"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What's Life All About?

     I just finished reading a novel called Night Film by Marisha Pessl. What I didn't realize when I started the book is that it's a perfect story for Halloween.

     I won't trouble you with a review or plot summary, except to say the story stars an investigative reporter Scott McGrath, who goes in search of the secretive movie director Stanislas Cordova. The elusive director is celebrated for his artistry and brutal honesty. But he has also produced such awful and terror-filled films that regular movie houses have stopped showing them. Now people can only view Cordova movies by special invitation to clandestine underground locations.

     McGrath's search touches tangentially on the black arts and magic potions, and includes visits to a ramshackle tenement building, a spooky mental institution and a secret gathering in the dark of night at a remote castle far down a deserted, windy beach.

     At one point McGrath breaks in to Cordova's private compound in upstate New York, called The Peak, where he is trapped in a maze of underground tunnels. The only light he has to guide him comes from his book of matches. He strikes a match every few minutes, carefully rationing the matches so he doesn't run out and get left in complete darkness. He stumbles through the black catacomb, feeling his way along the wet, slimy stone walls. His foot bumps into something. A body? A pile of bones? He strikes a match to see. It's a discarded dress, which he bunches into his backpack. Then he accidentally drops his book of matches. He feels around frantically on the dirt floor. Nothing. He cannot find them.

     Now it's totally dark, as the walls close in, and he searches blindly for a way out . . .

     It's a long, rambling novel with many twists and turns -- you'll tire of the story if you're not ready to spend a considerable amount of time searching through the torturous and tangled web of another world. But it's a great read if you like that sort of thing.

     The book always seems to have something important to say . . . but it also always seems to be just out of reach. Until, I think, the end.

     The final pages bring us an interview with the mysterious director. Cordova tells us, "Our lives are flowers that bloom brightly, and then they are gone." And this is what he says, just before he excuses himself to step outside for a moment . . . and then disappears:

            "My films are just stories. But that is all
             we have. The stories we tell others and the
             stories we tell ourselves. When you talk to
             the elderly, men and women at the end of their
             lives, you see that's what's left behind as the
             body disintegrates. Our stories. Our children
             will decide whether or not to keep telling them."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why I Don't Like to Travel

     I think I'm feeling a little dyspeptic and curmudgeonly today, in part because I've been looking at expedia, homeaway and other travel sites. Also, this post is at least partly in response to my friend Meryl Baer's post called Top Ten Reasons I Travel. And so I hope this is taken with the tongue-in-cheek spirit in which it's intended.

     Besides, it's not that I hate traveling, detest vacations, or am afraid to be away from home. I say, if you want to travel, go right ahead! It's just that, sometimes, I get the feeling that if you're retired, and you don't travel, then people think you're not making the most of your retirement, and you're somehow letting everyone down.

Are we having fun yet?
     Now, I admit that I've been going to Florida, or else Arizona or southern California, every year since I left work in 2002. But the motivation behind that is not the search for adventure, but the search for warmth, the need to escape cold, snowy weather. I simply want to stop shivering for a couple of weeks.

     B and I have also taken some vacations that require a few hours of driving -- to Cape Cod, western New York, South Carolina. We've made many trips to Pennsylvania where B has family. But I do it . . . not reluctantly, really, but I do it hesitantly, because . . . well, because I don't really like to travel.

     Why not? Here are my Top 10 reasons:

     1)  I don't like to drive. I mean, I don't mind driving around town, but the prospect of a three or four or five hour drive leaves me with a feeling of dread. Driving is so boring, as you stare for hours at the unending and unvarying ribbon of road ahead of you, only punctuated by the drug-addled truck driver who lumbers uphill at 40 mph, then careens downhill at 80 mph (and you know his brakes don't work!), or else the occasional crazy NASCAR wannabe who suddenly jumps into your rear-view mirror, then tailgates for ten minutes before lurching around and shooting ahead, usually without so much as the use of his or her direction signal.

    2)  I hate flying even more. The long, traffic-choked trip to the airport; the police-state atmosphere of the airport terminal. And then . . . they pack you into this aluminum tube and jettison you off into the skies, whether it's dark or raining or snowing, no matter what. And that's before air turbulence sets in and the wings start flapping up and down!

     3) I do not like walking around and looking at things -- like a museum, a park, a "picturesque" neighborhood. Or, why-oh-why do we always at some point when we're on vacation, end up in a mall?

