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

Saturday, September 28, 2019

What's Our Responsibility?

     I just read a book called The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. It chronicles the history of the southern high plains -- how they were taken over from the Native Americans, plowed up by settlers, and then scraped dry by the drought of the 1930s.

     What struck me about the story is how the EuroAmerican farmers, encouraged by the government and supported by a good economy, tore up the native grasses, grew wheat and other grains and made lots of money in the process. But then came the Depression, and crop prices went down.

     To cover their debts and still make a profit, farmers plowed up yet more grasslands and planted more crops. Then a dry period arrived. The native grasses could survive the dry periods, but the grains could not. The crops withered and died. The dry dirt blew away in the wind. The farmers grew increasingly desperate. Many of them were foreclosed; many of them left. Some of those who stayed behind died of lung diseases or starvation.

     In other words, maybe through no fault of their own, but through their ignorance of the climate, their lack of foresight, their eagerness to make more money -- and urged on by the government -- they brought this crisis on themselves.

     Sound familiar?

     Most of us care about the environment, whether we believe global warming is an immediate  threat -- like Al Gore or this young climate activist from Sweden Greta Thunberg -- or simply regard it as a long-term concern. Or even if you think global warming is a hoax, you still probably want to breathe clean air, and don't want to be sucking exhaust out of the tailpipe of a ten-year-old pickup truck or live within spitting distance of a coal-fired electric plant.

     Of course we all want the government and the big corporations to do something about it. But what is our responsibility?

     Do we blame the oil companies for digging up the oil? Or do we blame the auto companies for producing gas-guzzling SUVs, or ourselves for buying and driving those gas-guzzling SUVs? (Trucks and SUVs now account for roughly 65% of new vehicle sales, and according to the EPA, the Jeep Wrangler averages 18 mpg, the Mercedes standard SUV gets 16 mpg and the Dodge RAM pickup limps in at 14 mpg.)

     Still, we have to live in our world, and we need to get around. And there are plenty of good reasons why we retirees like to drive father than to the corner store. We like to travel. We travel to meet up with family and to bring our friends closer together. We travel to broaden our horizons, to see how other people live, appreciate other cultures and better understand our world.

     And then there's the kind of travel that B calls "expensive entertainment." That's when you go to Disneyworld or a resort in the Caribbean or pretty much anything you do in Las Vegas.

     But when we travel there is a cost to the environment. That four-hour drive down the interstate in your SUV, at 70 mph, burns up about 12 gallons of gasoline, spewing those hydrocarbons into the air. The coast-to-coast airline flight burns about 15,000 gallons of fuel (or roughly 40 gallons per passenger). When you consider that every day there are about 100,000 commercial flights in our skies, plus another 30,000 non-commercial flights -- that's a lot of hydrocarbons!

     So what do we do? Just continue to blame big government and big business? Or can we modify our behavior enough to make a difference?

     Personally, I try to stay off airplanes anyway, because I don't like to fly. But maybe we should be more intentional about hopping on a plane just because the airline is advertising a cheap rate to some entertaining destination.

     Maybe we should try to go by train, if possible. (Kudos to the 200 - 300 retirees, per day, who make their trip to Florida on the Autotrain.) Or perhaps we can carpool.

     My golf group of mostly retired teachers travels around to different golf courses, often bypassing perfectly good courses to travel 30 miles to a place with slightly cheaper rates. But the guys do make an effort to carpool. Sometimes it's a pain in the neck, turning a 30-minute drive into a 45-minute drive by the time you go out of your way to get to a meeting point, then wait for other people to arrive, and then all pile in and get going again. Does it make any difference?

      But as far as our own travel goes, maybe we can focus our trips closer to home. How many New Yorkers jet off to France to see the Eiffel tower, but never bother to take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty? There often are plenty of interesting places close to home that are just as enriching, just as entertaining as the place a thousand miles away.

     I remember when I was a kid, my mother urged us to batch our car trips. Why make three car trips when you can get everything done in one trip, and save a little on gas, she'd challenge us. And this was before the energy crisis, when gas cost 35 cents a gallon!

