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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Lost, Not Stolen

     Well, despite my telephone calls to the police, more calls to the lost-and-found, and scouring every inch of our car, I've concluded that my camera was lost, not stolen. How do I know?

     The first thing is, I'm pretty sure we locked the car on vacation, and there was no sign of forced entry. And nothing else in the car was missing.

     But the real reason I think it was lost, not stolen, requires a bit of explanation.

     To begin with, we were visiting Cape Cod, Mass., which attracts a reasonably well-heeled, middle-class type of visitor. We spent most of our time in Falmouth, which is among the more upscale towns on the Cape. Are you sensing my prejudice here? White, middle class people don't steal things, do they?

     Also, most of the people roaming the Falmouth streets after Labor Day are old enough to have kids in college or beyond. There are a lot of retired people living on Cape Cod. Retired people don't pilfer things out of cars.

     But here's what really convinced me. I have just started volunteering at our local community college, as a writing tutor for students who want help on the essays and papers they have to produce for English, history, sociology and any other class requiring written work. When I was applying for the position (yes, there was an application, an interview, and two writing tests) the head of the writing center warned me that the students might not be like the kinds of kids I was used to. They are not the sons and daughters of upper-middle-class professionals, the kids taking AP courses and aiming for law school, grad school or med school.

     According to the university website almost 50% of students "claim minority status," which is the highest percentage of minority students of any college in the New York state system. And the writing coordinator told me that for some of the kids English is neither the first language they learned, nor the language they speak at home.

     So I went to my first session on Thursday. I was heading off to another  appointment later in the day, so I brought along my laptop computer, a small bag of clothes, my cellphone and a few other things that were all tossed into the backseat. The parking lot was pretty full, but I also saw a city bus pull up and drop off a group of kids, about half males and half females, all of them nonwhite.

     I found a parking space. I slipped on a sports jacket. I locked the car. And I walked off to the library where I would start my new "job."

     I reported for duty at the writing center, and found the whole experience very interesting -- a topic for another blog post -- and then finally, three hours later, I walked back across campus, past a gaggle of kids waiting for a bus, and found my car. I pressed the button on my key to unlock the doors. I slipped into the driver's seat. And that's when I noticed that the window on the front passenger's side of the car was wide open!

     I turned quickly to check my backseat. The pile of stuff was still lying there, untouched. My cellphone was propped up against a bag. My laptop computer sat on top, just the way I'd left it.

     Obviously, when I'd parked my car, I'd buzzed the window down, instead of up. And so, despite having left my car wide open, with laptop in full view, at the multicultural community college, full of a diverse group of kids in their late teens and 20s, nothing had been touched. So how could my camera have been stolen out of a locked car in tony Falmouth, Mass.?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Has This Ever Happened to You?

     Last week B and I took a little vacation on Cape Cod. We packed B's minivan to the gills with pretty much everything we own, including my Canon digital camera. As soon as we arrived at our rental -- a small house, but right on the bay -- I started taking lots of pictures, including many shots of the incredible view we had out our kitchen and living room windows, overlooking Buzzard's Bay, with the Bourne Bridge way off in the distance.

     I took pictures of the sunset. I took pictures of the fishing boats that came by in the morning, and the big container ships that passed by out in the channel. I photographed the seagulls that perched on our rocks. I took pictures of our friends who retired to the Cape a few years ago. And I took pictures of Falmouth, Hyannis, Brewster, Eastham. All beautiful pictures.

     And then, yesterday, when we went to pack up the car, I could not find my camera. I remembered putting it in the car the day before. It was in the back seat, I know. But I looked all over the back seat, under the front seat, all around the back of the car, even under the car in the driveway in case it fell out.


     I called the lost-and-found at the Falmouth Visitors Center, and I phoned the police. There was no sign of any camera that had been turned in. The police officer on the phone was very nice. She took my number, in case someone came in with a camera. She suggested I try the local pawn shop. Really? I said. Oh, sure, she replied. I've seen it all.

    I didn't go in to the pawn shop. That seemed ridiculous. And honestly, I don't know why I'm revealing all this. It seems unlikely, but the camera must have fallen out of the car, somehow, maybe when I was grabbing my jacket or tossing in that souvenir I bought. I feel like a complete lame brain. But, come on, you've probably left something behind on vacation, at some point, haven't you?

