Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Hello, Seniors!" The Economics of Aging

© Joe Heller, Green Bay Press-Gazette

Exactly what is considered "old" varies according to whether a given industry thinks it can make money off of you, versus whether it feels obligated to pay you. AARP is lowering the "retirement age" to recruit new members, while the Social Security Administration would very much like to raise the retirement age somewhere past infinity.

I remember back in the day (now I am really dating myself) when you started getting discounts, free stuff and, mostly, respect, around age 55. Coincidentally, that is where I am at currently, and none of these promised benefits is anywhere in sight. Seriously, where are the rewards for putting up with the world for more than half a century? Endurance ought to count for something, and I grew up with the notion that you "respect your elders." Today, our older generations are caricatures and stereotypes of themselves, constantly reinforced by advertising.

"Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!" is the classic interpretation of aging now. If you are a male, I suppose it is more like "Help, I can't get it up!" The point is that our society is all too eager to celebrate the negative side of aging through products, while terribly reluctant to recognize the personal and at-large hardships that older persons have overcome. If there is not a profit to be made from you or your frailty, then you are ignored. Worse yet, every effort is made to avoid obligations made to you through your employment history and government programs.

The problems with social security, for example, began to intensify when politicians began referring to the program as an "entitlement," as if those individuals who stand to gain from it are acting like demanding little brats instead of the exhausted adults they are, indeed entitled to what they, and their employers, put into coffers as a reward for time served, and to allow the next generation gainful employment in a given industry, at a given company.

Greed has taken hold now, and there is a relentless effort to privatize social security such that once again a profit can be made off the backs of the labor force. This amounts to an employee working twice: once for their employer, doing actual labor, and second for Wall Street speculators to use retirement funds to rake in cash for those who are already wealthy beyond reason. Ironically, those who can most easily partake of the benefits of stocks, real estate, and related markets are those very CEOs and other high-ranking corporate types who employed the people they would then be exploiting through privatized social security.

Scams. Oh, the scams that are taking elderly people to the cleaners. Well, if you ask me, old folks have already seen it all, and the vast majority are skeptical of legitimate offers, let alone anything that sounds too good to be true. Not every person over seventy-five is on the verge of Alzheimer's, dementia, or some other mind-degrading illness.

What should trouble us more is the pervasive condition of neglect and physical distance between the elderly and their offspring. Our celebrated "mobile society" has stretched family ties to all corners of the country, even the globe. How can we care for those closest to us in blood relation if we are hundreds of miles or more apart? Here is where we could stand an education from Blacks (African Americans, or your preferred form of address) and Native Americans (Indigenous Peoples, or your preferred form of address). Those cultures are, traditionally, far healthier in many ways for having multiple generations under one roof, or at least next door or in the same neighborhood. Think of what our children are missing today in wisdom, love, compassion, and entertaining stories because grandma and grandpa live on the opposite coast.

There is thus nothing friendly about aging the way our profit-driven society now thinks and acts. We deprive you of proximity to your children and grandchildren as they go forth to prosper in the global marketplace. We divorce you from your savings, your ability to make your own decisions, and your dignity. You are nothing if not incontinent, impotent, or in need of personal locomotive devices, hearing aids, or new joints. Oh, and Medicare may or may not be there to help should you actually need one of the aforementioned products. After all, Medicare is just another "entitlement," you know.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Olympics


After careful deliberation, I deem the Rio version of the thirty-first Olympiad worthy of a score of roughly 4.2. This is much less of a reflection on the host city and the competing athletes than it is on the presentation of the games by NBC, which was simply dreadful.

First, as with all networks these days, NBC assumed that every television spectator has a cable or satellite service and could therefore tailor their Olympics-watching to their own personal tastes. This left those of us without such providers to endure basically only "race" events and women's gymnastics, interspersed with diving and beach volleyball. Seriously, that was about the sum of network coverage on free, commercial television.

