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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Look at These Baby Boomer Blogs

     A brief survey of some of this week's best Baby Boomer blogs reveals a mix of concerns. Take a look . . .

     On the Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide consumer journalist Rita R. Robison brings up the serious issue of alcohol abuse. She reports on a recent study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention which shows that excessive alcohol use accounts for some 88,000 deaths per year in the U. S., or one in ten deaths among adults 20 - 64 years old. And it's not a problem restricted to males. Yes, about 70 percent of those killed by alcohol are men. But that means 30 percent are women.

     Overall, some 44 percent of deaths attributable to alcohol are due to chronic conditions, primarily liver disease. And 56 percent are caused by acute conditions involving homicide, suicide, child abuse. But the most common cause of acute alcohol death is, by far, motor-vehicle traffic crashes.

     Guess which state has suffered the highest rate of alcohol related deaths? And the lowest? Hint: both states start with the word "New."

     To reduce excessive drinking one task force cited by the CDC recommends increasing alcohol taxes, regulating alcohol outlet density, and avoiding further privatization of alcohol retail sales. I don't know . . . do you think any of that would work? It did (at least to some extent) for smoking.

     On a completely different note, Amy of Modern Senior has stumbled across a great short film project that may resonate with you, especially if you have ever been a caregiver to your own aging parents. The three-minute film clip (I watched it; it's very charming -- you really ought to go over and take a look) was featured on kickstarter, a website where people raise money for their individual and often-creative products and projects. To see the three-minute clip by the NYU film student, an immigrant from South Korea, punch your ticket over at Against Medical Advice.

     Meanwhile, one of our number recently moved from a busy metropolitan area to "Small Town USA" in southern Colorado. Check out her post to get some of her first impressions.  And if you're interested in more reflections on the differences between big city living and the rural life, check out a few of her other posts at the Midlife Crisis Queen.

     As for me, I've been engrossed in the Doris Kearns Goodwin tome on Teddy Roosevelt called The Bully Pulpit. It's quite interesting. But I've got to be careful not to drop the thing, for fear of fracturing my foot.

     Otherwise, I did see one thing I want to pass on -- a news clip about the singer Sting -- as it relates to my previous post on what rich people worry about, and how one of their concerns involves motivating their children not to just sit on their big fat fortune, but to do something useful with their lives. Remember Sting from Police? More recently the British pop singer has been touring with Paul Simon, and now he is producing a stage musical called The Last Ship which just last week opened in Chicago.

     The 62-year-old Sting made news recently when he announced that his children will not be getting their hands on any of his money when he dies. His fortune is estimated at about $300 million. Sting grew up poor, and worked for everything he has. He says he wants his children to have the same opportunities he had. He doesn't want to leave them trust funds that would be, in his words, an "albatross around their necks."

     He says that obviously, if his kids got into trouble, he would help them. But, he continues, "They have to work. All my kids know that, and they rarely ask me for anything. They have the work ethic that makes them want to succeed on their own merit."

Friday, June 27, 2014

What Do Rich People Worry About?

     Some of you may remember that I write a column for the U. S. News Retirement website on various issues regarding retirement, especially as they pertain to money.

     Or as my friend jokes about my blog, I write a little "about this 'n' that 'n' some of that."

     Below is a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago. It got a lot of reader response, mostly from people who have no sympathy at all for the concerns of wealthy people . . . they just don't want to hear about them.

KGO AM 810 in San Francisco
     As I point out, it's hard for any of us to summon up much sympathy for the wealthy. But what got me interested was a 2010 study by Princeton University economists which concluded, as you'd expect, that people in lower economic groups are not as happy as people who make more money. But beyond a certain level, more income does not produce more emotional well-being. The level is about $75,000 a year. So increasing your income up to that point does correlate with increased happiness. But beyond that, making more money just doesn't help.

Michael Finney
     I suppose there are a lot of reasons why not. But one seems to be that having more money does not necessarily cure you of your anxieties, or mean that you have fewer worries in your life.