     Meanwhile, these two pictures of Cape Cod are from a previous visit . . . because, obviously, I don't have any pictures to show from this trip.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A View of the Kennedys

     Yesterday B and I went over and took a look at the Kennedy compound. Maybe because it's the end of summer, and the beach looks empty and lonely, or maybe it's because the house is vacant, no one living there, but the place seemed abandoned, almost haunted.

     It reminded me, in just two more months we will be marking the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. It was November 22, 1963.

     B and I didn't actually go into the compound. As far as I know, it is never open to the public. What really happened is that B and I, on a week's vacation on Cape Cod, took a drive over to Hyannis. We'd read about some artist's shanties located in a harborside park, and we thought it would be fun to go hang out.

     The artist's shanties turned out to be an extreme disappointment -- just a little tourist trap with overpriced crafts and photos -- although the trip was saved by a run across the street to find some very tasty clam chowder.

    But while we were there we saw a sign for a harbor excursion boat. It was leaving for a cruise at 2 p.m. We hadn't planned on doing anything like that, but it was only an hour and fifteen minutes long, so we purchased tickets, for $20 each, and climbed aboard.

     A father and son team ran the boat, and they skippered us out of the harbor, showing us a series of old lighthouses, multimillion-dollar estates along the coastline, a tower marking where the Cape Wind project would be located.

     There has been for several years now a proposal to build a series of windmills along a sandbar in Nantucket Sound. It is controversial because while the windmills would produce environmentally friendly electricity, they also have the potential to disturb some birds. More significantly, they would also disturb the view from many of those multimillion-dollar estates -- one of those estates being the Kennedy compound, so Sen. Edward Kennedy was a powerful opponent of the project. What's happening now, since Ted Kennedy has left us, I do not know.

     Anyway, on the way back to the dock, the captain swung around Hyannisport and showed us the Kennedy compound. You can't see much of it from shore -- it's cordoned off by winding streets and tall hedges -- but you can see it remarkably well, and up pretty close, from the water.

     If you are old enough to remember 50 years ago, and those old film clips of Camelot, with young Kennedys playing touch football on the lawn, sailing in the bay, healthy, toothy, kids in tow, you can't possibly take in this scene without feeling some nostalgia, a sinking in your gut as the old newsreels play in your mind.

     According to our guide, Ted Kennedy moved into the main house after his mother Rose died in 1995, and he used it as his main residence until his death in 2009. But while a number of Kennedys still live in the six-acre compound, the main house has been empty ever since. Apparently there are plans to open the house to the public, perhaps turn it into some kind of monument or museum, but all that would be sometime in the future.

     Last summer, pop singer Taylor Swift bought a house down the street, when she was going out with Conor Kennedy, grandson of Robert F. Kennedy. That didn't last long, our young guide quipped. But rumor has it Swift made a million dollars when she sold the house earlier this year. Conor is the son of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Mary Richardson Kennedy. The two had a troubled marriage, and they were already estranged last year when Mary, Conor's mother, committed suicide.

     I guess we all have our own thoughts, our own opinions about the Kennedys. Joseph Kennedy, the wealthy patriarch, made his money under questionable circumstances. John F. Kennedy, icon of his era, was later revealed to be something of a sexual predator. Bobby Kennedy, attorney general to his older brother, senator from New York and passionate anti-war presidential candidate, was a man who many hailed as a visionary, while others scorned him as just another calculating, self-serving politician. And Edward Kennedy . . . he had his own brush with disaster at Chappaquiddick in 1969, but in many people's eyes he redeemed himself with his long career in the U. S. Senate.

     There's nothing I can add to the Kennedy legacy, the Kennedy mystique. But I do remember those heady, historic days. I remember my Irish Catholic mother was a fan; my more conservative, indifferent Protestant father remained unimpressed. But back then I wished my father was half as cool as John Kennedy; and I was in love with Caroline, as I'm sure many young women fell in love with John-John, who we all remember died when his plane crashed off Martha's Vineyard in 1999.

     Love 'em or hate 'em, they were a great American family. But as their old house suggests, sitting forlornly on the windy beach, it all seems long ago and far away.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Nostalgic About . . . What?

