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

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How to Age Gracefully

     Let's face it, soon or later we all get old, assuming we're still around at all. There's nothing we can do about it -- except maybe try to do it with some class, and not burden ourselves or our loved ones with all the consequences and complications.

     It doesn't matter if we're 55 or 75. We can still approach our senior years with some style and grace. Here are a few suggestions that have occurred to me. Maybe you have others.

     First of all, we've already heard all the jokes about colonoscopies, senior moments and midnight bathroom breaks. We're not going to add anything new, so let's just skip on to other things -- topics that don't so indelibly stamp us as an old geezer. Sure, other people may share your health issue and want some information. But let's not dwell on infirmities and disabilities. There must be other things in our lives to talk about-- the books we've read, the movies we've seen, the places we've been, the plans we're making.

     Also, let's try not to harbor regrets or grudges. Are you still pining for an old boyfriend, or feeling disappointed because you didn't get into your first-choice college -- or didn't go to college at all? Are you holding a grudge against a colleague who was once promoted over you, or regretting an opportunity you were too dumb to take? There's nothing we can do about it now, so let it go. And we shouldn't feel that we have to keep our old mistakes a deep, dark secret. Talk about them. Share them with friends. Even Frank Sinatra had a few regrets. We might even find humor in what we once thought was an embarrassing or humiliating episode.

     The days of office parties, long lunches and business trips with people we don't even like are over. We have no more obligations, except perhaps to your family -- so we shouldn't feel as if we have to accept a dinner invitation from a boring neighbor. We should be able to socialize with people who make us happy. Go where we want to go, as the old song goes, do what we want to do.

     Along the same lines, we often read retirement advice urging us to stay productive, chalk up more achievements. That's great, if you're motivated in that direction. But many of us feel we've been doing that for 40 years -- and now we want to kick back and enjoy life. What's the point of retiring if you have to get up early, rush off someplace where you might not want to go, and then stumble home at night tired and exhausted and stressed out? Some retirees only want to sit around the kitchen table and read the newspaper, then lie around the backyard an watch the clouds drift by. There's nothing wrong with that!

     Our days of trying to impress others, trying to keep up with the Joneses, should be long gone by now. If you want to start an exercise program, or a diet, or zen meditation, do it because you want to, not because a friend or neighbor is pressuring you into it. There are lots of reasons to eat right, exercise regularly and challenge your mind. But we should do it only if it makes us feel better, not because we think we'll fit in better. In other words, be yourself. If you want to let your hair go gray, who cares? If you don't want to wear a tie anymore . . . hey, there's no dress code for retirement!

     Finally, in retirement I think we should all be able to look ourselves in the mirror -- and like what we see. When we were young we might have wanted to look like a movie star or an NFL quarterback. But now, guess what? You're not a movie star. You're not a quarterback. So we can finally become comfortable looking like ourselves. That's not to say we shouldn't try to look our best -- but it's our best, not someone else's idea of what looks acceptable. A few lines on the face give us character. Age spots show maturity. Gray hair proves we've got some gravitas.

     You should listen to me. Because all I've got is gravitas!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

How Deep Is the Well of Compassion?

     Does a person who has experienced personal difficulties develop more sympathy for others, or does the very fact of surmounting those difficulties make a person less sympathetic toward people in a similar situation?

     That was the question asked in the New York Times last week by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. In an article called "The Funny Thing About Adversity" he analyses the varying and sometimes unpredictable human reactions to adversity.

     Think of the stereotypical self-made man or woman. They often think that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, so other people should be able to do the same, if only they worked harder or studied more or had more self-discipline. Or consider the abused child, who then as an adult goes on to abuse their own children. But then think of the person who's survived a serious illness. They often join a support group, help others get treatment, raise money for the cause.

     Are some people just naturally more sympathetic, while others are hard-hearted and self-absorbed?

     No, says DeSteno. The answer is not in our hearts so much as it's in our self-interest. "Compassion isn't as purely selfless as it might seem," he concludes after years of study. While it might, in part, be a genuine response to the suffering of others, "It is also a strategy for regaining your own footing -- for resilience in the face of trauma. After all, having strong social relationships is one of the best predictors of psychological well-being, and so anything that enhances your bonds with others -- like expressing compassion for them -- makes you more resilient."

