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ELDER NEWS: Cultural and Political Notes

I've resurrected Elder News today for some short takes on what has caught my attention in the past week or so.

If, as court watchers expect, the Supreme Court of the United States removes the few remaining spending restrictions on election advertising by corporations, unions and advocacy groups we can kiss away “of, by and for the people” - or what's left of it.

The court's decision, which is expected soon, concerns Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, regarding the 90-minute documentary, Hillary: The Movie, a scathing attack on then-presidential candidate Senator Clinton during the campaign of 2008. At question is whether it is political advertising, on which there are restrictions, or protected free speech. According to The New York Times,

“...if the court strikes down the restrictions on outside spending, some legal experts say, the remaining restrictions on direct contributions to campaigns would mean much less because it would be easy to support a campaign through an outside group.”

And it would give even more control of elections and government to corporations. You can read more details about the case and some commentary here.

Time Goes By readers have worked hard over the past months to understand health care and to lobby our representatives in Washington to do the right thing. We lost out on single payer from day one. I doubt the public option in the House bill will survive. And most of the final bill will not go into effect until 2013 or 2014.

We have discussed our disappointment in these and other points in the House and Senate bills that will be merged this month, but I believe this bill is an important beginning: the principle of universal health care, with the passage of the final bill, becomes national policy. There will be many tweaks over the coming years and decades, but there is now no going back.

In his weekly address to the nation on Saturday, President Obama listed the changes in health coverage that go into effect this year – 2010. (There is probably some quibbling to be done, but he is generally correct.) In spite of my disappointment overall, I am impressed. These will help a lot of people.

Watch the video below. There is some self-serving blather at the top, then the health care list of immediate 2010 changes begins at about 2:30 minutes into the speech and concludes at about 5:15.

Since 1975, Lake Superior State University has issued its annual List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness. The title says all you need to know. The “winning” words and phrases this year are:

  1. Shovel-ready
  2. Transparent/transparency
  3. Czar
  4. Tweet
  5. App
  6. Sexting
  7. friend, as a verb
  8. Teachable moment
  9. In these economic times
  10. Stimulus
  11. Toxic assets
  12. Too big to fail
  13. Bromance
  14. Chillaxin'
  15. Obama, as a prefix
(“Chillaxin'? I never heard of number 14. I'm guessing it means “relaxing.”)

I was disappointed that the phrase that most makes me want to tear off my ears is missing. I checked previous lists and it has never appeared. It was first used in abundance when we invaded Afghanistan in 2001, “surged” with the Iraq invasion of 2003 and, blessedly, faded from use about two years ago.

Now, unfortunately, it's back thanks to the underpants bomber and efforts to soften up the country for some sort of military engagement in Yemen. When I hear “boots on the ground” it makes my teeth hurt and I want to punch the perpetrator.

What's your “favorite” overused word or phrase?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Madonna Dries Christensen: The Prince Dined at The Palace

ELDER MUSIC: Chicago Blues

PeterTibbles75x75You never know who you're going to meet on the internet and I came to know Peter Tibbles (bio here) via email over the past couple of years. His extensive knowledge of most genres of music and his excellent taste became apparent only gradually (Peter's not one to toot his horn) but once I understood, I knew he needed his own column at Time Goes By - or, better, that TGB needed his column - which appears here each Sunday. You can find previous Elder Music columns here.

category_bug_eldermusic Most of the important early Chicago blues singer were born in Mississippi and brought their country blues style to the big smoke. That city changed them and they changed music forever.

Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield, which is a splendid name. He acquired the name Muddy as a young boy (playing in the mud, something we all did, but he copped the moniker). He added the Waters himself as a teenager.

Muddy Waters

Muddy made many fine singles and albums in his early career at Chess records and in his final years, Johnny Winter produced him with a highly recommended series of albums. However, I’m going in the period between those with a track from an album made in the late sixties that’s rather airily dismissed by the “bluesier than thou” types, but I like it. This is Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had from “Fathers and Sons.”

Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had

Howlin’ Wolf’s mum knew him as Chester Burnett. He was an imposing figure (at least when he grew up), two metres tall (that’s a lot of feet and inches) with a huge voice that would dominate any stage. He could rock the house down and scare patrons out of their wits.

Howlin Wolf

As a youth, he listened to Charley Patton, who taught him the rudiments of guitar, as well as Tommy Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers, who was Wolf's childhood idol. He tried to emulate Jimmie’s yodeling but found it came out more as a howl.

Unlike many of the blues singers, Wolf was financially successful, a dedicated family man who was devoted to his wife and avoided the pitfalls of alcohol, gambling and similar traps to which so many of his peers fell prey. He was functionally illiterate into adulthood but he returned (or perhaps went) to school and gained an education. He’s an inspiration to us all.

He was a huge influence on the English bands of the sixties, especially the Rolling Stones and The Animals. The Stones covered one of his most famous songs and that seems like a good reason to play Wolf’s version of The Red Rooster. This was written by Willie Dixon who wrote a number of Wolf’s most important songs.

The Red Rooster

Which brings us to Willie Dixon, the third important figure. He wrote half the blues songs out there, produced most of them and played bass on a lot. He rarely sang on any of them though. He was also another who topped two metres. I don’t think you had to be tall to be a great bluesman but it probably helped.

He started out as a professional boxer and worked briefly as Joe Louis' sparring partner. Being cheated out of prize money, he decided to do something else. That something else was music.

Willie Dixon

He signed with Chess records originally as a singer but quickly became involved in producing and writing songs. He was employed by that company as a producer, A&R talent scout, session musician and staff songwriter.

Willie bestrode the blues-rock&roll divide, introducing Chess Records and the world to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

In his later years, he became a tireless advocate for his fellow performers and worked to establish and preserve copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past. He was inducted into the both the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.

This is one of the few tracks on which Willie sang, it’s called Crazy For My Baby.