     Remember the days when your kids were young, and you'd be driving them to soccer or ballet class or some other after-school activity, and your kid would sit in the backseat of the car with a friend or two, and they'd be talking about their lives and what was going on with their friends . . .  and you'd be listening in, finding out what was really going on in their world?

     Well, I got a glimpse of that the other day. I drove up to a football game (Army vs. Stanford) last weekend with my daughter, her boyfriend, and a college friend of my daughter's. On the way, they talked about the game, where we were going to park, how to pick up tickets at the will-call window, when they would be meeting up with a couple of their other friends.

     On the way home after the game (Stanford won 34-20), they started talking about their jobs. My daughter's college friend now works for a public relations company. She does market research. The point of her job is to connect her clients' products with new trends, and especially social media trends.

     So what's the latest trend, according to this young, media-savvy market researcher? Nostalgia. Nostalgia for what? You'd better be sitting down for this. Nostalgia for the 1990s.

     I still watch reruns of Seinfeld. I didn't even know that the '90s were over! The oldies stations on my SiriusXM radio cover the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. The station I have for what I think of as hip, up-to-date music is ... you guessed it, the station playing music from the '90s -- Radiohead, U2, Green Day, Dave Matthews. I like Dave Matthews.

    But to these late 20-somethings, the 1990s were their growing-up years. They remembered their TV shows, which did not include Seinfeld but did include Dawson's Creek, Ally McBeal, Family Matters, Boy Meets World  ... and my daughter did like The X Files.

     They remembered the movies:  Jurassic Park, Titanic, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Romeo and Juliet.

     The young woman talked about a Forrest Gump themed event that she'd been to, which somehow was tied in to a particular brand of vodka, and a party with a Red Hot Chili Peppers theme that was associated with some other product. (Yes, apparently that's her job -- trying to get her clients' products associated with something from the 1990s, which will presumably result in more sales.)

      But anyway, what these young people remembered most fondly was not the movies or the music, but the technology.

     "Remember flip phones?!?" my daughter's friend said, which brought on peals of laughter from the backseat. "And you know, the little antenna sticking out the top!" More raucous laughter. "And pagers!"

     "Yeah, I remember pagers," the boyfriend said, scrunching up his face as if he was summoning up some antediluvian, pre-Christian concept.

     These kids were part of the first generation to grow up with personal computers and the Internet. They recalled the days before DSL, when they had to plug the desktop computer into the phone line in order to access the Internet. They used AOL instant messaging, AIM. (Confession: I still use AIM.)

     They discussed at length how, when they wanted to talk to a friend on the phone, they'd message the friend on AIM to log off their computer to free up the line so they could call them on the phone.

     And they remembered having fun going into random chat rooms -- in the days when chat rooms were still places where innocent people could talk, before the perverts infected the system. And they laughed at the idea of going on a chat room these days. Who would do that?

     They remembered some other things, too. But I didn't catch them all. Too many of the references were unfamiliar to me (reminding me how kids live in a different world from their parents). And besides these 20-somethings -- especially the gir ... I mean, the women -- talk so fast that I often can't understand what they're saying, and they slur their words and pause and say "like" about five times a minute.

     I wonder if we were that way to our parents. Surely, we were ... remember the "generation gap"? Ah, the world moves on ...

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Life Is Messy

     The goldenrod is yellow
     The corn is turning brown
     The trees in apple orchards
     With fruit are bending down

     So begins a poem called September by Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th century American poet from New England, who traveled west and became an activist for Native American rights. I can just picture the used-up cornfield and the burdened trees, looking heavy and overgrown and not-at-all picturesque . . .

     . . . like my garden, by the end of the season. It no longer looks good -- choked with weeds, littered with dying stalks and leaves, trampled over by people and animals. Life is messy.

     Last night, B and I stopped off at a pizza place for a salad and a slice. Afterwards, I went to the restroom. (One needs no more proof that life is messy than a public bathroom!), and when I came out B was standing there pouting.

     "I dropped your Pepsi," she confessed.

     I had left my still-half-full, 16-oz. Pepsi bottle on the table, with the top loosely screwed on. She'd picked it up by the top to bring it with us. As she was walking through the lobby of the pizza place, the top came off. The Pepsi bottle dropped to the floor and exploded across the tile onto the front of the counter. Accidents happen; life is messy.

