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

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Modern Wisdom from an Old Lady

     Last week I read A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie for a class I'm taking this fall called Murder on the Menu.

     It struck me how Agatha Christie, born in 1890, could come up with insights about people that seem so relevant today. Or . . . at least I think so. Do you agree?

     The mystery takes place at an English estate where the aging father is poisoned to death. His beautiful young wife meets a similar fate. And then the maid is found strangled outside the back door.

     When Miss Marple, Christie's famous detective, arrives on the scene she only knows what she's read in the newspapers. Since she's interested in finding out what really happened she interviews the local police inspector. "Newspapers," she tells him, "are often so sensational in their accounts. But hardly, I fear, as accurate as one might wish." Then she looks at the inspector. "If one could be sure of having just the sober facts."

     So . . . isn't that something we all want from today's hyped-up news outlets?

     Miss Marple was a wise old woman, who knew people and was very observant about their fears and ambitions -- which is what made her such a good detective. In pursuit of her quarry, she wasn't above trading some gossip. But after going on a bit about her hometown of St. Mary Mead she checks herself . . . "Oh, but I musn't gossip. Nothing is more boring than people talking to you about places and people whom you've never seen and know nothing about."

     Surely, you've been at a social gathering (as I have) and fallen victim to people reminiscing about . . . well people and places you've never heard of. Agatha Christie is right. It's a bore.

     Later on, the daughter-in-law tells Miss Marple, "Somebody in this house is mad, and madness is always frightening because you don't know how mad people's minds will work. You don't know what they'll do next."

     Does that remind you of someone in the news today? And is there method to his madness, or is it just madness?

     The plot turns to a large extent on what characters appear to be -- and who they really are, or who they think they are. Lance is the prodigal son who comes home to take his place in the family business. "Are you really going to become a city man?" the police inspector asks him. "It doesn't seem quite in character."

     Lance reminds him that he's his father's son. But the inspector points out . . . also your mother's.

     "You haven't got anything there," says Lance. "My mother was a romantic, out of touch with reality. I'm not like that at all. I have no sentiment, very little sense of romance and I'm a realist first and last."

    And the inspector responds, "People aren't always what they think themselves to be."

     "No, I suppose that's true," Lance admits.

     So . . . do you think it's true, that "people aren't always what they think themselves to be"?

    A little later on, the daughter-in-law talks about her second husband who committed suicide. "I began to realize about two years after we were married that Freddy wasn't -- well, wasn't always straight. I tried not to know what was going on. That was cowardly of me, I suppose, but I couldn't have changed him you know. You can't change people."

     And Miss Marple agrees, "No, you can't change people."

     So what do you think? Do people change? They mature, or some of them do. But do they really change?

     I don't know if I have answers to any of these questions. It's just interesting to me that they were being addressed by a prim and proper English lady almost a century ago.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Space Between

     I'm in an "in between" spot -- and perhaps we all are. Summer is almost over, but fall has not yet begun. Our children and grandchildren are getting ready to go back to school. I myself am getting ready to tutor underprivileged kids from Philadelphia. I attended my training session, but don't begin classes until the end of September. B and I also teach a foreign policy course at our senior center. We went to the instructor meeting the other day, and now we're waiting for classes to start in a couple of weeks.

     Many of us retirees are between trips. B and I are back from Cape Cod, and we're already starting to look forward to a trip to South Carolina. But all of us are in between, virtually all the time, aren't we? My brother-in-law is waiting for the results of a biopsy. My daughter-in-law is pregnant, on the threshold of having her second child. I guess if we aren't in between, if we aren't transitioning to something, it means that nothing is going on in our lives.

     Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting is in the midst of a two-week project grandsitting her 2 1/2 year old granddaughter. While waiting for the girl's parents to come home, and in between diaper changings, she writes in PETA Set Them Free about a large corporation bowing to the political correctness of 21st century sentiments.

     When the creative well runs dry, and we're struggling in between ideas, we can all use some inspiration. Over at Unfold and Begin, Jennifer has pulled together the websites she goes to when she needs a spark of creativity. You will find links to coaches, TED talks, museums, street art, and even coding sites on her post 15 Creative Websites to Inspire You.

