Archive for the ‘Life 2017’ Category

The Thinker

The verdict

Eight years ago I was called as a juror, sat for a trial then learned over lunch that the defendant had copped a plea. This week I was called to be a juror again. Seventeen were called for a criminal trial, eight of us were empaneled and six of us got to render verdicts. I was one of the latter. I should have expected as much given that my juror number was 3. If hoping to get out of jury duty trial, hope they give you a larger number.

Aside from paying taxes and obeying laws, citizens have only two duties. Voting is optional, but jury duty is not. So I drove to the courthouse in Belchertown, Massachusetts (a really bad name for a town, BTW) and got predictably lost for a while, arriving about ten minutes late. Fortunately, I was not in trouble or the last to arrive. They forced us to watch Today on NBC and I tried to tune it out with a crossword puzzle.

The case involved someone I realized later I probably had met tangentially. Not only does she live in my little village, she also does a lot of ordering at the local pet food store we frequent. At age twenty-nine, she looked ten years younger and no more than one hundred pounds soaking wet. She was charged with negligent driving and driving under the influence. She had participated in a charity golf event for her employer, played eighteen holes of bad golf, retired to the clubhouse and consumed (she testified) about twelve ounces of an IPA. Sometime afterward she drove home, but probably missed the turnoff to the shortest way home on her GPS and ended up in South Amherst. There at a set of double roundabouts she flew over the circle, destroyed a tire and ended up on the side of the road. She said approaching the roundabout she had glanced down at her GPS to understand how to navigate the two roundabouts and that bad timing caused her accident.

A lady watched the whole thing and she and her husband tried to offer assistance. She testified that the defendant seemed shocked and/or drunk. She was not very coherent when she tried to talk to them, but was proactive enough to have her registration and drivers license ready for the officer who showed up some minutes later. She was given a sobriety test by being asked to walk a straight line, one foot in front of the other. After one step she leaned on her car for support. She attempted the test three times and was eventually arrested and taken to the police station. She never got a Breathalyzer test.

So it was up to the six of us who actually made it to deliberations to pass judgment on her. The woman who watched the accident testified, as did the arresting officer. Her husband who was also a witness was not called, nor was a second officer also there. The judge solemnly instructed us that we either had to find her guilty or not guilty, and we had to be unanimous.

In one respect Massachusetts law is good, since we were a jury of eight instead of the traditional twelve, and two were alternates who got to sit in a nearby room and twiddle their thumbs. Even with six of us in a room it looked like we might end up as a hung jury. However, no one really wanted to come back on Friday to deliberate some more because it didn’t look like we would have a change of mind.

At least it was easy to convict her of the first charge of negligent driving. Not only was there a witness, but also the defendant admitted it in her testimony. The driving under the influence charge though divided the jury. The standard for convicting someone was that the evidence had to be beyond a reasonable doubt. And we all had different ideas about what the criteria was for beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge was not too helpful either. When we filed back into the courtroom for more instructions he basically told us that we had to figure it out for ourselves and we had to be unanimous.

So when we filed back into the jury room we at least agreed that the beyond a reasonable doubt is an unreasonable standard. But it is useful in forcing us to compromise our principles, which is probably the point. Where was the reasonable doubt here? The officer testified her eyes were bloodshot and there was the smell of alcohol on her breath. Then there were those repeated sobriety tests. Was this beyond reasonable doubt? In my case, at age 61, I wasn’t sure I could pass the test completely sober.

It was to a couple jurors, but not to the rest of us. Would one beer affect one skinny woman that much? Maybe it was half a dozen beers. It’s hard to say how tanked she was because of the lack of a Breathalyzer test. Why was one not done? We weren’t allowed to ask any questions, simply judge on the evidence presented. And we were explicitly told we had to use our own life experiences as a guide.

I remembered a day thirty-two years earlier when my wife and I arrived with painting supplies to paint the townhouse we had just purchased. We opened the door to find the ceilings down and water flowing out the door. It was probably the most traumatic thing that had happened to either of up to that time, made more traumatic because we only had a verbal okay on our insurance policy. We were in shock for hours. That was my life experience. Could something like this have happened to this woman, who had only recently bought the relatively new Acura for cash? Maybe she was mentally ill too? Was she rattled because of something like that, or from having one too many IPAs at the club?

Who could say? When pressed I agreed that she was likely under the influence. But could I convict her for this opinion when I felt it did not meet the standard of a reasonable doubt? We all agreed we would have liked to hear from the witness’s husband and the second officer. But the prosecution didn’t think it was necessary for their case.

Ultimately, four of us felt there was reasonable doubt about her condition and two did not. The two who felt she was guilty compromised their reasonable doubt standard. And that was the justice we ended up delivering: not guilty. The forewoman said she could agree because she was at least found guilty of negligent driving.

The defendant cried when the verdict was read, whether from joy or sorrow is hard to say. It was more likely from joy because her license had been suspended. Because of our verdict she was allowed to drive again. I felt we delivered imperfect justice. On that no one in the jury room disagreed. We hope that if she was drunk at the time, she learned her lesson. We’ll never know.

I learned that despite all the legal mumbo jumbo and the sonorous words from the judge, our jury system is imperfect. I suspect the amicable judge presiding over the case silently agreed.

 
The Thinker

Scared to death

Did you see the video of Donald Trump’s hair (or more accurately his lack of it)? It looks like on February 6th Trump had a really bad hair day. The camera caught these moments when he was ascending into Air Force One. Trump of course goes through great length to hide his thinning hair. While only his hairstylist knows some of his secrets (and I’m not sure he has one), it looks like he’s getting by by letting his sideburns grow to great lengths and sweeping them back.

