Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Thinker

Eulogy for my father

Grace: (in Christian belief) is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

My sister Mary related an anecdote about my father, who passed away on Monday at age 89. Two days before his death, she had to return to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland to retrieve her cell phone. He was rapidly losing his war on pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis. So she trudged back through Washington’s daunting traffic, through security and back to his room on the sixth floor. Dad looked zonked out but she did explain to Dad why she was there just in case he was listening. As she was heading out the door he heard him say in a calm and soothing voice, “Good night, dear.” It was the last coherent thing he said to her.

My father at his 80th birthday celebration

My father at his 80th birthday celebration

That was my father: so full of the milk of human kindness that even on his deathbed with hardly enough breath to form a sentence, he took the time to be kind. This was actually my father all through his 89 years and nearly four months of life: a kind, gentle and heartfelt man. It was who he was and it was apparently as reflexive as breathing.

He was this way with everyone and harsh with no one. When you were with him you felt special, heard, listened to and deeply appreciated for the unique soul that you were. It didn’t matter whether you were related to him, whether you were some momentary encounter on a bus or saw him every day. That’s the kind of father I was fortunate enough to grow up with, a true Mr. Rogers who took honest joy and interest in everyone he met, warts and all. While you were with him you thought here’s someone who really gets me and when you left him you felt the warm glow of connection.

Such empathy is sometimes expected in women, but it often feels forced. It is rare to find this in a man, but he took real joy in your presence. He was never judgmental, but always accepting, always open with a loving heart, and always happy to pass on his love to whoever he encountered in life.

A devout Catholic, he was catholic in the best sense of the world. The definition of catholic is universal, but you rarely see this kind of catholicism from Catholics. Instead you get dogmatists. Do this, don’t do that, avoid sin, lead a clean life and you will get into heaven. And my father did all of that, just absent the in-your-face dogmatism. He was about modeling the religious life than preaching it. He was abstemious to the point of fanaticism. Communion wine was as close as he ever got to drinking, and most of the time he only took the host. He never smoked. Despite having served in the Navy, he never learned the art of swearing. I only recall hearing him swear twice in his whole life, and only under the greatest duress.

He might have been seen as queer or effeminate but as best I can tell he was never perceived this way. It was not that he did not enjoy sports: he could toss the football with us and often coaxed us to do so. He was more interested in spending time with us than being outdoors or getting exercise. He was an engineer by trade, quiet and bookish, freakishly sober but gentle beyond words. Dad had to be experienced, and once experienced you rarely forgot it or him.

Dad never had grand ambitions. He never ran for political office or spoke that much about politics in general. One of the great mysteries of his marriage is where he fell politically. All we knew is that he and my mother were in different parties, but they wouldn’t discuss their feelings on candidates or elections with us. Late in his life I deciphered his quiet political leanings. He was where I thought he was all along: a Democrat, not so much because of its ideology but because he aligned with candidates that felt we needed to be compassionate to people. Curiously, in his second marriage he married a Republican, a woman who admired Bill O’Reilly but who was also a devout Catholic. They made it work somehow. My mother was the submissive in his first marriage. In the second one, his new wife was the brass and outspoken one. Dad just kept being dad, but I think he enjoyed the change of pace.

As I said in this post, Dad was saint-like, but not a saint. He did have some human foibles. Gluttony perhaps was one of his sins, although he was never obese. He enjoyed chocolate and baked goods too much, although it seemed to have no effect on his lifespan. My mom was the submissive in their marriage, but the dominant with the children. She was a harsh disciplinarian. She was in fact emotionally and physically abusive to some of us. For some of my siblings it simply washed over them like rain on a duck’s back. In my case it hurt and nearly crippled me psychologically, perhaps because I never saw it modeled in Dad. It took months of therapy after my Mom’s death to make sense of it. I was a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); at least I had all the symptoms. Perhaps Dad should have stepped up to the plate and stopped my mother’s behavior, or maybe he was unaware of it because it happened when he was at work.

When Dad came home from work all his children were tickled pink to see him. We’d yell “Daddy’s home!” and run around the house excitedly. My mother was jealous of the attention he got. Sometimes a few of us would hide in the back of his closet and pretend to sneak up when he came in the bedroom to change clothes. (Our giggles generally gave us away.) We loved Dad with an honest and sincere intensity, counted our time alone with him as precious, and looked up to him.

I certainly looked up to him. Compassion forms a major part of whom I am, although I inherited a lot of my mom’s judgmental ways, so I am quick to scold. I will never be as good a man on my best day as my father was on his worst. But he taught me volumes: how to be thrifty, how to plan our finances, an engineering outlook where you make your future predictable, the importance of science and the value of empathy. I picked up some of his passions too: musicals, theater in general and an appreciation for classical music.

My friend Tom whose own father passed away recently related his relationship with his father, which was much different and much more challenging. I took my father for granted but he always wowed me. I just assumed most fathers were like mine. They were not. My father was exceptional in just about every way a human being can be exceptional. His religion gave him a frame for living his life that fit him like a comfortable glove, and amplified his native tendencies. He was not saintly but he was saint-like who intuitively and effortlessly touched people’s souls. He is a tough act for anyone to follow.

He lived a long, happy, healthy and productive life. I am convinced his life was so long in part because he was at peace with himself, and so few of us are. Like all of us, he was one soul adrift in a sea of many souls; he was just never lost. He reveled in the love all around him and drew it near him effortlessly. He lived the life that matters: not of power, or material possessions but of character, of love and the value of relationships.

I am so blessed to have spent 59 years with the man. His passing of course is a great sorrow, but bittersweet. He touched my soul so many times and I am an infinitely better and more humane person because of him. He was a gift of grace to all who knew him. I am humbled and full of gratitude to have known him.

What a man! What a life! He was a father indeed, a father in deed.

 
The Thinker

I, Roomba

The future hasn’t worked out quite the way I envisioned it. I’m old enough to have grown up watching The Jetsons, which kind of modeled my thinking on what the future should look like. In the Hanna Barbara cartoon, people flew around in little personal airplanes that didn’t seem to need a runway and they could park on the balcony. No one had cell phones but there was this Skype-like thing at the house and on their putt-putting airplane that provided visual communications. The Jetsons did have a robot, Rosie, who did the cleaning, most of the mothering (Jane had other things to do) and occasionally dispensed pills.

In 2016, I have a smartphone, high-speed Internet and many awesome technologies that the Jetsons never imagined. But some things I do remain doggedly old fashioned. Cleaning is one of them and it usually involves brooms, scouring powder, detergents and washrags. No one has invented Rosie the robot yet, but it’s not hard to imagine that within twenty years she will get invented. Until then we at least we have a Roomba.

A Roomba is no replacement for Rosie. Our Roomba won’t make beds, clean bathtubs, dispense pills or give me any sass. A Roomba simply sweeps floors and carpets. The product, pioneered by iRobot, now has plenty of competition. We acquired our low end 600 series model at the local Costco for $359. It wasn’t my idea. As usual my wife spent months petitioning me for one of them and I kept putting her off. I don’t mind sweeping floors. As retirees we get little enough exercise already. But I don’t have a bad back like my wife and I’ll tend to procrastinate sweeping until it’s noticeable. We do have two cats that constantly leave their playthings on the floor, not to mention their dander and fur. And we have a lot of hardwood floors, which can be a pain to sweep. Roomba to the rescue!

