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

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Simple Question

     I have just one simple question. Maybe you think it's silly. But the question intrigues me ... and also stumps me. So I hope I get a few thoughtful or creative answers from some wise and venerable readers.

     The question is borrowed from Paul Auster's story "City of Glass," a mystery of sorts involving writer Daniel Quinn, aka William Wilson, aka Paul Auster, who tracks down a father who had imprisoned his son for years in a dark room, and who has now been released from prison. The father is a former professor who is likely insane and might presumably pose a risk to the son.

     The issue is posed by the father, who also holds himself out to be something of a philosopher, who thinks he has the answer to solve the problems of the world.

     We have the word umbrella, he poses. The word is a noun. It has a meaning that refers to something that's typically made out of a stick, with some collapsible metal spokes, covered with a waterproof cloth. We all know what an umbrella is. It has a function. It keeps us dry in the rain.

     Now, suppose the cloth is ripped off. We are left with just the stick and the spokes. The device doesn't work anymore. So the question is:  Is this thing still an umbrella? Or is it now something else?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

How Safe Are We?

     In the aftermath of police shootings of African Americans in several cities around the country, as well as terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, some people are beginning to question just how safe we are these days.

     I don't know about you, but I feel safer than ever. I remember living in New York City as a young man in the 1970s. My wife was mugged in the vestibule of our brownstone. I also recall a time when I was walking down West 88th Street, approaching three young guys hanging out by a streetlamp. It was dark, about 7 p.m. As I walked past I noticed one of them was holding a handgun down by his side. It was too late for me to turn around, so I just kept going, not making eye contact, trying to remain calm. But by blood pressure shot up by about a hundred points.

     Then there was another time I ran down the steps into the subway. It was in the morning; I was late for work. I was stopped cold when I saw three cops surrounding a black man who was lying on the platform. One of the cops had his knee in his back. Another held a gun to the guy's head.

     I don't live in New York City anymore. I haven't for years. But I do go visit occasionally, and now the people I see on the street are young, well-dressed, and innocently if eagerly going about their business. The Lower East Side used to be a slum. Now it's upper middle class. Brooklyn is obviously and pleasantly multicultural, and feels as safe as my neighborhood in the outer suburbs.

     The fact is, violent crimes in New York City rose throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s. They peaked at 212,000 violent crimes in 1990. They've been going down ever since. Last year the official report counted 75,000 violent crimes in New York.

     It's not just New York City. Nationally, violent crimes have followed a similar arc. They peaked in 1992 at almost 2 million. But by 2014 violent crimes in the U. S. had fallen to 1.2 million, even though there are plenty more people around today than there were in 1992.

     You're also safer in your car. The motor vehicle death rate peaked in 1969 at a little over 26 per hundred thousand population. Then seatbelts came in, and airbags, and stricter DUI enforcement. Today the motor vehicle death rate has been cut by more than half, to just over 10 per hundred thousand population.

     Then there's smoking and many other health hazards. The rates of lung cancer have leveled off and started to go down, because so many people have given up smoking. Now, if only we could do something about the rising obesity problem.

     Ultimately, the bottom line of life expectancy proves my point. And it's something to be thankful for, even if we don't always appreciate it.

     If you were a 60-year-old male in 1970, you could expect to live another 16 years. But if you're a 60-year-old man today, you can expect to be around for 21.5 more years. That's an extra 5.5 years. Females haven't gained quite as much, but they started out with better numbers. The life expectancy of a 60-year-old woman was 21 years. Now it's 24.5 years -- so women are still outpacing men by three years.

     And as far as terrorism goes, figures from CNN show that you are 400 times more likely to die from a fall than from a terrorist. So, of course, if you see something, you should say something. But be even more vigilant at home when you're negotiating the stairs or going to the bathroom.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Who Really Benefits from Charity?

     America is one of the most generous nations in the world. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) about 60 percent of Americans regularly engage in some kind of charitable activity, compared to 40 percent in other developed countries.

     A study from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that Americans donated some $358 billion last year, and most of it came not from corporations but from individuals and families. In addition, Americans spent 8 billion hours volunteering for charitable causes, ranging from church activities to political organizations to helping out neighbors and strangers.

     While Americans of all races and ages contribute their money and time, retirees are the ones who reach out the most. Some two thirds of retirees say that retirement is the best time to give back. Why? Because retirees have the extra time, and many also have the extra money. On average retirees are sitting on four times the net worth of their children in their 30s and 40s who are working and raising families, and so the result is that retirees account for some 40 percent of charitable giving.