     So why do I bring it up now? Because I got a call from KGO AM 810 radio in San Francisco. Michael Finney has a show called "Consumer Talk," and he invited me to be interviewed on his show. So, if any of you are within earshot of San Francisco, tune in this Saturday, June 28, at 3:15 p.m., and you can hear me stutter and stammer my way through an interview about . . .

What Rich People Worry About

     You might think that people with a lot of money would be immune from the everyday worries that gnaw at regular, middle-class people. And to some extent you'd be right. But they worry more than you think.

     Here are eight money worries of the top ten percent: 

     Having enough money for retirement. A recent survey by Lincoln Financial Group showed that 53 percent of people surveyed worry about having enough money for retirement. So what about retirees who have over $1 million saved up for their golden years? Almost as many millionaires, 48 percent, admit that they worry about having enough money to live out their years in comfort. Apparently, having more does not relieve you of the anxiety about having enough.

     Worries about health. You'd think that millionaires, with all their access to doctors, specialists and top hospitals, would worry less about their health. But they don't – or at least not by much. According to the same survey, 54 percent of millionaires worry about their health in retirement, compared to 57 percent of all those surveyed.

     Being sued. According to surveys by Prince & Associates, fewer than 20 percent of people worth less than $1 million worry about being sued. But over 80 percent of people worth $20 million or more worry about being the target of a lawsuit. Perhaps they know – lawyers go where the money is.

      Identity theft. Less than half of middle-class people are concerned about identity theft. But three quarters of wealthy people lose sleep over the issue. Probably for the same reason they worry about getting sued. Thieves want the identity of people with big bank balances, not those who have maxed out their credit cards. 

     Protecting assets. Wealthy people may not have to worry about their monthly electric bill, or even the cost of college tuition. But as a rule they have a sense of responsibility about their money, and so they spend time taking care of it. They worry about the Federal Reserve, foreign currencies, interest rates, stock prices, real estate. Even if they hire someone else to manage their affairs, they still worry about overseeing their portfolio and making sure the people they deal with have their best interests at heart.

     Business responsibilities. We all worry about getting laid off. These days, the CEO can get fired just as easily as we can. Business leaders also worry about the impact of their decisions. It's bad enough if you get laid off, but how would like to be responsible for hundreds of other people losing their jobs? Then there's reputation risk. If we mess up, it's usually a private matter. But top figures in business, politics and sports all fail in public, with their shortcomings analyzed by critics from coast to coast. 

     Worries about kids. Rich people know that a large inheritance can undermine the ambition, and the dreams, of their children. Why take on the nasty realities of schoolwork and a job when you have access to a trust fund? The wealthy -- especially those who have made their own fortune -- know the answer even if their kids do not: In work there is self-confidence, self-worth, and a sense of accomplishment that no amount of money can provide. 

     Keeping up with the Joneses. Finally, we live in a competitive society. The brand name of your college, the zip code where you live, the car in your driveway, the place where you vacation – they all say something about your status in life. The wealthy tend to be more competitive than the rest of us, and so these things mean even more to them than they do to us. Keeping up with the Joneses – or the Buffets and the Gates – takes on a meaning that produces even more anxiety for them than it does for the rest of us.

     Of course, it's hard to summon up too much sympathy for the rich -- most of us would love to have their problems. But still, just because you're wealthy doesn't always mean you live on Easy Street.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Our Different Fantasy Lives

     B likes to read. She reads a lot of books. Many of them would be classified as "chick lit." Stories about women who find romance. About women who renovate their house. About women who discover their new inner strength. Stories about women told in recipes. And memoirs, lots of memoirs.

     Currently she's reading a book called The God of Driving by Amy Fine Collins. The author is a spoiled, jetting-setting New York socialite, dressed in Geoffrey Beene t-shirts, black boots from Manolo Blahnik, and little white-gold and diamond Mish flowered earrings, who writes about fashion for Vanity Fair magazine.

     The book is a memoir about learning how to drive as an adult, and developing a relationship with her Turkish driving instructor. He arrives at her door with a dual-brake Acura. They graduate to a Cadillac CTS, then a Mercedes CL 55 AMG (a two-door, 335-horsepower four-seater, prices start at $100,000).