Frankly it looks stupid. It’s rumored that Trump has had scalp reduction surgery, presumably to pull back and make the most what he has left of his hair. It’s obviously dyed and lacquered with something to make it thicker than it is. It’s also obvious that Trump wears dentures. No one has quite that perfect teeth. But when you are 71 all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got or in Trump’s case, fake it … bigly. Trump wants to pretend he’s much younger than he is and full of vigor, but if anything he looks older than his age.

Since two posts ago I turned 61. I’m doing relatively well hair-wise, at least compared to my younger brother. But like Trump I have a lot less of it on the top of my head and what’s left is a lot thinner as well. My former hairstylist assured me I would always have a full head of hair, but I doubt it. In the sun it’s pretty obvious it’s going. Like it or not I too am aging. And while like Trump I don’t particularly want to look older than my age and would prefer to look younger than my age, I don’t intend to fake it.

Still, Trump and I share one undeniable fact: were both aging and it’s only going to get worse. I have no illusions that I’m handsome enough to attract some younger babe. Unlike a lot of the men in the news these days I’m not in the mood to try. I like the woman I married 32 years ago, faults and all. She loves me. If I were to hitch up with some younger babe I’d never really believe she loves me anyhow.

I can’t read Melania Trump but I really doubt she loves her husband. She now has more reason not to love him if these Stormy Daniels rumors are true. Even if not true, she surely knew she was marrying a man with issues and infidelities. My guess is Melania knew poverty as a child, or enough discomfort that she wanted to be kept warm and in opulence for the rest of her life. At least she got that with Trump. If he dumped her like he did with his other wives there would be a fat alimony and a big bonus: not having to endure her husband anymore.

Aside from 46 chromosomes, humans share one important thing: we are all destined to die. One way to measure a person is to see how they respond to this knowledge. I try not to think about it too much but I live in a strange family. My daughter says she is not death-phobic. She’s converting my wife who is spending her time on YouTube watching the Ask the Mortician channel, and enjoying it. For the last few years my main way with dealing with death is to live robustly. Make every day count and stay engaged. For me life is about living. Death will take care of itself, since it is inescapable.

I do get this much from listening to my wife and daughter: many of us are trained to fear death. It’s not like this in all cultures, Japan for instance. But here in the west we are in the death-denying business. Some take it to crazy lengths, and Donald Trump must be near the top of the list. Trump’s reputed recent physical was crazy. He’s 239 pounds, and was probably holding helium balloons while he was weighed. He also inflated his height to 6’3” so he can technically claim not to be obese. His doctor, the White House physician, said he was in fabulous health. But the doctor was clearly lying. You don’t need to be a doctor to see it for yourself. Trump looks terrible, gets no exercise of note, requires statins to keep his cholesterol in check and has a diet that consists of a lot of McDonalds takeout food.

Many religions teach us there is an afterlife which if true is a good reason to not be worried about death. The problem is that most of us in our hearts don’t believe it. We can’t acknowledge to ourselves that we don’t believe it and that feeds a lot of anxiety, anxiety that seems to grow worse as we age. Trump is denying his mortality bigly. So did my mom when she was dying. Her faith was pretty useless to her. She was scared out of her mind.

Only two aunts (one of them in a mental hospital) stand between me and everyone in the generation before me related to me dead. Both my parents are gone, my father most recently two years ago on my birthday. The one aunt who is still of sound mine is taking lots of supplements, is carefully watching her nutrition and is getting lots of exercise. She is the youngest of twelve. All the rest are gone. She reports it’s sad and scary to see all those you loved die. What are left are mostly children and grandchildren if you are lucky to have them. She’s got the children, but both her husband and daughter are dead and died just weeks apart in misery. Of the three boys, two are married and none produced heirs.

Being a middle child I am likely to see some of my older siblings die before me and they will experience my absence from their lives when I die. That too is part of aging and dying, at least in a large family (I have seven siblings), if you live long enough. In some ways it is better to die sooner so you don’t have to go through that crap.

With six decades to ponder death though I’ve realized a few things. Death does not scare me. I don’t want to die by having my head chopped off with an axe or from a gunshot wound but that’s a logical fear to a particularly horrible way of dying. Having watched two parents die though death is no longer a mystery. It’s natural and it’s a consequence of living. I should no more be afraid of being dead than I should be scared that there was no me before I was conceived.

I am afraid of dying a miserable death like my mother endured. I can and will take sensible precautions to avoid those kinds of death. The major cause of her death was Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I am taking COQ-10 to make it less likely that this will kill me, although it might. Parkinson’s runs in her family. My father died primarily of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Basically his lungs died before the rest of him. I have a physical in two weeks and on my agenda is to ask my physician how I can avoid COPD. (Obviously I don’t smoke, and neither did my father. This is often where it begins.)

Something’s going to get me though and it will get Donald Trump too. You play the game, you do your best to stack the odds in your favor so you can at least optimally enjoy what time you have left, but a certain amount is left to fate. COPD is not a bad way to go if you have to go. My father was able to stay at home until nearly the very end.

So perhaps watching Ask the Mortician is not a bad idea. Maybe we have such phobias about death because we don’t want to confront our mortality. And yet there is nothing more natural than death. We will all experience dying but I suspect even in dying there is some living there. We will all find out in time if we can get suppress our fear of dying enough to enjoy living. That’s how I intend to go.

