside world -- and may have few resources to make their own way in a new competitive environment. And if those employees carry a lot of debt, they are even more fragile.

     Taleb's message is that while most of us feel uncomfortable with stress and strain, the struggle makes us strong. By responding to small shocks we constantly refine and improve our system. Conversely, removing small shocks creates the illusion of stability, but makes a system more prone to falling apart when the next crisis comes along.

     I don't know how accurate or groundbreaking Taleb's ideas are. They have been criticized by some academics. But they seem interesting and relevant to me, particularly the notion he develops that our modern economy has created structures allowing certain groups of people -- like corporate bankers and politicians -- to take excessive risks without any risk to themselves personally. Top executives and elected representatives are able to pass the downside consequences of their actions onto stockholders, pension funds and taxpayers -- transferring their own fragility to other people.

     One way to avoid this, Taleb argues, is to insist that all decision makers bear the consequences of their actions. Corporate officers should own their company stock, and suffer financially if they make bad decisions, not walk away with million-dollar exit bonuses. Politicians should have the same medical and retirement plans as their constituents. Doctors and lawyers should be paid for results, not on the basis of how many tests they do or motions they file.

    Aside from that, I hope he's right about his main point:  that argument and dissent make a nation stronger. Because we certainly have plenty of that, don't we?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Women's Pipeline Problem

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

     According to The Week magazine the results of the recent election will bring the number of women in the U. S. Senate to 20, up from 17 in this past session, and the number of women in the House of Representatives up to 80 from 78.

     In both cases, it will mean a record number of women serving in the U. S. Congress.

     Women have been making steady gains in politics ever since 1992, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, when controversial confirmation hearings embroiled Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas in sexual harassment charges brought by Anita Hill. Many women were disgusted by the hearings, and turned their anger and frustration into political action. The next election, dubbed The Year of the Woman, brought a then-record seven women into the U. S. Senate. And women have been making progress ever since.

Tammy Baldwin (D, WI)
      Among the new U. S. Senators is Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, who won an impressive victory over former governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, with 51.5% of the vote. She will become the first openly gay member of the Senate when she arrives in Washington in January.

Elizabeth Warren (D, MA)
     Elizabeth Warren beat out Republican incumbent Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Warren, born in Oklahoma, is a bankruptcy specialist and Harvard law professor, who made a name for herself as the "Sheriff of Wall Street," pushing regulation in the financial industry. She survived charges that she had unfairly benefited from minority status after claiming she was 1/32nd Native American, and went on to win her seat with 53.7% of the vote, to Brown's 46.3%.

Mazie Hirono (D, HI)
     In Hawaii, where two women were vying against each other for an open Senate seat, U.S. Representative Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, defeated former Republican Governor Linda Lingle to earn the ticket to Washington. (In my state, New York, there were also two women facing off against each other. Incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand, appointed in 2009 to fill out Hillary Clinton's term, easily beat out Republican challenger Wendy Long.)

Heidi Heitkamp (D, ND)
      In a much closer race former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, defeated Republican U.S. Representative Rick Berg for an open seat. She overcame a 20% Romney win in the state's presidential contest to eke out the Senate seat by a 1% margin of victory.

     Nebraska told a slightly different story, as a Republican woman beat out her male opponent. State Senator Deb Fischer, a rancher and self-described staunch conservative, easily defeated Democrat Bob Kerrey, a former two-term Nebraska Senator who had been living and working in New York for the past ten years.

Deb Fischer (R, NE)
   Still, despite the record number of women in Washington, why is it that women make up over half the electorate, but only 20% of the U. S. Congress?

     "It's partly a pipeline problem," according to The Week. Women take up only about a quarter of the seats in state legislatures, which in effect serve as a farm league for Congressional candidates. But of course women also face the usual career impediments involving family issues. And according to some surveys a lot of potential women candidates are especially put off pursuing politics by the intense scrutiny and political partisanship of the media, with coverage that's too personal, too negative and too stereotyped.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Remember Him?

     Everyone's going to remember this person, even though he died 32 years ago.

     He was born in 1940 during the depths of World War II. His mother's name was Julia. His father, Alfred, worked as a merchant seaman and was away at the time of his son's birth.

     His father disappeared "absent without leave" in 1944, which left his wife and young son without means of support. When Alfred later returned home and wanted to reestablish his family, Julia was already pregnant by another man, and she refused his offer.

     Julia eventually remarried, but asked her sister to take care of her boy. Then Alfred wanted to take him back, with a plan to move to Australia. Julia objected, putting the young boy in the position of having to choose between his mother and father. At first he elected to go with his father, but in the end he held his mother's hand and followed her home. It would be 20 years before he saw his father again.

     As might be imagined, he had a rebellious nature and didn't fit in well at school. "I was the one," he later wrote, "who all the other boys' parents would say, 'Keep away from him.' The parents instinctively recognized I was a troublemaker, meaning I did not conform and I would influence their children, which I did. I did my best to disrupt every friend's home, partly out of envy that I didn't have this so-called home ..."