     She tools around Manhattan meeting celebrities and other chic, trendy people at various parties and functions. She jets to California for the Vanity Fair Oscar party, and she attends New York Fashion Week -- when she feels like it, that is. They dine at the Four Seasons where she places her Prada bag on a cherry wood Directoire armchair.

     Why do women like these books? Is it the fantasy? The glamor? The escape?

     Truth be told, those are the reasons I read mysteries. I am Jack Reacher. I am Elvis Cole. I am Harry Bosch. And, for the record, I am a tried-and-true feminist when it comes to mysteries. I identify just as easily with Kinsey Millhone, Stephanie Plum, Joanna Brady, Alexandra Cooper.

     Actually, I can recommend a mystery writer if you're interested. The other day I drove over to Barnes & Noble in my 2005 Ford Freestyle van, with 113,000 miles on it. I was dressed in my Dockers pants, purchased from Macy's during their back-to-school sale last year for $24.99, marked down from $49.99, and the golf shirt my sister gave me after she got it for free at some boring business meeting she went to about five years ago  -- and I picked up the book from the new fiction table at a 25 percent discount.

     The author is Joseph Finder. I've read a couple of his books, and I like them. The new one is Suspicion, and it was recommended to me by my friend who lives in a ranch house down by the highway, who says he's retired but he's really just unemployed and he drives a ten-year-old Toyota with a big scratch on the passenger side door that he's never gotten fixed because ... "They wanted 700 bucks which is ridiculous, and besides I get in on the driver's side so I never see the scratch anyway."

     I thought about ducking over to the Barnes & Noble cafe for a $4.50 cup of cappuccino. But then I decided instead to stop off at Dunkin' Donuts on the way home. DD offers a senior special: you buy a medium size coffee and get a free donut. And, dammit, I like good ole middle-class Dunkin' Donuts more than the overpriced, overcaffeinated, too bitter brew you get at Barnes & Noble or Starbucks, or whatever the latest, even more trendy coffee emporium the hipster set is frequenting these days.

     And you never know. Just maybe I'll run into a celebrity scoring a Senior Citizen special at Dunkin' Donuts out on Route 202, located between Burger King and the Shell station that offers 5 cents off a gallon of gasoline on Tuesdays for anyone over age 55.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Should She Take Him Back?

     I have another ethical question, or ethical issue, along the lines of What If You Don't Like Your Son's Fiancee? or What If You Don't Like Your Daughter's Boyfriend?

     This involves Chris, the son of a friend of ours, who just turned 32, and another young woman we also know. Chris grew up in our town. We've known him since he was in middle school -- so perhaps we're biased in his favor a bit. He met Janice in college, and they soon started going out together. We got to know her then. We met her family a couple of times -- they live about an hour from us, in New Jersey.

     So Chris and Janice became a "couple" when Chris was a junior, and Janice a sophomore in college. They seemed to go everywhere together, do everything together. They were just one of those couples, when you saw one, you always saw the other. For three years. Until Janice graduated.

     I don't know exactly why they broke it off. But I do know that Janice had dreams of becoming an actress, or a model, or something like that. She moved to San Francisco, then to Los Angeles, and then she came back to New York a little over a year ago.

     Janice did get a few minor acting jobs, but for whatever reason, she decided to move back East and is now working for an ad agency in Manhattan. She does some kind of creative work -- I'm not sure what -- and she seems happy and perfectly at ease with her decision to give up her old dreams of the glamorous life. We thought, perhaps she was ready to settle down and, you know, get a real job, a real relationship, a real life.

     We know all this because after she returned to New York -- after seven or eight years -- she and Chris started going out together again. Chris works for a marketing firm in New York (he's in finance, not on the creative side of things). And pretty soon after they got back together, they started getting serious. They moved into an apartment together last fall, and over Christmas they announced they were getting engaged.

     Everybody was happy for them. I guess from our point of view, the two kids just seemed to go together.

     But as often happens in life, there was trouble in paradise. Earlier this spring they suddenly broke it off again. We don't know exactly why -- but apparently it was nothing serious, in the sense that it's not like Chris had an affair or got arrested; it's not like Janice met another guy or decided to move back to California. Apparently they just had a few heated arguments, and decided perhaps they were moving too fast, jumping into things, that perhaps they should hit the pause button and make sure this is what they really wanted to do. But it was Janice who made that decision, who said they should take the break.

