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

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Sun Sets on 2019

     We drove out  to Central Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half west of us, to celebrate Christmas with B's sister and her family. They live in an old farmhouse that over the years has slowly been surrounded by one housing development after another as various people have sold off their farms (or in one case, a golf course) to real-estate developers. Apparently, housing is a lot more lucrative than farming.

    The area is still fairly rural, however, and B's sister lives in a stone house with three-foot-thick walls from the 1700s, with three acres, a huge red barn, and a big front yard and smaller backyard given over to vegetable gardening.

     We stayed in the annex, an attached part of the house where her husband's parents lived for over 30 years, until they died. (They chose "shared housing" long before it became popular in current retirement thinking.) The annex has a kitchen and dining area downstairs, and a large bedroom with a half bathroom up the creaky, narrow back stairs. You have to sneak back through a bedroom in the main house into a hallway bath to take a shower.

     We visited with members of the family, plus a young man from Tennessee, originally from India, and a young woman working in Los Angeles, originally from Iran. They were friends of B's husband's brother, who's a high-school teacher and somehow makes friends with almost anyone he meets in the hallways -- and often, as in this case, keeps up the friendships long after the kids have graduated. These kids were traveling back to the East Coast for a vacation. They were staying with their friend, the husband's brother, for a few days, then heading for a day in New York City and a day or two in Washington, DC.

     Anyway, around sundown I went out back and took a photo looking west. For some reason, it just seemed a brilliant finish to a holiday week, and put a period on the year . . . and a decade as well.

        It's hard to believe we're heading into 2020. Each year, each decade, seems to go by faster and faster. Is that the theory of relativity? We have to grab onto them, as best we can, and hold them close.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Aging ... It's Not So Bad

     I read an article in The New Yorker back in November called Why We Can't Tell the Truth About Aging by Arthur Krystal. The writer is a 71-year-old New York culture critic, who seems to want to put the worst face on aging that he possibly can. Or more precisely, what Krystal does is disparage a group of recent books that try to put the best face on aging.

     If an author believes that older people can have good sex, like Ashton Applewhite does in her book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, then Krystal grumbles that if it's so, he's "never heard anyone testify to this."

    What about reports showing that people actually grow happier in old age, such as Jonathan Rauch's The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50?  Krystal's response: Bah humbug! Unhappy people just don't bother to respond to surveys.

     Do seniors, as some writers claim, experience less social anxiety and find themselves more comfortable in their own skins as they get older? Maybe, maybe not, says Krystal. But one thing he's sure of: You're going to suffer chronic inflammation, weaker bones, strained eyes, flagging hearts, less brain function, and more pain. In other words, "You're going to feel much worse."

     His article goes on from there, as most New Yorker articles do, but suffice it to say that while Krystal may find some philosophical wisdom in old age, he can't help but end on the desperate note that with wisdom comes grief, with knowledge much sorrow.

     The topic of aging is near and dear to my heart, for the obvious reason that I'm getting older. But I'm not nearly so negative as our New York intellectual. And anyway, as the saying goes, getting old is better than the alternative.

     As an antidote to Krystal, let me point out a few things that aren't so bad -- especially if we don't just lie down and accept the worst, but make an effort to keep ourselves active, involved and engaged.

     For one thing, our bodies do not inevitably get frail and fall apart, except maybe at the very end. Everyone who has been on earth the same amount of time has the same chronological age, but they don't all have the same biological age. Your biological age is based on how well your body functions, including blood pressure and weight, bone density and cholesterol levels. A healthy 70 year old who takes care of herself may be biologically no older than a 50 year old who does not. We can lower our biological age with exercise and good nutrition. One simple example: Harvard Magazine reported that subjects who walked an average of just ten minutes a day lived almost two years longer than those who didn't exercise at all.