     Last week the New York Times reported on the Purpose Prize, for Americans age 60 and over, created ten years ago by Encore.org, a nonprofit group focused on those "in midlife and beyond." The Purpose Prize is given to older people who do charitable work to improve their communities.

     This year six prizes, ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, were awarded, along with 41 "honorable mentions." One prize went to Jamal Joseph, 62, an ex-con who co-founded the Impact Repertory Theater in New York City.

     Joseph provides a safe place where young people can talk and write about how their lives are affected by bullying, gangs, violence and drugs. The participants learn ways to convert their experiences into dance, plays, poems and music. But the program is no comfortable liberal-arts type seminar. Participants first attend a three-month boot camp where they learn leadership skills, conflict resolution and time management. Then they do community service, participate in exercise programs, pledge to get good grades in school and keep daily journals.

     Another prize went to Belle Mickelson, 67, a science teacher turned Episcopal priest who lives in Cordova, Alaska. Her program, Dancing with the Spirit, aims to help rural children and connect them with their elders. She travels to remote villages in Alaska, and through music and art, helps teens develop confidence and cope with the adolescent depression that is often masked by alcohol and drug abuse.

     The Merrill Lynch/Age Wave survey also found one other benefit to charitable activities. They offer significant payback to the donors.

     Some 70 percent of retirees said contributing time and money makes them feel as though they are making a difference in other people's lives, which in turn makes them feel like they have a greater purpose in their own lives. Those surveyed also signaled that being generous provides a significant source of happiness -- more so, for example, than spending money on themselves.

     Retirees who are active in charities also have a stronger sense of purpose and higher self-esteem. They have lower rates of depression as well as lower blood pressure and lower mortality rates. So . . . it seems that those who lend the hand get just as much support as those who accept the hand.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's the 1940s Again

     I've mentioned before that B and I take ballroom dancing lessons. We go to an adult education class at a local middle school one evening a week during the school session. We also occasionally go to a dance held at an American Legion hall, or at a dance school, or very occasionally at a bar/restaurant that features a live band.

     Last weekend we went to a 1940s dance, sponsored every year by an army surplus store and held at a recreation center a few towns to the north of us.

     This is the third year we've gone to this dance. Each year commemorates a 70th anniversary. So last year the theme looked back to D-Day. This year the focus was on 1945 and the end of the war.


     After a buffet-style dinner the dance started out with the band playing The Star Spangled Banner. Then there was a moment of silence to honor those who served and to commemorate those who never came back. It seemed especially poignant this year because of the events in Paris just a few days ago. It makes you wonder, what are we dealing with now?

     Many of the people came to the dance in period costume -- which included a lot of military-type gear, since the dance was sponsored by an army-navy store. There were also some actual vets who arrived in real uniform.

     The band played hits from the 1940s, and everyone began to dance. As you might imagine, this event appeals mostly to an older crowd. As far as I could tell, there was no one at the dance who'd served in World War II -- they would, after all, be in their 90s. But one of the men in our party was born on V J Day, August 15, 1945.

     Most of us are rank amateurs; but a few really knew how to cut the rug.

      But the majority of people just came to have a good time, including the fellow in the kilt.

     I remember, when I was younger, I was almost always the last to leave a party. But B and I left early, because now we always leave early. Come 10 p.m., and it's our bedtime!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Think About It

     A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

     Do you have an answer? Most people come up with ten cents. It seems obvious, doesn't it? You don't have to do a lot of math.

     This problem is offered by Philip Tetlock in his book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. He offers this simple problem to illustrate one of his central tenets, that we all have two kinds of thinking. System 1 is automatic -- rapid-fire processes that we use all day long to read a book, walk down the street, decide to duck into a coffee shop. System 2 is the realm of conscious thought, when we stop and focus and try to figure something out.

     System 1 always comes first. It is fast and ready with an answer. System 2 is the critic. It looks at the evidence, breaks things down, analyzes what's really going on.

     So now that you know about System 2, is the answer ten cents correct? Ten cents feels right. But it is wrong.

     Here's another problem that Tetlock poses. How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

     Does the problem seem ridiculous? How would anyone know? Well, start using System 2. Here's a hint: There are about 2.7 million people living in Chicago.

     So how many pianos do you think are in Chicago? A piano is pretty expensive; and a piano wouldn't fit in most city apartments. Maybe one out of a hundred people? But then you have to add in pianos at schools and bars and concert halls. So, maybe two pianos per hundred people? That would give us 54,000 pianos in Chicago.