     My daughter came home last night. She's been spending the last three months moving to Buffalo, NY, and in the meantime she's been storing a lot of her stuff in our basement -- furniture, boxes of books, suitcases full of clothes, and bags stuffed with who knows what. And this is on top of all the piles that B and I have stored down there -- including all our sports equipment which is scattered across the floor near the door to the garage.

      I remember when I was in business school, the professors drummed into us the central assumption made by economists -- that people are rational. They are logical; they are predictable. You can put them into neat little boxes.

     On the surface, maybe it makes sense. People are more likely to buy something if it's cheaper, and they'll buy more stuff if they think they're getting it at a great price. That's how Sam's Club and Costco make their profits.

     But scratch the surface of the theory just a little bit, and you realize how preposterous it is to assume that people are rational.. A friend of mine recently revealed to me that he's paying $65,000 a year to send his son to a name brand college. The kid could get an equally good education at any number of other schools. But he wants the name brand. It has to be good; it costs $65,000!

     Another friend bought himself a $40,000 Audi last year. An Audi looks pretty cool; but he doesn't need an Audi to get himself to work. He's trying to buy himself some sex appeal. And if you knew my friend . . . it would take more than $40,000 to buy him sex appeal! Meanwhile, he's already taken it back to the shop three times for repairs.

     But people are sometimes irrational. Why do people pay $10 for a pack of cigarettes? Why do people have that third martini, when they know it will just give them a headache in the morning. Who do people tailgate on the highway at 70 m.p.h? Why does anyone get in a bar fight? Because they are rational?

     The other day I attended a 12-year commemoration of Sept. 11. The spouse of a good friend of mine was in the South Tower. This was a local ceremony, not the one in New York City, and maybe 500 people were there, remembering the 123 people from our area who'd been killed. Boy, did that mess up a lot of lives. And I don't mean to be either callous or gross, but I remember being in New York City about a week after 9/11. I remember the smoke. I remember the rubble. I remember the stench.

     Life is messy enough. Hopefully, we don't mess it up even more.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tips for Enrolling in Medicare

     I don't pretend to be an expert on Medicare. But I recently went through the process of signing up for Medicare, so I'm trying to pass along some basic information . . . to get you started.

      The first thing to know about Medicare is that . . . it's not just you, it is, indeed, incredibly complicated. As the doyen of senior blogging, Ronni Bennett, said on Time Goes By, "We all know that Medicare is not perfect. My biggest pet peeve is that it is way too complex. There are so many rules to understand both when signing up for Medicare for the first time and when choosing or updating a supplemental plan that hardly anyone can understand it without help."

     So here's some help.
     As you'll find out if you go to the Medicare website, there are several parts to Medicare. (For your further reading pleasure, Medicare also offers an information booklet.)

     Part A covers hospital bills -- in general, 80 percent of the cost. Part A is free. If you're already enrolled in Social Security, you should be enrolled in Medicare automatically. If not, you have to do it yourself. Some people receive mailings and reminders from their current insurance company to sign up for Medicare. But not everybody gets those mailings. So don't be complacent. When you turn 65, the age you're eligible to go on Medicare, make sure you get signed up, and if no one is doing it for you, then call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213, or Medicare at 1-800-633-4227. (Yes, there's a phone tree, but if you persist you can get a real person.) Or, go to an office in person. Or, you can enroll in Medicare online. That's what I did. That part is not so terribly complicated.

     Part B covers your doctors bills, ambulance service, some medical equipment and mental health services. You sign up separately for Part B, and it costs, currently, $104.90 per month (or more, if your income is over $85,000 a year, or $170,000 for a couple). If you don't sign up for Part B when you first become eligible, you may be subject to an ongoing penalty if you sign up later on. So, do it now!

     Part C . . . wait, see below.

     Part D covers your drugs.You must sign up for Part D separately, and the cost varies depending on your plan and your income. And again, if you don't sign up for Part D when you first become eligible, you may be subject to an ongoing penalty if you want to sign up later on.

     Okay, now here's the thing. Medicare does not pay for all your medical bills when you get sick or injured. Typically there is a deductible for you to pay. Then after that, Medicare pays 80 percent of your bills, with some variations for different procedures. Therefore, it's recommended you buy some sort of Medicare backup plan . . .