     I don't have all the answers. Honestly, as far as global warming goes, I think if anything saves us from ourselves, it will be technology. But it can't be electric cars. Where do you think we get the electricity to power electric cars? From burning coal and oil and natural gas.

     But I'm guessing they'll come up with some new form of energy that will be cleaner than petroleum and more powerful than wind or solar (but that will probably pose some other problem to challenge our grandchildren). In the meantime, maybe we should help out, at least where we can . . . before everything turns to dust and blows away in the wind.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Playing by Different Rules

     B and I are having a dinner party next week. Well, it's not exactly a party. Three of my old friends are coming to visit. We're going to play golf together. Then they're coming over to our house for dinner and a round of poker. They're staying overnight in a local motel, and we're playing golf again the next morning before they go home.

     These guys are part of my old crowd of about eight or nine of us who used to play golf and poker together. When we played poker we took turns hosting -- the host would provide the house, the dining room table, some poker chips -- and when we first started out the host would also supply pizza and beer and a couple of family size bags of potato chips.

     We played together for 25 years before people started retiring and moving away, and finally the group kind of broke up -- although I know a few of the guys still get together occasionally to play golf. Anyway, slowly, over time, people started to up the ante on the evening's cuisine. One of the wives decided that pizza was too low class, and she made it her job to broil up a platter of chicken legs and wings and mix a green salad.

My idea
     Then one of our original players dropped out of the game, and we replaced him with another friend who turned out to be a vegetarian. His wife prepared a sophisticated vegetarian stew, preceded by appetizers featuring various cheeses, flavored hummus and  European-style crackers. She also put out a bottle of wine -- for the more refined palates.

     Meantime, while this gradual improvement in our culinary routine was going on, I was getting divorced, moving into a condo, and sticking resolutely to the routine of pizza, chips and beer. When I got together with B, and she found out about the poker game, she immediately decided that pizza wouldn't do. She wanted to cook. I discouraged her, not wanting to prevail upon her good nature to feed my friends. We reached an impasse. She did cook for my crowd a few times. Other times, especially if she was busy with her own activities, she bowed out, and I just followed my old routine of pizza and chips.

     But of course, that was then. And this is now.

     When she caught wind of my plans to have the guys over, she went into overdrive in planning a menu that would impress the Queen of England.

     I tried to discourage her. "Really," I told her, "you slaving over a hot stove for this group of guys is not what I was thinking about then we made these plans. You don't have to do that."

     "Oh, yes I do," she responded. "And I don't mind. I like to cook."

     "Yeah, but I don't want to be the one causing you to have to do a whole lot of extra work."

     "It's no big deal," she assured me. "I enjoy doing it. I'll cook up some pasta primavera, make a salad. I'll bake a pumpkin pie. I'm just wondering what I should serve for hors d'oeuvres."

     "No, that's too much," I protested. "It's too much work."

     "No, not really," she insisted. "I've got plenty of time to get ready."

     "Okay . . . I guess," I said. Then, trying to compromise, I offered, "But we don't need dessert and we surely don't need hors d'oeuvres. These guys expect pizza and potato chips, nothing else.You're already exceeding expectations."

     I was thinking about people's expectations and their judgments, and . . . what's good enough. In my mind, these guys were expecting to have a good time playing golf and cards and joking around. They were most certainly not expecting a gourmet meal.

Her idea
     But B plays with a different rule book. She looked at me and said, "It's okay for you to serve pizza. It's not okay for me to serve pizza."

     "Why not?" I asked innocently.

     "Because, like it or not, we live in a society that still judges women differently from men. You can serve pizza. I can't serve pizza."

     "But they're not bringing their wives. You don't have to impress the women. It's just the guys."

     She said nothing. She just gave me a look . . . you know the look, the look that says I'm clueless but she loves me anyway.

     "Well, at least let's try to keep it simple," I finally said, giving up, "so you don't have to do too much extra work."

     "You're not making me do extra work. I want to do this. Now, I'm thinking about the hors d'oeuvres."

     "Ah," I said, brightening. "So at least let me take care of the hors d'oeuvres. I've got them covered. I'll get a family size potato chips . . . and maybe some dip too."