Our Roomba is not a particularly intelligent robot. It doesn’t (at least this model) respond to voice commands. It can’t climb stairs or jump onto sofas, but at least it’s smart enough not to fall down a flight of stairs. It does have a couple of neat tricks. Perhaps the most impressive one is to slide under sofas and other furniture and pick up the stuff underneath that we typically uncover years later when we have a reason to move furniture. And it can usually find its way back to its charging station, which has to be butt up against a wall.

Our Roomba doesn’t listen very well, but it does talk from time to time, only when it needs your attention. You can program it to talk in your favorite language, providing it is English or one of fifteen other popular languages. Mostly though it doesn’t so much talk as whirr, and it’s reasonably loud. You will know when it is on.

It’s also (if you have pets) it is something of an amusement and/or torture device. There are plenty of pet videos you can watch on this theme. One cat watched with it with interest from across the room. The other ran under our bed. Running under our bed is not a great idea, because it won’t stop a Roomba, so cats will learn to climb for safety instead. After a couple of days though the Roomba became just another piece of furniture, just one that moves. Cats don’t do much talking but it would give them something to talk about. In a few more days I expect they will sleep through its work cycles.

Our Roomba is not a particularly intelligent robot. It won’t pick up objects off the floor unless very small and lightweight. It seems to move in a haphazard way but there is actually some intelligence built into the way it pings off walls or (if a floor is particularly dirty) moves in swirls. It does a pretty good job of avoiding obstacles. It doesn’t usually tip over the cat’s water bowl and does a decent job of picking up stray cat litter around the litter box. It can be agile. We have carpet runners down the hallways, sometimes with creases in them due to cats madly dashing around, and it usually manages to clean them anyhow. It “steps” onto and off of carpeting pretty well.

But it’s hardly autonomous. It needs our help. It needs us to pick up larger stuff off the floor first. If there is an area we want it to avoid, we have to put down a battery-operated device that essentially says, “stay away!” You have to empty its cleaning tray after each job. And periodically it requires more serious maintenance: brushing its brushes or replacing them as well as cleaning and replacing its filter. Actually though these defects aside it probably does a better job sweeping and vacuuming than I would. I won’t go under furniture and I tend to miss certain spots with the broom.

So it is at best a modest step toward a robotic future but actually quite a useful tool not to mention cat pal/torture device. It’s starting to feel like a member of the family. Perhaps we will give it a name in time. And Rosie will come along one of these days, and I’ll happily let her do those chores I really don’t like, like cleaning toilets and bathtubs. She can even dispense my medications, as I’m already old enough to forget when to take them.

Meanwhile, the Roomba will do.

 
The Thinker

Today Jesus would be an atheist

My new home in Northampton, Massachusetts in some ways is not much different than life in the Washington D.C. region where I used to live. For example, there are plenty of homeless people here too. They are not hard to spot, particularly in downtown Northampton where they beg for spare change. I also see them at traffic intersections with cardboard signs saying they are down on their luck (usually ending in “God bless”) and a Styrofoam cup. Some of these people look familiar. They look a lot like me if I had been less fortunate.

Perhaps giving them some spare change is love, but it’s a minute measure of the love they need. There are lots of people who end up as at least temporary road kill, curiously often found next to roads. There are some social services for them, but not much. Mostly these services make their lives a little less bleak for a while. Rarely do they help transform these sad people the way a caring and loving society should.

My friend from childhood Tom has a podcast. Regular readers will recall I recently attended his father’s funeral. In fact, Tom once interviewed me. Tom is a talented creative artist currently scratching out a living in advertising by doing freelance work. But he also podcasts and helps support online progressive radio. In his last podcast, Tom conversed with Jeff Bell, who hosts his own podcast, The Left Show. Jeff’s show is a raucous, freewheeling, frequently hilarious but very bawdy weekly endeavor that is also surprisingly entertaining. In Tom’s latest podcast, I learned at Jeff has his friend Forrest (alias Podcast Phil) living in his home with him.

I have not been listening to The Left Show long enough to recognize Forrest’s voice. In the podcast I learned that Forrest has stage-four prostate cancer. Jeff and his wife were kind enough to let their very sick and destitute friend live with them until he dies. I learned that Jeff, very financially stressed himself, was hunting the Internet for donations so that when Forrest dies they can cover his end of life expenses and have him cremated. Yes, you can still die in America and there is no guarantee anyone — not even the government — will pick up the bill even for a cremation. I guess that would be socialism or something.

I felt appalled of course and contributed $50 toward his future cremation. During the podcast Tom contributed his own story of his father’s decline and fall. His father was lucky in the sense that by being a World War II veteran a local veterans’ home took him in at no charge. Tom comes from a large family but all have their financial challenges. Tom’s father never bothered to create a will and was basically destitute too. The family was at least able to scrape up enough money to have their father cremated, but a coffin and a cemetery plot were simply unaffordable.

Until I listened to the podcast, I had not learned another part of the story. Tom’s father was a long time member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Binghamton, New York. I attended his father’s funeral and it was very well done. A number of priests celebrated mass and reminisced about their time with Tom Sr., who was popular at the church, extremely Catholic, extremely Irish, and extremely Notre Dame (the university where he got his engineering degree). The funeral included a cantor and a luncheon for family and friends after the service. Aside from being destitute though, Tom’s family shared something in common with Forrest. St. Pat’s wanted money for the privilege of sending him off to the next world in the Catholic way. Apparently, all those years of Tom Sr. tithing money to the Catholic Church was not quite enough for a freebee funeral. There was also an exit fee for the family to pick up.

This surprised me but my surprise quickly turned to disgust. What did Jesus call the moneychangers at the temple? Jesus saw them as desecrating the temple. It made such an impact on early Christians that it appears in all four gospels. Two thousand years later, at least at some Catholic churches, charging money for service rendered is routine. It happens in the very church that Jesus himself founded.

Catholics are not alone in this grubby business. Mormons must tithe 10% of their income, although I don’t know enough about Mormons to know if they close the door on you at services if you don’t pay up. I read that Jews don’t require tithing anymore, but some practices like selling tickets for a seat on high holy days leave me revolted.

Churches, synagogues and I’m sure mosques have bills to pay too, so perhaps I should not be surprised they charge fees in addition to depending on donations. St. Pat’s is a big, honking Catholic Church. I can understand charging for certain services like a minister’s fee for a wedding when the participants are not members. That wasn’t the case with Tom Sr. A truly Christian community would certainly send off one of its most devout, popular and loyal members without charging an exit fee, right? You would be wrong.

