Archive for the ‘Advice’ Category

The Thinker

Value reprogramming our children

So many of us are raising our children mostly the way our parents raised us. It’s unclear why we do this. Perhaps we assume they did a great job, considering how awesome we turned out. Since we’re so awesome, we figure we’ll simply follow their formula and we’ll have awesome children too.

Or it could be we don’t want to suffer their wrath or disappointment. Parents can hurt us, even when we are in our middle years. Most likely, we don’t analyze our approach to parenting too much; we just do it reflexively. If we were raised Catholic, junior and his sister are raised Catholic. If we played Little League, our sons play in the Little League. If we went to Girl Scouts, our daughter goes to Girl Scouts.

Raising your kid differently than you were raised takes a certain amount of courage. Obviously, it takes less courage if you realize that you were raised wrong. If Dad beat you regularly with a belt, hopefully you won’t do that to your child, although chances are you will. Value programming seems to work this way. Both the good stuff and the bad stuff tend to get passed down from generation to generation. If your father beat up your mother, there’s a good chance if you are a male that you will beat your wife. Stranger still, if you were the daughter, there is a good chance you will be in a marriage where your spouse will beat you up. It’s unclear why this is, but it may be because we unconsciously seek out spouses that have characteristics of our parents. It happened to me: I married a gal from a poor family in Michigan, just like my father. At the time, this coincidence never occurred to me, but it was probably more than coincidence, particularly since my mother and I had issues.

Parenting comes with no rewind button. Instead, parenting is a continuous stream of events and choices applied to situations at the moment. From our children’s birth to our deaths it never really ends, but there is an unofficial end when our adult children finally move out of the house. (There is a good chance they will move back in some years later.) In retrospect, all of us parents wish we could have done some things differently. You do the best you can and try to forgive yourself for your parenting mistakes.

Parenting differently than the way you were parented takes reflection and mindfulness. My parents were not particularly physically affectionate. We got little in the way of hugs and kisses. They weren’t wholly absent; just that they were the exception rather than the rule. Unsurprisingly, I grew up feeling somewhat touch deprived. Also, my parents, although I am sure they loved each other, weren’t great at demonstrating affection with each other or really doing much together, other than dutifully raising us. Since I had about a decade as a bachelor, I had time to reflect on these concerns. I made up my mind that I would not replicate them with my daughter.

So I made a point to be lavish with hugs and kisses. I told her sincerely, and often, that I loved her. When near her I made sure to put an arm over her shoulder or around her waist. I wanted her to know that healthy human relationships should be naturally intimate, and that meant touching liberally. In short, I did not want to transmit what I considered to be a poor way of being raised. I wanted her to feel connection and intimacy. This meant more than words; it meant the constant pleasure and communication of touch. It’s delightful to see her as an adult being still so physically demonstrative with us.

My parents picked up something of a Puritan ethos common from their era. It meant the father made most of the major decisions, the mother’s role was to be supportive and children were supposed to quickly learn their place. It was generally understood that as children we were inexperienced and thus our parents knew best. We were told not just from them, but also from society in general, that our parents were our ultimate guides in life and to trust them implicitly. In general, the boys in our family learned that most emotions were better left bottled up, because we never saw dad cry or even get very upset.

Of course, society is a lot different now compared to then. The United States has more than doubled its population in my lifetime. Values have changed quite a bit as well. In the 1960s I did not know homosexuals existed. Today they have civil rights that were denied them including, increasingly, the right to marry. My country is much more ethnic in general too. I had to figure out how to put all this together in my parenting. It was not always easy and often it was lonely.

I had virtually no sex education, as was true of most of us Baby Boomers. I had to depend on factual books like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex to get some rudimentary education. Reading about sex as opposed to experiencing it, of course, is quite different. Schools now generally teach sex education, but it is largely superficial. Certain topics are frequently off limits. Parents can teach their children sex education, but it is generally an awkward experience. It is better to come from an authoritative but independent source. Mostly, I didn’t want my daughter to start her sex life sexually ignorant. She needed a real grounding, both on the biological facts but on the physical and emotional issues of being a sexual person. I found such a program at my Unitarian Universalist Church: Our Whole Lives, wherein all these topics were discussed candidly but with trained facilitators. There is no question about it: sex is a big, complex and icky topic. But better to make sure she started with a firm foundation than to be ignorant and make the stupid mistakes I did when I became sexually awake.

Sex education is just one area where I deviated from the values I was taught. While many were the same (love, compassion, neighborliness, the importance of education) many were also different. I taught respect for people regardless of sex, race, religion or (the hard one) because they have different beliefs than me. I told her that I was a human being, not a god, and thus I make mistakes. I encouraged those values that helped me succeed, some that worked (reading, debate) and some that did not stick (striving for excellence, exercise and diet). In the end, like me, my daughter had a lot to absorb, analyze and figure out what was right for her.

At least she appreciates the complexity of our modern world. It is far more complex than it was when I was her age. No wonder then that today adolescence seems to extend well into their twenties. It’s quite a brain dump we give our children, and harder than ever for them to structure it in a way that will help them deal with their reality.

At the same time, my daring experience at value reprogramming has been satisfying. My parents did the best they could to set my values with the skills they had at the time. I did my best as well. I am glad I did not simply parrot the way I was raised, but trusted my own judgment instead. I used values that seemed to work (thriftiness, for example) and discarded what did not seem to work (religious orthodoxy).

My daughter says she won’t have a child, but she is toying with the idea of adopting a child when she is self sufficient enough. If that time comes, I hope she is smart enough to do what I did: and discard those things about the way we raised her that did not work, and substitute her own judgment of the modern world as she perceives it.

 
The Thinker

Advice for the lovelorn

I won’t claim that this advice is directed to anyone in particular, but it was inspired by reading this blog. Asplenia wears her heart on her sleeve, or at least on her blog. I am glad she remains anonymous, and also grateful that she reads my blog and occasionally leaves a comment. I’m not sure how many regular readers of this blog I have, but I suspect she has more.

Nor can I claim to be a fountain of wisdom on matters of the heart. It is true that I can point to a marriage of twenty-six years, but neither my wife nor I will claim we have had an easy marriage. I often think that if you have an easy marriage, something is wrong. Life is not designed to be easy; hence love should not be easy either. In my experience, love is more about continuous challenge than comfort.

No, love is not easy, so it might seem like it is something only the foolhardy should attempt. However, avoiding love is not easy either. There is nothing wrong with being single, just as there is nothing wrong with being married or in any heavy relationship. I don’t live in the delusion that I would necessarily be better single. Instead, I suspect I would be chasing other issues. Maybe I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me, and it would tug at my inferiority complex. For we are all relational creatures. Like it or not, we almost universally assess our self worth based on the quality of those relationships.

Asplenia is recently divorced and is actively searching for a new mate. She goes on lots of dates. Reading her blog the last year or so has been heart wrenching, so heart wrenching that it is sometimes hard to read her posts because they cut so close to the heart and often are so pierced with pain. It’s hard to put yourself back on the love market after a long marriage, particularly when you thought overall it was pretty good. It is hard to invest time in relationships, hard to think things are going great and then to find yourself dumped or disillusioned and back on square one. Asplenia has spent a lot of time riding reasonable expectation waves only to find them dashed. She has expectations for what a solid relationship should look and feel like. It is doubtless borne out at least partially by experience, but she also invests time in pondering the opinions of relationship experts, who she often quotes. If you have a hard time judging what a solid, intimate relationship should look like, these experts will sort it out for you. Good luck to her and the millions of others who deserve a terrific, long lasting, enduring and permanent partnership. Perhaps it will be an ideal one that checks off all the boxes the relationship experts tell us should be checked.

