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

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ghosts Along the Delaware

     We drove over to Lambertville, NJ, across the Delaware river, because we heard that one of the neighborhoods puts on a pretty spectacular Halloween display. And since we, personally, invest more time, money and interest in the candy side of Halloween than we do in the decorations, we thought we should go see how the other half does it.

     First we took a drive up to Goat Hill and walked up to the lookout over the Delaware. We didn't see any goats, but we got a nice view looking north, and back west across the river to New Hope, PA. We felt the presence of a few ghosts from the distant past -- during the Revolutionary War both the British and the Americans used this vantage point to scout out enemy positions along the river.

     Then we headed into town and did some scouting of our own. One house featured a panoply of ghosts and goblins and witches in the front yard.

    A witch beckoned us down an alley to find more scary creatures.

     Yikes, two of them!

     One household was getting a little help with the yard work.

     Another offered a bit of glamour.

     Don't ask me what this is, but it's spooky enough, don't you think?.

     However, I do know a ghost when I see one. Anyway, may you be happy and safe for Halloween ... and get lots of candy.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

May We Never Go There Again

     When people say to me, "America is more polarized and divided than it has ever been," I say to them, remember the 1960s and Vietnam, or the 1950s and McCarthyism and desegregation. Think about the 1930s and the Depression and the police shooting union strikers in the street. And think about the Civil War.

     We've been divided before. And sometimes we need reminding: We don't want to become that divided again.

     B and I made a trip to Gettysburg last weekend. B told me she'd been there as a child, but didn't remember anything about it except a pleasant memory of her father leading her around by the hand. I had never been there before at all. But now I can tell you: It's a sobering experience.

A painting of the battle

     We went on an overcast day in October, so it wasn't too crowded. It was hot and humid for those three days in July 1863, when the battle took place, but somehow when we were there it seemed appropriate that the skies were cloudy and the air hung heavy with mist.

     We were told by friends to take the personalized tour. A guide gets in your car and drives you around the battlefield. You will learn a lot more than you will going on the bus tour, they said, and it will be a lot less confusing than the self-guided tour.

     The guide took us around the battlefield, which surrounds the town of Gettysburg, roughly following the chronology of the battle.

Looking down on the town of Gettysburg from the west

     On July 1, 1963, the Confederate army, commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee, arrived from the west. They had advanced up the Shenandoah Valley, essentially hiding from the Feds behind the mountains, and then cut northeast into Pennsylvania. Some units made it as far as the Susquehannah River. The Southerners hoped that an invasion of the North would demoralize the already war-weary Union, and perhaps persuade President Lincoln to come to the negotiating table and agree to a peace treaty that would leave the Confederacy intact.

     The North's Army of the Potomac, under General George Meade, rushed up from Washington, DC, to meet the challenge. The Confederates had numerical advantage that first day and pushed the Federal troops back, chasing them through the streets of town.

     By July 2, more Federal troops had arrived, and they formed a line along the high ground that ran east and south of town, called Cemetery Ridge. The ridge was anchored on the south by a small hill called Round Top, and an even smaller hill called Little Round Top.

Round Top on the right, Little Round Top on the left

     General Lee attacked, using a flanking maneuver. One group hit the Union right side. Another moved on the Union left, trying to take Little Round Top. During intense fighting, with both sides suffering terrible losses, a contingent of Confederates got caught in Devil's Den, below Little Round Top. Hundreds were mowed down by the Union forces above them.

Looking down on Devil's Den from Little Round Top

     Confederates took refuge on Seminary Hill, opposite the Union forces on Cemetery Hill. On July 3, Lee tried a flanking attack once again. When that was beaten back, he decided to risk everything on a frontal attack, right into the middle of Union lines. The Confederates spent several hours bombarding Union forces with canons, Then some 12,000 rebels advanced across the mile-wide open fields. At the center was a division led by Maj. Gen. George Picket. In an attack later known as Pickett's charge, one brigade breached Union lines. Soldiers fought with rifles and bayonets. For some it came down to hand-to-hand combat. But finally the rebels were beaten back. The Union had won.

First the Confederates used the canons, then they attacked across this field

     The next morning, July 4, Lee retreated south. General Meade followed, but failed to press the advantage, and so the Confederates were able to cross the Potomac River and head back to Virginia. The South was finished, but they didn't know it, as they still held out hopes for a peace treaty. The Civil War lasted almost two more years before General Ulysses S. Grant, who'd replaced Meade, took Richmond and forced Lee to surrender at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865.

