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

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Wage Discrimination

    The latest figures I've seen show that a woman earns somewhere between 77 cents and 91 cents for every dollar that her male counterpart makes in a similar job. Why the wide range of estimates? Some studies adjust for educational level, job experience, and years in the workforce; others do not.

     This is a problem in itself, because we all (I assume) believe in equal pay for equal work.

     But, women, be careful what you ask for. In my demographic there are a lot of disparities. I know five or six couples, in their late 50s to early 60s, where the man held the primary job for 20 or 30 years. Then he got laid off, while the wife was either going back to school, or starting a new job, or stepping up her career after the kids went off to college.

     These men are now working freelance, or "consulting." or in one case working behind the checkout counter at our local supermarket. In this substrata of the American populace, the women are earning somewhere between $2 and $10 for every dollar that the man earns.

     Does this counter-trend make the overall numbers seem more equitable? I doubt it.

     Now I don't mean to make light of the above figures. There is definitely something wrong with our economy. But, truthfully, that's not what prompted this post. Instead, it's another economic disparity -- a figure I saw in The New Republic:  "The average American spends an estimated $144 celebrating Mother's Day, but only an average of $82 commemorating Father's Day."

     Of course, some might argue that mother and father are not comparable jobs. Regardless, all I have to say about it is this:  My kids owe me $82!*

     *Okay, to be fair, my daughter phoned me from Colorado -- long distance, no less -- but that doesn't even cost a dime anymore. And my son came to visit . . . do I count his mileage?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Is Your Microwave Safe: One Week Later

     Last Friday I began my microwave experiment -- see Is Your Microwave Safe? -- to try to settle the question of whether microwaved water will kill a plant -- and, by extension, whether a microwave is safe to use in cooking or reheating food.

     The background:  About ten days ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted an item about a secondary school student who performed an experiment for a science fair. She took two identical plants. She watered one with water she heated to boiling in a pan on the stove, then let cool. She watered the other with water heated in the microwave, and then let cool. After nine days, the plant getting the microwaved water was dead. The other plant was thriving.

     I'm trying to replicate her experiment. My two plants have been watered twice in the past week -- the one in the gray pot receiving the microwaved water. But so far, seven days later, they don't look any different. Do they?

     You might notice I switched the location of the two plants. I will switch them back and forth at every watering, just to make sure that the placement doesn't make a difference. I'll update again in another week. But meantime . . . I feel safe drinking my reheated coffee.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sight Gag

      I went to a small party the other night. It was a barbecue.

     A friend, one of the party-goers, brought a sampling of craft beers produced by the company that his son works for, called Boulevard Brewing Co., based in Kansas City, MO.

     The company brews up a portfolio of specialty beers. My friend brought us four different kinds from among their offerings.

      I'm not usually a big beer drinker -- but, you know, I didn't want to be a party pooper. I tried two bottles. The first one, Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, was pretty good.

    But it was the second one that really caught my attention. It tasted mighty fine. It was cool and smooth. It was dark and rich. And then . . . there was the name. In fact, it gave me an idea -- maybe I should rename by blog.

     What do you think? 

     By the way, did you know the word booze comes from the Dutch word bowse? But the term only caught on after 1840 when William Henry Harrison, the "Hero of Tippecanoe" ran for president. He billed himself as a common man who lived in a log cabin, and a man named E. C. Booz bottled whiskey in log cabin-shaped containers in support of the candidate. Harrison won. But Booz had the longer lasting legacy. Harrison died of pneumonia only a month after taking office.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Is Fat Really a Disease?

     I do not feel qualified to answer this question. But the AMA has made the decision. Last week the doctors' association officially announced that obesity is now classified as a disease.

     However, as a lifetime owner of a spare tire (which has expanded and contracted with the seasons of my life) I do feel qualified to make a few comments about the issue.

     I think it's a good thing to name obesity a disease if that will help people get treatment -- especially for morbidly obese people who might want to get stomach bypass surgery and have their medical insurance help defray the cost. And by the way, kudos to weatherman Al Roker, and now New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for going public with this type of surgery. Maybe they can do for obesity what Betty Ford and others did for addiction.

     I also think it's a good thing if it raises our awareness of the perils of obesity, and somehow gets us all to eat less and do more exercise -- though I doubt this is going to happen. The New York Times had an article yesterday, Don't Count on Calorie Counts by Frank Bruni (a former fat person) saying how just informing people of how fattening certain foods are does not seem to get them to switch to a healthier diet. As he says, "Knowledge may be power, but hunger routinely trumps it."

