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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Crazy Character from Doylestown

     We spent the weekend in Doylestown, Pa., county seat of Bucks County, a prosperous and culturally rich area located along the Delaware River north of Philadelphia.

Vest-pocket park next to the Historical Society
      We stayed in a bed & breakfast next to the Doylestown Historical Society, and we spent two days tootling around town looking at historic buildings, sampling a few of its myriad restaurants, and meandering through a couple of its pretty parks.

     Doylestown is the hometown of writer James Michener, who graduated from Doylestown High School in 1925, before going on to Swarthmore College and then fame and fortune as author of Tales of the South Pacific -- made into the movie South Pacific -- along with Centennial, The Source, Hawaii, Chesapeake, and a couple dozen other mammoth historical novels.

     (How many Michener books have you read? I've done Chesapeake, Poland, The Convenant. I started a couple of others but never got through them. Now that I'm retired, maybe I'll try another one!)

Moravian Pottery and Tile Works
     Doylestown was also home to anthropologist Margaret Mead, who grew up there, and writer Pearl S. Buck, author of the 1936 bestseller The Good Earth, who lived there when she wasn't traveling or residing in China.

     Other luminaries who have lived in Doylestown include authors Dorothy Parker and S. J. Perelman, and musicians George S. Kaufman, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim . . . as well as the contemporary singer Pink, born as Alecia Moore in Doylestown in 1979.

     But the most amazing character we found from Doylestown -- the most idiosyncratic anyway -- was a man named Henry Chapman Mercer (1856 - 1930).

Interior of the Tile Works
     Mercer was the son of a wealthy Pennsylvania family. He studied law, but never practiced, as he found he was more interested in history and archeology than the details of legal precedents. He was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s and came to believe that American society was being destroyed by modern industrialism.

     Mercer traveled through Europe studying historical sites; he took a job as a museum curator in Philadelphia; he researched ancient tool-making and apprenticed himself to an old Pennsylvania potter. He was also a co-founder of the Doylestown Historical Society.

     Then 1898 he founded the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, where he produced handmade clay tiles that soon became very popular. They were used to decorate buildings from the Rockefeller estate in New York to the Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg to a theater in Hollywood.

A Moravian tile
     Mercer constructed a factory made entirely of concrete, to house his work spaces and kilns, and the factory is now an historic building on the Mercer estate in Doylestown. Nearby, on the same grounds, he built  a mansion called Fonthill, also made entirely of concrete, and then about a mile away, in downtown Doylestown, he put up the Mercer Museum to house his collection of handmade tiles, ancient tools and other artifacts.

     The three buildings are now all open as historic monuments in Doylestown. They are not the most attractive structures, but they certainly are sturdy -- and the subject of a lot of curious conversation among residents and visitors alike.

The Mercer Museum in downtown Doylestown
     So why are the buildings, up to and including the roofs, made entirely of concrete? Mercer settled on the material, so the story goes, because the Great Boston Fire of 1872 destroyed his aunt's prized collection of medieval armor. He couldn't abide the thought of his own collections suffering the same fate, so he landed on concrete as the perfect fireproof material.

     At first, the people of Doylestown made fun of his buildings. But to prove his point, Mercer lit a bonfire on the roof of his mansion to demonstrate that the place was indeed impervious to fire. After that, people began to appreciate the artistry -- and the employment opportunities -- brought to this small Pennsylvania town by the idiosyncratic offspring of a wealthy American family.

     You could almost write a novel, or a musical, about it. Don't you think?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Playing Hooky

     I was sitting at my computer for a while, trying to write a blog post, but instead of getting down to business I wandered over to youtube and started playing some music:  Pink Floyd, The Band, Ben Folds, David Gray, Neil Young. I was in that kind of mood.

     And this one, "Long Road" sung by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder . . .

     I started following Pearl Jam when my son sang one of their songs, Jeremy, in his high-school a cappella group. If the voice sounds familiar, even if you don't know Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder, it may be because the song was featured in the 2007 movie Into the Wild. The film was based on Jon Krakaur's book about a young Emory University graduate who hitchhiked to Alaska and met his fate in 1992.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Home on the Range

     According to a survey by the financial firm Merrill Lynch called Home in Retirement: More Freedom, New Choices most retirees report that they do not have to worry about home-related financial issues. For example, 70 percent of those surveyed have paid off their mortgages, and 65 percent say they "are now living in the best home of their lives."

