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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

We're Drowning in Boxes!

     As I've mentioned several times, B and I are in the process of downsizing. It must be a hot real-estate market out there because we, literally, sold our old house the first day it went up for sale. The moment it was listed a woman drove by the house with her dad, stopped in front of the yard, walked up the driveway. Two days later, at the broker open house, the woman and her husband insisted on coming along with their real-estate agent. And that very night they made a full-price offer.

The living room
     We were lucky. (Or, as my cynical friend remarked when I told him what happened, we underpriced the house.)

Our bedroom

     All this was fine. The problem? Nobody told us that when we sold the house, we would actually have to pack up everything we own . . . and move out!

More bedroom

     So we have made numerous trips to Goodwill to drop off unwanted possessions, many runs to the recycling center to offload old files, papers and books. We've gone to Best Buy to return old phones, computers and other electronic goods. We have browbeat our kids to come and clean out their stuff from the basement. B's older son recently bought a house in New Jersey, and so he arrived with a U-haul and loaded up furniture and garden equipment, and cleaned out our tool room.

Santa surveys the basement

     Meanwhile, we scoured all the liquor stores for used boxes, and we have purchased carloads of new boxes from Lowe's, Home Depot, U-haul and our local storage place. (Don't go to the storage place for boxes; they cost three times as much as Home Depot, at 77 cents for a small box and $1.29 for a medium, which doesn't matter if you're buying a couple of boxes, but we have purchased thousands of boxes, tens of thousands of boxes!) "Let's save a few trees," I've suggested to B. But still, she needs more boxes.

Boxes. Boxes. We're drowning in boxes!

     So from these photos you can get an idea of what our house looks like at the moment. But wait! We have a new place. Just temporarily. We're going into a one-bedroom condo. It's small, but we're just going to live there for a year while we travel and "shop around" for our retirement destination. So tune in next time to see what the new place looks like.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A 100th Birthday Party

     Over the weekend we went to a birthday party for B's mother. She turned 100 years old earlier this month.

     Yes, she received a birthday card from President Obama, as well as her local Congressman and about a hundred other friends and relatives. She has a big family (she had seven children), and many of them came to Pennsylvania to celebrate her birthday -- people from as far away as Texas, Colorado, Washington, Massachusetts.

     The party was at her assisted-living facility, which was kind enough to lend us the activity room for the afternoon.

     After the party, many of the clan gathered at a campsite for s'mores and sparklers.

     On Sunday there was a picnic, where the youngest member of the family introduced her kitten to the centenarian.

     Sunday afternoon brought a trip to the old homestead -- a farmhouse that had been in the family from sometime in the 1800s until the children -- B's generation -- had to sell it in 1986.

     They passed it on to a family that were actually distant relatives. The now-elderly couple still lives there. On Sunday B's mother, age 100, saw the "new" owner, age 90, for the first time in a number of years.

     We took a tour of the house, which, honestly, looked more its age from the inside than the outside. But, I was told, there were two new bathrooms. When the house was in the family -- and B and her brothers and sisters and cousins used to go there in the summer -- there was just an outhouse attached to the back of the building. A lot of things about the house seemed different since she was a girl, reflected B, including the kitchen which seems much smaller than she remembered.

     The house is now registered as an official historic site.

     And here's the view from the front porch, down the road toward the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the little village of Morgantown, Pa.

     Would that we all had such great memories of childhood ... and the genes for living such a long and fruitful life.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Let's Pick a President

     A student I'm tutoring at the community college had to write a paper on a historical figure who had great power and influence. Most people would pick Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln or John Kennedy. He picked Adolf Hitler.

     The student isn't a racist or a skinhead. He is actually Hispanic, and he's just trying to do something different. And whatever else you can say about Adolf Hitler, he did have a lot of influence, and does to this day. There are still Nazis prowling around Europe and the U. S. And about the worst you can say about someone is that they are like Hitler.

     Which brings me to Donald Trump. No, I do not think he's like Hitler. But he is having a lot of influence on American presidential politics. He has crystallized the changes in the way we elect a president in this country -- and turned it into a reality show.

