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

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Summer Heat

     Summer is finally here, after a rainy spring and only the occasional warm day to tease us with false hope.

     But now the heat is here in full force -- in both the weather and in politics. It's been hitting 90 degrees almost every day for the past week. I know that doesn't seem like much to friends and family in Phoenix (where it's getting up to 110 degrees today). But remember, that's a dry heat, and we have humidity here in Pennsylvania.

     And we saw the other day, it was hotter in Philadelphia (at 89) than it was in Charleston, SC (at 86). That's weird, isn't it?

     So we've slowed down and we are doing summer things. Fortunately, since our credit card bills are starting to come from our trip out west, a lot of summer activities for us retirees are free or inexpensive.

     We went for a swim. For free. We dined on the "outside patio" at our local pizza place (actually three tables sitting in front of the storefront, next to the handicapped parking places.) Total bill: $28 plus tip ... but only because B had a beer in addition to her usual glass of water.

     The next day we drove over to Dilly's, a hot-dog and ice-cream stand on the Delaware River. I don't eat hot dogs. So I had a fried cod sandwich, which B assured me was absolutely no better for me than a hot dog with all the fixin's. Cost us $17.50.

     After dinner we took a walk across the foot bridge to New Jersey. Another free activity. This particular bridge was originally built by John Roebling, the man who later designed the Brooklyn Bridge. However, there's nothing left of the original Roebling structure -- the bridge has been rebuilt twice since the 1860s.

Summer scene, or political metaphor?
     But it was a nice walk, 30-some feet above the rushing water. The river was high, swollen with the spring rains. And it was cool on the bridge, with a breeze coming down the valley from the wooded north.

     For two nights we also watched the Democratic presidential debates. That was free, too. B likes Elizabeth Warren. And she allowed as how she liked "that other lady" too (referring, I believe, to Amy Klobuchar.) She was also impressed with the performance by Kamala Harris.

     I like  . . . well, I'll keep you guessing since this is a nonpolitical blog. It was kind of a shout-fest, though, wasn't it? And there was no discussion of issues directly affecting seniors, like how to secure the future of Social Security (remember the Lock Box?) or how to protect our IRAs or other retirement funds. And, considering the current hot weather, there was little discussion of global warming.

     They did talk about Medicare -- not how to save it, but how to expand it. I'm generally in favor of some kind of Medicare for all. Not because I believe that the government should run things. But because the medical system has become too big, too expensive, too complex and too arcane for the individual person to negotiate. There's no free market in medical care or in health insurance.

     However . . . it does drive me crazy (and it makes me feel like they're trying to sell us snake oil) when they bandy about terms like Medicare for all, universal health coverage, free medical care, as though they are all the same thing. They are not the same thing. I know, because I have Medicare -- and Medicare plus my supplemental insurance cost me $$400-something a month, and it costs B another $400-something a month as well. It's still a good deal . . . but it's not free. And it doesn't cover everything. So, ladies and gents, please be honest with us.

     Anyway, enough about that. We're going to the matinee movie this weekend. Senior rate: $7.50. B wants to see "The Late Show." And so it will be done. Afterward, we're coming home for salmon and zucchini. Total cost for two: $12.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

I Try to Exercise, I Really Do

     Last September B and I joined our local YMCA. We had to sign a one-year contract, which made me nervous because I was afraid I'd start out with a burst of enthusiasm, exercising two or three times a week through the fall, but then by spring I'd never darken the door of the Y again.

     B joined a yoga class. At 7 in the morning, no less. And she has been faithful about going, twice a week.

This is B ... well, almost
     As for me, I did go to the gym more often in the beginning. I even joined a spin class. But I must admit, as predicted, my enthusiasm waned. I didn't like the spin class, so I quit. And the twice a week eventually became once a week. And then I started to skip a week.

     But when the weather got warmer I started to go over there for a swim. Plus, there's also a hot tub, which feels good on my sometimes-aching back, and just feels good all over. And that got me to rededicate myself to going again on a more regular basis, to take a spin on the bicycle and grunt and groan on the weight machines.

     The truth is, I really don't like to exercise. Instead, I like to hit things. I like baseball and tennis and golf. The trouble is that these sports -- especially the way they're played by late middle-agers -- do not provide a good workout. And some of them can be dangerous for us aging baby boomers. Think tennis elbow, sprained ankle, torn cartilage. Do I know anyone who hasn't had back or shoulder surgery, or replaced a knee or hip?

     In fact, I retired from the tennis court several years ago, due to a bad knee and touchy ankle, and now limit my racket sports to Ping Pong, once a week at our local senior center. And golf . . . well, golf you can play in your sleep.

     So my doctor has told me more than once that swimming and riding the stationary bike are easier on my brittle knees and ankles than running (not that I did much running) or playing tennis, or even walking. So that's what I do now, when I do get to the Y.

