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

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Danger in the Night

     We went down to the Delaware River on Christmas day to witness a group of men gather together in the afternoon to recreate an historic event.

     For it was just about 4 p.m. on Christmas afternoon, as it was beginning to get dark, when a ragtag group of American men assembled in the rain and the cold, and prepared to cross the river and fight a desperate battle.

The troops assemble
    It was 1776. That autumn General George Washington had been pushed out of New York. His army of roughly 5000 men had retreated through New Jersey and crossed the Delaware to encamp along the shoreline in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, British troops had settled down in New York for the winter and had left a force of Hessian soldiers to guard their southern flank in New Jersey.

     During their retreat, the Americans had been forced to leave behind precious supplies. Morale among recruits was low. Over a thousand of them were ailing or injured and unfit for duty. A number of soldiers had deserted. Many of the others were looking forward to going home, since their enlistment period was expiring.

     But Washington wouldn't give up. He sent some of his men to enlist new recruits from around the area. They signed up a number of new men, largely because of the mistreatment by British soldiers throughout New York and New Jersey. Then Thomas Paine published his pamphlet The American Crisis:  "These are the times that try men's souls ..."

Two men to carry one oar
     Washington read the inspiring pamphlet to his men, and it lifted their spirits. Then a separate American force of approximately 2000 men managed to join them by the river, providing much-needed reinforcements.

     And so Washington decided to cross the Delaware River and make a surprise attack on the Hessian soldiers who defended Trenton.

     A small fleet of open boats was assembled from people along the Delaware. At dark, around 4 p.m., the Americans began to march quietly down to the riverbank. As night fell, the rain turned to sleet. But Washington pressed on. The general rode in one of the first boats to cross the river, but it took until 3 a.m. for the entire force to get across -- and longer to finish transporting the supplies.

The plan of attack
     Once they were in New Jersey, the small army split into two groups and marched nine miles through the night to the small city of Trenton. They attacked the Hessian outpost at dawn, catching them completely by surprise. The Americans lost three men. The Hessians had 22 killed before surrendering. The American soldiers then destroyed or captured Hessian supplies, and took several hundred prisoners.

     Washington brought his men, and the prisoners, back across the Delaware to his outpost in Pennsylvania, and the Americans reveled in their victory, drinking rum captured from the Hessians. A few days later the Americans crossed into New Jersey again, and on January 3, 1777 they won a decisive victory in the battle of Princeton.

Cannon fire
     Washington's army then spent the winter in Morristown, NJ. But the struggle for independence was far from over. By the next winter the British had occupied Philadelphia, leaving Washington to winter over in Valley Forge. And it was another five long years before the British finally admitted defeat, after they lost the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia. The war officially ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed in September 1783. America gained its independence ... and the next chapter had begun.

     On this December day, in 2018, the river was high and ran fast. The reenactors decided not to cross the river, and I don't blame them one bit. Too dangerous. But they gathered the boats, assembled together, read the speeches, and then shot off the cannon, memorializing a bunch of men who were, I believe, far stronger and braver than we can ever claim.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

6 Things Retirees Can't Afford

     Right now I'm feeling a little cautious, maybe because I'm realizing that I've grown complacent after ten years of good economic times. My retirement funds are flush because of a rising stock market; we've been able to sell our old house and move because of the good housing market; and we haven't had to worry about our kids because they've been working and prospering in their careers. But as we know, all that can change pretty quickly.

     We should keep in mind that we are lucky to be able to retire. It’s an option not available to many others in the world. And except for the rich and famous, it was never available here in America until well into the 20th century. And who knows if it will be available for our children and grandchildren?

     There are no guarantees that come with retirement -- any more than guarantees come with a job, a marriage or how our kids are going to turn out. All of life is a gamble. So I'd like to reflect on some things we simply cannot afford to do if we want a secure and happy retirement. Let me know if you disagree, or think I'm worrying too much. Or maybe you have other suggestions about what we should be careful about, especially at this time in our lives, as we face another new year.

     1. We can’t afford to ignore our finances. It doesn’t matter how big our nest egg is, or how generous our pension, we have to remember that we could easily live another 20 or 30 years -- all without a paycheck. We will inevitably go through a financial crisis or two, perhaps another bout of inflation. The purchasing power of a pension that looks good today could dwindle if inflation returns. Ask your parents who lived through the 1970s and ‘80s. So we should make sure that our investments are diversified, and if possible that our income derives from several sources -- Social Security, pension, savings, working, whatever -- so if one source runs into trouble the others will pick up the slack.