The network also missed many an opportunity to profile non-U.S. athletes, though there were some stories here and there. Showing how athletes from what we might consider Third World countries can succeed against athletes from nations where they train almost full-time, and have many of their expenses covered, would be a real source of inspiration and hope to a jaded American audience. As it is, I find myself rooting for the "underdog," especially in the Olympics, because we already have it so good here in the U.S.A.

At least one friend commented on Facebook that it was nice to be free of political advertising and, ostensibly, other matters of more lasting importance economically and socially, during the two week span of televised competition. Still, the irony of someone firing a gun that sends a group of (mostly) Black people running is not lost on me, but no one else will say that because it "isn't the right time," and all of that kind of rhetoric. How doubly ironic that a privileged Caucasian male was the one that committed a crime after his own athletic events had concluded. I am still willing to help pay to extradite his ass back to Brazil, by the way.

The opening and closing ceremonies were the real treat, of course. It never ceases to amaze that the host nation raises art and pageantry to a new level. We need this kind of celebration at more frequent intervals than every four years. Why wait for an excuse? Let's do a world art olympics every two. Also, the commentary on the ceremonies was limited, much like it is for parades, and that is how every event should have been handled.

Among the worst aspects of Olympic coverage were the commentators and analysts. Every event should have been handled with a lot less verbiage, let alone criticism. If ever there were athletic competitions that could do without voice overs entirely, it would be the Olympics. Why not simply explain each event beforehand, then sit back silently and watch the athletes execute? Instead, we get negative comments on all but the most perfect dives and gymnastics performances. I really don't care that you know it all because you are retired from the sport you are analyzing. Shut up and let the rest of us enjoy.

What made NBC think a late night party with Ryan Seacrest was a good idea? His "interview" skills are non-existent, and the rest of the broadcasts were so exploitative of the locals as to make me want to vomit. Even Bob Costas seemed off of his game, relegated to presenting the latest medal count and trying to play along with female gymnasts half his age or younger. You are not "hip" anymore, Bob, get over it.

All of this said, spectator athletics are exactly that: entertainment. Few athletes recognize that they are entertainers, but it is those who do that we adore the most, and who are usually the most successful. It also makes some of those athletes the most hated, misunderstood, and mistreated of all.

Muhammad Ali was perhaps the first athlete in the modern era to recognize his stature as an entertainer, and he played it to the hilt. He was so masterful, in fact, that many people mistook his on-stage (in the ring) persona for his actual character as a human being. Later, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Jr. and Shaquille O'Neal took to the basketball court all smiles and we loved, as we do, watching someone who loves what they do for a living. Simone Biles actually smiled during her floor exercise routine. How can you not love that?

Well, another Olympiad is in the books, for better or worse. We can only hope that coverage for the next one in Tokyo is going out for bid. Maybe PBS will get it, though I wonder how many people would fall asleep during its broadcast. Personally, I am hoping that it goes to Comedy Central.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Two Cars, but at What Cost?

The new Hyundai (foreground) and old Saturn (background)

We had occasion to take our 2002 Saturn in for a check-up last month, and the upshot was that it became clear we needed a newer, safer, more reliable vehicle for my wife to get to and from work, at least by winter when the roads get icier and diceier. The process of purchasing that second car left me feeling both relieved and anxious in ways I was not accustomed.

Heidi, my spouse, became uneasy when the dashboard on the Saturn lit up with a red "ABS" warning. Wow. I had no idea that automobiles even had abs, let alone that they were that important. Apparently, the car had not been doing crunches or sit-ups for awhile. Ok, so we learned that "ABS" stands for "Anti-lock Braking System," and that is a pretty integral part to driving safely. Unfortunately, the Saturn is no longer in production, and neither are many parts for those models still on the road. That includes the ABS. So, we are left with a vehicle that functions incompletely, and hence the need for a newer car.

Heidi really does her homework when it comes to important purchases. She likes to consult Consumer Reports first, and in her research she discovered a handful of models ranking reliable and safe, while still within our price range. We settled on a 2013 Hyundai Elantra advertised at a local car dealership, and went to take a look.

