"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Faces of Covid

     We held several Zoom meetings with family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday. We talked about children and grandchildren and other usual things, but of course the topic of Covid came up. One thing that struck me was how the disease has affected different people in different ways -- and how our attitudes vary depending on our situation. I see three or four different faces of Covid.

     Those of us who are retired talked mostly about how we are isolating, and not traveling, and not able to see our grandchildren in person. We fear the disease and avoid other people. We are bored and sometimes lonely, and sometimes frustrated by the restrictions on our lives. Most of us know someone who has been in the hospital with the disease. We know one or two who have died -- usually someone's elderly relative in a nursing home.

     What we don't worry about is our finances. We have no job to lose. Our salaries just show up in our bank accounts -- automatically from Social Security or a pension or an IRA withdrawal.

     Then there's our children. Most of them are still working. A couple work exclusively from home -- and for at least one of them it's been a blessing. He has a one-year-old at home that he now gets to see -- and a long commute to work that he doesn't have to make.

     Others have had to figure out how to work from home, when they can, but still at times go into a workplace with other people. My daughter has been tested for Covid four separate times, because someone in her building tested positive. So far she's been negative. But Covid is running rampant where she works. She's a healthy young adult, but still a little nervous about the whole thing.

     We have a couple of grandchildren who are going to school. A third-grader is taking part in the hybrid approach. He spends a lot of time doing lessons on Zoom. He declined to attend our family Zoom meeting. He's had enough.

     One grandchild is going to preschool five days a week -- so far, so good. It turns out for some reason schools are not the super-spreaders that we might expect. But another one of our grandchildren is being homeschooled this year -- because her mother isn't taking any chances. Different people, different solutions.

     We have one child, in his mid-30s, who has yet another attitude. He is angry. He was 15 years into his career and doing well ... until the spring of 2020. He's in the entertainment business. His company has lost virtually all of its revenue. It kept him on full salary until July, then on half salary until just last week. But now the company is shutting down. He's getting paid and keeping his benefits until the end of the year. Then he's on his own. 

     As you might expect, he takes a different view of the pandemic. He's young and healthy. He's not afraid of Covid. He's afraid of running out of money and losing his medical insurance. His career has been torpedoed -- and he has no idea what the future holds for him. Will a vaccine allow people to congregate again and save the theaters, the movies, the music venues, the restaurants and travel industry? Maybe. But who knows how this will change people's habits and expectations? Who knows what the world will look like after this is all over -- assuming it's ever all over?

     Covid is unpredictable. Some people get it and don't even know they have it. Others feel the dreaded cough, the headache, and a few days later they're in the ICU. The fear of the disease is only a minor inconvenience for some. For others it kills their careers, turns their world upside down.

     No doubt, Covid has affected us all -- all in different ways. What we share is hope. The hope of better treatments. The hope of an effective vaccine. And the hope that by this time next year it will be but a distant memory.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The 1.3% Solution

     I just got an email from Social Security notifying me there is a message for me on My Social Security. I signed up for the online account a couple of years ago, and now all my records are available on the website. B has not opened a My Social Security account. She still gets her information on paper, in the mail, which will probably arrive sometime next week.

     The message included a statement of my new benefit amount for 2021, before deductions, with a list of deductions for Medicare and taxes, and then the amount to be deposited in my bank account. Why, it's just like getting a paycheck! There's your gross salary, then all the  deductions, then your take-home pay, which is a whole lot less than your salary.

     Social Security benefit is going up by a paltry 1.3% for next year. The basic premium for Medicare Part B is going up by 2.7%, from $144.60 to $148.60. So our take-home will be something less than a 1.3% increase. Then if your income is above $88,000 for an individual, or $176,000 for a couple, you pay a surcharge, and that's going up, too. Or ... what Social Security giveth, Medicare taketh away.

     The threshold for being taxed on Social Security benefits is not going up. It remains at $25,000 for an individual and $32,000 for a couple. Anything above that is subject to federal income tax.