Crazy For My Baby

Not all the Chicago blues were produced by men. Indeed, a good case could be made for Memphis Minnie starting the whole ball rolling in this genre. But here we’ll look at Koko Taylor who was born in Tennessee and moved to Chicago with her truck-driving husband.

Koko Taylor

Koko played the clubs in Chicago, was spotted by Willie Dixon and signed to Chess records. She had an immediate hit with Wang Dang Doodle, a song written by Dixon and successfully performed by Howlin’ Wolf some years earlier.

She toured extensively in the sixties and seventies and became more widely known when she signed with Alligator Records and produced a number of Grammy-nominated albums. Koko became a role model for other female blues performers such as Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi. Alas, she died in 2009.

Here she is performing Twenty-nine Ways.

Twenty-nine Ways

Etta James is from Los Angeles and she has claimed her mother told her that her father was the legendary "Minnesota Fats" (Rudolf Wanderone). I don’t know if Rudi was noted for his singing, but Etta sure is.

Etta James

Johnny Otis discovered Etta, but there are differing accounts how this came about. However it happened, she recorded, with some friends, Dance With Me Henry. In the way of these things at the time, a rushed-out cover version by Georgia Gibbs undercut her.

In spite of this, it did bring her to the eye of promoters and she went on tour with Little Richard. Now that must have been interesting.

In 1960, Etta joined (yep, you guessed it) Chess records and had a bunch of blues hits. After recording some standards, Chess started promoting her as a cross-over artist. That was quite successful until Etta derailed it by getting a bit too much into the illegal substances.

After some years she made a successful return to recording at Atlantic and has gone more into the jazz direction. She has recorded a couple of Grammy-winning records in this genre.

Here she is in a soulful mood with I'd Rather Go Blind.

I'd Rather Go Blind

George "Buddy” Guy grew up in Louisiana and learned to play guitar at a young age. In the early fifties, he performed around that state until later that decade he moved to Chicago and fell under the influence of Muddy Waters. He joined Chess records (now there’s a surprise) but their then rather conservative policy didn’t bring out the best in Buddy’s recorded output at the time.

Buddy Guy

Buddy’s influence on the sixties’ blues and rock performers is immense, but as their popularity soared (along with their wealth), his declined. It was due to the blues revival a decade or two later that his star was in the ascendancy again.

Buddy’s concerts are flamboyant and, while his music is labeled Chicago blues, it can vary from the most traditional, deepest blues to a creative, unpredictable and radical mixture of blues, avante garde rock, soul and free jazz. He was a major influence on Jimi Hendrix who would occasionally cancel his own concerts to go and see Buddy. He had a similar effect on Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and others.

Here is Buddy playing When The Time Is Right

When The Time Is Right

GRAY MATTERS: Reverse Mortgages

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.

It’s foolish at a certain age to make New Year’s resolutions. We’ve been there and done that, which is how we got to be our age.

Besides, you don’t need a resolution to be good to yourself in this new year, this new decade. It’s bound to be better than the last one. But I suspect this recession hangover will be with us for some time and there are some steps to consider to get through another down year. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Too many older Americans, according to the latest studies of the economy, are just getting by. Or worse. I don’t need to tell you the dismal facts. The stock market is staging a halting comeback, but retirement savings plans are still down. Those 401(k)s have not grown enough to be counted on for retirement. Even traditional pension funds are hurting.

Poverty rates remain the same for older Americans at 9.7 percent, but that doesn’t tell the real story. By other legitimate measures, perhaps 20 percent of people over 65 are hovering near the brink. Older women, especially widows, are among the hardest hit.

But because they are above the official poverty lines ($10,830 for an individual; $14,570 per couple), many low income people and families don’t qualify for many state and federal programs. The Associated Press reported around Thanksgiving that the number of older people living alone and seeking help from food pantries had nearly doubled to over 400,000 in 2008, before the recession. And bankruptcies have increased among older people , many because of medical bills they couldn’t pay before they were eligible for Medicare.

Finally, as I’ve reported, there is no cost-of-living increase in your Social Security benefit this year because there’s been no inflation. But the Consumer Price Index, on which this decision was based, doesn’t tell the real story for most older people.

Typical among the cries of foul was an e-mail from Mike Griske, 62, of Hicksville, New York, who was in the life insurance business for most of his working life until he became disabled with spinal problems eight years ago.

With an insurance man’s eye, Griske took apart the items that go into the official CPI-W (which stands for workers), down to a box of tissues, to demonstrate the reality: prices are going up faster than the index, especially for older people. And he’s written to everyone he can think of to appeal for change.

Unfortunately, nothing will change soon, if at all. The proposed $250 payoff for Social Security recipients, which was left out of recent legislation, won’t help much anyway. And like other retirees, Griske has been informed that his pension, which is tied to the CPI-W, will be going down by 1.8 percent.

His story is not unusual but if he owned a home with substantial equity, there is a way he could get some relief. And I’ve been pushing it each year about this time - the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM), the best and most popular Reverse Mortgage, because it’s guaranteed by the still-solid Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

The guaranty means the borrower is protected from losing his/her property and the lender is protected from losing his/her money if the value of the property declines below the worth of the loan.

While that’s been a large problem in the conventional (forward) mortgage market, it has not happened to HECMs despite the unfounded warnings of lawmakers with family ties to the private mortgage market. Indeed, FHA remains so financially solid that this Congress decided no taxpayer funds were needed to offset possible losses.

To make sure it stays that way, the FHA implemented a 10 percent reduction in the proceeds that homeowner-borrowers can get from an HECM. Someone who qualified for a $100,000 loan before the change, will now get $90,000. That means the program is expected to operate in the black, as usual, with few, if any defaults.

I am an HECM borrower and like most participants, the cash I got from the reverse mortgage served as a cushion which was carefully invested. The proceeds may also be taken as a line of credit or as period payments. This is one federal government program that has worked as intended for millions of borrowers yet relatively few Americans have taken advantage of it partly because they don’t like to mortgage a home that’s free and clear, or they’re concerned about their heirs. So they let all that equity remain idle.