     "Yeah, okay, get some chips," she smiled indulgently. "Now let's see," she murmured to herself, "maybe I can drive over to Altamonte's and pick up one of their special cheese plates."

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Does Anyone Know What's Next?

     B and I have been busy lately. But we've also been wondering: What's the point? Are we doing anything meaningful? Are we making any difference?

     To be honest, B worries about this more than I do. Still, I look at my calendar for the week. I see that it's full of activity. But at the end of the week I wonder: Have I accomplished anything?

     B is busy volunteering at her church and doing yoga at the YMCA and visiting with her new friends. I keep busy doing my blog, playing weekly golf with a group of retired guys, going to table tennis at a local club.

     Fortunately, neither one of us has to spend too much time on doctor appointments. She had her cataract surgery. I go to the orthopedist now and then for a checkup on my back and my knees. We joke about how as we get older, it takes more time just to take care of our daily routines -- stretching and doing our exercises, making an effort to eat right and take our vitamins,. and ... er ... it seems we spend a lot of time looking for reading glasses, searching for car keys, and fiddling with something that's gone wrong on the computer or the phone.

     Now both of us have started in on our new semester at the Center for Learning in Retirement, held at our local college. I'm taking a history course on the Civil War and a literature course on James Joyce's Ulysses. Also, B and I for the first time are leading our local chapter of the Socrates Cafe. We hope that will be interesting, and not too challenging.

     But still, maybe because it's September, and even though I've been out of school for decades, there's still that feeling that we should be starting something new. That somehow we should be moving up to a new school or at least a new grade. Or maybe starting a new job.

     One reason for this feeling -- this low level of floating anxiety -- may be that we've spent the last four years finding our place in retirement, relocating our home and establishing new lives. That has been a big project, and through it all we knew there was an overarching goal to our efforts.

     First we spent a year decluttering our old house, fixing it up and putting it on the market. Then we spent a year living in a one-bedroom condo and traveling around four or five states looking for the place we wanted to resettle. Then, after we finally bought a new house, it's taken us two years to fix it up and to find new friends and new activities.

     But now most of that has been accomplished. We're done with the house. We're settled in. We'll still be meeting new people, trying out new activities -- I'm thinking about joining our local photography club, for example -- but the major items have been accomplished. So what's next?

     B is leaving in a few days to go babysit her two grandchildren in Charleston, SC, while the kids go away for a few days. She's looking forward to that. Then we're planning our November trip to see my daughter who's expecting my first grandchild.

     We'll be going back to see my daughter in February, after the baby comes. We don't know how long we'll be staying at that point. We don't know how much she'll need us, or want us. But then it will be on to Charleston again. Even though our grandchildren live hundreds of miles away, we want them to know who we are, and that means we have to visit for more than a few days once or twice a year.

     We have used Facetime to talk to our oldest grandson, who's 2 1/2. He's old enough now to recognize us on screen, and to interact with us to a small degree. Anyway, he's happy to see us, if his laughter and his antics are any way to judge.

     I wonder: Just as we have settled here, with our focus on our new house and our new community, is our focus now going to turn once again . . . to our grandchildren and what they will mean for our future lives? I don't know. But I guess I'm coming to realize, once again, that we do our best, we try to make some impact, and then life moves on.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

More Clichés for the Candidates

     As I mentioned in my last two posts, we sometimes have time to do things in retirement that got squeezed out of our lives when we were working and raising a family. Polo, for example. Or tennis. Or politics . . . .

     The "proof of the pudding" as it were:  In the 2016 election, according to the U. S. Census Bureau, some 71% of Americans over age 65 voted, compared to just 46% among 18-to-29 year olds.

     Now we have another Democratic presidential debate coming up on Thursday, Sept. 12. In the last debate Joe Biden famously called one of his opponent's medical plans "a bunch of malarkey." The reaction by people and pundits alike had nothing to do with the merits of the medical plan. It had more to do with how using that very phrase demonstrates that Biden at age 76 is a relic of the past, since no one has heard that term in probably 40 years.

     As one wag said, "Millennials are all googling what 'malarkey' means."

     In case you don't know, according to the dictionary malarkey means "speech or writing designed to obscure, mislead or impress."