I hear all the time that we live in a Christian country. While we are free to practice the religion of our choice, for many of the devout Christianity is our state religion. Well, I’ve got news for these people. Christianity is not our state religion. It’s Capitalism and it’s so much a part of our values that it’s built into our religious institutions too. It’s why most Christians in our country have little in common with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps due to the kindness of strangers or the beneficence of government some of our many distraught and uncared for people will get some escape from their misery. But while the services we do provide may seem like a lot, it is but a droplet of water to a thirsty man. It’s not nearly enough. Our tacit message to the poor like Tom Sr. and Forrest is that you have to throw the dice and hope on the kindness of strangers, and the kindness you get is likely to be meager if you get it at all. Tom Sr. got it from being a veteran. Forrest is getting it thanks to the beneficence of Jeff and his wife. Otherwise he would probably be on the street too, dying of prostate cancer in some back lot or hovel.

By the way, Jeff is an atheist in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah. No one from the state of Utah or the Mormon Church seems interested in making Forrest’s exit from this life humane, perhaps because I believe Forrest is an ex-Mormon and thus an apostate.

Apparently, it takes an atheist and the kindness of people on the Internet to see real Christianity at work these days. Which is why I suspect that if Jesus walks among us today, he is probably an atheist. Who could blame him?

 
The Thinker

Occam’s Razor 2015 Statistics

I only analyze my blog’s statistics annually, usually on January 1 for the previous year. The more I study web statistics however, the more I realize that they can lead you astray. For example, about 50% of my web hits come from referrals from search engines. This explains why my most popular web content is old, in some cases a decade or older. Just 7% of my web traffic was from a known referral (such as another website) and 4% came via social media links.

The blog’s home page is still the most hit web page, but it’s just 8% of all web page requests. This means that from the perspective of those using a browser this blog is more of an archive of potentially interesting disparate topics than someplace to go to get some insight into current issues. Increasingly those interested in current content on my blog are getting it indirectly through feeds. My stuff pops up in whatever technology they are using, perhaps a Tumblr account or in their Feedly instance. I can’t blame them. This is exactly what I do too since it is much more efficient.

Web hits

So my web hits are a lot less important than they used to be and don’t measure all my traffic, which partially explains my declining web hits over the years. In 2007 when feeds were relatively unused, I started reporting web hits to Google Analytics. Mostly since then my web hits have dropped, some years precipitously, but at least some of that traffic moved toward feeds instead.

In any event, I intuitively trust Google to provide reliable web statistics. Here are my annual web statistics courtesy of Google Analytics, which shows a 9% drop in sessions in 2015 compared with 2014 and a 12% drop in page views. For 2015 there were 17,950 sessions, 16,800 users and 22,871 page views. That’s on average 49 sessions a day and about 63 page requests a day. Presumably it is all human traffic. Overall though, web traffic has been pretty flat the last three years.

Next is a chart of my daily web hits over the year, as measured by Google Analytics. I noted a major spike beginning in November that has continued into December but seems to be receding. I don’t know why as no new post registered lots of hits. But I know most of these new hits are coming from Germany. Can someone from Germany leave a comment if you know what’s going on?

Occam's Razor's daily sessions count (2015)

Occam’s Razor’s daily sessions count (2015)

I also track hits with StatCounter and Quantcast. Quantcast recorded about 16,300 visits (which is roughly equivalent to Google Analytics sessions) and about 24,000 page views. Note: statistics for December 31, 2015 are not available yet.

pic3

Occam’s Razor Quantcast measured traffic (2015)

StatCounter counted 14,523 unique visits, 14,041 first time visits and 18,374 page views, so it’s recording a fraction of what Google and Quantcast noted. I think this is mostly due to pings getting lost or blocked on their way to their servers.

Occam’s Razor StatCounter Measured Traffic (2015)

Feed hits

While my web hits sagged compared to previous years, I’m at least doing well with feed (syndication) hits. A year ago I had 198 readers. Today I have 643 readers. A few weeks ago I hit 2096 readers. Feedcat, my feed broadcaster, won’t give me raw numbers but it will give me a traffic graph for the last six months:

Occam’s Razor Feed Traffic, last 6 months of 2015

Feeds show interest in current content by measuring how many times a single client polls the feed. So these numbers are good news as it suggests that over the course of the year I tripled interest in my current content. It also shows a surge in readers starting in November, with 43% from Germany, with lots of daily spikes up and down since then. This is not unexpected, as I don’t normally post every day. Thanks again to all the Germans and others who are reading my blog. I do appreciate it.

Content

Now I’ll delve into what people were reading in 2015. Feed hits are for current posts and tend to represent a bundle of posts (usually the most current ten posts) displayed at once. I can only count web hits here so presumably a lot of people were reading my current posts. I get few comments, probably because commenting through a feed is a hassle. (Note: this should now be much easier as I have addressed the spam comments issue with a Cleantalk subscription. So go ahead and click and comment; you should not have to go through a CAPTCHA.) From my web hits though I can see what’s hot and what’s not for those in browser-land.

Most viewed posts

If you wonder why I feature a monthly review of local Craigslist casual encounters post, you can see evidence here. Three of my top ten posts are Craigslist related. People read this stuff, albeit irregularly and mostly through web searches where a post matches some particular search term. My Google Analytics dashboard shows at least 2284 Craigslist pages viewed, and there’s much more from feed readers. I’m not sure if it’s because the web surfers are kinky, super horny or like me just find some humor in the bizarre stuff found on Craigslist. It’s for the latter reason that I also read the People of Walmart site daily.

  1. Site home page (1779 views, #1 last year too)
  2. Eulogy for my mother in law (1282 views, #2 last year too)
  3. The Illusion of Time (761 views, #7 last year)
  4. Craigslist casual encounters: now a crazily dangerous and illegal waste of time (663 views, #3 last year)
  5. The Root of Human Conflict: Emotion vs. Reason (380 views, #4 last year)
  6. Craigslist casual encounters: now officially a complete waste of time (366 views, #5 last year)
  7. If Aubrey fought Hornblower, who would win? (334 views)
  8. Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: May 2015 (Hartford CT) edition (322 views)
  9. Eulogy for my mother (286 views, #6 last year)
  10. Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface (238 views, #9 last year)

Top tags

I tag every post with one or more tags. A tag archive contains a collection of posts with the same tag. These were my top five most popular tags in 2015:

  1. Craigslist (325 views)
  2. Taxes (265 views)
  3. Las Vegas (198 views). This is basically my Sinless in Sin City
  4. Porter Stansberry (179 views)
  5. Battle of Chantilly (164 views)

Top category: Sociology (89 views)

Top browsers

Looking at browser usage is interesting to me and these usually follow web trends in general. Chrome is now dominant and IE, formerly the 800-pound gorilla, is fading quickly as Microsoft has largely give up this game and is promoting its new Edge browser instead. It’s curious that my Firefox traffic actually increased, bucking the general trend.

  1. Chrome (45% of traffic, up from 31% last year)
  2. Safari (22% of traffic, down from 23% last year) – This is probably mostly hits from iPhones and iPads
  3. Firefox (15% of traffic, up from 11% last year)
  4. Internet Explorer (13% of traffic, down from 23% last year)
  5. Android browser (2% of traffic)

Busiest month: December (3443 sessions)

Slowest month: August (969 sessions)

Mobile sessions in 2015: 3580 smartphone and 1761 tablet sessions

% Mobile visits of Total Visits: 30% (unchanged from last year)

Who’s reading?