As it turned out, that particular vehicle was still awaiting title transfer and other paperwork from Oregon. Coincidentally, or not, the dealer had another Elantra, this one a 2015 model, damaged in a recent hail storm, that was good to go. It was a rental car in its previous life. It was a little more expensive, but had slightly less mileage, and was a color that we liked much better than the model we had come to see. More questions answered, and a short test drive later, and we were filling out forms. Surprisingly, to me, the last thing we did was write a check for the downpayment.

We wrote two checks, actually, from our separate bank accounts. We have been lazy and, for whatever reason, reluctant to merge our financial records. I think it comes from us both having been single for so long, and reliant only on ourselves for our welfare. We just are not used to the idea of combined incomes. Well, I hardly have an income, and that has led to guilt and frustration for me. This expense, an unforeseen and large amount, pretty much erased my savings. Earlier in the month I had to write a check in the same amount to repay half the advance from the now-terminated contract to do the spider field guide.

I felt like I went from zero to "adulting" in about six seconds. It is an emotion and stress that has not left me. In fact, it has intensified. I am also dealing with a cantankerous father, who will be 91 on August 8, for whom my cousin and myself are trying to finalize legal documents concerning my dad's will, estate, medical directives, and related matters.

The other aspect of a new vehicle purchase that makes me uncomfortable is my personal view that we, collectively as an American society, should be driving less, using less fossil fuels, and relying more on public transportation, pedestrianism, bicycling, and other modes of transit that are healthier for ourselves and the environment. While I like the idea that I now have a vehicle at my own personal disposal, any day regardless of whether my wife is carpooling with a co-worker, I am reluctant to indulge in that luxury.

So, it is a mixed bag of blessings, curses, and unanswered questions that we face in this new automobile. Where are we going to find the money for the payments and the increased insurance premiums? How much longer are we going to have the old Saturn, and what will become of it when it is no longer useful to us? What will we be sacrificing for fuel, repairs, and other expenses? The prospect of having to get a more traditional "job," outside the home, demoralizes me because so few opportunities for employment mesh with my personal values. It may come to that, though, and while it may be another part of "adulting," I don't know how well I would stomach it.

These days, my progress comes in small doses. Avoiding addictions as coping mechanisms, for example. Accomplishing a load or two of laundry, and writing one blog post may be all I can do in a given day. Avoiding the temptation to flee in the old Saturn. That may, ironically, be another victory.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Trust Issues


I find it ironic, but sadly so, that both sides of the gun control debate share one thing in common: We don't trust anybody. At all. Answer me this, though. If you shoot first, how are you ever going to know the true character of someone? As I write this we have not only a recent mass shooting event in our collective consciousness, but an entire population of people in fear for their lives from authority figures we were once taught were our friends and protectors.

I am reminded of one of the tag lines from the television show The X-files: "Trust No One." Well, we're there, folks. Not only that, but we now assume the worst about each other until proven otherwise. The problem is, you cannot prove yourself if you are wounded or dead.

Many will point to the National Rifle Association as the villain in promoting gun ownership and the proliferation of those weapons. Are they not merely capitalizing on our growing distrust of our neighbors, the government, law enforcement, immigrants, other races, and those with different lifestyles? The media may be the catalyst in all of this. How many times can you hear about crime after violent crime, night after night on the evening news, before you start getting paranoid? Heck, we have entire television networks now devoted to covering crime twenty-four seven, three sixty-five.

Nothing like this kind of violent epidemic happens in a vacuum, or even from a single incident. We have the "military-industrial complex" which would be better called the "military-technology" complex today; but we've since added the "industrial-prison complex" with privatization of prisons and a larger incarcerated population than history has ever known....anywhere. Is it any wonder the powers-that-be have no interest in stopping crime? They cannot actively promote it, so the next best thing is to just ignore it, or kill two birds with one stone and throw up their collective hands and gesture to the gun lobby. We're all on our own and that suits the suits just fine. More gun sales, more inmates, more money.