     Rebecca Olkowski with BabyBoomster did some hiking when she was on vacation in Canada, and she realized she wasn't as prepared as she could have been. The experience inspired her to post The Best Gear for a Hike When You're Over 60 -- which might spare some of us that period of time in between the bug bite, fall or sunburn, and the happy time when we're fully recovered.

     And speaking of falls, do you know if your bones are as strong and healthy as they should be? Sue Loncaric, the Australian blogger from Sizzling Toward Sixty & Beyond, points out in Healthy Bones Action Week -- the Recipe for Healthy Bones that more than 200 million women worldwide  -- or one in three women over age 50 -- are affected by osteoporosis. She has some advice for those of us who want to build strong bodies and healthy bones.

     On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, reports in No Amount of Alcohol Is Safe that a new global study makes the relationship between health and alcohol clear – drinking causes substantial health loss all over the world. “The myth that one or two drinks a day are good for you is just that – a myth," says Emmanuela Gakidou, University of Washington professor and senior author of the study.

     But you don't need a mind-altering drug to know that, as Hamlet says to his friend Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And it's Carol Cassara of A Healing Spirit who tells us that the power of belief cannot be overestimated. She sees it in action all the time in hypnotherapy, and in Why Believing Is a Good Idea she finds confirmation from Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian yogi who helped introduce meditation and yoga to the Western world.

     And so back to the theme of "in between." Karen Hume, guest blogging this week on Smart Living 365, offers a post called Liminal Space Is Where the Magic Happens. The word "liminal" comes from the Latin word "limen," meaning threshold. A physical liminal space is a place where we feel uncomfortable or unsafe, like a lonely parking lot at night. Emotional liminal space occurs at points of transition in our lives -- from married to divorced, from employed to retired, from living with children at home to an empty nest.

     Hume, who blogs at Profound Journey, helps us understand that transition -- or the space between -- is much more than simply a change from one state to another. It may be a period of discomfort, even of anxiety. But if we manage the transition purposefully, we can not just survive the finality of one stage of life, but go on to thrive in the next. For as Barbara de Angelis writes, "The moment in between what you once were, and who you are now becoming, is where the dance of life really takes place."

Saturday, August 18, 2018

On My Mind

     I'm reading a book How Democracies Die by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt. They use historical examples from Europe and South America to show how many dictators start out as populists who are democratically elected, before they veer off into authoritarianism. To protect against extremists democracies need gatekeepers -- such as local, regional or opposing political powers -- to rein them in or steer them out of politics entirely.

     How do we predict which politicians will become power hungry after they're elected? The authors develop certain indicators, such as denying the legitimacy of opponents by calling them subversive or claiming they’re criminals, showing a willingness to curtail liberties by trying to restrict protest or threatening to take legal action against critics, or encouraging violence in any way. 

     They then argue that Donald Trump is guilty of many of the indicators, if not in action at least in word. (Remember his veiled threat against Hillary Clinton: "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks ... although the second Amendment people -- maybe there is."). They also conclude that the Republican establishment has made some effort to contain Trump's authoritarian impulses -- but not all Republicans, and those who have tried have not done enough.

     But before you write off these authors as hopeless liberals, consider that they also criticize FDR for trying to pack the supreme court (which was stopped by responsible politicians in both parties), and his breaking the two-term custom by running and winning for not only a third term but a fourth term as well, when his health was obviously declining and he was literally at death's door.

     So even if the two professors have a liberal bias, they are not anti-conservative so much as they are anti-extremist, concluding:

     "Polarization can destroy democratic norms. When socio-economic, racial or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose views are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain. Some polarization is healthy -- even necessary -- for democracy. But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs, rejecting democracy's rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble."

     I guess I like what these guys have to say because I think of myself as a responsible, reasonable, sensible, moderate person. But regardless, do you think perhaps one problem is that social media exacerbates the political divide? Honestly, I don't understand why the media hangs on every twitter word uttered by Donald Trump -- or Elon Musk or celebrities in general for that matter. Are we supposed to think that we're getting any kind of thoughtful, informative idea in 140 characters or less?

