Tax Refunds and Stress Tests: An Early Retirement Milestone

Source: Zazzle.com

Source: Zazzle.com

Right in the middle of making popcorn one evening last week the phone rang. A perfect example of snack interruptus. As I continue to mend from a recent surgery, snacks are pretty much the only excitement I have at the moment.

The call was from our accountant and her timing couldn’t have been worse. The new season of “Humans” was just about to start, and I was psyched to again watch actors portraying robots who in turn are portraying humans. I really like this show.¹ As disappointed as I was with the interruption, I had to admit that this is what happens when one keeps a west coast accountant and then moves to the east. Our evening was in full gear; hers hadn’t even started yet.

Only the week before I had mailed back her “organizer” with all of our tax information for 2016. I knew that we’d hear from her soon, and I was bracing myself for what fresh hell awaited us this year. The past two tax seasons had been disappointing due to Gorgeous earning more money than any of us anticipated. Darn the luck, you know?

To stem our April bleeding this time around, Gorgeous made sure in 2016 to send the IRS a higher fixed percentage of her estimated quarterly payments. Our accountant’s software tends to suggest payments that aren’t realistic compared to what she’s making in real time. So after a long discussion with her last season, we changed the calculation and upped the amounts for the new year.

Our newly found diligence paid off for us. Between her higher estimated payments, and the automatic withholdings taken from both my retirement annuity and part-time job, we got a refund back this year of just under $5,000. It’s not ideal to overpay like that, but at the same time it’s a message that we’re finally getting this whole retirement thing under control. It’s a meaningful milestone.

At the accountant’s suggestion, we applied the refund to Gorgeous’ next estimated tax payment for this coming April.

Well. How nice that she’s taken care of. I guess I can kiss goodbye that box set of vinyl Genesis albums I’ve had my eye on for over a year. I remember a time when a refund meant that you could celebrate and buy something nice for yourself. Those days have apparently ended. It’s now all about prudence. Bitter? Who, me? Nah. 

Sigh. Always "next year"... Source: Amazon.com

Sigh. Always “next year”…
Source: Amazon.com

My taking early retirement in 2014 was a sudden and spontaneous decision. A medical concern for me at the time had a major influence, as was a change in my job that hadn’t worked out quite as I hoped it would. Although I never had a strict time frame in mind, it was always a dream of mine to retire before I reached age 60. But at that point in 2014, I was at least three or four years away from busting a move.

Nevertheless I went ahead and took the plunge. I was 55. 

But there were some hurdles in my path:

  • In spite of being divorced for four years, I had a couple of financial entanglements with my ex which remained unresolved.
  • My 401(k) took a small hit four years earlier courtesy of our divorce decree. I was able to get it back to pre-divorce levels thanks to increased contributions, but the overall balance was still short of my previous goals.
  • My amazing new wife brought me lots of unconditional love and happiness, plus a Julia Child-like mastery in the kitchen. But sadly, she had absolutely no personal savings of her own. Divorce hadn’t been as “generous” for her as it was my ex.

Nearly every single retirement article you read advises to plan way ahead of time before walking away from a career. But my own planning was literally squeezed into months instead of years. Although my fundamentals were all there (pension, a substantial 401(k), ample Social Security credits), I was nonetheless confronted by a creeping parental-type voice whispering in my ear saying, “Dude, you’re really taking a risk here.”

Even as a spirit, I really wish Mom would stop calling me “Dude” on those periodic visits of hers. It’s creepy.

Gorgeous and I spent many a night before I retired discussing our plans and going over different financial scenarios. We used spreadsheets and a pendulum (each of us bring different skill sets to the table). We were trying to wrap our minds around how we’d pull this whole thing off without my having to become a dish washer at IHOP and her waiting on tables.²

"Can we assume a modest 3% in the S&P for the next ten years or a more robust 12%?" Only her archangel knows for sure. Source: Pixabay.com

“Can we assume a modest 3% in the S&P for the next ten years, or perhaps a more robust 12%?” Only our archangel knows for sure.
Source: Pixabay.com

To be sure, we’ve experienced some rocky moments and unexpected challenges after I walked out that career door a free man in 2014. For one thing, Gorgeous drastically underpaid her estimated taxes that first year, and boy did we get a whopper of a tax bill the following April. That one hurt.

She was also hit by an absolutely perfect storm of dental issues that began as soon as we arrived in Florida. Like a series of dominos falling, it started with one tooth, then the adjacent tooth, followed by the next one, and so on. When all the dental repair was finally finished by early 2016, our total out-of-pocket expenses for two dentists, one endodontist, and an oral surgeon amounted to over $17,000 (after insurance payments).

I decided later to view all of the above as a kind of “stress test,” similar to those written for the Dodd-Frank Act to test if a banking institution has enough capital to withstand adverse conditions. Ours wasn’t a simulation but we thankfully passed the test with enough of our own capital still intact.

So one milestone noted and filed in the cabinet.

Other milestones on the horizon are the purchase of a new home later this year, building a sizable Roth IRA investment for Gorgeous, and somehow find a way to start traveling more around the U.S. We both have a strong desire to make our way up to Nantucket and beyond.

Oh, and someone desperately wants two kitties.

And while all of that is happening, I once again repeat how I’ll be watching (and bracing myself) for deviations to the campaign pledges the Orange One made about social security and medicare. He made strong promises about keeping both programs intact because of their “popularity” (his word). Let’s pray someone in that administration can explain to him that a government program’s popularity isn’t the same as ratings on TV. I’m not very optimistic about our chances.

Now if you don’t mind, please leave me alone with my popcorn. I’ve had enough interruptions for one day.

Until next time…

¹ For American audiences: Monday nights on AMC. Please also be advised that whenever I publicly endorse a TV show, it becomes a fate worse than death for that particular series. Look for it to be cancelled sometime next summer.