     There are two basic options for your Medicare backup plan. One is to purchase a Medicare Supplement plan, also called a Medigap plan, from a private company. It covers most of what Medicare doesn't cover, like the other 20 percent of your hospital and doctor bills. Advice: If your old employer offers a retirement health-care plan, that's probably your best bet. Many people who don't have the employer option go to AARP, where they get a Medicare Supplement plan through United Healthcare.

     And now ... Part C. This part of Medicare is actually something separate. It is a Medicare Advantage plan. This is an insurance plan supplied by a private company that works directly with Medicare. The Medicare Advantage plan consolidates all your other Medicare options into one overall plan.

     So, with a Medicare Supplement plan (which does not count as Part C), you pay separately for Part B, Part D, for the supplement plan itself, and for any other insurance you might want -- like a dental insurance plan, for example.

     With a Medicare Advantage plan, or Part C, you pay one bill that includes your drug plan, and also typically offers a dental plan. However, the Medical Advantage plan is either an HMO plan, or a PPO plan. With an HMO, you must go to a doctor in the insurance company's network. With a PPO you also go to a doctor in network. You can go to a doctor that's out-of-network, but the insurance will only cover a smaller portion of the bill that Medicare doesn't pay -- leaving you exposed to unknown and perhaps very high medical costs.

     Advice: If you want the convenience of a Medicare Advantage plan, and you want to stay with your current medical practice, you should call your doctor's office and make sure the doctor is in the network of that particular plan.

     Personally, when I was signing up, I thought I'd choose a PPO plan. I'd go to my doctor on a regular basis. But then, if I needed some kind of specialist that was out-of-network, I could go, and I'd just have to pay more.

     Then I found out that my current medical group does not accept the Medicare Advantage plan of my old insurance company, which was HIP. That would mean I'd be paying out-of-network fees every time I go to the doctor.

     It didn't make sense to me that my medical group would accept regular HIP; but not accept HIP Medical Advantage. But that's the policy. And my medical group is the biggest, most comprehensive medical group in my area. I did not want to change.

     Then I researched the AARP offering, through United Healthcare. My medical group accepts the United Healthcare Medicare Supplement plan. But, for some reason, it does not accept the United Healthcare Medicare Advantage Plan. Therefore, again, with the Advantage plan every time I'd go to the doctor, I'd be paying out-of-service fees.

     So I chose the AARP United Healthcare Medicare Supplement Plan. I do not have my insurance wrapped up into one policy. I pay a separate bill each, for Medicare Part B, Medicare Part D, and the Medicare Supplement plan. And then, since my supplement plan does not include dental, I purchased a separate dental plan through AARP, with yet another bill, for another $40-some per month.

     I pay four separate bills. The good news is that altogether they are about a third less than what I was paying through my old medical insurance plan, as of two months ago.

     I have yet to actually use Medicare. I haven't been to the doctor yet. I sure hope the process becomes a little easier.

     Meantime, I know there are lots of people with more Medicare experience than I have. So if I've got anything wrong here, I hope you will correct me. Or if there's anything to add, which could help the Medicare neophyte, I hope you won't hesitate to append your advice. Thanks and good luck!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Sharing Information

     Just a note to prompt you to head over and take a look at The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide to check out the latest roundup from the Best of Boomer Blogs. Some of the topics covered:

     A book exploring the issue of midlife crisis in single women.

     A discussion of dementia and other cognitive changes that may come along with aging.

    A report on the consumer habits of aging Baby Boomers.

     Not to mention . . . it's worth the trip just to poke around this Boomer Guide blog, where you can find out some information about consumer credit, product recalls, toxic chemicals and home security cameras.

     Go ahead. Don't be embarrassed. No one is watching you.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Lesson Learned -- Part 2

     Eddie Lynch gave me a hard stare, then his mouth curled up in a wolfish grin. He was looking for a fight, because he knew he could win.

     We were all now standing around on the sidewalk, everyone waiting for something to happen. I knew I couldn't back down, but I wasn't going to volunteer either. "Look, nobody's going to make you," I finally said. "Can't you take a hint? No one wants you around here. So get lost."