     Maybe it's a good sign that a lot of my friends seem to have found themselves tuning out of twitter, and facebook too. Just possibly it means that people are starting to get bored focusing almost exclusively on economic, political, racial and religious differences.

     Honestly, I pretty much ignore my twitter feed, since it seems to comprise a long list of irrelevancies from people I hardly know. I read recently that something like 40% of the tweets that get forwarded are forwarded without the person even reading them!

     As for facebook, I like keeping up with my daughter who occasionally posts a photo of something she's doing. But how many times do I have to see a photo of an old friend who's taking yet another hike in yet another park? Or yet another photo of my nephew's 18-month-old baby? And honestly, I've "hidden" a few friends and relatives who post three or four items a day espousing either their extreme left-wing views, or their extreme right-wing views. What they say is so predictable. It's no longer provocative. It's just boring.

     Am I starting to sound like an old curmudgeon? I don't mean to. In fact, my outlook took a positive turn this weekend because B and I went to have lunch and spend the afternoon with friends from our old hometown. We sat down and talked face to face. We didn't talk politics. We talked about our homes, our kids, our lives.

     And it dawned on me. A real social life brings people together, and is so much more informative, and so much more humane, than the divisive life we lead on social media.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Ten Commandments of Retirement

     Most of us are familiar with the Ten Commandments, even if we don’t remember them all, or follow them all. But they are universal truths, going back as far as the ancient Mesopotamians around 1000 BCE, who had laws incorporating the same sentiments as those later found in the Bible.

     The Ten Commandments may be a good place to start in advising us about any aspect of our lives, even retirement, although they have to be adapted to make sense in 21st century America. So here are the Ten Commandments for retirement, as inspired by our philosopher ancestors.

     1. Save for retirement. Most of us have Social Security, and some of us have a pension. But benefits can be changed, and besides, nobody ever promised that Social Security would provide anything more than a safety net. If you want a comfortable retirement, start saving early in life, presumably with an employer program or an individual IRA, and resist the temptation to rob your retirement fund to buy a new car or new boat.

     2. Invest your money. Experts recommend you have up to ten times your annual salary socked away by the time you retire. That’s almost impossible to do by saving alone. But if you invest early and consistently, you can grow your nestegg 5 to 10 percent a year, which is a realistic way to achieve financial security. If you're in your 60s or 70s, keep on investing, because you may have to finance another 20+ years of living expenses.

     3. Do not retire too early. Social Security offers a siren call when we first become eligible for benefits at age 62. In Greek mythology the Sirens were beautiful creatures who lured sailors with their enchanting music to wreck their ships on the rocky coast. Similarly, if you start taking Social Security early, you receive a smaller monthly income for the rest of your life, leaving you exposed to a shipwreck on the rocks of unexpected expenses.

     4. Downsize. You no longer need a big house to shelter your family. You may no longer need two or three cars to ferry the kids to school or soccer practice. So consider downsizing your home and your possessions -- especially if you broke any of those first three commandments.

     5. Eat right. When you’re retired you have more time to take care of yourself. So make the effort to buy and prepare healthful foods, and make sure to get the nutrition you may have neglected when you were too busy working and raising a family.

     6. Get some exercise. A reasonable amount of light-to-moderate exercise will extend your longevity, so you’ll be around long enough to collect on the Social Security you’ve been paying for your entire working life. Exercise also makes you feel better by improving digestion, soothing aching joints, and increasing energy levels.

     7. Hold your family close. Your kids are out of the house, but that doesn’t mean they should be out of your life. Loneliness is one hazard of retirement, so make an effort to stay close to family -- especially your grandchildren.

     8. Make new friends. Old friends will die or move away – or perhaps you will move away. Wherever you find yourself, try making new friends, for a strong social network supports both physical and mental health as you get older.

     9. Do something you like to do. Loneliness is one threat in retirement; boredom is another. So after you retire, recommit to your long-time hobby, or find a new one. Become active in your community; find a part-time job; volunteer to help those in need. Do something to make you want to get out of bed in the morning and take part in the bright new day.

     10. Make sure to . . . Wait a second. Look who I'm talking to here ... a lot of people who have more retirement experience than I do. What's your favorite retirement commandment?

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Feeling Guilty?