     Janice kept the apartment they had in the city. Chris moved back in with his parents. And now here comes the ethical part.

     Chris met a local teacher. They had a fling. It was a brief affair and was soon over. But it definitely happened. And everyone knew about it.

     But Chris is really still in love with Janice. He wants to go back to her. We actually think Janice is still in love with him. But she wants nothing to do with him, because in her mind he cheated on her.

     Now I know this sounds a bit soap-opera-ish. But that's where the situation now stands. We had dinner with our friends, Chris's parents, last weekend, and so we got the full report. They think -- they admit -- that their son made a mistake. But they also think that Janice is being unfair. After all, she's the one who broke off their engagement -- even though, in some sense, the breakup was mutual. And even though they were just taking a break in their relationship, just slowing down to see if it was right for the both of them, not necessarily ending things permanently, they were in effect both single at the time, free to do what they wanted. How could Chris really be breaking their trust when they weren't actually together at the time?

     Anyway, when all this is happening to someone else, it kind of makes you roll your eyes. How could he be so stupid? How could she be such a drama queen?

     But when it's happening to you, it becomes much more serious. We haven't even talked directly to Chris about this -- much less Janice -- but we can see the concern expressed his parents. Anyway, B and I were talking about this the other night. I was definitely on Chris's side. I thought B would be on Janice's side -- but she surprised me. B isn't quite ready to give Chris a pass; but she does have sympathy for Chris and thinks that Janice is being a little too holier-than-thou.

     Well, some of you have daughters. Do you have more sympathy for Janice? (I have a daughter too -- if this kind of thing happened to her, I know I would be on her side, but that's because she's my daughter, not necessarily because I'd think she was right). Not that we're going to offer anyone's opinions to Chris or his parents -- we're not that stupid! -- but we are curious.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Let's Keep 'Em Honest

     Reading newspaper articles or watching TV news -- especially TV opinion shows on MSNBC or FOX, or listening to talk radio -- you can sometimes fry your brain trying to follow the twisted logic. The co-called "professional partisans" are experts at breaking the rules of logic in order to make their point of view seem more believable.

     I guess we know when one side calls the other a bunch of Dumbocrats; or the other refers to the crazy right-wing nutjobs, that they are breaking Rule # 1 on The List of 10 Commandments of Logic.

     What about when a commentator says that unions are the reason manufacturing jobs have left the United States? Or that people crossing the border from Mexico are invading our country? Or that people on food stamps are working the system instead of working a job? Or if we raise the minimum wage, it will kill small business?

     How about when a pundit posits that regular people have no influence on the government these days because the greedy 1 percenters have bought and paid for the U.S. Congress? Or if people have qualms about abortion they are part of the War on Women? Or, if only we paid teachers more money that would solve our education problems?

     I'm sure you've seen and heard plenty of examples of how pundits torture logic in order to try to bolster their opinions -- and how sometimes they take such big leaps of faith that they actually weaken their position rather than strengthen it. Anyway, I saw this guide shared on facebook by a friend of mine. So next time you're listening to a talking head pontificate about some issue, you can see for yourself if he or she is speaking logically, or just spouting off, playing havoc with the rules of logic.

Friday, June 13, 2014

School's Out for the Summer!

     School has just ended at our community college. Classes are over for the year. Exams are done and gone. I've volunteered to tutor for the first summer session, which is just now starting, but after this I'll take off the rest of the summer from my volunteer job.

     Still, no matter how old we get, or how long it's been since we've walked around campus, there's a certain thrill that comes at this time of year. Because it's vacation time. We look forward to the warm, lazy days. School's out for the summer.

     In commemoration, I bring you the best of what are presented as "actual" quotes from English exam essays, courtesy of a humor site called tickld, with a little help from another site called snopes.
     These happen to be analogies and metaphors presumably found in high school essays. Most are more imaginative than what I've seen from my students:

     "His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free."

     "She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up."