     Kind of like "a bunch of baloney." Or something that's "for the birds." (Of course, Biden calling anything an opponent says a bunch of malarkey is like "the pot calling the kettle black," since Biden has offered up plenty of malarkey himself.)

     But aside from that, remember when Ronald Reagan became the oldest president in history? He was 69 when he was elected. Today, all of our leading presidential candidates have already hit the 70 mark! The three top Democrats are Bernie Sanders, at age 77, Joe Biden at 76, and Elizabeth Warren at 70. And then there's the Republican candidate. He is 73.

     I guess we're living in a gerontocracy. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe not if they would act their age!

     I take part in discussion groups with my fellow senior citizens at our local college. Most of them are intelligent, creative, reasonable people with a deep well of experience. So I don't necessarily see a problem electing a president from among a group of 70-year-olds.

     So there is nothing wrong, necessarily, with the kind of person who uses an old-fashioned word like "malarkey." It used to be that our elders were venerated. Tradition carried some weight. Older people were revered for their wisdom, judgment, experience and perspective -- although now, at least in some quarters, older people are considered hopelessly irrelevant, totally out-of-date.

     Nevertheless, it seems we don't want some new and fresh "whippersnapper" in 2020. Instead, we're looking for a more seasoned presence who exhibits wisdom, judgment, experience and perspective.

     In the last go-round, in 2016, the country ended up with someone who . . . well, he wasn't young. But like the know-it-all teenager, he was brash and bold. He knew what he wanted, he was itching to take the country in a new direction, and he has stood firm in the face of criticism.

     So what did we get? Someone who when it comes to global warming "fiddles while Rome burns." He has his fellow countrymen "fighting like cats and dogs." And perhaps as my mother liked to say (consider Hurricane Dorian), he's left us "up the creek without a paddle."

     It made me think that just maybe we need a president who remembers the lessons that their mom and dad told them, and who knows and practices some of the old verities, including a sense of humility -- the knowledge that the person doesn't always have all the answers, the wisdom to listen to other people, the presence-of-mind not to be seduced by his or her own self-righteousness.

     As Mark Twain told us, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

     Perhaps we need someone who doesn't claim to know all the answers, who won't let foreign leaders "pull the wool over their eyes," who can "keep their shirt on" in the midst of a crisis, who realizes that "a stitch in time saves nine" when it comes to global warming, who knows "money doesn't grow on trees" when it comes to the national debt. In other words, someone who won't fall for a "bunch of malarkey."

     Maybe the best adage for any president should be: "First, do no harm."

Friday, September 6, 2019

How You Know You're Retired -- Second Set

     As I mentioned in my last post, and as everyone knows, one of the benefits of retirement is that you have time to do things you might not otherwise do. If it sounds like it might be fun, then go ahead and do it!

     Have you done anything recently that's a little out of the ordinary? Not the big things like a trip to Europe or Hawaii, but the little things that are fun or unusual -- that you never did when you were working or raising kids.

     Anyway, last week we went to a polo match. Why? Because we could. And it was a blast.

     This week I took a New Jersey Transit train up to New York City to spend a day at the U. S Open, a signature New York event that takes place out in Flushing Meadows, Queens, at the end of summer.

     We all know about tennis greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But there's a lot more to the Open than the stars.

I saw this ad for the Open, featuring Roger Federer, at a New Jersey train station, 

     For example, there is a junior division where dozens of promising young tennis players from around the world meet to compete for a chance to test their mettle, hone their competitive skills, and perhaps get noticed by coaches or sponsors.

Young players practice on the side courts

     Tens of thousands of fans descend on the tennis center every day during the two-week tournament -- and security is tight. Nobody wants a problem, and the police presence is both robust and obvious.

Police are out in force

      So my jaunt over to the polo match with B was spontaneous. But the trip to Flushing Meadows is a planned event. In fact, I've been going with my son for a number of years -- it's a way for us to get together and spend some quality time together.

Heading for the matches

     We met at the tennis center, and first stopped off to watch a juniors match, where we saw a young Belgian edge out a Canadian 2 sets to 1. I like watching the boys, because first of all you can sit right next to the court and get a close-up view of the play. And also, these kids are good, but they're not like Roger Federer or Raphael Nadal -- they make mistakes, they feel the pressure. In short, they seem more human.