     Yet, in my opinion, labeling obesity a disease could be a bad move if it encourages people to believe that obesity is just something that happens to them, like catching the flu, and that they have no control over their own weight. It's in their genes; it's in their environment; there's nothing they can do about it.

     Some tendency for obesity is surely in the genes. And the explosion of obesity over the past 20 or 30 years offers substantial evidence that our environment is also a significant factor.

     But obesity -- like most things -- is not an all or nothing issue. Our body weight and BMI are not entirely in our control; but they're not entirely beyond our control either. Many people have gone on many successful diets, and they've proved that we can lose weight if we really put our minds to it. It's hard to lose weight. It's hard to quit smoking, too. But a lot of people have done it.

     What about discrimination against fat people, the shame that many feel, or are made to feel by their family, their colleagues, the media? I don't know what to think about this. On the one hand, it's a terrible thing for people to feel bad about themselves. It can wreck their lives, regardless of how heavy they are. On the other hand, maybe fear of embarrassment and shame helps keep many of us from gaining even more weight, and thus keeps us healthier.

     But back to Frank Bruni. He says that various studies have shown that posting calorie counts at restaurants doesn't influence people to select lower calorie menu choices. He makes an analogy to smoking. Almost 50 years ago, the Surgeon General required tobacco companies to print warnings on packs of cigarettes. But for the most part people read the warnings, then ignored them and went right on smoking. What finally got people to stop were the various smoking bans that went into effect in the 1980s and 1990s -- in offices, in restaurants, and finally even in bars.

     To me, that suggests that maybe Mayor Bloomberg isn't so crazy after all, trying to ban those big gulp drinks in New York City.

     I remember a few of my own efforts to lose weight. One time I gave up drinking alcohol. Get rid of all those empty calories and I'm bound to lose weight, I thought. But what did I do? I told myself that I hadn't had a drink before dinner, hadn't eaten any appetizers that go with it. So, surely it wouldn't hurt if I indulged dessert.

     A few years ago I finally got serious and lost 15 pounds. My motivation was a bad knee. The doctor told me he could give me a cortizone shot, and exercise would help. But he looked me in the eyes and said, "You know, it wouldn't hurt to lose a few pounds, either. The less weight that knee has to bear, the better off it's going to be."

     How did I do it? I gave up drinking soda, and went to bottled water. And here's the thing -- I mostly drank diet soda! But it didn't seem to matter. Without the soda, I lost 15 pounds. I did some other things too -- cut out dessert, joined a gym -- but I think it was giving up soda that did the trick.

     Now, four years later, I've kept off about ten of those pounds. I do drink a soda now and then, even though I know I shouldn't. And right now, I can hear B in the living room exercising to her Leslie Sansone CD. And, er, I realize I should probably get up to the gym more often, too. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Is Your Microwave Safe?

     How many of you use a microwave? I sure do . . . mostly to reheat my coffee, but also to reheat leftovers, especially pizza, and sometimes to cook vegetables, and defrost the frozen chicken, and heat up the maple syrup and the chocolate sauce.

     I used to like to microwave my baked potatoes. It's much faster than waiting around for them to get cooked in the oven. But B put a stop to that. She says microwaved potatoes taste soft and mushy; an insult to cooking and the whole culinary experience.

     Okay, okay, I get it. We're trying to keep up a few standards around here. But I didn't think it might be serious business until I saw a post the other day by a friend of mine on Facebook. Apparently, a secondary school student in Sussex (that's in England, right?) read somewhere that the microwave somehow compromises the structure or energy of the food.

     So as a science fair project she took two identical plants. She watered one plant with water that she heated to boiling in a pan on the stove, then let cool. She watered the other plant with water heated to boiling in the microwave, and then let cool. She wanted to see if there would be any difference in the growth between the normally boiled water and the water boiled in a microwave.

     The result after just nine days:

     There is an explanation about how the problem with microwaving food is not the radiation people used to worry about, but how it corrupts the DNA in the food so the body cannot recognize it. Microwaves agitate the molecules to move faster and faster, causing friction which denatures the original make-up of the substance. It results in destroyed vitamins, minerals, proteins and generates new elements called "radiolytic" compounds, things that are not found in nature.