The temptation to keep looking for the perfect relationship keeps gnawing at most of us. Surely someone out there is better than what we got, or what we had, right? Surely, when I marry a perfect 10, I won’t end up getting someone who deliberately farts in my presence. Surely I will get someone who is not a spendthrift, and who can ignore a line of cocaine at a party? Surely there is someone out there without baggage, who will understand me intuitively, who is always kind and gentle and who never has a bad day, or doesn’t have a fatal flaw?

Maybe there are a couple of these creatures out there, but I haven’t met any yet. I think they are a myth, like the unicorn. On reflection, I’m not sure that even if I was fancy free and one of these wanted me that I should marry one of them. This is because I might feel the pressure to be perfect also and, well, not to give away a secret or anything, but I’m not perfect, and I never will be. I too am saddled with baggage, some light, some not so light. I too am the product of a mixed childhood and a mixed parenting experience, and it shaped my personality and I carry a lot of it into middle age. I will probably carry it into old age and to my grave. I will die an imperfect creature, as will my wife.

I am not sure where this desire to chase perfection comes from. Maybe it comes from going to church at a young age, where we learn God is perfect and we can be too in some nebulous afterlife. Meanwhile, if we rigorously follow the rules and spend much of our lives repressing our less than perfect aspects, we can sort of look perfect, at least most of the time. What typically happens is we give it a modest try, but we soon fail. This happens because, unlike God, we are programmed to be imperfect. But it also happens because perfection is just an idea, and what we think the perfect is is largely due to what others have told us all along should look like perfection. How did they know? Well, someone told them. And so it probably goes back to the point where us apes came down from the trees and started crawling on terra firma. All they really knew was that much of life was miserable, and hunting mastodons and spending evenings on animal skins wasn’t much to get excited about.

If we can’t be perfect, maybe we can look perfect instead. It may take losing forty pounds, or a nose job, or a tummy tuck, or spending three times a week at the local gym getting exhausted and sweaty. All that work doesn’t make us perfect, but may feed the illusion that we can become perfect, or at least more perfect than many. Sometimes it works, at least for a while, but just as often or more it fails because we discover some new flaw in ourselves.

Much of falling in love is based on a self-delusion. We see in others things that are not really there. It’s the phenomenon of psychological projection. To see our new lovers as the imperfect creatures they are is actually kind of hard, and perhaps makes it impossible to fall in love with them. We have to unlearn our innate talent at tuning out their flaws so early in the relationship. That stuff is supposed to come later, long after the wedding bells. And if we can deal with their reality, then we have to ask ourselves a harder question: can I live and love this imperfect person for maybe the rest of my life as he/she is? Is there enough commonality, shared interests, love and caring to make the relationship, on balance, good or very good?

It’s my opinion that wise people will realize this sort of relationship is probably as good as it is going to get. Surrendering to this reality won’t exactly bring total happiness, but it may bring acceptance that can lead to greater happiness elsewhere. This is because lots of things can make us feel happy, and a love relationship is just one of them. Surrendering to an imperfect loving relationship may allow a space to open up where we can be in a generally positive relationship. It may allow us the freedom to escape relationship-expectation hell for a while, or maybe forever, and wallow in the rest of life instead, which will have its challenges too.

Alas, I can’t claim the credentials of all the great relationship gurus that Asplenia reads, as my learning comes mostly from the School of Hard Knocks. But at least when it’s quiet, I can ask my gut. I may not like the answer it gives, but it has the aspect of feeling uncomfortably correct. It takes courage to accept not the best, but the pretty good. And that’s probably where we will find our optimal happiness, which won’t ever be at a hundred percent, at least not until our self-delusion phase wears out and we realize that perfection itself is a cruel illusion. However, with luck, maybe we can cruise somewhere around eighty percent most of them time. It may not be where we want it to be, but it may be what we need.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 17: In conclusion, it takes a strategy

This is the last of a series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It’s time to sum up this series, since it has spanned sporadic entries over nearly five years. In fifty-four years on the planet I have made plenty of stumbles and encountered many setbacks. I have also had a fair number of successes. To the extent I have succeeded, it was part self-reliance and part because I was reasonably fortunate. I was fortunate to be born middle class in America. This gave me some opportunities to succeed but did not guarantee success. Regardless of whether you came into life as a child of poverty, a child of wealth or somewhere in between, what you have to work with is simply what you possess.

I attribute most of my successes to following strategies and my willingness to change them when needed. Success is not generally achieved by following a formula. You won’t find it in church, from the biases of a political party or from a self help book. The truth is one size does not fit all. It never has and never will. You are guaranteed to be unique on this planet, so any strategy that you follow has to work with you and your predispositions. Essentially, it is up to you to quantify your success and mostly up to you to achieve it.

However, I do believe strategies are critical to achieving success, “success” being something only you can assess. Thus it helps to first have a vision of what a successful life would look or feel like for you. When I graduated college, I was pretty much clueless on how I would spend my life. I knew I wanted to feel passionate about my profession and my life. I knew I wanted to make the world a better place through the skills and creativity that I possessed. Just as companies need a vision, so should you invest some time and thought in creating a personal vision of your future. How do you see your life at age 30, 40, 50 and 60? You may find that what you wanted at age 30 does not fit your feelings when you arrive at age 30. However, by working toward that vision strategically, you will at least come to that understanding, and probably sooner rather than later. My suggestion is to keep the vision achievable. It’s okay to aspire to be a Broadway actress or an NFL quarterback, but keep a backup plan in case that does not pan out. If you realize the vision that you created no longer holds the allure it used to, create a new vision that does. Your vision should be hopeful. It should be feel inspirational and welcome.

The strategies you use to get there will of course vary. Lacking any other resources, a self-help book may have a well-defined path that you can try. At least it will give you something to mull over. Based on my experience, simply having a strategy is critical. You don’t need to always follow the strategy to the letter, but you do need to move in its direction and be reasonably consistent following it. Aimlessness is not a strategy, but an admission that you will allow the universe to direct you rather than yourself.

If following a particular strategy does not work for you, either adapt it to better fit you or find a new strategy. A good example is dieting, or more specifically finding a strategy to have and maintain a healthy weight. Most of us Americans will be overweight or obese in our life and thus probably want to take off extra weight. There are lots of diets (tactics) to take off weight, but most of them do not succeed in the long run because they do not work with a person’s natural tendencies. If following a particular diet does not work for you, consider those aspects that aren’t working for you and find one that better addresses those aspects. A strategy is a means to an end, not an end of itself. It helps you realize your vision for yourself. It must work with your natural proclivities to help you achieve your personal vision. If it does not, it’s not a strategy for you. Once you have a strategy that aligns with your vision and seems to be helping you get there, follow it with as much dogged tenacity as you can.

