"How we react to works of art depends on who we are, where we are standing and when we encounter them." -- Margaret MacMillan, "War: How Conflict Shaped Us"

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Change of Scenery

     We've been told that walking is the best exercise, especially for seniors. So I'm taking a page from DJan-ity's blog and offering a glimpse of a walk we took recently.    

In our neighborhood

     To be honest, my wife B does a lot more walking than I do. She takes a three-to-four-mile route around our neighborhood almost every day. I only walk three times a week -- and that's a good week. Sometimes it's only twice.

I found these fellows downtown

     I find walking kind of boring. I mean, it doesn't take a lot of concentration to put one foot in front of the other. And then what else do you do? Look at the scenery? I usually walk into town, a little over a mile, and it's basically the same scenery every time, even if I do vary the route a little bit on the way there or back. 

One large New Jersey leaf

     But sometimes B and I go farther afield. During the self-isolation of the last six months we've traveled to several nearby towns to walk around and see different sights. We've been to a few local parks. In the summer we drove over to Princeton University, and another day up to Lehigh University, to walk around a college campus.

The reservoir was low

    Some friends suggested we take a short trip over to a park they knew about in New Jersey. So on a warm and cloudy day last week we crossed the Delaware River and turned north up into the Jersey hills. Following their directions, we found Round Valley State Park which surrounds a reservoir outside the small town of Lebanon.

We started uphill. Can you tell?

     The several-thousand-acre park offers swimming, boating, even camping. But everything was closed down except the hiking trails.

Pine trees against a cloudy sky

     We drove in and parked. We walked along the shoreline, then climbed up a path into the trees. We saw a few people down by the water, and passed some other hikers on the trails. But not many, and most were wearing masks.

A shot of red

     It was a nice fall day, and by the time we circled around a small peninsula and got back to the parking lot we had covered about four miles.

The way home

     The outing was nothing spectacular, nothing challenging. But we got out in nature. We got our exercise. We got some fresh air. And now tomorrow, it's another walk into town.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

How We Got Here

     How did we end up in this situation where everyone is so polarized, so surrounded by like-minded people, and so dismissive of others who have a different opinion or different lifestyle?

     It all started with television, according to Jill Lepore, Harvard history professor and author of the new book If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

     When television started broadcasting the news, back in the 1940s and 1950s, it put newspapers in a difficult position. Everyone already had the news from TV, so why would they want to read it the next day in the newspaper? So newspapers reinvented themselves by focusing more on analysis than straight news, and before long the line between analysis and opinion was blurred. Now newspapers give us more opinion than news, and sometimes the opinion is disguised as news.

     But the main thrust of Lepore's book is the story of how Simulmatics, an early computer-based organization that came out of MIT, pioneered the process of collecting data, massaging it, and selling it to businesses and governments in an effort to predict and even manipulate people's behavior.

     Simulmatics failed. But like what AOL was to the internet, Simulmatics pioneered the era of Big Data. Both big government and big business began to electronically spy on people, collect enormous amounts of personal data, then slice it up into special interest groups so that they could manipulate minds, sell products, win over votes.

     John Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson, for example, used computerized research to develop political messages appealing to the Black vote. Richard Nixon identified the Silent Majority and crafted a message to appeal to the white middle-class concerned about communism and law-and-order.

     At the same time, Proctor & Gamble and other consumer goods companies targeted their ad campaigns to different market segments, from the working stiff to the suburban housewife to the Pepsi Generation. The politicians wanted power. The corporations wanted money.

     Meanwhile, news organizations and university professors began to question the very notion of objective facts. New Journalists argued that everything is relative. Everyone's view of the world is colored by their own experience. There is no Truth. There is only your opinion.

     As time went on, mass media carved the audience into thinner and thinner slices, tailoring their content to the interests of very specific groups. General interest magazines like Life and Look went out of business, replaced by specialized publications on fly fishing, race-car driving, organic farming, or long-distance running. Then along came cable TV, again slicing up the audience to special interest groups. Gone were Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett, who appealed to the mass audience. Those shows were replaced by the food network, the classic movie network, the history channel, a dozen different sports channels -- and the left-wing and right-wing news channels.