     If this is true, it's really pretty amazing, isn't it? The question is:  Do you believe it? I asked B if she'd heard anything about microwaves destroying the nutrition in food. She hadn't heard anything like that. But she admitted, like me, she hadn't been paying much attention.

     I Googled microwave cooking, and predictably, found articles taking both the pro-microwave and the anti-microwave position.

     My facebook friend is an educated, reputable woman. So I trust her judgment. But I don't know anything about the supposed young student in Sussex.

     Now, I'm no scientist. I have no idea how a microwave works (is it magic?). But I recall the scientific method from the 9th grade general science course I took from Mr. Mele back in 1963. So I have decided to try to replicate this experiment.

     I have two identical plants, in similar condition, and I'm placing them in the same location. I will water one plant, in the gray pot, with microwaved water only. The other will be watered with the same amount of normally boiled water.

     Check back here in a week. I'll post another picture, showing the difference, if any. We'll see what happens. Any predictions? My only prediction is that the difference would have to be very dramatic to make me stop reheating my coffee in the microwave.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

3 Medical Opinions

     I was sitting at my computer this morning when suddenly from the kitchen I heard B yelp, "Oww!" Then she followed up in a pained voice, "Oh, I knew that was going to happen."

     "Are you okay?" I called.

I don't care if it hurts, it works!
     "Yeah, I just cut myself with this stupid knife."

     I got up and walked through to the kitchen. She was holding her finger. It didn't look serious. "Here," I said, "let me get you some alcohol." I happened to have a bottle on top of my cabinet.

     "No, I'm just getting a Band-Aid," she said as she turned the corner into the downstairs bathroom.

     "Really, let me get you some alcohol," I pressed. "You don't want it to get infected."

     "No!" she insisted. "Alcohol hurts!"

     "Yeah," I replied. "That's how you know it's working!"

     "Oh, don't be ridiculous," she sniffed. "How old fashioned can you be?"

     So I then offered to find her some hydrogen peroxide, a disinfectant that doesn't hurt. But by then she had the Band-Aid on her finger and was heading upstairs to get dressed for work.

My soft picks
     Okay, let's stop for a moment here. I submit for your consideration:  What do they use when you're at the doctor's office and you get a shot, or some blood drawn? They give you a cotton swab soaked in what else . . . alcohol! So alcohol must be the best, most effective antiseptic. QED.

     Why? Because, I still maintain:  If it hurts, that means it's working!

     Now if you're ready to take more medical advice from me, after hearing this little story, let me recommend to you these tiny little toothbrushes you use to clean between the teeth. They are called interdental brushes, or "soft picks" if they're disposable.

     My dentist suggested them to me about a year ago, when I'd gone to her after yet another filling disintegrated, leaving a hole in my tooth that required the installation of a crown. You use these mini-brushes instead of flossing (although I still floss sometimes, too). And from my experience, they work great. Also . . . they are more fun to use!

A panoply of pain relievers
     Finally, I ran across this New York Times article about pain relievers. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, so to speak, not because I have heart problems, but because I do take Advil and aspirin for my aching right ankle and my sometimes-painful left knee.

     I used to take Aleve for my pinched nerve. But I stopped using Aleve because I heard it was associated with heart problems among long-time users. And, besides, my pinched nerve got better, mostly because I went to physical therapy and kept up the exercises afterwards.

     I still don't know which pain reliever is the safest and best to use. If anyone has any further information, or expert opinion, I'd love to hear it. But I guess the best advice is to use as much as you need, but no more than you need.

     Come to think of it, that's probably good advice for any drug or medication.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

I Apply for Medicare, Part I

     My ex-wife is a year older than I am. Last year she turned 65 and applied for Medicare. I remember at one point asking her about the whole process of signing up for Medicare. How do you apply? Is it complicated? How do you know what coverage you're getting?

     She told me not to worry. A few months before you turn 65 you start receiving all kinds of information in the mail. She'd looked over the basics. "Then I was able to sit down with an insurance agent who specializes in Medicare," she told me, "and he explained the whole system to me. He said he gets paid by the insurance companies, so it didn't cost me a thing."