Private (non-guaranteed) reverse mortgages have been around for years. But only after years of study by housing and aging experts did the FHA get into the business when President Reagan signed it into law on February 5, 1988. (Note to his present day admirers: He helped save Social Security while expanding the federal government into the reverse mortgage business.)

Now, although many younger homeowners can’t refinance because greedy banks are refusing to part with their money, reverse mortgages are available because of the FHA guarantees. And as Kiplinger has reported, older homeowners facing foreclosure have been rescued by HECMs which can supply the cash needed to catch up on payments.

I assume you know the basics: To qualify for a HECM, you must be 62 or older, own the property outright or have accumulated sufficient equity and occupy the property as your principal residence. There are no income or credit qualifications. Unlike a second mortgage or home equity loan, there are no monthly payments for a HECM. And no repayment is necessary as long as you live in the home.

All closing costs, insurance and interest may be financed in the mortgage. None of the proceeds is taxable. But all closing costs and interest, which mount up, are tax deductible when the loan is paid. The loan comes due when the property is vacated, at which time the borrower or, more likely, his/her heirs may pay off the loan and take possession of the house. In general the value of the home will exceed the payoff amount.

While many conventional mortgages are in trouble because they are said to be “under water” because the amount owed exceeds the value of the property, under the law, the homeowner with a HECM is NOT liable if that happens because the lender is guaranteed against loss. One requirement, however, is that the property must be maintained and the property taxes are paid.

Another requirement, which has helped the program stay mostly honest, is the provision that all applicants must undergo personal and usually face-to-face counseling by an expert designated and licensed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The permitted fee is $125 and it’s worth it because the counselor can and should tell you the downsides of reverse mortgages: the interest that must be paid at the end of the loan will be great; if the beneficiary is in a nursing home for a year, the loan comes due.

Susan R. Lagville, of Housing Help Inc. in Greenlawn, New York, is a HUD counselor and helped bring me up to date on the latest HECM news. First, HUD has raised the maximum loan value of the homes to $625,000 throughout the country as a result of rising home prices. For the same reason, the required insurance (2 percent) will cost more. The one-time fee to the lender has been reduced from two percent of the home value to a flat $6,000.

More important, as I mentioned, HUD usually loaned about 60 percent of a home’s value (although there are other factors such as the neighborhood, the condition of the home and age of the borrower). Now, said Lagville, HUD is reducing the average loan by ten percent.

While single-family homes, condominiums and certain manufactured homes qualify for HECMs, sources tell me that HUD may soon include co-ops, which would be important for many city-dwellers. Beginning last year HUD permitted borrowers to use the proceeds to buy another home, perhaps for retirement, after selling the first home.

Finally, while the HECMs themselves have been mostly free of problems, there are some greedy types who want a piece of the HECM’s cash proceeds. Some lenders or their agents have talked borrowers into putting the proceeds into questionable annuities and other investments.

Langville recommends against taking all of the funds in cash, on which you pay interest. Better alternatives include taking the HECM in lines of credit or periodic payments. I repeat, these proceeds are tax free.

Some good websites to learn more: FHA Reverse Mortgages; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and the industry's website, National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association, where you may calculate the possible proceeds you can get from a HECM.

Questions? Write to

The Cultural Perception of Aging

category_bug_journal2.gif In a short-lived fit of actually caring about something important, I posted a story yesterday about the Peter G. Peterson-backed plot to kill Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Today, I have fallen back into what Citizen K referred to in a comment on Wednesday as “issue fatigue.” Almost.

Today's post is free of citations, links, statistics, experts and even specific examples. It's just my sense of “what is” in regard to the cultural perception of elders from observation and day-to-day media consumption of several varieties – internet news and advertising, television news and advertising, magazines and, more personally, email solicitations from PR agencies to write about various products and services.

First, some background.

When Time Goes By was barely a glimmer in the back of my mind in 2003, I had been researching aging for about seven or eight years during which time I had amassed a hefty library of books on the subject along with hundreds of pages of popular, medical and research reports. After all that study, the only message I could find was that getting old is entirely about debility, decline and disease. No one had anything good to say about it.

My refusal to believe that was the genesis of this blog which would investigate, think out loud and write about what getting old is “really like.” I would not avoid the normal changes that come with advancing years, but I would also seek to correct to some degree the prevailing zeitgeist in both popular and scholarly circles that there are no positive aspects to aging, that it is all about being unwell.

Back in those years before TGB, the potential consequences of the aging of the gigantic baby boomer generation was confined, mostly, to researchers concerned with statistics and demographics. It had not trickled down yet to advertisers, politicians, self-help gurus, cosmetic surgeons, pharmaceutical manufacturers, book publishers and the popular media. That changed in 2006, when the oldest boomers began turning 60 – a nice round number to take advantage of – revealing a huge, new potential for profit-taking.

And so they all jumped on the boomer bandwagon headlining stories in newspapers, magazines and on television for that generation creating a new market for products and services aimed at them. Internet sites with the word “boomer” in the name multiplied like bunny rabbits although most of them failed. (I can tell you why, but that's for another day.) The marketing to boomers, however, continues to grow.

But a funny thing has happened with that: the boomer-targeted media is still about how awful it is to get old. Superficially, it doesn't always look that way with the bright, shining faces of handsome people in their slim, trim bodies riding bicycles whose only concession to age is (professionally styled) gray hair - lots of it.

With regular shots of Botox, the diligent application of wrinkle cream and the right attitude (available from your web-based elder coach), the marketers tell us, life will continue as it was in our midyears except that we don't have to go to work anymore.

This is supplemented with strings of media stories and YouTube videos about 90-year-olds who run marathons, join dance competitions or climb K2 implying that if we're not outdoing youngsters at their own game, we are not upholding up our sworn duty to maintain the pretense of youth, a pursuit we must continue unto our dying gasp.