     Compared to other Americans, retirees are "more likely to say their homes are comfortable, in a safe community, and a great place to connect with family." They are also more likely to agree that they are now living in a part of the country with pleasant climate and weather.

A kitchen built for a Queen ...
     From my perspective, the weather outside today is just wonderful. However, I am also still scarred from the long, cold, lonely winter here in the Northeast, and so I'm already planning my trip south for next year. This past winter I spent two full weeks in Florida, plus a little more than a week in South Carolina. For this coming 2015-26 winter, I've decided . . . that's simply not enough!

     Anyway, while many of us get away from the cold in the winter (or the heat in the summer), many others are content to stay right where they are -- especially if their home is on the range.

... with a spectacular view!
     For example, we have Laura Lee at Midlife Crisis Queen reporting on the latest developments in building her solar home in southern Colorado. In her post Back to Our Very Special Construction Project, she reports on the progress of her house in the foothills of the Spanish Peaks.

     Meanwhile, Kathy Gottberg at SmartLiving 365 offers up 7 Pitfalls to Avoid When Rightsizing Your Home. She refers to a friend of hers who is currently in the midst of selling her long-time family home and moving to a smaller place. The friend "gets" many of the benefits of rightsizing, but several issues keep popping up that give her pause.

     That's completely normal, writes Gottberg, because in many ways rightsizing is contrary to what most of us have been taught, which is that bigger is always better. The good news is that once you know what to keep in mind, rightsizing not only becomes the easiest choice, also the one that leads to the greatest benefits. She offers seven "don'ts" we should follow when considering a move in retirement, including two that hit home for me: "Don't buy a house just to store your stuff" and "Don't buy where you've always lived just because you're afraid to try somewhere new."

     Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Rita Robison on The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, writes that Scientists Recommend Throwing Away Nonstick Cookware, as well as other products with waterproofing chemicals, such as raincoats, stain resistant carpets, and pizza boxes. The statement by the scientists cites evidence that perfluorinated compounds are linked to cancer, reproductive harm, and other health problems and that they don’t break down in the environment.

     But as fond as we are of our homes, not all of us are content to beat around the kitchen and the yard. Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting has been spending a lot of time traveling recently -- once again on the road and journeying cross country. In Travel Yesteryear and Today she ponders the troubles of today's travelers compared to the hardships of the pioneers venturing west over 150 years ago. The surprise, she says in her lighthearted post, is that not all that much has changed. Bad weather remains a problem. Indian raids have been replaced by TSA checkpoints. Wagon train traffic jams out of Missouri have been replaced by . . . well, you get the point. Take a short sidetrip to her essay to appreciate her wide-angled view.

     Finally, as you may remember, I sometimes write a column for U. S. News "On Retirement," and so you can see my perspective on the housing issue in 7 Baby Boomer Housing Trends to Watch as well as Where Retirees Want to Live Now.

     Anyway, no matter where you may be this Memorial Day weekend, please remember those who gave their lives while defending our country . . . and then go ahead and enjoy the traditional advent of the summer season.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Sign of Aging

     It started about two weeks ago. B and I were out walking the dog at dusk. We were taking our usual route down our street, but for some reason a fly, or some other kind of bug, would not leave me alone. It was darting in and out of my eyesight, around my head. I waved my arms around; but that didn't make the bug go away. Finally I just walked ahead and ducked into the house.

     The same thing happened the next evening. I couldn't understand my sudden attraction to whatever insect was singling me out for attack in front of my own house.

     A couple of days later I was reading in my office chair, and I happened to look up at the ceiling. I saw a couple of black dots. But they didn't seem to be on the ceiling. They seemed to be in my eye. Did I have something in my eye?

     I rubbed my eye, and when that didn't do anything, I took a shower and tried to wash out my eyes. I went back downstairs and looked up at the ceiling. The black spots were still there, mostly in my right eye.

     Finally, I mentioned the spots to B. By the way, I call B Bridge, short for Bridget. Might as well give her name after all this time. Anyway, I told her about the bug that was bothering me when we walked the dog -- she recalled the incidents with some amusement -- and then I described the black spots when I looked at the ceiling. And now, I said, I could see them moving around with my eye. They were in my right eye.

     "Oh, yeah," she acknowledged. "They're floaters."

     "What the hell are floaters?" I asked. This was the first I'd heard of them.

     "It happens when you get older. I've had them a couple of times. They're not serious, and they usually just go away."

     "So how do you know about them? You're younger than I am."