I do feel it is very important to follow a sound financial strategy. For tactics on this, there are a few other lessons you can real in my Real Life 101 archive. In general, a sound financial strategy will minimize personal debt unless it helps you acquire wealth. There are two general components to a successful financial strategy: living beneath your means and saving the difference. Some corollaries quickly emerge: avoid as much debt as possible and get rid of debt as quickly as is prudent. My own experience indicates that doggedly following these principles works. It is not particularly fun or glamorous. To the extent that you will enjoy your wealth, it will happen later in life. If you do not you may enjoy marginally greater wealth now, but comparatively much worse wealth when you are older. Wealth builds on itself, which is why it is critical to get in the habit of saving and do it regularly. Doing it automatically is preferred. Have an allotment go directly from your paycheck into savings and/or retirement accounts. Always save the same percent of your income and adjust the percentage upward if your income allows. When you do this, you will find that you will naturally live on what’s left.

For myself, I have found that regular charitable giving comes back at you. It has happened so often in my life that it is almost spooky. I would not be surprised if you found this to be true as well. It’s like in doing so you clear a psychic space in front of your future that opens up new opportunities. Perhaps this should not be so strange because in truth we are all connected to one another. It is the law of karma working in your favor.

Okay young adult, you are on your own now. Expect to step on some mines going through life. This happens to all of us but if you follow my strategies you should encounter fewer of them. However, with sound strategies in place, you will find that these setbacks, no matter how horrible they first appear, can fade, often quite quickly. Good luck.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 14: The meaning of religion

This is the fourteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthda

America seems overrun by religion. It’s hard to traverse more than a couple blocks without running into a church, temple or other place of religious worship. Even those who are not particularly religious can feel the need to congregate in places that seem somewhat like a church or temple. For example, many states have ethical societies where, if you are not religious, you can still participate in a congregation of similar people. Your children can even get something akin to a religious education there.

Despite our abundance of places of worship, Americans are becoming more secular. Youth in particular are leading the trend, in part encouraged by their parents who often gave religion short shrift growing up. Others (like me) as children had religion crammed down their throats and had to break away from it as adults. Young adults these days are particularly irreligious. If they went to services growing up, it was generally because they were required to. Once independent, it seemed so unnecessary and kind of dorky. It felt much better to sleep in late on Sundays, assuming you were not rushing off to the Wal-Mart or the Target to put in an early morning shift.

Nonetheless, even if you thought you had enough religion to last a lifetime, in adulthood you may find yourself feeling a bit lost. You know you are missing something important in your life, but you are not sure what it is. Perhaps you are getting an early taste of your mortality as the drudgery of adulthood sinks in. Perhaps your circle of friends is a few classmates from high school and college plus some buddies at work. Perhaps you just read the news online and feel hopeless about how messy and discordant our world is and need to feel hopeful.

For myself, when I was in my thirties, despite having a wonderful wife and flourishing daughter, I felt somewhat hollow inside. I think at some point in life the feeling is universal and we tend to address it in various ways. If we did attend church or temple regularly growing up and we found it a worthwhile experience, it is easy and comfortable to pick up where we left off. Some Sunday you may find yourself back for a service with the same denomination. If you hit some major obstacles in your life, such as the premature loss of a parent or close friend, you may find out you need a religious congregation to help you sort things out. On the other hand, you could like me fall into one of these not very theistic but spiritual types and still feel the calling of religious community.

Here in America, we tend to associate religion with God, but that’s not necessarily what religion is about. Here’s dictionary.com’s definition of religion:

A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Notice that religion is principally about understanding the universe, not about memorizing Bible or Torah passages or salvation or being born again. Human beings are driven to ponder the imponderable, and since we are finite, it is in our nature to ask questions like, “Why are we here?” Through religion, you can discover myriad possible answers to these questions. Most religions are glad to assert they have the correct ideology. A few of them, like Buddhism and mine make no such claims.

If you investigate a religion, you will find one of two things to be true: either its teachings and values will resonate with you, or they will not. It may well be that, as I was taught, the Catholic Church is the only correct way to understand God and achieve salvation. It really doesn’t matter to me if this is true or not, because Catholicism does not resonate with me. So for me, it will never be my religion of choice and any proselytizing by the Church directed at me will be for naught. If that means I end up in hell, well, it’s in my nature, I guess.

Like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and each of our paths will be a bit different. Some people are on a very independent spiritual path. They feel no need for religion and seek guidance from within. However, the desire to make sense of the chaos that is life remains as much in them as with anyone. That is what drives most of us (at least here in the United States) toward religion.

Worship in some form goes back as far as we can trace humanity. It has evolved from worshiping a golden calf and sacrificing virgins to the volcano god. Today, we may choose to worship The Goddess. We may express worship as a pantheistic appreciation of our complex universe. The common thread is that people of similar spiritual values find a need to come together, express those values and ponder those values with other similar people. Many will find at a house of worship at least some balm for the angst that they carry in their souls. Those that do not may feel free to shop around until they find a religion and congregation that matches their spiritual needs.

I think another reason that is more primal exists for why we affiliate with houses of worship. Basically, we need a community. A real community. There is probably a thriving community where we work, but it is unlikely to resonate with our spiritual needs. Friends also provide community and may provide the spiritual sustenance that we need too. Growing up, most of us live in small nuclear families. Families are the foundation of our society, but as great as they are they are not the same thing as a genuine community. If you don’t have real community in your life, it is hard to forever ignore the call to acquire it.

Some weeks back I was reading about the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Community in that time had a much deeper meaning than it has today. It did not take a village to have community; it took a manor. A manor was essentially a large community house, hall, kitchen and mass bedroom, which were overseen by a lord and lady. You were born in or close to the manor and you died there. At night, particularly during the long dark season when light was scarce and not very luminous and cold killed, you bedded with all your fellow citizens in the safety of the manor hall, often sleeping cheek to cheek. You were intimately a part of a real community. Your survival depended on the success of the manor and how well all of you held up your part of your community’s covenant.

Most religions are selling or promoting salvation and/or some grand understanding of the universe, but what most are really doing is creating real communities. Unlike medieval manors where you largely stayed for life, today you can shop around for the manor/religious house of worship that feels most comfortable to you. In your house of worship, you will find similar people. You will find stories and guidance (sermons) and a spiritual leader usually trained in your theology (generally, a minister). You will have the chance to contribute to community life (such as teaching Sunday school). You will have opportunities to embrace a larger community, perhaps by providing food to the poor or by helping to run a homeless shelter. If you are doing it right, you will give and you will get. Everyone in the community should feel spiritually enriched.

Houses of worship are thus gateways for connecting with real people and the real world. They are also (or should be) places of safety and refuge. That’s why even today a house of worship is considered a sacred place. It’s why a church can shelter an illegal immigrant under its roof and know with some confidence that the immigration police will not storm the church. Houses of worship then are really refuges for the soul, places to heal from complicated problems, find strength in others, get guidance to life’s many problems, and a conduit for you (if you want) to stretch your humanity. It is difficult if not impossible to get this complete enfolding experience anywhere else.

There are certain denominations and houses of worship that may be more toxic to your soul than helpful to it. Most strive to emulate higher authorities, but all at their core are human institutions. In my mind, this is fine because I see the real purpose of houses of worship as building real community, not spreading salvation. You will often find giant egos and toxic people in churches and temples, as is true of anywhere else. Most houses of worship though strive very hard to be welcoming, spiritually uplifting and balms for restless souls. Like yours. Like mine. Like everyone who is a human being.