     4) We have friends who've been trying to get us to go on a cruise. See # 2) above, except you're trapped on a big smelly boat, not in a claustrophobic cylindrical tube, and you're not breathlessly waiting for the air pocket portending sudden death, but that first lurch in your stomach signaling a major episode of food poisoning and the subsequent violent emission of bodily fluids.

     5) Then you get to your hotel. I don't stay in the presidential suite of a five-star hotel. I'm in one smallish room that smells of disinfectants, with two big beds and barely enough room to turn around. It's simply not as comfortable as my bedroom at home.

Which one is mine?
     6)  Along the same lines, a lot of things you do when you travel are exactly the same things you do when you're at home! You eat; you sleep; you go for a walk; you sit on a lounge chair and read a book. Why is reading a book on a hot sandy beach, slathered in creams and oils, while still exposing yourself to skin cancer, any better than sitting at home and reading a book in the comfort of your own well-worn easy chair? Then there's golf. I like to play golf. I have my usual group at home, and we play at any one of about a dozen perfectly good public courses available to us within a half-hour drive. You go on vacation, you end up with a bunch of strangers on a golf course that's too difficult, too unfamiliar, too frustrating . . . and to add insult to injury, it's too expensive!

     7) You inevitably get lost.

     8) I don't like being a "tourist." I don't know what I'm doing. So it makes me feel like a "mark."

     9) The alternative is the packaged tour. And that makes me feel like a "customer" who's buying a standardized "product" . . . and the person who's smiling at me is smiling only because they're angling for a generous tip.

     10) A lot of places you go -- especially if you go too far -- they don't even speak English! What are you supposed to do then?!?

     Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to expedia and homeaway and figure out what I'm going to do this winter. Florida, or Arizona? I gotta book a flight, and find a place to stay, and figure out what I'm going to do. Hey . . . I said I didn't like it. I didn't say I don't do it!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The 1.7 Percent Solution

      The government announced yesterday that our Social Security benefit for next year will increase by 1.7 percent, reflecting the 1.7 rise in the Consumer Price Index through September of this year. The average benefit will go up by a little more than $20 a month, which will barely cover average increases in Medicare and allied medical insurance. 

     Inflation of 1.7%? Who are they trying to kid? Have you shopped in a grocery store lately? Everything has gone up and the packages are getting smaller. Meanwhile, have you checked on the increases in college tuition? Or seen how healthcare prices have gone up? What about property taxes? Don't believe these fake government inflation reports. Inflation for seniors is closer to 10 percent if you look at the real world.

     Does the general rate of inflation truly reflect the real lives of senior citizens? One reason the CPI is so low is because of the decrease in gasoline prices. By definition, retired people no longer commute, so we don't use as much gasoline, and don't benefit from the lower cost of fuel. But we do travel. We do heat our homes. Then, how do you factor in the cost of food and health care? The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare touts a different way to determine increases in Social Security. It recommends using a measure called CPI-E, rather than the CPI, arguing that the CPI-E more closely resembles the inflation measure for people over 62. On average, the CPI-E runs 0.2 percent higher than the general CPI. That would mean, instead of getting $20 more, you'd get about $22. A small amount. But it would add up over the years.

     But where would we get the money? And are seniors getting greedy?

     A lot of retirees don't understand that they didn't contribute nearly as much into Social Security as they are taking out, assuming they live a normal life span. Social Security was never meant to be your sole source of support, but it was supposed to help those who didn't have a pension or could never save enough to get by. But today's recipients are receiving more than they put in, while younger generations are getting screwed. Remember, people who are currently working and paying into Social Security are not getting much in the way of raises either. To a lot of people a 1.7 percent increase doesn't seem bad. Many workers have not had any raise at all for two or three years.

     It's true that Social Security was designed as a supplemental program -- not to replace all your income, but to put a floor on your income. And it has worked. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for people over age 65 clocks in at 9.5 percent, compared to 14.5 percent among the population as a whole, never mind the poverty rate for single mothers or inner city minorities. The poverty rate for children is 19.9 percent. Do we really want to take money away from poor children in order to send more to middle-class seniors? Do we want to increase the payroll tax on our kids, who don't even believe they'll get the same benefits that we do out of Social Security? 

     A statement like, "I can't get by on Social Security" is ridiculous because the program was never meant to be the primary source of income during your retirement years. It's a safety net, no more than that. That's why you save for retirement starting early in our career using 401Ks and IRAs. Look, the choices are clear:  Save systematically, lead a frugal life, always spend less than you make, and this will allow you to maintain your lifestyle in your sunset years. If you're depending on Social Security alone, then plan to downsize your lifestyle drastically. The choice is yours.