     "Well, my eyes weren't so great to begin with."

     "So you start getting older, and suddenly you get black things rolling around in your eyes?"

     "It has something to do with the fluid behind your eyeball. It dries up, and you see spots."

     So, being the semi-hypochondriac that I am, I googled floaters. WebMD told me that eye floaters are small pieces of protein that appear as spots in your field of vision. As you age the back of your eye shrinks and small bits of protein shred off from the retina. They are particularly noticeable when you look at something bright . . . such as a white ceiling.

     Most of the time floaters are harmless, and according to WebMD, as well as Bridge, most of the  time they do not interfere with your field of vision. However, in some cases, they can signal a retinal tear or retinal detachment which are serious eye disorders. Apparently, you don't have to worry unless the floaters become very dense, or you experience some loss of vision, or you get sudden flashes of light on the edges of your eye.

     So the next night we went out to walk the dog. I got to the end of the driveway, when I saw a flash of light out of the corner of my right eye. And then another one a few minutes later. That was enough for me. The next morning I made an appointment with an opthamologist at our medical group.

     A few days later I was in his office, with drops in my eyes, lying back in a chair as he shined a  spotlight bright enough to land an airplane into my eyes. Look up; look down. To the right, to the left. Back to the right.

     The doctor seemed unimpressed with my eyes, even slightly annoyed that I had troubled him with my so-called problem. Which is a good thing, in my book.

     I have floaters. No sign of retinal detachment. I should go back to him if the floaters get significantly worse, or I begin to lose vision. But otherwise, I'm fine. The doctor says they should go away once my fluid dries up and the bits of protein get absorbed into my body. But he told me to make an appointment in one month. He wants to check me again, just to make sure.

     And so I've got these black lacy-type things floating around in my right eye. A few flashes of light when I go out in the dark at night. But, they tell me, everything is normal. Just something that comes with getting older. Isn't aging fun?!?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What's Your Livability Score?

     This is a short post to refer you to a site I found on the AARP website called the Livability Index. It was developed by the AARP Public Policy Institute as a "web-based tool to measure community livability."

     You can search the Index by zip code or the name of your town to find an overall score. The total score is an average of scores for seven categories: housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, health, engagement, and opportunity. You can click on each category to see what criteria they use.

     Presumably, the livability quotient is relevant for everyone; but there's extra focus on older people. For example, the housing category is based on affordability, but also on availability of multi-family housing and accessibility in terms of wider doors and hallways and fewer steps.

      I realize these kinds of rating systems have limits when people are trying to decide where they might want to relocate in retirement. For example, this Livability Index does not take climate into account, which is an important factor for many of us. My daughter lives in Buffalo, and her neighborhood rates an enviable 62 -- but you wouldn't find me living there through the winter.

     My own town scores a 51, which is okay, not great. It rates low on housing (27) and transportation (31) -- housing is expensive and geared toward families not retired people, and we have no public transportation other than a train that's a 15-minute drive away. But my community scores high on health (81) and engagement (63), and reasonably well on environment (53).

     Even if two communities score at the same level on an overall basis, they may show very different profiles. My sister lives in Florida. Her zip code also rates a 51; but housing and transportation in her area score higher while health comes in lower.

     So, I guess you have pick out what's important to you, and be happy where you are. But even if you're not thinking about moving, it could be fun to check out the Livability Index for your own community -- or those of family and friends -- to see how they rate on various measures.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Weekend in Washington

     We spent two days in Washington, DC, and thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful weather, the friendly crowds, and a visit with my two sisters. The bonus: We didn't have to see one politician!

     We did see the Capitol, then took a tour through the Newseum, a news museum that "champions the five freedoms of the First Amendment." In case you don't remember, the five freedoms are freedom of the press, of petition, religion, speech and the freedom to assemble peacefully.
to champion the five freedoms of the First Amendment - See more at: http://www.newseum.org/about/#sthash.BEFQBr0o.dpuf
to champion the five freedoms of the First Amendment - See more at: http://www.newseum.org/about/#sthash.BEFQBr0o.dpuf
mission is to champion the five freedoms of the First Amendment - See more at: http://www.newseum.org/about/#sthash.zAKbipQb.dpuf

The 150-year-old Capitol Dome is being restored

The Newseum on Pennsylvania Ave., opened in 2008

A reminder of big events

A piece of the Berlin Wall

One of the East German guard towers

A news helicopter

Guess what embassy is next door to the Newseum

The National Art Gallery is across the street

Later, we walked over to the Dunbarton Oaks gardens in Georgetown

The terrace with its 100-year-old vines

Do you remember the story of Diana?