So if someday you feel the call of church or temple, understand that there is nothing wrong with you, that the call is entirely natural. You will probably grow as a human being by scratching that itch. I am glad that I did.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 12: The Basics of Investing

This is the twelfth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Way back in Lesson 2, I covered the fundamentals of personal finance. I hope you used the intervening two and a half years to make yourself financially solvent. Good news: if you are not carrying a credit card debt, you are doing better than many Americans. Your net worth may hardly be in the positive numbers but at least it is positive. Even if you have student loans, providing it has helped you get a decent paying job, this is good debt.

You may be young but you might also have the feeling that old age is going to visit you someday. When it arrives, you know you would not prefer living in a cardboard box under a freeway. You know that to avoid this fate you need to start investing money now, although you might not have a whole lot to invest except for the spare change inside your sofa. Most likely you kind of resent having to save anything at all, but you know that like taking vitamins its one of these things that prudent people do. Where to start? Buy a share of Wal-Mart stock? Open a money market account? Buy gold on the assumption that its value will stay steady during inflationary times? There are an infinite number of choices and it’s so darn confusing!

I can make it easy for you: start with your employer’s 401-K plan. Why? Start there because if your employer offers a 401-K plan they will often match your contributions up to a certain percent of your salary. In other words, it’s free money. It’s true that except in cases of dire emergencies you cannot take out the money before retirement, but you still get to invest more money than you can contribute. In short, you should contribute as much money as you possibly can into your 401-K or similar plan, particularly if you get matching contributions.

Start contributing today and never, ever stop until you are fully retired. This is the golden rule of investing: start early and contribute regularly. Do not contribute a fixed dollar amount. Contribute a percentage of your income automatically with every paycheck. Your income should naturally rise as you age so at the very least you want your contributions to rise proportionately. It is never to late to start investing but the multiplicative factor for starting early is mind-boggling. Starting early means that you have more time to invest and your money has more time to grow. Give until it hurts. Give until the financial pain is just short of excruciating. As your income goes up, try your best to put a greater percentage of your income into retirement funds as well. There is an additional piece of good news: the IRS pretends your salary is your actual salary less your 401-K contributions. In other words, you end up paying less in taxes because you “earn” less. The net effect is you have a little more money available to put into your 401-K than if the money was taxed up front.

If your employer does not offer a 401-K, or even if they do, you can still open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). In 2009, you can contribute up to $4000 and write it off your taxes, at least if you place your money into a “traditional” IRA. You can also choose a Roth IRA. The difference with a Roth IRA is your contribution is not subtracted from your income for tax purposes: you pay the tax upfront but can withdraw it later tax-free. With a traditional IRA, you pay the taxes on the income much later when you retire for the privilege of paying fewer taxes now. If you can swing it, because younger people tend to earn a lot less than older workers, the Roth IRA is the better deal. As you age you might want to open a Traditional IRA because then you are likely to be taxed at a higher rate than you will as a retiree.

The general guidance for investing is tried and true and fairly well known. In the very long term, invest in stocks or stock funds as history shows that overall they will provide higher returns. In the medium term, buy bonds. In the short term, stick with savings, checking and money market accounts for their liquidity and safety.

What else should you save for? Many smart young people find plenty of incentive to save for their own digs. They would prefer being tied down by a mortgage instead of renting a U-Haul every few years and moving all their possessions. They also have expectations that if they own property, it will appreciate, and their net worth will grow. (The mortgage interest deduction is also a nice tax break, although you may find the cost of maintaining your home can eat up the tax break.) Obviously, you don’t invest this sort of money into retirement accounts. Where to put it depends on how long you think it will take you to buy some property. Most likely, you don’t want to put it into some sort of stock-oriented mutual fund because there is likely to be too much volatility in the stock by the time you need the money. The safest bets are savings and money market accounts, but they produce almost no interest. A good choice looking several years out would be a well-rated corporate bond fund. Also consider a fund that buys Ginnie Mae bonds. Ginnie Mae bonds actually help homebuyers like you buy houses. There is risk of losing money, but it is very small, along with decent potential of above average market returns.

Okay, you are thinking. Where do I buy these sorts of funds? In addition, which ones are good and which are bad? Unfortunately, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors among investment firms and brokerage houses, which they gleefully help create. Real return is hard to figure out, given that returns are rarely guaranteed and many funds charge fees to buy and sell funds. Many funds come with certain minimums and contribution requirements. Billions are spent to shape your perception that firms like Vanguard and T. Rowe Price are smart places to put your money. You would be right to be skeptical.

If you want, you can be your own broker. You can in theory send a check to places like Ginnie Mae or the U.S. Treasury and they will send you bond certificates back. This is too much hassle for most people. When in doubt I go to the most trusted and unbiased source I know: Consumer Reports. I think any smart consumer should subscribe to the magazine, but you can also spend a little money to get access to their online web site. Periodically they rate various categories of mutual funds. Their ratings are not necessarily sure things, but they are good, unbiased bets.

Ultimately what you need is a personal financial advisor. Most likely, that will have to wait until you have enough income to also afford a financial advisor. Banks and brokerage firms will want to sell you their financial advice. Be wary because most likely they put their bottom line ahead of yours. When I finally had enough money to get a personal financial advisor and I chose someone local who was listed on the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors web site. My personal financial advisor makes recommendations to me. I do the actual paperwork to make them happen. He never gets a cut of my earnings, only a flat fee for sound and unbiased advice.

Until that time comes, it is probably a sound strategy to be your own financial advisor. You can supplement your knowledge not just by reading my advice but also by reading some of the many popular books on investing available at your local bookstore. By following the established investing rules I outlined, you are likely to do nearly as well as the financially sophisticated anyhow. The truth is there is always risk in investment, as well as rewards, and no financial guru is always right, not even Warren Buffett. Some approaches will prove to be luckier than others in the short term, but time seems to even out the playing field. Sticking to traditional rules should serve you well until you have the time and money to get your own personal financial advisor.

 
The Thinker

We have to go, and go, and go

Friend, do you suffer from BPH? If you are female, I can definitely say no. For you have to be born male to get BPH. Men generally discover by the time they are forty or so one inconvenient truths about middle age men, specifically they cannot get through the night without shuffling a couple times to the bathroom to go Number One. If this sounds like you, congratulations, you are a normal middle-aged male. You also have Benign Prostatic Hypersplasia. With a name like that, you can see why urologists prefer to say you have BPH.

If you have BPH, your prostate is swelling to an inconvenient size. This is good news in a way because it means you are still producing testosterone. It also probably means you do not need to reach for Viagra in order to be intimate with someone. Your prostate is swelling because testosterone is causing your prostate to create something very similar, DHT or Dihydrotestosterone. Your prostate has been producing DHT since puberty, but over time, it has the side effect of making your prostate swell. Your prostate is a gland that provides most of the fluid when you ejaculate. Your prostate is also inconveniently located just below your kidneys. When it swells, it tends to constrict the urethra, making it harder to go and also harder to fully empty your bladder. So your bladder rarely fully empties, which means you tend to go more often and when you go it can take a while. This condition can also contribute to urinary tract infections.

I, like most men my age, feel part zombie because my bladder inconveniently wakes me up throughout the night. On a good night, I will only shuffle to the bathroom once. On a bad night, it can be up four or five times. I must have developed BPH at an early age because this has been a problem of mine for at least twenty years, and I am 52. It generally arrives in men by age forty, although it may develop so gradually that it seems normal, which in fact it is.