     But then the government hits us when we're down. Because inflation is so low, and the government is still trying to pump up the economy five years after the recession ended, interest rates are close to zero. Those of us who scrimped and saved and built up a reasonable nest egg to supplement Social Security (like they told us to), get nothing from our investments -- not if we try to keep them safe by putting them in the bank (at less than 1 percent interest) or keep them in "safe" government or corporate bonds (at 2 percent interest). Yes, we can invest in the stock market. But that puts our nest eggs at risk. If the market tanks like it did in 2008 or 2001, then we'll be the ones who have to downsize our lifestyles drastically. 

     Everyone knows that it's not low inflation (which is anything but low) but negative real interest rates that steal from savers to support the stock portfolios of the 1 percent. If not for the government bailouts and the artificially low rates, would the price of gas, food, medicine, tuition, and stocks go up? No, everything would be much more affordable. Who would benefit? Everyone who is a consumer and not an investor -- including most seniors. Who would lose? The 1 percent. But so what? They lose a little, but would still be left with their millions.

     So where do we stand? Well, we have Social Security (even though it could be more); we have our IRAs (which are doing pretty well, at least for now); and most of us (80 percent) own a house that's worth less than it was a few years ago, but is still a pretty decent asset ... and also keeps us warm and dry all night long.

     Here's the way I see it. Lots of anxieties. Lots to complain about. But overall, we've got it pretty good, don't you think?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What's the Risk?

     I will admit that I don't like to fly. I don't like the airport experience. I don't like being cooped up in that narrow, cylindrical aluminum tube. I don't like being 30,000 feet up in the sky with only a cushion of air holding me up. And I sure don't like sitting in the middle seat.

     The analytical, left side of my brain knows that flying in an airplane is safe. But the more impressionable right side of my brain imagines how sometimes, very quickly, things can go wrong.

     Things can go wrong in a car. But I can get out and walk. Things can go wrong in a boat, but I can swim. But in an airplane . . .

     So now people are saying they are reluctant to board an airplane because of Ebola. You never know if one of the passengers has been to West Africa or is a health worker who has treated someone with the disease. They may not show any symptoms, but they could still be carrying the virus.

     But what are the chances of getting Ebola? About the same, I read recently, as getting hit by lighting while picking up your multimillion-dollar winnings from the lottery.

     Exactly one person has died of Ebola so far in this country. But every year over 50,000 people die of flu and pneumonia. And of course, like most things, these diseases hit older people a lot harder than they hit young people, proving infinitely more deadly. (So get your flu shot!)

     Recently, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published its latest list of most common ways to die in this country. The list doesn't change much from year to year, or even decade to decade. Heart disease is still No. 1. Cancer is No. 2.

     We have made some progress on cancer -- as much because people have given up smoking as because of medical advances. But medical treatment has definitely improved the survival rate for breast cancer, colon cancer, and skin cancer -- especially if they're caught early. (So get your breast exam, your colonoscopy and your skin screening!)

     But we know the risks that are familiar never seem as threatening or scary as those that are new or unusual or dramatic. I'm scared of stepping onto an airplane, which if you average it out kills about 140 Americans a year. But I'm not afraid to get in the car and drive to the grocery store, when over 30,000 Americans are killed on the road every year.

     Although I have to amend the statement. Sometimes I have a crisis of confidence when I'm out on the highway, and all around me people are speeding, tailgating, changing lanes without signaling, etc., etc. etc. Sometimes I'm amazed that the death rate on the roads isn't higher than it already is!

     In fact, while overall, accidents are the fifth leading cause of death in America, killing over 120,000 people a year, auto accidents do not kill as many people as accidental poisonings. The top three in 2011, according to the CDC:

                Accidental falls:  27,483
                Auto accidents:  33,783
                Accidental poisonings:  36,280

     But the poisoning figures are so high because they include drug overdoses -- and according to the CDC those numbers have gone up in recent years largely due to prescription pain medications. Heroin overdoses mainly affect younger people. But older people are definitely at risk when it comes to pain medications. (So dispose of those old prescriptions in a proper manner!)

     I don't know. After reviewing all these figures, now I'm scared to get out of my chair. What's the death rate for people sitting in front of their computer?