     Eddie edged forward, pushed past me and started to walk up the driveway.

     "Hey, stay out of here!" George piped up, his face flushing red in anger and frustration. "This is my yard. You can't come in here!"

     I followed Eddie in through the gate. Darby was on my heels. "What are we gonna do?" Darby whispered anxiously to me. "We can't let him do this to us. We've got to get 'em."

     "Okay, Eddie," I said, deepening my voice, trying to sound threatening. "Enough is enough. Get out of here now, will ya."

     Eddie turned around. "You gonna make me?" he challenged. He took a step forward, reached out with both arms and pushed me in the chest. I stumbled back a step. Darby caught me. "Get him, Tom," he urged. "Go for it."

     I stepped forward and gave Eddie a return shove. "Well, maybe I'm going to have to," I heard myself saying. But when I pushed Eddie he didn't fall back. He just stood there like a concrete wall.

     Eddie shoved me again. "Don't you dare touch me, you shit-eating pipsqueak." His tone had changed completely. Instead of sneering and taunting, he was suddenly threatening, and dead serious.

     I realized we had just crossed some kind of line. Eddie was not going to back off. And I couldn't, either -- not now, not in front of my friends. So I made a split-second decision. If we had to fight, the only chance I had was to strike first.

     I lunged at Eddie, grabbed him around his stomach and drove him to the ground.

     "Way to go!" Darby yelled. "Go get him, Tom!"

     It might have been better if I'd let Eddie have the first shot, because then the fight would have been over quickly. Instead, since I had the initial advantage, it took him a while to beat me up.

     He rolled out from my grasp, flipped me over and started pommeling my stomach and chest. I managed to get away, then tackled him. We traded blows. I was on top, then he was on top. We fought on the ground, and we fought standing up. But eventually his greater strength and bulk wore me out, until he finally drove me across the yard. I was stumbling backward. I almost lost my balance, but was saved by crashing up against the chain-link fence.

     Eddie came after me, throwing his body into mine and pinning me against the fence. Both my arms were trapped. Eddie had one of his arms around my chest while he jammed the other up against my throat. I tried to resist as he pushed up against my head, until finally my neck pressed back against the sharp metal spikes sticking up from the top of the fence. I was breathing hard, and every time I gasped for air the spikes dug into my skin. Eddie's face hovered just inches in front of mine; it was red and bloated, his skin puffed up in anger. His teeth were thrashing, and spit was flying out of his mouth.

     "Give up?" he shouted at me. "Do you give up, Tom? Do you give up?"

     I didn't know what to do. I could barely breathe.

     Then he started demanding, over and over. "Give up. Give up!" He applied more pressure to my neck. I was trapped between his piston-like arm and the metal spikes of the fence that would soon start to puncture my flesh and draw blood.

     "I give up," I finally managed to cough out.

     The pressure let up. Eddie abruptly turned and left. And I slumped to the ground.

     Everything was a blur of darkness and muffled noises. I could feel the cool grass on my back. I kept my eyes closed to shut out the world for a minute, to give myself a moment to recover.

     "Tom?" It was someone's voice. I didn't know who it belonged to.

     "Are you okay?" came another voice. This one belonged to George. I opened my eyes and saw a narrow slice of trees and sky. As I came out of the spinning darkness, it all seemed very bright and full of color.

     Then a head came into my field of vision. It was Darby. He had a quizzical look on his movie-star face. "Tom?" he queried. "Are you okay?"

     "Yeah, I think so," I managed to say through my constricted throat. "He had my neck on the fence," I said apologetically, fearing that I'd let my friends down. "I had to give up. The fence woulda killed me."

     Darby gave a little shrug. "Hey, don't worry. It doesn't matter." He reached down and helped me up. "But jeez, Tom . . .  you shouldn't have picked a fight with Eddie Lynch."


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Lesson Learned -- Part 1

     It's September. Back to school time. The crisp air brings back memories . . .

     Darby Gilman, George Elmore and I were best friends in grammar school, back in the 1960s. George was a budding scientist who spent most of his time experimenting with his chemistry set and taking care of his fish and turtles in his basement. Darby was a good-looking kid who had moved to our little suburban town from California. He was already enjoying success with the girls, even as the rest of us were trying to figure out what to do with these tall, skinny creatures who were beginning to hold some mysterious appeal -- and who now wanted to dance with us.

