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Sunday Issues Links: 30 November 2008

category_bug_politics.gif Sunday Issues Links is a list linking to useful, worthwhile, compelling and/or provocative posts from elderbloggers and stories from other sources that catch my fancy during the week.

The issues are the big ones and there are plenty: the economy, war(s), the Obama administration, Congress, the judiciary, legislation, education, health care and politics in general. Smaller issues and a little humor are good too. Please send your links for each edition by the end of day on the preceding Friday.

ELDERBLOGGERS
From Sylvia Kirkwood of Sylvia From Over the Hill: Help is Needed

From Citizen K: Alive as You or Me

From joared at Along the Way: An Evening With Maureen Dowd

From Tamar Orvell of Only Connect: Josh Gomes is Scoring Points for Israel


OTHER MEDIA
From Alternet: Living the Good Life on $5000 a Year

From Alternet: The Secret of Rachel Maddow’s Success

From Danny Schechter: All the Talk of a Depression is - Depressing

From The New York Times: Bonuses Rejected at Swiss UBS

From The Salt Lake Tribune: “Bailout” is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year


[PERSONAL NOTE: This is a short, unedited version of the Sunday Issues post because since Wednesday I haven’t read anything – online or off – except veterinary instructions. Ollie is on the mend – he’s eating again and even asked demanded to play fetch this morning. I’m watching him closely…

…when I’m not sleeping, which I’ve been doing around the clock since I brought Ollie home from the vet again on Friday afternoon. I seem to be better this morning although I’m going to take it easy for awhile.

There are an overwhelming number of get well messages which I appreciate. And I’ll answer other email as soon as I can do it. Thank you so much for your kind thoughts.


This Week in Elder News: 29 November 2008 (Not)

With apologies, I'm begging off Elder News this week because even after 14 hours straight of sleeping, I'm still not well, still wiped out and still too cotton-headed to think about anything more complicated than pouring juice.

Ollie is better after several vet visits the cost of which I could live on for a month or two. He's not his old self yet, but gaining ground, I think - enough, anyway, to complain loudly when I have a coughing fit. (It's not a pretty picture around this place right now.)

Back soon...


Holiday Hangover

[EDITORIAL NOTE: [EDITORIAL NOTE: The Sunday Issues post could use some input from you. If you have blog stories from this week to submit for the list, be sure to email links to me by end of today, Friday.]

category_bug_journal2.gif It’s not really a hangover, it just feels like it - and the alliteration is nice.

No proper post today. The cat’s sick with who knows what. I’m sick too with a bad cold/flu-ish bug that has left me cotton-headed, chilled, ache-y and with a low, sexy voice a la Kathleen Turner in Body Heat except that words like, “Oh, poor Ollie, did you barf again” are hardly seductive.

Here’s Ollie curled up in “his” chair. Hours pass without a whisker moving.

OllieAsleep

Cats do this on purpose, you know – get sick on holidays or at other inconvenient times – because they like to wield their power over us and will go to any length, even refusing to eat or pee, to remind us of their superior position in the scheme of things and our position as slave.

Ollie and I spent Wednesday driving back and forth to the animal emergency center, which is about as far from home as possible while still remaining within the city limits of Portland, Maine. After a follow-up phone discussion with the veterinarian yesterday, Ollie and I both spent all of Thanksgiving Day sleeping.

Here’s Ollie on a much healthier day last week.

Ollie2008_11_21

And now that this is posted, we’re both going back to bed for awhile before more doctor appointments.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marvin Waldman regales us with a story of teenage angst in The Sexual History of Adam Feingold – Part 1: The Breast.]


Happy Thanksgiving Day 2008

[EDITORIAL NOTE: I know it's a holiday and you're enjoying friends and family, but if you find yourself online today, please be sure to send links for any of your stories you'd like to have included in the Sunday Issues post.]

There are many things I am thankful for today. Given the state of our economy, just being warm and fed would be enough. But there is another that I don’t often get around to saying here at Time Goes By and this seems a good day to do it.

I am overwhelmingly, exuberantly thankful for you, the people who read this blog and make it so much fun to produce. Even after five years, my enthusiasm for it continues and what makes it particularly pleasurable – and unique among many blogs - is the quality of the conversation and the thought put into the comments. The collective intelligence expressed here is much greater than mine and you give me a lot to ponder, lead me in directions I’ve never been before and - you make me laugh.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates the time and effort you put into your comments (some could be blog posts on their own) and it makes the experience of Time Goes By so much richer for us all. (Soon, Typepad will implement some new technology that will allow threading of comments so that several conversations can be grouped together which should make it even easier to read and follow along.)

So today, I thank all of you, many of whom have supported this blog for several years now. May the blessings of the day shower upon you and yours as you have showered interest in TGB on me.

Turkey1

It is also important to remember those who may not have as much as we do. Our economic catastrophe has already caused many people and families to live in uncertainty and even without the basics, as Saul Friedman reported in his Reflections column on Hunger here yesterday. Most economists I’ve read believe we are in for even harder times before it gets better.

Appropriately then, a few days ago, Miki Davis of Mountain Mama Radio sent me to a link to an NPR story deconstructing Yip Harburg’s Great Depression anthem, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, which resonates again as it did 75 years ago. Here is an excerpt:

“…the mood of the song is guided by its key and its rhythm.

"’The first thing that's surprising is that it doesn't start in a major key like most Broadway songs,’ [pianist and composer Rob] Kapilow says. ‘Appropriate to the Depression, it's in a minor key.’

“With lines like ‘Once I built a railroad, made it run / Made it race against time,’ the music jumps an octave, with all the energy and syncopation that made America's railroads. It even comes to rest, momentarily, in a major key. The music, like the words, reminisces about prosperous times.

"’But then, heartbreakingly,’ Kapilow says, under the word 'time' we change to minor, to set up the second half of the verse. Now it has lost all its energy; it's wistful. Now it's done — the good days in America, pre-Depression.’

“All of that, Kapilow says, provides a wonderful set-up for the perfect punch line: the song's title.”

Even in good times, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? has been one of my favorite songs, especially by Mandy Patinkin. Yes, the emotion has seemed to be a bit over the top through the years, but no more; now it feels entirely appropriate.

Here is a video of Patinkin in rehearsal for an old David Letterman show singing Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (That’s actor Tony Randall in the scene with him whose mugging draws laughs from the audience until Patinkin overwhelms the crowd with his intensity.) [3:05 minutes]


[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Susan Gulliford recalls Thanksgivings past in Mom's Thanksgiving.]


Reflections: Hunger

[EDITORIAL NOTE: I am pleased and proud to announce today that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Nieman Fellow, Saul Friedman joins Time Goes By as a regular contributor. In his new, twice-monthly Reflections column, Saul will - well, reflect upon news, politics and social issues from his personal perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation.

In his long career, Saul covered some of the most crucial news stories of the 20th century which you can read about in his bio here. For the past dozen years, he has written the Gray Matters column at Newsday, which appears every Saturday. I know you will welcome him to our Time Goes By community.

Category_bug_reflections I remember the precise moment I decided that, after ten years, I no longer wanted to cover the White House. The elder Bush was president and I waited for the noon briefing, ready to get my teeth into a good story.

The chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers was to boast of another month of growth, but that morning the Census Bureau had reported a rise in the number of people living in poverty. And I was ready to ask how come, and make a decent story about the contradiction and his answer. But I never got the chance.

The press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, announced the president would fly to Oakland, California, to inspect earthquake damage and return the same day. The TV reporters and crews went nuts, making arrangements for what was to be nothing more than a photo op. I never got a chance to ask my question and tell my readers why poverty grows amidst the plenty. Soon after I left the White House beat to cover substance–in foreign affairs.

Things have not changed. I checked and no one among the White House press has bothered to ask about a new report and why hunger still haunts this promised land. But then America has become so accustomed to doublespeak, that we even have a euphemism for hunger. So today a president would not say that millions in the nation are “ill-fed,” he or she would say they are “food insecure.” That’s government-speak for a national shame.

In the richest country on earth, where we’re spending $10 billion a month in Iraq, and $700 billion to rescue banks and brokers, more than 13 million Americans, including 730,000 older people and 700,000 children, struggled with hunger during 2007. And that was before this recession-cum-depression hit.

It’s bad enough that close to three-quarters of a million people over 65, many of whom live alone, have gone hungry during 2007. But even worse, at least that many of our grandchildren and millions of their parents, some of them our kids, suffer from not having enough to eat.

If you didn’t read much about this in the press, I’m not surprised. It was too busy playing who’s gonna be in the Obama cabinet guessing games. But the information was easily available and understandable in the Department of Agriculture’s annual report on food security.

Technically, the report said, “food security and insecurity...are based on respondent perceptions of whether the household was able to obtain enough food to meet their needs.”

The word hunger is sparingly used, because the Bush administration didn’t like it. As the report acknowledges in a footnote,

“…prior to 2006, households with low food security were described as ‘food insecure without hunger’ and households with very low food insecurity were described as ‘food insecure with hunger.’”

Now the word “hunger” has been removed and the categories are simply “low food security,” and “very low food security.” But it’s hunger by any other name, the awful, empty feeling in a household when a mother or father cannot give the children or the old people anything to eat.

As with any government report, it begins with the good news - about 89 percent of American households were “food secure” during 2007, meaning that all these household members “had access at all times to enough food for an active healthy life.” That’s not asking for much.

But is 89 percent such a big deal for this gilded age? That other 11 percent amounted to 13 million households that were

“…food insecure at some time during the year. That is, they were, at times uncertain of having or unable to acquire enough food for all household members because they had insufficient money...for food.”

Thus, of the 117 million households surveyed, more than 8 million reported “low food security,” and 5 million reported “very low food security,” which means one or more household members were not getting enough to eat - going hungry - because they could not afford enough food. And in these households there were 691,000 children “with very low food security,” that is, going hungry.

The report’s authors surveyed these families. The report said that 98 percent of these households worried that their food would run out before they had money to buy more. Ninety-six percent reported skipping meals. Two-thirds reported they had been hungry but could not afford to buy more food.

One more revealing statistic: Hunger, or food insecurity, was in general decline during the late 1990s, when 10.5 million households were reported to be food insecure. There has been a steady increase since 2002, when the food secure households numbered 12.5 million, to more than 13 million in 2007. And the number of our children and grandchildren living with hunger, nearly 700,000, has grown by 50 percent since 1998.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Gloria considers slowing down in a world where speed is king. Her story: Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk - Slowly.]


Elders’ Unique Economic Difficulties

[EDITORIAL NOTE: For those who are waiting for an email response from me, my internet connection was down for most of yesterday afternoon. I'll be catching up today.]

First it was Wall Street firms and mortgage lenders that were bailed out, then banks and a giant insurer or two. The big three auto makers (they of individual private jets) are toiling through Thanksgiving on a report to Congress due next week so they can get their slice of the bailout pie. There is no telling what industries will go begging to Washington next.

Meanwhile, the number of home sales are the lowest on record and the median sale price is down by more than 11 percent from a year ago. At the same time, the jobless rate hit 6.5 percent, the highest in 14 years and is expected to jump further in 2009.

According to surveys, most people are scaling back Christmas spending this year. Malls are empty and luxury goods retailers are complaining that even the rich aren’t spending.

What none of this tells us is the toll on individuals. But it isn’t much of a stretch, even if you’re getting by so far, to imagine the struggle of millions of people. We’ve heard a lot about those forced out of their homes due to foreclosure. For others, crucial bills like electricity, heating fuel and insurance are going unpaid.

And some people are going hungry. [See this story of middle class slide into poverty in today's Washington Post]

My heart aches for everyone who lacks a home and food. The concern of Time Goes By, however, is elders.

President-elect Obama’s announcement of a stimulus plan that creates jobs makes sense to me and as awful as it is to contemplate a national debt in the trillions, it also makes sense to accept short-term debt in exchange for re-engaging the economy. On a tiny scale, I’ve done that myself in the past and recovered. Obama's idea for creating jobs is so obvious, one wonders why it's taken a new president to do it:

“We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”

But none of this addresses, nor has anyone in a position to do anything mentioned the problems of elders – those who are retired and near retirement – whose difficulties are unique among the generations.

Here is some of what’s been bothering me:

• Social Security was never meant to be the sole income of retirees. Most elders also rely on investments and savings, the return on which has dropped dramatically. People have lost 30, 40, 50 percent and probably more in some cases, of their retirement nest eggs.

• What happens to the pensions of those whose former employers are filing for bankruptcy?

• Elders are forced to withdraw funds from their IRAs at age 70-1/2. How many are taking a huge financial beating doing so.

• Not all retirees are capable of returning to work, even if there were jobs for them.

• With so many unemployed and more job cuts on the way, what chance do elders have of finding work in a culture as ageist as ours? Age discrimination in the workplace makes it hard for older people to find jobs in the best of economic times.

• There is a quadruple whammy for people nearing retirement: lost jobs, lost 401(k)s, low home prices and few homes selling making planning for the future hard.

• Some people’s homes have been on the market for a year and more, making it impossible for those who need assisted living to make the move.

It’s not that I have answers (well, temporarily suspending the requirement to cash in a portion of IRAs at 70.5 years would be a small start) and there is a lot to juggle for the people who have the power to make changes that might help the economy in general and for individuals. It was heartening yesterday, after the new economic team was introduced, to hear President-elect Obama say that we need:

"...a recovery plan for both Wall Street and Main Street...Our families cannot afford to keep on waiting and hoping for a solution."

True, but so far, the only people directly benefiting from the bailout are giant corporations and their executives who have mostly been allowed to keep their astronomical salaries and bonuses, with help for some midlife people on the way with the new jobs stimulus.

I’m not asking for a bailout especially for elders, but I would like to hear that their unique circumstances are being considered, that some thought is being put to those who have the fewest resources to recoup their losses.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lia presents a collection of four short, short pieces from her recent trip titled, Berlin Café Stories.]


Post-Election Politics

Is it Crabby Old Lady or has politics become annoying in the three weeks since a new president was elected? For the better part of a year, Crabby’s life went all to hell as she spent too many hours every day reading newspapers and magazines, online and off, and followed political blogs and pundits and polls. Not much else got done.