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Filling the Bucket List

     As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker recently took a jaundiced look at the concept of The Bucket List, occasioned by a stopover that President Obama made at Stonehenge on his last trip to England. Obama looked over the monolith, then quipped that he'd "knocked it off the bucket list," before hopping back on Air Force One to jet back to Washington.

     I myself have not made a Bucket List. The idea seems a little ghoulish to me. But last year B brought home a book called The 100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life by Pam Grout. The two of us leafed through the book, but to be honest, we didn't both choose a lot of the same experiences.

     So, for example, she wants to "Take a Gourmet Raft Trip Down the Rio Grande" (p. 262); while I thought it might be fun to "Protect Loggerhead Sea Turtles" (p. 134) at the Wassaw National Wildlife Reserve in Georgia. (The book is a few years old, so you have to google the listings to make sure the information is up-to-date.)

     However, we were both intrigued by one suggestion. And that's how we ended up going to "Sit at the Feet of the Masters" (p. 172) at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, NY, this past summer.

     I don't know what we'll do next. I'd like to "Tour History in a Covered Wagon" (p. 207) on an Oregon Trail wagon train. But she found a candidate for a different kind of whistlestop: "Tour the Canadian Maritimes Aboard a Luxury Train" (p. 177).

     Meantime, I'm beginning to plan my annual search to find a bit of sunshine in January, and so I started researching some other options on Road Scholar. You see, I have a problem. I've been going to Florida for three weeks every year since I left work in 2002. The problem is:  B is still working, which cuts into our vacation time dramatically. And also . . . B hates Florida. She thinks it's too crowded and too cold.

     The one time I got her to go with me, a week in Naples, there was a cold snap. We only got to the beach one day, and even then I will admit it was chilly, and the rest of the time we needed at least a windbreaker, if not more.

     "But isn't it better to have 60 degrees in Florida, instead of 20 degrees at home?" I asked.

     "Not if I'm still cold," she replied.

     So anyway, this year as usual, I'll be going to Florida by myself. I spend a couple of days with my sister, who lives in Jacksonville. And then, let's see. There's a Road Scholar tour of historic St. Augustine, Florida, and another that offers a journey through the Everglades. I've never been on a Road Scholar excursion, so I don't know what to expect.

     I'll be by myself. Will everybody else be a couple? I'm in my 60s. Will everyone else be ten years older than I am? I like to do things, not walk around and look at things. Will I be spending too many hours riding on a bus and walking around a museum? Will I be required to stay with a group that eats dinner at 5:15 p.m. and gets shepherded around all day like a bunch of sheep?

     I guess those are the questions anyone asks when they try something new. So now I'm sure you understand . . . it would make things a lot easier if B wasn't still tied down to a job. (And if she liked Florida.)

     But anyway, in other respects we are beginning to focus in on some of the same things. We both are interested in "Reaching for the Stars" (p. 170) at the University of Arizona's Astronomy Camp. Maybe next year. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How Do You Talk to Your Children?

    B has dutiful children. Her two sons call her on the phone about once a week. Her older son lives some 60 miles away, in his own apartment, and he will call when he gets home from work if he's not doing anything with his girlfriend. We also see him once or twice a month. In fact, we drove down to have dinner with him and his girlfriend over the weekend.

     Her younger son lives more like 800 miles away, in South Carolina with his fiancee. He also calls his mom once a week, usually on his way home from work -- yes, he has a hands-free phone -- although we obviously don't get to see him as much. He was home for a long weekend last Christmas; and B flew down to see him over the summer. He and his fiancee are planning another trip home around Thanksgiving.

     So that's how B talks to her children, mostly by voice, over the phone, and occasionally in person. Kind of the old-fashioned way. In fact, she was thrilled when she found out her older son did something almost unheard of among the 20-something crowd -- he installed a land-line telephone in his new apartment!

     Maybe the way you communicate with your children changes once you have grandchildren. But for us, we're not there yet. And I wonder if we're at all typical; or if we're missing out somehow.

     As for my daughter, she will not pick up the phone. She simply does not use the phone for voice communication. She communicates by messaging. If I call her, she never answers. If I leave her a voice-mail message, she will not respond. And she never calls me. But she will message me; and she will respond to a message. That's just the way she communicates, and I've found that I just had to adapt.

     My daughter lives almost 400 miles away. We see her a couple of times a year -- largely (I think) because despite the fact that she's crossed the 30-year-old threshold, she's still living an itinerant lifestyle and is storing most of her worldly possessions in our basement. She stops off a couple of times a year to drop something off, or pick something up. Although this past weekend I met up with a friend of hers whose family lives near us, and the friend was home for the long Columbus Day weekend. We met at the mall, and I gave her my daughter's snowboard, and some winter clothes, to take up to her. That's how I "communicated" with my daughter this past weekend.