     And maybe that's not a bad thing. Donald Trump is ushering in a new age of electioneering. In place of cumbersome and sometimes too-close-to-call primaries and general elections that suffer from negative ads, overexposure of the candidates and low voter turnout, we are creating a reality TV show to decide who will be our next leader.

     The format will follow in the footsteps of "Survivor," "Dancing with the Stars" or Trump's own "The Apprentice." Candidates for president -- or any other major office, for that matter -- will take part in a series of contests. Each performance will be critiqued by three judges --perhaps former presidents, or else celebrity chefs -- who would offer their opinions along with some entertaining banter. Then the audience will text in their votes. And to those who wonder if the result will be fair, I say this: Verizon or AT&T never had a problem with a hanging chad.

     The electoral process will take place over one television season of eight to ten weeks. And because there's no doubt that a political campaign is at least in part a beauty contest, the first episode would focus on the candidates' physical attributes, as well as their poise, self-confidence and ability to connect non-verbally with the audience -- I was going to say "electorate" but surely we are more of an "audience" than an "electorate." And In this category, I'd say advantage Trump.

     The runway competition would be followed by a fast-paced makeup challenge -- elected officials do have to look good when they appear on TV -- which in turn would lead to a dance contest. What better way to demonstrate grace under pressure? Again, advantage Trump.

     Here are other events (perhaps you might suggest a few other relevant episodes?)

     A joke-telling contest. Can the candidate offer a joke suggestive enough to be funny, but without the racial, gender or cultural slurs that so often land candidates in hot water? Advantage Sanders ... hey, he's still in the race!

     A finger-pointing event. This is a useful skill when confronted by hostile reporters. The candidate must point a finger with authority, but not come on so strong that he or she elicits sympathy for the person at the other end of the finger. Advantage Clinton.

     A trivia game. To test candidates on their knowledge of current events. Where is Darfur? How do you pronounce Ranil Wickremesinghe (Prime Minister of Sri Lanka) or Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedodw (President of Turkmenistan). Advantage Clinton.

     Deal or No Deal. How else to choose a running mate? Jury's still out.

     This new method of choosing our leaders will offer huge benefits. So huge you will be amazed. It will shorten the political season from the current marathon to one crisp, well-crafted  season. Instead of deadening the public interest with an endless series of boring reports and debates, it would focus America's attention on the contest and heighten our interest in the outcome. Voter turnout will increase.

     Instead of draining the public purse on expensive campaigns -- with all the attendant corruption and conflicts of interest -- the new format would instantly solve the campaign finance issue. The cost to the candidates will be minimal, yet profits will skyrocket at the beleaguered old-media outlets as they reap in reality TV ad dollars.

     The new format will also elevate the level of public discourse. No more negative campaign ads. No more bickering over irrelevant issues, unbelievable denials and insincere apologies. The indecipherable electoral college scheme? Gone the way of all other anachronisms.

     I really can't think of a serious objection to this idea. Hold televised debates instead? Hah! We've tried this, and the news anchors get more attention than the candidates. Ask news commentators to actually discuss the issues rather than the latest scandal or the newest poll? Please, get serious. And forget trying to raise the level of discourse by educating the American public -- you might as well ask people to drive compact cars at 55 m.p.h. in order to save the environment.

     Finally, may I just note that I have nothing to gain by offering this plan. I have no connection to any political party, other than being a typically long-ignored registered voter. I have no interest in any TV network or current reality show. In fact, last year, when our last kid left the house, we unplugged our big-screen TV and brought it down to the basement where it now serves the more useful purpose of hiding the entrance to our newly constructed bomb shelter.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Truth or Consequences for Real Estate

     Robert Shiller, the real-estate guru from Yale University, and the man behind the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, wrote a piece for the NY Times last weekend, reassuring readers that they shouldn't worry too much about rising home prices. He says in The Overinflated Fear of Being Priced Out of Housing that rising prices have set off fears that real estate will become ever more expensive, making it impossible for people to buy a home.