The good news is that if you suffer from BPH you probably do not have prostate cancer. That’s why it’s called benign. If you are a smart man, you will have regular physicals. Your doctor will place his fingers into your colon and feel your prostate. It can be enlarged, and if it feels smooth like a balloon that is good. If when he presses on it he detects nothing hard, it suggests there is no cancer. That won’t solve your frequent urination problem, however.

I learned all these things this week because my employer invited a urologist over to talk to us about BPH. She came with all sorts of very clinical illustrations and actual pictures taken at Reston Hospital by special cameras that slide up your urethra. The lecture was actually interesting. Just as interesting as the lecture was listening to my fellow middle-aged men in my room. It is nice to know I do not suffer alone. This is not the sort of thing guys tend to share with other guys, or even their significant others. I am sharing it here in part to spread enlightenment.

Moreover, at least the men who attended the lecture are not morons. Many men avoid physicals simply because they want to avoid the prostate examinations, which can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. Sensible men, like those of us at the lecture, realize we have a condition. We also know that prostate cancer affects most men in life, although many die unaware that they have it, as in most cases the cancer grows very slowly. We do not consider ignorance in this area a virtue.

These same men thirty years earlier might have been bragging about their bedroom conquests. Now we come with bags under our chins and eyes and receding hairlines (well, not me, at least not yet). It was remarkable how straightforward and clinical we could be in a group setting when given the opportunity to question a urologist at length. Will surgery cause impotence? Will drugs to treat it cause impotence? Can BPH be cured? Do some men not get BPH? (Answer: yes, those who die young and who stop producing testosterone at an early age.) Our main concerns were “Are we likely to get prostate cancer?” and “Will we ever be able to sleep through the night again?”

On the latter question, there is hope. There are drugs to treat BPH of a class called Alpha-blockers. They relax the smooth muscle of the prostate and widen the urethra channel. (Flomax is probably the best known, but ask about Hytrin or Cardura because they are available as generics.) However, they might cause ejaculatory dysfunction. Another class of drugs, the 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors will also shrink the prostate, but not very much, and can cause a diminished sex drive if not outright impotence. For many men, fear of the latter makes us think that getting a good night’s sleep is highly overrated. (On the other hand, our wives may secretly be relieved.)

There are also surgical alternatives, including a microwave procedure and vaporization of part of the prostate with a laser (Greenlight Laser). Some of these can be done on an outpatient basis.

You may also want to embrace a prostate-healthy diet. Unsurprisingly, it is probably not a diet you will like, as it emphasizes lower amounts fats and eating soy. The diet will probably do nothing for your BPH, but it does reduce the risk of acquiring prostate cancer, which for men is something akin to breast cancer in women: to be dreaded and prevented if possible.

If you have BPH, and most men of a certain age do (but may not be aware of it), it’s good news in a way. It means that you are a survivor. A few generations ago, you were likely dead from something else by the time it became a problem. Today, you likely have a few decades of life ahead of you. You just have to decide whether to treat it or not. The condition can become so chronic that you end can up in an emergency room because you are unable to void your bladder. You probably do not want to reach that stage, so at some point you will want to have a deeper conversation with your doctor about BPH and perhaps see a urologist for a better diagnosis. You should also want your doctor to regularly give you a PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) test. If you are developing prostate cancer, it will probably detect it, plus it can be used to help determine the severity of your BPH.

I know I will be talking with my doctor about drugs for BPH during my next physical. I hope that any side effects will be mild on me. I know I sure would relish a night of uninterrupted sleep again.

 
The Thinker

Riding recession’s wave

As we headed for a recession? Are we in the midst of one now and just do not know it? Do I know? Heck, no. Even our best economists do not know. Most likely by the time it is declared official, some six months to a year after it begins, we will be out of it, or climbing our way out.

There is little doubt that recessions hurt. On a personal level, many people lose their jobs and that pain extends to all aspects of their lives. Those of us watching our financial portfolios get upset and nervous when we see the value of our assets decline. Many of us are already stretched to the limit and up to our eyeballs in credit card debt. Our house, if we have one, has provided us the equity we needed to confront life’s little financial emergencies. With declining home prices. for many of us our home equity is tapped out. Moreover, since the average credit card debt exceeds $3000 per credit card holder, taking on more credit card debt looks unwise, particularly at 18% annual percentage rates.

Then there is the problem lenders are having valuing their assets. With so many financial institutions holding bad debt in the form of dubious mortgage backed securities, they are unsure exactly what assets they have and how much they are worth. Without knowing what their assets are worth, it is harder to loan out money. Those of us with dubious credit histories are likely to find there are no lenders who will lend us money.

A recession should serve as a warning notice to those of us in debt. It is hard enough during flush times to live on borrowed money. During a recession, it can become impossible. There are stories locally like this one where otherwise normal people find that their fragile financial cards quickly tumble when the economy turns and end up homeless. Granted, even in flush times it is hard to build financial wealth if you carry a large amount of unsecured debt. Economic factors and job markets are always finicky meaning your hot profession may turn out in a few years to be worthless. During flush times, it is possible to get out of credit card debt and build reserves of cash. These assets may not get you through the next recession unscathed, but you are more likely to emerge less battered and bruised. Spending habits, like eating habits, can be devilishly hard to change. A recession though can give many of us the fortitude to make painful short-term choices for a long-term benefit.

Then there are others like me for whom a recession is in some ways good news. No job is guaranteed but I am fortunate to be a well-paid civil servant. Most likely, I will have a steady income throughout this recession. However, even if I were not in such a situation, many people in the private sector do fine during recessions. Their jobs are in relatively high demand, or they possess some important institutional knowledge that lessens their likelihood of unemployment.

You can usually tell which groups will be unduly affected by a recession. These are the same groups whose jobs are tenuous even in good times. Autoworkers, for example, tend to be among the first in the unemployment lines. The financial sector is taking a whack this time around, which is not surprising because of the debt crisis. Any industry that depends on discretionary spending is vulnerable. Those planning a career would be wise to keep these factors in mind.

I have good news for those who have always wanted to own a home, but could not afford one. Perhaps housing prices have not hit bottom yet, but if you have saved enough money for a traditional down payment and have a decent credit history, now is the time to buy. Not only are house prices down but mortgage rates are down as well. There are plenty of houses on the market to choose from now, so you are likely to find that dream house at an affordable price. You should be actively looking around.

Ironically, if you have ready cash, recessions are also a great time to buy most products or services. Businesses everywhere are anxious to cut deals because often they are just trying to stay in business. If you have the money for rather expensive things like getting the roof fixed or replacing the siding on your house, now is the time to get this work done at a discount. You will also help stimulate the economy by keeping people employed.

If you are invested in stocks, bonds and mutual funds, while you may be feeling nervous about the value of your assets, there is also a flip side. Many funds are a great bargain during a recession. Granted there are exceptions and I am certainly no stock analyst but you may find terrific buys out there. Presumably, you are in the market for the long haul. Profit is made by buying low and selling high. Consequently, this is the right time to buy.

It may not be fair but when some part of the economy suffers someone else profits. Recessions tend to happen because people, corporations and governments do foolish things. That certainly is true this time. Mortgage brokers created packages of bad mortgage debt. They sold them under false pretenses to investment firms that should have known better. In addition, our foolish federal government spent the last seven years spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave. Moreover, people in general ignored macro trends like global warming.