     2. Or ignore our health. This is right in front of our eyes . . . but sometimes we don’t see it. As we get older, our bodies become less tolerant of injury and more susceptible to disease. An injury we could recover from in two weeks when we were in our 30s now takes two months . . . or it may never fully heal at all. So we should get our checkups, eat right, sleep well, avoid stressful situations, get our exercise. But let's not be foolhardy. Walk or hike, play tennis or golf; don’t go skiing or skateboarding or skydiving unless you really know what you’re doing.

     3. We can't afford not to downsize. We may like our suburban house with its backyard, and there are probably sentimental memories attached to it as well. But we are getting older and less able to clean and maintain and improve a big three-or-four-bedroom house, especially if it’s showing its age and may need a new roof and new windows. We don’t want to end up like Miss Havisham from Great Expectations – rattling around in a big old white elephant that’s falling down around our feet.

     4. Or not to plan ahead. Retirement is not a destination; it’s a starting point. We may have planned out our retirement lifestyle and think that all those decisions have been made. But life goes on. Maybe you now need to account for your creaky knees or painful hip, and live in a place with a bedroom on the first floor. Maybe your divorced daughter will come back to live with you – or perhaps there’s a grandchild in your family now. Our job is to look ahead, as best we can, and set ourselves up for the most likely possibilities, and then still be able to adapt to new situations.

     5. We can’t afford to lose our friends. Many older people are lonely. They’ve lost some friends; others have moved away; the kids are halfway across the country. So we can't just plan where we’re going to live and what we’re going to do. We have to figure out who we’re going to do it with. B and I moved away from our old hometown, in part because our old friends were drifting apart for one reason or another. Now we've moved to a new town, and we're trying to take the advice of B's older brother who relocated about ten years ago. He told us: Say yes to everything -- to every invitation, every activity -- and eventually you'll find a new and hopefully supportive group of friends. We're still working on it. But we are invited to a Christmas party hosted by one of my new golfing buddies, so we're making progress.

     6. Or take our family for granted. Our kids, or our siblings, may have been around so long that we just assume they will always be there for us. But no law says they can’t move away for a job or a new lifestyle. We need to make an effort to stay connected to our families -- which, in our case, means driving a thousand miles up and down the East Coast, and taking an occasional trip on American Airlines to see the West Coast branch of the family. So before any of us retires to Hawaii or Key West, or possibly another country, we need to think about how we're going to stay in touch with our family. And as B and I are beginning to find out now -- you can never underestimate the pull of grandchildren. For, as I discussed in my last post, we all have the cutest grandchildren in the world!

Friday, December 14, 2018

What Do We Lie About?

     B had cataract surgery the other day. She's fine. But I think she's still suffering a little bit from the sedative they gave her. And I have a cold, so I'm a little disoriented not only from the bugs running around in my body, but also from the DayQuil, NyQuil, cough drops, vitamin C, echinacea and other pills and potions I'm consuming.

     So we're both a little loopy. Other than that, I don't know how the topic came up, but over dinner we were trying to list the things that people lie about the most.

     My top three were:

     How much sex you have (and how good it was). Well, you can lie to your friends, but you can't lie to your spouse, at least not about the quantity.

     How much money you win at gambling. More on that in a minute.

     And how long your commute really is. I had several different jobs during my career, but the one I held the longest involved an eight-minute commute. I didn't have to lie about my commute. But when I took the train to the city, involving a 39-minute ride on the express train, everyone in town said their commute was, oh, 40 or 45 minutes. But you have to get to the train, wait for the train, and then get to the office after you get off the train. Believe me, it took at least an hour. And that doesn't count the times you missed the express and had to take the local, or the train was late due to weather, mechanical problems or just plain incompetency in the ranks of conductors, engineers or paper pushers. And don't even get me started on people who drive to work and the traffic problems they encounter but fail to account for. Everyone believes that their commute to work is shorter than it really is.

     Now I remember how the topic came up. We were at a wedding and meeting up with a lot of old friends, catching up on what they are doing. But we didn't find out what her son's friend Robbie is doing. Later, however, B talked to her son, and found out that what he is doing is ... day trading.