² Apologies to readers who actually work at IHOP and are offended. I think I actually meant Denny’s.

 

The Catch 22

I am recovering now from my recent hernia surgery, and I keep thinking how funny it might be to channel my late mother for this blog post. Mom loved to milk every single medical malady from which she ever suffered. Cousins of mine to this day continue to experience PTSD symptoms from having sat next to her at holiday meals. To her, no detail of her healthcare needed to be private. She happily shared with anyone and everyone; come one, come all.

But thankfully I do realize that although it might be funny to me to do the same, it probably wouldn’t be enjoyable for you, my dear readers. So I’ll spare you all the gory details of the physical experiences I’ve had over the last three or four days.

I’ll also spare you from having to see any more of me wearing that short hospital gown in the above picture (although my photographer wasn’t so fortunate). I now have a glimmer of the challenge celebrity women face when they wear short skirts on talk shows. 

The good news is that apparently the operation was a success. The hernia on my right side was successfully repaired according to the surgeon. He even took pride in also repairing a small one in my center which he thought looked like as if it might later morph into a possible problem.

The bad news is that we discovered this surgeon has a bedside manner similar to Attila the Hun.

We met him only once during an initial exam at his office when he confirmed our family physician’s diagnosis of a hernia. We noticed immediately that this guy had a vastly different personality than our doctor.

Our doctor has a staid and courtly manner which can almost put you to sleep because of his tendency for slow and methodical answers to questions. The surgeon by contrast is fast-talking with a tendency of making you feel guilty for deigning to ask any question, let alone breathe the same air in his presence.

I can probably use the combined persona of celebrity actors to capture just who he is: visualize a blend of John Lithgow and John Malkovich, with just a dash of Christopher Walken, and you pretty much have him. Sarcastic and arrogant with enough creepiness to later put you in the fetal position as he makes an appearance during a nighttime anxiety dream.

Gorgeous, to her credit, noticed all of this immediately at our initial appointment with him. But I minimized her warnings, choosing instead to see him as merely eccentric. The lesson here? If you marry a psychic, perhaps you should pay close attention to her observations.

Things got off to a rocky start at the hospital last week when he greeted us in the pre-op area just prior to surgery. Feeling a bit nervous and also full of whimsy, I decided to make a joke at his expense. He asked me to confirm whether it was a left or right hernia that he was repairing. Confident that I was in the company of a fellow traveler of irony and mirth, I bellowed good-naturedly “Well if you’re not sure which side it is, I guess we’re all in trouble, aren’t we?!” I laughed the hearty laugh, which turned out to be not unlike a proverbial one hand clapping.

Dead silence. Tough room.

Gorgeous somehow summoned an absolutely killer double-interpretation of Marcel Marceau mimicking Tammy Wynette: not saying a word yet somehow standing by her man. The surgeon, on the other hand, looked at me and was morphing into Hannibal Lecter by the second.

I see on average about 30 patients a day,” he said, looking me squarely in the eye. “I can’t keep everyone straight until the day of surgery.” And with that he turned on his heel and left.

I suspect I broke an unspoken rule: don’t piss off your surgeon before an operation.

I remember nothing about the surgery itself except being wheeled into the operating room and greeting all of the staff there as if I were being shown to a table at Joe’s Stone Crab. I later awoke to a nurse in post-recovery who was hell-bent on ignoring my non-verbal cues to stay sleeping. I was groggy and felt sick to my stomach.

I was also apparently impressed by wearing not one but three wrist tags. Gorgeous later told me that I asked her to take a picture of them for this blog. I don’t recall that at all, but it does admittedly sound like me.

hospital-wrist-bandsjpg

Three! I rock.

We arrived back home in the late morning and I slept till around 4:00pm. The nurse’s instructions were clear about not taking any of the pain meds until I had food in my stomach. But the problem was I really had no appetite, and even trying to eat a small cracker resulted in my wanting to vomit. I was feeling strong pain in the surgical area, but couldn’t seem to hold down the slightest bit of food in order to take the pain meds. It seemed like a catch 22.

Gorgeous later used that very phrase when she called the surgeon’s office for instructions. The poor woman on the other end paused for an extended moment because she knew no matter how it was put to him, Dr. Voldemort wasn’t going to be in any mood to deal with this. In hindsight, I wish we had just used our own mothers’ 1970’s home remedy of Coke syrup, ginger ale, and saltine crackers. But no, the good doctor called back in about ten minutes loaded for bear.

After repeating pretty much what she told his assistant minutes earlier, my surgeon decided to be a prosecutor and go full-on with a cross-examination against my wife.

“I have no idea what you mean by a catch 22. What exactly does that mean?,” he asked. 

For the third time, Gorgeous again explained my dilemma: I couldn’t take the pain pills because I also seemed to be suffering from nausea.

His response will forever now be our go-to expression for any illnesses in the future: “Well what do you want me to do?”

Somehow she got him to call in an anti-nausea medication, which I never needed because at some point I actually was able to hold down food. I graduated quickly from crackers to jello and finally to chicken soup. Things were going so swimmingly in the stomach department that I requested nachos later in the evening (it was denied). The pain meds worked well all through that night, and I thankfully switched over to ibuprofen the following day. Since then everything has been fine, though I am still sore.

This coming Thursday I have to return to the surgeon’s office so he can remove the steri strips and sutures. I will go alone, though. One of us is washing her hands of this particular episode.

So all I have to say is be careful when a surgeon is recommended. Bedside manner is certainly not to be underrated, nor is suppressing your own thoughts and concerns aloud.

But do take it from me: keep your jokes and literary references to yourself.