Actaeon sees her naked, so she turns him into a deer and his hounds kill him

Union Station

     We took the Amtrak train home. Fortunately, for us, there was no accident. But unfortunately, as you may have read, an Amtrak train derailed last night outside of Philadelphia, killing five people and injuring scores of others . . . a reminder that even in this day and age travel has its dangers. So be careful, be safe, and lets send our thoughts and prayers to those affected by this latest tragedy.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Whirlwind Tour

     I haven't posted for almost a week, because B and I took a quick and exciting trip to Europe. We started out in Ireland . . .

Irish step dancing

Is that an Irish face, or what?

We got a demonstration on the Irish national sport of hurling

    Then we proceeded to Latvia . . .

Seal of the Baltic country of Latvia

Girl in traditional costume

Singing local folk songs

     Then on to Portugal . . .

Fishing is important to the economy

     And Romania . . .

Romanian folk dance

     And the U.K. . . .

English Morris dancing on Dupont Circle

     And so you're thinking, we really didn't go to all those countries in one weekend. But actually, we did better than that. Because when you enter the embassy of a country, you are legally in the country. We spent Saturday at the European Union Embassies Open House in Washington, DC, and we really did cover five countries in five hours.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Waste Money ... Who Me?

     Last night I saw B in front of her computer. I went over, and as I approached she quickly clicked off the page, and her email account flashed onto the screen.

     "Whatcha' lookin' at?" I queried innocently. I thought maybe she was searching on Homeaway, because we're starting to plan our summer vacation.

     She looked at me. Her face flushed a little. Then she sighed. "Well, actually, I was shopping."

     She clicked back onto the first page. I saw a pair of earrings, kind of spangly, probably made out of gold. I didn't really look very closely, because . . . well, because I don't know a thing about earrings.

     Then I did a double-take. The earrings cost $174.99. No wonder B was looking a a little guilty!

Waste of money?
     But I don't care. B has a job. She has her own money. She can spend it any way she wants. It's no business on mine if she wants to blow close to $200 for little shiny things to hang from her ears . . . that no one will even see because they'll be hidden by the hair that she's been growing out lately.

     Recently, B came home from work at the library and was amused to tell me about a woman who'd been asking for some tax forms. The woman confided in B that she filed her taxes separately because her husband gambled, and she didn't want any part of his finances.

     My sister also keeps her finances separate from her husband. This is her second marriage (and his third), and they got married late in life, so they'd been used to doing things their own way and they thought they'd keep it that way -- besides my brother-in-law fancies himself a day-trader in the stock market, so he has complicated taxes with a lot of short-term gains and losses. And my sister doesn't want any part of it.

     My brother-in-law sometimes brags about the money he's made. But my sister told me that he actually loses about $5,000 a year. "I don't let it bother me," she says. "After all, for him this is entertainment, and it costs less than owning a boat, or taking a vacation."

     So anyway, like I said, what business is it of mine if B wants to squander her money on jewelry. Or shoes. Or little knickknacks for the house.

     I guess, being a  (ahem) fiscally responsible person myself, I don't understand why people want to throw away their hard-earned money on useless stuff. I spend my money on more substantial goods and services, ones that are socially responsible and contribute to the greater good of mankind. For example: golf.

     No, wait! Seriously. By playing golf I help employ a dozen or so American workers -- mostly senior citizens -- who help run the course. The golf course provides much-needed green space in my overcrowded suburb. And it also provides an inviting environment for wildlife, such as deer, raccoons, skunks, snakes, ticks, mosquitoes. And geese. The geese provide lots of fertilizer.

Good investment?
     I play on the public courses and pay about $40 a round. B has never once accused me of wasting money on golf. And why would she? I'm actually saving money. After all, I could join a fancy country club. It might cost me $10,000 a year. At that rate it would cost me $300 or $400 a round. So by going to the public course, I save $250 to $350 every day. The more I play, the more I save!

     I've been eyeing a new driver down at the golf shop. It costs $399.00. Does that seem expensive? Maybe. But on a cost-per-pound basis, it's a much better deal than the earrings.

     This is just one example. There's my new car . . . I could have gotten a Mercedes like my friend Joe, so I saved a lot of money in buying a Honda instead. My gym membership . . . okay, I don't use it that much, but I save $15 a month because I'm a senior citizen. At the rate I'm going, we'll have saved up enough money to pay for vacation in no time.