Fear of terrorists is icing on the cake. They are actually more convenient scapegoats than they are a real domestic threat because yeah, Homeland Security has to do something to justify its bureaucratic existence. They do seem to be increasingly efficient at thwarting plots, but still at the cost of liquid-free airline flights, and pat-downs beforehand. The greatest price we pay, though, remains an eroding trust of our fellow man and woman. We are driven to, and oppressed by, suspicion, constantly reminded to assume the worst about a lonely bag in the terminal, or the passenger in a turban.

The propaganda is not limited to the airport of course, and the incessant refrain is to depend on "product" as the solution. Build a wall. Install the alarms and surveillance cameras. Take up arms. Prepare to defend yourself because everyone is out to get you. The only people out to get you are those in charge of the marketplace. They fleece you daily, and legally, feasting on your desire for comfort and security, and your weaknesses that stem from fear and loathing.

As long as profit is to be made from pitting average citizens against one another, the tyrants of the economy will continue to undermine our social, cultural, and institutional fabric. They may pull strings politically, but they are still at our mercy as consumers. We can still refuse to buy into their "logic," their merchandise, their system.

It is probably going to take a "Berlin Wall moment" to force change. An act of defiance, that is what we need now. Someone will think of something that goes beyond an ordinary protest, and the dominoes will fall. It won't be our government "leaders" who do anything. They have proven themselves incapable time and time again.

For our part, we have become too lazy, too distracted, and far too willing to "go with the flow" as dictated by authority figures. It is John Carpenter's film They Live, come to life. There is not even anything subliminal anymore in the commands to consume, obey, submit, conform, stay asleep, and shut up. We are wearing blinders of our own making and it is time to take them off, take up love guns, chew gum, and kick booty. I, for one, am all out of gum.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016



I like to think that I don't have an ego, or at least not a big one, but lately I find myself facing emotions and triggers that make me realize I might be wrong about that. It has also started me thinking about what an ego is, what it is connected to, and why it is largely considered a "man thing."

Pressed to define myself, I would have to say I am a writer who knows a lot about entomology, the study of insects. Many people would reverse the order, saying I am an entomologist who writes. That is flattering, and it is the reputation I have earned through countless hours of volunteering to answer online questions about "bugs," giving public presentations, and writing my other blog, Bug Eric. Oh, and I was principal author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Here in Colorado, that seems to matter little, and people frequently credit a retired state entomologist for everything they know and appreciate about insects.

This individual has remained a mystery to me. He has never introduced himself to either welcome me or express regret at my arrival here four years ago. That stings a little when colleagues don't acknowledge you. What hurts more is what I perceive as a fierce loyalty to this person that I will never receive from anyone who has met both of us. Whatever I do will never be as good as what he did.

I find I have a competitive tendency in situations like this, and I really don't like to be competitive. I would rather have a cooperative, equality-based relationship with most people. I don't consider myself superior, and in fact I now get an inferiority complex at the mention of this entomologist's name.

So, our ego wants to cultivate a sense of loyalty among others; and it will become fiercely competitive in order to achieve that. What else is the ego up to that we may or may not be conscious of? The first definition of ego in my handy The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, copyright 1973, is "The self as distinguished from all others." Ah-ha! We literally want to "be somebody." Our ego is a product of everything we have done to achieve our sense of identity, from being kind to strangers to earning a degree, to climbing the ladder of our career. This is where things might come undone. Men in particular often equate their entire identity with their occupation. Suddenly, you seem to slip down a notch in the hierarchy of your field and all emotional hell breaks loose. You are convinced that you are now a "nobody."

Why do we so easily forget that our identity is not just what we do for a living, but who we are as human beings? A good analogy, perhaps, is colleges and universities. The most graphic presentation of these academic institutions is their athletic teams. The football and/or men's basketball program are the public face of the whole school. Measuring the quality of education at a school by the performance of its sports teams is, of course, ludicrous, but we do it every single season. Likewise, our career status is what everyone sees in us, regardless of whether they truly know us. It can be argued persuasively that we put entirely too much effort into career success at the expense of family, friends, and community, maybe even our own physical and mental health.