     "Her vocabulary was as bad as, like ... whatever."

     "He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree."

     "The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM."

from Buzzfeed's Best Yearbook Quotes of 2014
     "A little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't."

     "Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze."

     "Hailstones leaped from the pavement, like maggots when you fry them in hot grease."

     "Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph."

     "John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met."

     "Even in his last years, Grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut."

     "The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work."

     "The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while."

     "The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant."

     "It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools."

     "He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up."

     "It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall."

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Nothing's New

     I remember a fellow named Charlie, back when I was working, who was a lovable old curmudgeon. He took a dim view of practically everything . . . especially anything that hinted ever so slightly of progress or something new. He would criticize top management, look down his nose at them as if they didn't know what they were doing. "This is the way we've always done it," he'd say. "Why do they want to change things? Won't be as good."
     He was my boss for a while, early in my career. I recall one assignment I did for him, and his response was: "Well, it's not the worst job I've ever seen." Which, from him, was high praise.

     Despite his irascible personality, a lot of people liked Charlie because he was the company skeptic and wasn't afraid to speak his mind. And, to some extent, he knew he was playing a role -- he always issued his pronouncements with a knowing smile or even a laugh. You knew he had a soft spot, and deep down he was a nice guy. He was a good old-fashioned family man who's been married for many years with two grown kids and he went to church on Sundays.

     But he got sidetracked in the organization and never, as long as I knew him, got a promotion. Because while everyone liked him (except for top management) you can't run an organization with cynics; and eventually he became kind of a sideshow at the company.

     I remember, when I was new to the company along with a "class" of about half a dozen other recruits, we'd be coming up with new ideas, new ways to do things, new products, new attitudes. Mostly, we were ignored. But Charlie was always the first to shoot down an idea. "We tried that ten years ago," was his standard response. "Didn't work then; won't work now." And then he'd remind us, yet again, that there's nothing new under the sun.

     Why this long, meandering introduction about Charlie? Because now, with the wisdom of the ages, I'm here to tell you:  There's nothing new under the sun. And if there is, it probably won't be as good.

     What brought this to mind was two articles I read in the Sunday New York Times. One was called "Why You Hate Work" authored by a business consultant and a college professor. They did a survey which -- surprise! surprise! -- discovered that most people are "not very excited to get to the office in the morning." They pointed out that a lot of employees don't feel appreciated; they feel overworked; they often think that they're putting out fires rather than focusing on their most important work.

     I could swear, this is exactly what Charlie was complaining about 30 years ago!

     I also remember going to business school in the 1970s. We'd read articles by academics, saying how engaged and committed workers perform better than disengaged employees, so employers should make sure that workers have ample time to rest and recuperate, should derive meaning from their work, should feel that they're valued as employees. And we all wondered if these academics had ever held a real job, because most of us were also working, and we knew that while all this sounded very reasonable, when you got to business on the ground, nobody was getting time to recuperate, or getting much meaning from their work, or felt particularly valued as an employee. Everyone was too busy. There wasn't time for that stuff.

     Nothing new under the sun.

     The other article, called "Big Mac, Thin Wallet" by another academic, reviewed a number of studies on fast-food eateries. The author concluded  that people who consume fast foods have a greater than average need for instant gratification. Then -- hold onto your hats! -- he goes on to find that there is a link between fast-food restaurants and obesity.

     The author also posits that there's a link between the spread of fast-food restaurants and our growing need as a society for instant gratification. We see the line-up of fast-food emporiums out on the strip; then we decide we can't possibly wait to save up for the down payment on a house, we need to get a liar loan right now. We can't take money out of our paycheck to deposit into out 401K plan, we need to spend that money now. We can't wait until full retirement age to take our Social Security benefits; we need that money now . . . all served up with a Big Mac.

     I recall when I first went to work for my company, way back when, everybody kept telling me about the great retirement plan it offered. "What do I care about the retirement plan?" I scoffed. "I'm 30 years old. Show me the money now."

     Well, the company didn't just give me the money. It held the money in my retirement account. Then, 20-some years later, I got laid off. I received my retirement money, but by then the plan had been changed, and I got a fraction of what I'd been promised.