     Presumably he's talking to Millennials and other first-time home buyers. For those of us who already own a home, rising prices are a good thing. Or, at least they are if you don't have to turn around and buy another one.

What we want
     I remember buying our first house, for $79,000. Half a dozen years later, we sold it for $179,000. But did we really make $100,000? Our old place wasn't a better house just because it was six years later. It was the same old pile of sticks (and, believe me, it was an old pile of sticks!). We were exchanging it for another pile of sticks in a different neighborhood. They were  similar piles of sticks, just trading at higher prices.

     This is all on my mind since we're selling our four-bedroom family home in the suburbs and looking to buy a smaller retirement home, but hopefully one that's a little nicer, someplace where the climate is a little warmer and the cost of living a little lower. This is a process that a lot of retirees go through, and the retirement literature makes it sound so easy. But it is not easy.

     I can tell you one thing for sure. We're selling our New York home for a price that's between 5 and 10 percent higher than we could have gotten last year. But we're also selling it for 15 percent less than what we paid for it at the top of the market in 2007.

     Don't feel too sorry for us though. Both B and I sold our old homes at the same time, at the inflated 2007 prices. So we came out about even.

     Still, it hurts to lose money. And it seems like everyplace else we look has home prices that are higher than we imagined. We've looked around Philadelphia. The prices are just as high as New York. We've looked along the Jersey Shore. The prices are high. We tried Washington, DC. Hah! There's a laugh. Home prices around Washington, DC, are higher than our national debt!

     We looked around Charleston, SC, where B's son now lives. The home prices are more reasonable ... if you want to live in some random development off the highway. But if you want to live in historic downtown Charleston, or near the beach -- in other words, a place where you'd really like to live -- then the prices suddenly pop up to astronomical levels again.

     Robert Shiller reassures us that while there are anomalies, the long-term trend in home prices will be tepid. Currently there are some cities with slow employment growth where home prices are not going up by much: Boston, New York, Cleveland. And there are a few cities with steep price increases. These are the cities, according to the professor, where job growth has been strong:  Denver, Seattle, Portland. But he assures us that prices will level off in these places, as more homes are built to increase supply, and some people are priced out of the market and gravitate to other cities. Then other cities will experience above-normal price increases, for a while anyway, until things average out again.

     He's relating home prices to job growth. But what about us retired folks? I've seen several recent articles suggesting that Millennials are finally beginning to move out of center city and are even (horrors!) considering moving to the suburbs. Rents have skyrocketed in the city, and besides, Millennials are now starting to think about having families and so they are looking for more space and better schools and more convenient shopping. This should be good news for baby boomers who want to sell their homes in the suburbs and move to less expensive retirement meccas.

What we can afford
     But what about those retirement meccas? Will prices go up in places where baby boomers want to retire -- places like Florida, Arizona, the Carolinas and the Pacific Northwest? Will prices then deflate in the places baby boomers are leaving? The Northeast, the Midwest, California?

     I heard one interesting remark last night at a party. I cannot verify if it's true. A friend of mine bought a townhouse near Ft. Myers, FL, about two years ago. He goes down there for three months in the winter. He said it would cost him $9,000 to rent his place for three months. But owning it costs about $8,000, for the entire year. It costs less to own than to rent, even for three months.

     I don't know. You tell me. All I know is that I've bought and sold four houses in my lifetime. And every time it seems like the situation is this: When you sell your home, you don't get quite as much as you'd hoped, but the place you want to buy costs more than you can afford.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Remember Her?

     Had she lived, she would have turned 90 years old on June 1 -- the same age as Queen Elizabeth. She was born in Los Angeles, the third child of a divorced woman. The identity of the father is unknown. It might have been her mother's ex-husband; it might have been someone else.

     She was placed with foster parents, Albert and Ida Bolender, who lived in Hawthorne, Calif. Her mother would visit her, and felt able to take her back when she was seven years old. The very next year, however, the mother had a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. The mother spent the rest of her life in and out of hospitals, rarely seeing her daughter, who became a ward of the state.