     From there it was only a short step to what we have today on the internet and social media. Organizations collect data, detect patterns, identify our interests, exploit our biases, and classify us into precise targets for their messages. They enlist our sympathies, sell us their products, win our votes, all in a system that "manipulates opinion, exploits attention, commodifies information, divides voters, fractures communities, alienates individuals and undermines democracy."

     Lepore is not saying that all Big Data is bad. Computer-aided analysis has helped us build better buildings, safer cars, more powerful medicines. It has opened up the mysteries of space, and now can help us meet the challenge of climate change. 

     The problem is that we humans have a natural tendency to seek out information that confirms our pre-existing convictions, and we tend to ignore or discredit information that runs counter to them. Modern marketing, polarized politics and the mean-spirited media all benefit by exploiting this trait and splitting us farther and farther apart. But people should not allow themselves to be "managed" into micro-markets just to they can sell us more products or focus-group us into gender/race/class divisions to make us easier to influence or control. 

     All knowledge is not biased. There are facts that are true beyond our own views of the world. We should not let the social scientists and market researchers tell us what to think or do. But it takes a conscious effort to resist these divisive forces. And it takes a willingness to walk a mile in someone else's shoes to rebuild a sense of community. 

     Or as Shakespeare said long ago: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Part 2: Review Your Supplemental Plan

     I read last week that our Social Security increase for next year will be 1.3%. Will that be enough to even cover the increase in our health-insurance premiums?

     Last week I decided to review our medical insurance, because open enrollment is about to start. And I thought maybe I could find a way to save a little money. My wife and I have the same supplemental Medicare plans. Plan N. But we have them with different companies, and it turns out I pay $190 a month, while she's only paying $120 per month 

     That didn't seem right to me, so I decided to look into it. I also wanted to see if Plan N is still the best option for me. I checked several websites and found that the cost of the premium depends on the insurance company, as well as where you live (but B and I live in the same house!), your age, your gender, your marital status, and the way you answer some key health questions.

     I found out that men pay a higher premium than women. Is that fair? It seems to me that women go to the doctor more often than men, so they should pay a higher premium. But maybe men have more expensive problems like heart attacks and strokes.

     And that brings up the fact that men don't live as long, either. According to the Social Security life expectancy table, the average life expectancy of a female, at birth, is fully five years longer than it is for a male. Isn't that the ultimate sex discrimination? Even if a guy like me makes it to age 70 (by avoiding dangerous jobs, the military and risky male behavior) his life expectancy still falls more than two years short of the average woman.

     Anyway, I really couldn't get any specifics on the websites, so I called my Supplemental carrier, which is United Health Care through AARP. Yes, there was a phone tree, but before long a friendly young woman answered the call, and she seemed fairly knowledgeable.

     First, we went over the various plans. I have original Medicare Supplemental Plan, not a Medicare Advantage plan. It's slightly more expensive. But I don't have to stay in network. I like having the option of going to any doctor I want -- especially if I end up getting some complicated disease that my local doctors don't know too much about.

     There were less expensive plans, and one that was more expensive. Plan F. The less expensive plans didn't cover enough and made me feel insecure. Plan F pays for more deductibles, as well as "excess charges above Medicare approved amounts." But Plan F is another $80-some a month. I decided it wasn't worth it. I'll stick with Plan N.

     Then I asked the United Health Care woman about the cost. Was I eligible for any discounts? I mentioned that my wife has Plan N with another carrier and pays much less than I do. She took a minute to check for me, but then came back and told me: No, you've got the lowest rate.

     So I said: I'm married now. I wasn't when I first signed up for the plan. Do you offer any marital discount that could save me some money?

     No, she said. If my wife and I were on the same plan we'd each get a 5% discount. But just being married doesn't qualify for the discount when my wife has her insurance from a different company.

     The young woman went on to explain that I already have one discount, one that I got when I first signed up. But the discount decreases every year. I started out at age 65 with a 39% discount. But every year since then the discount has gone down by 3%.