     He and a colleague conducted several experiments, and they concluded in general people who experienced adversity in life -- who were a victim of violence or a natural disaster, or who lost a loved one -- were more likely to empathize with others in trouble. They felt more compassion for victims, and donated more money or were more likely to help out victims.

     The wrinkle in the equation comes when people encounter someone who has suffered the exact same hardship as they did. Then they show less compassion. Why? According to DeSteno the answer is because people remember their past problems with a fuzzy lens. The problems are recalled as less distressing than they actually were. And therefore people don't appreciate just how difficult the challenge is for other people.

     So, for example, people who had been bullied earlier in life felt less compassion for the victims of bullying -- although they felt more compassion for the unemployed. Meanwhile, people who had previously gone through a period of unemployment felt less sympathy for people currently unemployed, but felt plenty of compassion for victims of bullying.

     What do you think about this? Does it make sense?

     In my case, I have a history of cancer in my family. Both my parents died of cancer; but they were old. My older brother died of cancer in 1964, when he was 23 years old.

     One of my daughter's best friends came down with the same kind of cancer when she was in college. But now, almost 50 years later, the friend was cured. At first, I found myself resenting this girl. It just wasn't fair. Then one day my daughter brought her friend over to the house. I saw how the girl had lost weight and was wearing a wig to cover her bald head. And I didn't resent her anymore. I felt sympathy and compassion.

     Even so, to this day, when I hear of an acquaintance who gets some kind of cancer, my first reaction is relief. Better them than me. Like the soldier whose comrade gets shot, and feels relief that it wasn't him. But then, when I face the reality, I feel plenty of compassion. Which is why I try to do the cancer walk every year.

     There's another element to it, I think. The closer to home the problem, the more it disturbs us. If someone we know in town dies, it's sad. If someone in our own family dies it's devastating. But when a hundred people are blown up in Africa or the Middle East, we may not even hear about it, and if we do, it perhaps only registers as a sad shake of the head.

     Maybe there's only so much compassion to go around. Still, I think we all need more of it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lessons Learned from the 1950s

     Recently I've been reading some history about the 1950s, including the exhaustive book The Fifties by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. We lived in a different world back then, when we were kids and cars had fins, men went off to work, women stayed home, and children were not chided not for texting too much but for watching too much TV.

     Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice some of the themes running through that decade more than a half century ago are still relevant in 2015 . . .

     For example, today we're all encouraged to "to our own thing" and "follow our bliss." But Halberstam reminds us about Alfred Kinsey, an entomologist who transformed himself into a sex researcher. He was criticized by conservatives and liberals alike, until he was forced to give up his teaching job and lost financial support for his research from the Rockefeller Foundation. Through it all Kinsey believed he was doing something important and he kept on conducting his studies.

     He lived in Bloomington, Ind., where he tended his garden, helped raise his children and was married to the same woman for over 30 years. Ultimately his work was recognized. The Kinsey Reports were bestselling books, and despite some later criticism of his methods, his work won him high regard among many in the scientific community. The lesson? You must believe in yourself before others will believe in you.

     Similarly, today, we're all products of self-help promoters and self-actualization preachers who encourage us to be all we can be, to not just talk-the-talk, but walk-the-walk. Reach for the stars, we're told, and even if you fail, you'll reach the moon.

     Back in the 1950s entrepreneurs like William Levitt, Kemmons Wilson and Ray Kroc all made their fortunes, sometimes in the face of critics who berated them, because they felt confident betting on the future of America. Today Jeff Bezos and Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are doing the same thing. It's just that instead of building houses, motels and hamburger stands, the new entrepreneurs are building out the internet -- but they're still plenty optimistic about the future of the American consumer.

     Today we hear both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as well as half the American public, complain about media bias. But media bias is nothing new. The 1950s saw the usual East coast liberal bias in the voice of Edward R. Murrow on CBS and from the pages of the New York Times.

     But, according to David Halberstam, Time magazine under Henry Luce was the unofficial mouthpiece of the Republican party, and flagrant media bias came from the Chicago Tribune under publisher Robert McCormick. The newspaper was the FOX news of its day, opposing the New Deal, pushing post-war isolationism, supporting the anticommunism of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Also, as TV took over from print, people began to realize that news in the media was becoming less about actual news, and more about its entertainment value -- a trend that continues today, ad absurdum.

     Also, the 1950s remind us that fighting over politics is as American as apple pie. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public school violated the 14th Amendment. Thus began the long, contentious and sometimes violent march toward desegregation. The idea of feminism was being born, and the Beat generation foretold the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s.

