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

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Basics of Long-Term-Care Insurance

     "No American should ever have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies."  -- Barack Obama.

     And yet that's just what I've done. I've applied for a long-term-care insurance policy. I'm giving the company about $2000 a year, every year for the rest of my life. And in return the company promises to cover a portion of the costs of my care when and if I get old and infirm, those that Medicare and medical insurance don't cover -- the cost of a nursing home, or the cost of having an aide come to my house and help me eat and go to the bathroom and clean myself up.

     But there's a limit. The company will pay up to a maximum of $5,500 a month; and my total benefit will not exceed $200,000.

     Does this sound like a good deal to you?

     I got started on this because B has been hounding me about it. She took out a long-term-care policy for herself about ten years ago, after her husband died. At the time she had two teenage boys, and no husband, and she figured she'd have no one to take care of her when she got older.

     But also, B likes security, and she sleeps better knowing that when and if she becomes infirm, she has the resources to pay someone to take care of her. Besides, she has a better policy than the one being offered to me. Back then, when long-term-care policies were relatively new and untested, the insurance company agreed to cover all of her costs for up to three years, with no dollar limit, and then she somehow becomes eligible for Medicaid without losing her home and all her money.

     B's mother is now 97 years old, and only last year did she move into an assisted-living facility. All the women in B's family have lived a long time, and so B has every expectation that she will survive into her 90s, and probably end up needing some kind of long-term care.

     We've been to visit B's mother in her facility twice so far. It's a nice place in Pennsylvania -- relatively new and very clean, and it has a friendly, caring staff. Last time we went, we took her down to the dining room for dinner. There were maybe 30 tables in the room, with a sprinkling of white-haired people bent over the tables. And there the future was laid starkly before me. Elderly women, some in wheelchairs, others with walkers standing beside their chairs. And the men? There were no men.

     Or, nearly so. I did a quick count, and came up with 45 women sitting at the tables. And 7 men.

     So why do I need long-term-care insurance? Men don't live long enough to use long-term-care facilities.

     The insurance salesman told me 70% of people need some kind of long-term care at some point in their lives. He did allow that the percentage is higher for women, lower for men. I'm not sure if I believe him. But it did occur to me why B wants me to get the insurance. The men get sick and become infirm while their wives are still alive and still around to take care of them. The women outlive the men, and there's nobody left to take care of them.

     (Of course, this is a generalization. My own dad outlived my mother, and took care of her before she went into a Hospice for the last two weeks of her life.)

     Regardless, my long-term-care insurance will let me hire someone to take care of those bathroom and bathing needs, so B doesn't have to do it for me.

     So I've applied for the insurance. I checked out a policy being offered through my university. I checked out Genworth, the biggest in the industry. I ended up going with B's company because I get a couple's discount.

     At this point, there's no guarantee I'll be accepted for the policy. The company pulls your medical records; and also does its own physical exam, plus a memory test to see if you have any sign of Alzheimer's. I do not know how the insurance company decides whether a person is eligible for a policy. But it sounds as though if you have any serious medical issues, you're out of luck. In other words, if the insurance company thinks you'll need long-term-care anytime soon, it will not take you on.

     I'm pretty healthy. I'm assuming I'll be accepted (but you never know). And I will pay the premium, year after year, and I figure, if in 20 years I need some care, the amount I paid in will surely be less than what my maximum benefit is. I also get a 20% tax credit for my payments from the state, and because I file a Schedule C on my Federal taxes, I can take a deduction on my Federal tax as well (although how much longer I'll be working and filing a Schedule C is an open question).

     And then I just have to hope that 20 years from now, the insurance company will keep its promise to pay for my care.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Are You Getting Alzheimer's?

     I've applied to get long-term health insurance. It's not something I would necessarily recommend for everyone. It costs a lot of money. And the insurance company doesn't want to take you on as a policyholder if there could possibly be anything wrong with you.

     I'll address the whole question of long-term health insurance in my next post. But for right now, I want to focus on one aspect of the process -- the question of whether or not you're likely to get Alzheimer's or any other kind of dementia.