     And that means we can still have plenty of energy and keep doing most of the things we like to do. Our energy levels depend more on our lifestyle and our attitude than they do on chronological age. Meditation, restful sleep and exercise are effective ways to pump up energy levels. If you have trouble sleeping, the advice is to go to bed at a set time every night; get up the same time every morning; avoid caffeine-laden drinks such as coffee, tea and colas; exercise for 20 or 30 minutes a day. And do not try to induce sleep with alcohol. Read a book or magazine instead.

     And so what about our sex lives? Testosterone is the hormone associated with male sex drive, and it's true that testosterone levels diminish with age. (Testosterone levels are higher in the morning, lower at night.) But the reality is, for men as well as women, sex drive is mainly generated in the head. More problematic than aging, for both men and women, are factors such as stress, fatigue, medical conditions and tensions within a relationship. So as long as you can think sexually and communicate your needs and desires, you can remain sexually active – which may not always involve intercourse but can include plenty of other intimate activities.

     But what about our deteriorating memory and those so-called "senior moments"? It's true that older people often suffer some short-term memory loss. But consider this: Researchers from the University of California and Columbia University tested a group of 20-somethings against people in their 60s and 70s, in various subjects, and found that despite a general loss of mental acuity, the older group did better than the younger test-takers in almost every category. How is that? Younger people were better able to manipulate information and process it quickly. But older subjects benefited from knowledge acquired through culture, education and a lifetime of experience. They had more focus, a better perspective and more patience. And for most practical applications – whether buying a house, driving a car, or playing cards – the wisdom that comes with age trumps the quick-mindedness of youth.

     And Krystal's view of happiness is just downright curmudgeonly. Studies have consistently confirmed the happiness curve, showing that people get happier after age 50. The happiness U-curve, as it's called, shows that happiness declines with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood – even for people who are successful, as many high achievers never seem to fully appreciate their success. People's levels of life satisfaction typically bottom out in their 40s, then begin to increase as they age through their 60s. A 2011 study from Stanford University found thatthe peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.

     None of this is to minimize the very real health problems that can come with age . . . or at any age. Many of us live with chronic pain, whether it's garden-variety back or knee pain, or something more serious. But a defeatist attitude doesn't help anybody. We don't have to simply succumb to old age, as Krystal suggests, and it is somewhat of a myth that we can't do anything about how aging affects us, that it's all determined by our genes.

     Of course, we can't pick our parents, and we are stuck with the genes we were born with. But how those genes are expressed depends a lot on how we live our lives. Our thoughts, emotions, our lifestyle, and how we cope with stress all go a long way in determining whether certain genes are turned on or off. This means that we have the power to  nurture the good genes and prune back the bad ones. For example, you probably won't get lung cancer if you don't smoke, even if you do have a cancer gene. And while you may be genetically disposed toward Alzheimer's disease, whether you actually get Alzheimer's depends largely on your lifestyle, including sleep, diet, stress levels. 

     So the inevitable question is: Am I whistling past the graveyard? I guess my answer is: Is there any better way to go past the graveyard?

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Guilty! (with Explanation)

     It turns out, I am a hypocrite. I preach traffic safety. Don't speed, I admonish. Don't tailgate. Don't text and drive. Don't drive if you're under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or prescription medications. Make sure to signal when you're changing lanes. No aggressive driving. Be polite and considerate of other drivers, especially if they're young or old or display a handicapped sticker. And again and above all, don't speed.

     And then what happened the other day? I opened the mail to find . . . I got a speeding ticket!

     The state of Maryland alleges that I was driving 49 mph in a 35-mph zone.

     The truth is, even though I'm usually one of the slower drivers on the road, I probably was going 49. But let me explain. And then I'll throw myself on the mercy of the court.

     By way of background, I'll tell you a little bit about my accuser, the state of Maryland. B and I actually considered retiring to Maryland. At first, we thought Washington, DC. But living in Washington, DC, it turns out, is way too expensive for most retirees.

     Then we thought we could retire to the suburbs of Washington. You've heard of Bethesda, MD? Or Silver Spring? Oh, how naive we were! The Washington suburbs are just as expensive as the District. Plus, traffic in the suburbs of Washington is enough to drive you to an early grave.