Until next time…

Source: 101books.net

Source: 101books.net

 

Disorder In The House

Disorder in the house
There’s a flaw in the system
And the fly in the ointment’s gonna bring the whole thing down

The floodgates are open
We’ve let the demons loose
The big guns have spoken
And we’ve fallen for the ruse

(Warren Zevon)

Thinking…. thinking hard.

Okay, okay, hear me out with this: I’ve changed my mind. I don’t like the situation in which we find ourself, but as a natural born American citizen (you know, the “regular” kind), I am enacting my inalienable right to make a quasi-citizen’s arrest. Or whatever comparable equivalent Rudy Guliani later tells me is legal.

We can do that, right?

Whaddya say… let’s just suspend the rules and have a total do-over. High school student councils, college senate bodies, school boards, liquor control commissions, etc. all reverse course and change their minds on a regular basis. Hell, even our U.S. Congress does it chronically. I’m pretty sure I have five friends that I think would agree to this, and I bet you’ve got almost as many. This could actually burgeon into something real if we put our minds to it. Trump’s a businessman; he should understand the concept.

I mean, take Nordstrom’s for instance. They’ve always been gracious about accepting the return of an occasional shirt, even when it may have been worn twice and had a tiny stain on the cuff courtesy of a gin and tonic cherry. If an actual profit-minded business can overlook a customer’s foolishness, surely the Electoral College can do the same for us citizens also.

Apples and oranges, you say, eh?

Oh, all right, fine. I see eyes rolling out there. But hey, I’m at least trying to explore some ideas. All I see elsewhere are people standing on the Supreme Court steps fumbling with microphones, singing songs, and asking where the “real people” are. My ex and her divorce lawyer made for a more potent loyal opposition than the Democrats are at the moment.

Folks, I don’t think you need my telling you that we’re in a heap of trouble right now. I can even see it on Jared Kushner’s face. The man looks like a doe in the headlights.

It’s only two weeks and already the junta is flexing its muscles. I’m not quite sure exactly who they’re looking for, but they’re making an absolute mess of things at the airports and ship terminals for arriving passengers. They say it’s not religious-based, but try telling that to the Jewish family who were held for more than six hours after disembarking from their Royal Caribbean cruise in Port Canaveral, Florida last weekend.

Note to self: cancel any shopping excursion plans to St. Thomas, stat.

I now belatedly feel the Bern, truly I do. I hope he understands that I was just being playful when I said he reminded me of my Uncle Shlomo, the one relative in my family who everyone avoided at holiday meals because he talked long and loud, and food particles shot out of his mouth like projectiles. Bernie, you’re no Uncle Shlomo. Seriously, I love you, man. Just say the word and I’ll even embrace that whole budget-busting education plan of yours. For all I know it’s probably cheaper than building a wall.

Not Uncle Shlomo Source: Yahoo News

Not Uncle Shlomo
Source: Yahoo News

What’s most galling for me as I ponder the next two, three, or four years (my bet is two, but I’ll defer to Vegas) is just how much vitriol our ears and eyes will have to process as we filter the daily news. Hostility and partisan mudslinging have long been staples in government, of course. Still, except for some notable exceptions (i.e. Newt Gingrich in the nineties), we expect those in leadership positions to at least fake the part of acting like a statesman.

However, even that pretense is now out the window.

When Orrin Hatch of all people refers to his Democratic counterparts as “idiots,” I know there is zero chance of comity. A recent Washington Post article caught my eye because it warns of a permanent condition called the “New Rudeness” (suggestion: skip down towards the end of the article for the pertinent part).

Look for variant versions of “lock her up!” to be uttered by actual members of Congress and not their supporters at press conferences and forums for the foreseeable future.

Earlier today I learned as I drank my morning coffee that last weekend the president pretty much hung up on Malcom Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister. Apparently Mr. Tump kept hearing things from the prime minister that he wasn’t interested in hearing, so he just ended the call. Good one, Mate.

And as I feared in an earlier post, the administration is now taking aim at Iran. I think we can anticipate a forthcoming round of snark and bombast in the form of tweets about their Supreme Leader. It’s hard not to visualize American naval forces in the Persian Gulf involved in some kind of armed conflict in the not-so distant future. I pray I’m wrong.

Actually for someone who’s not very religious, I’ve been praying quite a bit lately. Or whatever your might call prayer at 3:00am when I lay in bed with my mind going to the most extreme places of angst. My pension, cut! Social Security, cut! Health insurance, “accessible“!

I suddenly miss my previous dreams where I would stand buck naked at the corner bus stop reading a newspaper. I’ll write a detailed post about that sometime if you’re interested. Just ask.

So two weeks in and we’re all on the edge of our seats. I sure as hell haven’t got any coping mechanisms for you, so I’m afraid you’re on your own. If you’re a naturalized U.S. citizen, or you’re here on a green card, I do recommend that you stay put. Call or Skype your loved ones abroad because you’re pretty much stuck in place for now. But, hey, don’t sweat it. The rest of us are too. Pull up a chair and watch the chaos.

Until next time…

I’d Never Steer You Wrong

The problem with giving advice is that you sort of have to know what you’re talking about in order to make a difference in someone else’s life. It’s not a hard and fast rule, though. Many people fake it. They express a noticeable sense of self-confidence and put up strong airs about their superior knowledge. We call such people blowhards, but in fact it should be mentioned that a hefty number of our citizenry here in the U.S. were dazzled by such an approach in the most recent election– 62,979,636 of them to be exact.¹

But with apologies to Oscar Wilde, one can also impress simply by showing a little earnestness.

I learned this myself recently when I unwittingly became an advisor on health insurance to a couple who live in our community. The husband, Billy, is a retired postal worker. We became acquainted by floating on pool noodles in direct proximity to one another over the previous 12 months. This same kind of camaraderie is also formed by men who congregate at doughnut shops every morning in most of your towns. It works the same way at the pool except that there are no carbs, caffeine, or calories ingested. Instead, you have two lazy dudes who pass the time with their belly’s floating up, each pontificating about the status of their pensions or the wait time at the local Jiffy Lube. John Waters, Barry Levinson, or Albert Brooks could have a field day with us.