Now, it should be time to get back to "real life," but it's not easy. The only political item that has jazzed Crabby since 4 November is the 60 Minutes interview with Barack and Michelle Obama. Governor Palin is still irritating as the press rags the topic of her political future like a dog with an old bone. And in the video clip or two Crabby has seen of Senator McCain, he’s revealed himself as the ill-humored churl she always believed him to be.

To further offend Crabby, McCain announced his intention to start campaigning for the 2010 Senate race even before all the ballots have been counted in this year’s Senate contests. Can’t he give it – and us – a rest at least until after the holidays?

You won’t catch Crabby Old Lady feeling sorry for George W. Bush any time soon, but the phony hoo-haw over whether foreign leaders refused to shake his hand or not at the economic summit in Washington was unseemly.

President-elect Obama hadn’t had a chance for a good-night’s sleep and maybe a hug for his daughters on election night before the media started guessing what kind of administration his will be. He mentioned reading Abe Lincoln and for three days all the talk was of a “team of rivals” cabinet pro and con. Since Senator Clinton’s name was leaked as his choice for secretary of state, every pundit in the U.S. has weighed in “for her” or “agin her” and her appointment isn’t even official yet.

In the past couple of days, the concentration has been on Obama’s selection of Washington insiders for top posts. Opinion is divided between brilliant and stupid: “These people know their way around the D.C. pitfalls” versus “Oh, no, too many Clintonites.”

All of which probably accounts for the fact that yesterday's Sunday Issues post was loaded with woolly mammoths, wild horses, a Roomba-riding cat and ruminations on Daylight Saving Time.

The campaign is over, but the pundits have been so consumed with horse race politics for so many years, they appear to be incapable now of discussing governance - an entirely different matter that is more complex and subtle than regurgitating today’s poll. Governing requires a balance of action on the many competing needs of our current crises, but you wouldn't know that from the the people who purport to be experts; each has a single agenda.

One says an economic fix comes first. Colin Powell says, no, children first. Another wants bipartisanship (duh!) while a couple more want health care to be the priority. Still more claim that the environment, infrastructure, innovation, national security or energy must be the focus, and one self-important turkey claims to know already what Obama's legacy will be.

Is it too much to ask that the press report and stop second-guessing Obama until after inauguration day or so? It's not like pundits have any experience themselves at governing. Crabby even read a dissenting opinion on the Obamas’ choice of Sidwell Friends School for their daughters.

Bah, humbug, says Crabby.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jeanne Waite Follett recalls her father's wry humor in Shared Moments.]


Sunday Issues Links: 23 November 2008

category_bug_politics.gif Sunday Issues Links is a list linking to useful, worthwhile, compelling and/or provocative posts from elderbloggers and stories from other sources that catch my fancy during the week.

The issues are the big ones and there are plenty: the economy, war(s), the Obama administration, Congress, the judiciary, legislation, education, health care and politics in general. Smaller issues and a little humor are good too. Please send your links for each edition by the end of day on the preceding Friday.

ELDERBLOGGERS
From Mort Reichek of Octogenarian: How Obama Must Cope With Bush Foreign Policy Blunders

From Sylvia Kirkwood of Sylvia From Over the Hill: Rescuing Our Country

From James Whaley of Aging and Disability in America: Change of the Seasons #3


OTHER MEDIA SOURCES
From Saul Friedman of Newsday: A Reporter Recalls the Day JFK Died

From Kathleen Parker: Giving Up on God
(My new favorite conservative columnist has some smart things to say about religion, politics and the Republican Party.)

From HuffingtonPost (via friend, John Brandt): Obama’s Use of Complete Sentences

From The New York Times: Wild Horses

From the International Herald Tribune: Coming to a Zoo Near You: Live Mammoths (Maybe)

From The New York Times: What is the Point of Daylight Time

From the Los Angeles Times: Bush’s Land Mines for Obama

Similarly from the New Yorker: Midnight Hour

From the Washington Post: Obama Raised Half a Billion Online


FUN AND SILLINESS
Cat on a spinning Roomba [:46 seconds]


This Week in Elder News: 22 November 2008

In this regular weekend feature you will find links to news items from the preceding week related to elders and aging, along with whatever else catches my fancy that I think you might like to know. Suggestions are welcome with, however, no promises of publication.

Following on yesterday’s post on the fraud services of the Federal Trade Commission, the agency also maintains the Who Cares? website with information and links to other sources for elders and their caregivers on a variety of topics: generic drugs, hormone therapies, hiring caregivers, medical ID theft, hearing aids and alternative treatment. All this information is available online in downloadable pdf format and also in print, which can be ordered by calling 1.877.382.4357.

We know that the economic crisis has hit elders hard as their retirement savings dwindle. Now there is word that the housing crisis is hitting them too. Because their homes are not selling, they can't make needed moves into retirement communities and assisted living. Read more here.

Although a couple of these suggestions are specific to desert country, firefighter and EMS worker Bill Wilson has an excellent checklist to help keep elders healthy and safe through winter.

A 44-year-old Toronto stripper has filed an discrimination suit against her former employer charging that she was fired because of her age. “The job, says Kimberlee Ouwroulis, “is partially about looks, partially about personality and attitude, all of which helped me to be a good dancer.” Read more here and here.

There is an excellent story in The New York Times about how serious even minor falls can be to elders, and should be taken as seriously, says one researcher, as diabetes. They can be an indication of other treatable conditions such as low blood pressure, declining vision, heart arythmia. In one study, preventative measures such as changes in medication and physical therapy reduced falls by 11 percent.

The 5.8 percent COLA increase in Social Security for next year is good news in hard times, but a study from Senior Citizen League finds that elder buying power has decreased since 2000 by 51 percent, most of it due to the rising cost of necessities. Read more here.

For years, we’ve been hearing about kids living at home with their parents until they are well into their thirties. Now, there may be a reverse trend: in 2007, 3.6 million parents were living with their adult children, up 67 percent since 2000 - some is due to difficult economic times and some, says one researcher, is due to closer family ties. It sounds like life was when I was a kid. Read more here.

For those elders who don’t live with family, this may be an idea whose time has come: reverse 911. A town in Ohio is seeking funds to set up a system to check in with elders and disabled people who live alone to be sure they are okay. Read more about how it would work.

An alarming international study reports that “more than half of Americans with chronic illnesses did not fill prescriptions, skipped doses of their medications, or didn't see a doctor for a medical problem because they could not afford to." Although patients in other countries reported other kinds of problems with their medical system, Americans appear to be at higher risk due to coverage gaps and poorly organized care. Find out more here. (Hat tip to Miki Davis of Mountain Mama Radio)

Hats Off is a new film documentary about part-time actress, Mimi Weddell, an extraordinary and eccentric 92-year-old. You can read more about Mimi and the film, and here’s the trailer. (Hat tip to Marion Dent of And the BeatGoes On)


Consumer Fraud and Elders

[EDITORIAL NOTE: The new, non-election campaign Issues post begins on Sunday. You can find out more about it here. So if you have blog stories from this week to submit for the list, be sure to email links to me by end of today, Friday.]

A few days ago, Alexandra Grabbe of Wellfleet ChezSven blog, who I visited in Wellfleet, Massachusetts a few weeks ago, emailed about a telephone fraud she ran into and I was reminded that we’ve never discussed this topic at Time Goes By although it comes to mind from time to time.