     The insurance company wants to know your entire medical history, including your family history. They're looking for any hereditary problems ... and Alzheimer's is one of them. Research shows that the cause of the disease is "most likely due to a combination of a variety of genetic and other factors," according to WebMD. Apparently there is a link between Alzheimer's and genes on four particular chromosomes, and the disease does have a tendency to run in families.

     In my case, my parents lived to age 89 and 91, and neither showed any signs of cognitive impairment. But the insurance company was not satisfied with just knowing that. They wanted to send a person over to my house to do a medical exam. Part of that exam is to take a test for Alzheimer's.

     To be honest, after a woman called and set up an appointment with me, I went online and checked out tests for Alzheimer's. Have you heard of the peanut butter test? Apparently Alzheimer's affects your sense of smell. A researcher had test subjects smell peanut butter, and found that people with early stage Alzheimer's had a dramatic difference in detecting odor between the left and right nostril -- the left nostril was impaired and did not detect the peanut butter odor nearly as well.

     I wasn't going to take the peanut butter test. But I did find several quick memory tests online at Test Your Memory for Alzheimer's (5 Best Memory Tests.) The first one was the most comprehensive and said it would take 15 minutes, although I did it in less than that. It's called the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE) from Ohio State University. The test requires you to draw a geometric pattern, draw a clock with the time, name 12 fruits and vegetables. There is no answer sheet. You're supposed to show the results to someone who will intrepret the meaning of the test. But I got the clock right, and I had no trouble naming 12 vegetables. So I figured I was all right.

     There are other, shorter tests linked to the website. They all seem to want you to draw a clock. And so when the medical technician came to my house yesterday, I was all ready to draw a clock.

     She began by asking me my name and address and birthday and telephone number. And the date. (Being retired -- I hope you sympathize with me -- I don't always know what the date is!) But anyway, I suppose this was actually the beginning of the test. If you can't remember your address, you ain't getting long-term care insurance!

     Then she told me she would administer the test. And of course, there was no clock to draw. She wrote down ten words on a piece of paper. She showed them to me and read them out aloud. Then she held them up for me to study for about 20 seconds. She put the paper down and asked me to repeat as many as I could remember. I remembered six of the ten words:

. . . 

     Then she showed me the words again. She read them again, and let me study them for another 20 seconds. She put the paper down and again asked me to repeat them. This time I got all ten words. (Don't ask me to remember them all now -- I took the test yesterday morning, some 24 hours ago.)

     Then she proceeded with the rest of the test. She asked me to associate various animals. She'd name three animals -- giraffe, monkey, sheep -- and ask which one didn't belong. There is no right or wrong answer, she assured me. We went through the animals, about two dozen examples.

     Then she asked me to name all the animals in the test. Actually, I found that easier than remembering the ten random words. Maybe because I wasn't trynig so hard; or wasn't anxious about it, because I didn't know in advance I was supposed to remember them. Anyway, I got them all right.

     So, I don't know. I remembered six of those words. Is that enough for the insurance company to convince themselves that I'm not on the road to dementia? I get the results back in about three weeks. I'll let you know.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

If You're Retired, Do You Have to Travel?

     A lot of people say they want to travel when they retire. It almost seems as if travel is a prerequisite for a fulfilling retirement, like it's part of the package of the successful middle-class retirement lifestyle.

     I've been to Costa Rica and Ecuador, people tell me, walked the El Camino de Santiago, and chartered a river boat down the Rhine. Where have you been?

     And I mumble in return, Uh, I was in New Jersey last weekend.

     I admit that I don't really like to travel all that much. And when I do travel I mostly stay close to home.

     Does that make me a failure at retirement? Do people feel sorry for me, because I can't afford to travel, or don't have the imagination or the curiosity to want to visit strange, foreign lands?

     For one thing, I do not like to fly. There's getting to the airport. Then the crowds. I don't like being herded through security and corralled into a narrow aluminum tube. You squeeze into a narrow seat, and a stranger guns the engines and you start trundling down a runway, hoping the heavier-than-air machine will actually lift off the ground before it smashes against the fence at the end of the pavement.