Billy and his wife Phyllis both turned 65 in the last year and signed up for Medicare Part B. They also wisely kept the health insurance Billy earned by being a postman for 40+ years (the same health plan under which I am also covered as a retired federal employee). But being covered by both Medicare and a second health plan quickly brought unintended stress and confusion into their lives. They weren’t sure whether to stay with their current policy or shop for a new one. And in either case, would they lose all of their current doctors? They felt overwhelmed and confused, and the Open Season health insurance deadline was fast approaching.

In addition to making a call to their eldest daughter, a bright and accomplished accountant, they also sought out a fellow federal retiree who in their eyes knows his stuff. That would be me, your humble blogger.

I’m no blowhard, but I do walk an earnest strut.

Source: Clip Art Kid

Source: Clip Art Kid

Billy, Phyllis, and I had long poolside conversations over a series of days in late October and early November about their many Open Season options. Medicare is now to be their primary insurer, and the policy offered by the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) will be the secondary. Their previous policy, which they had without interruption for nearly 30 years, had become too expensive in combination with the monthly cost of Part B. So they needed to find a more affordable alternative that is economical, yet still allows them to retain all of their doctors, and offer a seamless coordination with Medicare. Not all plans are alike, so shopping and comparing was crucial. Billy and Phyllis admitted to being intimidated by this process.

In short order I went from being Billy’s wise-cracking noodle mate to that of a helpful consigliere. I also had a laptop that when connected to WiFi in the pool area, allowed us to review plans. They do not own a personal computer and that made their struggle all the morning challenging. The three of us would sit at a deck table under an umbrella, and we talked through all of their concerns.

The more we all talked, however, it also became apparent that Billy’s interest and grasp of health insurance matters took a backseat to Phyllis. Although he was the actual cardholder, Phyllis herself would be making this particular decision. While not wishing to deflate or marginalize Billy, my discussions nevertheless became singular with Phyllis only. A private and personal marital dynamic had exposed itself, but it was my polite duty to acknowledge it and not belabor it. We were all on the same page no matter who was doing the talking.

I’ll spare you the details of their ultimate decision, but suffice to say that it was both flattering and stressful to have them ask me for assistance about something so vitally important. In spite of the fact that I myself won’t be eligible for Medicare for another eight years (very comparable to dog years if you think about it), my quest since taking early retirement to learn as much about Medicare and Social Security as I can came in handy.

In the end, Billy and Phyllis chose a very good health plan that has a much lower monthly premium than their previous one. Because Medicare is now their primary insurer, and payments between it and their secondary will be coordinated, this new plan won’t require them to cough up office co-pays or any yearly deductible. It also includes all of their current doctors (who thankfully also accept Medicare). In the words of a song I helped compose while in college, their new policy “filled their basic needs” and then some.²

The experience was both uplifting and gratifying. The other day I bumped into the two of them, and they happily reported that they received one billing statement that showed everything was being handled as it should be. May that continue!

But now dark clouds are appearing on the horizon for what the Trump administration and a Republican Congress have in mind for “reforming” Medicare and Social Security. Candidate Trump said that these entitlements work well for people, and that it was his desire to keep the current system in place. Let’s hope he stands firm not only to Paul Ryan but his own chosen cabinet officials as well. I know I plan on watching closely.

Oh, and my advice to you?  Why, plastics, of course.

Until next time…

¹ Cook Political Report (January 2, 2017)

² The lyrics to the song was one line only, sung both as verse and chorus: “You fill my basic needs.” What we lacked in originality and depth, we more than made up for by acting pithy.

 

Is That a Hernia in Your Abdomen, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Source: Chronically Vintage

Courtesy of the exceedingly kind Jessica at: Chronically Vintage

If you’re like me, you get rattled when latex gloves are pulled out of the examination room drawer. It’s when… and I apologize for this… the rubber meets the road during a doctor’s office exam. That’s the point at which the appointment figuratively speaking goes from getting to know one another over lattes at Peet’s, to warily searching for the exit doors in the lobby bar at a Marriott.

One minute you’re answering questions and having a completely calm conversation, and the very next you’re trembling at the sight of those gloves slowly being fitted around a physician’s hands and fingers. Groping of your most private of areas is about to commence. While I am thankful for his office’s acceptance of my modest insurance co-pay, I’m also thinking that this guy could splash on some aftershave and perhaps pipe in a little Bill Evans or Sade for a more soothing atmosphere. You know, give me something other than the inability to sit comfortably for the next hour.

But no, the experience is really nothing more than a temporary and acknowledged invasion of my privacy and pride. The only saving grace is the knowledge that it’s probably the last thing the good doctor also wants to be doing at that moment. All those sailing magazines in the waiting area and examining rooms are proof of that.

Which brings me finally to the point of this post. I recently endured such violations to my body not once but twice in the last couple of weeks. A simple follow-up visit to my general practitioner for a discussion of lab results inspired him to somehow to initiate one of those “turn your head and cough” exams. One minute we’re discussing a slight increase in my cholesterol count and in the next I’m suddenly dropping drawers. Usually these are quick, how-do-you-do incidents which transpire as we discuss the high cost of docking his schooner at a local marina. This time, however, our conversation is cut short by a sudden kick-back from my abdominal area.

“Turn your head and cough again, please.”

“Again, please”

“Once more, please.”

“Again”

This is not the normal drill. Usually after one pass with the crown jewels, I’m zipping up and we’re jointly complaining about the 12b-1 fees of our actively managed funds. This time, though, he’s annoyingly more interested in my jewels instead of Wall Street equities.