     But honestly, my daughter is better at visiting me than I am at visiting her. But she's living in Buffalo -- which means the visiting season is short. We drove up there in August, which was my first-ever visit to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and I did enjoy the trip. But I won't be venturing up there again until after the snow stops flying -- sometime after mid-May.

     My son, who lives in New York City, will not answer the phone either. But he uses aol instant message at work. I can never reach him on a weekend. But during the week when he's at work, he's on AIM, and he almost always answers me. That's good, because I feel like he's available pretty much whenever I want to talk to him (you know, as long as it's not a weekend).

     My son occasionally comes to visit -- usually when he travels home to see a friend -- and he'll often stay with us overnight. But even then he doesn't really talk to me. The exception -- when I drive him back to the train station. Do you remember those days, when your kids were young, and the best time to talk to them was when you were alone in the car, driving them to soccer practice or piano lessons?

     Well, for me, it's still true. The car is dark; you don't have to look at the other person. There are no distractions; and you can't walk away. The perfect time and place to find out what's really going on in your kid's life.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Short Takes for October

      In my Sept. 28 post What Are Boomers Blogging About? fellow blogger Meryl Baer reported on her visit to the Flight #93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pa. Sadly, USA Today and several other news outlets have reported that there was a fire at the memorial on Oct. 3. The fire destroyed the flag that flew over the U. S. Capitol on 9/11, as well as a number of other artifacts. The cause of the fire is unknown, but no foul play is suspected -- it was possibly a result of some construction going on at the site.

     Meanwhile, a lot of people were interested in my two posts on the subject of long-term care insurance -- as well as the more authoritative one Is Long-Term Care Insurance for You? brought to us from financial adviser Jeremy Kisner. As a follow-up, if you're interested, here's another pretty clear and thorough look at the issue of long-term care insurance from Rodney Brooks at USA Today.

     I'm not saying LTC insurance is for everyone -- but just maybe it's something to put on your Bucket List.

     And speaking of the Bucket List, Rebecca Mead takes a jaundiced view of the whole concept of The Bucket List in an article in The New Yorker. Her piece was prompted by President Obama's recent hour-long side trip to Stonehenge as he casually quipped that he'd "knocked it off the bucket list" -- before jetting back to Washington an hour behind his official schedule.

     I myself have not made a Bucket List. And my travels have been closer to home -- to Buffalo, NY, and Cape Cod, Mass. But I'm at a loss right this moment. We have no vacation planned. None at all. And that makes me feel anxious. Aren't we retired people supposed to be traveling all the time? One problem: B is still working, which cuts into our vacation time dramatically.

     And so for now we're both staying home, trying to stay warm (we dipped down to 41 degrees last night) and focusing on our health by getting our flu shots and scheduling annual physical exams.

     It distressed me to learn that Medicare will pay for an annual exam -- but only with a physician's assistant, not with a doctor. If I want to see my primary care physician, I will have to pay $185. To me it's worth it. He knows my history; he knows my usual aches and pains vs. something that might be unusual, atypical or possibly serious. But I thought Medicare was supposed to focus on prevention, since prevention costs a lot less than tests and treatments and follow-up visits.

     Oh well, Medicare is saving me a lot more than $185 compared to my previous medical insurance plan, so I guess I don't mind paying. Besides, Medicare did pay for my flu shot.

     Finally, in case you do not want to follow Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel's advice to die at age 75, here are two health notes:  

     1. Artificial sweeteners make you fat. Several previous studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners can give people a "sweet tooth," making them more likely to seek out sugary foods. But a new study from Israel suggests that the artificial sweeteners might have a direct effect on the body's metabolism to make weight gain more likely.

     The Israeli researchers studied the use of saccharin and aspartame in a group of mice, and they found the artificial sweeteners raised the level of blood sugar in the animals and increased their glucose intolerance -- which can in turn lead to obesity and diabetes. The researchers then gave saccharin to an admittedly small group of volunteers (only seven people) and four of them developed glucose intolerance, suggesting that the effect of artificial sweeteners shown in mice could also show up in humans. So if you want to stay thin and healthy . . . no Diet Coke for you!