     These tax limits were set in 1985, back when you could live on $25,000 a year. If the limits had been adjusted for inflation, Social Security beneficiaries would only begin to pay tax starting at $60,500 for an individual and $77,400 for a couple. And so today, what Social Security giveth, the IRS taketh away.

     For comparison, in 1985 the premium for Medicare Part B was $15.50, not $148.60. However, there was no Part D to cover drug costs back in 1985. So that's definitely an improvement.

     Another point to consider. When you get health insurance through an employer your premiums are tax deductible. When you pay them on your own, such as through Medicare, they are not tax deductible -- making them more expensive.

    We may complain about the small increase in benefits -- that may actually prove a decrease for some people because of higher Medicare costs. Still, as we all know -- but don't always appreciate -- Social Security is a vital financial asset for retired Americans. What makes the asset so valuable? For one thing, the value of Social Security does not gyrate up and down like an IRA or 401K that's invested in the stock market. For another, as paltry as a 1.3% increase is, it's still a better rate than what you'd get from, say, a 10-year government bond which pays an even more paltry 0.8%.

     A bond is not exactly the same thing as Social Security, but it provides a relevant point of comparison. The bond rate determines the rate for an annuity. According to Jeff Sommer in the New York Times, the average 65-year-old man receives a Social Security benefit of $1,375 per month. An annuity paying him that much would cost almost half a million dollars. So that $1,375 per month is the equivalent of a half-million-dollar asset.

     There's one problem with Social Security. The system pays out more than it takes in via taxes -- a problem made worse by Covid, which has thrown a lot of people out of work, which means they are not contributing payroll taxes. The Social Security trust fund is projected to run out of money in less than 15 years. If nothing is done, benefits would be cut by more than 20%.

     We all assume that something will be done to shore up the system. But who knows what it might be. Some people suggest raising the retirement age to 68 or 70. Others want to raise the payroll tax, currently at 12.4% (half paid by the employer, half by the employee).

     Currently the tax only applies to incomes up to $137,700. President-elect Joe Biden has proposed adding the payroll tax to income above $400,000. That would raise some extra money. However, it would create a donut hole for incomes between $137,700 and $400,000, which some people might consider unfair. But more importantly, applying the payroll tax to income over $400,000 would only close about half of the deficit. 

     And Biden is also talking about expanding benefits by setting higher cost-of-living adjustments and increasing benefits to lower income retirees and to widows and widowers. Who would argue against giving poor people more money? But wouldn't it just make the Social Security funding problem worse? 

     It seems there are no easy answers. But there's one thing we'd all agree on: Social Security must be preserved and if anything, strengthened.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

What's Wrong?

      Last night I felt a little off. Nothing serious. No headache. Just a little spacey. Maybe a touch of an upset stomach. It can happen when you've been cooped up in your house for days, weeks, months at a time.

     I went to bed at my normal 11 p.m., but woke up at 3 a.m. Found the bathroom. Stumbled back into bed, fell into a fitful sleep. I woke up again, and it was still dark. Couldn't see the clock, didn't know what time it was. I had a little headache now, and knew it would get worse. 

     It was hot. I pushed the covers off me, but couldn't get back to sleep.

     I drifted in and out for I don't know how long. Had a nightmare. I was on a golf course on the first tee, and as I swung I fell backward and shanked the ball into a bush. I rode the golf cart up the fairway, then had to take a long walk downhill to try to find the ball, rummaging through the underbrush. Something else happened, something completely unrelated, but I can't remember what it was.

     Then I woke up again. With a definite headache.

     I sensed B getting out of bed. I rolled over on my side, trying to find sleep again. Next thing I knew there was a rumbling on the street outside my bedroom window. The big leaf-loader was starting up, at 7:30 a.m., vacuuming up the piles of leaves that people had raked into the gutter.

     I sat up and paused for a moment, trying to clear my head. Then I hauled myself out of bed and wandered into the bathroom, feeling drowsy and headachy. I avoided looking in the mirror, then came out and got dressed and began to wonder. Could this be it? The first signs of Covid?