From nothing more that ageist thinking along with regularly-occurring news stories like this one about a woman who succumbed to the Nigerian scam to the tune of $400,000, there is a general consensus that elders are more susceptible (too stupid to know better) than younger people to fraud. So when I followed up in a telephone conversation with Nat Wood, the assistant director of business and consumer education at the Bureau of Consumer Protection within the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), I was delighted to learn the following:

“In all cases, consumers 65 years of age or older were less likely to have experienced each of the frauds than were younger consumers…Prize promotion fraud and fraudulent buyers’ club billing were the frauds seniors most frequently reported experiencing. However, only 1.0 percent of seniors reported experiencing each of these frauds…

“Seniors were much less likely than younger consumers to report purchasing a fraudulent weight-loss product. Less than 1 percent of those 65 and over reported having made such purchases, significantly lower than the approximately 2.5 percent rate for those between 18 and 34 and those between 35 and 64.”
- FTC Report on Consumer Fraud in the United States, October 2007 [pdf]

Although it is the birthright of every American to bitch about the government, and we’ve had many reasons during the Bush II administration to do so, what is often forgotten is that within various agencies of government, many good non-politicians are putting some of our tax dollars to excellent use producing research, studies and hard information that can help improve our lives. The FTC is one of them.

We elders may be up a rung or two over younger people in terms of fraud recognition, but we don’t know it all and scammers are slick. The FTC website is a resource you should know about.

Phone Fraud
In the Who’s Calling? section, there are explanations of how phone frauds work. From credit and travel scams to charity fraud, medical discount plans and more, there’s all you need to know to recognize phone fraud for what it is. You can also sign up for the Do Not Call Registry and if you get a call that you recognize as fraudulent, there is an easy Complaint Assistant form with which to report it to the FTC.

Internet Fraud
At The FTC’s Onguard Online website, the agency has broken down internet safety into 16 topics. While some will get you up to speed on email scams, internet auctions, malware, investing, shopping, etc. Nat tells me that phishing is the most important.

If you don’t know the word, phishing is a scam, as the site explains, “where internet fraudsters send spam or pop-up messages to lure personal and financial information.” The information on how to protect yourself is clear, easy to understand and there are also several links to easily report phishing scams you run into to the FTC and other organizations that track this kind of fraud.

Bogus Cancer Cures
At the Cure-ious site, the FTC covers cancer cure scams - how to recognize them together with a list of products and treatments the FTC has found to be fraudulent. There is also a list of organizations that are good starting points for research into cancer treatments and, like the other FTC fraud sites, you can also easily report cancer cure fraud.

YouTube
The FTC maintains its own YouTube channel of videos that cover phishing, identity theft at home, work and shopping - and this one on telemarketing fraud [3:08 minutes].


[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Old Woman gives us the final installment of Falling Apart Together - Part 2.]


Some Fun With Old Age

[EDITORIAL NOTE: The new, non-election campaign Sunday Issues post begins this weekend. You can find out more about it here. So if you have blog stories from this week to submit, please email links to me by end of day Friday.]

category_bug_journal2.gif It’s been a long, hard slog of an election campaign with some of us holding our breath until we nearly turned blue waiting for the outcome. Now it’s back to real life and all the national catastrophes we face. Too bad an election doesn’t magically wipe the slate clean so a new president doesn’t need play catch-up. All our psyches would benefit.

Since that isn’t going to happen, how about a little fun today to lighten our loads.

When I moved into this apartment two years ago, I was confronted for the first time with a glass-topped cook stove. If you must live without a gas stove (and I must), it has its charms, but the instructions advised that cast iron pots and pans should not be used, so I reluctantly stowed mine in the back of the cupboard.

However, frittatas in particular are less than acceptable made in metal and non-stick, so I recently pulled out my favorite cast iron frying pan. The stove didn’t blow up, it wasn’t scarred and I decided that what the manufacturer really means is that you shouldn’t bang them around on the glass top.

I’m now happily back to cooking with cast iron when it is called for and it struck me the other day that I’ve owned my smallest frying pan, about nine inches in diameter, since before I was married. I remember buying it in San Francisco in 1960, which makes it 48 years old.

Having now put in some time pondering its age, I’m pretty sure there is nothing else I’ve owned for as long. So, here’s the question:

What is the oldest item you own that has been in continuous use since you got it? Tell us what it is and why you have kept it for so long.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Old Woman tells a love story in Falling Apart Together – Part 1.]


Guest Blogger Saul Friedman on AARP

{EDITORIAL NOTE: Saul Friedman, who is becoming a semi-regular guest blogger at TGB, writes the Gray Matters column for Newsday. He was a 1963 Nieman fellow and among other prominent Americans on President Nixon's master list of political opponents (proudly, no doubt), which was a supplement to Nixon's Enemies List.]


category_bug_journal2.gif I think it’s about time to take on the sacred cow called AARP, which used to be called the American Association of Retired Persons before it became an insurance program for boomers and the Medicare generation. I figure I have a right to criticize because I’ve been a member in good standing for more than 20 years and I have studied the organization and at times I’ve been close its leaders through my column, “Gray Matters.”

I have praised AARP for its research and its services for its 35 million members, but especially for its role in helping to kill George W. Bush’s crazy scheme to turn Social Security into millions of 401(k)s. But AARP was making amends for its crucial support for the 2003 Republican privatization of the Medicare Part D program. Earlier, AARP had been firmly in favor of placing the drug benefit under Medicare.

But when they caved, AARP also allowed the Republican-dominated Congress to fill the so-called Medicare Modernization Act with poisons that still threaten to kill Medicare: huge subsidies for insurance companies, a means test that is intended to drive away more affluent beneficiaries, and a gimmick, called the 45 percent cap, that was designed to stunt Medicare’s budget growth.

At the time of its passage, which cost AARP hundreds of members, the organization’s Republican-leaning CEO, William Novelli, pledged that AARP would work to improve the law. Which brings me to my present gripe with AARP.

In the last couple of weeks, in anticipation of Barack Obama’s election and a Medicare-friendly Democratic Congress, a new coalition was formed to repeal the most onerous provisions of the 2003 Medicare Law. Called the “Alliance to Restore Medicare,” it includes some of the best Medicare advocates, among them, the Center for Medicare Advocacy, the Medicare Rights Center, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and the National Senior Citizens Law Center. Among the missing is AARP. Why?

One reason, members of the Alliance were told, is that AARP was not involved in the creation of the organization and setting its goals. An AARP official said his organization is in favor of most of the Alliance’s goals, such as the repeal of the 45 percent cap, ending the overpayments for private Medicare Advantage plans and ending the higher premiums for more affluent enrollees.

But, he added, AARP is flatly opposed to the goal of “creating a prescription drug benefit entirely within the original Medicare program.” He opposes tampering with Part D because, he said, Medicare beneficiaries are satisfied with Part D, despite evidence to the contrary, its confusing choices, its rising costs, its doughnut hole and the recurring danger that millions of low income elderly must scramble each year for new coverage.

But then, AARP earns $700 million a year in royalties from the sale of Part D insurance. And that brings me to another problem for AARP, to which I was alerted by retired Iowa editor Gil Cranberg, writing in Niemanwatchdog.

On November 3, Senator Charles Grassley, of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, sent a critical letter to AARP’s Novelli, reporting on the complaints of policyholders who purchased health insurance designed for persons five years too young for Medicare who thought they were buying comprehensive coverage.