Quantcast used to provide demographics of my readership. This year it tells me it can’t. Google Analytics though think it knows. Here are some things it says about you readers:

  • The highest segment of readers is ages 25-34 (23%), but these statistics are incomplete due to highly sporadic sampling
  • Men mostly read my blog (62%)
  • 53% of traffic comes from the United States, 24% from Germany, 4% from the United Kingdom and 3% from Canada

Why people bother to read my blog is a mystery Google will probably never understand, as it tends to be theme-less. A general survey would help but I have no way to get a representative sample. For those who subscribe to the blog, I suspect its appeal is that its scope is wide, which makes it relatively unique. The web excels at narrowcasting and my blog has more of a broadcast flavor.

Social Media

According to AddThis, which adds a tracking anchor to the end of URLs if you hit the site with a browser, there were 161 shares in 2015, with 134 sharing by copying the address bar in the browser, 6 Facebook likes, 8 Twitter tweets, 3 on Pinterest and 10 other shares. This is miniscule and nothing to brag about. It also says there were 5,508 visits, but I’m not sure what that means. The top content shared:

  1. Eulogy for my mother in law (111 visits)
  2. Craigslist casual encounter weirdness: May 2015 (Hartford CT) Edition (55 visits)
  3. Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface (36 visits)
  4. Craigslist tag (35 visits)
  5. The root of human conflict: emotion vs. reason (32 visits)

Google Analytics tracks social media differently. It looks at the referrer (referring web site) and if it’s a social media site, it counts it. It counts as top referrers:

  1. StumbleUpon (608 sessions). These appear to be almost entirely for my “The Illusion of Time” post.
  2. Pinterest (78 sessions)
  3. Twitter (44 sessions)
  4. Facebook (34 sessions)
  5. Tumbler (22 sessions)

Raw web log statistics

Finally, there are my raw web log statistics. Most of these hits are various search engines, not actual human beings, which means there are a whole lot of search robots regularly indexing the blog for a relatively tiny amount of human traffic. Here is my AWStats summary for 2015:

  • 277,672 visits (down 19% from 2014)
  • 112,365 unique visitors (down 21% from 2014)
  • 853,172 page views (down 7% from 2014)
  • 5 GB of bandwidth

More in 2017.

 
The Thinker

Retirement is great (for introverts)

So what’s it like being retired? I can faithfully report that it’s great! But it’s only recently that I figured out why it’s great. It’s great because I’m an introvert.

Doubtless you have heard stories about how many people are miserable in retirement. There is nothing to do, you hear. That is not a problem for me at all. I still like to keep busy, although I do it now mostly at home as opposed to doing it in an office. When I worked in an office though much of what I did was not a whole lot of fun. It’s the nature of work. I was fortunate enough to have a career that meant that a lot of work was fun, but a lot of it (probably most of it) wasn’t fun. The not fun part included a lot of management. That’s no longer a problem. To the extent I “work” in retirement it’s for fun, and it’s doing nerdy stuff that I enjoy doing.

My theory is that those who are miserable in retirement are extraverts. Extraverts thrive on social interaction. In retirement unless you plan your transition very well extraverts are likely to feel a loss of social connection. So lots of retirees volunteer, join clubs, hang out at church or engage in community events. If successful they can energize themselves socially the way they used to do when they worked. However, it is likely to be a challenge.

That’s not a problem for us introverts. We get energy not by cutting ourselves off socially but by engaging in problem solving activities that we enjoy. I have a long list of things I want to do, most of them nerdish, and it’s likely I simply won’t have time to get to more than a handful of them. There are so many choices on any particular day it’s hard to know where to start. And if I don’t want to start on a particular day and instead spend it surfing the web reading political content, I can do that with no feelings of guilt.

Curiously I still work, I just do the stuff I wanted to do when employed but largely couldn’t due to my position and responsibilities. I don’t require the income but it’s nice to earn some income, so I consult as work comes in. I have a website. People send me queries. I fix their Internet-related problems from the convenience of my office. I bill them and they pay me, usually through PayPal. Most of the social interaction is via email, but occasionally I’m chatting with a client on Skype, which I’ve done twice this week.

And while this nerdish work usually involves untying some electronic knots, occasionally I end up participating in a larger cause. I once wrote that I did some work for a porn star. I did not have to take off my clothes but I did have to fix her forum. I’m in something similar now. She’s a woman that used to be in the prostitution business (“adult professionals”, as she calls it) and is trying to organize these women. There are lots of problems if you provide sex as a service. Aside from the possibility of contracting a disease, there are a lot of creepy clients out there. This woman wants to create a service so vetted clients can connect with vetted “adult professionals”. No, this is not in the United States. I won’t mention too much more except I am part of a team she is hiring to get this done.

(I personally think prostitution should be legalized, taxed and regulated. Moreover, I certainly care about women so I want women that choose to be in this business to be as safe as possible. So it’s consistent with my values and furthers a larger cause. It’s safe to say that I would never meet such people otherwise. I have never used a prostitute and can’t imagine ever doing so. For a little while though doing work like this lets me peek behind the lace curtain and it’s interesting.)

When there are no clients who want to exchange my services for money, there are some open source projects I contribute to. Because I am no longer engaged daily with people doing information technology, I attend local meet ups instead. A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on cloud computing, comparing Amazon Web Services with Google Compute Engine. So I do get around socially among a limited set of people a lot like me, and it’s both fun and educational.

I had dreams of writing custom apps in retirement for paying clients but I haven’t even started looking at that. The other work has kept me too busy. And there are plenty of things I can do during the day that are not work related. I can go biking or walking, and I usually do one of these a day. My pension pays most of the bills. My supplemental income improves my standard of living but mainly keeps me engaged in a profession, helps me feel useful and makes me feel nerdishly happy.

I also do most of the household management. This probably falls into the category of work. I keep the books. I propose a budget. I track our spending. I do a lot of the housework and shopping as well. This sort of work is part of living, but I make it as fun as I can. One example: I’ve created a spreadsheet that finely estimates my probable state and federal income taxes, so I can carefully adjust withholding amounts.

So if you are introverted you are probably really going to like retirement. It’s you extraverts that have to worry. You will have to plan to replace the social interaction that came with work with a lot of other stuff instead.

For me this is truly the best time of life. I can spend most of my time doing stuff I like, without the crushing responsibilities that come with your middle years like child rearing, paying the mortgage and putting your kids through college. What to do next is never a problem. It’s almost guaranteed to put a smile to my face.

 
The Thinker

Joie de vivre

There was one vital last step in our relocation and unpacking. It involved getting some new cats. Our last beloved cat Arthur passed away last year. In a way his unfortunate demise was fortuitous for us because we would not have moved until he was gone. It’s cruel to relocate a cat, particularly a sick one.

The opposite is also true. When setting up a new household it’s cruel to get a cat too soon. Once they arrive, a cat will want everything to be where it will always be. For weeks after moving in there were a slowly diminishing set of boxes, as well as lots of cleaning and re-cleaning and rearranging of stuff until things settled in to our satisfaction and a cat’s.