     He listened to Elvis Presley and African American R & B records. He spent much of his youth living with his mother's sister, Aunt Mimi, but his mother often came by and supported his interest in music -- listening to records with him and teaching him how to play the banjo and the piano.

     In high school he was described as a humorous, happy-go-lucky kid who paid little attention to his studies. His school reports were pretty damning:  "Certainly on the road to failure ... a clown in class ... wasting other pupils' time." Yet he showed artistic talent, drew cartoons for his school paper, and claimed that one day he would be famous.

     His mother bought him his first guitar in 1956. She had it delivered to her house -- not to her sister's house where her son was living at the time. The sister hoped the boy would get tired of music and settle down to a more traditional vocation. "The guitar's all very well," she told the boy, "but you'll never make a living out of it."

     His mother was run over and killed by a car in 1958, further roiling his life. He couldn't get into a regular college, so he attended an art institute where he disrupted classes, ridiculed teachers, failed his exams -- and met his first wife Cynthia.

     Meanwhile, he had started a band, and he began to put together the group that would lead him to fame -- but not without a few bumps in the road. He brought in his school friend, Stuart Sutcliffe, to play bass in the band, but he soon quit. The fledgling band signed on a drummer who toured with them to Germany, but then he was replaced by a percussionist with more star power.

     Finally the band settled on its four players. They worked hard, got a lot of experience, and soon went on to fame and fortune. But the rebellious art-school dropout, who would now be 72, was always the leader. His equally famous songwriting partner later admitted that the other band members idolized him. "He was like our own little Elvis ... He was older and very much the leader, he was the quickest wit and the smartest."

     The band's first single was released in October 1962, and by 1963 the lads were topping the charts in England. And if you don't know who I'm referring to by now, you weren't alive in the 1960s. They made their first trip to America in February 1964 and appeared on . . . well, where were you when the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan?

     There's a lot of argument over what song rates as the biggest selling Lennon/McCartney tune. But the best estimate has to be:

     As far as the best-selling John Lennon solo, it was recorded in 1971, after the Beatles broke up, when he was entering the next phase of his life in New York City -- and where as we all know he was shot and killed while walking to his apartment in The Dakota on December 8, 1980.

     In case you're wondering if these songs are still relevant, 40 or 50 years later, I can report that they're still being sung by recording artists all across the universe. If you're interested in more, try the link to this version of Imagine by David Archuleta from American Idol a few years ago; and this modern take on I Wanna Hold Your Hand from the 2007 movie Across the Universe.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Baby Boomers Slouch into December

     Did it seem to you that December took a long time to get here? It did to me, I guess because Thanksgiving came early this year. My internal clock says December should arrive a few days after Thanksgiving. But this year it took 9 days for the calendar flip over.

     Be that as it may, my Christmas -- er, Holiday lights are up. Santa Claus is standing out there in the rain. And the calendar has also come around again for my turn at the Blogging Boomer Carnival. 

     I'd like to be in a position to spread some Christmas cheer, but the first entry comes to us from John Agno at So Baby Boomer, who reminds us that beginning in the 1960s, many U.S. manufacturers moved their operations to the lowest cost labor source. This resulted in many of the Baby Boomer Generation, who were born in what are now ghost towns, finding employment opportunities elsewhere.

     (But rest assured, So Baby Boomer's reflection on his own ghost town is interesting, not depressing, and it includes a recommendation for a new book by one of my favorite authors.)

     Laura Lee over at Midlife Crisis Queen reports in: "Since I'm now known for my annual 'I'm beginning to dread a lot about Christmas' post, this new post named How to Make Happier Holidays shouldn't surprise you. No more than Congress: DO YOUR JOB! on my Midlife Queen Blows off Steam blog. This one fell out of my brain at 4 a.m. recently!"

     (Although, in my opinion, even thinking about Congress can be depressing!)

     On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, writes about a Consumer Reports cell phone survey showing that Verizon Wireless received the most favorable scores for voice and data service quality and service. Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T received mostly middle to low marks, especially for voice and text service quality.

     (In case anyone's interested, I want an iPad for Christmas, with 4G capability; and my carrier is Verizon.)

     Meanwhile, Baby Boom blogger Katie Foster is traveling these days -- apparently with limited access to the Internet. Since she's based in Dubai, one can only speculate how far afield she's gone this time! But here's a ticket to Arabian Tales if you want to revisit her blog.

     (I myself stay closer to home over Christmas; the best I've got is an invitation to drive 3 hours to go see some family in Pennsylvania.)

     So anyway, it's not only the Midlife Crisis Queen who's talking about the Fiscal Cliff. I myself did an entry on it a few days ago. But there's another financial issue that was recently on people's minds. Which begs the question: What do you do with last week's losing lottery tickets? Use them for confetti? As kindling to start your Yuletide log? A bookmark?  Or, as one person suggested, throw them all over the Fiscal Cliff to cushion the fall?!?

     Meanwhile, here from HappyPlace.com (which I'd say is R-rated, so don't go there if you're easily offended) are instructions on . . .