     So I didn't worry. And now this year, in advance of my own 65th birthday, I expected to start receiving lots of literature in the mail, inviting me to join Medicare, showing me how to do it, and explaining all the benefits. I didn't know who it would come from. The government? My insurance company? It wouldn't be from my employer. I no longer have an employer. My company started shedding employees in the 1990s, and got around to shedding me in 2002, so I've been on my own for the last decade.

     The calendar turned over, and the months came and went, but I heard not a word from anybody. Maybe my ex-wife was wrong, I thought. Maybe she got information in the mail, because of where she lives, or because of her insurance company, or because she's a woman. But that doesn't necessarily mean everyone gets information in the mail.

     I started worrying. Maybe, somehow, I've dropped off the the Medicare "membership" list. Maybe my name got lost in the computer. Maybe they forgot about me!?!

     So I finally decided I'd better find out. I realize that for many of you this is "old hat." You've been through all this already. But anyway, like the modern tech-savvy person I am, I typed "How to apply for Medicare" into google. I found lots of general information. There's Part A which is free, and it "helps pay" for inpatient care in a hospital. There's Part B which you pay for, and that "helps pay" for doctor services.

     Well, that's pretty good, I thought, but also pretty vague. I found a link for Medicare Premiums and found out my premium for Part B would be $104.90 a month, as long as my MAGI is $85,000 or less. I know what MAGI means (Modified Adjusted Gross Income), although I'm not sure how to calculate it. But I'm pretty sure my MAGI is less than $85,000 so I'm not going to worry about it.

     This is getting awfully complicated, I realized. And since I really couldn't find out any specifics, I decided to call the Medicare 800 number, which is 1-800-772-1213. I understood what Parts A and B are, at least in theory. They pay for the majority of your doctor and hospital bills. But I wanted to know some of the particulars. Would they pay for my next colonoscopy? What if I needed surgery on my bad knee? Would it make a difference if I went to the hospital, or had it done in the doctor's office? Could I go to a specialist if the specialist wasn't in my medical group?

     Plus, what about Parts C and D? What's the difference between the various Medicare Advantage programs, and the Medigap program?

     I negotiated the Medicare phone tree. I finally got to the option to talk with a real person. Then an automated voice announced the wait would be 10 minutes. Arghh! I must admit, I was too impatient. I didn't want to wait and so I hung up.

     I called my own current medical insurance company. Maybe they could help.

     I negotiated the phone tree and eventually got a very nice lady on the phone. She spoke with a fairly heavy accent, but I understood most of what she was saying. Yes, my insurance company could provide me with a backup plan. There's a PPO plan and an HMO plan. Actually, there are four different PPO plans, and a couple of HMO plans. "What''s your i.d. number?" she began.

     The woman stayed on the phone with me for a good 15 or 20 minutes, trying to explain the basics of the different plans. But I had plenty of questions. How do I find out if my doctor is in the HMO network? She gave me a link on the website. How much would it cost? It depends what plan I picked, and what county I live in. Does the plan cover drugs? One of the plans does; another doesn't. She wasn't sure about the others. Are there any dental benefits? Again, it depends on the plan.

     What if I moved? Like many retirees and pre-retirees, B and I are thinking of moving in a few years, probably to a different state. She told me that their plan was only good in my state. If I moved I'd have to switch plans.

     I confess, I got tired of the conversation before the woman did. She must be used to people asking dumb questions. She finally offered to send me some published materials that would provide me with all the details. It would take about ten days or two weeks to get to me.

     The woman did tell me one concrete and crucial thing. Regardless of what else I did, I should apply for Medicare Plans A and B. And I should do it right away, because if I waited and missed the deadlines, then there are restrictions about when you can apply, and I may be subject to higher rates ... for the rest of my life.

     You can apply by telephone (at the above 800 number), or in person. But I went back on the website where you apply for Medicare. I found the application. I filled it out. It was pretty easy.

     And so as of right now, I await confirmation that I'm accepted into Medicare. And I await some materials in the mail which will presumably inform me what else I need to do to get more than the basic Medicare Parts A and B coverage.

     I'd worried that I'd somehow fallen out of the system, or that it might be hard to sign up for Medicare. Bottom line:  Don't worry, it's easy to sign up. But it is hard to find out exactly what you're signing up for, and to figure out what kind of backup medical insurance you should get.

     More on that in Part II, after I've had a chance to look over those materials.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mad Men Love Baby Boomers

     I saw an ad on TV the other day for Lenscrafters Featherwates that features the song "Up on the Roof" and made me think once again of how often our advertisers hark back to the 1950s, '60s and '70s for their background music. It just makes you think:  even in our youth-obsessed culture we Baby Boomers are still relevant!