Finally we were ready to drive to an animal shelter, but which one? There aren’t many here in Western Massachusetts, but a clean and well-run one was a good sign. Variety is good too, which is why we ultimately chose Springfield’s Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Shelter over the closer Dakin Animal Shelter in Amherst. There we fell in love with a calico white, black and cinnamon-colored cat named Applesauce, who we quickly renamed Cinnamon. She was found underweight and malnourished on the streets of Springfield and looked more waif than cat.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon

Cinnamon sensed right away that we were to be her forever people. Our niece Cheryl was visiting at the time. Cinnamon sat patiently on her lap in the backseat on the way home from the shelter; gently purring and looking out the window. Once in her new home, she quickly adopted but spent most of her first few days hiding under our bed. We knew she felt at home. At night as I stumbled into the bathroom she would be there on the heated floor and wrap her torso around me when I sat on the toilet.

One-cat domestic tranquility was not to last for long. My wife wanted a pair of cats. In particularly she wanted Wilma, a small orange female tabby at the shelter. However, Wilma was not yet available; she had to be fixed. We put in our reservation awaiting her recovery and took her home the day before Halloween. For this and her orange fur she was quickly renamed Pumpkin. Within a day of her arrival Pumpkin contracted something that wholly removed the wind from her sails. We took her to the vet, fretted and gave her plenty of attention until she slowly recovered.

This of course was when the two-cat integration started in earnest. Cinnamon hadn’t really established her territory as she was new too and Pumpkin was too sick to give her a hard time anyhow. Once recovered though Pumpkin showed us exactly who she was: trouble with a capital T. Although she had had a litter of her own (as had Cinnamon, who is about two) she was hardly more than a year old. Pumpkin decided that she was still a kitten. Henceforth her mission was to keep us entertained and/or exasperated, with much more of exasperation than entertainment.

Pumpkin, in a brief moment of rest watching Cat TV

Pumpkin, in a brief moment of rest watching Cat TV

Cinnamon is the laid back and generally inoffensive cat. In Pumpkin’s world everything is a toy and everything merits her incessant curiosity. She can be in a corner of the house and in a mad dash ten seconds later be upstairs in another far corner. There is no chill pill for Pumpkin. Relief arrives only with utter exhaustion. Then she will reluctantly find a sleep spot, usually on my wife’s pajamas on the top of our bed. Even while she sleeps this sleek and all-muscle work of nature often twitches. You can see her eyes move under her eyelids as she prepares further adventures in her mind.

Our bedtime dynamics quickly changed with Pumpkin’s health. It was clear that she would be jumping on us all night long and at random intervals, which meant she had to sleep elsewhere. This also meant Cinnamon had to sleep elsewhere. The hard part was figuring out a way to get them both out of our bedroom. We eventually settled on a reward approach: saving a kitty treat for both just before retiring, then scrambling to our bedroom while they ate them, quickly turning off lights and shutting the bedroom door. To register her disapproval Cinnamon started clawing at the carpet under the door and meowing. This eventually caused me to install a flap under the door. The clawing still continues, but now she picks at the flap instead of the carpet.

Cinnamon has quickly porked out. Pumpkin remains a lean and usually roving awesome kitty machine, constantly sticking her nose and claws into places they should not go. The rubber mat under the kitchen sink she treats as her personal scratching post. She eats from Cinnamon’s food dish. She constantly jumps on the dining room table, mostly to hunt for pens that she will brush onto the floor and which will soon end up under furniture. She has knocked over things on the windowsill. She loves loves loves anything to do with flowing water, be it from a faucet or a toilet. I throw her out and shut the bathroom door before shaving otherwise I would never finish. She loves sinks so much she will often take a nap in my wife’s sink in our master bathroom. For better or worse Pumpkin bonded with my wife and liberally uses her legs as a scratching post. We continuously correct her behavior but so far little of it has sunk in. She just looks at us with her playful eyes. It’s not hard to read her thoughts, which endlessly go like this: “play play play”.

Pumpkin is full of joie de vivre, which may be her most endearing aspect. While a total pain in the ass she is at least a cute pain in the ass. She is one hundred percent joyfully alive and will suck every possible microsecond of such joy during her existence. If she can’t find it, she’ll invent something. Usually a wadded up ball of paper will work for a while but a whole plethora of toys scattered across our wood floors somehow is never quite enough to fully scratch that itch.

One joy is stalking her new sister Cinnamon and then pouncing on her. Cinnamon finds her stalking obsession annoying and freakish and spends much of her day trying to stay out of her way. All this simply encourages Pumpkin to find her and engage her, so there are endless numbers of minor scuffles all day long, rarely anything serious and mostly an expression of Pumpkin’s endless supply of nervous energy.

Perhaps in part as a reaction to her freaky sister, Cinnamon usually follows me around all day. She is so often underfoot that I must constantly watch where I step. Going down stairs is challenging because my foot can easily end up where she has placed herself. Generally whenever I move, Cinnamon moves as well right at my heel. In the morning she looks forward to coming upstairs with me and my cup of coffee, and usually settles at the top of the stairs. There she can keep an eye on Pumpkin and at least have some warning if she is going to be stalked. As the larger cat, Cinnamon certainly outweighs her and could probably out-smack her too. She just prefers domestic tranquility.

I try to ignore Pumpkin most of the time, leaving her to annoy my wife instead, who will at least interact with her by frequently yelling and correcting her behavior. Pumpkin and I will become friends in time, but she has to settle down first. She has to stop doing evil things like chewing through my wife’s earphone cords. Pumpkin does like to curl up on a lap so she has a lot of potential as a lap kitty. Cinnamon mostly avoids laps, but she does like attention. Both cats will get on our desk in front of our monitors and settle in as if to say, “Well of course I am far more important than that glowing, boxy thing.” And this is endearing. I can still get work done by moving content to the top of the screen while petted her irregularly.

Unquestionably though Pumpkin is the animated cat of the household. She is taking the retire out of our retirement and is a natural topic of conversation, not to mention exasperated cries, angry voices and yowls when she digs her claws into your legs. And yet she looks so cute and harmless all the time. No jury would convict her of anything, even with photographic evidence. She gives us a reason for living, if only to regularly put bandages on our legs and arms.

We’re hoping Pumpkin settles down soon but I have a feeling that’s not her nature. As long as she is alive she is likely to be in trouble and entertaining us. We had best adapt, and maybe that means wearing two sets of jeans at once.

 
The Thinker

In the village

I’ve traded in suburban sprawl for village life. Fairfax County, Virginia where I used to live was mostly very prosperous suburban sprawl. There were two cities (Vienna and Fairfax City) and a couple of towns but mostly the county consists of endless acres of detached houses, strip malls and neighborhood schools. The only distinction among the sprawl was what developer built the neighborhood and how moneyed the people they were marketing to. Fifty years earlier most of the land was pastoral, home to more cows than people.

Florence, a village in the city of Northampton, Massachusetts where I currently live has history. Sitting a few miles to the west of the city, the clear Mill River drove its early development. I know this from spending a couple of hours walking around the village with a local historian. The Mill River was aptly named. Like many places in New England, mills were built around the river to harness its power. From its start as a community in the 1830s, Florence embraced diversity and practiced progressive values. In 1832 Samuel Whitmarsh planted mulberry trees in hopes of creating a sustainable silk business. Run as a community project it attracted both abolitionists and those looking for a utopia. Women and minorities had an equal voting share in the mill, which was essentially a cooperative, which also handled the schools and was a de-facto government. The mill eventually proved to be not financially successful, a victim of foreign competition. But the idea of a utopian community remained.

