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

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Art of Doing Nothing

      Some of us can go a whole lifetime before we find our real calling. And now I realize: thus it has been with me. I've spent most of my life waking up to an alarm and rushing off to school, to work, to drop the kids off at various activities.

     Even after I retired there were pressures. For example, I sometimes had to get up, get breakfast, get out of the house, and head over to our local college for a class at our Center for Learning in Retirement. And I had to do it all by 9:25 a.m.!

     But wait. It gets worse. From spring through fall, for six months of the year I had to roust myself out of bed as early as 7 a.m. so I could down a cup of coffee, drive to a golf course and find the first tee . . . all while still half asleep.

     No longer. Now we're a year into self-isolation. And I think I've discovered my real talent: The Art of Doing Nothing.

     I wake up . . . whenever I want. I go to the kitchen for my coffee, and then I look around. What do I have to do?

     Nothing. And so I sit and read the paper, or crack open my book. There's no rush. I can read until I get tired of reading, and maybe even take a nap. I never used to take a nap; but now there's no reason not to.

     Eventually, I make myself some breakfast. Then it's time to go into my room to stare at the computer for a while. What do I look at? It doesn't matter. I'm only passing the time. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? The news or sports scores? Read some blogs? Check my email? How long does this take? I dunno. I'm not on any schedule. Haven't been for a year.

     I do have a Zoom meeting a couple of times a week. But I can handle a meeting at 10:50 a.m. -- because I don't have to shower and dress ahead of time. Whew!

     Sometimes I go out for a walk. My wife walks almost every day, first thing in the morning. I go a couple of times a week, at my own pace . . . my own pace means I get around to it about 4 p.m.

My one constructive act of the day 
     Whether I walk or not, 4 p.m. seems to sneak up on me, almost every day. Where did the time go? I'd better get in the shower and do my back exercises before I'm called to dinner. 

     And yet dinner seems to go by so quickly. I think about it all day long, look forward to the meal and some conversation with B. Then, it seems, as soon as we sit down . . . suddenly it's over! Then I do the dishes.

     Lately, we've been reading A Short History of Wisconsin aloud to each other after dinner, one chapter at a time. We're planning a trip to Wisconsin in August. Of course, we planned a trip to Wisconsin last summer, and it never happened. I wonder if it will be different this year.

     Yes, we've started talking about coming out of our cocoon. We're even considering a trip in May, and beginning to think about what we're going to do for Thanksgiving. We're anxious about getting out of the house after all this time, making plans and talking to people about possibilities.

     And yet . . . even when we're fully vaccinated the CDC is still recommending against traveling. Airports, hotels, restaurants are all considered hotspots for the virus. So we wonder, with the vagaries of the vaccine and the possibility of new Covid strains  . . . is it even worth it?

     Besides, we've become so lazy, even one trip seems like an enormous undertaking. 

     After dinner and the dishes and reading about Wisconsin, we make the long trek from the dining room to the den -- almost 20 feet -- and plop down in front of the TV. We've already watched a number of shows: Schitt's Creek. Borgen. Episodes. Call My Agent. The Queen's Gambit.

     We just saw the movie Manks (overrated) and Laurel Canyon (pretty bad). Now we're watching the Australian series Offspring which we love . . . and we're looking for some others. 

     But all we do is read, watch TV, putter around the house. We have brought the idea of doing nothing to a high art. Yet we know we are running out of things to do, things to watch. And now that spring is here, we can go outside and work in the yard. Will I be playing golf again? Are we really going to travel? See our children?

     It will be a major transition for us. We have over time embraced the lifestyle of doing absolutely nothing. Can we now develop the Art of Doing Something?

Sunday, March 21, 2021

It's Not as Bad as You Think

     In her current bestselling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson compares America to Nazi Germany and says that the state of race relations in the U. S. today are about where they were in the 1880s. Yes, the 1880s, not the 1980s.

     Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction argues that due to climate change we are facing the very extinction of the human race as we know it.

     And surely you know -- as we do -- somebody's grownup kids who have said that they're not going to have kids themselves, because they don't want to rear children in a declining white nationalist nation, or bring children into an overpopulated world that's already choking on its own carbon dioxide and industrial waste. 

    It's enough to make you want to get away from it all and move to Mexico or Madagascar . . . or Mars.

     But then I read How I Learned to Understand the World, a memoir by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and bioethicist who spent several years taking care of poor people in Mozambique and later went back to Africa to help put out the fires of the Ebola epidemic. He died in 2017 at age 68, but even his early demise did not dampen his optimism.