     No, I don't like to fly. And when I do, I pop a couple of pills, taking advantage of a little psychological aid called Lorazepam. Some people take Xanax instead. I wonder ... do you rely on a mood-altering drug when you fly, and does it help ease anxiety?

     Honestly, I don't really like to drive either -- dealing with the truckers, the speeders, the lane-changers and tailgaters. And then the hours and hours of sheer boredom as you sit there staring out the windshield at the ribbon of road ahead of you.

     All of this is worth it if you really, really want to be where you're going. And I do confess I'm ready to put up with the inconvenience of traveling when the weather gets cold in January, and the sun has disappeared, and my fingers are cracking from the cold, dry air -- and I just have to find a warm, tropical environment to bask in for a little while. I usually drive to Florida, where I take respite in the sun and the moist air for two or three weeks. A few times, I've bitten the bullet and stepped into an airplane for a flight to California or Arizona. Sometimes you just need a change of pace. And an airplane does get you there faster.

     But traveling to Europe or Asia or South America. Why? They don't even speak English there!

     Seriously, when I was younger and more adaptable, I traveled to Europe several times. I spent a summer in college bumming around Europe -- Spain, Italy, France, Germany, England and Ireland. But that was when I didn't mind sharing a bathroom with random strangers, and it didn't phase me to arrive in a city and not know where I'd be sleeping that night. I didn't mind struggling to communicate with people in a different language. In fact, I enjoyed unpacking my high-school French to see if it would work in the real world.

     And I do remember, later on, vacationing for two weeks in France with my wife. By the end of our stay, in Paris and beyond, and after a couple of weeks of practice, we could actually hold something that resembled a conversation with real, French-speaking people.

     But now? It's been a long time since I've spoken any French, and I only remember a few words, and the prospect of struggling through the language while impatient French people roll their eyes just seems like an unecessary annoyance.

     And forget about trying to navigate a vacation to Eastern Europe, South America or Asia, where I have no idea what the language is all about. Yes, some people speak English. But mostly it's the people who deal with American tourists, and it's their job to talk to you. To me that seems artificial. You get the tourist experience, but not the experience of the people who actually live there. Not to mention the fact that you don't know what they're saying behind your back!

     Besides, being a tourist doesn't appeal to me. You stand around and watch things. You go somewhere else and watch more things. Then you go back to your hotel (or cruise ship, but don't get me started on cruise ships!) and bed down in a generically furnished room. 

     I once proposed to B that after she retires we could take a trip around the world -- but only go to countries where they speak English. We'd go to England and Ireland, Israel, South Africa, India, Hong Kong, Australia. I thought it might be fun. And I wanted to prove to myself that the world is actually round. But B scoffed at the idea. She's not interested ... and probably thought I wasn't being serious anyway.

     To retirees who like to travel, I say more power to you. I admire your sense of adventure. But as for the rest of us, we shouldn't feel that we're missing something by not liking to travel. We shouldn't feel that we're somehow cheating our retirement years. Travel is one thing to do in retirement; but it's not the only thing, and it's not something we should feel required to "check off" in order to fullfill our retirement dreams.

     Besides, I say there's plenty to see in the world, even if you never travel more than a couple of hundred miles from home. For me, I can go to Boston and Cape Cod; to Vermont and New Hampshire, to New York City and the Hamptons, to Pennsylvania and the Jersey Shore and Washington DC. We've got the mountains and the beach; the city and the country; and all the cultural enrichments anyone could possibly want.

     Mais ... J'aime Paris au printemps. Peut-ĂȘtre qu'un de ces jours.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Can You Go on Vacation When You're Retired?

     Last week I wrote a post called A Weekend Away, reporting on a short visit B and I made to Pennsylvania. In response reader Kirk wondered:  "Does it count as a 'vacation' when you're retired?"

     Kirk, I don't know if you're retired yet, or just contemplating it, but you raise an excellent point. If you're not working, how can you take a vacation?

     I bet a lot of you -- those who have just returned home from Thailand or Tucson or Texas, for example -- may have your own view on the matter. But for me to answer the question I have to take a slight detour.

     I remember when I was working I once took a stay-at-home vacation. I looked forward to cleaning out the basement, fixing a window frame in the garage that had rotted out, and doing some yard work. I wanted to build a fence around our garden to keep out the raccoons, the deer, and whatever else was gobbling up our vegetables.

     So I made arrangements to take a week off from work. During the first weekend, my wife and I just did our usual activities with the family. Then, on Monday, I figured I could luxuriate for a while in my free time. After all, I was on vacation! I planned to get up late, relax over a long breakfast, maybe read the paper, then start in on my work around the house.

     Instead, on Monday, my wife decided that I should drive our daughter to pre-school, while she took care of the baby. This would give her a much-needed break. Oh, and how about picking up a few groceries on the way home.

     So that morning, as usual, I gulped down a cup of coffee, then instead of rushing off to work, I rushed my daughter off to pre-school. After that I went to the grocery store. I had to go to the gas station; and then stop at Home Depot pick up some shelves and some bins for the basement.

My basement today: What's my excuse now?
     I actually got to the basement about 3 p.m., and spent an hour clearing things out, before heading back upstairs and getting embroiled once again in the kids and the evening routine. Tuesday went pretty much the same way as Monday. Then on Wednesday I did do some work in the morning.

     At the time we had a standing date with a babysitter on Wednesday evenings. It was a night out for my wife and me. But that Wednesday I decided I was falling behind and better get some work done. So my wife went to the movies with one of her girlfriends, while I was chopping away at rotten wood in the garage, then sawing boards and trying to slot them into the window frame. I got halfway done before my wife came home, the babysitter left, and I hit the shower to wash off the dirt and grime and tend to a few scrapes and scratches.

     I did finally get the window fixed that week. Then I started on the garden fence -- although I ran out of time and ended up taking a few shortcuts, so the fence was never put in to proper specifications. My fence did keep out some casual visitors to the garden; but never the determined residents of my yard. We got some vegetables that year, but fewer than I'd envisioned.

     By the end of the week I was exhausted and frustrated. And that was the last time I ever took a vacation and stayed at home. Because when you stay home, it's no vacation at all.

     After that experience, we spent vacations at the beach, or we went to visit grandma and grandpa, or we'd go for a week at a family-type resort. We'd go anywhere just to get away from our normal routine, have some real time off -- and so I wouldn't have to spend a week trolling around the basement and garage and digging in the dirt.

     Now, many years later, people ask me: If you're not working, if you don't have responsibility for kids, how can you go on vacation? Aren't you on vacation all the time?

     The answer is no. Because when you're home you still have your routine and your responsibilities. Maybe it's not a job. But it might be your volunteer work. Maybe it's not the kids; but it might be your grandchildren. And you still have a house to take care of -- or at least I do. And the car to fix, and the bills to pay, and dinner to cook and dishes to wash, and beds to make and groceries to buy.

     So Kirk, take some advice from this grizzled old veteran: If you want a vacation, a real care-free vacation, go away from home.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Boomer Blogs Go Bragh

     These are exciting times. Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day. Tonight there's a full moon. It's Purim. And today I bring you the latest edition of the Best of Boomer Blogs.

     Contrary to myth, a full moon does not bring out the werewolves, nor does it result in any more lunacy than any other time of year. The studies I found show that there are no additional emergency room visits on nights of the full moon, and there is no connection of any significance between the moon and the female menstrual cycle.

     But one study from Colorado State University found approximately 25% more visits to veterinary clinics for both cats and dogs on days surrounding full moons. Why? Nobody knows. It could be that people tend to take pets out more during the full moon, raising the odds of an injury. But then you would expect more visits to the emergency room from people as well, wouldn't you? So I can only conclude: Despite all our scientific progress, we are still surrounded by the mysteries of the universe.

     Speaking of scientific progress, Laura Lee, aka the Midlife Crisis Queen, says that this week we said Happy Birthday to the World Wide Web. Laura Lee was an academic librarian back then, so she remembers, and not too fondly, those stupid "gophers" and TCP/IP applications we had to learn about!

     Bart Drolenga of The Highway Is My Home is going another way this week. He spoke with Allen Egan, an artist born in Zimbabwe in 1962 who moved to South Africa and now lives in Gatineau, Quebec. His paintings are beautiful, intriguing and a little sinister. (Like the full moon?) His colorful life-size canvasses depict realistic scenes often with a touch of the surreal.

     And you might want to read about what Egan says it was like to live in Zimbabwe, and how he feels about getting older and what he has learned in life so far.

     Turning from the moon to that other celestial orb, Karen at The Generation Above Me says, "Now that spring is on its way, it's time to store up on Vitamin D by getting 10 to 15 minutes of sun a day." She reminds us that older people are at greater risk for osteomalacia and osteopenia, and she explores the health benefits of getting a little sun in her post Sunshine and Vitamin D. If you have any worries about your bones, you should check out Karen's research.

     On another health note, Rita R. Robison of The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide writes about a study that shows more than 20 percent of older adults are being treated with drugs that work at odds with each other – the medication used for one condition can make the other condition worse. Boomer consumers, she advises, need to talk with their health care providers about possible drug interactions when they’re prescribed a new medication.

     As for me, my Irish roots go back through my mother's family to two brothers, Tom and Patrick Kiernan, who left their potato farm near Mullingar, in County Westmeath, around 1850, and eventually made their way to New York. But right now I've got my mind not on my health, or my ancestry, but on monetary matters.

     I'm one of the few throwbacks who actually does his own taxes. Why do I put myself through that crucible? Well, I'm not very good at any other do-it-yourself projects. I can't replace a light switch or fix a leaky toilet. But I am able to wade through the tax forms and the IRS website. So I figure I can at least do something to save a few non-tax-deductible dollars.

     I also believe that, in a democracy, a tax code ought to be accessible to ordinary citizens. In our country it's really not. The tax code, at about 8 gazillion pages, is written mostly for the benefit of corporations, wealthy individuals and special interests. It favors investors over workers, the wealthy over the middle class, rural residents over urban and suburban dwellers.

     So anyway, I've been busy with my calculator. Besides, I've already said what I need to say about our tax code, so I'll just refer you to Ten Lessons You Learn By Doing Your Own Taxes.

     Gee, I wonder if anybody has done a study about the association between lunacy, werewolves and the appearance of April 15 looming on the horizon.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How to Stay Mentally Alert as We Age

     What do you worry about more as you get older -- facing physical issues, or losing mental clarity? For me, I think it's the brain. I don't want to spend my last years in a fog, barely aware of what's going on.

     We know that the brain, like everything else in our bodies, tends to shrink as we get older. It starts in our early 20s when brain cells begin to die faster than they can be replaced. By the time people reach their 80s, they can summon up barely half as much brain power as they did in their 20s.

     But does this mean we have to flirt with senility when we get older, become forgetful and inevitably start fading toward dementia? I hope not. I do remember I study I saw a while ago from the University of California. It said that people in their 60s and 70s lose mental acuity as their ability to process information slows down, but they still beat out 20-somethings in many aspects of intelligence because of the greater knowledge they've acquired through experience, culture and education.

     In other words, what we lose in speed and agility we make up for in experience and perspective.

     I just read a book by Bruce Grierson called What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star, and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives. Grierson looks at a number of senior athletes, focusing particularly on 90+ year old Canadian track star Olga Kotelko, to find out what keeps older people healthy and active and mentally acute. In poring over his advice and insights, I've isolated a few ideas for keeping our minds sharp as we get older: 

     Education matters. There is evidence that time spent in a classroom correlates with better brainpower, promoting habits of lifelong learning. According to the book, college graduates have denser brains than those without a degree, and brain density has been linked to a smaller decline in cognitive function, presumably because the more educated we are the more neural connections we have to back up the ones we lose. In addition, Grierson says evidence suggests that being bilingual protects people from dementia (if only I knew a second language), and the earlier the second or third language is learned, the more it protects the brain in later years.

      Commit to lifelong learning. Tackling crossword puzzles, computer games and other activities that stimulate the brain can sharpen cognition, especially if you have to retain certain facts in your memory while processing new information. The book recommends Sudoku for improving thinking skills, especially if you keep laddering up the level of difficulty to a point where you're consistently being challenged.

      Do something different. Yes, solving puzzles and playing cards keeps you active and alert. However, many pursuits such as reading the paper or doing crossword puzzles can become routine, using familiar pathways in the brain. Sometimes stretching your mind requires you to do something different. Here's the idea: If you're right-handed, try eating dinner with your left hand. Drive a different way to the mall, or listen to a different radio station. The point is to break your usual habits, and force your brain to look at things from a new perspective.

      Get some exercise. Arthur Kramer, a cognitive psychologist, recruited test subjects between 60 and 80 years old who were committed couch potatoes. He put them on an exercise program, starting with 15 minutes of walking every day, and increasing to 45 minutes. After six months, he found the subjects' brains had grown by a measurable amount, and not just in the areas where memories are stored, but also in the frontal and temporal lobes where reasoning and sensory processing take place. Meanwhile, Grierson reports that track star Olga Kotelko took a battery of cognitive exams, and tested out as someone 20 years younger than her actual age.

      Get plenty of sleep. One long-term study of 15,000 nurses, published in 2012, concluded that sleep deprivation can severely impact a person's memory capability, and even shorten life expectancy by up to two years. Why does sleep matter? For two reasons: First, a sleep-deprived person has a problem paying attention and experiences difficulty focusing on mental tasks. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.

     Any of these methods will improve your brain function, but they work better in combination. Grierson cites a Mayo Clinic study of senior citizens who did brainteaser-like puzzles on the computer. That activity in itself improved their mental function. But when physical exercise, such as dancing or playing tennis, was added to the mix the seniors got an extra boost from the brain games. A study in Europe came to a similar conclusion. Researchers led one group of pensioners in cognitive training, and a second group in physical exercise, while a third group did both. On later intelligence tests, it was the third group that came out on top, with flying colors.

     So I don't know about you; but I'm going to volunteer at my community college this afternoon, then this evening work up a sweat playing table tennis.

     Oh, wait a second. Table tennis was last night . . . I was going to post this item yesterday. But I forgot.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Weekend Away

     Some people go to Europe or Hawaii for vacation. B and I stay closer to home. We poked around southeastern Pennsylvania for the weekend, where the snow was fast receding and the mud was a gathering force.

     The sun was out as we drove through the countryside. We stopped for a walk along the river, where as you can see I cast a big shadow on the concrete path. We walked along the Schuylkill, north of Philadelphia. There's a little dam on the river. Above the dam the river was still frozen; below, the water bubbled and gurgled and ran free.

     We stopped at several towns west of Philadelphia, where we ducked into a few shops, sampled several restaurant menus; and ... well, here's a tip I learned from B. If you need a restroom, hit the local library, because you're always welcome there. While I waited for her, I noticed the library had a rain barrel outside. But . . . can you see what's wrong here?

      We found a restaurant offering an eight-course Tapas dinner. We sat down and the waiter brought us a plate of tuna; then a plate of cheeses; and then a salad. After that came a pasta dish, a delectable concoction with dates and bacon and mascarpone cheese. We lost count of the courses; and just when we couldn't possibly eat anymore, the waiter appeared with two big hunks of pork loin. We sighed, we laughed; we couldn't even look at them.

     We spent Saturday in the little town of Media, Pa., which offers a trolley that runs to and from Philadelphia. We didn't go to Philadelphia, just walked around town, explored a few shops and, yes, patronized another restaurant. In the evening we went to a dance studio for a Salsa lesson and a night of Latin dancing.

     B and I have been been taking dancing lessons for several years now. B wanted to learn, and she dragged me into it. We're not that good, but I was surprised to find that I enjoy it. Now we take a series of lessons two or three times a year, and we go dancing once or twice a month. And it gives us something to do on vacation besides the usual tourist things. We have fun; we meet people . . . and we work off a few of those extra calories.

     Of course, none of our overindulgence at the dinner table produced any restraint when we went down to breakfast at the rather elaborate B&B where we stayed. Why should it? We weren't gone from home for long; but we were on vacation.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Gone Fishin'

     Well, not exactly. But B and I are going away for the weekend. Nothing fancy. Just to southeastern Pennsylvania, where it's supposed to hit 50 degrees on Saturday. They're putting on a "First Friday" this evening, which should provide us with a nice dining experience and hopefully some unusual shopping opportunities. We're staying here on Friday night:

     And then just because of the way the calendar falls, the town next door is hosting a "Second Saturday" where we will be enjoying more food and shopping and perhaps some dancing. This is where we'll stay on Saturday night -- although I'm not sure the place will look quite so spring-like. Are we being frivolous? Perhaps. But don't we retirees deserve a little break now and then?

     Anyway, maybe I can tell you more on Monday. But for now, gotta run ...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Words of Wisdom

     Warren Buffett is chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, a hugely successful conglomerate of businesses and corporate interests based in Omaha, Neb. In preparation for the annual meeting of the company, to be held in May, Buffett last week published his annual letter to shareholders (here are highlights if you don't want to see the whole thing), which has become a kind of bible for long-term stock investors.

My favorite Berkshire product: See's candy
     Warren Buffett has made millions and billions for himself and his fellow investors. But even he is not perfect. For example, he admitted recently that he drinks five Cokes a day. He owns a lot of shares of Coca-Cola, and so he is essentially buying from himself, but the average health expert would be aghast if you told her you drink five Cokes a day. Yet there's nothing average about Warren Buffett -- he's 83 years old and still going strong, despite the overdose of high fructose corn syrup he pours down his throat every day.

     So maybe you don't want to take health advice from the so-called Oracle of Omaha. But you know he's doing something right, certainly in business and probably in life as well. Here are a few samples of the wit and wisdom of Warren Buffett:

     On the stock market:  "The market, like the Lord, helps those who help themselves. But, unlike the Lord, the market does not forgive those who know not what they do."

     On his company's bare-bones bureaucracy:  "A compact organization lets all of us spend our time managing the business rather than managing each other."

     On trust but verify:  "All managements say they're acting in the shareholders' interests. What you'd like to do as an investor is hook them up to a machine and run a polygraph to see whether it's true."

     On administrative bloat:  "Managers who want to expand their domain at the expense of owners might better consider a career in government."

     On government regulation:  "There are significant limits to what regulation can accomplish. People continue to do foolish things no matter what the regulation is, and they always will."

     On investor thinking:  "Man's natural inclination is to cling to his beliefs, particularly if they are reinforced by recent experience -- a flaw in our makeup that bears on what happens during bull markets and extended periods of stagnation."

     On opportunity:  "A true investor welcomes volatility because a wildly fluctuating market means that irrationally low prices will periodically be attached to solid businesses."
A collection of Buffett articles

     On emotions:  "Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies ... If they insist on trying to time their participation in equities they should be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful."

     On expectations:  "You and I can sell each other stocks at higher and higher prices. You personally might outsmart the next fellow ... but bear in mind that investors as a whole cannot get anything out of their businesses except what the businesses earn."

     On bad businesses:  "When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact."

     On inheritance:  "The perfect amount to leave children is enough money so they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing."

     On philanthropy:  "In my own case, 99%-plus of my wealth will go back to society, because I've been treated extraordinarily well by society."


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Remember Him?

     Last Friday marked the 20th anniversary of the introduction of a federal law that was named in his honor. The legislation was signed by President Bill Clinton on November 30, 1993, and went into effect on February 28, 1994.

     What was the law? First, let's look at the man.

     He was born and raised in Centralia, Ill. He went to the University of Illinois where he majored in communications and political science, and did an internship with Sen. Everett Dirkson, the minority leader of the U. S. Senate.

     After graduating from college in 1962, he first turned his attention to the corporate world. He became assistant sales manager at an aerospace company. Then he took over as director of public affairs for the Illinois Medical Society. He went from there to a Chicago political consulting firm; and then from 1969 - 1973 he was executive vice president of an advertising and public relations agency.

     In 1973 he moved to Washington, DC, and started climbing his way up the political ladder. He worked for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, then the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and then the Secretary of Defense. In 1977 he joined the staff of Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware.

The room named in his honor
     This all sounds pretty routine. But then in 1979 he joined the staff of then-presidential candidate John Connally. John Connally didn't fare so well during the campaign -- he dropped out of the Republican primaries in March 1980 after gaining only one delegate. But the staff member from Illinois caught the eye of one of the other candidates, Ronald Reagan. He was appointed Director of Public Affairs and Research for the Reagan-Bush Committee, and after Reagan won the election, he became the official Spokesperson for the Office of the President-Elect.

     In January 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed him White House Press Secretary. This job made him the main point man for the news media, and his face soon became a familiar fixture on television. However, his service was cut short on March 30, 1981, when he accompanied President Reagan to the Washington Hilton Hotel for a speech to a group from the AFL-CIO.

     As the president's party left the hotel, shots rang out. A man named John Hinckley, attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan, fired a Rohm RD-14 .22 long rifle blue steel revolver. He got off six shots in  1.7 seconds. Two secret servicemen were hit. Reagan took a bullet in the chest that had ricocheted off the side of his armored limousine. And his press secretary, James Brady, was shot once in the head.

     The two secret servicemen both recovered from their wounds. And as we all know, Reagan was brought to the hospital, where the bullet was removed as he joked to the doctors, "I hope you all are Republicans."

     James Brady, however, was not so lucky. He sustained a serious head wound and was permanently disabled. He suffered impaired speech, and was partially paralyzed, requiring him to use wheelchair. Brady stayed on as press secretary to the president, but primarily in a titular role. Larry Speakes (who died recently, in January 2014, at his home in Mississippi) became Acting Press Secretary, serving until 1987. As Brady recovered, instead of facing the press every day, he became active in lobbying for stricter handgun control as well as restrictions on assault weapons.

     Brady and his wife Sarah were affiliated with gun-control groups, supported in part by other gun-violence victims, which eventually became known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Their signature piece of legislation was the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, known as the Brady Act. It was passed by Congress over the objections of the NRA, and signed by President Clinton in November 1993. It went into effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

     The Brady Act essentially requires a background check in order to purchase a firearm from a federally licensed dealer. It also prohibits criminals, the mentally ill and unlawful users of controlled substances from transporting or possessing a gun. Most background checks are done on-the-spot; and the law does not apply to private sales of guns, or to collectible firearms.

     While background checks have reportedly stopped over 2 million illegal sales of guns (and I don't pretend to be an expert on this issue; I'm just going by what I read), they have only affected something less than 2 percent of gun transactions. And prosecution of violators of the Brady Act has by far been the exception rather than the rule.

     By some accounts, had the Brady Act been in effect in 1981, John Hinckley would likely have been prevented from buying his gun. But gun defenders are quick to point out that Adam Lanza, who shot and killed 28 people in Newtown, Conn., used legal firearms that belonged to his family.

     I'm not arguing the case for or against gun control (although I, myself, am in favor of stricter gun regulations, for all the obvious reasons), but just to mark James Brady, a man who turned personal tragedy into what he and many others feel is a force for social progress.

     Today, James Brady, at age 73, lives in Arlington, Va., with his wife Sarah. Although they have cut back on their activities, they are still involved in the effort to stop gun violence. James Brady has been awarded a number of honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. And in 2000, the White House press room was named the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in his honor.