     But this story isn't about love. It's about a fight.

     And if George was the scholar in our crowd, and Darby the lover, then I was the fighter -- no testament to how tough I was, but more an indication of how scrawny my friends were.

     The three of us used to meet up in George Elmore's yard, sometimes with George's little brother and some other friends. We would play stickball and dodgeball in his driveway. We'd sit on his swings and talk about our families and our teachers. We'd lay on the grass and discuss Monopoly strategies or debate various theories about how women had babies.

     George's yard was bordered by an old-fashioned chain-link fence. Besides being centrally located, the yard gave us a secure place to gather, our own sanctuary that nobody outside the immediate neighborhood cared about or even knew about.

     When we got old enough for junior high school, we were thrown together with kids from other sections of town. Most of them were friendly, but one group of guys from across U. S. Route 1 was more interested in making an impression than making friends. In other words, these kids were looking for a fight.

     The crowd consisted of five or six fairly hefty guys, led by Eddie Lynch, the biggest kid of all. Eddie was an inch or two taller than me, with muscles that stretched his t-shirt across his chest and shoulders. He was later to become star of the high-school football team, and go on to play in college.

     Starting in September, Eddie and his friends came around to our street, probably three or four times. First they tested us, then they taunted us and began to intimidate us. Once when we saw them coming, we were reduced to hiding out in the Elmore's garage.

     Then, one sunny Saturday in late September, we were sitting on George's swings, discussing what strategy we needed to use against these guys. We didn't come up with much more than a resolution to not let them push us around. Darby, my friend from California, was especially vocal about protecting our own turf. "I'll get my older sister's friends," he vowed. "And we'll tear them apart."

     I didn't put much stake in Darby's plan. We soon got tired of our own bluster and moved to the driveway where we began a game of stickball. The driveway served as an infield; the garage door supplied a backstop behind home plate; the lawn was our outfield.

     If one of us hit the tennis ball over the chain-link fence into the street it was a home run. Home runs were rare, but someone occasionally grounded a ball up the middle and out the driveway. It was George Elmore who had made just such a hit and was rounding the bases. Darby was playing outfield and turned to run along the fence and then out to the street after the ball.

     Suddenly, Eddie Lynch was standing on the sidewalk, with three or four of his friends looming behind him. Eddie had picked up our tennis ball and was waving it at us.

     Then he began tossing the ball up and down with one hand. "Come and take it from me, Darbs," Eddie challenged, his mouth cracking into a grin. He started to laugh, and when he laughed little bubbles of spit formed at the corners of his mouth.

     Darby walked up to face him. Eddie extended his arm toward Darby and held out the ball. When Darby reached for it, Eddie flipped it to one of his friends.

     I walked out to the driveway entrance, along with George and his little brother. "Don't be stupid," Darby warned the red-headed, freckled kid who now had the ball. "You don't want to get into a fight over this."

     The red-headed kid didn't say anything, he just lobbed the ball over Darby's head to another boy in Eddie's crowd, a tall lanky blond fellow. They were all laughing and snickering.

     "Hey, come on," I called. "Just give us the ball. We don't want any trouble."

     Eddie stared at me. Then he scrunched up his face and squeaked, "Give us the baa-aall. We don't want any troo-uuble."

     Eddie turned to his friend. "Throw the ball," he ordered. And the kid tossed the tennis ball not to me or Darby, but to Eddie. Then Eddie Lynch reared back and hurled the ball over the fence, across the corner of George's yard and down the street.

     I turned and watched the ball fly. It gave a big bounce on the sidewalk then disappeared, dribbling down the road.

     "Okay, you proved your point," said Darby as George's little brother started to trail down the street after the ball. "Now why don't you and your goons get lost."

     "Yeah," I chimed in, "Get outta here."

     "Who's gonna make me," Eddie challenged. He looked at Darby. My handsome friend from California stood there frozen, saying nothing. Then his gaze slowly turned to me . . .

                               -- Tune in next time for the rest of the story --

Monday, September 2, 2013

Remember Her?

     She is known as a top athlete and champion of women's rights, with a tough, competitive spirit and sometimes-controversial lifestyle.