He asks me to put my hand where his just was, and again repeat my turning and coughing. This is quickly turning into a re-creation of some of my earliest dating experiences. The memories aren’t cozy.

“Feel that?,” the doctor asks. “That’s a hernia pushing back at you. It might even be two, one on each side.”

Great. Nothing like a medical annoyance to start out the new year. I’m immediately set up for a consultation with a nearby surgeon. An appointment is scheduled for the following Monday.

Except for some painful kidney stone calamities, I’ve been very fortunate in my adult life to have avoided serious visits with surgeons and hospitals. You wanted retirement and all that goes with it, huh?  Okay, but it ain’t all just part-time jobs and thrice-weekly visits to the beach, boychik. Welcome to age-based medical issues.

The visit with the surgeon turned out to be uneventful and unremarkable. With more turning and coughing on my part, he quickly determined that I indeed have a hernia that needs to be repaired. It was fortunately caught early, and because I am experiencing no pain, he said it’s completely up to me if I want to repair it now or wait till I begin experiencing discomfort later.

It’s not exactly Sophie’s Choice, but I was conscious of both Gorgeous and the surgeon staring at me to make the decision right then and there. Neither were giving me any hints as to which way to go, but I decided to be proactive and have it taken care of now rather than later. Time is money; just get on with it.

It should also be noted that the surgeon’s primary magazine of choice is Popular Mechanics. I suppose in some measure that’s reassuring, but I have also decided that his waiting room is not one in which I wish to revisit to read it either. I have my limits.

Tomorrow I have to call his office to schedule my surgery. To be continued.

For some related comic relief, check out the always wonderful blogger Trefology, and his take on Superman being under the weather. As Dave Matthews sings, I ain’t no Superman, and heavy lifting is probably out of the question for the next few months.   Darn it all.

Until next time…

Shattering Me Some Lang Syne

Source: You Tube

The ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Source: You Tube

Whew. Stick a fork in it and let’s roll out of here already. Never mind popping corks to celebrate the new year; let’s just swig directly from the bottles, toss ’em in the garbage, and then forget the old one. Whoever shatters the most glass can apparate directly to 2020.

Forget that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named¹ fellow for a minute, I’m actually gobsmacked by losing so many iconic recording artists in one year. I could write a whole post devoted to all of them, but I’ll settle on at least mentioning just one: Maurice White, September will never be the same for me ever again. Novembers probably also. This was indeed a tough year.

Source: Bossip.com

Maurice White
Source: Bossip.com

Still, ’tis best to still move forward with a stiff upper lip and a hope for a better year ahead. In order to do that, however, I’ll need to review the resolutions I made last year.

Most of my promises were thankfully made with tongue firmly in cheek. I’ve learned over the years not to get too carried away with these exercises in self-improvement. Ask for the moon but settle for the stars and all that.

See, I was an extra good boy back in 1967, yet I still never got that four-level service station I wanted in the previous year’s Sears Wish Book. You may say it’s all about kindness and humanity, and you’re probably even right about that. But really all I think about still are the toys. Plus the endless search for a lower deductible and co-pay.

Source: Pinterest

1967 Sears Wish Book “four level garage.” Source: Pinterest

In reconciling last year’s resolutions, I’m happy to report that I did indeed fulfill my desire to have personal visits with two of my far-flung siblings. I had been estranged from one of them for a time, so it was good to reunite and put the past (mostly) behind us. Sadly, some tensions grew in the past 12 months with a third sibling, and so I’m kind of back to square one on the karma chart. One step forward, one step back.

My promise to support local organizations and groups was an utter and massive fail. Not only did we allow our memberships to the art museum and botanical garden to lapse, but we also never attended one local performing arts production during the entire year. And my thought about volunteering? It was a victim of my desire to chase the almighty dollar instead. I can do better.

So among the minor (and in most cases inconsequential) promises I made to myself last year…

We never did watch more of Conan O’Brien. It turns out he’s not a favorite of Gorgeous, and moreover we seem to only have enough patience to catch up with a Stephen Colbert episode one or two times a week. Sorry, Conan. I still like you, though.

I did continue to send contributions to a slew of worthwhile organizations last year. For instance, in addition to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, we also gave to the American Red Cross after observing the damage inflicted by Hurricane Matthew in our state and those north of us. It’s still not too late give a tax-deductible gift; just click one of the above links.

I ended up only reading two fiction books all of last year (Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” and Eskens’ “The Guise of Another.” Huge, nonfiction biographies seem to be like a narcotic to me. I’ve promised myself to read a Charles Dickens novel later this year, though.

I finally replaced the CDs which sat in my car’s player for nearly two years, but I unfortunately only did so once. So again, my embarrassing lack of laziness means that I have probably listened to “Music From Big Pink” at least 30 times during all of 2016. If Levon Helm were still with us, I suspect he’d glance at me with concern and say, “Dude…

Source: Amazon.com

Source: Amazon.com

Nevertheless life is full of second chances and do-overs. What wasn’t achievable this past year for whatever reason, we have another opportunity to make attempts at personal growth and redemption. Or as I once misheard a poem as a kid, “Hope springs a turtle.”

For 2017, I resolve…

To work on that relationship with the third sibling. It takes more than text messages and letting phone calls go directly to voice mail each time to heal wounds. It takes a few long and sincere conversations. I know what I need to do.

To think more about forgiveness. It actually starts with that person I see in the mirror every morning.

To drink more water. My overzealous and truly obnoxious urologist made me go in for an image of my kidneys a couple of weeks ago. Micro stones are apparently visible from the x-rays. Unless I want a return to previous kidney stone drama, I better get with the program. Bottoms up, so to speak.

To start signing my name to comments I make on some of the excellent blogs I follow. Many of those bloggers are referring to me as “Snakes.” Oops, my bad.