I don’t know how Donald Trump will go when his time comes, but I am confident he will fight it, lose like all of us do and maybe for the first time in his life feel humbled by forces outside of his control.

 
The Thinker

Is marriage naturally better the second time around?

Our next-door neighbor Suzanne passed away unexpectedly six days ago. On Monday she was complaining about her gut hurting. On Tuesday she had a four-hour surgery to try to repair an intestinal blockage. She moved from surgery to critical care. On Wednesday afternoon she was dead, her husband Bill became a widower and everyone on our little cul-de-sac was in a state of shock and grief.

Yesterday I went to the local funeral home to pay our respects and to celebrate her life. We’ll be trying to come to terms with this for a long time because Suzanne was a terrific neighbor: always friendly and helpful. She made our little street a real community. Her New Year’s Day parties were renown here in our 55+ community.

It seems kind of crazy to feel loss, as we knew her only two years, but we do. The night of her death, I slept fitfully at best. She and Bill were an item and were one of those crazy, always-together, supremely happily married couples that are actually hard to find. When not traveling they could be found daily on bikes or long walks, and when walking were hand in hand. There was a tangible intimacy between her and Bill that just radiated from them. When Bill told me the story of his first date with Suzanne ten years ago, his voice picked up and his face glowed. At her funeral he said without a doubt that their ten years together, eight of them married, were the best years of his life.

The truth is I was more than a little jealous of Bill and Suzanne’s relationship. It was the sort of marriage most of us aspire to have but don’t have. It was also second time around for both Bill and Suzanne, having divorced or lost spouses. I’m 32 years this month into my first marriage and don’t plan to change the situation. Still it’s obvious that my marriage can’t compete with theirs. I married a fellow introvert. We love each other and now that we are retired obviously see plenty of each other. We share some passions like Star Trek and politics but mostly inhabit our individual universes, intersecting mostly in the morning and at meal times. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Yesterday at the wake I chatted with many of the couples present. Without exception they agreed that Bill and Suzanne were exceptionally well matched. Their marriages could not compete.

I have noticed of those couples whose marriages I think are exceptionally intimate, they all seem to be second marriages. Thinking through the marriages I know well, like those of my siblings, all still on their first marriage none of theirs resemble Bill and Suzanne’s. Bill and Suzanne were an older couple (I was shocked to learn Suzanne was 81; she certainly didn’t look it) that nevertheless seemed eternal newlyweds. There was such an honest passion and intimacy between them that it seemed somewhat surreal. And it carried over to their larger lives. It touched us as next-door neighbors. It was like their house at the end of the cul-de-sac radiated happiness and warmth.

The cause of her death appeared to be due to an earlier cancer that went into remission, but which left her intestinal wall thin. She had the bad luck of having an obstruction at the spot, which tore the wall, which caused peritonitis. These days you sort of expect people to die slowly, at least from natural causes. When I heard she was in critical care I figured it was nothing to worry about. Someone with such spirit of life as Suzanne would doubtless pull through.

But she didn’t. Bill seems to be handling her death pretty well, expressing deep gratitude for their time together and hope they will meet again in some nebulous afterlife. Here’s hoping, Bill. Ten years of the kind of relationship you and Suzanne had should have more than filled your cup to overflowing. Perhaps that’s why Bill is handling it so well. He knows he was blessed to have these years together with her. What remains is a sense of profound gratitude rather than the deep loss I expected. Perhaps the loss will manifest itself in Bill in time.

There may be something to this second time around being better. It makes a lot of sense when I think about it. What are the odds that a first marriage will actually last a lifetime? Consider that most marry young and that both are thrust into adulthood, usually with children to quickly follow. There are so many natural tensions to deal with in a first marriage: jobs, kids, aging parents, aging people with changing needs, likely unemployment somewhere along the journey, general societal stress, siblings, toxic coworkers and maybe bad neighbors. That so many first marriages survive at all is amazing, although it gives us no insight into the quality of these marriages. I know in my case, having a life partner is deeply gratifying. With our daughter all grown up and with both of us retired, this phase of our marriage is quite sweet. We are hardly alone. It’s a phenomenon psychologists know well. Remove a lot of the stressors from a marriage and its overall quality will likely improve.

Still, I think there must be something about a second marriage that by its nature will make it likelier to be better than a first marriage. It’s likelier that fewer marriage stressors like kids and jobs will exist in a second marriage. Hopefully you have a chance to reflect on what you did to stress the first marriage and take corrective action in the second one. Most likely you will be more focused on shared interests and compatible natures than beauty, Donald Trump being the exception. Those of us in first marriages deal with the marriage as it has evolved over a very long time. We know our partner as intimately as you can possibly know someone. What you eventually end up with is someone imperfect and with foibles just like you.

Perhaps in a second marriage these imperfections become easier to overlook as they take a long time to discover. Maybe that in some part explains Bill and Suzanne’s good fortune together. Or perhaps you get a better sense of the spouse you need now since the rose-colored glasses are off. The spouse you had then doesn’t quite fill your criteria anymore.

My own father remarried late in life, and had five years together with my stepmother before passing last year at 89. I don’t know if it was a better marriage than the 55 years with my mother, but it certainly was a different marriage. It allowed my father to grow in his last years, which was good, and gave him the companionship he craved.

Should I also suffer my father’s fate of being a widower and choose to remarry, I won’t be surprised if I find that it sweeter. By no means would I say this is because there were things about my spouse that were unlovable. But just as a plant that is repotted in fresh soil often perks up, I suspect people can too. Should I predecease my wife, I certainly hope she finds a new love. It would give me pleasure to know that someone else would have the joy of her presence if I cannot.