Florence got its name from Dr. Charles Munde, who built a business called The Florence Water Cure around the pristine and clean Mill River. In the 19th century water could not usually be trusted as it was often contaminated and there were no obvious ways to purify water. Instead people drank a lot of alcohol: beer mostly, but spirits of all kinds which had the benefit of being sterile. While this kept them from getting sick it drove the incidence of alcoholism. Some seeking a cure came to Florence for the Water Cure, which involved drinking lots of water from the clean Mill River and being alternately wrapped in hot and cold towels with water from the Mill River.

Munde’s building is gone but there is a new building at its location: an Elks Lodge. About that time the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to Canada started. For a while Florence was a stop on the railroad, until Congress unwisely passed a law that made it a criminal offense to aid and abet these fugitives. There was a sizeable minority community of African Americans in Florence in the 19th century where they were generally welcomed. For seven years one of its residents was Sojourner Truth, a former slave who advocated for equality and justice. Her home is still there on Park Street but is not prominently marked.

Eventually all the lots were taken along the river, so new residents moved to higher elevations. Gradually what is now known as Locust and Main streets became the center of town. Today the City of Northampton is known for its progressive values. Back in the 18th and 19th century Northampton was very much conservative and Calvinist in outlook. Florence, its uppity village to the west with its progressive values did much to spread its values there. Today, the City of Northampton is one of the most progressive places on the east coast.

Florence is not entirely without woes. Western Massachusetts is not as prosperous as the more densely populated eastern part. There is little in the way of industry here. The area does have its colleges and universities so it attracts a lot of educated folk who mostly work for these institutions, which include a women’s college (Smith) in Northampton. A lot of people struggle here as they do anywhere else, working two or sometimes three jobs to get by. A few bums can be found in downtown Florence. My credit monitoring service alerts me to a number of known child molesters and convicted child pornographers living downtown as well. A cheap heroin epidemic affects Florence to some extent as well. Mostly though Florence is healthy and well ordered with houses more than a hundred years old being the rule here, most of which are decently maintained.

It will take me years to discover all the virtues of this new community. Some are obvious. Look Park is just across the street from us. It’s a large park excellent for strolling and there are lots of us strolling it at any time of day, as there are a lot of us retirees living here. I walk around it, sometimes more than once, at least several times a week. If so inclined I can pause at a gazebo and look out at the pond, or wander down to the banks of the Mill River and watch the water rush by. It is currently decorated with holiday lights, which makes driving through it a treat for local citizens. In more temperate weather there are activities for kids: mini golf, train rides and a petting zoo as well as some activities for adults including tennis and swimming. I watched one wedding performed there in October at an outdoor shelter. If you want nature, Look Park is more sanitized nature. Real nature is never far away in Florence. In my case, I just have to climb the hill behind us. Much of the land around here is in conservation areas that will never get developed.

There is also the Northampton Bikeway nearby which allows bicyclists to get downtown conveniently under a tree-lined canvas. They can take it across the Connecticut River past Amherst and as far east as Belchertown if they wish, or south to Easthampton where they can connect with other routes that take them further south into Holyoke. The trail is being extended to the town boundary of Williamsburg to the west.

Part of the success of Florence is that it grows slowly, if at all. Rather than tearing down buildings they are usually retained for their historical value but rehabilitated inside, often becoming small condominiums in the process. Our community is the exception with new but pricey housing for the 55+ community.

For exercise I walk into town regularly, often along the bike path. This time of year even with the leaves absent, the bike path is still bucolic. It’s an easy walk, about a mile each way. Downtown Florence has a few notable places, most notably the Miss Florence Diner at the corner of Maple and Main, which goes back to the 1940s. You get an authentic diner experience at Miss Flo’s, prices are cheap and the omelets are excellent. Florence also has its own casket company near Maple and Main, an inconspicuous business at best. It’s probably what’s left of industry in Florence. Another institution is Florence Hardware, very much a neighborhood hardware store where in its compact space you can find pretty much everything also available at Lowes and Home Depot, but with much friendlier service. Less an institution than a community hangout, Cooper’s Corner at the intersection of Main and Chestnut Streets offers a clean and stylish combination package store and mini-mart that includes its own deli, premade sandwiches and fresh bakery items. During the summer time, my wife reports that the best soft serve ice cream is also downtown at Florence Soft Serve. (The best ice cream in the area is unquestionably Herrell’s in downtown Northampton.)

Overall we are grooving on Florence and expect to groove even more so in coming years as we fully settled in. All of life’s conveniences are generally within a mile or two of home. Nature is always at hand. It is fortunately not special enough where it has become trendy, which would spoil its charm. For a mini-urban experience Northampton is a few miles away. If you feel the lure of real strip malls though you will have to cross the river and venture into Hadley. There you can find a mini-mall, movie theaters, Applebees and lots of other chains that I was glad to escape.

Florence is not quite Mayberry, but it does have an authentic healthy village feeling to it. If you enjoy village life, you’d have a hard time finding a better place.

 
The Thinker

Searching for daylight

Moving to a new state brings a lot of changes. When you do it for pleasure like we did they should be mostly good. In April we moved from Northern Virginia to Western Massachusetts. Life is definitely slower here, but what’s not slower is the traffic. It generally moves. There are a few predictable choke points. It’s mildly annoying when it happens, but is not one hundredth as annoying as traffic in and around Washington D.C. The good: we now live in a city with a small town feel but with a vibrant downtown and liberal values. Republicans don’t generally even try to run for office around here. Bernie Sanders posters are everywhere.

But invariably there are certain things you miss, some that you did not quite expect. I thought I would miss the ethnic diversity of the Washington area but it’s quite diverse around here too. D.C. is very much a happening sort of city (as evidenced by its traffic) with a general level of affluence not seen around here. Unquestionably D.C. has a much better arts scene, although there is a surprising amount in this area.

One I did not expect to miss was daylight. Moving to Massachusetts meant moving 3.5 degrees north in latitude and 4.7 degrees east in longitude. You wouldn’t think it would make that much a difference in the amount of daylight, but it does. It’s not even Thanksgiving but by 5 p.m. it is already pitch dark here. In fact, the sun is already close to the horizon around 3 p.m. Sunset is this afternoon at 4:24 p.m. The sun rose here at 6:49 a.m. Our earliest sunset starts December 7 at 4:18 p.m. with our latest sunrise arriving December 31 at 7:19 a.m. As you might expect the shortest day is at the start of winter, when we get 9:06 of daylight.

These sorts of short days were not unknown to me. For the first fifteen years of my life I lived in upstate New York at about the same latitude. So I knew what I was getting into by moving north again. After 37 years of living in the mid Atlantic I was used to going home from work when there was still daylight out. The sun may have been setting, but you could still see. For comparison the sun sets in Washington D.C. today at 4:50 p.m. and rose at 6:58 a.m. So it has 9:51 of daylight, whereas we have 9:35.