     I started toward the kitchen, but instead detoured back into the bathroom. I opened the cabinet drawer, took out the thermometer and jammed it into my mouth, under my tongue. While I waited -- about two minutes -- I washed my hands. Thoroughly. For at least 30 seconds. Under warm water.

     The beeper on the thermometer went off. I pulled the thermometer out, turned it over and read the display. 97.4 degrees. That's perfectly normal for me.

     I finally made it into the kitchen, brewed some coffee, had breakfast. I shook two Tylenol out of the bottle and washed them down with orange juice. Slowly, throughout the morning, my headache receded. Later, while reading my book, I took a short nap.

     Now it's getting on toward 4 p.m. I feel a little washed out, from lack of sleep, but I don't feel sick. The headache is gone. I take my temperature again. It's still 97.4. I guess I don't have Covid after all. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Eternal Questions

     I just read a book called The Secret Place by Tana French. It's a mystery that takes place at a private girls' high school in Dublin. It's one of French's six Dublin Murder Squad books, which she's written along with a few other mysteries, all set in Ireland.

     If you're looking for something to read, I recommend all of her books. But that's not the point of this post. What caught my eye in The Secret Place is a series of questions about human nature that came up while the two detectives were interviewing various persons of interest at the school  And I'm thinking, those of us who have been around a while, who have a lot of life experience -- and who are looking for something to think about other than the remnants of an election -- might be able to answer these questions.

     Most of the interviews involve teenage girls. But they cover boys as well, along with a few adults.

     Throughout the interviews the detectives have to figure out who's telling the truth, who's holding back secrets, who's passing on stories fed to them by someone else. And this suggests some questions about human nature. Let's see if you have any answers.

     At one point, one of the girls says: "Everyone thinks girls blab everything, yap, yap, yap, like idiots. That's total crap. Girls keep secrets. Guys are the ones who can't keep their mouths shut."

     Do you agree? Are girls better than boys at keeping secrets? How about grownups? In general, who is better at holding onto secrets, men or women?

     Another issue comes up -- and you'll have to "excuse my French" so to speak. One guy is called a "prick." Later, a girl is called a "bitch." Here's the question: Is a bitch simply a female version of a prick, and a prick a male version of a bitch? Or are they fundamentally different?

     One last issue. The plot of the novel turns on Chris who is a handsome, popular 17-year-old from the boys' school next door. He's also a player. First he goes out with Joanna. He dumps her because he's smitten with the dreamy and fragile Selena. But Selena's friend Julia knows that Selena will only get hurt. So she seduces Chris -- not because she likes him but to keep him away from her friend Selena.

     My wife B says, "Oh, come on, I don't believe a girl would 'give herself' to a guy just to save her friend. I can't suspend belief that much." Can you?

     By the way, if you're instantly angry at Chris, don't worry, he gets murdered. But that's not a spoiler. The question is: Who did it? To answer that, you have to read the book.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Life Beyond the Election

     According to Yahoo Finance, alcohol sales went up by 68% on election day. Guess who bought more: Democrats or Republicans?

     Joe Biden made a good speech on Saturday night, don't you think? He took on the mantle of the presidency but was not vindictive against his opponent and pledged to be president not just to the people who voted for him, but for all Americans. 

     Anyway, if you're ready to move past the election, so too are our Baby Boomer bloggers. They are already shaking off the distraction, the depression, the anxiety, and looking forward to other more personally fulfilling aspects of their lives.

     Laurie Stone of Musing, Rants & Scribbles has lately been buzzing with so much tension she's wanted to reach for a tranquilizer, two shots of tequila, or both. But then she found something in her desk drawer. Something small and plastic and gray. Something she'd completely forgotten about. So she clipped it to her waistband and now gives us 3 Reasons Why a Pedometer Is Better than Xanax.