     Meanwhile, in what might have been a precursor to Vietnam, America was pulled into the Korean war, with some people even advocating the use of atomic weapons, until Gen. MacArthur was fired and an uneasy stalemate was reached that continues to this day. The Cold War was gathering urgency, and Joseph McCarthy tore the nation apart with his accusations of communist activities in government and the arts. All this makes our current battles over health care, gun control, Afghanistan and the Middle East seem like just another, rather mild chapter in the ongoing American debate about policies and politics.
     And finally, in the 1950s, with people fleeing to the suburbs, it did not pay to invest in inner-city real estate, nor was it profitable to buy stock in railroads, steel or textiles. The "next big thing" at the time -- the investments that were to make money -- were in packaged goods companies that sold products to the parents of the Baby Boomers; in car companies that rolled out new models every year; in office product companies like Xerox and IBM.

     Similarly, today you don't want to invest in declining industries like automobiles, chemicals, media, or old-line department stores like Sears or J.C. Penny. You're better off focusing on the future, in the form of technology and the internet -- or perhaps betting on those same Baby Boomers by investing in finance, insurance and health care, or in inner city real estate as their hipster kids move back into the city.

     The French have a phrase for it, don't they? Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dressed for the Occasion

     Jerry Seinfeld has a comedy bit about how men wear the same clothes for most of their lives. Whatever they were wearing when they were in their 30s -- that's the style they wear for the rest of their lives.

     It was certainly true of my dad. He started his career in the late 1930s. He worked in an office. By the time I came along he was wearing his 1940s-style suit with wide lapels. He had a white shirt, oxford shoes and fedora hat.

     I remember he used to pay me 10 cents to shine his shoes. I would watch him shave in the morning, using a shaving brush and a mug of shaving soap. In the winter he wore a vest, complete with a pocket watch, with a thin chain draped across his stomach. And this was his style, right up until the day he retired in the mid-1980s.

     You can see the kind of clothes he wore if you watch a black-and-white movie from the 1940s. Or, maybe featured on Mad Men, which was channeling the 1950s, although I'm sure the Mad Men suits were cut with a little more style.

Standard fashion
     Then, after he retired to Florida in the mid-1980s, my dad adopted the leisure wear look that had been popular in the 1950s -- the Polo shirt, casual Polyester slacks and loud sports jacket. He never went so far as to wear the white shoes. Too flashy. But he did sometimes don a straw hat -- the kind Dick Van Dyke wore in Mary Poppins.

     My mother was marginally more up-to-date . . . but not by much. She never wore slacks, only a dress or skirt. And I remember she wore a hat in church. It was a big day (whenever that happened, sometime in the 1960s) when the ladies were no longer required to wear a hat in church. Horrors! But you'd never catch my mother in church with a bare head.

     I make fun of my parents, but in truth, I'm no different. As I confessed a few blog posts ago, I'm a man of the 1990s. I still wear my Dockers, my polo shirt -- my corporate casual dress shirt when I go out to a restaurant. For special occasions I still wear the navy blue blazer that I bought in the 1990s  (although B made me buy a new suit for her son's wedding last spring). And dress shoes for me? Penny loafers.

Fashion of the future
     At least I'm better than my friend Mike. He's recently retired, but when he was working he went to a lot of meetings, conferences, conventions and golf outings. His style of dress? Whatever they gave him for free at one of his meetings 10 or 20 years ago. Hats, shirts, jackets, umbrellas. He's a walking advertisement for corporate and government meetings from the last decade.

     But what has me worried is my son. He wears a black cap emblazoned with the word "Devil" across the front. He sports a hipster's short beard. He invariably dresses in skinny jeans and a black t-shirt with the name of a rock band on it --  "Bad Breeding," "Fight Like Apes," "Warm Brew," "Rat Fist," "Night Riots."

     Now, to be fair, my son is not quite 30 yet, and he is in the music business. Still, is he going to be wearing a "No Brain" or "Karma Killers" t-shirt 40 years from now when he goes in for his Medicare checkup?


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Who Pays More for Medicare?

     Medicare premiums are going up 52 percent next year. But only for 3 out of 10 people. The other 7 beneficiaries have no increase at all.

     Before you panic, here's the background. The experts have told us that we should wait as long as we can before signing up to take our Social Security benefits, even to age 70 if we can last that long.