     She was born in 1943 in Long Beach, Calif. Her father was a firefighter, her mother a housewife, adn the family was active in the Methodist church. Her younger brother, Randy Moffitt, grew up to become a professional baseball player, a dependable relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants during the 1970s.

     She graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 1961 and went on to California State University, Los Angeles, where she studied history. In college she met her future husband. They were married in 1965. He went on to law school, but her studies took a back seat to an athletic career.

Let the games begin!
     She started playing on the national stage at an early age. In her first contest, at age 15, she was one point away from winning, then went down to defeat. She played in a half dozen major women's tournaments that year, with some success, but no outright wins. One of the top women players of the time reportedly told her, "I just want to let you know, you'll never make it. So don't bother."

     But this athlete was a tough, committed young woman. She powered through a number of tournaments until in 1961, the summer before college, she paired up with Karen Susman, a fellow Californian. They traveled to England and came home with a major victory. She then toured the circuit in California, as well as the East Coast, playing in a number of major events.

     In 1964 she left college to play full time. She traveled to Australia for a three-month tour, and early in 1965 she made it to the semifinals of the Australian Championship. Later that year she was back in England, also making it to the semifinals. Then at the U. S. Championships, she got to the finals and lost a tight match to Margaret Court, the number 1 ranked player in the world.

     So without beating around the net, the young athlete, Billie Jean King (nee Moffitt), soon reached number 1 status herself, winning more than 30 Grand Slam titles over the next ten years. In 1967 she won the U. S. National Championship in women's singles. In 1968, she fell to Virginia Wade in the finals of the tournament -- which changed its name to the U. S. Open, played every summer in New York City. But she went on to take the championship again in 1971, 1972 and 1974.

Billie Jean King now. . .
     Meanwhile, she won the women's singles championship at Wimbledon six times between 1966 and 1975. In 1968 she beat her nemesis Margaret Court (who enjoyed home-court advantage) for the Australian championship. And in 1972 she also won the French Open.

     Of course, no retrospective of Billie Jean King is complete without mentioning "The Battle of the Sexes," a signature publicity stunt of 1973.

     Bobby Riggs had been a top men's tennis player in the 1940s, but was by the early 1970s a shameless self-promoter. He scoffed at women's tennis, saying it could never measure up to the men's side of the game.

. . . and then
     First he challenged Margaret Court to a match, which he won and as a result landed on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine. Now the 55-year-old huckster challenged 29-year-old Billie Jean King. At first she declined, but he kept taunting her until she finally took the bait.

     They met at the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973, playing for a $100,000 prize. More than 30,000 fans rocked the stadium -- and an estimated 50 million Americans watched on TV -- as Billie Jean King entered the field on a chair carried by four bare-chested men, while Bobby Riggs was escorted by a phalanx of scantily clad models. The match itself was not great tennis. But King won three straight sets, and by doing so put women's tennis on the map -- arguably even more boldly and prominently than when she won her major titles.

     Billie Jean King was followed in the 1970s by tennis great Chris Evert (six-time U. S. Open winner) and in the 1980s by Martina Navratilova (four-time champion) . . . and the rest is history.

Azarenka lost to Serena in 2012
     King later revealed that she had had an abortion in 1971. Also in 1971 she began an intimate relationship with her female secretary, who later sued her in a palimony case. Billie Jean and her husband divorced in 1987. But perhaps an even more controversial move came in 1999 when King joined the board of directors of Philip Morris, Inc., the largest tobacco company in America, and was roundly criticized by anti-cigarette groups.

     Billie Jean King, now 69, is no longer affiliated with any cigarette company. But she has not retired from tennis, nor has she backed off her support for women's rights and the lesbian and gay community. In 2009 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama for her work in civil rights. And now she has settled down with her 57-year-old partner, former professional tennis player IIana Kloss.
Four-time U.S. Open champ

     But her biggest mark will always be in tennis -- in her long list of records, her promotion of women's tennis, her reputation for mental toughest and sheer grit on the court. And also for the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in New York, where the U. S. Open is now being played on 33 courts, and where top-ranked players -- perhaps Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, and Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka -- will fight it out in the final rounds during the weekend of Sept. 6 - 9.