     Carol Cassara of Heart, Mind, Soul is developing a new appreciation for clarity in our lives. Clarity can be difficult to accept, she says, but it is also a beautiful thing, making life easier even in all its difficulties. Confused? In Connect with the Clarity that Comes from Maturity she decides what really matters is how we face our challenges and see a clear path ahead for ourselves.

     Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, notes that many of us are avoiding cash during the pandemic and are instead turning to app-based payments like CashApp. In Watch Out for Scams When You Use CashApp she reveals how con artists are finding ways to trick us into sharing personal information or buying things we don't want.

     On Unfold and Begin, we are reminded that Veteran's Day is upon us, a day when we recognize and thank those who have served and those who continue to serve to protect our country. All is not well with many veterans, Jennifer points out in The War Is Not Over for Veterans, and she offers several links to sites that have information to help vets, including one with resources for families, one allowing the sharing of stories, one offering discounts for vets.

     All of us can sometimes be grouchy, negative or sullen, especially these days in the teeth of a pandemic. But Rebecca Olkowski of BabyBoomster reminds us that Your Attitude Determines Your Altitude. She catalogues some of the ways we can go wrong, and shows us how respect, optimism and kindness are the keys to success and happiness.

     Meanwhile, Meryl Baer of Beach Boomer Bulletin, like a lot of us, was missing her kids and grandkids. But unlike many of us, she and her husband took action. They jumped in the car and drove from New Jersey to Florida, and then home again. "Our car and our bodies returned home safely," she now reports from her two-week quarantine "The election wait is over," she continues in Under House Arrest, and then she ends with a thought we can all share: "Now, if only the Covid crisis clears out."

     Amen to that. And by the way, the answer is . . . Democrats.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Apologies for Pennsylvania

      Normally I stay away from politics on this blog -- not for any other reason than I don't have anything particularly original or insightful to say. Most of the issues I think about have already been talked over ad nauseum.

     But right now I feel like I have to apologize for my adopted state of Pennsylvania. I mean, here it is two days after the election. Forty-eight states have managed to count their votes. Only two have been taking this long: Nevada and Pennsylvania. 

     I can't speak for Nevada. Well, I can't really speak for Pennsylvania, either. It's just that the delayed counting of the vote makes us seem a little, well . . . slow. As though we can't quite handle the situation. As though we're all a little dim-witted.

     The problem is not the poor souls who are working diligently to actually process the paper and count the votes. The problem is that there was a kerfuffle in Harrisburg about when to cut off the mail-in ballots. First they had to be postmarked by November 3. Then, no, they had to be delivered by November 3. Then, no again, they could be postmarked by Nov. 3 and counted as long as they arrived by Fri. Nov 6. Then there were rumors that the post office couldn't possibly handle all the mail, so they urged people to drop off their ballots in person.

     It almost seems as is they were deliberately trying to confuse us.  I mean, the post office can handle Christmas mail. Surely they can handle a few thousand mail-in votes.

     So anyway, at this point President Trump is ahead in Pennsylvania by 200,000 votes, or about 1.5%. But the mail-ins reportedly lean more Democratic than Republican, so the thinking is that Democrats are going to catch up. And now Trump is talking about suing the state to stop the count of late-coming votes.

     The lawsuit was so predictable  But our politicians did nothing to avoid it. And I'll tell you, if I were a Republican I too would be suspicious of an election board that kept pulling more votes out of a hat days after the election was supposed to be over.

     Just as a Democrat, I'd be suspicious of Nevada where Joe Biden is ahead by just 0.5% points, if the Republicans started "finding" new votes that conveniently back their nominee. 

     Meanwhile, I sent my vote in about two weeks ago. Apparently it has still not been counted. It's kind of embarrassing. All my friends around the country have had their vote registered. But apparently mine is still sitting on a desk somewhere, waiting for someone to dig through the pile and get to it.

     They should have had a hard deadline on the mail-in votes, and they should have started counting earlier. But now we're stuck with what we have. My only consolation, personally, is that I know how my friends and I voted, and so my suspicions will not kick in if and when the election board start reporting more votes for Biden long after the bell has rung.