This is definitely not me
     Some people can read while they use the treadmill or bike. I cannot. So I time my trip to the Y to early evening reruns of half-hour comedy shows on TV. I am now more familiar with "Friends," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "King of Queens" than I'd like to admit.

     Then there's always "people watching." I enjoy the spectacle of the women's Zumba dance class that takes place Mon., Wed. and Fri. at 5 p.m. There are young male bodybuilders in the corner. Girls on the ellipticals with their ponytails bobbing up and down. Some middle age women seriously into the treadmill. And a few of us older guys huffing and puffing on the machines.

     The funny thing is, at first I thought I might feel self-conscious exercising along with a crowd that's younger, better looking, and in better shape than I am. But it turns out that everyone is very supportive at the Y. I never get a condescending comment or dirty look. Just some occasional helpful advice, or a friendly greeting. And when I see a guy even older than me, who's fat and out of shape and shaky on his feet, it doesn't enter my mind that I'm better than him. I think, good for him.

     I don't get to the health club as often as I should. But it's still worth it. We'll definitely be signing up again for next year.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Travel Is a Lot Like Sex

     I just got back from a two-week trip to Las Vegas, Utah and Arizona. Our trip was part vacation, to see the sights of Zion and Bryce, and part family, to see some relatives and a new baby.

     And it occurred to me this morning that travel is a lot like sex (Don't worry, I'll keep it PG rated).

     First, there's deciding whether or not you're going to do it. We were invited out when the baby was born, last January, and we did think about going then. But traveling in January? After all the festivities of Christmas? It seemed too much. We didn't want to say no. We wanted to do it, eventually. So we teased them -- maybe we'll do it; well, not now, maybe later. And then we finally did commit, and did the deed in June. 

     B and I made sure we were traveling together. I mean, you can travel alone, just like you can have sex by yourself. But it's much more fun with another person. (I won't get into the group thing. B and I have no interest in traveling with a group. Like taking a cruise with a  group of friends? Not for us!)

     Actually, sometimes B and I will travel alone. She will make a four-day trip to Charleston to see her grandson. I typically take a little extra vacation by myself in Florida in the winter. But like I said, these are quickies. Whenever we go anywhere for any length of time, we go together.

     Then there's the anticipation. Half the fun of travel is making the plans, deciding on the itinerary, making hotel reservations, scheduling the airplane. Thinking about what you'll be doing, imagining how it will be. 

     There's also the anxiety. You have to pick the right clothes. Go to the right restaurant. Will we be able to perform? I worried about how much hiking I'd have to do at Zion and Bryce, given my bad knee. B worries about the airport and the hotels and all the connections we have to make. As it turned out, we were able to do the required minimums. I walked the flat paths and the walkways around the canyon. I didn't even try to scale the heights of Angel Mountain, or plumb the depths of Bryce's hoodoos. And B was happy that the airport, the car rental, the hotel reservations, all worked out just fine. 

     Afterwards, of course, you wonder if the reality of vacation measured up to the promise. When you're actually there, you're probably not thinking about that. But afterwards, you look back on the vacation with fondness, remembering the good parts and not dwelling on the occasional hardships or uncomfortable moments.

     Of course, there are always certain vacations when you just say -- well, I enjoyed it, but I'm not going back there again. Or you might even say ... well, that was a mistake.

     Travel is an adventure. Sometimes we do it just for fun. Or when we travel with someone, it often brings our relationship closer together. Sometimes there's a purpose. The point of our trip to Arizona was to see the new baby. Sometimes we forget that travel and babies go together.

     And then, the very next day after I got home, I began to wonder. Okay, that's done. I wonder where we should go next? Home life can be so boring. We want the next adventure. You see, travel can be addictive too!

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Do You Argue About Money?

     Right now I'm in Phoenix, but I'm thinking about a time at home, about two weeks ago, when B approached me after breakfast. "I have something to ask you," she said. "It's a little awkward."

     "Okay," I replied, wondering if anything was wrong. "What is it?"

     "You have to leave the house tomorrow. Between 12 and 1 p.m."

     "Uh, okay." Now I was really puzzled. "Why is that?"

     "Melanie is coming over."

     "Who's Melanie?"

     "She's from the fabric store. We're going to talk about recovering those two chairs in the living room."

     "Ah," I said, suddenly understanding. We've been talking about those two chairs for at least a year. They seem fine to me. But B says they don't fit into our decor, and they have to be either recovered or replaced. I don't see the point. Recovering old chairs? It costs hundreds of dollars, for each chair! We certainly have better things to spend our money on than recovering perfectly good chairs that we hardly ever use.

     Which is why B is asking me -- no, telling me -- to get out of the house, and out of her way. She doesn't want me skulking around and harrumphing about how it costs too much and we don't need to do it anyway. .

     Still . . . "I have to be out of the house?" I pursued. "I can't just go upstairs, and stay there and not show my face?"

     "No. Out of the house." Clearly, she has heard enough from me. And no matter what I say, she is doing this.