Very few of us will be the Donald Trumps of the world. Most of us though can distinguish between speculation, which usually throws away good money, and investments, which allows good money to grow prudently. Prudence and moderation are virtues, not just personally, but financially as well. People ride out and even prosper during recessions by exercising prudence in good and bad times. They do not live beyond their means. Saving money is their highest financial priority. They do not do foolish things with their lives or their money. Their lives may look boring. They may have a Subaru in their driveway instead of a BMW or Lexus. They may be sending their kids to public schools even though they can afford to send them to private schools. They may be buying clothes at Target instead of Nieman Marcus. They may live in a rambler rather than a McMansion. These are the sorts of people likely to live to see their golden years, and have plenty of money to enjoy those years.

If the pain of this economic downturn bites you, you do have my sympathy because I have been there a few times too. I was fortunate enough to learn my lesson early. While I am aware of the pain that recessions cause many people, I also know that recessions are a temporary phenomenon. Eventually conditions change, markets adapt to new realities and prosperity reemerges. While I cannot stop a recession, with some prudence and a little bit of luck I can not only ride recession’s wave, but also soar above the recovery’s crest when it happens.

So can you.

 
The Thinker

Advice I dare not utter

I will be as discreet and obscure as possible in this post. It is possible but extremely unlikely that its subjects will read this post. I am willing to take that risk because I feel better saying my peace at last somewhere. If I cannot utter it aloud, then I can at least write it somewhere. A blog is probably the appropriate place. Moreover, by publishing it here perhaps some will see themselves and do a midcourse correction.

I acknowledge that I, like most people, have huge blind spots. Particularly when it comes to parenting, my experience has been mixed, as has been documented in blog posts like this one. Every child is unique and no one style of parenting will fit all children. I like to think I have been a good father but I can hardly be objective. There is no real measure of successful parenting, but our daughter, age 18, seems reasonably well adjusted. As best I can tell, she harbors no particular grudges toward either my wife or I. We get along well and still do things as a family. We talk freely and exchange regular hugs. Our daughter does not smoke, do drugs or hang around with bikers named Thor. While it is too early to say for sure, I suspect we are doing better than most parents are. Our daughter is unlikely to be an Ivy League scholar, but I see nothing that would lead me to believe she will not eventually find her way into a successful, meaningful and independent life. I am sure she will have challenges and slip-ups on her own path. After all, as I once noted, failure is extremely useful, providing you learn from the experience.

Having given all the requisite disclaimers, both my wife and I knew this girl was going to have issues from the start. It was not because she was a particularly unusual child; it was because her parents had adopted parenting styles that left us both alarmed. A few years after their daughter was born they paid us a visit. We prepared a nice meal for their family only to find out that, well, C would not eat it. You see, C only likes X and Y, and not just any X and Y but X made with brand Q and Y made with brand R, which meant that Mom had to run to the local Giant and stock up on C’s special food. Moreover, it had to be prepared by Mom is a certain way and cut just so. Then she would eat it. She might even finish it.

She was not beyond getting the occasional timeout, but she was allowed unusual freedom for a young girl. For example, it was okay for her to use crayons on the walls, provided they were washable crayons. Her Mom would simply come by with a sponge every once in a while and remove her markings.

As for affection, the good news is that her parents loved her. The bad news is that her parents loved her. Gosh, how they loved her, devoting their complete attention to her whenever she made the smallest request, always in a cheerful voice, always in a tone that sounded like half baby talk and always with lots of hugs and kisses. As for praising her, they excelled in that. She was nurtured with the finest children’s toys that they could find. She had every childhood opportunity to explore her creative side. Hand me downs were not for her. God forbid she should wear clothes from a Wal-Mart. They shopped in stores like Baby Gap instead. She was trained by her mother to be a clotheshorse.

She is a naturally brilliant person, perhaps helped by her parents’ genetics. Her father has a PhD. Throughout school she excelled and routinely brought home all A’s. Mom and Dad were thrilled. She was lavished with praise and privileges.

Eventually she reached her teenage years and expressed the usual interest in the opposite sex. Suddenly, Mom and Dad who had been so encouraging were watching her like a hawk instead. She was kept out of the dating pool until she reached what she felt was an advanced age. They made sure she was closely chaperoned and were very strict with her curfews. She did not seem to mind too much. She filled her bedroom to overflowing with stuffed animals and furry cats and lived in what seemed like an extended childhood, if not infancy. Thanks to her excellent scholastics, she earned a full scholarship to a state university. Her parents bought her a brand new car so she could commute to class.

C is now twenty. She lives in her own apartment that she shares with a longhaired boy about her age. This longhaired boy though is a step up from the last one, a true bad boy James Dean type. Perhaps that is some small sign of progress. She still has her scholarship but since her parents did not approve of her lifestyle choices, they repossessed her car and ended all financial assistance. She gets by on her scholarship and a part time job. She works as a waitress in a restaurant that features nearly naked women who poll dance. Her mother and father spend much of their waking hours distressed over their daughter’s choices and hoping she will see the light. She showed up briefly in their house for Thanksgiving and Christmas but her estrangement is obvious.

They have not asked for my advice so I have given them none except for one small suggestion: if her daughter would consent to it, they might want to try family therapy. I have no idea if this will happen or not. Other than that, I simply offered them a shoulder to cry on should they need it and bite my tongue.

Here is what I would tell them if it were my place. There is a reason that your daughter is hanging out with men you do not approve of. There is a reason she is working as a waitress in a topless joint instead of at a Burger King. There is a reason she seems to go for bad men. It is because the two of you modeled the plastic parenting of Ward and June Cleaver combined with the 1960s “freedom to be the person you want to be”. The result was toxic. Mostly you smothered and micromanaged her. You wanted her to grow up to be like you and emulate your values. You were directing strong parental rays at her that said, “You must grow up to be a syrupy and surreal adults just like us.” Only, she could not utter her horror at the idea aloud. She did not know how and you were so nice all the time that she would feel like a heel if she did.

She is a young adult now. She can do what she wants and what she really wants to do is make you feel the pain she repressed because she was smothered, overly praised and micromanaged through her childhood and adolescence. Moreover, her actions, no matter how much they appall you, are necessary for her to find out who she is. She is finding herself by trying on a lifestyle that bears little resemblance to the one she knew. That is why she is attracted to bad boys.

How long will this go on? It will go on probably until you treat her as a human being who has dignity and not just the right, but your permission to make her own choices. It is obvious you do not agree with her choices. She is feeding off your energy and anxiety. Her life will probably look a lot like it currently is until you come to grips with a few things. You cannot change the way you raised her. However, you can love her.

You can love her by neither condemning nor approving of her behavior. You can love her by loving her in a way that will be meaningful to her: expressing unqualified and compassionate love for her and by acknowledging that despite the best intentions, you probably made some major mistakes raising her. Right now, your love has all sorts of strings, implicit and explicit, attached to it. She is discovering what it is like to not be like you, but she still does not know who she really is. To find her real self, you can help by lowering the voltage. You do this by both letting her make her own choices and turning off the parental guilt rays. If asked, express confidence that while her adult life may not be as you modeled it for her, she will always be okay and loved in your eyes.