     Cape Cod has a fragile environment. It's just a spit of sand sticking out into the Atlantic ocean, with enough tourists in the summer, you'd think, to weigh it down and swamp it in Nantucket Sound. Hurricanes and Nor'easters have eroded some of the beaches. And since most of land mass has an elevation less than 50 feet, when the glaciers start melting, Cape Cod will be very vulnerable.

     Many people here think of themselves as environmentalists. Bicycle paths crisscross the landscape. Every town has protected some conservation land from development. People pick up after their dogs. A lot of homeowners go without air conditioning. The local ice-skating rink claims: "Our ice comes from the sun."

A windmill in Falmouth, MA
     I've actually seen a few solar farms on the Cape, which is a surprise since there isn't all that much sun here. And I've counted at least a dozen windmills spread out among the trees. There's plenty of wind on Cape Cod, and so those practical New Englanders have put it to use.

     I recall reading a book, Cape Wind by Robert Whitcomb, during one of our previous visits to the Cape. A consortium was proposing to build a wind farm out on Nantucket Sound, maybe 10 or 12 miles offshore. It would have produced almost enough electricity to replace the oil-and-natural-gas-burning electric generation plant on the Cape.

     However, the Cape Wind project ran into a lot of opposition. It would interfere with boating traffic; it would endanger migrating birds. But most of all it would spoil the view of the well-heeled waterfront property owners in and around Hyannisport.

     One opponent of Cape Wind was Sen. Ted Kennedy, who of course had a family compound in Hyannisport. Senator Kennedy eventually met his maker. But the Cape Wind project has not. While there is still no sign of a windmill in Nantucket Sound, apparently plans are still going forward for a wind farm sometime in the future.

     Meanwhile, there are already a number of windmills scattered across the landscape. So good for the Cape Codders who are progressing along the lines of clean energy, energy independence, and intelligent use of natural resources.

     But of course, nothing is ever quite so simple. Every year the town of Orleans holds an end-of-summer bonfire on Nauset Beach. It's a spectacular sight and lot of fun for the kids. But it seems like enough smoke billows out from the wood fire to cause global warming all by itself.

     I also noticed a conflicted attitude toward automobiles on the Cape. I saw many a Toyota Prius (50 mpg) and Honda Insight (40+ mpg) on the streets of Falmouth, along with other smaller cars that probably get 30 mpg. But there were also plenty of Jeeps (20 mpg), Chevy Tahoes (18 mpg), and Ford Expeditions (16 mpg).

     In other words, a lot of Cape Codders choose to ignore any warnings about air pollution or global warming, and they seem unconcerned that we derive a lot of our gasoline from the dubious practice of fracking, while we still import a lot from our frenemies in the war-torn Middle East.

     I figure, if you drive an SUV, you're a libertarian who believes that people should be able to do what they want, without restrictions on their freedom and despite any consequences to others. But  everybody, no matter what their political belief, agrees on one thing. They want to be able to drive 70 or 75 mph, not 55 mph, and they don't care that it burns up more gas that way. (A typical car engine is most efficient at around 50 or 55 mph. If you get 30 mpg at 55 mph, you will be getting about 25 mpg at 70 mph.)

     I know, I know, you're in a hurry. And gas is not that expensive. And what difference does one car make? But according to mpg for speed, if the national speed limit were set to 55 (as it was in the 1970s) it would save 1 billion gallons of oil per year.

     Of course, I'm like everybody else. I don't want to live near a nuclear power plant; I don't want anyone fracking in my backyard, and I don't want them drilling for oil in the Arctic. But I also want to be able to drive wherever I want, whenever I want . . . and not have to pay too much for gasoline.

     Most of us try to be good. As for me, I console myself that I don't drive an SUV; I drive a sedan and I don't drive as fast as many other people, so I get a little over 30 mpg on the highway. But let's face it, convenience often wins out over conscience. And I wonder. Cape Cod is a nice place to visit. But will it be swamped under water when our 16-month-old grandson wants to come here 20 or 30 years from now?

     P. S. For those who want to follow up on the topic, the New York Times Aug. 5 Sunday magazine devotes the entire issue to an article "Losing Earth" by Nathaniel Rich which focuses on the causes and dangers of climate change.