As for Suzanne, you are already missed and have left a hole in our lives. It will never quite be the same.

 
The Thinker

Reaping the benefits of the Great Recession

One of my life’s little mysteries is why I was suddenly able to retire three years ago at age 57. Granted that I wanted to retire and as one of those rare retirees with a comfortable pension I was more able to retire than most. Recently a sister announced her retirement effective January 2nd. She will beat my young retirement age, retiring at age 55. She does not have a pension like me to draw from, but she and her husband are childless. Doubtless that was a factor. Most of my many siblings though are still working, some unhappily, and about half are older than me. Some I know prefer to keep working as the idea of retirement does not agree with them.

All this led me to ponder how we did it and what lessons you may take away from it. Much of what they say is true: start saving for retirement early, the earlier the better. Be relentless about this kind of saving. I did it through payroll deduction increasing the amount to periodically painful levels. At age 50 here in the United States you have the option to contribute additional money tax-free toward your retirement, so called catch-up contributions. I took advantage of that in my last few years of employment. Generally you are in your peak earning years then so it’s not harder to pour more money into your retirement pot.

While I found this all to be true and was reasonably systematic following these principles, I was often a slacker. I was in my 30s before I started saving for retirement, later than recommended. I was in my late 40s before I took a retirement seminar and found the time and money to integrate a financial planner into my life. One factor was that I was reasonably well paid, being in the IT business and in the last ten years in a managerial role. It wasn’t enough to buy a BMW, but it was enough to regularly have money left over and take nice vacations. When you are paid well it’s much easier to put money aside for retirement.

Still I just didn’t understand how we did it, so I was looking in Quicken the other day. I’ve faithfully used it since 1992 to track this stuff; I just don’t often analyze its numbers. Toward the end of 2008 the value of my 401K was about $162K. When I retired six years later its value was $323K. In those six years of course I had been putting a lot more money aside, but not $161K worth. Today, even though I have been withdrawing $1900 a month from the 401K since February 2015, its value is at $446K, so it’s gained $123K over just three years while taking $50K out of it. I should add that my wife also has a pretty good 401K nest egg that we haven’t touched yet. Our income is a combination of my pension and my 401K withdrawals. With some supplemental income of about $10K a year, we are living a comfortable retirement on $100K to $110K a year. It’s made more comfortable because we have zero debt. The house is all paid off, as are our cars.

So what happened to my sister and me that we are able to do this? It turns out that a lot of my sudden wealth was due to the Great Recession. It’s hard to quantify though but my guess is that it is 50% due to riding and profiting from the Great Recession. And I am sure we are not alone. While plenty of baby boomers are struggling financially, many of us are moving into early and comfortable retirements thanks to the Great Recession.

That’s because of a great wealth redistribution that in effect happened during the recession. Think about it. At its low point in February 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was at about 8000. Today it is at around 21,000. The DJIA overstates the growth in the economy but it is an important benchmark. Over about nine years the index grew at an average of 18% per year.

In February 2009 stocks were incredibly cheap by today’s standards, and even by the standards of that time. Stock prices reflected a general sourness that people felt about the economy. No question that it was a scary time. The unemployment rate peaked at over 10%, huge amounts of paper wealth disappeared and those close to the financial edge lost homes, incurred additional debt and in many cases saw their income plummet. Stocks were traded in for cash for whatever the market would bear just to pay expenses. When stocks are traded someone else is buying. One of those people was me, at least indirectly. I was still buying funds via my 401K through regular payroll withdrawals. “Buy low and sell high” is the general advice you are given if you want to be an investor. I hadn’t intended to buy at a low rate, it just worked out that way. For years I bought stocks via mutual funds that turned out to be woefully undervalued.

With help from my financial advisers I was able to capture that wealth too, moving more of it into fixed assets like bonds. What goes up must come down, so there will be another recession in our future. But with a sizable portion of my 401K now in bonds, I can ride out the ups and downs in the stock market.

Curiously it was just the opposite from my late father’s experience. When the Great Recession hit he and many in his retirement community had to finance their retirements with cash. It was challenging because many did not have enough cash and bond funds to fall back on. He sold some of his stocks likely at a discount to keep going and hoped that the Great Recession would finally end.

It’s hardly a secret that the top 1% have vastly increased their wealth over the last few decades. During the last decade, they likely have you to thank. They picked up those sweet discounted assets that you sold and held onto them until the markets recovered. The low taxes on capital gains certainly helped in accumulating this additional wealth. To a lesser extent it raised our financial boat too, artificially so it seems to me. I too profited from your financial mistakes and misfortunes but until I put it together recently I never understood it.

And this has been the secret to much of my financial acumen: sheer luck but well timed financial calamities that I was able to profit from. We were similarly blessed with the timing of home purchases, with generally low inflation over the last few decades and steady employment. Yes, we did a lot of the “responsible” things that responsible people should do. But had the Great Recession never happened I’d likely still be working full time and probably not enjoying it that much, still waiting for a day when I felt it was safe to retire.

 
The Thinker

Man in the women’s room

The last few months have certainly been an eye opener. No, I haven’t drilled a hole into the women’s restroom, but I have been attending an Intuitive Eating course locally. I discussed it briefly in January. Since that time I’ve been meeting with a small group of people generally once a week trying to relearn the art of eating intuitively. The surprise for me was not the material itself; it was that I was the only man in the room.