     Rosling is best known for his series of TED talks and the book called Factfulness. He says we hear about all the terrible things in the world from the media, and so we leap to the conclusion that the world is getting worse. What we don't hear about are the slow, ongoing improvements in health, longevity, education, non-violence, that go on year after year not just in the U. S. but all around the world.

    The media report on the rise of nationalistic and authoritarian governments around the globe, from Russia to Turkey to Venezuela. They report on the rise of racism and religious hatred. They search out examples of economic inequality. They report on the nuclear threat, the endless wars. They focus on global warming and even tell us we're running out of water.

     None of this is wrong. It's just one-sided, looking at the problems not the progress. To get a more balanced -- and more accurate -- picture of the world today, Rosling tells us, we have to look at the facts. And the facts demonstrate that the world has improved dramatically over almost any time frame you consider.

     So for example:

     Life expectancy: If you were born in 1900, you would have had a 23% chance of dying before age 20 and a 38% chance of dying before age 45. Kids born today have about a 1% chance of dying before age 20 and a 4% chance of dying before age 45.

     Modern Conveniences: When our grandparents were born, virtually no one had electricity ... or telephone or indoor plumbing. They didn't have a car and couldn't fly in an airplane. Today, 85% of the people in the world enjoy the benefits of electricity. And two-thirds have a cellphone.

     Poverty: Twenty years ago 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Today it's only 9% . . . and the rate is still falling.

     Crime: Violent crime has been on a downward trend in the U. S. since 1990. Almost 14.5 million crimes were reported in the United States in 1990. By 2016, with a larger population, that figure was down below 9.5 million.

     Retirement: Some 90% of 65-year-old American men who were still alive in 1870 were working. Today only about 20% of 65-year-old American men are still working ... and many of them are working by choice not necessity.

     Safety: Americans became 95% less likely to be killed on the job over the last hundred years. Seat belts, air bags and other safety features have brought down auto fatalities from 50,000 a year in the 1970s to about 37,000 today, despite more cars on the road. The auto fatality rate per 100,000 people has dropped from 25 to 11 -- less than half what it was in the 1970s.

     Disease: In the past century, vaccines and antibiotics have brought miracles to modern medicine. Just since 1990, the control of infectious disease has saved the lives of an estimated 100 million children. Or consider the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. They couldn't do it in 1918. But we did it in 2020.

     Food. Between 1961 and  2009, the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12%, but the amount of food grown has increased by 300%.

     Climate change. The world was getting dirtier and dirtier until the 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency was established and people started to care about the environment. The world is still getting dirtier. But at a slower pace. And with the development of solar and wind energy, of geothermal and tidal and possibly hydrogen energy it is entirely possible that we will be smart enough to overcome even this latest and most serious problem.

     If you don't believe Rosling, turn to Bill Gates, the computer wizard who now focuses on world health. He tells us: "Headlines are what mislead you, because bad news is a headline and gradual improvement is not." So next time someone corners you to drone on about how bad the world really is, tell them: "It's not as bad as you think."

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Family Cookbook Project

     Do you have recipes all over the place? Do you find that family and friends sometimes ask for your recipes? Do you find yourself asking for theirs?

     My wife B has an old cookbook that was handed down from her grandmother, put together almost a hundred years ago by a Mennonite church group. B still consults it on occasion and cooks up some great comfort food -- the kind we especially appreciated during the Covid lockdown.

     So when I heard from Bill Rice, founder of the Family Cookbook Project, I was immediately interested. This is a website that helps families and individuals collect and share their memories of food -- and all that goes with it.

     I asked him for some background on his project . . . and how you go about digitalizing your recipes, organizing them on the computer and then, if you're really ambitious, printing out a family cookbook.

     This is what he told me.

                                                       *       *       *

     Genealogy is the tracing of your family roots, focusing on births, marriages, deaths. But genealogy only tells a small part of the story. So much of our lives is undocumented -- our jobs, our hobbies, our friends, our family relationships. These things are never recorded.

     One aspect of our lives that is often written down, but not always shared, is the tradition around food. Those old-time recipe boxes filled with handwritten recipes are often family treasures. The recipes may have been clipped out of a newspaper, or provided by a friend, but often there is not a lot of perspective on why that recipe was important. There's only so much you can fit on a 4 X 6 index card.

     Sharing a recipe box is also difficult as it is typically one of a kind, and it takes a lot of work to copy and share with other family members. But in today's digital world, family cookbooks have changed all that. Today we can collect our recipes, put them online, organize them, format them into cookbooks, and even have them printed. 

     These cookbooks typically contain a lot more than just recipes. They often feature photos of the ingredients, the food, and the people who made it. They usually include personal notes and memories about each dish -- when it was enjoyed, who ate it, why it was important to us.