Grassley’s investigators, following up on the complaints found the sales pitches were misleading and the policies were almost worthless. As a result, Novelli suspended the sale of such policies, which had been peddled by UnitedHealth. But it’s unclear what AARP will do about current policyholders. So far AARP has not replied to Grassley’s irate letter demanding details of how the policies were marketed and how many were sold, or my own inquiries.

One more thing: When these policies were introduced, they were sold as a “bridge” to Medicare. In other words, AARP was selling and promoting private insurance as an alternative to Medicare.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, liloldme has pondered The Difference Between Grandparents and Great Grandparents.]

Restoring Confidence in the Economy

category_bug_politics.gif On Sunday evening, President-elect Barack Obama and future First Lady Michelle Obama sat down with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes for their first interview since the election. They were charming on the topics of their young daughters, how their lives have changed, the potential presidential pooch and Obama's mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, who may live with them in the White House. But I was more interested in the policy discussion, particularly the economy.

Noting that he has a transition team assigned to be in daily contact with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Obama sidestepped a question about whether he is "in sync" with the man who is running the $700 billion bailout. Instead, he acknowledged one area I believe is a large - perhaps the largest - obstacle to rebuilding the economy any time soon:

"...there's no doubt," said Obama, "that we have not been able yet to reset the confidence in the financial markets and in the consumer markets and among businesses that allow the economy to move forward in a strong way. And my job as president is gonna be to make sure that we restore that confidence." Full transcript here]

Confidence is a subjective, elusive state of being. It can't be bought and sold or forced by presidential edict. It grows from trust gained over time through experience with a person or institution that operates in fairness. But who we trust differs among people depending on many factors. For example, what I have learned about Barack Obama over two years leads me to feel confident that as president he will keep the best interests of the country and its people (over corporations and cronies) in mind as he makes many decisions during the next four years. Conversely, the 47 percent who voted for Senator John McCain apparently don't share my confidence in Obama.

However, what I have zero confidence in these days are the executives of banks, Wall Street firms and corporations in general who, with the acquiescence and cooperation of politicians in Washington, have spent a generation robbing citizens of their jobs, homes and savings; the country of its treasury; and the future of its well-being.

From the least to the largest aspects of our lives, we have been bilked by corporations and our government. Average salaries have not increased, relative to inflation, in more than a decade. Millions of jobs have been deliberately shipped overseas with nothing here to replace them. Those two facts alone go a long way toward accounting for the massive personal debt Americans carry.

Additionally, millions were tricked into mortgages for homes for they could not afford, sold at prices inflated beyond their intrinsic value. Millions more were sold toxic investments while being assured nothing could go wrong. And nearly every adult in the country found their credit cards, signed on for at interest rates of eight or ten percent, suddenly costing usury rates when the credit corporations, overnight and based on greed alone, increased interest rates to 25 and 30 percent.

Meanwhile, the executives of these corporations and hedge fund managers (and politicians, who return to the private sector after having created legislation - or thwarted it, whichever works to their personal advantage - to enrich their corporate campaign contributors) grant themselves astronomical salaries and bonuses commonly reaching into the eight and, over time, nine figures while paying income taxes at a far lower rate than you and I, and bitching about inheritance and capital gains taxes too.

If you think that isn't literally our money they take home, you haven't been paying attention for the past 20 years. It came from all that I've listed above along with neglecting the national infrastructure, schools, transportation, the environment and, among others, this particularly reprehensible outrage: the law that prevents Medicare from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies as the Veterans Administration does.

You can thank former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin for that legislation which he forced through Congress just two months before leaving to become head of the powerful Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America lobby at a reported $2.1 million a year salary. It is rare that a politician is so transparent in his greed that the public is allowed see the straight line between his self-serving legislation and his personal bank account.

There will be no renewed confidence in the "financial markets, consumer markets and businesses" Obama referenced in his 60 Minutes interview until the corporate thieves pay in some manner proportionate to their crimes. So far there is no indication that will happen.

Just last week we were treated to news that some banks have set aside several billions of bailout money for executive bonuses this year. With the exception of one or two, there has been no announcement that the CEOs and other leaders of banks and corporations who wrecked the economy (leaving many elders and others destitute of a lifetime of savings) have been fired. No salaries have been reduced to governmental levels even though bailout banks are being partially nationalized.

While these people keep their several mansions, Bentleys, yachts, art that belongs in museums, dozens of $5,000 suits, astronomical salaries and bonuses, the American people are paying for it all in blood, hunger and cold in winter.

"...hopefully, everybody's learned their lesson," said Obama on 60 Minutes. "And the answer is not heavy-handed regulations that crush the entrepreneurial spirit and risk taking of American capitalism. That's what's made our economy great. But it is to restore a sense of balance."

Also, "I think that we have to restore a sense of trust, transparency, openness in our financial system."

Trust? Confidence? From me? Not a chance. Not until the guilty pay enough that it hurts them as much as the rest of us. America's sense of fair play demands it. And no Bush era excuses, as Secretary Paulson suggested, that these people are needed - at multi-million-dollar salaries - because they know how the markets operate. Nonsense. They are ones who broke the markets. There are plenty of unemployed, smart people right now who would willingly take over at reasonable cost. Citibank fired 50,000 people yesterday. There is no doubt some are qualified.

There will be no restoration of confidence, no renewed trust in our commercial institutions and, therefore, no economic recovery until some evidence of fair play is forthcoming which means someone pays. Re-regulation - light or heavy-handed - is not enough. I hope President-elect Obama, who seems, generally, to avoid placing blame, understands that the great mass of Americans is seething at their betrayal and "let them eat cake" will not do.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Karen Swift re-inaugurates that blog with a story titled, Remembering Who You Are.]

Taking the Long View of History

When I asked him what it was like in the “olden days” when he was a little boy, my dad professed enough mock shock for me to recall it clearly even now.

It happened in the late 1940s so he, born in 1916, and home for two or three years by then from World War II, was in his early 30s. It wasn’t all that long ago, he said, but to me at age seven or eight, Dad may as well have grown up in the era of dinosaurs.

What surprises me sometimes when I note that I’m more than halfway through my seventh decade is that my 30s – or, at least, some events that took place then - can feel as fresh as this morning’s news.

I was too young to vote in the Kennedy/Nixon election of 1960, but I remember the debate that sank Nixon as well as I do the most recent ones, perhaps because it was such a novelty then. In recalling the Bay of Pigs, I can easily muster again the fear we felt at possible nuclear annihilation. And the shock when I heard that President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy had been killed. And so on through the years.

Many events live in my mind as strongly as when they happened. Some, Grant Park in 1968, Woodstock and 9/11, for example, I personally witnessed. Others I followed in the media – Anwar Sadat’s assassination, the Bosnia war, the bursting of the dotcom bubble and more. When necessary, I can summon my circumstances and feelings in relation to them as easily as if they happened last week.

This sense of the personal closeness of history came to mind frequently during the election campaign when youngish media people made reference to relatively recent presidents, campaigns and administrations in a tone and manner not much different than if they had been speaking of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or even Julius Caesar.

It was obvious that times I have lived through seemed as distant to these reporters, pundits and analysts as the days of my dad’s childhood did to me 60 years ago.