     The idea is that the longer you wait, the bigger your monthly payment. You can start Social Security as early as age 62, but you take about a 25 percent pay cut compared to what you'd get at full retirement age, which for most of us is 66. Or you can hold off past your regular retirement age and collect a bonus. Every year you wait, up until age 70, you get almost 8 percent more in your check.

     Of course, you give up the income in the meantime; but still, an 8 percent raise every year. Where else can you get that?

     And then Social Security pulls a fast one on you.

     First of all, the government says there will be no increase in Social Security benefits next year. Benefits are tied to inflation; and the government claims there has been no inflation for 2015, so the increase for 2016 is zero.

     But medical costs have gone up, and Medicare needs more money. So, as reported in USA Today, as well as a follow-up article, here's what happens next year. Everybody who's already receiving Social Security benefits -- who has Medicare payments deducted directly from Social Security -- will be "held harmless" from an increase, because Social Security is not going up.

     But everyone else on Medicare will face premiums that will be raised high enough to make up the difference. Those are the people who will pay the 52 percent increase. That includes people on Medicare who have not yet signed up for Social Security, as well as anyone who first enrolls in Medicare next year. Altogether, about 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will pay the higher amount.

     So for example, if you're on Medicare and make less than $85,000 a year as an individual or $170,000 as a couple, you paid $104.90 this year for Part B of Medicare. For 2016 you will also pay $104.90.

     But if you've taken the so-called expert advice to delay Social Security, then your Medicare premium will jump from $104.90 to $159.30 -- for the 52 percent increase.

     There are a few ways to get around the increase, as outlined in this Kiplinger report. One way is to quick, sign up for Social Security before the end of October. But before you do, make sure you know what you're giving up, which is all those future 8 percent annual increases.

     So of course I'm one of the 30 percent. Am a sucker for not signing up for Social Security sooner? Well, here's what I'm trying to remember. The reason for the increase is because there's a mandate that premiums cover 25 percent of the actual cost of Medicare. Think about it. Those of us on Medicare only pay a quarter of the actual cost of our care.

     Even at $159 a month, we're still only paying a little more than a quarter of the cost of what the medical insurance should really be. If you'll still be paying $104.90, you're getting an even better bargain, paying less than 25 percent of the actual cost.

     So I can't complain (even though it sounds like I am). But as mystery writer Michael Connelly says, "Can't complain, because nobody listens."

     Here's a chart of 2016 premiums, courtesy of Medicare.gov, Boston College and USA Today:

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Walk in October

     It's early fall here in the Northeast when, as the poem by Helen Hunt Jackson begins:

     The golden rod is yellow
     The corn is turning brown
     The trees in apple orchards
     With fruit are bending down.

     Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 - 1885) was born in Amherst, Mass. She wrote poetry and several novels, and became an activist for Native Americans. Her most famous work was Ramona, a melodrama about an orphan who was half white, half Indian, and her full-blooded husband and their struggles to develop land of their own in California.

     I do not live on a farm, and have no apple trees. But for some reason Jackson's poem always comes to mind when the leaves start to turn, as they were just beginning to do yesterday as I took a walk down the road . . .

     They say the colors aren't going to be so great this year because of all the dry weather, but it looks like they're starting to come out.

     Here's where the path opened onto a field.

      I think this is poison ivy.

      Around the bend was a pond.

      And then, I don't know. A haunted house?

     When I got home I wondered if I should pick the last of my tomatoes,

      and saw that B had started to prepare for the fall holidays.

     Look at this . . . she found apples somewhere and baked a pie!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Are You Happy Where You Are?

     I've written a few posts on happiness, the most recent one this past August called  How to Be (Truly) Happy. But the search for happiness comes in many forms, both at home and abroad, both inside ourselves and out in the world. 

     Anyone who's followed Laura Lee's blog knows that she recently moved into her new dream house in the Colorado foothills, Now she's making new friends, seeing new places, and enjoying her new town of La Veta. She is also enjoying some wonderful vistas, so if you want to see some fantastic scenery, take a look over at October in Southern Colorado. And if you have a little extra time, wander down to see the golden aspens, the golden clouds, and the gold up on Cripple Creek.

Colorado Rocky Mountain High
     By contrast. Meryl Baer likes the ocean, not the mountains. A few years ago she and her husband retired from Pennsylvania to the Jersey Shore. But waiting and worrying about another major storm approaching from the south has forced her to re-evaluate living on the edge of the Atlantic.