     Preserving these recipes means we will also be remembered by future generations. For example, I was recently looking through my grandmother's recipe box. I came across a recipe for Scottish shortbread that was attributed to my great grandmother May Ann McDougall Peatie, born in Scotland in 1883. The recipe had been buried and forgotten in a pile of old papers. But now it's part of my own family cookbook . . . so everyone can now enjoy these traditional Scottish shortbread cookies, and give a thanks to Grandma Peatie.

     Here are some tips on creating your own family cookbook:

     Go through your recipe collection and pick the most meaningful recipes that bring back memories of a family gathering or special event.

     For those recipes that you never wrote down because you've made them so many times you know them by memory, make the dish again. But this time write down the recipe step-by-step as you prepare it.

     Measure the ingredients! Even if you use a "handful" of something, take a handful and put it into a measuring cup, and write it down before throwing it in the pot.

     Write personal notes about why this recipe is important, who gave it to you or any special memories of meals when it was served. My mother's Chicken Supreme will always remind me of her serving it at the rehearsal dinner for my wedding.

     Including photos is a great way to make your cookbook special, and help preserve those personal memories. 

     Consider making it a family affair. Ask family members to contribute their favorite recipes, along with their memories of why they are special or important. 

     Behind every recipe you love is a story you want to share -- and a family cookbook makes that sharing a lasting heirloom.

                                          *       *       *

     There are several ways to get your family cookbook together -- and then you can print it out at FedEx or another printing service, or publish it through Amazon's self-publishing unit. But the Family Cookbook Project website does seem to offer an easy and effective way to do it.

     I have not used the program myself, so I cannot personally vouch for it. But it sure looks like, uh, a tasty way to go about it, especially if you want your great grandchildren to enjoy your special cookies, or any other traditional family dish.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Wait ... Is This for Real?

     For the last two months I've focused entirely on getting vaccinated. I signed up with our county health department, our local hospital, my general medical practice. I got on a list at Rite Aid and CVS and Walgreen's. I drove over to a local pharmacy that required in-person registration and filled out a form for my wife B and myself. I signed up at grocery stores Wegman's and Weiss and Giant.

     I had each of these tagged on the bookmark page of my browser and checked through them several times a day. The only message I ever got was:  Appointments Unavailable. Fully Booked. No Vaccines. Sales ended. Registrations Closed. 

     B had pretty much the same experience. And together we watched as a lot of our friends and relatives started getting vaccinated, while we felt left behind.

     Then last Monday, after dinner, B checked her email once again and . . . there it was! She'd received an email from the county. She couldn't believe it! Suddenly, she was allowed to sign up for a Covid vaccine.

     My response:  What!?! I'd signed up with the county before she did. I got my name on the list on January 17; she hadn't signed up until January 20. Also, I happen to be older than she is. We assumed I'd be contacted first. I should have been contacted first!

     She scheduled her appointment for Thursday at our community college. She, too, wondered why I hadn't been contacted, told me to double-check my email.

     She felt a little guilty that she had gotten an appointment, and not me. She even wondered if she could somehow give her appointment to me. But I said, no, no, that wouldn't be right, and besides she probably couldn't do it anyway, and I reminded her that this was good news since it's better that one of us is vaccinated than neither of us.

     Still, I wondered:  Were they skipping over me? Was I going to be denied a vaccine because somehow the bureaucratic machinery didn't accept my registration? 

     We couldn't figure it out. But I kept looking. Then on Tuesday night I received an email from the hospital. Spots were opening up the next day starting at 8 a.m. 

     So I went on my computer at 7:55. I checked the website, as I'd done many times before. The new sign-up sheet was there. I clicked on it and saw:  Fully Booked. Fully Booked. Fully Booked.

     Geez, not again! Then at the bottom of the page I saw a phone number for those who had trouble signing up online. So I figured: What the heck. I called the number. It was 8:01 a. m. I got a recording. I was number 12 in the queue.

     Number 12, I thought. There's no way. I might as well just hang up. But I had nothing else to do, so I put the phone on Speaker and propped it on the corner of my desk. 

     Number 11 . . . Number 9 . . . Number 5 . . . and finally a woman -- a real person! -- answered the phone.

     I felt ridiculous even asking. But I plowed ahead. "I'm calling to see if I can get a Covid vaccine."

     "Sure, I can help you with that," she said.

     Wait, I thought, is this for real? She took my name and birthdate and booked an appointment for 9:20 a.m. the same day.

     I still wasn't sure I believed it, but I got dressed and B drove me down to the hospital. I went in the front door and was met by a volunteer. Would he let me through?

     Yes! He ushered me into the proper hallway. Another volunteer asked for my license and Medicare card. A very nice nurse gave me the shot. Didn't hurt at all. She told me to drink plenty of water and take Tylenol, not Advil, if I had any aches or pains.