Strangely enough, it makes quite a difference. The shortest day in Washington D.C is 9:26. (If these sorts of statistics interest you, you might like this site.) In short, in moving I lost twenty minutes of daylight in the winter and because we are further east the sun sets sooner. As a result I am starting to think of daylight as a precious commodity.

The good part is that since we are retired it doesn’t matter as much. If I were still working and living here I’d likely be driving to work in the dark and returning in the dark as well too. I now rise between 7:30 and 8 AM when daylight is just establishing itself. A typical day as a retiree involves a little work, a few chores and daily exercise. Exercise consumes at least an hour and I prefer to do it outside while it is still daylight. As a practical matter this means I have to start exercise no later than 2 p.m. because by 3:30 p.m. it’s already getting dark, with the sun hanging low in the sky. On overcast days like today the streetlights are on around 4 p.m. as clouds drain what little daylight there is. It also means that daylight is slow to emerge. This effectively shortens my period for enjoying the outdoors to about six hours a day.

Part of this problem is manmade. We arbitrarily divide the world into time zones, generally each an hour apart. Washington D.C. is toward the middle of the Eastern Time Zone, so the time of day feels natural year round. Here, an our or so west of Boston, we are not too far from the eastern edge of the time zone boundary. Effectively, I could enjoy more daylight if I would get up sooner.

Oddly enough, I am feeling this pull. I’ve never been a naturally early riser but now I am thinking I should get up around 7 a.m. so I can enjoy the daylight while it lasts. Sunny days are nice but they feel rushed through. With the sun not too far from the horizon all day the sun tends to stream in through the southern windows, making rooms blinding at times. My office faces south. On sunny days late in the year it is too much. I draw my translucent blinds, allowing light in but keeping the sun from shining directly in my face.

Without the bright city lights we were used too, night here feels deeper, darker and a bit foreboding. Streetlights are few. We live in a community where there is usually one bear sighting a year here, generally at the top of our hill. We were the lucky recipients this year when two teenage bears looking several hundred pounds each ambled through our tiny backyard, then across the street right in front of some men running construction equipment. Bears in the light can also be around in the dark of course. These bears are pretty massive. I’m quite sure a sufficiently motivated bear could break into our house through a window. The plentiful darkness raises these fears in my mind.

I don’t feel like I have a case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I don’t feel depressed by the longer nights. In a way these shorter days and longer and darker nights are neat. When the skies are clear the skies are amazing! We are fortunate to be away from the city enough to appreciate real dark. No wonder solstice was such a big deal to our ancestors. It’s this that probably makes the daylight feel more precious to me, and which makes me want to get up with the sun and busily engage the world while I can.

 
The Thinker

Open season on a fixed income

It’s open season time and you know what that means. For most of us it means not bothering to take the time to see if there is a better medical, dental or vision plan out there. And by “us” I definitely mean “me”, at least until this year. Although I retired in 2014, I was working for most of it so it was easy to go on autopilot in 2015.

This year though I am fully retired and living on perhaps seventy percent of my previous income. This year although our expenses have gone up, for some reason my fully indexed cost of living pension won’t be, a factor somehow of falling gas prices. I’m not alone. Lots of pensioners and social security recipients feel like they have been cheated. The problem is that the official cost of living index is bogus. While I might spend a couple of hundred dollars less in gasoline this year than I did last year, food prices have gone up and eating is not optional. If prices are holding steady, the word hasn’t gone out to my city. The real estate assessment was $15.80 per thousand dollars of assessed value this year. In 2016 it jumps to $16.16. Moreover I just bought a new house for about $486,000 but it’s been assessed at $500,000. This means we need to pay $401 more just in property taxes yet with no increase in income.

So value is becoming more important. We’ve been on Blue Cross for more than a decade, but Blue Cross too is tightening the screws. With no changes we would pay over $650 a year more in premiums. Copays have been increased as well, up $5 each for primary care and specialists. We (my wife in particular) see lots of doctors. It’s not hard to rack up a hundred visits between the two of us per year. We could easily spend another $1000 a year on health costs next year for no increase in services. We would have to do this with no cost of living raise.

Thus I felt I no longer had the luxury of inertia. As I started to examine my options, I quickly realized why I had punted all these years. It’s because while choice is good in theory when it comes to health insurance it is mind-numbingly exasperating and time consuming. It’s something of a crap shoot as to which plan offers you the best value, since you have no way of knowing how much care you will actually need. About all you can do is use past years as a benchmark, and that means analyzing all your health expenditures. (Note: if you are a federal employee, federal annuitant or survivor of either, Checkbook has a useful guide that costs less than $10 that can help a lot.)

Since I spent a day just analyzing health insurance options, it’s a good thing I am retired. I doubt I would have this sort of leisure if I were still working. I had to sift through the details of all the various plans and see if I could find some magic combination that is not overly expensive, rated reasonably well and with most of our doctors “in network”. I had to analyze premiums, deductibles, copays, limitations on types of services, and which of our doctors were on each plan. I’m still not entirely clear which plan offers the best value, but it’s pretty clear it’s no longer Blue Cross.

I can also change my dental insurance and add vision insurance during open season. I already have a long term care policy, but no insurer would insure my wife so when that time comes we’ll have to depend on savings. Which opens up another can of worms that retirees have to grapple with. If you have some major and unplanned costs, where do you get the money?

Since we recently settled on a house a lot of our reserves have gone to pay lawyers and other busybodies. We’re hardly without savings but if I had to put my hands on $75,000 or so in cash it would be a challenge. A 401-K or IRA is not like a faucet that you turn on and off at whim. You generally get just a one chance a year change to adjust the spigot – during open season.

We supplement my pension with a modest monthly withdrawal from my 401K. On the advice of my financial adviser, I’m limiting withdrawals to 3% of the portfolio. This will in theory keep our nest egg secure, not growing in value (over inflation) but not losing value either. I can up the withdrawals to say 4% and slowly build up cash reserves at the expense of paying more income taxes and a smaller portfolio. I can hope no major expenses like this happen. I can get another home equity loan and use that when needed, but that money certainly won’t be free. The other alternative is to get another job, something I’d prefer to avoid since leisure is the whole point of retirement.

Since when you are retired you can’t easily change your income and expenses are hard to control sober retirees have to look forward a lot. Our new house is nice but like every other house it will move toward decay. We’ll eventually need money to replace the air conditioner, roof and buy cars when the old ones expire. This didn’t used to be a problem. I had enough income where I could pay for most of these expenses out of pocket or from our savings account. Now I have to anticipate them.

Unable to think of a better strategy, I looked at what these expenses cost us before. I made some realistic estimate of when these expenses would hit and what they might cost then with inflation. So I’m setting aside some of our income to draw from for these expenses in the future. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a start. It’s also sobering. I’ve created a car replacement fund assuming we’ll buy two cars for $25,000 each in today’s dollars, one in 2019 and one in 2023. To reach the goal I must place $481 of our income monthly into an escrow account. Similarly for all these future house expenses, I’ve created a capital fund. If my numbers are accurate, $343 a month set aside for these expenses should cover them.