     Trying to make a living day trading? Otherwise known as gambling? Was he kidding?

     But my brother-in-law also does some day trading. He's been doing it for years. According to him, he just does small-time stuff. Acts on a tip now and then. And he makes, "Oh, I dunno, maybe a few thousand dollars a year."

     I once asked his wife, my sister, about this. Her response? Yeah, he loses about five thousand dollars a year. But I don't let it worry me. It gives him something to do, keeps him out of trouble, and it costs less than taking a two-week vacation, which we hardly ever do anymore.

     Which reminded me of the time I went to the track with some friends. One of the guys professed to be an expert in betting at the track. He knew the horses, he knew the odds, he knew how the whole thing worked.

     So everyone in our party gave him $50. He would be in charge of the betting. We saw maybe four or five races, I forget exactly. I believe one of our horses came in, but most of them were in the back of the pack. At the end of the day our friend gave us each $28. "See," he said. "We each won twenty eight dollars!"

     I don't know if he was lying to us, or if he was lying to himself. Or if he was just kidding. But see what I mean about the lying?

     Meanwhile, B's top three lies were:

     How much money you spent at the mall. This may be lying to your spouse to avoid an argument. Or, it could be lying to yourself, so you don't feel so bad.

     How great a time you had on vacation. Especially with facebook, nobody will admit, even to themselves, that they've just spent a fortune going to Europe or Hawaii or the beach or the mountains and didn't have good time. They remember the sunny days and the gorgeous sights, but not the delays at the airport, the overheated hotel room, the strange stomach bug they picked up, or the time they got ripped off by a vendor.

     How cute your grandchildren are. Every grandparent thinks their grandchild is the cutest. They can't all be right, can they?

     Although I remember when I had my own daughter. The nurse brought me to the nursery to show me my little girl -- this was back in the days when they did it that way. There were eight or ten babies in the nursery. But the nurse didn't have to tell me which one was mine -- because I could see that my little girl was the cutest baby in the nursery.

     Later, I saw my wife, and she asked me if I'd seen the baby. And I told her, yes, I'd seen her and she was the cutest, the prettiest baby in the nursery, and probably the smartest too. There was a different nurse in the room at the time, and I heard her chuckle and mumble under her breath, "Yeah, all the dads say that."

     I heard her, and so I looked over at the nurse and then at my wife, lying there in bed with a big grin on her face, and I said to the woman, "You're correct. All the dads do say that. But, you know, one of those dads is right. And I'm the dad who is right -- our daughter is the cutest baby in the nursery."

     Lies? What lies?

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Christmas Lights

     We went over to Peddler's Village the other night to have dinner and see the lights.

     Peddler's Village is a collection of shops and restaurants housed in charming old-style colonial buildings.

     It's an outdoor mall, really, but the shops are arranged around a kind of village green, with a brook running through it, and they are connected by a series of winding brick paths.

     The shops feature clothes, household goods, arts and crafts, kick knacks, tchotchkes, Christmas ornaments and decorations of all sorts.

     Yes, it appeals to tourists, from all over. Well, all over this area. People come from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, a few from New York. You always see a few buses in the parking lot, bringing people in from senior-living facilities, women's clubs, community centers.

     My favorite store is Knobs 'n Knockers which focuses almost exclusively on cabinet hardware, doorknobs, towel racks, weathervanes, mailboxes -- and yes, door knockers, some costing as much as $200. They're nice, but would you pay $200 for a door knocker?

     I wouldn't. But, hey, it's free to walk around and enjoy the lights and soak up the Christmas spirit.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Fist Fight

     My dad grew up in an immigrant family. His mother and father came from Austro-Hungary in the 1890s. I never met my grandfather -- he died before I was born -- but my grandmother was a fierce woman who spoke only broken English, but was bound and determined that her children would grow up and succeed in this new country.

     We called her Grammy, and I only knew her as a fat old lady. But in her day she must have been a proud woman. She and my grandfather bought a house sometime around 1910. It was a two-family rowhouse, in the ethnic neighborhood of an old industrial city in New England, but still, it was a house. And she was proud that she was heavy -- it meant she could afford to eat!

     She had seven children altogether. Uncle Johnny was the oldest surviving boy (the first son died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic), and he must have been smart, although I remember him more as being aggressive and pugnacious. My dad was the next son. He was more reserved and studious. Grammy used to tease him because he was ranked 2nd in his high school class . . . and he was beaten by a girl!