     Actually, one of my first blog posts, The '60s Live Forever in Ads in Nov. 2010, focused on this very phenomenon. But there's lots more to report on since then.

     An ad for the 2014 Chevy Impala features Frank Sinatra's 1964 song "Fly Me to the Moon."

     Stevie Wonder's 1972 tune "Superstition" provides the background music for a Bud Light commercial.

     Target went back even further, to 1958 and Connie Francis singing "Fallin'" for an ad about a line of clothes.

     AT&T rounded up several oldies, from John Denver to Creedence Clearwater Revival for their Road Music 4G ad.

     Or, how about this R-rated ad for Carl's Junior and Hardee's charboiled fish sandwich with Bobby Darin singing his 1959 version of "Beyond the Sea" ... and, oh yeah, featuring supermodel Nina Agdal.

     Mercedes Benz used the Rolling Stones "Sympathy for the Devil" in its 2013 Superbowl ad.

     And then there's this ad, for the Budweiser Clydesdales, which ran during the 2013 Superbowl. I'm sure you'll recognize Stevie Nicks and her 1975 hit "Landslide."

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Best of Boomer Blogs: Final Exam Edition

     How many of us are aware that school is ending for the year? Yes, it's time to cram for finals. Did you ever pull an all-nighter? And then . . . school is out for the summer!

     I don't mean to imply that the Best of Boomer Blogs is ending. Not at all. We are Boomers. We are strong! I'm only saying that, like final exams, this is important, this is crucial, this could determine your grades for the whole semester -- and whether you get into college or grad school. The rest of your life depends on how closely you study this edition of the BBB!

     Well, not quite. But here, from the Blogging Boomers, are some very thoughtful and interesting essays on a core curriculum of courses. Feel free to explain and expound.

      Math:  At her blog The Generation Above Me, Karen clarifies the distinction between life span and life expectancy. The oldest documented person lived to be 122. Average life expectancy depends a great deal on environmental factors and life style choices. Currently it's 77 in the U. S. measured from birth, but higher for those who reach midlife.

     Science:  On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, writes about global and American efforts to reduce food waste. Her article – “Are You Wasting Food?” – also offers a link to cut food waste. Use the right storage techniques, purchase only what you need, and match the serving size to what those being served will eat are some of the recommendations.

     English Lit:  In Beauty Is Truth, Lisa Garon Froman reflects on the value of living in truth and being authentic. It's part of the overall message of her blog, Tao Flashes, that chronicles a "woman's way to navigating the midlife journey with integrity, harmony and grace."

     Psychology:  Laura Lee, aka The Midlife Crisis Queen, says in Whose Life Have You Been Living? that one of our most important psychological tasks in midlife is taking back ownership of our own lives.

     Also, from Laura Lee, don't miss the good news about online dating.

     Economics:  Meanwhile John Agno at So Baby Boomer reports to us that 52% of 1946 Baby Boomers Are Fully Retired. For extra credit go to Agno's post Baby Boomer Retirement Tips.

     Okay, now that exams are over . . . 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Remember Her?

     Do you what what happened 30 years ago this month?

     Here's a hint. The woman in question was once asked, "Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?" And, "Do you think your [trip] will affect your reproductive organs?"

     She was a California girl. Her father taught political science at Santa Monica College, and her mother volunteered at a women's correctional facility. Both her parents were elders at their Presbyterian church, and her sister later became a Presbyterian minister.

     She was a smart kid, right from the beginning. She won a scholarship to a private high school in Los Angeles, where she showed particular promise in the sciences and became nationally ranked in juniors tennis. She graduated from high school in 1968 and decided to head east to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. But after three semesters she felt the pull back to California, so she first went home and took some physics courses at UCLA, then transferred to Stanford, graduating with a dual degree in English and physics. She then continued at Stanford and earned a master's degree in physics in 1975 and a PhD in physics in 1978.

Stanford University
     As she was finishing up her PhD, she answered an employment ad in the newspaper ... along with about 8,000 other applicants. She became one of 35 people offered a job at NASA -- 29 men and 6 women -- and started training to be an astronaut. She was a ground-based capsule communicator for the second flight of the Space Shuttle in 1981, and again for the third Space Shuttle in 1982.