     2. Standing up is good for you. A group of Swedish scientists took blood samples from a group of sedentary, overweight men and women, all over age 68. The researchers measured the length of the subjects' telemeres -- the ends of DNA that typically shorten and fray with age. Half the volunteers then started a moderate exercise program, which included less time sitting down, while the other group just continued with their normal lives.

     Six months later the Swedish researchers found that the telemeres of the normal group had shortened, as expected. But those of the exercise group had actually grown longer -- their telemeres had become younger. The surprise:  the telemeres of the volunteers who had done the most exercise grew less than the others, and in some cases not at all.

     So the most beneficial factor in lengthening the telemeres was not exercise, but simply time spent standing up. Or conversely, the less time people spent sitting down, the more their telemeres grew, and the healthier they were. The conclusion:  Exercise is good. Standing up is even better.

     Finally, on a happier note (I think): I saw my first Christmas ad the other day, for the holiday extravaganza at Radio City in New York. I know, the ads for Christmas seem to show up earlier and earlier every year. But Christmas is the happiest time of year, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Are You Supposed to Die at 75?

     The Atlantic recently published an article called "Why I Hope to Die at 75" by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel. He is a Harvard-educated doctor who's the brother of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. He also heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and served as an adviser to the Obama Administration in developing the Affordable Health Act.

     Dr. Emanuel says that he wants to die at age 75. Why? First of all, he argues, most people have made whatever contribution they will make to society by the time they are 75 -- or even long before that. In fact, most people see their most productive years in their 40s, and after that they slowly decline and fade away. By age 75 any man or woman will have lived a full life -- they will have finished their career, raised their family, seen their grandchildren begin to grow up. By age 75, there's nothing left to do but hang on and suffer the degradations of old age.

     He then points out that modern medicine has lengthened our life expectancy -- and for a long time it also improved our quality of life. But in recent years, he says, increases in longevity have instead been accompanied by increases in disability.

     He cites a study by Eileen Crimmins, a researcher at the University of Southern California, who found that between 1998 and 2006, the loss of functional mobility in the elderly actually increased. In 1998, about 28 percent of American men 80 and older had a functional limitation; by 2006, that figure was nearly 42 percent. And for women the result was even worse: more than half of women 80 and older had a functional limitation. Crimmins’s conclusion: There was an “increase in the life expectancy with disease and a decrease in the years without disease.”

     Dr. Emanuel's conclusion:  "Over the past 50 years, health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process. The contemporary dying process has been elongated ... So modern Americans may live longer than their parents, but they are likely to be more incapacitated. Does that sound very desirable? Not to me."

     Dr. Emanuel does not want to live with inevitably decreasing mental and physical abilities. He also doesn't want his grandchildren to remember him as a dottering old man, but as the man he was when he was in command of his abilities. And he doesn't want to subject his children and grandchildren to the "very real and oppressive financial and caregiving burdens" that fall to people who are responsible for the aged and infirm.

     Dr. Emanuel is not in favor of euthanasia. He has no plans to commit suicide at age 75. What he plans to do is refuse any preventive care after age 75. He will instead let nature take its course. He will have no more colonoscopies, prostate exams or flu shots. He will not undergo heart surgery or chemotherapy. He will accept palliative care, if need be, to lessen his suffering; but he sees no point in going to extreme measures to extend his debilitated and useless life after age 75.

     So ... do you buy his argument? I might. Except I'd put the age at 85 instead of 75. But then, I'm a few years older than Dr. Emanuel. So we'll see. Dr. Emanuel is 57 years old. Let's check in on him, and see if he still holds the same view, in 18 years.

     Meanwhile, as a postscript, another doctor, Atul Gawande, a professor at Harvard Medical School, has written a book called Being Mortal, which addresses end-of-life issues from a similar but slightly different perspective. He points out that modern medicine has focused on fixing and managing both injury and disease -- and continues to try to fix problems right up to the bitter end, beyond the time when it can really be of much help, and in the process often causes a great deal of physical and emotional suffering.

     Dr. Gawande argues that there comes a point when medicine should focus on a person's well-being more than their life expectancy. That instead of trying to prolong a person's life by an extra week, or an extra month, doctors should instead offer them as much comfort as possible, and let them go with some degree of autonomy and dignity.

     And I'd agree with Dr. Gawande. Let me go with some degree of autonomy and dignity ... you know, in 20 years or so.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Do Low Interest Rates Cut Your Income?