     I thought about that for a second. In other words, I asked, in addition to whatever usual price increases are involved, the insurance company tacks on an extra 3% every year just because I get older?

     She laughed. Well, I guess that's another way to put it.

     B is four years younger than I am. So if her insurance company works the same way, that accounts for 12% of the price difference between her policy and mine. Add in the male surcharge, and probably a few other hidden fees, and -- bottom line, I'm just keep my same Supplemental Plan.

    Together, B and I pay almost $1000 a month for medical insurance, when you count Medicare, Plan B, Plan D, plus a relatively modest dental plan. But I think it's worth it, when you consider how expensive medical care can be. But clearly, anyone who suggests that Medicare for All is the same as free medical care doesn't know what they're talking about.

      Anyway, I guess the only real strategy to save money is to keep away from the doctor. So I'll eat my vegetables, get some exercise, avoid too much stress, get plenty of sleep, wear my mask and keep my distance. And the hardest part . . . try not to do anything stupid!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Pumpkin Patch

     Halloween is soon upon us, so B and I take a drive across the Delaware River to a park in New Jersey that holds an annual pumpkin fest.

     We get scared as soon as we arrive!


     We have a pumpkin fest in our town as well, and I'm sure there are thousands of others all across America. But as far as pumpkins go, this is a pretty haunting collection.


     This one is truly CarnEvil.


     A fire-breathing dragon turns up the heat.


     This witch is giving me the chills.


     My, what big ears you have . . . and the nose!


     He has a sinister grin and fierce eyes.


     But this one looks more friendly, a little like Santa Claus. Is he trying to warm us up for Christmas . . . or just hiding something behind that grin?


     Whew, home sweet home! But it looks like we have a few skeletons in our own closet!


     

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Part 1: Medicare Just Got Cheaper

     Okay, Medicare is not getting cheaper for everybody. But it is for us, because there's been a screw up. Yes, it turns out that Medicare can make a mistake, so it's best to pay attention.

     Medicare uses your 2018 tax return to figure out your Medicare premiums for 2020. If you make too much money, there's a surcharge on both your Medicare Part B and also Part D. For example, if you're single and make over $87,000 and less than $109,000, you pay a $57.80 surcharge every month for Part B, plus an extra $12.20 for Part D.

     B and I got married in 2018. Once you're married, as a couple you can make up to $174,000 per year before the first surcharge sets in.

     All this year I've been paying my basic Medicare premiums, no problem, no complaints. But this past week I decided to review our medical insurance, because open enrollment is about to begin.

     I thought I'd start by checking our Medicare payments, and that's where I found the problem. B's Medicare premiums were more than mine. She was being hit with a surcharge. That didn't seem right. We filed a joint tax return in 2018, so shouldn't our payments be the same?

     I searched the Medicare website for an answer then, finding nothing relevant, called the main Medicare number. After negotiating the phone tree and waiting 40 minutes on hold, I finally got a very nice man on the phone.

     It was a little hard to explain, but after 20 minutes of going back and forth he discovered the problem. Medicare never received B's 2018 tax information from the IRS. Medicare had mine for 2018. But not hers. Even though we filed jointly, and they were on the same tax form!

     Therefore, Medicare was using B's 2017 taxes to base her Medicare premium. She was single in 2017, and her income was over the threshold of $87,000. So she was getting a surcharge.

     The man from Medicare sent me to the IRS to straighten out the issue. After another 20 minutes on hold, I got a real person who . . . turned out to be no help. The IRS representative said I should talk to Social Security, and gave me the main number.

     By that point I could not abide sitting on hold on the telephone for another 40 minutes. So I got an idea. I found the number for our local Social Security office. A real woman answered the phone. I told her my problem, and she put me through to the man who handles these things. Surprise, surprise. He had access to our records!

     He could see the problem right away. Yes, Medicare was using B's 2017 tax form instead of the 2018 tax form to base her Medicare rate. So he told me to send him a copy of our 2018 Form 1040 along with a copy of our marriage license. And he would take care of it.

   "You'll get a refund," he said. "But it may take a while because it has to wend its way through the bureaucracy." So if everything works out, we'll get a refund of several hundred dollars; plus, B's Medicare premium should go down for 2021, because they'll be using the correct information, now from our 2019 tax form. A double win!