I can’t remember this ever happening before, at least for not such a long time. I immediately felt like slapping myself in the forehead. Of course an intuitive eating course is going to be populated mostly by overweight or obese women. That’s because for the most part men avoid taking courses like these. Some men join Weight Watchers but it too gets far more women than men enrolling. And having taken Weight Watchers courses, it largely doesn’t get into the emotional aspects of eating. It’s all about points, carbs, exercise, sticking with the program and trying to fit you into some company’s model of how you should eat and behave, which is true of all diet programs. Men who want to lose weight are more likely to be looking for a “manly” way to do it, so they are doing it by mail for the most part, i.e. joining Nutrisystem.

An intuitive eating course is not about dieting; it’s about shedding the diet-forever mentality, which has the counterintuitive effect of causing weight gain. It’s more about eating naturally, which is why the French eat very well, smoke, drink to excess but largely avoid obesity, heart disease and other weight issues, oh, and outlive us as well. Eating though is very primal so unsurprisingly there is a huge amount of emotional baggage attached to it. The women in my group brought their lifelong experiences into the group.

At first I felt pretty uncomfortable. Teachers know what tends to happen in co-ed classrooms. Men, being men, tend to dominate discourse and women tend to ask fewer questions and hold back. I didn’t want my presence to inhibit the women from expressing themselves. They have been dealing with weight issues their whole lives. The message women get is relentless: much of who you are has little to do with your capabilities, but how well you fit into the stereotype of who women should be. It’s not just men who tend to prefer the skinny and attractive women who are to blame. It’s also a lot of other women projecting these same values, generally the popular and skinny ones, but more often an obsessive and controlling mother. So I found myself deliberately holding back. I didn’t want my default male attitude to keep the women from getting what they needed from the course.

Over just a couple of weeks I discovered that in many ways it sucks to be a woman. Women do get to have children, and I imagine that mothering a child can be a great pleasure. I was aware of some of the obvious ways it sucks to be a woman: generally being paid less for doing the same work as a man, sexually harassed off and on the job, feeling you have to always look good, not just to attract the perfect man but because you have to keep up with the competition: other women. It’s not hard for anyone to put on weight, but when women do the impact of it is often devastating. There are lots of obese men who feel the same way. But I believe that most men are not nearly as impacted emotionally by weight gain as women are. I certainly wasn’t. A lot of these women spent significant parts of our classes relating their emotional issues with eating and literally crying about it. I never once felt like crying. I could not empathize because I had never gone into these deep emotional wells that these women spend much of their lives inside.

The curious thing was that many of these women didn’t look all that bad. Overweight: yes. Obese? Maybe half the class qualified. Many were quite attractive but it was like they were carrying an extra fifty-pound pack on their backs that was purely the weight of emotional baggage. One exercise late in the class involved writing down things about yourself you didn’t like and having a partner read them back to you. The idea was to respond back with something positive or nonjudgmental, but some women could not go there. It was devastating to one woman. She went to a corner to cry; she simply could not participate. There was a lot of crying that day. Me? I was clear and dry-eyed. It was like Why are you crying about this? But of course I had not lived with all the projected shame these women had, both from outside and inside. That’s because for the most part overweight and obese men don’t get ridiculed and teased the way women do. And it’s devastating.

I got to know these women well enough to learn that this was only part of the psychological baggage they carry around. Men don’t understand. I thought I understood. But I really didn’t understand until these last few weeks. I think this is because I was seen as a safe male. (Confidentiality was also required). Being a woman is tough and most men if they were honest would not wish it on themselves. Very few women develop the stamina and resilience to learn to be comfortable with the person they are. And that’s the real shame. Men like me often see women as women first, not people first. We project our own needs onto women and expect them to deliver. For the most part women are not allowed the dignity of simply being who they are, freed from internal and external judgments. If they don’t fit our projected model of whom we think they should be, we denigrate or marginalize them instead.

The course ended yesterday. I can repeat it at no extra charge so I am thinking of doing that, because there is a lot of material to master and it’s hard to do it in ten weeks. But also, my curiosity and empathy genes are now engaged. Also, I am aging. As I age and my testosterone levels recede, aspects of women like how pretty they are tending to recede. In this class I did not see women; I saw people. I saw beautiful, warm and caring people struggling through difficult issues.

The really sick part of all of this is that we do this to ourselves. Everyone suffers by fruitlessly trying to live up to the expectations projected by others, of course. But women in general suffer magnitudes more than men do. Most of this suffering is so unnecessary and pointless, but it’s something society projects onto people and women in particular from birth. Its impact is devastating and lifelong.

Moreover, we make it worse. Look at the horrid laws being passed in mostly conservative states that are trying to take away reproductive choice from women. Women support many of these measures too. WTF? Why would any woman be so cruel as to keep contraceptives away from other women who can’t afford it? It’s all part of a process, perhaps largely unconscious, of belittling and dehumanizing women as a class of people, wholly for the type of sex organs they happen to have. It’s a choice we can change. We could end all this harmful and pointless nonsense. We could allow women to live full, happy and productive lives instead. First though we have to stop seeing them as fulfilling ridiculous gender roles and see them as whole people.

I’ve intellectually felt this way for most of my life. Now, at last, in my sixtieth year, I feel I’ve bridged that emotional distance too.

 
The Thinker

Old man

The boundary between middle age and being an old man is increasingly fluid, but I figure I’m officially a geezer. Today I turn sixty. Which means I can’t realistically call myself middle age anymore. So geezer works, except it’s no big deal to be in your sixties these days. And since most of us will live into our eighties and maybe beyond, it’s hard to say you are old when you still have a lot of life ahead of you.