     Anyway, after our little encounter at the computer, I went into the kitchen and got myself a snack. A few minutes later I saw B was still at the computer. I wandered over, and saw . . .  she's still looking at earrings. Only these earrings cost $224.99!

     However, being the suave, debonaire, cool-as-a-cucumber guy that I am, I didn't even react. I just nodded thoughtfully. "Those are nice," I mused. "But, I think I like the other ones better."

     She looked up. "Yeah, I agree," she said. "Besides, I'd be saving $50. That'll help pay for our vacation." 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Remember Him?

     He was born on a farm in Indiana. His father died when he was a child, and his mother went to work in a cannery, so the young boy helped out with the farm and took care of his two younger siblings, learning how to prepare food, how to cook meats and vegetables, and even bake bread.

     His mother eventually remarried, but the boy didn't get along with his stepfather, so he left home, and at age 16 went to live with his uncle who worked for a streetcar company. The young man got a job as a conductor -- and thus began his lifelong love affair with trains.

    He did a brief stint in the army, then moved to Alabama, where he lived with another uncle who got him a job at the Southern Railroad. He worked his way up to fireman, and along the way met Josephine King, the girl who would become his wife. They had  three children together.

     The family moved to Tennessee where he worked for Illinois Central and started taking correspondence courses to become a lawyer. He lost his railroad job after getting into a fight with a colleague, and then moved over to the Rock Island Railroad. When he completed his law courses, he started practicing law in Little Rock, Ark., but that career soon blew up when he again got in a fight -- this time in the courtroom, with his own client!

     Perhaps you're starting to see a pattern. He went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, then quit to sell life insurance for Prudential, but he was soon fired for subordination. Then he co-founded a ferry company on the Ohio River, and when it proved reasonably successful he sold his share of the business and started a lighting company. The lighting ventured failed in the face of competition, but the young man happened to meet a executive with Standard Oil who signed him up to run a gas station in Nicholasville, KY.

     By then it was the middle of the Depression, and the service station was forced to close down. But he soon made a deal with Shell to run another gas station, in Corbin, KY, and in order to boost sales he began to serve food -- chicken and ham and steak -- at first in his house next door to the station, and later opening a real restaurant. His popularity grew, until the food critic Duncan Hines stopped by and included a mention of the restaurant in his book Adventures in Good Eating:

     "Corbin, KY. Sanders Court and Cafe. A very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits."

     About this time Sanders received a commission from the governor of Kentucky as a Kentucky Colonel, in recognition for his contribution to the state's cuisine, and so Colonel Harlan Sanders started to expand his culinary world. He acquired a restaurant/motel in Asheville, NC, and later, when his Corbin place burned down, he rebuilt it as a motel with a 140-seat restaurant. By 1940 Sanders had developed his own "secret recipe" for frying chicken in a fast-cooking pressure fryer.

     During World War II, gas rationing dried up business, and Sanders went off to manage cafeterias for the government in Tennessee. After the war, as he was pushing 60 years old, he got divorced, then remarried, and then he took his first venture into franchising -- signing up a restaurant in (of all places) South Salt Lake, Utah. Sales at the restaurant quickly tripled, and other restaurants began asking to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Sanders hit the road to spread the word, often sleeping in the back of his car. He would stop at a roadside restaurant, offer to cook his chicken, and then if workers liked it he would negotiate franchise rights.

     The concept caught on, and soon KFC outlets were opening all around the country, and in Mexico and Canada as well. But by the mid-1960s Sanders decided the company had grown too big for him to handle, and so he sold out to a group of Kentucky businessmen. He arranged to take a salaried position as a "brand ambassador."

     In 1965 Sanders moved to Mississauga, Ontario to oversee the Canadian KFCs, which had not been part of the sale of the company. He lived in Canada for 15 years while continuing to make appearances and film commercials for the U. S. company, even while publicly criticizing the company for changing his secret sauce.

     In his later years -- and after the governor had recommissioned him a Kentucky Colonel -- Sanders dressed the part, wearing a white suit, and growing a goatee and bleaching it white. He referred to himself as Colonel, and never appeared in public without his get-up -- a heavy wool suit in winter and a light cotton suit in summer.

     Harlan Sanders died at age 90, in 1980, leaving a legacy of over 6,000 KFC restaurants . . . and his familiar visage that still adorns the logo of the company, from sea to shining sea.