Once, when I was working at cbsnews.com in the mid-1990s, a production assistant fresh out of college asked me which came first, the Civil War or World War I. Now, I might be confused about the sequence of the War of the Roses and English Civil War, but I’m old enough to have shaken the hand of an American Civil War veteran when he visited our class in school, and I knew many World War I veterans in my childhood. So I am only once removed from those events and I feel almost as attached to them as events that have taken place in my lifetime.

One of the satisfying things about getting old is the ability to take a long view of history. It works sometimes as a warning as when Governor Palin incited people at partisan rallies to shout violent invectives. I’ve personally seen enough protests turn into riots on less provocation to know that she is ignorant of the worst aspects of human nature and therefore too careless to be given a leadership position.

In other cases, one can look back and see the ebb and flow of events. Economies go up and economies go down. I’ve lost count of the back and forth just in my adult lifetime, and although the current crisis is the worst during that period, I am, as with the Civil War, only once removed from the Great Depression my parents lived through and talked of. It’s not going to be pretty for awhile, but I’m not as fearful as some of the young commentators and bloggers I read. We’ll muddle through as people did in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Undoubtedly, today's young people think of my youth, all elders’ youth, as the “olden days.” Maybe that is what accounts for the plethora of news and opinion stories (worthless) advising President-elect Obama on how he should arrange his administration and what mistakes to avoid – as if they know what they’re talking about. They have so few previous presidents with whom to compare - only Bush 43 and perhaps some of Clinton - no other history yet to recall how it was before.

Nothing changes and so does everything. You know that when you become a dinosaur.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, a message for you.]


Sunday Issues Links: 16 November 2008

category_bug_politics.gif Thank you all for your comments and email in answer to my question last Sunday about whether to continue this weekly feature now that the election is over. I read them all carefully and here’s what I’ve decided:

It will continue with a new title: Sunday Issues Links to be clear that it is different from the essays I publish Monday through Friday. This feature will be a list linking to useful, worthwhile, compelling and/or provocative posts mostly from elderbloggers, but from other sources too when I feel like it.

The “issues” will be the big ones and there are plenty that are of concern: the economy, war(s), the Obama administration, Congress, the judiciary, legislation, education, health care and politics in general. A little humor in regard to our collective problems is good too. And perhaps, when there is one issue of overwhelming interest, as the election campaign was, we’ll concentrate on that for awhile.

Please keep in mind that issues related primarily to elders are reserved for the Saturday Elder News post.

As during the Sunday Election Issues series, I rely on you to send me links to your posts and other suggestions by end of day on Friday. To do that, there is an email link in the upper left corner of every TGB page labeled “Contact”.

I’m so pleased we’ve decided to continue. I would have missed this feature. Now, here a few for this week.

From Elaine Frankonis of Kalilily Time:
Paglia For Palin and Phony Baloney

From Cynthia Samuels at Don’t Gel Too Soon:
Barack Obama, Judith Warner, Explaining History to Kids

From the Washington Post:
A Quiet Windfall for U.S. Banks

More from the Washington Post:
Under Obama, The Web Would Be the Way (The new wired presidency)

From the future
A brilliant spoof of The New York Times. (Don’t miss this, in general and especially the Op-Ed from “Thomas Friedman”)

From Joe the Plumber (god help us):
A website, secureourdreams and book, Joe the Plumber – Fighting for the American Dream, to be released on 1 December.


This Week in Elder News: 15 November 2008

In this regular weekend feature you will find links to news items from the preceding week related to elders and aging, along with whatever else catches my fancy that I think you might like to know. Suggestions are welcome with, however, no promises of publication.

Today, the six-week enrollment period for the Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program, begins for 2009. It runs only until 31 December and it is more critical than in the past that you re-evaluate your insurer this year because premiums and co-pays have increased substantially for some plans and drugs that are covered by your current plan may not be next year.

The Medicare Part D website lists all plans for your state including premiums, deductions and co-pays. If you use only one or two drugs, it’s easy to compare plans. A larger number of drugs is more difficult, but you can do it – and don’t put it off. Some increases are astronomical as I discussed in this post, so I urge you to not delay.

In Japan, the number of crimes committed by people 65 and older more than doubled in the five years between 2002 and 2007, and continues to grow. Most of the crimes are pickpocketing and shoplifting due, authorities say, to “low incomes, unstable employment and living conditions, and weakening ties with relatives and neighbors.” Read more here. (Hat tip to Sylvia Spruck Wrigley of Can’t Backspace)

On the other hand, elders are thriving in Denmark and Sweden where, at age 75, everyone receives a standard evaluation and continuing follow-ups to provide assistance as needed to allow them to live independently.

“I am struck by the attitude of proud independence I encounter in many of the seniors I meet in the two countries,” writes Judy Steed, “how they persist in doing the chores they are able to do. The system supports them where needed, but doesn't take over – not even in nursing homes, where they have kitchenettes so they can make their own toast and tea. ‘The philosophy is that, no matter how frail, you have a right to be in charge of your life,’ [says gerontologist Margaret MacAdam].”

A growing elder population is forcing a few cutbacks, but it appears that these countries are starting from a better idea than in the U.S. and Canada. Read more here.

Hip fractures in elders due to osteoporosis could be cut by at least 25 percent according to a new study from Kaiser Southern California of 620,000 at-risk patients over four years from 2002 to 2006. Following a three-step program of bone scans, education and treatment along with physical therapy, hip fractures fell from 23 to 61 percent across the 11 centers involved in the study. Read more here.

Do you have an implanted pacemaker or defibrillator? And do you also use an MP3 player? New research presented the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2008 reveals that headphones for MP3 players may interfere with these life-saving devices. It is easy to avoid such interference, however; just be sure to not place headphones within 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) of the device. More information here.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent of new HIV and AIDS diagnoses were made in people older than 50 in 2005.

“What about people 65 and older?” [AIDS/HIV activist, Myron] Gold asked. “They’re having unprotected sex, they’re using drugs.”

Come on, everyone - at our age, we have enough experience to know better. More here.

We have all experienced the frustrations of learning to use new technology, but it’s not a modern phenomenon as this video reveals. [2:25 minutes] (Hat tip to Jan Adams of Happening Here)


The Bailout, Hope and Elders

Remember back in mid-September when Senator McCain parachuted into Washington to save the day when Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. warned that life as we know it would disappear forever if Congress didn’t pass his bailout plan within about 24 hours?

Congress, ignoring McCain’s ludicrous Superman impersonation, balked, taking their own sweet time to hand over the $700 billion in taxpayer dollars (borrowed from China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere), that Paulson, in his reverse Robin Hood disguise, demanded as condition for saving the United States from the Great Depression II.

Paulson’s idea back then, with the support of Fed chief, Ben Bernanke, was to buy up “troubled assets” (that is, those thousands of toxic mortgages in the form of convoluted derivative paper even the investors who invented them don’t understand) to keep the banks and brokerage houses from going belly up which, if allowed, would reduce the country and everyone in it, Paulson implied, to living in refrigerator cartons.