Juxtaposed with the fantasy of everlasting youth are hundreds of daily ads and commercials that promise to remedy the ailments of age – arthritis, osteoporosis, gastro-intestinal disturbances, thinning hair, cholesterol, menopause, leaky pipes, etc.

And those PR pitches I mentioned? They are unfailingly about ill health. Just yesterday, I received solicitations to interview experts (many have books to flog) and write about products or services related to glaucoma, back pain, colon cleanses, joint pain and diabetes. Because I write a blog about aging, PR people seem to think it must be exclusively about health issues.

I don't mean to imply that our ailments and conditions are unimportant and should not be addressed. But by engaging with elders on only the twin issues of youth preservation and ill health, aging continues to be defined (if more subtly sometimes) as debility, decline and disease.

Nothing has changed since I started TGB.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Judy Watten: An Unforgettable Conversation

The Continuing Plot to Kill Social Security

category_bug_politics.gif Suppose a right-wing billionaire, who has never had to choose between paying the mortgage and feeding the kids, or has never foregone medical treatment due to lack of health coverage, wanted to kill Social Security and Medicare.

Now suppose that right-wing billionaire spent some of his fortune creating a “news agency” that would distribute stories supporting his pet project and hired a handful of seasoned reporters from respected news organizations.

Now further suppose that one of those respected news organizations published the agency's first piece as a normal news story.

That's what happened when the Washington Post, on 31 December, published Support Grows for Tackling Nation's Debt from The Fiscal Times news agency, funded by Nixon administration cabinet member and retired founder of the Blackstone Group, Peter G. Peterson. The “news story” promotes

“...legislation to create an 18-member task force consisting of 16 members of Congress and two administration officials. Under the proposal, if at least 14 of the panel members reached agreement on how to rein in skyrocketing spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and reform the tax code, Congress would have to consider it immediately and give it an up or down vote, without amendments.”

Peterson – and now, the Washington Post - blame Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security for the growing budget deficit with no mention that two wars and Wall Street bailouts may have contributed to the problem, and have decided to take the money out of the hides of old people.

What is so dangerous about this proposal is that it removes the only clout American citizens have with their federal legislators – the right to personally petition them.

Economist Dean Baker was the first to expose the Post's irresponsible “journalism” in his Beat the Press blog where he noted:

“No serious newspaper would publish a piece from an obviously interested party like the Peterson Foundation as a news story.”

Following Baker's expose, the Post published a “correction” on 5 January but only about the mis-attribution of a quote, still leaving the story bereft of any context in regard to Peterson's involvement in the attack on Medicare et al or his two-decade-long crusade to kill those programs.

It was up to The New York Times the same day to provide some of that context and extract this comment from the Post's executive editor, Marcus W. Brauchli:

“We wouldn't put anything in the paper that we didn't believe was independent journalism,” Brauchli told the Times. “We had complete editorial control. Our editors conceived the story. We asked if The Fiscal Times was interested in producing the story. We edited the story.”

That statement makes it even worse. There is not a citation for any “fact” in the story that is riddled with exaggerations, omissions and an outright fib or two. So much for the Post's journalism.

The next day, Wednesday, FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) issued an Action Alert detailing the ideological agenda contained in the story and concluding:

“Far from 'unbiased journalism,' the Fiscal Times article reads like the smoothly written propaganda you'd expect to get from a well-funded lobbying outlet. The Post's 'partnership' with this outfit is an ill-advised experiment that ought to be brought to a swift conclusion.”

On the same day, journalist William Greider tackled the Washington Post's connection to Peterson with a righteous tirade against the paper and Peterson's regressive agenda, noting:

“He has flogged Social Security as a blight on our future for at least 20 years. He is a nut on the subject. His 'facts' are wildly distorted or simply not true. Never mind, the establishment press portrays him as a disinterested statesmen.”

Thirty-four Democratic and Republican senators support the legislation and, according to The Fiscal Times (non)story, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has “signaled” support and the White House is involved in talks about such legislation. (Or not; these are a dubious assertions without citation.)

This latest legislation (S.2853 - full text) was introduced by Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on 9 December 2009, and has a long list of co-sponsors, about a third of the entire Senate (click “show co-sponsor” under Conrad's photo to see if your senator is included).

Why am I banging on about this? Two reasons:

  1. It shows clearly why we must be hyper-vigilant about the “news” we read. The Washington Post story is a near-perfect example of propaganda masquerading as news.

  2. Peter G. Peterson's plot to kill Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is being listened to in Washington because, as is so obvious with health care reform, money talks in Congress.

Should Senator Conrad's bill succeed, responsibility for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would be removed from our representatives whom we hired for the job and be placed in the hands of a commission that would deny debate, amendments and public discussion of any changes to the programs.

What worries me most right now is that I sense a drift toward acceptance of this idea without much thought. It would be good to let your representatives know how you feel about it. You can do that here.

[There are more details about this issue in my previous stories about Peter G. Peterson and his efforts to kill Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid here, here and here.]

My friend and fellow elderblogger, Cowtown Pattie of Texas Trifles, has a deep love for her native state and a knack for finding its interesting characters. This week, she's highlighting a local artist, photographer and poet, Rick Vanderpool. And she's got a terrific offer for you. Read about it all here.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: My Chinese Boyfriends

Recession Practicalities

category_bug_journal2.gif I have been unable to work up a proper interest in serious issues - of which there are so many - since the Senate passed their health care reform proposal on Christmas Eve. Is it winter doldrums, perhaps? A break from information overload? Or maybe after months of closely following Congress on health care and a long weekend of hysterical finger-pointing over a bomb that fizzled, I'm fed up with lawmakers, pundits and news in general.

With the start of a new year and the new beginnings we imagine for ourselves when the calendar turns, my thoughts have been on practical issues over which I can have at least some personal control.