To not focus as much of my attentions to the daily machinations and intricacies of politics and governance. This will be a challenge because so much is always at stake, and turning away and ignoring it all is worse. But I’m already groaning and cringing each time I read the news, and January 20th is fast approaching. Pace yourself, brother.

To explore more of the subtle complexities and beauty of the custard-filled doughnut. Hey, I’m not casting judgment on your resolutions.

Source: Images Buddy

Source: Imagesbuddy.com

So shatter those glasses and bottles to your heart’s content. Just clean up afterwards for the sake of the kiddies, the pets, and my tires.

I am incredibly grateful for the many comments and “likes” by those who read this blog over the last year. Thank you for the feedback and words of wisdom, even after a few of my cringe-inducing posts. Happy New Year!

Until next time…

 

¹ Ding-Ding-Ding!!!! Two Harry Potter references in one post!

 

I’ll Need to See Your Voting History For The Box of Cereal, Please

We’re all in strange times at the moment. They in turn lead to strange thoughts and actions.

My mother always said to never wear ratty underwear because someone might notice if I got into an accident. I remember pondering that a bit. I envisioned myself lying in the middle of a street, my bike mangled beyond recognition by an impact with a large truck, and medics hovering over me applying bandages to open wounds.

“Carl, we need to stem the bleeding at his hip area. And by the way, have you noticed the condition of those Fruit of the Looms? Let’s do this kid a favor and just shred ’em with the trauma sheers. His mother should be ashamed he’s wearing those.”

It’s coming on 60 years, and I finally get it. It wasn’t about me, it was about what everyone else would think.

It was about judgment. That never goes out of style.

Looking back, all I was trying to do in those days was to keep up with my peers. For example, when I noticed in the gym locker room that the cool kids were suddenly sporting those hip new colored briefs, I wanted them too. But I accepted my family’s economic situation and instead wore the standard issue, inexpensive, solid white Looms purchased courtesy of a blue light special at K-Mart. I had ten seconds of self-consciousness as I quickly changed my clothes before and after gym class.

As peer pressure and self-esteem issues went, the underwear were the least of my problems anyway.

But if judgments were indeed levied by others in those adolescent days, I at least understood their terms. It wasn’t complicated. It had to do with affordability and status; you either had something or you didn’t. It wasn’t thankfully about ideology. That came later via friends, co-workers, neighbors, and bar stool acquaintances.

Which brings me somehow to this current, post-election period here in the United States. Judgments are rampant at the moment.

Just like our brethren in post-Brexit Britain, we are collectively resorting to finger-pointing and trash talking at our fellow citizens. Except because this is America, and we like to bring in a commercial aspect to everything whenever possible, our onslaught of judgments is about separating and dividing based on the products being purchased. You can judge a man not by the content of his character, but by his credit card statement.

If that’s the case, I’m done for.  I’m headed to putting on my underpants quickly again. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

According to a recent Washington Post article, the level of partisan discord in the U.S. is now reaching such heights that even your favorite box of Kellogg’s cereal classifies you as liberal and anti-American. It’s apparently the fault of that radical, leftist Kellogg Company in Battle Creek. Boy, and you think you know a company.

But come on, how could there be an issue about buying a box of Corn Flakes from the grocery store? For God sakes, what’s more American than a bowl of Corn Flakes? Why, a number of us are brazen enough to select the frosted ones instead. And except for your dentist, no one’s judging you for that, right?

Think again, you innocent.

Quite frankly, I always had a suspicion about that tiger of theirs, Tony. I mean, please. What’s with the bandana? A red bandana at that. This is a good example they’re setting for our children??

Oh, wait, we like Russia now, don’t we? Oh, never mind.

Lest you think this is only a conservative backlash, I’m seeing that liberals aren’t taking this lying down. Not to be outdone, they’ve created an app to make sure that one doesn’t buy from the “wrong” company. Among the slew of products now deemed politically tainted are those from the Nike shoe company. It seems that Nike’s erreur de jugement was to open a store in Trump Tower. Those fascists! 

And those are just two examples. It actually goes on and on. For instance, conservatives continue to call for a boycott on the (note: continuously sold out) Broadway performances of “Hamilton,” while liberals are listing Kitchen Aid appliances as verboten because that company is helping to sponsor a Trump golf tournament. Shout-out to all you liberal foodies out there: stop buying those mixers, stat!

Somewhere in heaven I have to believe Rosa Parks is rolling her eyes right now.

Rosa Parks Source: Wikipedia

Rosa Parks
Source: Wikipedia

I am constantly feeling overwhelmed by the bombardment of so-called movement boycotts against this business or that corporation. Avoid Barilla pasta products because of anti-gay comments made by its company’s chairman (apparently now rescinded); Stay away from Walmart to protest their gun sale policies and refusal to offer employees health insurance (both issues now supposedly addressed); Boycott Target because of their transgender bathroom use policies (I have no clue on the status of that one because it never made sense to me to begin with).

Someone once told me Lowe’s was the “blue” store and Home Depot the “red” one. Well, that might be, but in either place I still have to search high and low for someone to direct me to the right aisle for rust remover. Liberal or conservative, they never hire enough staff to rescue customers like myself who wander helplessly in their stores.

Truth be told, I don’t think I have it in me anymore to constantly keep my ear to the ground of all the latest social protests and boycotts of this franchise or that one.

I’m as repulsed as anyone else by bad behavior, racist policies, and outright prejudice. If it’s an habitual and flagrant violation of another person’s civil rights — such as when certain Denny’s franchises refused to serve African-Americans a few years back — then I can easily avoid patronizing that chain. But please, spare me your politicized agendas to boycott whatever “flavor of the month” cause that will force me to run around in circles to buy a mixer, a pair of sneakers, or see a Broadway show.