     Pennsylvania was supposed to be an important swing state. That was exciting to me. When I lived in New York my vote didn't really count. No matter what any individual does, the state is marked solid blue. (And for that reason New York turnout was low.) 

     But now my vote was supposed to actually make a difference. But it looks like Pennsylvania blew it. Wisconsin and Michigan have now been called for Biden. So right now all he has to do is finish off Nevada and he'll have enough electoral votes to win the presidency. So Pennsylvania will not be a deciding factor. It will be irrelevant.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Saving the Planet with Covid

      One silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic is that air pollution levels have gone down, not just around metropolitan areas but throughout the country -- and even in China!

     Most of us are driving less. I last filled my gas tank over three weeks ago, on October 9, and the tank is still 3/4 full. Instead of grumbling about the cost of gas, I'm complaining about the monthly payment for the lease on my car that sits in the garage all week.

     But maybe it's better this way. We live in town. Our street is not a major artery, but it is a through street so we normally get a medium amount of traffic. But lately, we can sit on our front porch and not see a single car go by for ten minutes.

     For the past six months, having two cars has been a hassle, and so we're now starting to think maybe we can get along with just one. My lease runs out next June. My plan right now is to replace the car with a bicycle. A bicycle is not the perfect way to get around. There's traffic to negotiate, and it's no good in the rain or the winter. But it might be worth a try.

     If that doesn't work, maybe we'll get an electric car. But I'm not quite sold on the idea. I've read that an electric car, after you account for making and disposing of the batteries and generating the electricity, saves only about 20% of the pollution. Now 20% is better than nothing. But you can do just as well simply by trading in a 22 mpg SUV for a 27 mpg car. 

     Covid is definitely changing our thinking and our habits. Is the pandemic changing yours?

No more of this
     We've been recycling paper and plastic for years now. The only problem is, I've read that they can't recycle all the plastic. It's just too much. A lot of it ends up in a landfill anyway. So we're trying to cut back on plastic. I used to drink bottled water. Now I fill my glass at the tap. Our town water is perfectly fine. 

     We've tried all along to bring our own tote bags to the grocery store -- but somehow we hardly ever remembered. So we went through a lot of plastic bags. But now with Covid, we wouldn't be caught dead taking a plastic bag from the supermarket. We've completely changed that habit. We never go anywhere without our tote bags.

     It almost goes without saying that we're traveling less. Covid has been killing the airline industry. But it's saved a whole lot of jet fuel. Maybe after this is all over, the airlines will be downsized, and we can spend less time flying in jet planes. Sure, you might want to take that special trip to Hawaii or Europe, or to see family. But we won't be quite so casual about contributing to all those jet fumes.

     Instead, we're discovering the charms of the Microadventure  For us it's been an afternoon at a park, a drive to visit another town. But even more adventuresome people are discovering sights closer to home -- Boston or Washington instead of Paris or Helsinki; one of the national parks instead of el Camino de Santiago, a local beach instead of Cancun.

     We don't eat much meat anymore, not because it's environmentally punishing -- although it is -- but because we're trying to be more healthy. We had a steak dinner for B's birthday. And we ate hot dogs exactly one time this summer when we had a cookout. Other than that it's chicken and fish and lots and lots of vegetables. (Not that we're perfect; we do like our baked goods.)

     We do not grow any of our own food. That would be a good thing, but we don't have the property or the green thumb. Instead, we signed up with a local farm to supply fresh produce. It's a little more expansive, but still cheaper than all that meat. And nothing comes wrapped in plastic. 

     We've also been more careful about throwing away food. We have leftovers once or twice a week -- again, not trying to save the environment -- although it does -- but because in these pandemic times we want to cut down on the number of trips to the grocery store.

     Like many other people, we use the library more. We haven't needed much in the way of clothes. We support our local restaurants by doing take-out -- for us, mostly curbside pickup at the pizza place.

     In many ways I can't wait to get back to normal. But maybe, just maybe, a few of these new habits will stick with us -- and we'll take one small step toward saving the planet.