Congress caved and before long, Paulson had more money in hand than even Croesus could have imagined. But by then, Paulson had a new idea, he said:

Forget those toxic mortgages. Instead, he would use the first $350 billion to purchase stock in the banks that had been too blinded by greed to recognize their stupidity and approaching demise. In other words, partially nationalize the banks (an idea Congress had floated before caving in to Paulson’s original scheme) which would, with a bunch of cash in hand, reopen the lending doors they had slammed shut.

By Wednesday this week, Paulson had doled out about $290 billion in corporate welfare (see list here), but the recipient banks refused to use it for loans to keep their customers going. (Is it too thickheaded for someone as unversed in economic matters as I to inquire why such loans were not made a condition of accepting bailout money?)

So then, Paulson had a third idea, he said on Wednesday:

Now, he “hopes” (yes, “hopes”, according to The New York Times) to use $50 billion to create a new lending program run by the Federal Reserve to induce non-bank companies that finance car loans, student loans and issue credit cards to start lending again.

Although Mr. Paulson was short on details in his Wednesday announcement, apparently these companies, unlike the banks, will make loans to real people, although so far there is no indication that making such loans is any more a condition for accepting bailout funds than with the banks.

Meanwhile, the big three Detroit auto makers are down for the count, but Paulson made a point of saying they are not included in his newest bailout plan (one wonders if that statement carries any more weight than his previous ideas), so House Democrats are busy as we speak drafting legislation that would infuse the auto companies with a quick $25 billion. Other lawmakers want to put off any infusion of cash into Detroit until the new administration takes office.

On another front, earlier this week, President Bush announced a plan for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (of previous bailout fame) to fast-track restructuring of troubled mortgages they control so borrowers can avoid foreclosure. Given that Paulson is ignoring homeowners, it's not a bad idea except that the two companies control only a small percentage of the three or more million bad mortgages.

To fill up that gaping hole in Bush's plan, reports The New York Times, administration officials (here’s that word again) “hope” other lenders will follow Freddie’s and Fannie’s lead.

To add insult to all this apparent confusion and incompetence, it was reported Thursday evening by CNN that many of the beneficiaries of our government's corporate largesse have set aside billions of bailout dollars for annual bonuses next month. Did Paulson "forget" to include a condition forestalling this outrageous greed too?

If the stock market is to be the measurement of how recovery efforts are going, all this hope and all these maneuvers are not working as the Dow, NASDAQ, Fortune 500, etc. spike wildly each day, usually in a southerly direction.

(ASIDE: The most grievously cynical part of me wonders if there was a sudden financial crisis in mid-September at all. The Bush administration has spent eight years deliberately draining money from the middle class to pass along to the richest few. Could this "crisis" be a phony emergency - one last effort, since the bailout funds are borrowed from other countries, to capture even future funds before Bushco leaves office? Could it have been part of the plan all along? Could anyone be more cynical than I am to entertain such fantasy?)

For the few who have slogged through this far into today's post, what I want to get at is that in all the helter-skelter, haphazard scrambling by the federal government to avoid a full-scale depression, there has been not a word about elders, retired people, and people near retirement.

Reports tell us that individuals have lost more than $2 trillion from their savings in IRAs, 401(k)s and other kinds of investments. This is terrible for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, but it is tragedy on a scale of grand opera proportions for old people because they will not live long enough to recoup their losses and will spend the rest of their lives scraping by, including those who did all the right things, saved their money and invested it safely – or so they thought.

A couple of days ago, Jan Adams of Happening Here, left a comment that said in part:

“Yesterday I heard that yet another of my retired friends has lost half of his income which came from a real estate investment trust he unwisely had counted on. His mistake certainly, but really, most of us aren't qualified to evaluate investments. We may have other wisdom, but not financial wisdom. I blame the peddlers of these dubious "securities" for taking advantage of the trust of millions.”

The operative phrase in Jan's note is “most of us are not qualified to evaluate investments.” Yes, and we relied on those “peddlers” Jan rightly blames. A large portion of my 30 percent loss is due to a Lehman Bros. bond. When I asked my peddler how smart it was to put that much into one investment, he replied that the interest rate (not all THAT much) was greater than most and the entire economy would need to collapse for Lehman’s to go under.

Uh-huh.

I remember saying at the time that I wasn’t so sure that wouldn’t happen. My advisor assured me there were too many regulations for such a disaster.

Again, uh-huh.

Obviously, I am not an economist. But they tell us repeatedly that consumer spending is two-thirds of the economy. Yet the first thought from Secretary Paulson was to bail out the banks. The bailout has now been extended to auto manufacturers, non-bank lenders, mortgage loan guarantors and only Paulson knows what other industries will be included next.

As I said, I’m not economist, but wouldn’t it be more productive to devise a plan that would put money into the hands of consumers instead of banks so people would continue to spend thereby keeping the economy moving? I have no idea what that kind of plan that would be. That’s for people like Henry Paulson to figure out, although it doesn’t appear likely to happen.

And I’m not saying that some money shouldn’t be used to shore up some banks along with other businesses and institutions. But if spending is what makes the economy go ‘round, what sense does it make to ignore the biggest driver of that economy? And a part of any such plan should be a program to help elders who have lost large portions of their savings before they start needing to eat cat food to survive.

Since aside from West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who will be 91 years old next week, there are no old people at the highest levels of the federal government, who speaks for elders in this financial crisis?


Of Cats and Men

category_bug_journal2.gif It is difficult after the many months of our long presidential campaign to get my mind back around the subject of aging day to day. If you sense a bit of stumbling about this week, you are not wrong. My past routine was replaced for most of this year with intense scrutiny of minutiae of the election. I learned a lot about politics, government and policy, but I’ve lost the rhythm of my days.

To Ollie the cat’s frustration, his life became unsettled during these months. I sometimes ignored him when he tapped my arm at 6:30AM for what had been, since his kittenhood, our morning fetch-the-mouse game. My lunch break, which in his mind, involves a round or two of strings on a stick, was hours late on many days, overlooked entirely on others. And the 7PM romp of find-out-what’s-hiding-under-the-blanket was too often set aside as I caught up on the news of late afternoon election developments.

But don’t let anyone tell you that cats don’t have long memories. I may have neglected Ollie, but he didn’t stop pestering me even though I improved my ability to ignore him, and sometimes he got so angry he bit my ankle - which does focus one’s attention. Cats don’t forget anything and they worship at the altar of routine.

To Ollie’s relief and the well-being of my ankles, we have resumed his daily schedule.

Although I undoubtedly picked up Ollie’s toys and dried them out while I was distracted during the campaign, I had forgotten how icky they get.

Ollie’s food is stored in the cupboard above this counter which is where I fill his bowl twice a day and dry out the #$%^&* mice when he soaks them in his water bowl – every damned day.

BowlandMice

Let’s have a closer look at that: soggy mice in a variety of colors forever drying on the counter. Not a day goes by…

FourWetMice

Oh, but that’s not the extent of it. For a long time, Ollie stole my dirty socks from the laundry basket. Eventually, I gave in, knotted one so it can be thrown with more heft for a cat to chase and gave it to him. It solved the stolen sock problem only to become the wet sock problem. Did you know that a sock in a water bowl wicks ALL the water into the sock? Apparently, this pleases Ollie and so the sock too, spends time drying out on the counter.

KnottedSock

But I’ve kept the “best” part from you for last: Ollie doesn’t just drown the mice. Oh, no. He then drops them in his food bowl so the kibble turns into soft, slimy stuff which attaches itself to the mice.

