Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tired of Political Bi-Polarity

I am disgusted by American politics today. (I probably don’t like any politics – but I am not a historian or an international scholar, so I’ll stick to what I see here on TV and online.)

The blind bi-polarity of our two major parties gets in the way of really constructive discussion, and decisions that actually meet the needs of a majority of the taxed and voting population. Issues are portrayed as black or white, right or wrong, intelligent or stupid, well-intentioned or mean-spirited. How did we become so aggressively divided? It feels like a Civil War.

It’s the rare politician that works effectively with others from the opposite side of the aisle. Shouldn’t that scenario be the norm? Politics shouldn’t be about scoring points, zingy sound bites, and “winning”. They should be about caring public servants working together with the best of intentions to make our country better.

I am not holier than thou. I am passionate about issues, and sometimes get frustrated when other people see things differently. But if there’s one thing I learned from a career in business – that’s when you do your homework so you’re sure you know what you’re talking about, bite your tongue to hush hard words so you don’t ruin relationships, negotiate a middle ground, make a decision for the greater good, and move ahead. Anything else is akin to being stuck in a car in a busy intersection with everyone honking their horns, getting a headache, and going nowhere.

It makes me heartsick to see political attacks ads. I would prefer for a candidate to tell me why they should be elected; not why the other person shouldn’t. Get your digs in (if you must) during a debate, when the opportunity presents itself – in a controlled, factual way.

On Facebook, I sigh when I see people “Like” mean-spirited pages related to politics. Truly, I don’t care whether you Like Sarah Palin or would “Rather Have a Root Canal Procedure” than hear her speak. (And by the way, do you have any idea to whom you have provided your personal Facebook information by Liking that page?) If can’t stand her, turn off the TV when she comes on. When/if she runs for office – don’t vote for her.

I feel a little like the woman who spoke so eloquently at Obama’s recent Town Hall – EXHAUSTED. All the nastiness and bi-polarity are getting in the way of progress for our nation. Let’s try to understand each other’s perspectives and support decisions that are in the best interest of our country and our people. Get involved in civilized conversations without sarcasm about opposing views. Be active in causes about which you care. Get out to vote. And tell your representatives how you expect them to behave.

Now let’s all sing Kumbaya.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Adieu Arnold's

The bad economy has claimed another hapless victim. I’ve been plunged into a cranky funk this week with the news that our local diner, Arnold’s, is closing its doors this weekend after decades of serving the neighborhood.

What will happen to the long time servers, busboys, and line cooks? Where will I have my hangover breakfasts? Arnold’s is only a block away. Almost every day I will have to walk by the empty storefront they leave behind. That’s just cruel.

It may be a little hard to understand why this is such a gut-level blow to me. Arnold’s has been a constant and personal landmark since the last time I lived in this same neighborhood 28 years ago. They are an old-fashioned gem; a greasy spoon where you can get inexpensive, tasty comfort food. Their waitresses recognize us and know our ordering quirks (my sliced tomatoes in place of hash browns and Ron’s extra-hot chorizo and green salsa omelet). I have grudgingly accepted that they don’t have Splenda for my coffee (too expensive for them), so I bring my own. Arnold’s is like grimy old sneakers that really should be tossed out – but they are just too darn comfortable to give up. Now they’re being forcibly taken away from me, and I’m pissed off.

I’ll miss their spinach & feta omelet, corned beef hash with poached eggs, and their simply excellent egg salad sandwich. I’ll miss the smiling and efficient Hispanic waitresses. I’ll miss seeing our bill rung up on a giant old mechanical cash register. I’ll miss overhearing the morning-after conversations of the delightfully diverse clientele. I’ll miss hustling quickly over to Arnold’s on a cold winter day for a stomach-warming breakfast and pot of coffee. Dammit, I'll even miss the cracked green vinyl bench seats repaired with duct tape.  Man, oh man.

The demise of our neighborhood’s favorite diner seems like our first step toward preparing to leave Chicago. Take away the things we enjoy and add new disappointments, and little by little we will begin preparing ourselves to say goodbye to the city we love.

I’m sad. :’(

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Don't

We went to the doctor for our annual physical exams earlier this week. We dread it, but do it religiously. After all, what good is it to be retired if you don’t take care of your health? All is well, other than that we both require meds for high cholesterol. Even with that, I naturally have VERY high “good cholesterol”, so my ratio is well within a normal range. I continue to have to manage my carb intake in order to keep Type 2 Diabetes at bay without medication – that will likely be a lifetime challenge.

Sometimes I judge myself harshly (I would like to lose another 15-20 pounds). But I need to remember that I have made a lot of positive changes to my diet and lifestyle over the past 2 years, and give myself credit for those. Here are some of the things “I Don’t” do anymore…

I don’t keep bread in the house.
I don’t eat rice, potatoes, or pasta (except for the occasional spoonful or two when eating out).
I don’t eat sugar, and have replaced it at home with Splenda.
I don’t have potato chips anymore.
I don’t have (my favorite) pancakes for breakfast, except on my birthday and our anniversary.
I don’t regularly use butter – substituting olive oil or Pam instead.
I don’t have sugary desserts.
I don’t eat fruits or veggies that are high in carbs, banning some favorites – like apples and corn.
I don’t snack on popcorn or raisins – both were favorites, but are way too high in carbs.
I don’t eat cereals. Breakfast is usually eggs or an Atkins shake.
I don’t drive anywhere (in Chicago), we walk - or walk to public transportation.
I don’t take my health for granted. I have to make sacrifices to keep it!