No, I’m not happy with the results of the last election. But I’m going to suck it up for the next four years and fight the good fight at the next ballot box. Certain organizations will continue get some of my money, too. I am not burying my head in the sand.

And for the record, your humble blogger is a Hanes briefs man. I’ve got all the colors in the rainbow now, and there’s nary a white shade in my drawer. With adulthood comes rewards.

Until next time…

Source: Kmart

Source: Kmart

Funny Bar Names, Random Dogs, and Holiday Scenery: A Visit to St. Petersburg

A visit to St. Petersburg was on our calendar last weekend. We were guests at a holiday party that my boss hosted for all of her far-flung staff around the state of Florida.

Get a bunch of librarians together, ply them with cocktails, and then watch spouses wince as painfully bad jokes are told for the hundredth time (example: “How many librarians does it take to change a lightbulb? Usually 645.5. Sometimes 808.882”)¹.

It was great to meet new and interesting co-workers, and also fun having the opportunity to visit a place neither my wife nor I have ever been before.

We stayed at the Hollander Hotel, a boutique property located in St. Petersburg’s downtown area. Seemingly everyone who worked there went out of their way give us suggestions on what to see, where to walk, etc. Since we were only visiting for 24 hours, we decided that all we wanted to do was just walk around and see as much as possible. As my dad used to admonish on rare vacations, “no lingering!”  As a result, we did unfortunately miss the popular Salvador Dali and Dale Chihuly collections at two different museums. We’ll have to return for each of them someday.

But on one beautiful afternoon, and an equally beautiful morning the following day, we walked the streets and saw as much of the area as possible. We immediately observed two things: (1) St. Petersburg has some very quirky bars, and (2) it’s apparently a great place to be if you’re a dog. Or a dog owner. We saw lots of both.

I always thought that Portland, Oregon had a lock on the number on the number of fun-sounding bars, but St. Petersburg gives it a run for its money. Everywhere we turned we kept laughing at the different names. I snapped a few of them for you.

It’s always best to ask a dog owner if you can take a picture of his or her pet ahead of time. That’s not always possible, of course, when either dog or master is on a mission and moving fast. Still, we met quite a few fine pooches whose owners were more than happy to make our acquaintance.

I am sadly not a photographer. My six-year-old Kodak M530 is a point-and-shoot specifically designed for camera-challenged people like myself. It fortunately takes better pictures than my five year old iPhone, but neither really produce anything stellar looking. This is all another way of saying how desperately cheap I am.

To add insult to injury, my many thumbs deleted all of the pictures on the Kodak’s SD card during the process of transferring them to my laptop. I have no idea how this happened. Luckily I found a way to recover them courtesy of a shareware app called “File Juicer.” I even happily paid the shareware fee to remove the “File Juicer” label on each of the recovered pictures. But even that I somehow managed to screw up, so please ignore that unfortunate wording on each of the pictures below. File Juicer, you owe me something for free advertising here!

For a real photographic blogger who definitely knows what she’s doing, check out QP and Eye. Linda Stewart is a gifted photographer who takes her readers on many an interesting journey from her home in Australia. She’s also a pretty great writer too. I definitely recommend her.

And now, on with the show…

The Hollander Hotel doesn’t really have a consistent theme. It’s part Hollywood, part Florida history, and, well, mostly eclectic. It was a fun place to stay and the staff was incredibly helpful and friendly compared to most chain hotels.

Dogs, dogs, dogs.

Fun looking bars.

 

There may not be snow, but St. Petersburg still found a way to be festive.

At the Tampa Bay waterfront, we walked around Vinoy Park. It’s named after the adjacent Vinoy Park Hotel, which was built in 1925.

Care to buy a condo with a view?

100_1170

How about something larger? Say, 4000 square feet? $2,000,000 is just a Mega Millions jackpot away.

st-petersburg-realtor-listing

The Useum of Fine Arts. You gotta save money where you can apparently. Start with the lettering before you get to the staff.

100_1175

Ahem. SOMEONE had frozen yogurt at 10:30 in the morning. That breaks all the rules.

gorgous-st-pete-yogurt

I made sure not to discuss politics with this guy.

me-and-elephant

Until next time…

¹ For the uninitiated, these are Dewey Decimal classification numbers. Library humor is not for the hipsters amongst us.

Dumpster Diving

dumpster

For a week I noticed the bike sitting behind the dumpster. It had been rejected at least twice by the garbage men, and no doubt the groundskeepers all passed on it too. It just sat there unclaimed, as if it were stranded on the Island of Misfit Toys.

It was also a pawn in some kind of internal war amongst the different factions of our little community here. The contracted garbage company wouldn’t take it because it wasn’t considered actual refuse according to their contract. Likewise, the maintenance staff wasn’t touching it because whatever resident left it there probably broke at least six condo association rules governing the disposal of personal property.

Rules, dammit. Follow the rules!

So the poor bike just sat there for all those days sitting out in the elements of Florida’s tropical climate. I continued to glance at it whenever I took out a bag of our garbage, but I never even bothered to pull it out for an inspection. It was someone else’s junk, someone else’s problem. Association management would eventually assign a Blue Meanie of theirs to hunt down the scofflaw who had left it there. I pity the fool.

And then I casually mentioned it to my wife one morning on the way back home from the gym.

“What do you mean there’s a bike that’s been just sitting out there? For how long? Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?! I need a bike!”

It’s funny what you just don’t know sometimes. The last thing I ever would have ever guessed is Gorgeous wanting a castoff, garbage dumpster bike. It goes against all the rules in our home about feng shui conventions. Like buying a used wedding dress or leaving a toilet seat up, it’s supposed to be a disharmony to one’s personal karma to “soil” yourself like that.