     Last weekend I played golf with two of my buddies, and we picked up a fourth at the course -- a "drifter" playing by himself who hooked up with us. We got talking. Turned out he was a former IBMer. He got laid off at age 55 in the 1990s. "I got a great retirement package," the man allowed by the time we'd arrived at the 12th tee. "They don't get anything close to that anymore."

     And now I hear about Detroit, and all the other places that are "rewriting" their rules for retirement benefits. And I can't help but wonder . . .

     Maybe Charlie was right after all.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

God Forbid

     The other night B and I went out to dinner at a restaurant. We'd gotten a gift certificate from a friend of ours for dog sitting their little pooch -- a mutt, mostly Havanese I think.

     So we went to the restaurant. It was pretty fancy, with tablecloths on the table, a nice ambiance featuring exposed wood beams . . . and prices to match. The gift certificate was for $100, and we just about used it up.

     The food in the restaurant was pretty good -- a nicely flavored salad; really good bread; clam chowder that was just okay; and a firm piece of fish with a tasty sauce. B had a glass of wine; I just had ginger ale. But I insisted in dessert. We split a peach cobbler

     What I especially liked about the restaurant was that every time the waiter cleared your plate, he gave you a new set of utensils. I hate it when you're in a restaurant, and the waiter clears the table, but takes the dirty silverware off your dirty plate, and then places it back on the table for you to use again. Don't you?

     The waitresses at the Greek diner up on Route 6, near where I live, don't do that. And there you can get a nice meal for $12. But a lot of restaurants charging two and three times that amount do it -- presumably to save the waiters a little time and a miniscule amount of money in the dishwashing.

     So anyway, last night B and I ate dinner at home. We had leftover spinach quiche that she'd made for dinner on Thursday night.

     It's my job to set the table. I always put out a fork, a knife and a spoon -- whether we're going to need them or not.

     So we're having quiche. It's easy to cut with your fork only. We finish eating; I clear the dirty plates, and the dirty forks. And I sit back down again, just so we can talk a little . . . as we usually do after dinner. I notice B is playing with her knife and her spoon, which she hadn't used.

     Suddenly, she places them out in the center of the table. And she says, "God forbid."

     I looked at her. "What?" I said.

     "You never heard of that?" she asked. "You have clean silverware left over from dinner. You don't clear them into the sink to be washed. You leave them on the table for the next meal."

     "Okay . . ." I said. "I guess that makes sense. But where did you get 'God forbid'?"

     "I don't know. It's just an old saying," she replied. "It must come from my mother's family. She's a Methodist. You know, they don't like to see any kind of waste."

     "So the idea is, God forbid you should ask someone to wash your clean silverware? God forbid that you should waste the time and the water and the money to wash a clean knife or spoon?"

     "Yeah," she said. "That's the idea."

     And I thought . . . it must be something left over from the Depression, when a tiny amount of money actually meant something. When frugality was a virtue, not a sign of someone being too cheap, too tight, too repressed, too unsociable.

     Anyway, I appreciate the old sentiment. Good for our parents and grandparents for being so sensible, so thrifty. But I don't know if we all have to go quite that far. And please, give me a clean fork when it comes to serving up the next course.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Day to Remember

     June 4. A group of men stands around a house trailer in the rain. They are responsible for almost 3 million young men. For months they have been making preparations -- devising plans, collecting cars and trucks and vehicles, as well as boats and planes and, yes, weapons too.

     They were originally scheduled to make their move today. But the weather is bad, and yesterday morning these same men decided to delay everything, to hold everyone up, because of the rainy, windy weather. If conditions improve, they will start things off tomorrow, making the official opening of the campaign on the morning of June 6.

     As the hours slip by, men wander to the door of the trailer. One person in particular feels the heavy weight of the decision to be made, for in the end it is up to him and him alone. He gazes up at the clouds scudding across the night sky. Should he go? Or postpone once again?

     It's 9:30 that night. The 53-year-old man and his senior staff gather at their headquarters. Everybody knows just how serious the situation is, how the word of just one man will almost certainly send thousands of people to their deaths. But it had to be done, and the sooner the better.