Unquestionably though most of my life is now behind me. Probably at least two thirds of it is in the past. From the perspective of being sixty, aging is a weird thing. Aging simultaneously feels both very fast and incredibly slow. The past reveals itself in brief snippets of memories but mostly it slipped by as a continuous stream that unfolded so fast you could not concentrate on its unfolding. Until I retired at age 57, most of life was like being on a treadmill. This is not necessarily bad. Living an engaged life keeps you from too much distraction or pondering things like your own mortality. For most of us, life is bountiful, not necessarily with happiness but certainly with events that we must surmount. Along the way we learn plenty of lessons. If we are smart and have the time, we focus on the lessons so we are unlikely to repeat them.

Much of my life has been really interesting. If forced to pick an optimal time to enter the world, 1957 would be about right. It has been sixty years of great change, great sorrow and awesome events. The other day my wife and I went to see Hidden Figures, the story of some amazing black women who were instrumental in the success of the American space program. The climax of the movie is John Glenn’s first flight in 1962, a successful but abbreviated three-orbit journey around the world, the first for an American. It’s one of my earliest memories. I was age five at the time and was watching the launch on TV with my mother and probably some siblings in Scotia, New York. I believe she was ironing through it.

Glenn was one of many luminaries that died in 2016. But I remember that day, as well as the first moon landing and many spaceflights before an after it. I remember coming of age during the civil unrest of the 1960s and the protests during the Vietnam War. I remember being outdoors clapping erasers when I learned of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the moment at work when I heard that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded. I remember being caught in downtown D.C. on 9/11, smoke from the Pentagon rising against an otherwise deep blue western sky and a long trip home.

I remember punching cards to program a computer, the pre-Internet age when exploring cyberspace meant using a 1200-baud modem to dial into local electronic bulletin boards. I rode the crest of the information technology revolution into a successful career. I watched countless technologies rise and fall as we tried to perfect this Internet thing. I remember when using a web browser meant using Mosaic and using a PC meant typing commands from a DOS prompt.

Not bad for the first sixty years of life. Moreover, I never had to serve in any wars because I was never drafted, although I did have to register with the Selective Service. Life has been sometimes harsh, but in my case it was more kind than harsh. I was fortunate in many of life’s toughest decisions. Moving as a young adult to the Washington D.C. area proved very valuable for feeding a career and building wealth. We generally bought and sold houses at the ideal time. Stocks recovered just in time (thanks Obama!) for me to retire with some wealth in 2014. After a couple of years of reshuffling our lives we’ve retired, relocated and are primed to enjoy the geezer years right.

Things do change with age, and sometimes for the better. The impetuousness of youth is gone. The ability to savor life seems enhanced. The body doesn’t work quite the way it used to, but after six decades you would not expect it to. There is much to look forward to in this last stage of life. Research says this is the best time of life. So far I agree. I’ll really celebrate my birthday in March with a London theater tour. Waking up every day with the ability to do what I want and in financial security is a great blessing.

So I begin my seventh decade acknowledging that I am officially a geezer. I am doing my best to enjoy this time of life in the midst of national and international upheaval. Hope I can keep it going. I’m reminded of the words of the poet Robert Browning:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
the last of life,
for which the first was made.

 
The Thinker

Resolve not to diet this year – it’s probably the healthy choice

Since it’s the New Year, many of us have resolved to lose a few pounds, or more than a few pounds. Given the propensity of obesity in the country, many of us have probably resolved not just to take off dozens of pounds or more, but to permanently take them off too. Somehow this year, unlike all those other years, we’re finally going to summon the energy and commitment that ultimately we lacked in all those other years when we made similar pledges but ultimately failed.

Perhaps you’ve had the same conversation with your doctor that I’ve had. You go for a checkup, you are overweight and they suggest you lose weight for your health. I told my doctor lots of times that I’m great at losing weight. During my last big attempt in 2013 I lost more than thirty pounds in a little over two months. It was amazing how incredibly fast I lost that weight and without feeling particularly hungry. But that was more than three years ago. I’ve put it all back on and some extra.

This of course is the story of all my dieting over the years and probably yours as well. I might add that through all this dieting and not, I’ve never shirked staying physically fit. Most days I get my 10,000 steps in and I’m at the health club regularly. My latest blood test shows no issues with pre-diabetes, cholesterol or the usual things that alarm doctors. I’m basically a healthy overweight late middle age adult.

So I’ve been arguing with my doctors. They concede that with a few exceptions most of their patients who have taken off weight have put it back on and then some too. They really don’t have any solution to this problem other than to eat less and exercise more, something proven not to work for most people. If you are diabetic or have high cholesterol of course there are things you can do to address those issues. Obsessing about your weight is probably not one of them, but eating better and exercising regularly may be.

The evidence is clear for those of us that choose to see it: dieting almost always causes subsequent weight gain in excess of what you took off. In short, dieting works for a little while then it will recoil, exacerbating the problem. And you will doubtlessly feel guilty about the weight you’ve put back on, figuring it is due to some fault or lack of character on your part. Dieting then becomes not just a physical problem but a mental one too.

But here’s what the diet industry won’t tell you: it’s not your fault. Every time you diet your body sensibly thinks it is being starved and keeping it alive is its primary mission. It learns lessons by lowering your metabolism, so every calorie packs more punch. And because the body says, “I am not at the weight I should be” it will cause you to crave more food. The diet industry depends on diets to fail so you will start the cycle of concern and shame again and they can collect more money by building false hope.