     Honestly, a lot of my friends (not to mention B) are sick of me bellyaching about low interest rates. But as many of you know, while low interest rates are a boon to 20-somethings who want to buy a house -- if only 20-somethings wanted to buy a house -- they make life difficult, and often poorer, for those of us who are retired.

     Why? Because you can no longer go to the bank, deposit your savings in a CD, and get 5.0% interest, which might provide some decent income in retirement. Instead, you buy a CD (as I did last week) and you get 0.15% interest.

     So, for my $5,000 CD I will receive $7.50 in interest for the year. Not a lot to live on.

     But low interest rates don't just affect those of us who want to keep our retirement savings in a safe, secure, federally insured bank deposit. They mean less income for retirees who buy an annuity, less income for retirees who sign up for a reverse mortgage. And they certainly bring less income for people invested in bonds or a bond mutual fund . . . while exposing them to a lot of risk.

     My problem is that I don't know what to do about it -- other than to bellyache. Or, as the Journal of Financial Planning says much more eloquently, "Turning [someone's] wealth that has been accumulated over a lifetime into a sustainable paycheck throughout retirement is one of the most important investment challenges for retirees . . . "

     All I can say is, amen to that. Especially if you don't have a lot of wealth.

     So I decided to turn to my friend, and financial guru, Jeremy Kisner of Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, AZ, to get some insight about interest rates. (He previously gave us some good info. on the question Is Long-Term-Care Insurance for You?).

     He explains things quite well, and may even make us more financially secure:

      Low interest rates have plagued fixed income investors for the past several years. Each year, analysts predict that rates will go up, and then ... they stay low or decline even further. Many consumers see this when they walk into a bank and are offered virtually zero interest on their savings and checking accounts.

     Coincidentally, banks just announced near record quarterly profits. Apparently, charging 4.5% on loans and paying 0% on deposits is profitable. However, banks don't really set interest rates. Rates are set by the demand for Treasury bonds from investors (many of them from other countries) and somewhat influenced by the Federal Reserve. It seems that investors will continue to buy bonds regardless of their yield. See graph below:

     If you think it is bad in the U. S., where the ten-year government bond is yielding around 2.4%, do not look over to Europe. Earlier this month, the yield on the ten-year German bond fell below 1.0%, and even economically challenged Spain borrows ten-year money at 2.1%.

     You might be thinking, "Okay, interest rates are low, but what's your point?" I have a few:

     1.  There is real risk in the bond market. Prices move in the opposite direction of interest rates. This has been good for bond investors over the past 30 years, but is likely to go the other way sometime soon. It feels similar to the bubble that formed in residential real estate in the mid-2000s, which was overvalued for about three years before the market finally crashed.

     2.  Never design your investment plan looking in the rearview mirror. Many investors stick with a 40 - 60% allocation to U. S. government or investment grade corporate bonds just because that is what worked in the past. Today, you might want to diversify the bond portion of your portfolio by using other assets that have an equal or higher yield and also have the potential to appreciate. Some examples are: Real Estate Investment Trusts (average yield 3.25%); Oil and Gas Pipelines (ave. yield 6.0%); Covered Call Strategies (ave. yield 6.0%).

     All these asset classes can be purchased easily through ETF's, which are fully liquid and trade just like stocks. However, some may present more complicated tax issues, and different risk profiles, so it's best to consult a financial adviser before jumping into these more sophisticated issues.

     Finally, you can also think globally with your bond allocation -- not to Germany or Spain, but to emerging market debt which has an average yield of 4.4%. Are these markets more risky? Maybe. But many of these countries run budget surpluses, rather than deficits like the U. S., which suggests that they will gain economic strength as time goes on.

     3.  A retiree's income portfolio should always be designed with a total return objective -- as opposed to building it for yield with a "live off the interest and don't touch the principal" strategy. In other words, if someone has, say, a $1 million portfolio, and needs $50,000 per year, many people will buy bonds and other investments with yields of 5% or higher.

     But this can be very dangerous, especially in these days of low interest rates, as many high-yielding investments can be more volatile. You are better off designing a portfolio where you expect a total return of 6 - 7%, but the yield from dividends and interest may only be 3%. This means that you will need to sell some investments and re-balance periodically. There will be years when your portfolio will decline in value and you will be using some of your principal. However, there will also be years when your returns are higher than your long-term average.

     This may seem uncomfortable, but it is likely to give you a higher probability of not outliving your money. And if it makes you more comfortable, this strategy was validated once again by research published in this month's issue of the Journal of Financial Planning.