     On June 18, 1983, now 30 years ago, she became the first American woman in space, as one of a five-member crew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, the 7th Space Shuttle flight. Among her accomplishments, she used the Challenger robot arm to retrieve a satellite.

     In 1984 she flew into space a second time, again aboard the Challenger, and before the flight was over she had logged some 343 hours in space.

     In January 1986 she was eight months into training for her third space flight, slated to also be aboard the Challenger, when the Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven of its crew members including teacher Christa McAuliffe and fellow female astronaut Judith Resnick.

     The now-veteran astronaut, Sally Ride, was named to the Rogers Commission which investigated the crash and determined it was O-ring failure that caused the explosion. Following this assignment, Ride moved to Washington, DC, to head up NASA's strategic planning efforts.

     In 1987 Ride left NASA and went to work in international security at Stanford University. In 1989 she became a physics professor at University of California, San Diego, as well as director of the University of California Space Institute. She continued to work with NASA in promoting science education and founded Sally Ride Science, a company that creates interesting science programs for middle school kids. She also co-authored several books on space, aiming to encourage children to study science.

     Sally Ride married fellow astronaut Steve Hawley in 1982. They had no children, and divorced in 1987. She had a partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, a science teacher and long-time friend who co-wrote her books and who later become an executive at Sally Ride Science.

     At the beginning of 2011 Ride was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61. America's first female astronaut was always a little uneasy about her fame, and wanted to keep her private life private, from her sexuality to her battle with cancer. But she nevertheless won many awards and citations, and just last month President Obama announced she would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to be presented to her family later this year.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

On the Road ... Honestly

     I was driving into Brooklyn over the weekend to help my daughter move out of her apartment. She's leaving New York City and going to Buffalo. (Don't ask; that's another post.)

    On the way in, driving down the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway, I was in a line of traffic in the middle lane, doing 60 mph. A car zipped by me on the left. It was white; an older model. I think it was a Lexus, but I'm not sure. Proudly displayed on the back windshield was one of those college signs. It said:  Virginia Law.

     I don't actually know what the speed limit is on the BQE. Probably 55 mph; it could be less. So this white car with Virginia Law on the back was definitely speeding. The driver was male; kind of young, but I didn't get a good look.

     After he went by me, he pulled up behind a car ahead of us in the left-hand lane. He had to brake to slow down. Then he proceeded to tailgate that car for the next mile or two. You could see his brake lights winking on and off -- he was so close to the car ahead of him, he had to tap the brakes again and again so as not to hit the rear end.

     Finally, the guy in the white Lexus veered into the middle lane, without using his blinker, and passed the person he was tailgating. He sped up, closed the gap with the next car, then moved into the right lane to pass, until he was blocked by another car. The last I saw of the guy he was tailgating the car in the right lane, brake lights pulsating on and off.

     Now I could be wrong, but I figure the driver is probably a law student, driving his parents' old car. Or maybe he's a recent law school grad, a newly minted lawyer. And I could only wonder:  Is this what they teach you at Virginia Law, or at any law school? To flout the law, intimidate fellow drivers, endanger others as well as yourself?

     Later, on the way home, my car stuffed full of my daughter's boxes and suitcases, I was traveling northbound on the Taconic Parkway, where I know the speed limit is 55 mph, but where everyone does 60 - 65. I again was in the middle lane, doing 60 or a little more. Yes, I know I'm admitting here that I was speeding. But at 5 - 8 mph over the speed limit, I am almost always the slowest person on the highway.

     For some reason, we all tolerate speeding. Aside from a few Speed Kills signs, and a speed trap here and there, the authorities seem to pretty much ignore traffic infractions on our highways. And people in general must perceive that the risk of speeding is extremely minor, or nonexistent, because they ignore posted speed limits.

     Anyway, going home, I'm in the middle lane of the Taconic. An older model SUV speeds by me in the left-hand lane, doing at least 70 and probably 75 mph. It was a woman driver, alone in the car. I noticed several bumper stickers on her back fender. One of them said something about saving animals, and the most prominent proclaimed:  War Is Not the Answer.

     It's nice sentiment, I thought, one we could all agree on. But again, I couldn't help but note the irony ... or perhaps the hypocrisy? I wondered how the woman squares her philosophy with her behavior. There she is, doing 70+ in her SUV, getting about 15 mpg, with American troops stationed all over the Muslim world. Those troops are there for a number of reasons, to be sure, but one of the main reasons is to protect and secure our oil supplies -- which she was blithely using up at a pretty good rate.