     She spent the next several years living in an orphan home, occasionally getting out to live with different friends. She suffered abuse from several men as she graduated from junior high and began attending Van Nuys High School. At age 16 she married a man who worked at the Lockheed Corporation, and dropped out of school.

     Her husband, Jim Dougherty, enlisted in the Merchant Marines in 1943 and went off to the Pacific. The young woman went to work at the Radioplane Munitions Factory as part of the war effort.

     You probably know where this is going -- perhaps you even know who this is by now. In 1944 the young woman met a photographer who was taking pictures of female workers, and she began modeling for him and his friends. She had her curly brown hair straightened and dyed blonde, and soon became a a modeling sensation, posing for advertisements and magazine shoots. By 1946 she had graced the covers of no less than three dozen magazines.

     Through her modeling work she met an executive at 20th Century Fox and was signed to a contract. She focused on acting lessons and landed a couple of minor roles, but her contract was not renewed. She landed a spot at Columbia Pictures where the drama coach raised her hairline by electrolysis, bleached her hair even lighter, and cast her as a girl who is courted by a wealthy man in a movie called Ladies of the Chorus.

     She was picked up by the William Morris Agency in 1948 where her look was further "improved" by plastic surgery. She landed a number of minor roles, then went back to 20th Century Fox where she developed an image as a "cheesecake queen." Meanwhile, she got divorced, had a relationship with director Elia Kazan and dated Yul Brynner and Peter Lawford. By 1952, she was becoming a popular sex symbol, and made her mark by playing a "dumb blonde" opposite Gary Grant in the comedy Monkey Business.

     Even early in her career she developed a reputation for being difficult on the set -- showing up late, forgetting her lines, insisting on reshooting scenes -- and she fought off stage fright with alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines.

     But by 1953 she was a bankable property, starring as a femme fatale in Niagara, a dumb blonde in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and a naive model in How to Marry a Millionaire.

     Surely, you know who this is by now. First she was Norman Jeane Mortenson, then as a model she used the name Jean Norman, but when she started appearing in movies, her agent picked the name Marilyn, and she selected Monroe, her mother's maiden name, as her last name.

     But her fame went beyond the movies. She appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine. She married baseball great Joe DiMaggio, and was famously embroiled in one dispute after another with her studios. In 1954 she filmed The Seven Year Itch, playing the object of her married neighbor's fantasies. As a publicity stunt, director Billy Wilder moved the production to New York where he filmed a scene of Monroe standing over a subway grate, with the wind blowing up her skirt. The publicity shot appeared on front pages of newspapers around the world.

     However, the stunt also proved to be the last straw in her difficult marriage to Joe DiMaggio. They got divorced in 1954. She went on to date Marlon Brando and then marry playwright Arthur Miller (headlined "Egghead Weds Hourglass") which involved her conversion to Judaism.

     Along the way, Marilyn Monroe took time off to move to New York, form her own production company, take more acting lessons, and try to have a baby. She had at least two miscarriages caused by endometriosis, a disease she suffered from throughout her life.

     But 1958 found her back in Los Angeles to film her most famous movie, Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. The difficulties in the production were legendary (Tony Curtis quipped that kissing Monroe was like "kissing Hitler") yet the movie was both a critical and commercial success and won Monroe a Golden Globe award for best actress.

     Monroe's last movie was The Misfits, filmed in Nevada in 1960 with Clark Gable, Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift. By this time her marriage to Miller was basically over, and she was suffering from other health problems including a severe drug addiction. She spent time in a drug rehabilitation center; she had an affair with Frank Sinatra; she tried to film a couple more movies but could not complete any of them.

     It was the early hours of August 4, 1962, in her California home, when her housekeeper "sensed something was wrong," knocked on her door and found it locked. The housekeeper called Monroe's psychiatrist who arrived to find Monroe dead. Cause of death: acute barbiturate poisoning, ruled a suicide. She was 36 years old.