My belief is that after a couple years of this she will likely lose her attraction to bad boys. She will move from rebellion into true personhood. You need to give up the role of being her parent. If you are lucky though and can win back her respect then there may come a time when you can be her coach. A coach does not make choices for someone, but helps them think through various alternatives and encourages them to be their best. This is the proper role for a parent of a 20-year-old young woman. When you decide you care more about your daughter as a person than that she model your values, that is when your relationship will truly begin to heal.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 7: Fitness and Health Basics

This is the seventh in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Young man (or woman), look at this site. It should sober you up. It is not exactly news that obesity is a “growing” problem among Americans. Nonetheless, as you delve into the details you should feel aghast. Today a shocking 8 out of 10 Americans over age 25 are either overweight or obese. A quarter of us lead completely sedentary lifestyles. In less than twenty years, there has been a 76% increase in the number of adult Americans with Type II diabetes. This is the type of diabetes does not develop until adulthood. 85% of those who develop Type II diabetes are overweight or obese.

Maybe by comparing yourself to others at your school or college, you do not feel out of the norm. This may be because so many teens and young adults are following these unfortunate national trends. If you go back just sixteen years though, the number of obese young adults age 18-29 has doubled. It does not take a Texas Instruments calculator to figure out that if you are not already obese or overweight, the chances are you will get there one day. If you grew up eating pizza, drinking colas and your idea of exercise is keyboard calisthenics, project your current lifestyle ten, twenty and forty years in the future. What do you think is going to happen if you do not change some habits? (Hint: look at your parents, but most likely your situation will be worse.)

If you are overweight or obese, it is not necessarily all your fault. Placing blame does not solve the problem of course, but it is helpful to know that modern society will encourage you to be obese. Unlike hundreds of generations before you, your career is not likely to be hunter or farmhand. Your future will look a lot more like Dilbert’s. Our modern world needs knowledge workers, not farmhands, and encourages us to be knowledge workers by tempting us with higher salaries. You will likely spend your days in either a cubicle or its equivalent. Even if you aspire to be a truck driver, you are unlikely to escape the trend. Truck drivers sit on their butts all day too. These days we have machines to do our hard labor. Unfortunately, you inhabit a body that was designed to be a hunter-gatherer. Perhaps fifty generations hence our bodies will adapt to our new reality. Perhaps then, our livers will pass fats undigested instead of storing them. Little good that will do you now. Unless exercising is your passion, or you enjoy working outdoors with your hands, you have a big problem. You need regular exercise. You also need to eat better. If you do not, expect your lifespan to be shorter than your parents. Do not be surprised if the last third of your life is full of chronic health care issues. Is this how you envisioned your adult life?

Even if you are 18 and skinny as a rail, your body is going to throw you a curve ball. This is because about the time you graduate high school you should not just be grown up, but your body has finished growing up. All those extra calories will soon no longer be needed. If you never gained any weight during your adolescence and you continue your eating patterns, you are guaranteed to gain weight.

Not surprisingly, this was my dilemma as a young adult. One day in my early twenties, I weighed myself and was shocked that although I had never exceeded 180 pounds (I am 6’2″) all my life, I was suddenly 195 pounds. Now, at age 50, although not obese, I remain overweight. How do you know if you are not overweight? You need to have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less. In my case, given my height I need to be 190 pounds or less.

Being healthy as an adult though is a lot more than having a healthy weight. It also means you have to take care of your body’s other needs. You know, the boring stuff: eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise. If your weight is normal but you survive on pizza and you never exercise, you are leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

You already know what I am going to suggest: get regular exercise, maintain a healthy body weight and eat better foods. If you are overweight or obese though, none of these things is likely to be easy. Diet books will always be popular because we will always want to believe that by following one book that we will solve all these problems. What we really want is some sort of magical formula that will allow us to continue our sedentary lifestyles and eat like pigs yet stay in optimal health. You might as wish to win the lottery.

Obesity is going to be the challenge of your generation, just as smoking and drugs were the challenge for my generation. (Obesity though is affecting the baby boom generation too. We just started later.) You need to be very mindful of this. Staying healthy is likely to be a constant challenge for you throughout your adult life.

If you are at a healthy weight, then congratulations. You mission is now to stay this way. You need to start increasing your exercise without increasing your calorie intake. That does not mean you need to run marathons, unless you want to. This does mean that you need to work in regular sustained physical activities that hopefully you also enjoy. Since you are young and still have your joints, group sports like volleyball and basketball are excellent means toward accomplishing this goal. Pick activities you enjoy. Weigh yourself at least once a month. Once a week is ideal.

If you are already overweight or obese, you will have to change some habits. You can try Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and similar commercial solutions. These diets are often quite effective at taking weight off. The problem is that almost all diets are temporary. Pounds will come off but they will soon come back. You may find yourself all worn out after a long day of work and use this as an excuse to skip your evening exercise. You will find yourself taking an extra donut when you know you should not. Sadly, there are no free calories.

There are three proven solutions to losing weight and keeping it off. The sooner you start the easier it is to do as a lifetime habit. Here they are: count your calories, weigh yourself regularly, and use support groups. I have a friend who recently lost 65 pounds. I was impressed. How did he succeed where others have so often failed? His wife convinced him to enroll in the George Washington University Weight Management Program. Most diet programs have a long-term success rate of about 5%. This program, while not perfect, has a 40% success rate, which is phenomenally high. The essence of their secret is to follow the elements above. This program is based on the understanding that weight loss and healthy living is a lifelong journey, not a short-term destination. Taking the weight off is wonderful, but is meaningless if it goes back on. Therefore, it offers considerable therapy and support groups to help people work through these issues. (I will need to see if my friend is still at his weight in a year. His odds are 40%.)

I am not suggesting that the only way to become and stay healthy is to use a program like this one. The younger you are the more flexible you will be both mentally and bodily to develop your own weight loss solutions. Unless your job involves heavy physical demands though you are unlikely to burn off the calories you consume unless you change your practices.

There are a few other things that I discovered during my own journey that you might find useful. First, aerobics is probably not enough. Granted, marathoners as a class tend to look extremely lean, but you are unlikely to be a marathoner. Here is the problem with doing just aerobics: as you grow older your muscle mass tends to decrease. Ideally, just as you want to keep all your brain cells as you age, you want to keep the same muscle mass you had as a physically fit teenager. If you do not engage in regular weight training (which probably should be in addition to regular aerobics) your muscle mass will decrease over time. This means that even if your weight is stable your BMI will increase over time, so you will become overweight. Why is it that so many of our elderly have such a hard time getting around? It is because they never did regular weight training. Depending on which experts you ask you will get different answers, but most will suggest you need to be lifting weights at least three times a week. The general strategy involves rotating the muscles that you exercise. Ideally you will have enough spare cash to work out with a personal trainer, who can show you how to do it correctly. Essentially, proper weight training involves lifting weights a lot heavier than you think you can lift. To do it correctly, you have to be able to start by lifting a set of weights but at some point find it impossible to continue lifting them. For most weight machines, this is between ten and fifteen repetitions per set. (Note: before starting any exercise program like this, consult a physician.)

All this takes a lot of time. I do it after work and on weekends mostly at my local Gold’s Gym. Each trip takes a minimum of an hour and often consumes two hours of my precious free time. I should enjoy it but most of the time I do not. (Listening to podcasts on my MP3 player while I exercise helps a lot.) This is the price that I have to pay in order to be a healthy human and work a sedentary job. The good news is that by doing both, while I am technically still overweight, my BMI is improving. It is quite possible to be overweight yet be healthy. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least before he gave up the weight training. Notice what happened since: Arnold is now overweight, but he has replaced a lot of his muscle with fat.