The other thing about occupation is that it is something tangible, demonstrative, and that is really high on the men's priority list. Guys, try listing less visible qualities about yourself. Hard, isn't it? Somewhere I have filed away a list of my own positive attributes (strengths) and negative personality traits (weaknesses) in case I ever have another job interview. We, myself included, don't seem to devote nearly as much time and energy into becoming better human beings as we do to being better workers, supervisors, or CEOs. This is tragic and ironic when you consider the people you hold in high esteem. They are likely to be people who impacted you directly as friends, mentors, partners. We can admire public figures, but we love family, friends, and colleagues close to us.

I'm feeling better already for having reminded myself that I am not "just" a writer or an entomologist. I am a husband, a friend, a volunteer, and sometimes an activist. So who are you? Take a moment, I can wait. Think about this daily, make it a habit to praise yourself for the intangibles. That is where you earn what is most valuable and irreplaceable of all: true loyalty.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Why I Should Not Have a Gun


Instead of pouring gas on the fire in the ever-incendiary debate over gun control (as in should we even have any), I thought it might be better, or at least more entertaining, to discuss why I, personally, should never be allowed anywhere near a firearm. After all, I cannot speak to the mental fitness and personal motivations of anyone but myself. Brace yourself.

First of all, as I have written before, I suffer from periodic bouts of depression. I don't handle setbacks well, be they personal or professional. Were I to have had a gun in my possession, up until now at least, I would be dead, disfigured, or disabled several times over. One of the aspects of my brand of depression is a tendency toward impulsive behavior. Thankfully, I rarely act out any more, but we should play it safe just in case.

The impulsive tendencies thing brings me to my second and more important issue: potential for homicidal actions. That guy that turned left on a red light and almost hit pedestrian me today? Oh, he'd be toast in a heartbeat. The person who hurt a loved one physically or emotionally? I would hunt. you. down. The next corporate big-wig who does something heinous in the name of profits? Ka-boom! The politician who caves to special interests while their constituents suffer? Do you feel lucky, punk?

Need I even mention the many inanimate objects that would be full of holes if not destroyed were I to have access to firearms? Another pro-fracking advertisement on television? Blam! The washing machine acting up yet again? Bang-bang-bang. Bang.....Bang. The mirror is making me look bad again? Ok, you get the picture. Many of you may have similar fantasies of justice by "execution," but I am inclined to have doubts about my sustained sanity and it is no doubt better to not have lethal weapons at hand.

How about you? Do you have better self-restraint? Do you practice not only your marksmanship on the firing range, but stress-reduction techniques? Are you impulsive, in a way that might jeopardize your own life or the lives of others? I trust my readers to make an honest assessment of themselves, I truly do.

What makes me fearful of the continuing proliferation of guns and gun owners is that I don't trust everyone who owns or purchases a firearm. I firmly believe that, ironically, it is a fundamental distrust of others in our society that has put us in this predicament. It started long before mass shootings. It started with the revelations of child molestation in the church, and the fall of others in positions of authority whom we used to trust implicitly, from cops to doctors to lawyers. Alright, maybe not lawyers.

Today, if we don't shoot first and ask questions later, we at least fire accusations like bullets before we have all the pertinent information. Impatience with our justice system, the explosion of opinion through mass media and social media, and dwindling empathy for others have all conspired to fuel a paranoia like we have never seen before. What does paranoia lead to? Impulsive behavior.

Those who argue that gun control would do nothing to stem the flow of blood in the streets may have a point. It would not cure what truly ails us. Rebuilding personal trust, a sense of community, and cultivating a culture of respect and empathy are what we need to do. I am not sure where to begin myself, other than trying to be a good example for others to follow. Right. Well, I can at least pledge not to murder the mirror of the television set.