MouseinBowl

I’ve never actually seen Ollie retrieve mice from the counter, or put them in his water bowl or transfer them to the food bowl. He does it when I’m not looking, but clearly expects me to keep him supplied with dry mice. He’s quite stern about it, as you can see.

Ollie

And, he complains when he can’t find a dry mouse, sitting on "his" counter yelling at me until I locate a mouse. Even when I stand around watching, however, he doesn’t drown it until I get bored and leave.

For many years, my women friends and I had a joke-y rule that holds a lot of truth: don’t do anything the morning after the first night with a man that you don’t want to do for the rest of your life. Don’t pick up the clothes flung around in the throes of passion. Don’t cook an elaborate breakfast. Don’t be the one to go out for the newspapers.

With cats, the rule is the same: don’t do anything with them on a schedule or they’ll trick you into a routine you can never escape.

At first you think it’s cute when, at the same time every day, they drop a mouse or a ball at your feet and look up at you with all the playful innocence and big, round eyes of a toddler. But don’t be fooled; they are training you.

In the beginning, you are amazed at the precision accuracy of their internal clock when they get you out of bed at the same time every morning. Be warned, if you succumb, you will never sleep in again. And cats don’t respect weekends.

Don’t ever give in to a cat’s attempt to organize life his way or you’ll be doing it for the rest of his or your life, whichever comes first.

Of course, none of us follows the rules - with cats or men.


The New Frugality

According to The New York Times today, sales of new automobiles dropped an astronomical 32 percent in one three-month period, from June through September. And,

“Consumer spending appears likely to fall next year for the first time since 1980 and perhaps by the largest amount since 1942…consumer spending would decline about 1 percent next year…Relative to the typical increases from recent years, it would represent $400 billion in lost consumer spending.”

Since consumer spending is about 70 percent of the U.S. economy, that’s bad news for a recovery any time soon, but it’s not primarily why the story caught my attention. Juxtaposed in my inbox was this from the Darwin Awards:

“(February 2008, France) A 71-year-old pensioner met a shocking end when his frugal attempt to illuminate his yard with power siphoned from the National Grid backfired spectacularly. “The gentleman in question illegally opened a major power junction box at the front of his house, intending to hard-wire a cable to his garden shed. Unfortunately, the poor chap attempted to do this rewiring during a major downpour. “The fatal result was all too predictable. He was immediately deep fried and declared deceased at the scene. Lessons:
  1. Don't hardwire your shed to a local power substation
  2. Don't hardwire your shed to a power line in the rain
  3. There IS such a thing as being too frugal.

Frugality, apparently, can go too far (although the biggest question in this story is how someone so phenomenally stupid managed to live to age 71.) Nevertheless, with an economy that will not improve any time soon, everyone is tightening their belts.

These two stories left me wondering how far people are willing and able to cut back. I suspect we elders, especially those of us who are retired, have already eliminated a lot of spending we took for granted when we were working and don’t have as much leeway as people who are still working. But prices have increased dramatically, especially groceries, and some savings must be found.

My cuts are many small things that I hope will add up. I’ve canceled Netflix – not much money, but the movies sometimes laid around for a month or more until I watched them. I’m allowing magazine subscriptions to lapse as they come due. I don’t buy as many books – there are plenty unread around the house and many I want to re-read.

I bought a small space heater for the laundry room which doesn’t need the huge baseboard heater that came installed with the condo and had added $100 per month to the electric bill during winter. I’ve weather-stripped all the doors, added insulated curtains to windows and programmed the thermostat to 60 degrees F at night, 67 during the day.

(By the way, can someone explain to me why a 60-degree day outside is perfectly comfortable, but is not warm enough indoors during winter.)

And there are all the little things I learned when I was a kid: run the dishwasher once a week or less (easy when you’re one person in a home); shower every other day; one meal a week of all the little leftovers which results in some interestingly odd combinations; turn out the lights; put on a sweater when I’m chilly instead of turning up the heat; etc.

And, I shop in bulk at the big box stores for bathroom tissue, Kleenex, paper towels, cleaning supplies, vitamins and personal care products. My biggest single expense is heating, second only to property tax, which I can’t change.

The problem for me is that I already live close to the bone. I don’t eat in restaurants unless I’m meeting a friend and we choose carefully. I have plenty of clothes. I’ve been on a heathily frugal diet since May (I’ve lost about 25 pounds) and have discovered that frozen vegetables and fruit are at least as healthy as fresh and usually less expensive.

It’s become a game I play now; where else can I cut down. Although we’ve discussed frugality before, I’m wondering what new savings you’ve discovered as the economic crisis has deepened – barring stupid and lethal, of course.


Veterans Day 2008

Can there be any greater service to one’s country than signing up to be shot at and possibly die while defending it? It’s always young people who fight our wars, the ones who have their whole lives in front of them, and yet they join the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and National Guard knowing that although they have barely begun to live, they are more likely to die in the near future than you and I.

Although most communities held parades and other events to honor their veterans over the weekend, today is Veterans Day. Here are some facts about those men and women:

  • There are 24 million U.S. military veterans
  • 2.2 million are women
  • More than 10 million are 62 and older
  • One World War I veteran is still living, according to the Department of Defense
  • The last Civil War veteran (Confederate) died in 1958 at age 112
  • The last Civil War widow (Union) died in 2003 at age 93
  • 1.7 million troops have served so far in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Nearly 4600 of them have been killed
  • More than 32,000 have been injured in those two wars
  • 400,000 veterans spent some time each year living on the street, according to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee
  • 15 percent of all voters are veterans

[You can find more veteran statistics from major U.S. wars in this fact sheet at the Department of Veterans Affairs website.]

It is obviously difficult to poll soldiers on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan so there are no useful statistics, but self-identified veterans at home, according to exit polls, voted for Senator John McCain by a 54 to 45 percent margin, about the same as the elder vote which was 53 to 45 for McCain.

President-Elect Obama has some important plans to help veterans. During his tenure in Congress, he has been a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee where he learned a lot about the difficulties veterans face. And he campaigned for president with a solid plan to improve conditions for veterans.

There is no doubt that our veterans have been neglected. Of course you remember the Walter Reed Hospital scandal. And the conditions - rodents, mold, peeling paint, broken equipment, months-long waiting times for treatment, substandard care and more – are evident in other Veterans Administration hospitals throughout the country too.

The VA track record on treating post-traumatic stress syndrome in our soldiers is abysmal. One not uncommon story tells of a husband who waited more than two months after applying for help following three suicide attempts. He committed suicide a month after finally seeing a VA psychiatrist who did not follow up when the soldier advised the doctor he had stopped taking his medication.

PTSD is a growing public health problem which often doesn’t show up for years, but no one knows the number of resulting suicides because the VA has not released the statistics and has even gone to lengths to conceal them:

“The issue came to a head recently when an e-mail written by VA’s top mental health doctor came to light. The e-mail read: ‘Shh! Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before somebody stumbles on it?’”
- Army Times, 16 May 2008

None of this is good enough. The least we owe our veterans in the best medical care available for as long as they need it. They put their lives on the line, willing to pay the ultimate price for the rest of us, but I wonder how often we think about that. So go thank a veteran today.

veterans day poster