A few of the graves in the nearby National Cemetery

     Of course, we know Lincoln was assassinated just a few days later, arguably the last victim of a war that killed more than 600,000 American volunteer soldiers -- including as many as 30,000 men who died from those three days at Gettysburg.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Guns Don't Kill People . . .

 . . . people kill people.

     But you can't shoot someone without a gun. And it's a lot harder to kill someone if you don't have a gun.

     I don't know how gun control is an issue that's of interest particularly to people in their 60s and 70s -- any more than it is for any other age group -- except, maybe, possibly, because of our experience and wisdom we can take a more mature and considered look at the issue.

     Occasionally a politician or conservative think tank will cite studies showing that in places where more people have guns, there are actually fewer murders. The idea, I suppose, is that if a criminal fears that a store owner is hiding a pistol behind the counter, the criminal is less likely to rob the store. This may actually be true; the issue has been argued both ways.

     A friend of mine, who's a typical moderate liberal suburbanite, carries a handgun in his car. Why? Because he once was held up at gunpoint by the side of the road. He was in fear for his life and felt completely helpless, and he vowed never to be put into that position again.

     He feels safer with a gun in the car. Is he actually any safer? That's debatable.

     But the point is, it doesn't matter. It has no bearing on the issue of gun control. No one is arguing that Americans should be stripped of their guns (are they?). Even Beto O'Rourke who said, "Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15s," doesn't say he wants to take away all guns. Kamela Harris owns a gun; Elizabeth Warren says her brother owns a gun; both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have explicitly defended the right of citizens to bear arms.

     Some say gun control should be left up to state or local authorities. New York has a gun control law. Plenty of other places do too. But, for one thing, it's too easy to purchase a gun in one location and carry it to another location where it might be illegal -- but where there's no way the local law can possibly be enforced. Also, when people start shooting federally elected officials, like U. S. Representatives Gabrielle Giffords and Steve Scalise, it only seems logical that federal laws should apply in the matter.

     So what could possibly be wrong with treating guns like another dangerous but useful tool -- the automobile. No one complains that people are denied the right to own an automobile. Almost every American has one, or uses one. Lots of people have two or three.

     But there are laws regulating the use and ownership of an automobile. You have to get a minimal amount of training, then pass a test and get a license, before you can drive. You register your car, so authorities can keep track of all these automobiles, in case a crime is committed or someone is hurt. And you're also required to have auto insurance, so if someone does get hurt by this dangerous machine, they can get reimbursed for their medical bills and maybe receive some sort of payment as recompense for their pain and suffering.

     And nobody pickets Congress saying, If cars are outlawed, only outlaws will have cars!

     So what's wrong with the federal government requiring people to get some training, pass a test, and then get a license before they're allowed to shoot a gun? (Or the states could set these requirements under federal guidelines.) A gun is just as dangerous as a car, perhaps more so. And so it only seems logical that shooters, just like drivers, should be able to demonstrate that they're competent to use one. (Kids in some areas could take Shooter's Ed in school -- why not?) Since it's a dangerous as well as a useful tool -- again, just like a car -- people should have to prove that they're responsible enough to own one. And for that the gun would have to be registered, and insured, just like a car, to ensure a level of sanity to the situation.

     Sure, it would cost gun owners a bit of money -- but a lot less than it costs to keep a car. Hunters could still hunt. Store owners could still keep a gun to defend themselves from violent criminals. Hobbyists could still collect their rifles and guns. And my friend can keep his gun in his glove compartment.

     I just don't see why this wouldn't work. A lot of people like their guns. They find them useful. That's fine. Nobody's trying to take away the guns. But guns are dangerous. They are scary. At least as scary as a car.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

How to Give Money to Your Children

     B and I recently redid our wills, and this got us thinking about how -- and how much -- money to leave for our children and grandchildren. Then we realized we are not alone. Over the next couple of decades by some estimates Baby Boomers will leave around $30 trillion to their Gen-X and Millennial children.

     Of course the answer to how much we give away is: whatever is leftover after we die, minus a few minor bequests to a couple of favorite charities. But of course the issue is more complicated than that. For example, should we give some money to our kids now, while they're still young and could really use it to buy a house, pay for day care, or start a college fund for the kids?

     For some clear and sensible advice I turned to my financial guru, Jeremy Kisner, Director of Financial Planning & Senior Wealth Adviser at Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, AZ. He has covered various aspects of the issue in his blog, Clear and Concise Financial Advice, and so with his permission I've cribbed some of his counsel.