All this is well and good but it leaves less money to actually enjoy your retirement particularly when your expenses go up when the government says they haven’t. Which is why I’m reluctantly becoming value-driven in retirement. Every expense needs a second look, including our health care costs. So I need to shop around.

As for health insurance, since I am an ex-federal employee I’ll probably bid adieu to trusty but expensive Blue Cross and say hello to the National Association of Letter Carrier’s plan instead. Lower premiums, lower deductibles, similar services and a reasonably good choice of doctors will probably go a long way to keeping these expenses unchanged in 2016. We’ll see. If not I’ll be crunching the numbers again in a year at the next open season.

Health insurance in the United States is needlessly complex. If there must be competition then the government should require that all plans offer the same services so we could shop around more easily. Or perhaps we could do what every other first world country does: create a national health care system. Then instead of figuring out how much health you can afford you could simply get the care you need instead. Sign me up for that!

 
The Thinker

Lost but re-found

The hills of upstate New York are now barren of leaves. Yet speeding down I-88 between Albany and Binghamton last Friday, I was enjoying the scenery: the many grey hills spotted with evergreens still made for an interesting and photogenic landscape. There was so much of it to enjoy in the nearly two hour drive between cities, made even nicer by the light traffic on this largely neglected interstate. An occasional shower spattered my windshield and grey clouds largely took over by the time I arrived in Binghamton but at least it was unseasonably mild. The grey clouds actually made the place feel like home, which in fact it was for me from 1963 through 1972. Starting in November and usually lasting until spring, Binghamton is generally a dark and dreary place, a combination of diminishing daylight and clouds that form over Lake Erie and thicken in the prevailing westerly winds.

This November visit was actually an improvement over my last visit in August, then for a family reunion at a nearby state park. At least it was not stifling and a bed at a four star hotel in Johnson City awaited me instead of an un-air-conditioned cabin. The overnight trip between Massachusetts (home) and Binghamton was now doable so not that big a deal: under four hours by car with the pastoral mountainous drives on I-90 and I-88 a bonus. The occasion of this return was somewhat somber. My childhood friend Tom’s father of the same name had passed. I decided to drive to the funeral and pay my respects, something that would have been out of the question before. But then I was at least seven hours away by car and I had a job. Being closer and retired, it was doable. It would give me a chance to see Tom but also to see his family again, some forty-three years in my past. (My wife hung back due to a painful slipped disk.)

His dad, a former engineer who worked at the now largely vanquished IBM Endicott made it to 87, and finally passed on November 1, a victim of congestive heart failure. I hadn’t seen much of his father when I was young. Shortly after arriving at the Allen Memorial Home in nearby Endicott and seeing so many pictures of him on poster board, my memories of Tom’s dad flooded back. He was Irish, he was passionate, he usually had a big smile on his face and he was very, very Catholic. He and his wife raised nine children including my friend Tom, and not very well by some accounts. He worked days and his wife (a nurse) worked nights. This didn’t leave much time for a relationship or for parenting. They eventually divorced, which should have estranged him from the Catholic Church. At least the priests at St. Patrick’s Church in Binghamton were forgiving. Three priests and a deacon in vestments were at his funeral mass, and the deacon spoke warmly about Tom, their time together, and their shared passion for sports.

At the funeral home I saw few signs of mourning from my friend’s family. In some ways their mood felt joyous. For me this journey became something of a time warp. I had been back to Binghamton five times over the forty plus years, but I hadn’t really connected with anyone I knew from my years there. At least I had the opportunity with Tom’s family, which included three generations now. Tom was now the oldest male in the family. His older sister has had that privilege for a couple of decades; their mom passed away from cancer in the 1990s.

In fact, Tom’s extended family looked great: thin for the most part, including Tom who had dropped forty pounds. Tom Sr.’s death was long anticipated, so most had moved through the grieving process while he was declining. Tom I knew, but it was impossible to name these grown up faces after so many years. Those who were old enough usually remembered me, and shared a memory. I remembered the youngest child now in her forties in diapers in their living room. Tom’s house had a color TV and she was watching Sesame Street on it when the show was still new. I was jealous of Tom’s family because my parents thought color TVs too expensive, so we were relegated to black and white.

Whatever family trauma there was forty some years earlier seemed wholly gone. Tom’s family proved to be a lively, civilized and grounded bunch, all instantly likeable. In some ways I felt more comfortable with them than I do with my own siblings. Tom’s family may have had issues, but they were a passionate bunch. My house was more saccharine and my mother played the role of dutiful Stepford wife. No wonder I liked hanging out with Tom. His house felt real. But there was more. Tom was and remains an intensely creative person full of energy and passion. It must have been due to all that Irish blood. As I worked my way down the receiving line I felt a lot of genuine warmth flecked with humor and remembrances.

Tom is one of nine children; I am one of eight. My family scattered like the wind across the nation. Six of Tom’s siblings stayed in the Binghamton area and extended their family’s roots there. Most had dodged and parried with life pretty well in spite of a challenging childhood, but others had dealt with larger problems. An older sister spent decades fighting addictions but she told me she had been clean and sober for twenty-five years.

The sun was close to setting when I arrived, but I drove by our old house and enjoyed the fall colors still hanging on a tree on our old front lawn. The house has been extended into the backyard. Its original six bedrooms are now probably more like ten bedrooms. In fact, the house is now owned by the State of New York and it houses developmentally disabled adults.

While Tom hung with family that evening, I did a driving tour of the area (“The Triple Cities”) in the dark, following paths I knew so well from childhood, but also from exploring the area again on Google Maps. I had fond memories of my father taking us to Binghamton Airport, so I drove there in the dark along Farm to Market Road. I drove down Vestal Parkway, climbed Taft Avenue in Endicott and wandered the back streets behind our old house in the darkness. I watched the stars appear periodically from behind the clouds, so much clearer here where the city lights are more muted. The Binghamton area had often felt sad in past visits, but this time it felt fully on the mend. Dinner came from the food court at the Johnson City Wegmans. Leaving my car in the parking lot of my hotel, I noted a fox’s bright eyes looking back at me in the dark from the nearby woods.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church turned out to be an ornate church by Catholic standards with impressive stained glass windows and altarpieces that imitated Gothic spires. By any measure, Tom’s dad went out well. A huge organ in the back of the church and a cantor on the altar provided deeply spiritual music mixed with Irish melodies during the funeral mass. It’s a large church and was more than half full; clearly Tom’s father was a man beloved in the church and in the community. Tom’s family did a wonderful job of arranging a memorable and emotional service.

In the lobby after the service Tom pulled me over. He reintroduced me to a friend I knew even longer than him, Peter, who I first met in first grade and often played with after school. Age 58, Pete hadn’t changed that much but related a brush with mortality: he a heart attack a few years back. At the reception after the mass we ate food, laughed, traded memories and snapped pictures. There were no tears to note but plenty of laughter. People reconnected, and that included me. For the first time in more than forty years I felt reconnected with the area I always considered home. There were still friends here; we had just lost touch.

I was back home for supper, doing a reverse commute. The hills along I-88 and I-90 were still pretty, though barren, but the temperature had plummeted. It was cold but I felt strangely glowing. It came from the deep embers of a long ago connection thought lost but now recovered somehow.

 

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