     I got a Pfizer vaccine. I was handed a card with my appointment for the second shot, then I spent 15 minutes in the waiting area to make sure there were no side-effects. Then I walked out to the parking lot and met up with B.

     The next day we made the trip to the community college, and I in turn waited while B got her shot. 

     B got her vaccination the way it's supposed to happen. I stumbled into a lucky break. But I can say to those who have not yet received their shots: Keep the faith. They are coming.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Best Places to Retire: 2021

     Many of us know where we're going to retire -- or we've already retired and settled into our retirement home. A lot of people just stay in their hometown after they retire, because that's where their friends and family are. Or, if we like the warm weather, it's no secret that Florida and Arizona are popular places to relocate.

     Nevertheless, there are some objective criteria for deciding on a good retirement destination. Most retirees live on a fixed income, so for many of us it's important to be in a place with a low cost of living. We also know that we'll need more health care as time goes on, so we want access to good medical facilities.

     U. S. News recently came out with a list of best places to retire. Seven out of the top ten places, and 12 out of the top 20, are located in Florida. So anyone retiring to Florida must be doing okay. Sarasota takes top honors, with Fort Myers, Port St. Lucie and Naples following close behind.

In my dreams

     I know Florida is a popular retirement destination. But I'm surprised that many cities make the list. And I'm surprised that no place in Washington or Oregon cracks the top 20 -- a lot of people have retired to the Pacific Northwest.

     The locations in the top 20, according to U S. News, that are not in Florida are:

     # 5 Lancaster, PA, an affordable small city with a college campus and well-regarded hospital, surrounded by bucolic farms.

     # 7 Ann Arbor, MI, home to the University of Michigan with plenty of culture -- and plenty more sports.

     # 8 Asheville, NC, nestled in the Blue Ridge with moderate weather and plenty of outdoor activities.

     # 11 Myrtle Beach, SC, with mild weather, miles of beaches and millions of golf courses.

     # 12 Nashville, TN, featuring a notable music scene and excellent health care.

     # 14 Manchester, NH, with New England charm and nearby skiing.

     # 18 Dallas, TX, offering a mix of suburban lifestyle, urban culture and taste of the cowboy life.

     # 19 Chattanooga, TN, benefitting from urban renewal, coupled and lots of outdoor recreation.

     Another top ten list, from Forbes, identifies a more geographically diverse 25 best places to retire. Only three Florida cities make the grade: Sarasota, Jacksonville and Orlando. Instead, the Forbes list features a lot of places that are not in the Sunbelt and don't get as much attention, from Pittsburgh, PA to Columbus, OH, Evansville, IN, Jefferson City, MO, Fargo, ND, Boise, ID. 

Get real

   Forbes also taps two Arizona locales for its list: Green Valley, near Tucson, and Mesa, near Phoenix.

     Money Magazine just came out with a new list. The top three are:

     # 1 Madison, the capital of Wisconsin and home to the Badgers.

     # 2 Largo, near Tampa.

     #3 Lower Marion, a Philadelphia suburb.

     Money includes a few of the usual suspects on its retirement list, like Boise and Ashville. But get this: Bridgewater, NJ, makes the Money top ten list. That's the first time I've ever seen a place in New Jersey mentioned on any list of best places to retire.

     So I looked it up. Wallethub ranks New Jersey as the absolute worst state to retire in, right behind New York and Mississippi. (The top three Wallethub states are Florida, Colorado and Delaware.)  But a little more research finds that while there is a lot of traffic in New Jersey, and the cost of living is high, the state offers excellent health care and, the Sopranos notwithstanding, actually enjoys a surprisingly low crime rate.

       Dave Ramsey, the financial guru and radio personality, came out with his own list. He puts four Florida cities in his top ten. He also offers some familiar names like Lancaster, Ashville, Nashville and Dallas.

     If you don't find your town or city on any ten-best list . . . not to worry. It really doesn't matter. The best advice I ever saw about where to retire doesn't cite any states or cities. Instead, it boils the process down to five criteria: 

     # 1 Make sure it's a place you can afford.

     # 2 It should have good access to health care.

     # 3 You should have some friends and family in the  area.

     # 4 There should be some interesting things for you to do -- fishing or golf, the theater or the opera -- whatever it is that makes you happy. 

     # 5 It should be a place where you either have, or will develop, an emotional attachment. In other words, whether it's a place you've lived a long time, or if you're just moving there, you want the place to feel like home.

     The point is, the best place to retire is entirely personal. It depends on your family, your interests, your financial situation. And mostly importantly, your "feel." Why, for some people, the perfect place to retire could even be . . . New Jersey!