     Now I know one gas guzzler doesn't make much difference. But I thought her bumper sticker should more honestly read:  War Is Not the Answer: The Arabs Should Give Up Their Oil Without a Fight.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What, Me Worry About Retirement?

     I remember back in the late 1970s when I interviewed for a job at the company where I eventually went to work, everyone there bragged to me about the great benefits that were offered. The company had its issues -- the office was out in the middle of nowhere, and the company wasn't considered the leader in its industry -- but the pay was pretty good. And there were those benefits.

     Honestly, at the time, I didn't give a hoot about the benefits. I needed a job! So okay, it was nice to have good medical insurance. But what did I care? I was young and healthy. And when you're 30, who even thinks about retirement? The idea was laughable to me.

     Then the years went by. And boy oh boy, by the time I left, I sure was happy that I'd been included in their great retirement package. To be honest, it wasn't as great as it had been, back in the 1970s and '80s; and I didn't get the whole package because I got laid off before I qualified for retirement. But still, it was a lot better than what I would have done on my own.

     Most young workers probably never think about retirement. It's such a vague notion, and so far off. People are focused on starting their careers; then starting families, buying a house, and buying things for their kids, and maybe opening up a college fund.

     Even if retirement does somehow make it onto your radar screen in your 30s or 40s, it's hard to save money when you have so many pressing immediate needs -- especially if you're trying to raise a family on $40K or $50K a year, as a lot of people are.

     When I started working, there was no such thing as an IRA or a 401K plan. Those saving plans at least do help people face the reality that there is such a thing as retirement in their future. Would it help if high schools and colleges required courses on personal finance, so people learn the skills necessary to save and invest for their future? It might. But not everyone has a "head" for money ... just like not everyone can draw, or play music, or are good at math.

     I know some friends and relatives -- people in their 50s and 60s -- who have absolutely no concept of how they will support themselves in retirement. They readily admit they have little to no financial knowledge, and no ability to make investment decisions. Some of these people -- those who are smart and realistic about it -- have hired a financial adviser to help them negotiate through the thicket of financial options. But finding an honest and upfront financial adviser is about as easy as finding a good car mechanic. Yes, they're out there; but they're hard to find.

     So what can we make of all this?

     Saving money is hard. So is eating your vegetables and doing your exercise. But we should all do it, one way or another. And if we don't, we're going to pay the price.

     Let's face it, investing your savings is not all that difficult. (You've heard of the low-cost index mutual fund, haven't you?). All you need is the ability to do math at about the 10th-grade level; along with some healthy skepticism about the advertising, marketing and salesmanship that you see on the subject. And there is plenty of material out there to help you get educated, starting with John Bogle. Nevertheless, some people are just not interested; or they have a blind spot about money. And so these people really should find themselves a good finance mechanic. (If they're lucky, they have one at their place of work, in the form of a good retirement program.)

     Also, just maybe it makes sense for some lower income people not to try to save too much for retirement . . . and not feel bad if they can't. If you're scraping by, living hand-to-mouth, when you're in your 40s, you'll probably be scraping by, living hand-to-mouth, when you're in your 70s.

    According to Social Security statistics, "among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 53% of married couples and 74% of unmarried persons receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security." And "23% of married couples and about 46% of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income." 

     Does it help to try to make people feel guilty about it? Nobody ever promised that Social Security was going to afford us a comfortable retirement, just that it would keep a roof over our head and a meal on the table. We always knew if we wanted to travel, that would be on our own dime.
    Finally, while a lot of people brag and boast about being able to retire in their 50s, there's no reason why anyone should feel bad, or feel like a "failure" if they can't afford to retire at age 55 or 60, or 62, or even 66. My own dad worked until he was 72. He didn't suffer for it. I have some friends today who find it rewarding -- and who also gain some self-respect and direction in their lives -- while still working into their late 60s and early 70s, even if it's not a high-paying career-type job.

     I guess what I'm saying is, there seems to be so much pressure on us these days about retirement. Maybe because Baby Boomers are starting to retire, it's become a bigger subject, because everything Baby Boomers do becomes a bigger subject. But let's not have a heart attack about it.