Welcome to real life, young adult. I hope that you can find some combination of diet and exercise that works for you. I am afraid though this will mean tearing yourself away from Second Life and instead engaging in real life. If this sounds like you, it is time to back away from that PC and get moving instead.

 
The Thinker

More bad XX chromosome advice from Amy Dickerson

Uh oh. Amy Dickerson, the advice columnist is at it again on the issue of men and pornography. And I thought I had said all I had to say on the matter in this entry.

Dear Amy: I’ve been happily married for 13 years. My husband and I have a beautiful daughter.

One thing that bothers me in our marriage is my husband’s need for pornography.

He watches porn on TV and on the Internet.

I’ve confronted him about it a few times.

He pretty much tells me that it has nothing to do with me.

But I’m hurt that he does this, and it makes me feel self-conscious.

I don’t like to be compared to the silicone-enhanced liposuction-ed bimbos.

It makes me wonder about what else he might be doing behind my back.

I think that I’m a smart, strong, beautiful woman.

Am I not good enough?

I try to understand that men are visual beings, and I think that most men think that looking at pornography is normal.

Is viewing pornography cheating?

– Wondering

Dear Wondering: Whether or not pornography is actually “cheating” is beside the point.

What matters is that your husband is choosing to do something that according to you is hurtful. I would also think that as the father of a young daughter, your husband wouldn’t want to engage in activities that are demeaning to women and girls. If he can’t make the connection between his own daughter’s life and how pornography depicts and exploits females, then he’s either not trying very hard, not very bright or hooked on something that has become more important than the people in his life.

A thoughtful husband and father should not be engaging in this sort of exploitation. I hope that the two of you can work this out. If you need to sort through your feelings about this, talking to a professional counselor will help.

The good news is that this column gave my wife and me something to discuss. Not that we necessarily disagree on pornography. Depending on how you define pornography, she likely enjoys a lot more of it than I do. As a fan of homoerotic fan fiction, a.k.a. slash, she both reads and writes the stuff. It can consume hours out of her day.

Since I am a male, I am more likely to be turned on by the visual pornography than the written kind. So maybe because her pornography is written, it is not really pornography. Maybe it is “erotica”. I strongly get the feeling though that Amy Dickerson, unless the portrayal is of an airbrushed Vargas Girl, would call any other photographic depiction of women in an undressed state, particularly who are engaged in sexual acts “pornography”.

So if it is written down and marketed for women then it must be erotica. However, if women choose to undress themselves and let themselves be photographed in sexual acts with other people, not only is it pornography but according to Amy, these women are also exploited. By this husband viewing pornography, even if it is only done privately when his daughter is out of the house, he is engaging in activities demeaning to women and girls and exploiting women. Gosh! What a guilt trip! And why? Because, according to Amy, he is dismissive of his wife’s feelings and/or is addicted to pornography.

It’s a good think Amy Dickerson doesn’t come strolling down my street. I would have to throw a big, wet raspberry at her. She can do much better than falling into stereotypes.

Let me try to give “Wondering” some useful advice, instead of rushing to embrace stereotypes.

“Cheating” is whatever you and your husband defined it to be before your marriage. If you agreed before marriage that viewing pornography was the same as cheating then you were cheated on. If you discussed it and it was not an issue with either of you, it is not cheating. If you never got around to discussing it at all before marriage but you assumed your husband felt as you did, this was your mistake. You have the right to bring up your concern to your husband and tell him how you feel, but unless you both agree that he will refrain from it because you feel it is cheating, it isn’t. Instead, your feelings being hurt and you are just upset that you cannot coax or guilt trip your husband into changing his behavior and pretending to agree to your values.

Sorry, you do not have the right to unilaterally add an additional previously undisclosed constraint on your marriage. A marriage contract may not be written down, but it is still a contract. It is exactly what you jointly agreed to at the start of the marriage plus any subsequent amendments to which you both agreed. If you did not discuss it before marriage that was your mistake because it is clearly important to you. Your husband certainly should listen carefully to your feelings and you should listen to his, but neither of you has the right to impose a new unilateral demand or to frame the relationship in a new way. If it is a source of great friction between the two of you, you should both be willing to work through the issue with a therapist. If your husband’s looking at airbrushed pictures of “bimbos” is that dang important to you but does not affect your husband’s feelings for you, there is an alternative. It is called divorce. Your husband has already told you that looking at naked pictures of other women does not affect his feelings for you. What does it say about you that you cannot take him at his word?

As for your daughter, I certainly agree your husband should not be watching pornography in front of your daughter. And if it bothers you, even though it appears that he is being open with you about his interest in pornography, he shouldn’t do it in front of you either. If he has a pornographic stash, and many men do, you should agree that he will keep it in a locked box that is out of the way. If he gets all his pornography online now, which seems to be the modern way of doing these things, he should ensure that his daughter does not have access to his computer or, if she does, that the files are kept in encrypted electronic vaults where only he has the password.

As for pornography “exploiting women”, doubtless some women who get into the business are underage runaways or are vulnerable because of bad or dysfunctional relationships. However, Amy is painting with a very broad brush. Women, like men, are sexual creatures. Pornographers scrupulously avoid hiring underage women. Those women who go into pornography may be desperate for money, or are supporting a drug habit or could be making a very bad choice, but they are still of legal age and get to sort out these issues for themselves. It is also possible, indeed even likely that they get some enjoyment beyond the monetary aspects of being sexual on camera.

Getting back to Wondering’s daughter, parents are doing a disservice to their children if they are pretending they are asexual creatures. I am not suggesting that parents should engage in heavy petting in front of their children, even if they are all grown up. However, children do need to understand that both Mommy and Daddy have a sexual side to them. Is it not it dishonest to pretend otherwise? The parents should express a hopefully real warm and intimate relationship between each other that shows that not only do they love each other, but also that they are passionately physically, emotionally and sexually connected with each other. The son or daughter who does not occasionally hear Mom and Dad squealing behind locked doors is getting an artificial view of life. Parents can help their children through the treacherous waters of human sexuality by showing that they are sexual creatures too and comfortable with their sexual nature. They should communicate the truth: that sexuality in its many variations, including enjoying pornography, is part of the broad spectrum of being a sexual being. To pretend otherwise is hypocrisy.

Since this issue is so important to this wife, it should be discussed. I hope they will get joint counseling on the issue. However, I do think there should be some respect for both the inherent sexual natures of the wife and the husband. There should be some middle ground here. A reasonable middle ground would be some of the steps I outlined. Neither total capitulation to the wife’s demands nor dismissing the husband dismissing the wife’s concerns is appropriate for a healthy marriage. Honest dialog and open communications is the glue that truly binds a marriage together.

Women seem to have a near monopoly in the advice columnist business. They should not. We need more advice columnists like Salon’s Cary Tennis, who can give the male perspective. In any case, Amy Dickerson should be clear that her opinions are just that, opinions, and they align well with the XX chromosome perspective of the world. Nevertheless, they do not necessarily align with those of us in the XY chromosome set. In short, like all people including myself she brings a bias. She should be very mindful not to paint such a broad brush with hurtful advice like, “If he can’t make the connection between his own daughter’s life and how pornography depicts and exploits females, then he’s either not trying very hard, not very bright or hooked on something that has become more important than the people in his life.”

 

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