     At one point we visited Annapolis, MD. It's the capital. It's less than an hour drive to Washington. And it's still close enough to our old hunting grounds in the Northeast. You can hop on Amtrak for a 3-hour train trip to New York City.

     Annapolis is home to historic St. John's college and the U. S. Naval Academy, and features lots of waterfront, boating, restaurants and entertainment. Annapolis is expensive, yes, but not as bad as Washington. We even looked at a few houses in Annapolis. But the prices were a stretch for us, and the real-estate taxes are pretty steep.

     And then we found out that Maryland would tax our retirement income. Maryland does not count among the 13 states that tax Social Security benefits. But it does levy income tax on IRA and 401K withdrawals. And since IRA withdrawals were going to provide a significant amount of our retirement income, that gave us pause.

Caught on tape. And yeah, that's me .... on a four-lane
highway with no traffic. Do you see
a speed limit sign? So am I really speeding?
     We also found out that while Maryland doesn't tax its own people who collect government pensions, it does tax pensions from out of state. B has a small pension from New York. It's small enough already, so we didn't want the tax people of Maryland making it smaller.

     So we decided not to retire in Maryland, at least in part because we felt they were just after our money, and targeting us as out-of-staters. We don't mind paying "our fair share" in taxes, but we don't want to be treated differently, singled out as an easy mark. So we went someplace more welcoming, as in Pennsylvania, where we can keep our Social Security and IRA benefits and live a comfortable retired life, paying taxes like normal dutiful citizens but not worrying about where we'd get the money to stave off a greedy taxman.

     So I hope you now appreciate the position of the state of Maryland. They're pretty aggressive about raising money from people. Or, to put it bluntly, Maryland is out to fleece innocent citizens, especially those from other states who happen to be passing through.

     And that's what we were doing. Passing through. Which leads me to my speeding ticket. Clearly, the authorities in Maryland set up a speed trap for unsuspecting people like us.

   The facts of the case:  I was driving on a Saturday, around 8 a.m., heading out to the Interstate. As you can see, the road I was on is a four-lane highway. During the day the road is choked with traffic, so maybe a 35-mph speed limit makes sense under that circumstance. But when I was traveling, there was no traffic at all. And when did you ever hear of a clear, four-lane highway with a 35-mph speed limit? Do you think I was posing a risk by driving 49 mph? Do you think they noticed my out-of-state license plate?

     Okay. You're the judge. You've heard my explanation. Are you sympathetic to my argument? Are you ready to give me a break? Or do you think I'm a threat to society and find me guilty as charged? 

     To be fair, the state of Maryland did not throw the book at me. I'm not going to jail. I won't have to pick up litter by the side of the road. They even say on the citation that paying my fine will not result in points and will not increase my insurance rate. They just want my money.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Glad to Be Alive

     Right now, I'm just grateful to be here.

     Over the weekend B and I witnessed an accident on I95, north of Baltimore. I was driving in the middle lane, doing the speed limit at 65 mph. B was sitting in the passenger seat.

     There was a box truck up ahead in the left-hand lane. I hadn't noticed it passing me by, which I would have done if it had been really flying. But it was in the left-hand lane, so it was probably doing around 70.

      B saw it before I did. She let out a squeal. Then I saw the puff of dust and dirt. The truck was veering off the highway into the center median. For a second I thought he was going to cross over into oncoming traffic.

     Instead he swerved back onto the road. I saw the box of the truck start to wobble and tip. It only took a second, but time seemed to slow down as the truck turned again, trying to correct. Then the top of the truck slanted to the right, balanced on a knife's edge of gravity and momentum. Then it toppled and flipped.

     I didn't see the truck go all the way over. There were cars in front of us in the way. But fortunately, traffic was relatively light. I hit the brakes and slowed to about 20 mph, following other cars.

     As we inched forward I saw the truck up ahead, on its side. It was by itself. No other vehicles seemed to be involved.