There is a commercial running on television referring to that terrific little oomph you get when you've found a new way to save some money. Since I don't remember the product being advertised, it's not an effective commercial (I suspect it is Target or Walmart), but I am familiar with that rush of self-satisfaction when I've saved a few dollars.

Last month, I received a letter from the local power company reducing my equal monthly payments by just over 14 percent. Woo-hoo. Okay, it amounts to only about $100 a year, but it's $100 I didn't have before and with the savings that continue from the weatherizing and other minor fixes I made myself last year at little expense, my electric bill is down now by a third since the winter of 2007/08. I am quite pleased with myself.

Most of that savings is from having permanently turned off the six-foot baseboard heater in my laundry/storage room in winter, using a small space heater instead and being hyper-vigilant about turning it on only when the room temperature sinks to 45 degrees F.

Perhaps the CFL bulbs have helped too. That's not to say I like them; actually, I despise CFLs. It's hard to read by them, the light is unattractive and the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent bulb does not give off nearly as much light.

LEDs may improve lighting and still be green, but it appears there is a long time to go before they are commercially available and affordable.

In regard to the bigger picture, being green in these small ways can seem to be futile. After all, how much difference could my light bulbs make in reducing carbon emissions? So I choose to believe that if each of us does a few little things to help, it adds up for the betterment of life on planet Earth. (That's when I'm having a good day, not to be confused with every day.)

Trying to be greener is a never-ending learning experience - or, in the case of us old folks, re-learning the ways of our parents in our childhoods. My mother was careful about heating. When I complained of being cold, she told me to put on a sweater and it works just as well now as it did 60 years ago.

This winter, I've reduced the daytime thermostat to 65 degrees from 67 last winter. That's not teeshirt comfortable but with the addition of a sweater, I can't tell the difference from a fine day in June. My fuel oil company tells me that just a two-degree temperature reduction will save – well, I've forgotten, but it is a nice chunk of change in the fuel bill and I'll see how much I've saved or not come spring.

A few days ago, I came across a remarkable little website called AltUse – alternative uses for everyday products. A sampling:

• Hairspray will remove ink stains from hard surfaces. It's also good for stopping the itch of mosquito bites.

• Toothpaste will remove scratches that cause old CDs to skip. It too will stop mosquito bites from itching.

• Rubbing with a cloth dipped in white vinegar will clean stains off non-stick cookware.

• An abrasive cloth dipped in Coca-Cola will remove most rust stains.

• Vodka will clean grout and kill mold.

In fact, there are 13 uses (in addition to drinking) listed for vodka, 16 for toothpaste that do not involve teeth and a whopping 60 for vinegar.

Few of these are new ideas and in perusing the website, I found myself frequently thinking, “I know that; my mother did these things.” But the point is, I haven't used most of them and the site is a good reminder to do so, along with being a reference to consult.

The suggestions are the collective wisdom of readers who send in alternative uses for ordinary products. A few are are just silly – making a handbag from Venetian blind slats and weaving plastic shopping bags into storage containers – but well, to each his own. There is a rating system for the alternative uses that ranges from five stars to “did not work” but it's not much in use yet.

The site is a little rough around the edges visually and could use a navigation upgrade, but there is value. In addition to helping out individuals and the planet, the site owners (one is currently an assistant public defender in Cook County, Illinois) are both former marketers who say they believe all products should have at least ten alternative uses.

“,” they write, “offers a catalyst for change in the business world by challenging the notion of marketing products for one specific purpose. We seek to increase manufacturing efficiency and product quality, while cutting down on unnecessary waste.”

What's your favorite alternative use for a product we are all likely to have in a cupboard?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mickey Goodman: The Last Dance


SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Following up on my offering of a few weeks ago in which I asked, “What’s the matter with the South?”, let me be a bit more specific. How come Oklahoma, where the waving wheat sure smells sweet, has produced two of the worst and most ineffective members of the United States Senate in Dr. Tom Coburn and James Mountain Imhofe? They make the rest of their Republican colleagues seem moderate - well, sort of.

In his latest caper, Inhofe went to the Copenhagen climate change summit as a self-described, one-person “truth squad.” As the top Republican on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, Inhofe could bring responsible criticism, even skepticism to the issue of climate change. Instead he has chosen to be a flat earther, calling former Vice President Al Gore “full of crap” and declaring Global warming, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

When he was asked in Copenhagen who perpetrated the hoax and why, Inhofe replied, “it started in the United Nations and the one in the United States who really grab ahold of this is the Hollywood elite.” A Der Spiegel reporter, who doesn’t play by the neutered American rules, told Inhofe, “You’re ridiculous.”

Coburn is a pediatrician known as “Dr. No” because of all the bills and nominations he has held up because he doesn’t believe in government (which pays him well and he is supposed to serve).

During the last days of the long health care reform debate, Coburn, who has sworn the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” suggested quite clearly that the American people should pray that one of the Democrats will not be able to make it to the Senate cast the 60th vote to break a Republican filibuster. There was no mistake that he was referring to the dean of the Senate, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who is 92.

Coburn’s one-man “Death Panel” took place on the floor of the storied Senate chamber, but no Republican stepped forward to remonstrate Coburn (Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois asked Coburn to explain himself; Coburn said he meant no one to come to harm.). But I think he did.

The Republicans could have signaled they would not filibuster the procedural vote so that the frail, wheel-chair bound Senator Byrd need not make the trip from his home on a snowy night. But if Byrd did not attend to vote, the health care bill would have been stopped. So almost as if they were conspiring to worsen Byrd’s health, the Republicans repeatedly insisted on the procedural votes for which the Democrats needed Byrd.

But in defiance of Coburn’s call to prayer, Byrd was wheeled in for the 1:00AM Monday vote and the health care bill was on its way to passage on Thursday. As it turned out, Imhofe was absent on one vote, as if it were a devilish answer to Coburn’s prayer.