     Then we walked over to Arthur Ashe Stadium and viewed a women's quarterfinals match between Elina Svitolina of Ukraine and Johanna Konta of Great Britain. Svitolina was more confident, more consistent, and won the match 6-4, 6-4. But (we found out later) Svitolina in turn bowed to our own Serena Williams in the semi-finals, played last night. Williams will meet Bianca Andreescu of Canada for the women's finals tomorrow, Saturday, at 4 p.m. It will be on TV if you're interested.

Wawrinka makes a serve

     The next match we saw brought up the new bad boy of tennis, Daniil Medvedev from Russia, playing against former champion (in 2016) Stanley Wawrinka from Switzerland. Medvedev had made a "name" for himself in a previous match by rudely grabbing a towel from the ball person, then throwing his racket and later giving the finger to the crowd that booed him.

     So the fans were definitely on Wawrinka's side for the quarter finals. But it didn't matter. Medvedev behaved himself and won 3 sets to 1, and earned a place in the semi-finals against Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, who upset Roger Federer to get through to the second-to-last round. That match is played later today, Friday. The winner meets the winner of the other semi-final -- most likely Raphael Nadal -- for the championship on Sunday afternoon, Sept 8.

Medvedev up on the screen

     But for us, who wins is not so important. We love watching a day's worth of top-notch professional tennis. We love the crowds, the spectacle, the excitement, the international flavor -- and the chance to witness a small part of this historic sports event.

View across the grounds to the iconic Unisphere from the 1964 NY World's Fair

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

How You Know You're Retired

     You know you're retired when, as happened to me yesterday, three pieces of mail arrive at your door:  one from AARP, one from Medicare, and the third one advertising the local assisted-living facility!

     How else do you know you're retired? When you begin to realize that you have a lot of time on your hands and can take a day and go off and do something new and different and a little off-the-beaten track.

     So this past weekend B comes up to me and says, "There's a polo match over by the river."

     "Yeah?" says I. "So what?"

     "I've never been to a polo match. Why don't we go?"


     "I like the horses," she says by way of explanation.

     So we went to a polo match . . . proving that we have a lot of time on our hands. So we must be retired.

Here they come!

     Luckily the announcer, a pleasant older woman with a southern accent, offered some color commentary, along with calling the action of the game, so we could understand at least a little about what was going on. For example, she told us that a polo field is ten acres. You can fit nine football fields into a polo field, and still have room left over.

View from the booth

     Each team has four players, numbered 1 through 4. As best I could figure, the Number 1 player is the scorer; the Number 4 player is the defender; and Numbers 2 and 3 are in the middle to set up plays.

A number 4 player

     All you have to do is hit the ball with your mallet into the opposing team's goal, which is undefended by a goalie. But it's definitely harder than it looks.

Scrambling for the ball

     First of all, the horses -- or ponies as they're called -- tend to bunch up around the ball, getting in each other's way. And then someone might break out and suddenly the horses are flying -- at up to 35 m.p.h. we were told.

On the run

     The ball can get tangled up in the horses' feet, or go sailing up into the air. It can't be too easy to strike the ball when it's bouncing along off the bumps on the ground and the divots left by the horses' hooves.


     Players are ranked from -2 up to 10. So if you're ranked at 1, you're not the worst, you're three steps up the ladder. Don't ask me why.

     The horses look very smooth and elegant when you're watching them across the field. But when they get close, you can feel the weight, the power, the speed of the animals. It may be the sport of kings; but there is nothing delicate or formal about it.

Yes, women play too

     I really don't know if polo is a rich person's sport. We did see a few flutes of champagne and some fancy women's hats and people nibbling canapes under the shade of tents. But there was a lot of  tailgating going on as well. And the only admission charge was $10 for parking. Which makes it a lot more reasonable than . . . oh say, the U. S. Open tennis championships going on in New York right now.

Flowers, drinks and hats

     Which is what my next post is all about . . . for yes, being retired, I do have the time to travel up to Flushing Meadows, Queens, to watch a couple of matches at this premier American tennis event.