Meanwhile, I do hope that should you decide to acquire a gun, you do so with a clear head and heart, and a keen sense of the responsibility involved with a decision of such gravity. I will try and trust your judgment, try not to fear you, and reserve my judgment based on your behavior, armed or not. I ask for your respect and understanding in return. Thank you. Hm-m-m, I wonder if they will print this essay. Oh, wait, it is on my own personal blog. Whew. We will probably have one less dead editor.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Hardest Holiday

Dad and me, circa 1997

Ok, so technically Father's Day is not a holiday, but it is one of those occasions that elicits deep emotion regardless. It may engender positive feelings, or negative ones. Personally, I envy those who have, or had, a father deeply engaged with their family, but I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose someone so beloved. There are others who have never known their father at all, due to abandonment, death, divorce, or some other catastrophe. I do not have an inkling as to the depth of that bitterness, either.

My parents separated when I was about nine years old, and divorced officially when I was eleven. I have no siblings. On the one hand, I would not have wished my parents' tumultuous family life on anyone else, but on the other hand I had no one to validate my own experiences or perceptions of family reality. What I hoped for was that the divorce would bring a "cease fire" but instead it merely changed the focus of arguments to money. Dad apparently wanted to pay less child support than the court ordered, and he may have appealed to that end. I can only rely on hearsay from what my mother had told me, and I have learned to expect both parents to stretch the truth.

What I do recall was the court-mandated visitations with my father every other weekend, and splitting Christmas Eve and Christmas Day between the two households. My mother would always interrogate me upon my return from my father's place, and I felt guilty if I had a good time. Dad would sense this and become angry, and so the wheel of guilt and fear went round and round. I was damned if I did, damned if I didn't. I was a "momma's boy" to my dad, and "just like your father" to my mom. Neither were compliments.

What I apparently inherited from my father is what I appreciate most. He has aged well, and has always been a good-looking man. He is incredibly artistic, creative, and talented in a variety of media, from wood to wax to metal. His chosen career and business was as a jewelry designer and he did fabulous custom works for his clients. I am not half bad in the creative departments of illustration and writing if I may be so bold as to assert that. Dad also had a great work ethic which I have slowly lost.

What I learned from my father has been the source of much personal humiliation, professional setbacks, and social awkwardness. My father gets his way by being demonstrably angry. His temper is something I fear to this day. He is opinionated to the point of being a bigot and a racist, or nearly so. He does not play well with others, especially in the workplace. He was selling insurance during my infancy and toddler years, and he made no bones about hating that. He moonlighted as a jeweler, repairing watches and creating the odd ring or pendant for someone.

Dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps, to take over his jewelry business when he could no longer produce. I am not entirely sure he has forgiven me for following a different path. Now that his second wife has passed, several years ago now, and my mother passed away in December of 2014, he wants me and my wife to move back to the Portland, Oregon area to spend more time with him, if not take care of him, and save him the headache of selling his home. He wants his way, as usual.

I cannot fathom the circumstances of abuse and neglect, and/or the foster care system that others endure or have endured. My mother could. She was in the foster care system before we even had the standards of care we have today. What you learn about parenting during your childhood you also tend to apply when you become a parent. This negative cycle can be turned around, but it takes either immense personal effort at not repeating mistakes, or the proverbial "village," or both. Today we no longer trust the village. We even home school our children for fear they might be exposed to concepts like evolution, or be surrounded by "others" who we ourselves fear and loathe.

My father has never really earned my respect, but now here I am faced with growing responsibility for decisions that he soon may not be able to make for himself. How ironic. I will at some point likely be the parent to my parent. I do hope I can act with compassion and sensitivity, even in the face of his anger that stems from who-knows-what or where.

Boys, enjoy your good father if you have one, today and every day. Rise above your bad father. Seek mentors not only for your potential career, but for examples of what it means to be a man, a husband, a father. Girls, take joy and pride in your good father. Look for mentors yourselves to help you find a good husband if your father is not a good man. Today, take stock. Be honest. Be your father's champion, or be your own.