I’ve gone on at length into the antics of these two men, who were elected to legislate and not make fools of themselves and Oklahoma voters, because I have great respect for Democratic institutions like the U.S. Senate, in which only a few Americans get to serve. But what strikes me about Coburn and Inhofe and their not-so-merry band of right-wingers is what they have in common.

They are virulently and absolutist anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-taxes, anti-government and pro-gun. And these things they believe, they have said, because they purport to be Christians. I say “purport” because, as a Jew and lay person (who majored in philosophy), I cannot judge what is and what is not “Christian.” All I know, and value, is the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments and, in the New Testament, Jesus’ admonition that we should love one another.

Now to get to the controversial part of my rambling. When I asked a knowledgeable, church-going friend what sets Inhofe, Coburn and the rest of the very conservative southern Republicans apart from much of the rest of the country, he said, “They’re Christians,” as if that explained everything.

It is true that both Oklahomans are members of Washington’s “C-Street group,” a residence for fundamentalist Christian lawmakers who, under the guidance of a minister-adviser, try to impose their religious, theocratic values on policy. They make it a point to say they do not believe in the separation of church and state.

They may seem loopy, but according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Forum, they – and their right-wing cohorts in the House and Senate - appear to reflect constituents in their states and the region. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is a correlation between the region’s religious fundamentalism and its preference for right-wing politics.

A new Gallup survey concluded that with 80 percent of Americans identifying themselves with Christian religion, “the United States remains dominantly a Christian nation” with the highest proportion in the traditional Bible Belt states of the South. Here’s how the Pew poll sums up its December findings:

“At least 85 percent of people living in Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama say they are certain that God exists. By contrast, in Maine, Connecticut/Rhode Island and New Hampshire/Vermont fewer than six in ten express absolute certainty of belief in God.”

The political differences are obvious.

More specifically, Oklahoma ranks 11th among the states in the percentage of people (80) “who say they believe in God with absolute certainty,” seventh in the percentage of people (69) who say religion is “very important in their lives” and seventh (50) in the percentage of people who say they attend services at least once a week. All these percentages are well above the national average.

But more deeply religious on all measures are:

• Mississippi, which is number one, (Republican Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker)

• Followed by South Carolina (Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Demint, said to be the most right-wing member of the Senate)

• Alabama (Republican Sens. Richard Shelby, who questioned President Obama’s citizenship and Jeff Beauregard Sessions, who was denied a federal judgeship because of his racist past and who was criticized by Rush Limbaugh for asking Judge Sonia Sotomayor during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, to pretend to be white and if she thought “Latino women were more qualified to be hair dressers or housekeepers”

• Tennessee, Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both of whom were among the 30 (mostly southern) Republicans to vote against legislation giving a rape victim the right to sue an employer who was responsible

• Georgia, Republican Senators Saxbe Chambliss and Johnny Isakson who have sought to bar their state from using any federal health program

• Kentucky, Republican Senators Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell, the minority leader who has enforced the unanimous opposition to Obama among Republicans

• Texas, Republican Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn.

There are a few exceptions – Democrats Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Kay Hagan in North Carolina - all of whom serve with more conservative Republican colleagues from their states.

One particular exception seems to prove my point: Utah, of course, is not in the south. But it’s among the most religious states in the Pew poll because of the dominance of the Mormon Church. Its Republican senators, Orin Hatch and Robert Bennett, while not as looney as some of their right-wing colleagues, are nevertheless unswerving conservatives who joined the rest of Republicans in opposing health care reform and virtually every Obama initiative.

I may be on thin ice, but I don’t believe this says anything about Christianity. After all, the southern-based civil rights movement came from the mostly black Christian churches with help from white clergy, Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

But the white fundamentalist deep South is not only conservative, and often racist, it is also plagued by persistent poverty, which is worse in the south than any other region, and the greatest number of citizens without health insurance, with a minimal education.

That’s fertile soil for the demagoguery, political and religious, of right-wing politics.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ellen Younkins: Seen and Heard

Some Minor Cultural Notes to Start the Year

The weather people were all atwitter last Friday about the beginning of a three-day snow storm with “blizzard conditions” up here in Maine. High winds often mean power outages for us, so Ollie the cat and I stocked the cupboard with food, candles, lamp oil, etc. I even prepared a post for today in case I couldn't get on line.

The storm was a dud, at least by Portland, Maine standards; nine or ten inches of snow over the three days and nowhere near the deeply frigid temperatures the midwest is experiencing. Winter is tolerable here so far this season.

The Internet
A poll from Harris has a bit of insight into how pervasive adult use of the internet has become. The number of adults 18 and older who are online at home increased last year to 76 percent, up from 66 percent in 2005. The average number of hours spent online is now 14 per week, and half of all adults online bought something in 2009. So what? asks Harris:

“The increase in the number of hours spent online in the last two years compared to all previous years is striking. It probably reflects a growing ability to use the Internet, an increase in sites and applications, increased TV watching online and increased purchasing online.

“Also, hours online may have increased because of the recession. Going online is free; going out usually costs money.”

People 50 and older average 11.5 hours per week online. Nearly 55 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds bought something online in November; 37 percent of people 65 and older did so.

I am curious how people figure out their average their average time online. I'm on and off so many times a day for anywhere from a minute to check spelling or the definition of a word to hours reading news and blogs, tracking down information, banking, watching videos or just fooling around that I couldn't possibly estimate the time over a week except there is no doubt I am among those on the high end who helped raise the average.

What the...?
I'm sure we all have had our fill of Tiger Woods, but I couldn't let this pass without a sneer. Actually, it's about Brit Hume who, on Sunday, took to ranking the quality of religions against one another in ragging on about Woods:

”The extent to which [Tiger Woods] can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith.

“My message to Tiger would, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'”

Do you suppose anyone who says such a thing is capable, on second thought, of embarrassment?

There was a brief story on CNN Friday about how to pronounce our new year. Apparently, a poll had been taken and only 20 percent of respondents liked “twenty ten.” The majority preferred “two thousand ten.”