     How often are pianos tuned? Probably once a year on average. How many pianos can a piano tuner tune in a day? Maybe three or four? We don't know. That's a guess. The average person works about 225 days a year. So a piano tuner can tune somewhere between 675 and 900 pianos a year -- for an average of, let's say 800 pianos. If you have 54,000 tunings, and each tuner does 800, you simply divide 54,000 by 800, and you get 67 piano tuners.

     So how many piano tuners are actually in Chicago? About 70. (The exact number is elusive because of the inaccuracies of listings). So . . . not a bad guess.

     What's the point of all this? We make forecasts, based on incomplete information, pretty much all the time. When should we start our Social Security benefits? To answer that, we have to assess our current situation, estimate what our expenses are going to be, figure out the tax consequences, forecast how long we're going to live.

     If you're going to invest some of your IRA in a mutual fund, you need to forecast what will happen to the American economy over the next several years. If you're faced with a decision about going to college, or taking a new job, or moving to a new neighborhood, how do you decide if it's a good move without considering what the effects are going to be, without forecasting the future?

     Or if a politician is trying to sell you a program, whether it's constructing a wall or offering free college tuition, you need to make a judgement about whether it's credible or not. You can't do that with any accuracy by just making a snap judgment based on System 1. You have to engage System 2. Keep an open mind, consider the evidence, look at the arguments against the question at hand, and be ready to change your mind if your System 1 answer does not hold up to scrutiny. Changing your mind is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of intelligence.

     Or as Tetlock puts it, if you want to live in the real world, your beliefs are "hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be protected."

     Finally, the answer? Five cents. Right?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Do Something Different

     For those who were asking . . . my book, You Only Retire Once, is now available on amazon for kindle or other electronic device. Hope you find it informative and entertaining!

     But I'm here to tell you about something else. B and I spent this past weekend in Pennsylvania visiting her family. We decided to stop off and spend a day in Philadelphia on the way home. We toured through a couple of neighborhoods, including Fishtown where we had lunch at a coffee emporium called La Colombe.

     It turns out La Colombe is a small chain -- there are other restaurants in New York, Washington and Chicago -- but this one is housed in an old factory building, with ceilings about 30 feet high. Most of the diners were 20-something hipsters -- the only ones over 30, besides us, were a few women with long, gray tangled hair wearing flowing cotton dresses, and guys in jeans sporting bald spots and gray ponytails.

     We stayed at a Doubletree, right downtown, and were headed out to our usual sedate, mid-priced dinner when we saw, across the street at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, there was a show called So You Think You Can Dance.

     "It's a TV show, right?" I said to B.

     "Yeah, kind of like American Idol, except it's dancing," she offered.

     So you know we'd never seen this show; didn't know anything about it. The show is not to be confused with Dancing with the Stars, which we have seen a few times.

     Now, B and I do go dancing sometimes. We take ballroom lessons through adult education at our middle school. Our class consists of six gray-haired couples. About once a month we go to a dance at the American Legion. It's all very mild and proper.

     Anyway, we're standing on Broad Street in Philadelphia and I looked at B, and she looked at me, and then, as if by mutual understanding, we acted on a whim and stepped inside, just to see if there were any tickets available. And sure enough, we soon found ourselves in Row E, waiting for the action to begin, hoping that we didn't do something stupid and waste our money.

     This was completely uncharacteristic for us. We go to restaurants, movies and events where the other people, as we joke, are "in our demographic." But the people here were not over 60, like us. Most were under 40, many of them under 20.

     Now maybe some of you have followed So You Think You Can Dance on TV. The show just finished its 12th season. But we had no idea what to expect. Still, we couldn't help getting a little excited, because the Academy of Music holds 2,500 people, and it was full of enthusiastic, sometimes screaming fans. The music started and it was LOUD. But we got used to it, and we were charmed by the young men and women who came leaping and jumping and flying across the stage.

     We both liked Hailee Payne, a bleached-blonde Miley Cyrus look-alike who could do amazing things with her body. I liked Ja Ja, who looked like a cute girl-next-door type; but actually her background is the street, not the stage -- hip hop, not ballet.

     This is the live show that is touring the country, after the TV show finished up its contest in September. A young woman named Gaby Diaz was the winner. She did an impressive solo tap dance on the Philadelphia stage, along with all the other acrobatic routines.