     He said the situation should be corrected for next year and beyond. But I should double check. When I receive the notice for my 2021 Medicare premium -- sometime around Thanksgiving -- I should check and make sure the premiums are based on our 2019 married-filing-jointly tax forms.

     The takeaway? Sometimes it's a good idea to check Medicare, especially if you've had a life-changing event in the last few years. Things change, and what you had when you turned 65 may be different by now. Also, if you have to deal with the government, don't call the main 800 number. Find a number for your Social Security office. That might save you some time and aggravation.

     We all love Medicare. And it usually works pretty well. But -- as they say -- pobody's nerfect, not even the government.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Changing Tides

     For many people retirement is like diving into a pool. They take the plunge. One day their lives are crammed with work, bills, children. The next day they're free. Suddenly they can do whatever they want.

     It wasn't like that for me. I tiptoed into retirement. I got packaged out in my 50s. I still had to make some money, so I continued to work part time. Some weeks I worked; other weeks I dabbled in retirement. As the years went on, I worked less and retired more. It was an easy and long-lasting transition from working to retirement.  And there were many changes along the way. I moved. Got divorced and remarried. Watched the kids go off to college and careers. Downsized to a new town in a different state.

     What I now realize is that after we retire -- whether we retire all at once in a great seismic shift, or retire slowly over the years -- our lives do continue to change. Retirement is not static. It changes like the tides.

     I recently mentioned to a new friend that my wife and I were getting ready to celebrate our third anniversary.

     "Oh, that's nice," he said. "Your 30th anniversary."

     "No, not the 30th," I corrected. "Our third."

     "Oh . . ." He was slightly embarrassed, because he'd made an assumption. But there was also an uplift to his voice. He was glad to hear it, reminding himself that life still happens even after we're retired.

     I'm not working at all anymore, but I still find my life slowly changing, my goals evolving. Don't you?

     The pandemic has shifted the sands beneath us once again. Last year I was at the community center twice a week playing table tennis. Now I haven't played at all since March.

     Last summer we made a trip Arizona to see my sister and her family. This year we were planning to drive to Wisconsin to visit my daughter. But this year the trip got canceled.

     Last year at this time we were getting ready to go to South Carolina for Thanksgiving, and making plans to return for the month of February. This year, we're not going for Thanksgiving, that's for sure. Are we going in February? We don't know yet. It's hard to make plans this year. What's the old saying? Man makes plans, and God laughs. 

     Retirement is a time for exploring, for developing old skills and trying out new interests. Even trying out new identities. In the old days, when we were working, people would ask us: What do you do? And we'd answer: I'm a teacher, or I'm a lawyer, or I manage a business.

     For a while, after we retire, we tell people: I'm a retired teacher, or I'm a retired lawyer. But I think, after a few years, we  lose that identity. And sometimes we flounder, or feel the stigma of not "being" anything anymore. So we we reel off a string of activities. I play tennis and babysit my grands . . . and I like to read a lot.

     But over time we settle into our new identities, we become more comfortable with our new lives, even if they sometimes seem less important or less comprehensive than before. Sometimes we're forced to change by events, or physical limitations. Sometimes we just lose interest in old activities and develop new ones. So we say: I volunteer at the library, or I've taken up painting; or I live at Sunrise Village, or I'm heading to my place in Florida next month.

     For me, for many years, my answer was: I'm semi-retired, as though that answered all the questions. Then for a while I was playing a lot of golf, and started getting into pickleball and table tennis, and I would joke that I was an aging jock. 

     These days, since Covid came on the scene, I'm still playing some golf, but I find myself more focused on volunteering at our senior learning center, and tutoring at the educational services organization. Times change. And we adapt. So now I say: Oh, I'm with the Center for Learning in Retirement.

     Retirement is not a one-time event. It takes place over time, and we develop new interests, explore different parts of ourselves, meet new people and yes, form new identities. 

     I wonder what I'll be doing this time next year. How will I define myself in 2021 and beyond?