     The cars ahead of me slowed even more. Traffic stopped for a moment, then inched forward again. By the time we approached the overturned truck there were already two cars stopped -- one in the center lane beyond the truck, the other pulled up onto the left-hand shoulder. A woman was standing by the side of the truck with a phone to her ear. A man was reaching up to the cab of the truck. The driver's side door was open. The man was trying to help the driver climb up vertically out of the truck.

      I thought, briefly, if I should stop too. But we were in a line of traffic that was moving slowly down the right-hand lane. I could try to get over. But what could I do? The driver was trying to get out, having difficulty because he was climbing out the top. But he was struggling like it was difficult, not because he was hurt.

     We figured the woman with the phone was already calling in the accident. But B dialed 911 on her phone anyway, just to make sure. She reported the incident, gave the mileage marker and her name and call-back number. Clearly, the woman on the other end of the phone didn't know about the accident, but we thought she would pass it on to the dispatch operator -- who may already know about the accident but at least this would confirm it.

     By this time we were past the truck, and traffic was speeding up again. We breathed easier, thinking there were no injuries and we had at least done our duty to call it in. Two minutes later we saw a police van coming the other way, lights flashing. We assumed it was responding to the accident.

    We don't know what happened to cause the turnover. Was the driver texting or talking on the phone and just got distracted? Did someone cut him off and force him over onto the shoulder? Did he fall asleep? We'll never know. We're just glad he wasn't hurt -- or if he was, it wasn't bad -- and there didn't seem to be anyone else in the truck, or any other cars involved.

     It's dangerous to be out on the road these days. Please be careful over the holidays.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Can We Live Forever?

     We all know that how long we live -- and how healthy we are -- depends partly on the lottery of birth. It matters how healthy our parents were and how long they lived. It matters whether we drew the fat card, the alcoholism card, the cancer card, or the predisposition to any other disease.

     Still and all, there is a lot we can do to help ourselves live longer and feel better, no matter who our parents were, or however much we may have mistreated ourselves in our younger years. If a person smoked when they were young, for example, but has not touched a cigarette in 20 years, their lungs look almost the same as someone who never smoked at all. And even if you spent 40 years sitting at a desk job (like I did), you can go a long way toward improving your heart and lung functions by exercising three or four times a week when you're in your 60s or 70s (I'm trying!).

     Don't take my word for it. Consider philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He argued that while we are not complete masters of our fate, we're not passive victims either. We are co-creators of our destiny -- and our longevity -- because while external forces do play a part in determining our actions, we ourselves are an indispensable force, and we can carve out a unique existence even if, as often happens, it does not turn out precisely as planned.

     Some people have their own secrets for staying healthy. A fistful of vitamins or glass of wine every day? Never turning on the TV or avoiding social media? Yoga three times a week? Here are a few suggestions that come from my own experience, along with a small dose of research.

     Eat a good diet. We've seen the fad diets come and go, but the real answer is no secret. Healthy people avoid too much of the saturated fats in meat and dairy. They restrict the amount of sugar and salt in their diets. They drink lots of water, tea and coffee, and perhaps a small amount of alcohol, and they consume lots of fruits and vegetables. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) determined that any diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

     Get plenty of sleep. Various studies have determined that a good night's sleep leads to lower blood pressure and boosts the immune system, making our bodies better able to fight off infection. Other research suggests that too little sleep could be linked to an increased risk for stroke and cancer. Some studies have even suggested that sleep deprivation affects the brain, leading us to make poor decisions that are detrimental to our health..

     Get some exercise. Experts argue over how much is enough, but everyone agrees that some is better than none at all. The CDC recommends sweating our way through aerobics for two and a half hours per week. We should also engage in some moderate strength training, whether it's lifting weights or doing sit-ups, or digging in the garden and practicing yoga. The important thing is to pick an activity that we enjoy so we'll keep doing it on a regular basis.