In truth you don’t need to be a Skinny Minnie. And you don’t have to spend the rest of your life fighting cravings for food. The yo-yo dieting cycle will probably do more to kill you prematurely than being overweight and controlling your weight.

So resolve to stop dieting in this New Year. It’s counterproductive. Barring some new drugs that can reset your metabolism permanently (now there’s an area for some medical research!) you probably aren’t going to be a Skinny Minnie for the rest of your life. You may achieve it for a time, but the odds are you will yo-yo back.

Of course if you are overweight or obese and you continue eating the way you are now, you will probably gain more weight. But the reason you are eating more is that you have lost the ability to eat intuitively. That’s the premise behind Intuitive Eating, a book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, two registered dieticians, a program with more than twenty years of success. Dieting has caused our signals to get crossed. Among other things we have lost the ability to feel satiated.

Learning to eat intuitively again introduces natural control over diet without feeling like you are giving up anything. This should give you a feeling of empowerment, feeling you can enjoy food again and reduce the pointless guilt trips that come with diets that rarely succeed in the long run. After months of pondering where to go from here in my journey, it is the next logical step. I’ve enrolled in a local Intuitive Eating course and the book is our foundational text. I’ll let you know how it goes.

It’s worth discussing what causes this destructive cycle in the first place. Part of it is clearly models, both literally and figuratively. Models are typically very slim and many have chronic eating problems of their own. We also tend to model actors, who are disproportionately slim and attractive as well. We project onto ourselves that they are examples of who we should be.

In fact, models and actors are the exceptions to the rules, freaks really compared to the rest of us. Those who are not dealing with their own eating disorders though are at a normal weight mainly because they are intuitive eaters. I have an older brother who is an intuitive eater. He always ate slowly and has been skinny his whole life. The rest of us: not so much. What they are doing is not all that special. It’s something they’ve had their whole life and no events have come along to set it out of kilter. Moreover, because they have not yo-yo dieted, their metabolism is relatively inefficient, meaning they can eat more of the same foods the rest of us do and by processing it differently they will convert less of it into calories.

The second part comes from body shaming. Parents seeing their children getting overweight will often start them on a rigorous exercise regime, often with calorie restrictions. This is the beginning of a destructive, often lifelong yo-yo dieting cycle, one that will likely cause a lot of mental distress, and drive overeating and insecurity. One of the worse things parents can do is restrict food choices for their children. Instead they should make food plentiful and available when desired and children will eat intuitively.

For those of us for which all this is too late, learning how to eat intuitively again makes a lot of sense. While we are unlikely to be Skinny Minnies again, we will regain weight control, stop the chronic craving that cause us to overeat, bring our metabolism into balance, lose the guilt, enjoy food again and feel we have control over our lives again.

That sounds like a resolution I can keep.

 
The Thinker

Where there’s a will, there’s a way (and probably a trust)

Republicans are known to loathe paying taxes and don’t like subsidizing anyone’s freight. There is of course one prominent exception: family. Republicans believe that you can’t be too generous with your blood relations. Which is why they want to repeal the federal estate tax. They really resent the idea that some of their wealth should be taxed upon their death, depriving their heirs of their treasure. Their rationalization goes something like this: we already paid taxes during our life, so why should our estate pay it after death too? So they are hot on the task of abolishing the federal estate tax although presumably it will be somewhat behind other vital tasks like neutering the House Ethics Committee and killing Obamacare.

Unsurprisingly, the estate tax doesn’t affect most of us, as your estate has to be worth at least $5.4M before it pays any federal estate taxes. It won’t affect my wife and I, unless I get some extraordinary growth in our assets between now and death. Unsurprisingly, there are ways to avoid estate taxes, or at least pay less in these taxes. One primary way is to create a “trust”. Like a corporation, I’ve discovered a trust is a legal person-less fiction, which is funded by a sizeable portion of your assets. The general goal of a trust is to avoid estate taxes altogether, so your heirs or designees can get the money instead of greedy old Uncle Sam. Frankly, there is no point to having a trust otherwise. You’d just have your executor cut checks once your estate is out of probate.

Some states tax your estate too, states like Massachusetts where I live now. The commonwealth taxes estates worth more than $1M. In our case because we are married the limit is $2M. The estate tax levied ranges from between .8% and 16% of the amount over the limit, depending on your estate’s value. Since our state’s estate tax threshold is not indexed for inflation, unless we spend down our assets the estate will likely grow beyond $2M. Assuming our estate is worth $3M after our deaths, which is likely, Massachusetts will collect a cool $128,700.

This is what I learned from our new attorney, who is coaching us through the will and estate business because we are making new wills. We had wills when we lived in Virginia, but estate taxes were not a concern because of the federal cap and because Virginia doesn’t have an estate tax. For about $2000 extra though we could pay our attorney to create the legal fiction of a “trust”. Actually, we’re creating two trusts, one for each of us. Spending $2000 to save $128,700 is an easy decision to make, assuming you have $2000 lying around.

Likely most wealthy people create trusts, but I never figured we would need to create a trust. I guess in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we are wealthy, just on the low side of the scale. All you need is an attorney, some spending money, the right legal language, and a host of signed and notarized documents. Then you can magically tax shelter gobs of money. When completed this month, we’ll have not just one but two trusts, one under my name and one under my wife’s name, with a roughly equal asset allocation between each. If she dies before me and I run out of money, I can take the money in that trust, and visa versa. This is better than an irrevocable trust, which means the money allocated to the trust can never be taken back.