I've been uncomfortable for a decade saying “two thousand one,” “two thousand two,” etc. I would have preferred saying, “twenty oh three.” It just seems more efficient and it is certainly more mellifluous. For a millennium, people said, “ten X,” “fifteen X,” “nineteen X” and I can't imagine why we've spent ten years adding those extra syllables in “thousand.”

So whatever the eventual consensus, here at TGB, you'll read references to “twenty ten” and onward until the day I die or I end the blog – whichever comes first. What about you?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jeanne Waite Follett: Father Time is My Peer.

ELDER MUSIC: Porgy and Bess

PeterTibbles75x75You never know who you're going to meet on the internet and I came to know Peter Tibbles (bio here) via email over the past couple of years. His extensive knowledge of most genres of music and his excellent taste became apparent only gradually (Peter's not one to toot his horn) but once I understood, I knew he needed his own column at Time Goes By - or, better, that TGB needed his column - which appears here each Sunday. You can find previous Elder Music columns here.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This is for fellow columnist, Saul Friedman. Saul recently asked if we could do some Gershwin. Now, before the rest of you suggest that he’s getting special treatment, I’ll say that I was already desultorily tippy-tapping away at Porgy and Bess and I just decided to up the tempo. Hope you like it, Saul.]

Today we’re overdosing on Porgy and Bess. I had considerable help from Norma, the A.M. (Assistant Musicologist)*, as she had most (but not all) of the Porgy and Bess albums. Indeed, she has so many that several missed the cut and are not featured. My preferences were for the operatic and jazz versions rather than those that sounded more like musicals.

*(The A.M. claims that it’s not possible to overdose on Porgy and Bess.)


The story of Porgy and Bess starts in 1926 when George Gershwin read Porgy, a new book by DuBose Heyward based in part on DuBose’s experience working on the waterfront in Charleston as a young man.

George was impressed enough to write to DuBose suggesting they make it into an opera. After some considerable time (1934), George began composing the music and DuBose and Ira Gershwin came up with the libretto.

Initially, this was done separately, as George was living in New York thriving on the music scene there and DuBose was living the quiet life in South Carolina. They wrote backwards and forwards by mail (remember mail? Of course you do) for a few months until George visited DuBose in Folly Island, where he had a summer home.

This may be the first time they actually met. There, they visited local churches to absorb musical ideas. I imagine Ira stayed in New York.


That’s George, DuBose and Ira hard at work.

Although it was a critical failure initially when it opened in 1935, and it didn’t make a profit (or break even), George always thought that the public would accept Porgy and Bess. He was proved right in the long run. Alas, he didn’t make the long run. The first big revival was in 1952 and it’s remained in the musical canon ever since.


A number of the songs have become favorites in many different genres of music, particularly Summertime which has become a standard, a rock hit, played by jazz bands and probably karaoke as well. Here it is as originally conceived, Barbara Hendricks singing.



The next is a favorite duet of the A.M. (although I lean towards Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, but I’ve done that here previously). Here we have Willard White and Leona Mitchell with Bess, You Is My Woman Now.


Bess, You Is My Woman Now

Some say that Miles Davis recorded the finest version of Porgy and Bess outside of opera. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with the aforementioned “Some”, but then I’m a bit of a Miles fan. Here he is with It Ain't Necessarily So with a bit of help from Gil Evans.


It Ain't Necessarily So

The year before Miles and Gil had the same idea, the producer, Norman Granz, thought it’d be a good idea to make a jazz version. After all, George always liked jazz musicians performing his tunes or referencing them in their improvisations. Norman considered having only two singers perform all the songs. If you’re going to do that you might as well go for the cream of the crop – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.


Their contribution here is rather brief, especially Louis’.  It is the Street Cries Medley consisting of Here Come De Honey Man, Crab Man and Strawberry Woman.

Street Cries Medley

Getting back to the “serious” version (and don’t bother picking nits about what is or isn’t “serious”), here is another fine duet by Leona Mitchell and Willard White with one of the best know tunes from the opera, I Loves You, Porgy.

I Loves You, Porgy

Cab Calloway performed in many productions and this version is from the movie soundtrack album. Sammy Davis, Jr. played Sportin’ Life in the film, but he didn’t appear on the recording – Cab did the singing for that. I guess Cab knew the words after all his previous appearances. Here he sings There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York.


There's a Boat Dat's Leavin'

Norman Granz considered that he had produced the definitive non-opera version with Ella and Louis, but after a couple of decades he thought, “Hmm, maybe I can do another one”. So he did.

He considered that Ray Charles could do justice to the music just as Louis had. Indeed, he thought Ray was the only singer around at the time who could. He was probably correct.

I’ll leave you with the finale of the opera, Ray singing Oh Lord, I'm On My Way.


Oh Lord, I'm On My Way

The music featured today was taken from:

Numbers 1, 2 and 5
Porgy and Bess - Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Lorin Maazel, 1976
Porgy: Willard White
Bess: Leona Mitchell
Clara: Barbara Hendricks

Number 3
Porgy and Bess - Miles Davis. Orchestra direction by Gil Evans, 1958

Number 4
Porgy and Bess - Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Produced by Norman Granz, 1957

Number 6
Porgy and Bess” - Sound track recording from the film arranged and conducted by Andre Previn, 1959
Porgy: Sidney Poitier, sung by Robert McFerrin (father of singer Bobby McFerrin)
Bess: Dorothy Dandridge, sung by Adele Addison
Maria: Pearl Bailey

Also in the cast were Sammy Davis Jr., Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll. Sammy Davis, Jr. played Sportin’ Life in the film but Cab Calloway sang on the record due to contractual arrangements. Director Otto Preminger took artistic liberties, much to Ira Gershwin's chagrin, and the Gershwin estate pulled the film from circulation. It hasn’t been seen for a lot of years.