     Drive safely. We sometimes forget in this age of seat belts, airbags and crash zones that traffic accidents are still a major cause of death -- some 40,000 Americans in 2018, according to the National Safety Council. So we should wear our seat belts, put down our cell phones, obey speed limits, and watch out for aggressive drivers. Also, be careful about the side effects of any prescription or over-the-counter medications you may take.

     Maintain an active social life. People who enjoy a close family life or have plenty of friends typically live longer than people who are lonely. Experts say that being engaged in a community gives people a sense of security, promotes healthy behavior, and helps people avoid self-destructive habits like drinking too much. It's just easier to stick to a healthy diet, or an exercise program, if you're doing it with other people.

     Stay involved and engaged. Death rates for older men who are still working are half of what they are for men of the same age who are fully retired. The mortality trends for women are similar, though not as pronounced. Researchers have concluded that it's not working that makes the difference, but staying engaged in life and involved in something bigger than our own personal problems. Self-sufficiency is not the key to a longer life. Staying connected to a community is the secret.

     Relax. Yes, we need to stay involved and engaged. But the experts also say it's important to spend time in silence, in nature, and not be hounded by constant social stimulation. As behavioral geneticist Susan Smalley of UCLA says, "We need time to do nothing, to be our best selves -- well-rounded and creative human beings. The 'doing' side of our nature needs a 'being' side to be in balance."

     Go to the doctor. Flu and pneumonia comprise the seventh leading cause of death among older Americans. We should all get the pneumonia vaccine, and every fall the flu vaccine. We should also keep up with recommended screenings, including the much-dreaded colonoscopy that can find and eliminate precancerous polyps. The CDC points out that over 60 million Americans have high blood pressure, yet fewer than half of them have it under control. So we all need to check our blood pressure, take our medications -- and make all the other lifestyle changes that will allow us to live long and prosper.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Broken Promise

     "I never throw up," I bragged to B on one of our first dates. This was sometime in 2003. At the time I was working on a no-throw-up record of almost 30 years.

     B was pretty; she was smart; she had a great personality. I liked her. So I thought this was a good selling point for myself. I mean, who likes someone who throws up a lot? But I guess what I was doing, with my lame attempt at humor, was making a kind of promise. I would stay healthy for her. She was not signing on to be my nursemaid. No throwing up.

     The last time I'd thrown up was in 1974 or 1975 when I'd had a terrible bout of the flu. And, well, stuff happens. Soon after, I fainted and cracked my chin on the bathroom sink as I went down. My wife (my first wife) panicked when she saw me crumpled on the floor with blood running down my face. She called 911. The first thing I knew, I woke up with my wife hovering over me and two male faces murmuring some mildly reassuring words.

     That's how bad it has to be when I throw up.

     But last weekend . . .

     We had just gotten home from our trip down south. Our grandson had had a bout of stomach flu. So did someone else in the family. But I kept my distance, washed my hands. And anyway, that was four or five days earlier.

     The morning we got home we went out to breakfast at a diner. We had never been there before, but it was crowded. Must be good.

     I ordered eggs, pancakes and a side of fruit.

     The portions were huge. But the fruit looked good. I dug in. As usual, B forked a few pieces for herself. But I was the one who gobbled up most of it. 

     Later that afternoon I just felt tired. I don't know why. I'd slept well. I hadn't really done anything vigorous or taxing. But we'd been traveling. That creates more stress than you think. Maybe it made sense that I was tired.

     At dinner the food, to me, looked intimidating. I ate a bite or two of chicken. It was too rich, too spicy. The asparagus seemed stringy and hard to chew. I left most of the meal on my plate.

     I did the dishes, as usual, then went upstairs to my desk. I tootled around on the computer for a bit, then B came in. We had an engagement the next day. She wanted to discuss what time we should leave and other details of the outing. I looked at her and said, "I hate to say this, but I don't feel so good."

     She looked disappointed, but understanding. "Well, let's see how you feel in the morning."

     It was about five minutes later when for some reason the thought crept into into my mind: I'd better get to the bathroom.

     I'll spare you the details. But it's a good thing I did. Because my now more-than-40-year throw-up record was over. In spades.

     Luckily, B decided to sleep at the other end of the house. I got more exercise than sleep that night. But finally around 5 a.m. I settled down and slept till about 10. I heard the phone ring a couple of times but didn't pay attention.

     I got up for an hour or two and found that B was still there. She had canceled our engagement. Then I went back to sleep. I got up again around 2 p.m. B asked me if I wanted anything to eat. I said no. She asked about dinner later on. Some toast? Chicken soup? No. No. Then I saw a potato on the counter. "How about mashed potatoes?" I asked.

     I took another nap from about 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Got up. Ate a few mashed potatoes. I was worrying that I would lie awake all night since I had slept most of the day. But no. I fell asleep listening to a podcast and stayed asleep until 8 a.m. the next morning.

     I got up. I don't know if it had been the flu or the food, but now I felt fine. Well, mostly fine. I felt like I had been through a fight, and was now recovering, like the guy in the movies who is sitting there half-dazed with a bandaged face and an arm in a sling.

     A day later I was back on my feet. I went to my class, played table tennis that night. I had met the enemy and had won. And the silver lining -- I'd lost about five pounds. But it took two days out of my life. And I had broken the promise I'd made to B, all those years ago.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Too Much to Do?

     I woke up this morning to the tune of "Here Comes Santa Claus" on the clock radio. B insists on setting the alarm for 6:10 a.m. because twice a week she wakes up early to get to her 7 a.m. yoga class.

     Most of the time I don't hear the radio in the morning. I'm a good sleeper. But how can you resist the gentle, mellifluous voice of Gene Autry from so long ago? I love the old Christmas songs, the ones that herald in the holiday season. Yes, the holidays are upon us, and our Baby Boomer bloggers are preparing for the season.

     To kick things off, Meryl Baer at Six Decades and Counting tackles the subject on many of our minds. Shopping. In Small Business Saturday and More she recounts all the special shopping opportunities we have these days, from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. But she ends, appropriately for the season, on a different note, reminding us about Giving Tuesday.

      Rita Robison of The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide offers some holiday advice from her perspective as a consumer and finance journalist. She suggests that we make a budget, compare prices, avoid impulse items, keep receipts. But there's more, so check out her post Tips for Shopping before you hit the stores, virtual, brick or otherwise.

     Rebecca Olkowski of BabyBoomers.com reminds us that the season is really all about gratitude and counting our blessings. It's sometimes hard to do, she admits, when times are tough, but making the effort to feel and express gratitude can actually help us get through our challenges. In A Time to Be Grateful she reflects on her own life, which includes dogs, family, home, cancer, and the world we live in.

     Jennifer from Unfold and Begin is also grateful for the year that is drawing to a close. As she tells us in Be Thankful for What You Have she left Connecticut in 2019 to find a new life in central Florida. Now the blogger shares her first-hand experience about moving so far away from home . . . and how she now eagerly awaits "what's next."

     Carol Cassara of Heart, Mind, Soul has been thinking along the same lines as Jennifer Kolsak. Except she lives in California, not Connecticut. And she hasn't actually changed her life; she's only thinking about it. She's beginning to realize, she says, that as we age we tend to lose patience with nuisances, inconveniences and everyday problems. Things we might have done as a matter of course when we were younger become "too much trouble." So in her post Is My Love Affair with California Over? she examines life today in the Golden State . . . and if, for her, the love affair has run its course, or if, like any other love affair, it just has its ups and downs.

     Finally, Laurie Stone of Musings, Rants & Scribbles, asks us: Do you feel the holiday pressure starting to kick in? Do you feel the need to get everything done on time . . . on a budget . . . with a smile? As she watched her to-do list grow ever longer -- trees, wreathes, cards, decorations, stockings, holly, cookies, gifts -- her inner Scrooge started to well up. But then, like me, she heard a song. It was an unmistakable voice, one we all remember, one that for her would Save Christmas.