     Marilyn Monroe perhaps has had more cultural impact after death than during her life, due to the conflicted image of the beautiful sex symbol and her troubled private life, plus her relevance in any modern conversation about the media and the role of fame in American culture. Songs have been written about her; books have been published. And this coming November a number of Monroe's personal effects are going to be auctioned by a Los Angeles auction house.

     She never won an Academy Award. But she was named a top "female screen legend" by the American Film Institute. And the Smithsonian Institution selected her as "one of the most significant Americans of all time."

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Part II -- Why Men Should Behave More Like Women

     We all know that in general women live longer than men. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average life expectancy for a male born in the United States today is about 76 years. For a female it's 81. Even before they're born, males are at risk. About 115 are conceived for each 100 females. But on average only 104 of those males make it into the world, as 11 of them fail to survive to birth.

     A 2012 study from Australia suggested a new theory. Researchers studied fruit flys and found that mutations in the DNA of mitochondria accounts for at least some of the difference between life expectancies for males and females throughout the entire animal kingdom. As an example, the life expectancy of a male chimpanzee is 45 years, compared to 59 for the female. The average male mosquito lives a week; the female a month.

     The mutations within mitochondrial DNA not only affect how long males live, but the speed at which they age. Mutations that harm females are screened out when passed down from generation to generation. But mutations are not screened for males. Therefore, mutations that will not harm females, but might harm males, pass through from one generation to the next, accumulating for males but leaving females unscathed.

     The study supports what scientists have long knownthat at least some of the difference in longevity between men and women is in their genes. Natural selection favors reproduction over longevity, in essence using the body simply as a vehicle for passing on genes. Males have shorter lifespans because once they pass on their genes, they are disposable. Females are built to stick around to raise the young to maturity -- especially in species like humans who take many years to mature.

     A related theory suggests that males compete with one another for the attention of females. The male who proves his mettle by engaging in risky behaviors like hunting and fighting is more likely to attract the female and therefore pass on his genes. But unfortunately for males, the more risky the behavior, the shorter the lifespan.

     All this may be true. But scientists estimate that only about 30 percent of the variation in longevity can be attributed to genetics. The rest depends on environmental factorsyour exposures and your behaviors. So what can men do to increase their life expectancy? 

     Take fewer risks. Men in their late teens and 20s go through a testosterone surge that tends to produce aggressive and risky behaviors. Young men drive too fast, don't wear their seatbelts; they fight and experiment with deadly weapons. Even today, this leads to a higher death rate among young men, as more men than women die in car accidents as well as other types of accidents and homicides. (One current example: The New York Times reported that 64 people were shot in Chicago last weekend -- 56 males and 8 females.) And we all know that risky behavior doesn't always end when a man turns 30.

     Get a safer job. Traditionally, men took on dangerous jobs, from the military to mining, while women filled safer jobs such as teaching, nursing or child care. In our modern times, dangerous jobs have become safer, and the gender gap is closing. Nevertheless, men still work most of the dangerous jobs in America, from fisherman to farmer, roofer to truck driver.

     Don't smoke or drink too much. Man tend to party more than women, and it takes its toll on their health. Fortunately, this gender gap is shrinking, as over the last two decades men have smoked less and less.

     Eat a healthier diet. Men eat more meat, more high-fat snacks, more high-fructose corn syrup -- all leading to higher levels of cholesterol. A diet with more fruits and vegetables (which reduce colon cancer) and less red meat (which reduces risk of both cancer and heart disease) will help men improve their health and extend their life expectancy.

     Deal with your stress. Researchers once thought that men suffered more stress because of their demanding jobs. That may no longer be so true, as women are working more, earning more and shouldering more financial responsibility for themselves and their families. But one thing is certain. Men internalize their stress, or deal with it in harmful ways, such as drinking or fighting. Men also have higher suicide rates than women. And stress plays an important role in heart disease. So it's crucial for men to find healthful outlets for stress, through sports, counseling, meditating or support groups. 

     Go to the doctor. It's an old joke, but some men out of a false sense of bravado won't go to the doctor, no matter how much it hurts. While it may not be necessary for young males to undergo an annual physical, older men should see their doctor regularly. And make sure to keep up to date with preventative care, from monitoring cholesterol to screening for prostate and colon cancer. 