     4. Your short-term emergency fund money still belongs in the bank -- regardless of any other decisions about your investments, or long-term plans for retirement income, and despite the low interest rates currently being offered. You don't want to incur any risk with the money you need to live on over the next few years. But long-term money should find a better place.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Remember Him?

     He was born in Westfield, Alabama, some ten miles west of Birmingham, in 1931, and he later admitted that he sometimes went to school barefoot. But 73 years later, in 2004, he received a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Yale University. He went on in 2007 to receive another doctorate from Dartmouth, and then in 2009 he gave the commencement address at San Francisco State University, and was awarded yet another doctorate in Humane Letters.

    The man's field of expertise, however, was not academics. The three degrees were all honorary. In fact, he never even came close to attending college at all.
He was named after the president

     In Fairfield Industrial High School, he trained to work in a laundry. But his real interest was on the playing fields. He quarterbacked the Fairfield football team, and averaged 20 points a game for the basketball team.

     Baseball was his main sport, however. His father, William Howard (named after William Howard Taft, who was president at the time he was born) worked in the steel mills, and played semi-pro baseball in and around Birmingham. Fairfield High did not have a baseball team, so while still in high school, he played second base and center field alongside his dad in the industrial league, and then he went on to play for the Birmingham Black Barons of the American Negro League.

      Several major league baseball teams sent scouts to watch him play. The Boston Braves wanted to sign him up, right away, but the Birmingham manager wouldn't let him go; and the Braves wouldn't wait, so the deal fell though.

     The Brooklyn Dodgers also came calling. (Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers four years earlier in 1947). But it was the New York Giants that finally signed him, for $4,000, and sent him to play Class B ball in Trenton, NJ. He went hitless for his first four games, but ended the season with 108 hits and a .353 batting average. In 1951 he went up to the Triple A team in Minneapolis. Then, 35 games later, he was called up to the Giants. It was May 24, 1951. He was only 20 years old.

     He started his major league career with no hits in his first 12 at bats. But next time at the plate he pounded a home run off the Braves future Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who was interviewed after the game. Spahn cited the distance between home plate and the pitcher's mound of 60 feet, 6 inches, and then told reporters, "Gentlemen, for the first 60 feet, that was a hell of a pitch."

     He came up hitless for another 13 at bats. But after that he went on a tear. He was named  Rookie of the Year, and helped the Giants win the 1951 National League pennant. Actually, the regular season ended with the Giants tied with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was in the on-deck circle on Oct. 3, 1951 -- when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard 'Round the World against the Dodgers to win the three-game playoff. The Giants went on to the World Series, but lost 4-2 to the Yankees.

     He was drafted in 1952, during the Koran War, and spent about a year and a half playing baseball for the U. S. Army, before returning to the Giants for the 1954 season. The Giants played the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, 60 years ago, and during the first game he made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in center field, which prevented two Indians players from scoring, preserved the tie game, and allowed the Giants to go on and win the game -- and the series.

     William Howard Mays -- named after his father, who was named after President William Howard Taft -- was generally considered one of the best players in the history of baseball, winning 12 Gold Glove Awards to go along with his 1956 batting championship, his two Most Valuable Player awards, his 24 All-Star appearances. 

     In 1958, Mays moved with the Giants to San Francisco, where he continued his all-star career. Then in 1972 he went back to New York to play for the fledgling Mets. He played for almost two years, then went on to serve as a hitting and fielding instructor until 1979 -- the year he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, in his first year of eligibility.

     Mays was also known to play stickball in his off hours, with kids in the streets of New York, and then he played sandlot ball with kids in San Francisco. He later worked for the Baseball Advisory Board, a nonprofit organization that helps former baseball players with financial or medical problems.

      Today, the number that Willie Mays wore, Number 24, is retired from the San Francisco Giants. The stadium is located at 24 Willie Mays Plaza; and there is a larger-than-life-size statue of the "Say Hey" kid out in front of the stadium. Mays was actually nicknamed Buck when he was younger, but the name Say Hey Kid stuck -- from when he first hit the big leagues and could not remember the names of all his teammates, so when he saw a fellow player, he would call out, "Hey, man. Say hey, man."

     Mays was married twice -- once divorced, once widowed -- and has one child. Today, at age 83, he is still affiliated with the Giants, and is still considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. A recent Los Angeles Times poll named him the best center fielder in history, beating out Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb for the position.

     And if you think you can argue with that, take a look at "The Catch" from Sept. 29, 1954.