     And so I went out for the afternoon. I went to the mall and bought myself a new Ping Pong paddle and had lunch in the food court. And with this scenario in mind, I thought I'd bring you some advice on how not to argue about money. Goodness knows . . . not from me. But from Jeremy Kisner, my go-to financial adviser at Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix (which is maybe why I thought of this).

     Here's what he says. And it occurs to me that his approach might extend beyond money issues and be helpful for any kind of communication with a friend or loved one:

     Money is a hot-button issue in many relationships. It's common for partners to have different spending and savings priorities, and this often leads to conflict. Usually, one partner is more focused on the present and places a higher priority on using money to have fun, buy nice things, be generous, or engage in "retail therapy" to escape stress or anxiety. The other may be more focused on the future, feeling that the most important use of money is to provide security so they will be financially independent.

     Partners often try to convince each other that their priorities are the correct way of looking at things. But this usually doesn't go well. Discussions about money often lead to arguments or uncomfortable silences. Furthermore, financial distress is often cited as the #1 cause of divorce. So instead of avoiding financial discussions, try to follow these seven tips for better outcomes:

     Start with questions. Your first instinct is probably to "tell" your partner what you want, why your priority is important. That is the opposite of how you should approach these conversations. Instead, ask a question that might start a productive dialogue. What do you think has been your best, and your worst, financial decision? What spending decisions have brought you good memories? What was money like in your household when you were growing up? The answers show you why people think the way they do, and help you better understand their financial mindset.

     Don't focus on what you are going to say. Instead, focus on listening. Good listening is a learned behavior that doesn't come naturally for most people. It entails more than waiting your turn to talk. Good listening means asking clarifying questions, even when you think you know what the other person means. Learn to pause before speaking and repeat back what you've heard.

     Find goals you both agree on. Each of you should make a list of the goals you'd like to reach. Then find common goals and agree to work toward them. Each of you needs to be willing to make sacrifices to reach the goals, and if you're initiating the conversation, you should be the first one to offer up something. Do you need to cut down on the Starbucks visits, Botox treatments, dog grooming, poker nights?

     Do not be judgmental. You may find yourself thinking, Wow, it is really stupid to spend so much on XYZ. It is completely normal to have different spending priorities, but if you're judgmental, you're going to poison the well and kill any chance of progress.

     Admit your own mistakes and regrets. The best way to prepare for this discussion is not by gathering evidence of what your spouse has done wrong. Instead, evaluate your own spending and figure out which of your own decisions turned out to be mistakes, and what changes you can make. Then you might ask if your partner has any spending habits or decisions they would be willing to change.

     Be appreciative. If your partner admits to overspending, don't pounce. Instead, be understanding, even sympathetic, and ask more questions such as: What do you think would be more reasonable? Then appreciate their answer, their honesty, and their willingness to work together.

     Agree to revisit periodically. You and your partner should meet to discuss your household budget on a regular basis, perhaps once a month. This is an ideal time to reaffirm priorities and talk about financial goals. Of course, it's always easier to avoid these conversations. But as I like to say, "A lazy man works twice as hard." In other words, a little discipline prevents a lot of future headache. Good luck with your money conversations!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

In a Canyon

     We're on a little vacation, so we drove up from Las Vegas to Springdale, UT, about 160 miles, and spent a day and a half exploring Zion Canyon. Of course, I'd left my National Park senior pass at home, so we had to buy another one. But we were happy to contribute an extra $20 to the cause of protecting the national park system.

Entering Zion Canyon
     There were a lot of people visiting the park. It made me wonder, as Annie Lowrey does in The Atlantic, if Too Many People Want to Travel. It's certainly true that the hordes of tourists from all over America and beyond tramp down and destroy some of the natural habitat.

A Flyover
     But Zion park management is very aware of the danger. Cars are not permitted beyond a certain point in the canyon. Instead, tourists take a shuttle out to the end of the road -- and then they can walk a little over a mile along the Virgin River.

A Zion waterfall
     The Riverside walk, from the end of the road, ends at a place called The Narrows. The Narrows were closed, however, since the river was high with snow melt, and there was no river bank to walk on.

Looking into The Narrows
     We spent two nights in Springdale, then drove up even more, to Bryce Canyon, which sits at 8000 feet elevation. We thought the elevation might affect us; but we were okay, just a little tired at the end of the day.

A vista over Bryce Canyon
     Bryce is in some ways even more spectacular than Zion, with its time-worn hoodoo rock formations. But the main difference in my mind is that at Zion you're below the canyon walls. At Bryce you stand above the canyon, looking down (although intrepid hikers can take paths that twist down into the abyss).

Looking into Bryce Canyon
     A lot of people have already been to these canyons and beyond, so these pictures may seem familiar to you. But to anyone who hasn't gone, I would recommend the trip. Just tread lightly, so Zion and Bryce and all our other natural resources are still around for our grandchildren to wonder at as well.