Of course we will still have wills. By the time we are both dead our executor will control both trusts. And since each will directs the money the same way, those inheriting our estate will still get all the money intended for them. The only one that won’t will be the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Sorry guys.

But not to worry, much of our money will go to charitable purposes. 65% will go to our daughter, 5% to a brother, 5% to a sister and 2.5% to a nephew, leaving 22.5% for charitable distribution. 5% goes to two animal shelters, 2.5% to Planned Parenthood, 2.5% to the Organization for Transformative Works and 2.5% to a local spouse abuse shelter. The remaining 10% will go to charities that will allow African Americans, Hispanics and women to fund their college educations. I am painfully aware of my white male privilege and I want to rectify that to some extent, at least posthumously. This could amount to $300,000 or so.

Still, I am aware that this is basically a dodge to escape the estate tax. I suspect though that we will give more of our estate to charitable causes than most of these moneyed Republicans will. Instead, their money will likely go to their pampered and spoiled offspring, who would be wealthy even if their parents paid an estate tax. This was the reason that trusts were created in the first place.

One way to rectify this inequity would be to tax inheritances, which only five states do. There is a federal inheritance tax, but the first $5,450,000 per person in gifts is excluded from taxation. Unsurprisingly, rich people find ways to pass more of their inheritance to their children through additional trusts.

I think the whole idea of creating trusts to dodge taxes for people related to you to be reprehensible. A more just society would not allow it. Trusts though are either/or, so you can either choose to have one or not, so we’ll be creating them with some reluctance. Our trusts will shelter our charitable contributions but also give a few of our relatives a windfall undiminished by estate taxes. C’est la vie.

 
The Thinker

Occam’s Razor 2016 statistics

It’s a brand new year but it’s already looking a lot like 2016 with a terrorist incident killing dozens in Istanbul. I won’t reprise 2016 here, but I will do my annual look at my blog’s statistics and usage in 2016 to see what people were reading. I’m keeping it succinct this year. When I moved hosting I lost my web statistics, and a lot of the statistics I used to count are less trustworthy.

Web traffic

Overall web traffic was down modestly compared to 2015, about 10% overall. Web traffic does not include non-browser (syndicated) traffic. The vast majority of web traffic is from people who arrive via search engine queries. Considering the blog home page is the #1 most accessed page, perhaps I get a lot of readers who prefer to read the blog the old fashioned way: by coming to it using a browser. It’s hard to know.

In 2016 there were 3.66% fewer users (16,185 users), 5.33% fewer sessions (16,993 sessions) and 9.71% fewer page views compared to 2015, according to Google Analytics. A total of 20,650 pages were served, if Google Analytics is measuring traffic correctly.

I also track web traffic with StatCounter and Quantcast. Quantcast recorded about 14,800 visits and about 14,800 global views. StatCounter counted 14,190 first time visits, 14,555 unique visits and 17,026 page views.

One of the mysteries of this business is why Google tends to see more traffic than other sources.

Top content

Unsurprisingly, plenty of readers were looking for sex, as I make scanning Craigslist’s casual encounters section a monthly feature of the blog. Without doing this I suspect my traffic would have sagged more than it did. In 2015 this post became something of a hit and shows up as #2 in this list for 2016:

  • Site home page (5739 page views)
  • Craigslist casual encounters weirdness, May 2015 (Hartford CT) edition (1554 page views)
  • Eulogy for my mother in law (523 views)
  • JonBenet Ramsey and the tip of the iceberg (506 views)
  • Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface (244 views)

Feed hits

It’s hard to know how much syndicated traffic I am getting. I use Feedcat.net to measure traffic. I assume it is reasonably accurate. Unfortunately, I can only get a graph, and I can only see statistics for the last six months. A few days ago I had a spike of 254 unique weekly readers, but overall I averaged 30-40 unique readers a week.

Occam's Razor feed traffic July-Dec 2016

Occam’s Razor feed traffic July-Dec 2016

In general I’m getting a lot less syndicated traffic than a year ago. It’s unclear if this is due to less interest or Feedcat changing its algorithm. They are not transparent about their methods.

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 2016 according to Google Analytics:

  1. Taxes (188 hits)
  2. Craigslist (133 hits)
  3. Tarsal tunnel (101 hits)
  4. Rose Rosetree (99 hits)
  5. Star Trek (95 hits)

Top category

Sociology (30 views)

Top browsers

  1. Chrome (55% of traffic, up 10% from last year)
  2. Safari (20% of traffic, down from 22% from last year) – This is probably mostly hits from iPhones and iPads
  3. Firefox (10% of traffic, down 5% from last year)
  4. Internet Explorer (10% of traffic, down 3% last year)
  5. Android browser (2% of traffic)

Busiest month: January (2091 sessions)

Slowest month: November (1004 sessions)

Mobile sessions in 2016: 4767 smartphone and 918 tablet sessions

% Mobile visits of Total Visits: 28%

Who’s reading?

Quantcast used to provide demographics of my readership. This year it tells me it can’t, at least not without a premium subscription. Google Analytics though think it knows. Here are some things it says about you readers:

  • The highest segment of readers is ages 25-34 (24%)
  • Men mostly read my blog (62%)
  • 44% of traffic comes from the United States, 25% from Germany, 7% from the Netherlands, 6% from the United Kingdom and 2% from Canada

Social Media

Google Analytics tracks social usage. It counts as top referrers:

  1. Pinterest (150 sessions)
  2. StumbleUpon (87 sessions)
  3. Twitter (42 sessions)
  4. Facebook (42 sessions)
  5. Blogger (22 sessions)

More in 2018.

 

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