     Can you afford it? The first thing to consider is: Can you afford to give away assets now without concern that you may run out later in life? The last thing you want to do is give away money, then become a burden to your children in a few years when they themselves are pressed for money to send kids to college or save for a retirement of their own. You can give money more confidently if you have long-term-care insurance to handle future medical expenses and you have guaranteed income sources such as Social Security and pensions that cover all or most of your living expenses.

     Will an inheritance affect the recipient's motivation? Many clients who have substantial assets earned them on their own. In fact, 80% of millionaire households did not inherit their money or enjoy any kind of windfall. These people are generally proud of the struggles they went through and the prudent financial decisions they made. Ironically, they then often want to make life easy for their children and grandchildren. Paving an easy path for children can deny them the pride-inducing sacrifices that make life's journey meaningful. This is less true if you are gifting to children who are older (in their 50s or 60s), and also less true for gifts that provide experiences, such as sponsoring  family vacations or reunions, or subsidizing educational expenses.

     Will you give equally? There is almost nothing you can do to create more hurt feelings and dysfunction in your family than gifting unequally among a group of children or grandchildren. It may seem reasonable to support one child or grandchild more than others, either because one child needs more help, or one child wants to start a business or go back to school. Just be careful. You don't want to be perceived as playing favorites.

     But does equal always mean fair? My advice is to leave equal bequests to your children and grandchildren, unless there is a clear and persuasive reason for the inequity. You should always communicate why you are making an unequal distribution, either while you are alive or else by leaving a letter with your estate-planning documents. This can be uncomfortable to do, but your children will likely come up with their own explanation (e.g. my parents had a favorite child, and it wasn't me!) if you don't communicate why you made the decisions you made.

     What about giving to charity? I also recommend a conversation or letter explaining why/if you're taking some of "their" inheritance and giving it to a charity. It may seem as though you shouldn't need to explain what you do with your money, but better to err on the side of oversharing, because hurt feelings can last a lifetime and overshadow all the good times you had together.

     What are the tax ramifications? To the IRS it makes little difference whether you make your bequests during your lifetime or after your death. In 2019 you can transfer up to $11.4 million  without the gift being subject to federal gift or estate taxes. (Some people think this amount is too large, contributing to inequality, but as things stand it will slowly get larger since the amount is indexed to inflation.) You are also free to give up to $15,000 annually to as many people as you like without owing any federal gift tax, or using up any of the $11.4 million lifetime exemption. You can gift more than $15,000 in a year, but you must file IRS Form 709 to let the IRS know that you are using part of your lifetime exemption. All these amounts can be doubled if you and your spouse each make a gift.

     Is it better to give cash or appreciated assets? Parents usually give their children cash, because it's the easiest thing to do. However, when assets such as stocks or real estate are passed with your estate the recipient steps up the cost basis to the time of your death rather than using your original cost. In the event you have substantial assets, or assets that have appreciated in value, it's probably a good idea to discuss your strategy with a financial adviser.

     How do we talk about this? It's important for people to have open, honest communication about money with family members before they inherit assets. This does not mean the kids need to see copies of your financial statements. You just want your beneficiaries to know what to expect -- and you can use these discussions to pass on your values along with the money. One way to do this is to tell personal stories  -- some of them may even be humorous -- about the risks you have have taken and the sacrifices you've made in order to build a successful business or career. Gifts that are shared without purpose or intention can feel like welfare. Beneficiaries tend to have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility when they are included in family discussions about bequests, however generous or modest they may be.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Cold Chills

     This week we're getting cold chills . . . not because of the weather, not because Halloween is looming on the horizon, but because of a few things on the minds of Baby Boomers.

     Laurie Stone of Musing, Rants & Scribbles gets a cold chill whenever she hears certain fateful words. Her pulse increases, her stomach tightens, she starts feeling lightheaded. Did she hear that right? Maybe she got it wrong? But yes, her husband just uttered that fright-filled sentence "I'm Going Food Shopping." So go trick-or-treat over at Laurie's blog, if you dare.

     Rebecca Olkowski with BabyBoomer.com wonders if you've ever gotten a weird rash and don't know what it is, or what caused it. Rebecca is itching to tell you about hers in Dealing with a Rash: or Fun with Aging. I think we can all relate as she asks: Is it an allergic reaction? Can it be a touch of eczema? It is due to stress? Check out her post to see how she's dealing with it -- and for a reminder about how to keep up to speed with your routine preventive care.