     So watching the waves crash up onto the beach, she wonders: Does she stay? Does she relocate? Where in the world would she go? Perhaps you want to blow over to her site and give her some advice at Shorely the Best.

      Meanwhile, our group's newcomer, Linda Myers, takes a different approach by going in search of happiness in strange and foreign places. Many of you know her blog Thoughts from a Bag Lady In Waiting, and probably are aware that she likes to travel. She recently returned from a trip to Eastern Europe and wrote a post called Reflections on Our Trip, thinking about what she learned from her journey, both tangible and intangible.

      Reflecting on her travels helps her clarify what's important to her -- learning the history of a place, experiencing the sublime feelings of being close to the water, and then the more practical things like if you walk five to seven miles a day you can eat gelato whenever you want and still fit into your clothes, and if you want to be happy on the road, be kind to your feet, especially if you're walking on cobblestones.

     And keeping on that more practical note, none of us would be happy if our identity was stolen. On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, writes about the new credit cards with chips, which are safer because information is stored in a chip and you need to enter a PIN to complete the transaction. For the full story slide your mouse or keypad over to Do You Have a Credit Card with a Chip?

     You might also want to check out her post on how T-Mobile customer accounts have been hacked through their credit reporting agency. All the more reason to be careful, whenever you try to communicate over the cables or the airwaves.

     Finally, in 10 Signs of Sustainable Happiness Kathy Gottberg shows how we all want to be happy internally, by practicing gratitude, staying healthy, feeling competent, being loved. But she goes on to point out, “In order to have an experience of real happiness and well-being that is enduring and sustainable, it must extend out to other people and the world around you."

     In other words, it's not enough to achieve happiness for ourselves alone. Perhaps it's not even possible, for true happiness involves other people and the meaning they bring to our lives.

      In another post called Carl Jung and the Art of Aging Well, Gottberg tells us what the great psychologist discovered about happiness and the aging process. “A human being would certainly not grow to be 70 or 80 years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs,” wrote Jung. “The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.”

     So for Jung, as for all of us, the aging process is not merely one of inescapable decline of body, mind and relevancy. It is, instead, a time of progressive refinement of what is essential in life. And in that, we can all find true happiness.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Minor (But Important) Point

     In a post last week I mentioned that I agreed with a lot of Hillary Clinton's policies and ideas. Or at least some of them. She seems the most sensible of all the candidates I've seen ... so far.

     So she's supposed to be a health-care expert. But she has flubbed on this one.

     Here's the point:  Currently, if you get your health insurance from your employer, the income you use to pay for health insurance is tax free. But if you pay for health insurance on your own -- including most people paying for Medicare -- you first have to pay tax on the money, and then use what's left over to pay for your health insurance premiums.

     That's fundamentally unfair, don't you think? The government has set up a two class system -- those who get health insurance tax free; and those who don't.

     Now instead of fixing that discrepancy, Clinton wants to add to the unfairness -- or, if you will, make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

     She made news the other day by reiterating her proposal to repeal the section of the Affordable Care Act that involves the so-called "Cadillac tax" on health insurance.

     The tax, set to take effect in 2018, would be a tax on so-called Cadillac health insurance plans, ones that exceed certain thresholds, which are proposed at $10,200 for an individual and $27,500 for a family.

      In other words, the ACA is scheduled to cap the amount of tax-free income employees can use for health insurance. Clinton wants to do away with the cap, allowing employees to get a tax break not just on the first $27,500 they spend on health insurance, but any amounts even above that, with no limit.

     Meanwhile, those of us who do not get health insurance from the workplace, we get no break at all. We pay tax on every single dollar we use for health insurance. Our cap is not $27,500. It's not $10,200. It is $0.

     If Clinton wants to get rid of the "Cadillac tax," and the ACA can afford it, then go right ahead. But first we should fix the unfairness already embedded in the system. She should call for allowing those who buy their own insurance to take a tax deduction -- at least up to $10,200 a year for an individual and $27,500 for a family. In other words, let's repeal the two-class system of health insurance, before we give extra tax breaks to those who are already favored with a tax exemption.

     Yes, it's a minor tax point. But it's important, because we're all supposed to be treated equally; everyone's supposed to be the same in the eyes of the law.