     But somehow, through luck or persistence, or maybe a kind of early affirmative action, my Uncle Johnny got a scholarship to the nearby Ivy League college, and went on to become a lawyer. My father followed in his footsteps. They both bought nice houses in the suburbs, had healthy families, and went on to send their children to good colleges.

      But the third son had a rougher time of it. He'd suffered from polio, and he had diabetes and probably some other ailments as well. He went to a community college in New Jersey and became a teacher, back in the days when teachers made no money. He and his wife had a side business restoring antiques, just to help make ends meet. Uncle Fred walked with a cane, and his face was creased with long, deep furrows.

     Uncle Fred lived on a dirt road with his wife and son. When we went to visit them in the summer the kids would go swimming in a nearby creek, with an old tire on a rope so we could swing out into the water. It was a lot of fun.

     Fun for me. But Uncle Fred held some resentments. The whole family used to get together at my aunt's house in rural Connecticut a couple of times a year. So this incident happened over Easter. I think it was 1965.

     I was in high school, just beginning to get tired of going to the family get-togethers. And a little embarrassed, too. I lived a suburban white kid's life where everyone lived in nice houses with green patches of lawn. The men donned suits to go to work, the women wore dresses, and everyone was polite and proper. But my father's family still had some rough edges. They drank and got loud and talked in the strange mixed language of my grandmother.

Uncle Johnny (left) and my dad, c. 1940
     My grandmother was the roughest of them all, ordering her sons around, telling them what to do. My own mother did not like Grammy. "She never thought any woman was good enough for her precious sons," she said with some bitterness.

     So it was that year that Uncle Johnny's son, my cousin, flunked out of college. And not just any college. He flunked out of his father's Ivy League college.

     So we were all sitting on the stoop outside my aunt's house. Uncle Johnny looked over at his younger brother, Uncle Fred. Maybe Fred could help out, he thought, maybe Fred could use some influence and get his son into his no-name college in New Jersey for a semester or two, until his son got back in good graces with his fancy Ivy League school. At least his son would be somewhere in college, not hanging around home causing trouble.

     I'm sure Uncle Johnny was just trying to be a good dad. But Uncle Fred bristled at the idea. "Are you kidding?" he snarled at his older brother. "Where I work, where I went to school . . . it was never good enough for you. But now your kid gets in trouble, and you come crawling to me for help? Where were you when I needed a little help?"

     "Oh, you're full of crap," Uncle Johnny shot back. "I helped you for years. Gave you money to get that house of yours built. Now I'm asking for a little favor. Just put in a good word. He needs to go to school. No skin off your neck."

     Uncle Fred put down his drink and stood up. "You got a lotta nerve. . ."

     Uncle Johnny stood up and faced him. Looked him hard in the eyes, challenging him. Uncle Fred took a step forward. Then he pushed Uncle Johnny back so he stumbled on the step. Johnny turned and bent over, thrusting his arms out to catch himself on the concrete step. Then he whipped around and lunged at Uncle Fred, throwing punches to his body and tackling him to the ground.

     Uncle Fred rolled over, got on top and was landing some blows -- even though he was handicapped he was still ten years younger. But then Grammy banged out of the front door. She stood imperiously on the front porch, looking down at them and yelling to stop.

     My two uncles obeyed immediately. They got up and dusted themselves off. Uncle Fred labored up the steps and went into the house. Uncle Johnny's hand was bleeding, scraped on the concrete stairs when he fell on the porch. He laughed it off, sneering, "Oh, gripes, he'll never learn." He picked up his drink, took a swig and looked around at four or five of us kids, sitting slack-jawed on side of the driveway. We thought only kids fought; we didn't know that adults could fight as well.

     "Come on, get the baseball, let's go play some catch," Uncle Johnny said.

     By the end of the day everything was back to normal. My uncles were slapping each other on the back, laughing and apologizing. "Nevermind." "Don't worry about it." "No hard feelings." We then herded into our cars and started on the trip home.

     As you might have guessed, Uncle Johnny's son never went to school in New Jersey. Instead, he went into the military. He learned to fly airplanes and eventually went back to college, got his degree and became a computer analyst. Now he's retired in upstate New York and likes to ride motorcycles. Me? I still live in the suburbs.