     Meryl Baer admits to spending too much time surfing the net -- and if surfing the net doesn't give you the chills, I don't know what does. (See Carol Cassara's post below). Anyway, Baer reports that sometimes she uncovers interesting but completely useless information on the internet, such as . . . well, see what she found this week in her post Three Blind Mice and Another One.

     At Unfold and Begin, Jennifer is wondering why the media drum it into our heads that "failure is not an option." The phrase gives her the chills, since she feels the only place it really rings true is in a life-or-death situation. Instead, she sees failure as a great learning tool and a necessary step in learning new things. So if you yourself have ever felt a fear of failure, don't fail to find out why Jennifer says Failure Is an Option. -- and see what the likes of Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Robert Kennedy thought about failure.

     On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide Rita Robison got chills about a study that said advice to eat less red meat for better health is unscientific. The report is critical of existing nutritional studies that rely on self-reported information that is necessarily flawed. However, Robison also points out the holes in the new report. For a full serving of why you really shouldn't consume too much meat belly up to her post at Researchers Who Say Red Meat Isn't That Harmful Are Wrong.

     And finally, it's the incivility of life today that gives Carol Cassara the chills. Over at A Healing Spirit she asks, "Are we humans? Or animals? Or savages?" And in her post How Did We Become Lord of the Fliesshe draws eerie parallels between our lives today and the classic novel by William Golding.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

In Defense of Old White Males

     Someone recently commented on one of my posts that Old White Men have left us "a country crippled by debt and covered in unbreathable air and undrinkable water."

     I get the point. Old White Men have basically been in control of things for the last, oh, eight or ten thousand years, and so they are the ones responsible for all the bad things happening in our world today, from inequality to global warming to wars in the Middle East. I not only get the point, I can't even disagree with it.

     However, I happen to be an old white man myself, so I feel like I have to come to the defense of my own kind. And while I admit to some bias, I just don't believe old white males are as bad as they are sometimes made out to be. In fact, any statement blaming old white males for every problem under the sun hits the trifecta of discrimination: it is ageist, racist and sexist!

     So first of all, all the bad things can't possibly be entirely the fault of men in power, because there are, and have been, plenty of women in positions of power, ever since Cleopatra. So for example, we have had three recent female Secretaries of State: Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. There are plenty of corporate ceos, such as Ginni Rometty at IBM, Mary Barra at GM and Indra Nooyi at Pepsi. Plus there are 25 women U. S. Senators and 102 female U. S. Representatives, as well as crowds of prominent women in the media (Oprah Winfrey), literature (Toni Morrison) and academia (Amy Gutmann, who as pres. of Univ. of Pennsylvania makes $3 million a year . . . hello income inequality, hello college debt!)

     So has the female record been any better than the male record? I dunno. In most cases, it's hard to tell. How do you compare, say, comedian Stephen Colbert with comedian Chelsea Handler? They're both funny in their own way.

     But what we can say is that women don't always do better than men. Carly Fiorina didn't do too well at Hewlett Packard. When she was named ceo in 1999 Fortune magazine gushed, "she didn't just break the glass ceiling, she obliterated it." Then she went on to lay off some 30,000 employees (yes, 30,000!), and was finally forced out in 2005.

     Or look at Marissa Meyer, who was supposed to save Yahoo. But instead, according to Business Insider, she generated "slowing growth, internal dissent, plummeting employee morale and calls for her resignation," before finally selling the company to Verizon for a fraction of what it was once worth.

     Or think about Indra Nooyi at Pepsi. She's considered a success for increasing profits and developing new products. But Pepsi basically makes its money selling sugar, salt and high fructose corn syrup to the masses. In short, she's done just what a successful man would do!

     Anyway, if you blame men for all the bad things in the world, you also have to give credit to men for all the good things as well, including all the great art, music and literature -- plus the modern conveniences in the home that save us from a life of drudgery, the modern transportation system that, for whatever its faults, allows us to visit our relatives and go on those wonderful vacations; the modern health-care system that, again for all its faults, has allowed us to live healthier, more active and much longer lives.

     Let's face it. If it weren't for old white men, most of us would be dead by now.

     Maybe if women had been in charge there would have been fewer wars. Maybe society would be more equal. Who knows? But one thing's for sure. Women will get their chance. Today, women earn 57% of bachelor degrees, 60% of master's degrees, and 52% of doctorates. And you can bet, that's where the leaders of tomorrow will come from.