     But it was a young man named Virgil Gadson who stole the show. He could dance with the best of them; he had a winning smile and his personality jumped off the stage. Virgil was the one who consistently got the most audience reaction. I was going to say applause. But applause was the least of it -- there was cheering, whistling, laughing, screaming.

     It was only after the show, as we all stood up to leave, that a man in the row behind us turned to the middle-age couple next to him and asked if they knew Virgil. Apparently their cheering had given them away. The woman replied that, yes, they were his parents. You must be so proud of him, I ventured. And they nodded, their broad grins widening even more.

     So we had a memorable time in Philadelphia, just because we took a chance and decided to do something we don't usually do, something beyond our comfort zone.

     This is not necessarily to recommend you run off to see So You Think You Can Dance. Just to go out and do something different for a change. Go ahead, take a little chance. You might like it.

     Here are Virgil and Ja Ja.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Turning a New Page

     I have just published a book, You Only Retire Once, now available in paperback from amazon, and soon (I hope) also as an electronic version.

     The book is a collection of the "best and brightest" posts from Sightings Over Sixty, along with my most popular columns from U. S. News Retirement -- adapted, updated and organized into ten categories all focused specifically on retirement.

     What are some of the myths about retirement and aging? What do retiring baby boomers want, and what do they worry about? Do you have issues with your grown-up children? How do you get the most out of Social Security, and what are the pros and cons of long-term health insurance? How to lose weight. How to get a good night sleep. How to prevent Alzheimer's.

     We bloggers are familiar with a lot of these issues -- and I hope you'll be interested in exploring them further. And here's an idea:  You Only Retire Once could make the perfect Christmas gift for a spouse, relative or friend. It's just the right size, and just the right price at $11.50.

     But enough about me. Other bloggers have a few things going on this week as well. For example, Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting recently got to check off one item on her bucket list, which was spending several days touring Florence and Venice with three girlfriends. She was enthralled with the plumbing, so she snapped pictures of various toilets and flushing mechanisms now featured in Flushing Around Florence. Then she dove into the magical city of Venice, and posted highlights of her stay on Visiting Venice Italy.

     Linda Myers reports that she is confined to living indoors because of the November arrival of darkness and rain in the Pacific Northwest. In this week's post, called A Matter of Synchronicity, she relates a story about herself, her friends, and her mission with the homeless, all of which made her consider her spirituality, health, community, and other personal values.

     Meanwhile, Laura Lee Carter writes about the importance of Midlife Change -- which is one of the issues that eventually led her to Experience Living in a Passive Solar Home.

     And . . . get this report from Rita R. Robinson on the Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide: Paper Coupons Still Preferred, Even by Millennials. Of those surveyed, some 63 percent said they use coupons from newspapers, mailings and other paper products -- and even 18 - 24 year olds use paper coupons twice as often as any other method. Who would have thunk?!?

     Finally, in case you don't appreciate just how important your attitude is when it comes to retirement and aging, check out Kathy Gottberg and her post 9 Reasons Why What You Think About Aging Matters. One of those reasons:  "Believing that aging offers opportunities for continued growth, rather than a decline or social loss, results in better subjective health, higher income, less loneliness, and greater hope."

     Kathy also offers some helpful actions we can take to feel better about ourselves as we age which, according to research, could add another 7.5 years to our lives.

     And let's face it, if you're going to be around that long, you may need a guide to help you live life to the fullest, which brings me back to . . . well, remember, You Only Retire Once.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Remember Her?

     She made her true mark in the world when she took over the reins of a popular literary magazine. That was 50 years ago, in 1965. But by then she had already written a bestselling book that became a movie starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis.

     She was born in Arkansas in 1922. Her father headed the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission, and later won election to the Arkansas state legislature. He died in an elevator accident in 1932, and not too long after that his family -- his wife and two daughters -- moved to Los Angeles.

     After she graduated from high school, the family moved back east to Georgia, but she didn't last long in the conservative, slow-paced South. She turned around and headed back west, spending one college semester in Texas, then transferring to Woodbury Business College in Burbank, Calif.

     She graduated in 1941 and landed a job at the William Morris Talent Agency in Los Angeles. She then worked for the Music Corporation of America (MCA), then Jaffe Talent Agency. From there she got a job as a secretary at an ad agency. Her bosses soon recognized her writing talents and promoted her to copywriter. (Shades of Peggy Olsen on Mad Men?). She married film producer David Brown, and using her talents and her contacts, worked her way up to become a top copywriter in the advertising business.