     Three meterologists walk into the room. The head weatherman opens the briefing by sketching out a generally dismal picture. Then he reports: "There have been some rapid and unexpected developments in the situation." All eyes turn to him as he presents the possibility of better weather. A new front is moving in from the Atlantic. It should cause a gradual clearing over the beaches. The better conditions will last for about 24 hours, continuing into June 6. After that the weather will likely deteriorate again.

     So there is a promise of reasonably fair conditions that might prevail for a day or so. The top man deliberates with his key aides for about 15 minutes. Now it's up to him. A long silence ensues as he weighs the various possibilities. Then he looks up, his face showing the strain of responsibility, and he solemnly announces: "I am quite positive we must give the order. I don't like it, but there it is. I don't see how we can do anything else."

     Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower stands up. June 6, 1944, would be D-Day.

     Last week Stephen Hayes at The Chubby Chatterbox recalled visiting Monte Cassino and how the trip informed him of the terrible battle that occurred there in Feb. 1944, when nearly 55,000 Allied troops met their bloody end. He reminded us of how much had been sacrificed for freedom, how many lives were violently cut short during that devastating war.

     Yet it also made me realize that, despite our murderous past, we have indeed made progress as a civilized society. No, we have not abolished war. No, we have not rooted out the violence and evil that lurks in the far corners of the world, or the far corners of our hearts. But we survived World War II and the Cold War without killing ourselves off, and the fighting we do today is a mere skirmish or two compared to what went on in the last century.

     Not to defend or diminish U.S. incursions in Afghanistan or Iraq. War is hell for those who are there, no matter how small the war. According to CNN, in 13 years of war in Afghanistan, Coalition forces suffered 3,431 killed. There have been civilian casualties as well. The UN reported in 2012 there were 2,929 civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of them were perpetrated by the Taliban (people the Taliban may have killed anyway, even without a war).

     In Iraq there were 4,487 American military deaths, including those killed in action as well as non-hostile (accidental or illness) deaths.

     But by the time the sun set on June 6, some 2,500 Allied servicemen were killed on the beaches of France. In one day alone. Nobody knows how many Germans died, or how many civilians. We do know that by the end of the summer of 1944, 70 years ago, the Battle of Normandy was over. And today, 27 cemeteries mark the remains of over 100,000 people who died that summer.

     Sometimes we forget what a cataclysm World War II was to the world. The concentration camps. The mass executions. The brutal fighting. The destruction of much of Europe, Russia, North Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands. And the atom bomb.

     The number of Americans killed in World War II is estimated at 416,800 service men and women. But the war was not fought in America. It was fought overseas, in places like Poland and Russia and the Philippines. One generally accepted estimate says almost 80 percent of the 7.3 million Jews in occupied Europe were Holocaust victims. The number of people killed in Poland alone was estimated at about 5.7 people, including Jews, Slavs, Catholics, Gypsies, men, women and children.

     England lost almost a million people, including tens of thousads of civilians. Some 8.7 Russian soldiers were killed, plus another 18 million civilians. About 3 million Japanese lost their lives, 2 million Indians, and somewhere between 10 and 20 million Chinese . . . no one really knows how many Chinese, but every one was a real person.

     I myself am antiwar. Who isn't? I understand that appeasement was a factor that helped bring on World War II. That's a tricky issue. But I do not support wars of convenience, wars of moral outrage, wars of power and influence, wars to protect our oil supply -- wars of any kind except the ones we have to fight to save our lives. It's tempting to go around the world trying to save people from repression -- whether they're Muslims in Myanmar or little girls in Nigeria. But it's a dangerous business that rarely wins friends. And the cost almost always outweighs the benefits. You save some people, kill others.

     But as we wring our hands over places like Iraq and Afghanistan -- as well we should -- let's remember that we at least have evolved beyond the horrors of the past -- World War II, World War I, the Civil War, and literally hundreds of other wars fought by our ancestors. Or at least, let's hope so.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Remember Him?