I guess this blog today is part bragging and part complaining. But occasionally I need to remind myself about why I made these changes and how important it is to stay on track. I always read labels at the grocery store. You wouldn’t believe how many carbs are lurking in many “healthy” products! We avoid most processed foods, and know exactly what we are eating. I want to keep enjoying my life.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Long Term Outlook

(Please be aware that the following information is part professional opinion of our financial advisor, and part decisions based on our personal financial situation. In no way should this be considered expert advice on which to base your own financial decisions.)

We just had a quarterly call with our financial advisor (I’ll refer to him as J.S.). As always, we look at our current situation, the performance of our investments, our future needs, and the outlook of the economy. I have to say that this session wasn’t as upbeat as some we have had, although we still have confidence in our plan.

Many indicators have bounced around in 2010, but J.S. anticipates that we may have a little positive “pop” at the end of the year. Expected tax increases (or the lapsing of the Bush tax break) will likely cause tax-free municipal bonds to become more popular. Investing in municipal bonds carries some risk – municipalities could conceivably default on their bonds. But the yield from our municipal bond investments is running at about 6%, compared to about 1% for safer U.S. Treasury Bonds. It’s a calculated risk.

One possibility is that the U.S. economy is in a prolonged “sideways” situation that could cause the market to be flat for from 5 to 10 years. J.S. compared the stall in the U.S. economy to what happened to Japan’s economy after their boom years in the 70’s and 80’s. We are about 10 years behind (remember our boom in the 80’s and 90’s?). There is still money to be made, if investments are targeted into growth areas. The silver lining is that this climate is keeping inflation rates low (between 1-2%, when we projected 3-3.5% in our model). We have to hope we don’t slip into a deflationary period, resulting in a double-dip recession, which would be bad for the economy.

When we retired, we rolled over our 401K’s into an annuity, back when their guaranteed return rates were really good. ING doesn’t even offer the plan we have any more, and it’s producing well for us. We have to thank J.S. for that investment. We can’t tap into that fund until I am at least 59 and ½ (about 5 years from now).

After buying the house in Prescott, we will be dual home owners for from one and a half to two years, with increased expenses. We’ve asked J.S. to help us look at our cash flow (income) needs between 2011 and when Social Security kicks in. We sent him our Social Security Statements and the payout info from my Hilton Pension. He’s hoping to find a way to keep our investment principle intact until we are in our 70’s. (As an aside, read your Social Security Statement. This is in black and white, “In 2016 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes. Without changes, by 2037 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted and there will be enough money to pay only about 76 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits.” Depending on your age, you may need to consider this looming issue in your financial plans.)

It’s still really important to plan for your financial future, and we believe it helps if you have a knowledgeable and trusted financial advisor. Ours has come up with some ideas and plans that we might not have unearthed ourselves.

What have you done on your plan lately?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Holiday Without TV

We spent 5 weeks visiting our new home in Prescott, AZ – without television. That probably makes some of you gasp, and others shrug. What’s the big deal? Good question.

I’m a Baby Boomer, you know. We remember when TV was a sometimes privilege – not a constant in the fabric of our daily lives. In the summer we hardly watched TV at all, as we were anxious to burst past the screen door to play in the yard, the suburban streets, and the neighborhood. By evening, we were so worn out from kickball, roller skating, bike riding, hopscotch, and general childish mayhem, that we ravenously replenished spent calories, bathed and went to bed. Special TV shows, like Disney’s Wide World of Color (which we watched in black & white), were a family event. It was a different time.

The TV is too much of a familiar companion now. When we are home, it’s often tuned into CNBC during the day. Most evenings we watch one or two shows, while dinner is often consumed in front of the TV. So it was with some trepidation that we faced over a month in our new home without the luxury of cable TV.

It turned out to be easier than we thought. We devoured a stack of books, re-reading some classic Travis McGee novels by John MacDonald and others by the recently departed Dick Francis. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo kept Ron glued to the sofa for a few rainy days. We had brought some books with us, but bought more, and also borrowed a few paperbacks from the honor library in the club house at Talking Rock Ranch.

We ate our meals at the dining table, accompanied by music instead of what my father sometimes called the “idiot box”. Our days were filled with organizing, cleaning and enhancing our place, shopping, exploring Prescott, fixing meals, and working out. Golf fully occupied us from 2 to 4 times a week. We went to the pool a few times. I gave myself a manicure and took a jewelry-making class. Some special events enhanced our stay, including the Prescott Farmers Market, the Cowboy Poets Gathering, a trip to the horse races, and a Culinary Class taught by our club’s chef. We dined at least once a week at the club and made new friends, and attended a party at our neighbor’s home. Almost every evening we watched the sunset from our back porch, entertained by the birds, lizards, and cottontail rabbits. We weren’t bored.

We arrived back in Chicago late Tuesday night after a long day of travel via plane, trains, and automobile (literally). We unlocked our dusty, stuffy house and dropped our luggage on the floor, thinking we might wind down for bed by watching a little TV. Guess what? Our cable, phone, and internet were dead! Our favorite shows had not been recorded to the DVR.  It would be morning before I would call Comcast for a repair appointment.

As it turns out, one more quiet evening of reading was the perfect way to end our holiday.