Number 7
Porgy and Bess - Ray Charles and Cleo Laine. Produced by Norman Granz, 1976


SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.

In this the season of miracles, the one we have celebrated at our house is the birth in 1770 of Ludwig Van Beethoven which prompts me to suggest some things you might consider doing one of these cold winter weeks. It’s called adding a few synapses, better known as learning.

I do not wish to disparage Christmas; the obscene orgy of shopping does that. We usually send a check in the name of our family to one of our favorite charities, like the hospital that saved my life, in an amount approximating the money we’d spent on gifts. And we notify the kids and grandkids what we’ve done. I somehow think they appreciate it more than tchotchkes that have a short half-life.

Also, someone in the family will have a tree that will have no religious meaning. And we will get together to observe Hanukkah, the festival of lights, so that I can make, as I do every year, those potato latkes (pancakes) served with sour cream and/or applesauce. I will smell of the cooking oil for days. Hanukkah and Christmas, like Passover and Easter, become interfaith holidays that meet over food.

But starting some years ago, it occurred to me that Mr. Beethoven’s birthday, generally thought to be on December 16, was the more spiritually meaningful day coming in the midst of just about all of the religious observances. Jews, Christians and Muslims (this has been the time of the Haj) have been disappointing in their conduct over the years. Not Beethoven. He meant and he lived his words in the Choral movement of the Ninth Symphony: “All men become brothers.”

We don’t think of Beethoven as a political figure but he was a political hero; part of the revolutions of the early 19th century, tearing up the dedication to Napoleon on the first page of the Eroica Symphony because he, Napoleon, had declared himself emperor. Napoleon is long gone and so are all the kings, ministers and despots who have come after him. But Beethoven prevails; the Eroica was a revolution; the Ninth was a revelation.

So each year close to his birthday we have put on a dinner, serving the German foods Beethoven was known to eat (including prunes for his stomach upsets). And we play his music, ending with an Ode To Joy sing-a-long at midnight (badly done), toasting his birthday – his 239th this year.

All this has been a teaser, to urge those of you who live near the east coast to take advantage of a superb and inexpensive series of five-day Exploritas (formerly Elderhostel) programs at a favorite venue, the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, one of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished conservatories.

The upcoming program, beginning on January 24, includes “Symphonies of the Romantic Era,” Beethoven among them; “Piano Music of Chopin and Lizst” and “Great Piano Concertos.” The price, which includes all meals and lodging is $619.

Elderhostel changed its name to Exploritas to relieve itself of the misleading word “elder.” For those unfamiliar with Peabody, it offers year-round Exploritas programs on its campus, with rooms in its comfortable Peabody Inn where many of the classes are taught by Peabody faculty members. The inn has rooms that are accessible for the disabled.

The cafeteria is a short walk from the inn. The beautiful Baltimore waterfront, with great seafood, is a short drive away. Peabody invites participants to its student recitals and concerts, which are free. The Baltimore Symphony performs nearby. And so is the Walters Gallery.

If the classics are not to your taste, Peabody is famous for appealing to all tastes – for good music. One favorite is on Klezmer music. Beginning on March 21, the scheduled five-day program will include a retrospective on Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra as well as the films and melodies of Hoagy Carmichael, Gene Kelly and others.

Having attended a couple of Peabody programs, it’s a lovely way to spend a week. Recently, my wife and I splurged on a New York weekend. Whatever you do, be good to yourself.

Readers of Gray Matters, who have sent me their poems and stories, and contributors to Time Goes By’s Elder Story Telling Place, will appreciate another wintertime possibility - learning, thinking and writing for pleasure. We of a certain age know a great deal that we should not keep to ourselves. And the limitlessness of the internet and the freedom of blogging has afforded us an opportunity to stretch our minds with something to think and write about.

Only recently have we learned that, barring illness, there is no such thing as senility that comes with age. Our brains continue to add synapses as long as we live and as long as we exercise our minds. Truly, we may lose it if we don’t use it.

Thus, I’m putting in a plug for New Pathways for Aging, a paperback published as a product of a pioneer program of the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. It’s a venerable program in which older men and women, some of them professionals, have found, as the title suggests, new pathways for their own lives beyond their working years.

The book was sent to me by one of the editors, Dr. Rhoada Wald, who has been a member of and a study group leader at the Institute for 11 of its 32 years. It includes a series of essays, poems and personal reflections on the very serious but rewarding business of growing older.

The Harvard Institute, I learned from Wald, is one of nearly 400 such “learning in retirement” centers around the country - most of them, like Exploritas, are associated with colleges. There are one or more in each state including Alaska and several in each major city. Harvard’s Institute, part of the university’s Division of Continuing Education, has enrolled 550 members for 62 study groups. And the tuition is a modest $400.

You may find out more at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement website or in the book, New Pathways for Aging, and to see what’s available in your area you can consult the University of Maine website for the network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes.

There is no room here, of course, for the 27 contributions to this book, but unlike other such volumes that gild the lily of aging, this one does not ignore the illnesses and death that come as student colleagues and friends age. But of great wonder is the human impulse to keep going and learning in the face of mortality. One man, a cancer patient, called his poem, Set Dylan T. Aside.

Lillian Broderick, facing blindness from macular degeneration wrote:

“I’m not suffering the ravages of chemotherapy or drifting into the no man’s land of Alzheimer’s. I remind myself of all that remains–Mozart, Bach, the promise of spring in the air, the faces of my children and grandchildren safely lodged in memory, enduring friendships, the companionship of a 56-year-old marriage.”

Antonia Woods celebrated “the joy of slowing down” in Personal Best:

Once I scrambled up the mountain
Getting to the top my only goal
Now I stop often,
Resting in protected, sunny spots in the cold months
Finding shady rocks with breezes in the summer,
Sacred places where I can sit and watch and wait and listen.

(The book time for this hike is three hours, but my personal best is eight.)

What’s your story? Write to me at