     He was born on June 18, 1942, in the very hospital where his mother was a nurse and midwife. His father was not present at the birth because he was fighting fires during World War II. His mother was Catholic, and he was baptized Roman Catholic; but his father was a non-practicing Protestant and in the end he grew up with little religious faith.

     He was a smart kid, one of only three out of the 90 students who took an exam to get into high school at age 11. Still, he was more interested in music than academics. His father was a trumpet player, and they had a piano in the house. His father offered to hire a piano teacher; but the boy insisted on learning how to play on his own. When he was 14, his dad gave him a trumpet. But he soon traded it in for an acoustic guitar, since he wanted to sing as well as play music.

     It's almost a cliche that many also-ran musicians are more popular in Europe or England than they are in the United States. In this case, later in his career, he did have a song that barely registered in the U.S, but ran up the charts to hit number one in England. It's a song called the Mull of Kintyre, which he co-wrote with a member of his band and sang with his first wife and a crowd of children. The song also featured bagpipes -- which may explain why it was popular in the U.K. but did not strike much of a chord here in the U.S.

     In 1969 he married his first wife, a photographer from New York, and although she was not a professional musician, she joined his band, sang with him, toured with him. Tragically, she died of breast cancer in 1998, at age 56. He went on to marry again in 2002, but he and his new wife were not nearly so compatible, and they separated in 2006. Then in 2011 he took his third wife, the daughter of a New York transportation magnate. He has four kids with his first wife, and one with his second.

     But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Back in 1954, when he went to high school, he met a boy on the bus named George, and they became fast friends, even though, as he later admitted, "I tended to talk down to him because he was a year younger."

     When he was 15 he met another fellow named John, who was playing with a band in a church hall. Soon after, John asked him to join his band as a rhythm guitar player. The band, called The Quarrymen, played a mix of rock and roll, skiffle and other popular music. Skiffle is a style of music that came out of the American black tradition, and featured instruments such as washboards, jugs and kazoos -- like an old jug band. The style experienced a wave of popularity in post-war England, where it was estimated there were as many as 50,000 skiffle bands.

     His friend George joined the band a year later, as the group was casting about for a catchy name. They tried Johnny and the Moondogs, the Silver Beetles, and finally settled simply on The Beatles. They hired Pete Best on drums, and our man Paul switched to bass guitar when John's art-school friend, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, left the band. Ringo Starr replaced Best as the drummer in 1962, as the band was writing bigger hits and gaining popularity.

    And of course, by now you know we are talking about Paul McCartney, who gained fame and fortune with The Beatles, the most popular band in history. Fifty years ago, in 1964, they had six number one hits in the U.S.:

     I Want to Hold Your Hand
     She Loves You
     Can't Buy Me Love
     Love Me Do
     A Hard Day's Night
     I Feel Fine

     The rest, as they say, is history. McCartney's 1965 song "Yesterday" is credited as the most covered popular song in music history. And "Hey Jude", a song McCartney wrote to comfort John Lennon's son Julian during his parents' divorce, is according to Billboard the longest-running No. 1 record ever -- and has many times been voted best song in the history of popular music. Even their album cover art was iconic.

The most famous album cover ever?
Or is it this?
     What's your favorite Beatles song? It's hard to pick. My favorite album is Abbey Road (which, in a way, is just one long song). Or maybe it's A Day in the Life from the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

     In any case, McCartney left the Beatles in 1970, later formed a new band called Wings, with Denny Laine and his wife Linda, and still tours and records to this day. He sold out two concerts in Yankee Stadium in 2011, and was recently on tour in Asia (which he had to cut short due to a virus). His latest venture is a campaign calling for a moratorium on fracking.

     So here's his Number One British hit from 1977:

     But for most of us, we still remember McCartney as singer and bass player for The Beatles.

     The proof? I was at a dance last weekend, held at a local golf club, with perhaps 300 other people, mostly older couples, but plenty of middle-age singles and a few families dancing with their three-year-old daughters. The band covered the usual hits from the 1960s, '70s and '80s. There was a dance floor, and people were sprinkled around dancing to one song and another.

     Then a familiar tune broke out. Immediately, everyone crowded onto the dance floor. The energy level in the hall went up several notches. And the song that still gets people going, more than 50 years later: