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

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Health and Wealth Gap

     Retirees are not worried about money. We are worried about contracting Covid. Our children are not worried about Covid. They are worried about money.

     So Covid presents a health gap between young and old, as well as a wealth gap between young and old. That's an undeniable conclusion from an Edward Jones and Age Wave multi-generational study of some 9,000 Americans.

     It makes sense when you realize that Covid-19 has in six months killed over three times the number of Americans who died in all the years of the Vietnam War. Today Covid is the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer, but ahead of Alzheimer's, accidents and any kind of criminal activity including gun violence.

     Most of the people who get Covid are under 40. But most of the people who die from Covid are over 60. A quarter of people over age 60 who come down with Covid end up in the hospital. But only 3% of those under 40 spend any time in the hospital. And they usually get better. It's extremely rare for someone under age 40 to die of Covid.

     But if retirees have to worry about Covid, we are not by and large worried about our income. We're not losing a job or suffering a cutback in pay. Our incomes are secure, from Social Security, pensions, IRAs and other non-earned income. Plus, three-quarters of retirees own their own homes, half of us owning outright with no more mortgage. So only about 10% of retirees report that Covid has "negatively impacted" their financial security.

     For our children it's a different story. They have lost over 20 million jobs. Some of those jobs have come back in the last two months. But further layoffs linger. And nobody knows how many are still working but are taking home half a salary, or even less.

     In our case, out of four children, two are still working at full salary. One was furloughed for three months on a fraction of his salary. He's now back at work, hoping for the best. The fourth kept his full salary until June, then was cut back by 50%, and recently was cut another 15%. He still has a job, but there are no clients and there's not much to do . . . and he's fearing the worst.

     Our own experience reflects the broader picture. According to the survey, a third of Millennials say their finances have been impacted by the pandemic. Many of them have stopped making contributions to their retirement plan, and a significant number have dipped into their retirement account to pay current bills. Some adult children have even been forced to move back to their parents' home due to a job loss.

     The financial stress has also caused mental health issues. Over a third of young adults say they have suffered mental health declines since the pandemic began, compared to just 10% of their parents

     It's another story for younger Baby Boomers who are not yet retired, but suddenly find themselves out of work. Some Baby Boomers Are Pressured to Cut Spending since they're too young for Medicare or Social Security, but they may still have children to support or college tuition to pay -- and yet their prospects for finding a new job are slim to none due to ageism. Even 50-somethings who are up on the latest technologies are often passed over in favor of younger people with fewer skills.

     Meanwhile, almost half of retired Americans said the pandemic has made them worry more about their children. Some 24 million Americans say they have provided some financial support to their adult children during the last six months. Many of us have had no problem helping our kids. Our income has remained steady, but expenses have gone down, so we have more money sloshing around in our accounts -- money we can afford to give away.

     But others have to put off more necessary expenses in order to help their kids -- delaying home repairs, foregoing new clothes, stretching out credit-card payments. Yet the majority of retirees still say they would offer financial support to their kids even if it did jeopardize their own financial future.

     Many of us can afford to help our kids now, but we worry the economic impacts will linger, causing us to compromise our longer-term financial security. The majority of retirees see retirement not just as an end to work, but as a new chapter in our lives, when we can pursue new dreams, enjoy new freedoms, take on new challenges. Covid by itself puts a brake on pursuing new opportunities since it's hard to connect with a new group or a new cause when we can't meet people face-to-face. Any financial squeeze just further inhibits our pursuit of new opportunities.

     There is at least one silver lining to Covid. According to the survey, two-thirds of Americans said the pandemic has brought their families closer together. The experience has inspired them to have important discussions about financial planning, preparing for retirement, end-of-life issues, and strategies for protecting and improving health. Perhaps we could also count our new proficiency in Zoom and FaceTime!

     Also, we retirees have something going for us:  We have seen a lot of problems come and go. We have a longer-term view. We realize that as hard as it is, this too shall pass.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Take a Day Trip

     If you're ever in a funk, due to Coronavirus or for any other reason, sometimes the cure is a day off -- a break in the routine to reset your attitude. We were getting tired of feeling sorry for ourselves because we're self-isolating, staying home, avoiding friends. We're watching TV, reading books, cooking, working in the yard. All things to keep us occupied. But they are not enough . . . just not enough.

     So we decided to take a day trip.

The surf was up

     We've been on a few outings since lockdown began -- to see our local covered bridges, walk along the canal by the river, visit a few historic towns. But there's nothing quite like going to the beach.

Plenty of beachgoers
     For us it's an hour-and-a-half drive to the Jersey Shore, where for $10 you can purchase a ticket to get on the beach. Tickets are limited to keep down the crowds. We wore masks as we entered through the gate, where you might be in close proximity to other people. But once on the beach it wasn't hard to maintain at least six feet distance. Yes, someone might come a little closer as they walk by -- but only for an instant, and in the breeze.

But not too crowded
     The surf was up, so there were plenty of young surfers (and a few old ones) catching waves and enjoying good long rides. Most of the schools and universities in New Jersey seem to be opening up remotely, leaving people free to spend some extra time at the shore.

Catching a wave
     The sun was out, the temperature in the high 80s, and the water was 73 degrees.

Surfing beauty
      Still, there was plenty of space to relax and soak up the last rays of summer. A perfect beach day.

Peaceful times
     We drove home at the end of the day, back to reality. But the ocean is always there if we feel the need. The beach is beautiful in September.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

I'm in a Lousy Mood. Aren't You?

     It took me a long while to begin to notice it, but now I finally realize what's wrong. I'm in a lousy mood. The Coronavirus lockdown is getting to me.

     Lethargy has set in. I sit around the house. It's an effort just to get up out of a chair, go upstairs and find my book. I'm tired of reading anyway. I've been reading twice as many books as I normally do, spending an hour or more in the morning lounging in a chair, drinking coffee and reading a book . . . and sometimes staring into space because it's hard to focus these days.

     We also spend too much time watching TV. The highlight of our day comes at 7:30 p.m., when we finish dinner and get to turn on Netflix or Amazon prime. We've watched an embarrassingly large number of videos: Babylon BerlinFauda, Dead to Me, Call My Agent, Wonderland, Offspring, Schitt's Creek  The list goes on and on.

     Now we're getting sick and tired of watching TV. We typically only last through Season One of any series before we get jittery. We feel like we have to move on to the next one. We're so easily bored these days.

     We watch the weather on TV. After a while it all seems the same. Sunny or rainy. What's the difference? We watch the news, but the commentators are so nasty and hateful, we just turn them off. We saw a little of the Democratic convention, but it was too predictable. With only a few exceptions (like the courageous Gabby Giffords on Wednesday night) it's just politicians talking . . . blah, blah, blah . . . tell me something I don't already know.

Do you feel trapped?
     We spend a lot of time Zooming with friends and family and people we volunteer with over at the college or down at the church. Zooming is another highlight of our day. But it's not the same as seeing someone in person, talking face to face. You go on Zoom to get the job done; not to have fun.

     And then there's way too much time just sitting around and . . . doing nothing. Too much time to think about the past and regret the stupid things we did when we were young -- the opportunities we may have missed, the people we may have let down. Too much time to worry about the kids and what they're doing and how this pandemic is going to affect their lives for now and forevermore. Too much time to wonder about what's going to happen to us. Are we going to be forced to spend our retirement years living like shut-ins, robbed of the excitement of travel, the joys of grandchildren, the satisfaction of helping in the community?

     B and I have talked about this. We feel bad that we feel bad. Many people have it worse than we do. We're not losing a job. We're not losing income thanks to Social Security and a still-thriving stock market that props up our IRAs. We're not front-line workers risking our lives in a hospital or a grocery store. We're just in a bad mood, feeling grumpy, because we can't get on with our lives. We feel stuck. Trapped.

     Day after day is the same. "There's nothing to look forward to,," B complained. "We can't make any plans."

     But we did acknowledge that when we feel frustrated and constrained, the temptation is to take it out on the people nearest and dearest to us -- spouses, family, friends. Yes, we've been snippy to each other -- not because of anything we've done, but just because we're feeling snippy. Dirty dishes in the sink have somehow become important. Clothes left on the floor used to be ignored; now they are annoying.

     We have to consciously be aware that the problem is not with us. It's not the clothes or dishes. It's the situation. We remind ourselves not to turn against each other, or turn against ourselves. There's too much time to judge and criticize -- judge our family, criticize our friends, blame ourselves, demonize people on Facebook. Enmity breeds enmity.

     We have to give everyone a break, including ourselves. I'm lucky to have B, and she's lucky to have me, even if we do occasionally get on each other's nerves now that we're spending so much time together -- and so little time with anyone else. We are lucky to have friends and family who show up on the other side of a Zoom meeting or Facebook call. We're lucky to have a comfortable home and plenty to eat and all the electronics to entertain us.

     Of course there are problems in the world, as there always have been and always will be. But don't take them personally. Don't judge other people too harshly -- don't get down on yourself. We'll stay busy, even if it sometimes seems pointless. See friends when we can. Go for a walk. Go for a ride. Keep our eye on the horizon. Stay positive. We'll get through this.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Are We Cool?

      I've seen a couple of lists on the internet claiming to show what Baby Boomers think is cool. These lists are written by younger people -- Millennials or Gen Xers or Gen Zers or whomever -- and so of course the clear message is that whatever a Baby Boomer thinks is cool has got to be the most uncool thing in the world.

     Some of the items on these lists are set-ups. Mom jeans, for example. Has anyone ever thought that mom jeans are cool?

     But other items are up for debate. For example.

     Sending emails. Supposedly, Baby Boomers think sending emails is cool, while Millennials wouldn't get caught dead using email. They text. Or use Instagram, Snapchat or something else that requires only a few words. I don't know if Baby Boomers really think emails are cool. But they are useful. So the only thing I can conclude is that Millennials don't have much to say.

My clunky old phone
     Landlines. Okay, a few of the coolest people I know have given up their landlines. But most of us have kept them. If landlines are not cool, then a telephone book is even less cool. But the other day we got a letter in the mail addressed to an unfamiliar name at our address. If we had a telephone book we could have looked up the person's address and if she was local, just dropped off the letter on her doorstep. But now, no phone book, no way to find her address. All we could do was hand it back to the post office to return to sender. 

     Cruises. We've never taken a cruise, although it seems that most of our friends have been on at least one, and we have a few friends who take two or three a year. So, yes, they're right. Baby Boomers do think cruises are cool. 

     Paper bills. Uh, guilty. I pay my bills electronically, but I like to get paper bills in the mail. I find them easier to keep track of that way. Otherwise, you get some bills by regular mail, some by email, some by text . . . you never know where the heck the bills coming from and invariably one gets lost and doesn't get paid on time -- and we get stuck with a late fee!

     Retirement funds. Baby Boomers are big on IRAs and 401k plans. Apparently, Millennials not so much. But I got news for Millennials, Gen Xers and all other young people, wherever they are -- they'd better get with the program. Otherwise, when they get to our age, they'll still be eating ramen noodles for dinner.

     Pickleball. Guilty. It's all the rage where I live, or at least it was before Coronavirus set in, and hopefully will be again. But whether the so-cool Millennials think it's cool or not . . . it beats playing Hero Academy on your smartphone.

     Cable TV. We still get cable TV. Our kids do not. But as a Baby Boomer I'm not sure I think cable TV is actually cool. It's just a force of habit.

     Meatloaf. B likes meatloaf. I don't. That makes me -- ahem -- cool in the eyes of the younger generation.

     Catalogs. Same as above. You see, I am cool.

B's pillows

    Throw pillows. Ditto. I'm so cool!

     Newspapers. We get the weekend editions of the N. Y. Times. But cool or not, lemme tell you, the world would be a better place if more people read good old-fashioned newspapers.

     All-you-can-eat buffets. Nobody thinks all-you-can-eat buffets are cool. But I love 'em. So much comfort food!

     Bar soap. I use a bar of soap. B uses liquid soap. I always thought it was a male-female  thing, not a difference between people who are cool and people who are uncool. Okay, I'm beginning to get the picture. Maybe I'm not so cool after all.

My bar of soap
My bar of soap
     Malls. Honestly, we don't go to the mall very often. But what's Christmas without spending some time at the mall with Santa, the Salvation Army, the tree and the decorations?

     Clint Eastwood. Whatever you think of his movies, and I don't care how old you are, Clint Eastwood is definitely cool. 

     Golf. Golf was cool back in the 1990s. Not anymore.

     Visors. The coolest guy in our golf group wears a visor. I guess that shows you how cool our golf group is.

     So I might as well tell you, when I was in high school, I wasn't exactly the coolest guy in the class. It wasn't for lack of trying. I smoked cigarettes, drank beer, and did a lot of other stupid things that I thought might make me cool. Then I finally realized. The truly stupid thing is to try to be cool. Because it doesn't mean a thing. You're much better off being yourself.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Lessons from 60 Years of Living

     My wife and I Facetimed with my daughter and her husband and our baby granddaughter the other day. They're busy starting a family, moving to a different city, getting a new job, buying a house. It's great to see them, talk to them, but I had to bite my tongue because all I wanted to do is give them advice -- and they really don't need my advice.

     Nevertheless, I've been on this earth a long time and have learned a few things, although as my wife often reminds me -- ha, you don't know everything. So if you can add anything to these lessons, please, be my guest.

     So some lessons, learned the hard way:

     The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I learned this in high-school geometry. The principle goes well beyond mathematics and applies to everything from mapping out a trip to planning out a career

      Look to see what's coming. This comes from driver's education. Look both ways, and anticipate what the other drivers are going to do. This is especially important if you (as I did) learned to drive a stick shift, to avoid excessive shifting, excessive braking, and just generally knowing what's about to happen so you don't get blindsided. In driving, as in life, you don't want to get blindsided -- whether it's by a divorce, a layoff, a sudden accident or mishap that could have been foreseen and thus avoided.

     Don't piss into the wind. I learned this at Boy Scout camp. But aside from not getting yourself wet, the message is: don't buck the trend, whether it's the prevailing opinion at work or the prevailing opinion among your friends -- unless you want to lose your job or your friends. So . . . go with the flow.

     Know when to break the rules. Of course, there are always exceptions to the previous piece of advice. Sometimes the rules make so sense; they're holding you back, and you need to break out of the box. I learned this in my first job, when I broke some rules and catapulted myself into a promotion. But, I realized later, I was lucky. Because make no mistake. Most of the time you'll be opposed by the hidebound, the people with a vested interest, the people who can't see over the horizon.

     Stay on your toes. I learned this one in Little League. I played second base because while I was not afraid of ground balls, I had no arm and couldn't make the throw from shortstop or third base. But playing the infield, the ball comes at you pretty fast. You have to be ready. The coach would tell us, "Stay on your toes."

     How to make a decision. Some people make a list of pros and cons. Others flip a coin -- and know the answer when the coin is in the air and they're hoping for a particular result. But I learned the concept of "expected value" in business school. Suppose you have one die. It costs you a dollar to roll the die. You pick a number, and if your number comes up you win $10. Should you play? The answer is yes, because on average it will cost $6 to win $10. If you're expected value of an action is positive, then you should take the action. It works in business but also in other aspects of life including your love life. It also works in gambling. Or as Kenny Rogers told us: "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

     Pick your fights. I learned this from my older sister. We used to fight all the time when we were little kids and I would always lose -- until one day when I got a bigger, I finally got on top of her and pinned her against a rock. We never fought again, because my sister was smart enough to know she wasn't going to win anymore. I learned it again later in life when I stood up to my boss when he was doing something wrong. He backed down, because he had to, but it wasn't long before I found myself with an early retirement package.  

     Go down swinging. Sometimes you have to fight even if you think you might lose -- if it's a matter of principle, or justice, or desperation. If that's the case, don't give up. You never know. You might surprise them. But if you do lose, lose with honor. So maybe if I hadn't picked that fight with my boss I'd have a more generous pension today -- but at least I can live with myself. 

     Get out of your rut. I learned this from tennis. It's easy when you're playing tennis to fall into the habit of hitting the ball back to your opponent. He's standing right there. So sometimes you have to remind yourself:  Hit the ball to the other side of the court! Make him run! Similarly, in life sometimes you have to shake things up -- to make people notice, to catch competitors off balance, to change the pace -- whether it's a career, a relationship, a vacation, an investment. Don't always just hit the ball back.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Is This Really Urban Renewal?

     I mentioned that my wife and I took a day trip up to Bethlehem, PA, to catch a sight of the so-called Steel Stacks. So here's what we saw as we turned into the parking lot.

     Pretty amazing, huh? We arrived the afternoon that Musikfest was to begin, held annually at the beginning of August. Gates open at 5 p.m., the music starts at 6 p.m. Below is a picture of the main stage, hard up against the Steel Stacks,. Usually Musikfest attracts thousands of young people -- it's located just down the hill from Lehigh University --  but this year crowds are limited, so the main stage is not being used.

      Instead the bands are playing at a secondary stage, across the street in front of the ArtsQuest center. The crowd is limited to 250 people in the main area, and another 250 in this secondary area. Foods tents have been set up in one of the parking lots. Again, only 250 people are allowed into the food area at one time -- all arranged around a one-way pathway. Take-out only. 

     We were not there for the music. We just wanted to see what this was all about. Musikfest is held at the site of the old Bethlehem Steel Company, founded in 1863 to make iron rails for the railroad. The plant was a major manufacturer during both World Wars and went on to produce steel used in modern bridges and skyscrapers. After the plant closed in 1995, it was left to the elements. But in recent years the site has slowly been renovated as an urban chic destination for tourists, music lovers . . . and gamblers. 

     Down the street, behind an abandoned building, we could glimpse Wind Creek casino, which in my mind illustrates the change in our economy from manufacturing (steel making) to services (games of chance). The casino, here since 2009, closed in March and re-opened in June to a Covid-limited audience. We didn't walk all the way to the casino. Instead, we circled back around the other way and found . . . a Roman ruin?

     No, just another post-industrial American ruin.. And beyond that, another one . . . 

     and yet another, whose falling-apart roof lends itself to a more abstract view.

     So as you can see, they have a ways to go in the renovations. Still, there are economic green shoots growing out of these old ruins. There's an industrial museum buried among these buildings. A community college has claimed one corner of an old building. Then, of course, there's always tourism, the great American pastime. 

     The Visitor Center was closed -- it was opening later in the day for Musikfest -- but we probably wouldn't go in anyway. We don't even use public restrooms these days. So we left for home, wondering all the way: Is the new American economy really better than the old one?

Sunday, August 2, 2020

"Oh, My God!"

     Laurie Stone woke up an hour later than usual. "Oh my God," she thought. "Where's Rocky?" Her kitty always roused her at the crack of dawn with his loud Meoooowww!

     A sense of dread rose as she got out of bed. She'd heard about older pets dying quietly in the night. She called for him as she looked around the bedroom. She walked through the living room, through the dining room, to the kitchen . . . .

     For the rest of  the story, you have to go over to The Morning the Cat Didn't Wake Me. And after you've done that, we can run down the posts of some other bloggers -- bloggers who are mostly staying home, sometimes sleeping late, but also venturing out, one way or another, to ponder different points on the compass.

      As for me, I've had to cancel several vacations due to Covid. Instead, my wife and I have been making day trips. We drove over to Princeton, NJ, and walked around the beautiful college campus. We traveled up to Bethlehem, PA, and took a tour around the old steel furnaces. We followed the Delaware River down to Bristol, PA, where the river meets up with the canal that once was used to haul coal from the mountains to the city.

     But other than these short journeys (okay, a secret -- we can't go for more than three hours total, because we don't want to "go" in a public restroom), we've been staying close to home.

Back home for Carol. But where is it?
     Carol Cassara, blogging at Heart, Mind, Soul, suggests that the pull toward "home" seems stronger than ever in our senior years. She left home when she was 21 and made a life for herself in California. But now something has shifted. She and her husband have been spending more time back home with family and old friends . . . all of which has led to a life-changing decision that she explains in Can You Really Go Home Again?

     Rebecca Olkowski with BabyBoomster.com felt a pull toward another kind of home. As she tells us in Escape to Tempe, AZ, she was invited on a virtual tour of the city, where both her mother and brother once lived. The city has changed a lot, she reports, and now offers festivals, fine dining, major sports events. But with temperatures currently hitting 118 degrees, and Covid running rampant (Arizona is averaging about 2,500 cases a day) it might be best to stick to wide-open outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking and golf . . . at least for now.

     Meryl Baer reminds us that the political hype continues to escalate as election day nears. By the way, did you know? Meryl Baer has a new blog called Beach Boomer Bulletin. Check it out -- it may be the only chance you get to go to the beach this summer.

     Anyway, Baer certainly echoes my feelings when she says that most of us can't wait until November 4 when the craziness ends. (Wishful thinking!) But political madness is not a new phenomenon. To give us all some perspective, she reviews in Political Scandals to Ponder a variety of scandals that caught the nation's attention over the years.

     To bring things up-to-date, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, offers us news and reviews of Trump's Four Executive Orders on Prescription Drugs. According to Peter Maybarduk of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines Program, she reports, the half-measures are weak and will make only small changes in some drug prices to some people.

     Finally, whether you're at home pondering politics, or taking care of aging pets -- or finding a way to travel in these treacherous times -- Jennifer Koshak has a simple message: Remember to laugh, don't be afraid of being silly, and Never Stop Having Fun