     Still, for her, that was not enough. She had an idea, and in 1962 when she was 40 years old, she published a book urging young women to become financially independent and sexually liberated. She raised many eyebrows at the time by telling women it was okay to have sex before marriage, or even without marriage.

     The book, Sex and the Single Girl, sold 2 million copies within the first few weeks. It quickly mounted all the bestseller lists and stayed there for over  a year. The book offered advice on fashion, fitness, entertaining, cosmetics ... and how to have an affair. She also detailed her "Twelve rules for squirming, worming, inching, and pinching your way to the top."

     Just as fame and fortune from the book began to crest, she took the job as editor-in-chief of an oldline literary magazine that was struggling and looking for a new direction. And the magazine sure did get a new lease on life when Helen Gurley Brown took over and recast it as a lively and sexually explicit guide for modern young women.

     Maybe I don't have to tell you any more about the magazine, maybe you know more than I do. How many of you will admit to reading Cosmo as a young woman? But the point is, Brown revamped the monthly magazine along the lines of her bestselling book. She featured articles that spoke frankly about sex and relationships, and she developed an image for the magazine and her readers that she called the Cosmo Girl -- a young woman who was "self-made, sexual and supremely ambitious," as described by New York Times.

     Many people credited Brown with helping women to reconsider their role in society, and empowering women to take control of their lives. But Brown's views were controversial -- not just with uptight conservatives, but with some feminists as well. They felt her approach went no further than an adolescent sexual fantasy, that it still left young women defining themselves as sexual objects in a male-dominated world.

     In 1997, at age 75, Brown was ousted as editor of Cosmo, and "kicked upstairs" to a job at the parent company; although she remained editor of the interantional editions of the magazine.

     Helen Gurley Brown died in 2012, but not before winning several media awards, founding the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University, and being selected as one of the most powerful women in the world.

     Where she is now, nobody knows. For as Brown once quipped, "Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

News on Medicare and Social Security

     Last week's agreement on the federal budget brought two new developments for retirees -- one about Medicare, the other on Social Security.

     According to a report in the Washington Post, the premium increases for some Medicare customers will not be as punishing as previously reported (see my Oct. 13 post Who Pays More for Medicare).

     Under the first proposed plan, most people who do not have their Medicare premium deducted from their Social Security benefit would have seen a 52 percent increase in their premium for Medicare Part B, from $104.90 to $159.30. (The exception: individuals making over $85,000 a year, or couples making over $170,000 a year, who pay more.) Medicare recipients who do have their premiums deducted from their Social Security payment were "held harmless" -- in other words, they were protected from any increase at all.

     The reason for the disparity: a federal rule says that Medicare rates in a given year cannot increase more than Social Security checks. Since Social Security benefits are not going up next year (because inflation is judged to be zero) Medicare charges cannot go up. That meant people who are on Medicare, but who do not receive Social Security, had to pick up the difference. That would have punished approximately 16 million people, or 30 percent of Medicare recipients, with the 52-percent increase..

     The new agreement still holds harmless anyone who has Medicare deducted from their Social Security. But it limits the increase for the rest to some 17 percent, raising their premium from $104.90 to about $123 per month. The extra money to cover the difference will come from "a loan from the U.S. Treasury to the Medicare trust fund." The loan will presumably be paid back over five years with a $3 per month "surcharge" embedded in the new premiums.

     Please don't ask me to explain any further details, because I do not have the wherewithal to dig deep into the weeds of Medicare financing. Do any of us? But personally, as one of the 16 million, I do appreciate the financial shenanigans that will save me $30-some per month next year.

     And speaking of shenanigans, the New York Times reported yesterday that the federal budget deal also closes two "loopholes" in filing for Social Security. One is called the "file and suspend" strategy. This maneuver allowed two-income married couples to boost their benefits. One spouse would file for benefits, then immediately suspend them, allowing them to collect while the spouse's benefits continued to grow at the Social Security rate of about 8 percent a year.

     The other loophole was known as "restricted application." This allowed married people who reach full retirement age (66 for most of us) to collect a spousal benefit while their own benefits continued to increase -- again, at the 8 percent rate.

     Starting in 2016 filers will no longer be able to utilize these strategies. But don't worry. If you took advantage of either of these methods in the past you will be grandfathered in. Apparently, there aren't that many -- something less than 1 percent of Social Security recipients used one of these strategies to boost their benefits. But, presumably, it will save the Social Security system billions of dollars in future obligations. And, assuming the file-and-suspend people were not the neediest among us, that's probably not a bad thing.