     One last note:  Women shouldn't take a longer life expectancy for granted. The gender gap has been closing. According to a report from the University of Washington, between 1989 and 2009, life expectancy increased by 4.6 years for men, but only 2.7 years for women. Let's hope any further narrowing of the gap is not due to women acting like males, but men behaving more like women.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Part I -- What Happened to the Men?

     I lost my job at age 53, never to find full-time employment again. Now over ten years later, I find myself sitting at home, working around the house, playing golf with my friends and picking up a few freelance assignments -- while my better half goes off every day to her job as a librarian.

     At first I thought it was just me. Then I looked around at my friends. One lost his job in his late 40s. He tried to start his own business, then had some health problems, and now as he approaches 60 he is being supported by his wife who commutes to the city. My friend Joe was forced into early retirement when he was 57. His wife had gone back to work after their kids left for college. Now he's the house husband; and she's the bread winner. Yet another friend took early retirement from the government after his wife was offered a better, higher-paying job in another city. Now he's fixing up their new house as she goes off to work every day.

     A couple of years ago writer Hanna Rosin came out with a book The End of Men which argued that the era of male economic hegemony is gone for good. She pointed out that most of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were in manufacturing and other male-oriented industries, while women working in health and education were not affected so much. In fact, according to the New York Times, today 12 of the 15 fastest-growing professions are dominated by women.

     Meantime, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics since 1970 the female participation rate in the workforce has increased from 43% to almost 60%, while the male participation rate has gone down from 80% to 71%. And while older men still make up the majority of senior executives and corporate directors, today women in their 20s actually outearn men in their 20s. The tide has turned ... perhaps with a vengeance.

     A variation of this issue came up in our house over the weekend. B is helping to run the charity auction at her church. She's looking for an auctioneer. "For some reason I think a man would be better," she mused. "But there aren't many men who come to church."

     "What about the elders?" I asked. I was thinking there must be at least one man among the group of elders who run the church, a man who would feel comfortable hosting an auction, serving as master of ceremonies.

     She paused for a moment. "Actually," she said, "there aren't many men who are elders." She counted them up -- ten of the elders are women, only four are men. "Gee, it used to be all men," she concluded. "Now there are hardly any." She gave me a significant look and asked, "Where are all the men?"

     I didn't have an answer. Instead, I could only think about how men are in large measure, and for whatever reason, no longer in leadership roles, and in many cases no longer even working. Women have taken their place. Her boss, the director of the library, is a woman. So is the president of the library board of trustees. Our town supervisor is a woman. The president of the board of education is a woman. The PTA is run completely by women -- although men still dominate the volunteer fire department.

     It's no secret that the path to a good job is a better education. Today, more women than men go to college. Some 57% of undergraduate students are women. According to recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the college enrollment rate for high-school graduates is 72.3% for young women and 64.6% for young men. (Interestingly, in higher income groups, men and women go to college in roughly equal numbers; but among lower-middle-class and poor families women go to college in larger numbers.)

     One Minnesota college admissions officer noted ruefully that the admissions pool had recently fallen to just 30% male. In the past year it had increased to 34% because, he admitted, "We actually did a little affirmative action.."

     Meanwhile, women earn 63% of master's degrees and 54% of doctoral degrees. But hold on. Men still do "win out" in one statistic. The female high-school dropout rate is only about 7%. The male dropout rate bests them at closer to 10%.

     Currently some 80% of K-12 public school teachers are women. Perhaps one solution to male underemployment would be for more men to enter the field of teaching, expanding their career opportunities and possibly helping today's young males make more of their public-school experience.

     But really, none of this affects me directly. I'm just sitting here, happily retired, just starting to collect my Social Security. Yet I can't help but think how different the world of work is compared to when I started out – let alone what it was for my parents.

     A lot of things have changed -- mostly for the good, but perhaps not all of it. All I know is that I have two children, a boy in his late 20s, a girl in her early 30s. I just hope they both have equally good prospects for their lives and for their careers.