And speaking of soiling oneself, I don’t know about you, but I think that whole feng shui toilet seat rule is a bunch of hokum. It’s obviously been conceived by new age spouses attempting to curtail so-called bad habits of their bathroom-using better halves. But perhaps we should return to this particular thought another time. I can tax the goodwill of this blog’s readership only so much.

Gorgeous is certainly not a snob by any stretch of the imagination. She loves finding treasures pretty much anywhere, be it a high-brow antique shop or a Salvation Army thrift store. I just thought that this particular treasure was a little beyond her own tolerance level. She surprised me. In the words of my people, go know.

An inspection of the misfit bike was immediately undertaken. Except for a bit of wear and tear on the seat and with the handlebar grips, a smidgen of rust here and there, and the chain in need of some grease gun TLC — it was in surprisingly good shape. With the addition of a front basket and a rear rack, this baby was road worthy. It just needed someone who has tool know-how to get some tools out and fix it.

It’s a funny thing, tool know-how. Not every red-blooded American male gets that gene. If only my lovely wife had chosen to marry a man whose understanding of tool belts was slightly more than a prop for the staging of a two-act amorous play each night, we might have gotten somewhere. Alas, the repairs would have to come via an actual professional.

The before bike, post dumpster retrieval.

The before bike, post dumpster retrieval.

As luck would have it, there is a bike repair shop right across from our gym. We loaded the bike in the back hatch of our car and drove it over. A repair guy greeted us and listened with great interest about the provenance of our sad little find. A man of few words, he looked it over silently for several minutes and then rolled it behind the counter to place it on a repair stand. After giving what I think would be the bicycle equivalent of a pelvic exam, he came back to us with his verdict.

“Nice find. It’s a Sun Bike, made in Miami, you know. A really good company. It’s in great shape. I can tune it up for you.”

And with that hopeful news, Gorgeous happily went on a store shopping frolic strikingly similar to the manner in which she also graces the aisles of Saks, Nordstrom, Williams & Sonoma, et. al. The same careful scrutiny given to a Kitchenaid mixer was now being made to bike seats. Substitute the time in which it takes to browse all shades of lipstick, apply it instead to handlebar baskets, and you get the idea of the total effort being made here. With the actual repair work was now properly addressed, it was time to shop for accessories. It may only be a bike store, but shopping does rear its inevitable head.

If only Wall Street analysts could spend a day with me, for sure they’d see that any presumed downturn in the economy might not really materialize. They say that small businesses are the backbone of our nation’s commerce. I now have the receipts to prove it.

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

Once all of the bicycle accoutrements were chosen, the repair man assured us that he’d have the bike finished in an hour.

So we made our way to the gym. As usual I got on the elliptical as is our regular joint practice, side-by-side. But this time Gorgeous headed to the stationary bike area instead. I’m always the last to get the memo. From a distance she looked very happy.

When we returned to the shop, our man was making the last of his final tune-up touches. A new seat, handlebar grips, basket, and a rear rack were already assembled. A large number of tools were scattered all around the man’s feet as he tightened bolts and all kinds of screws. His last act was to generously grease the bike’s chain while he manually cycled its wheels. She was transformed into a thing of beauty.

“A really nice find on your part. The tires and tubes are all in great shape; you won’t need to replace them for quite a while yet. Looks like an old lady used this for church and the grocery store only. Dave over there will take your payment at the register.”

The after bike. Soon removable shopping bags will grace the back

The after bike. The rust under the seat was wiped off after this picture was taken. Soon removable shopping bags will grace the back rack.

For something around $130 including tax we have what amounts to a brand new bike. While I was at work a few days later, Gorgeous took it out for a spin to the nearby Starbucks — a 15 minute bike ride. She was awfully happy.

So don’t just toss out your garbage without looking for a treasure or two in the process. You never know what you might find.

My next tool belt performance is at 11:00pm. You are not invited.

Until next time…

 

Gratitude 2016 From A-Z

Once again I shamelessly steal a friend’s annual Thanksgiving message on her Facebook page. Under my government, upon giving two attributions I may hereafter call this idea my own. If Trump feels he can change libel laws, I can make up my own rules too. Welcome back to the eighties– greed is good!

Below is my list of those things from A to Z for which I am grateful this year. Appropriate mine as you wish, but do understand that your own results may vary.

I am grateful for…

(A). My anal-retentive gene. Thanks, Mom!

(B). The block feature on a cell phone. I’ve only used it a handful of times, but I’m awfully grateful for its invention. I’m noticing that family members of mine also use it.

(C). Candles. When you’ve lived through one Florida hurricane you realize how important they can be.

(D). Democracy. It’s messy and full of painful hostilities. But in the end it’s a system worth fighting for and holding dear. Fasten your seat belts…

(E). Electricity. See (C) above.

(F). Florida weather. In spite of hurricanes, sinkholes, and rising sea levels, I’m where I want to be.

(G). My lovely Gorgeous, continually making my life worth living.

(H). Health insurance. Grateful to have it, and I do pray everyone will be able to keep theirs next year.

(I). Index funds. To the extent that any of us can sleep at night thinking about our money, they do at least help in that process.

(J). Jewish Mothers. If Only Donald Trump was the son of one, we’d all be so much better off right now (NOTE: I wrote this on last year’s post, but I thought it was worth recycling).

(K). Kale — the absolute worst representative of the vegetable family. This is actually a shout-out to Tanya at the rapidcyclist blog. I told you I’d find a way to work it in a future post!

(L). Love. I for one still believe it trumps hate.

(M). The mainstream media. Now more than ever.

(N). Nagilas. “Have a nagila, have two nagilas, have three nagilas, they’re very small.” There’s a little Borscht Belt in all of us.

(O). OPM, the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management. Of course, I’m not really grateful for it at all. But perhaps if I act like I am they’ll stop screwing up my pension. Yeah, let’s go with that.

(P). The popular vote. So much for “rigged,” eh?

(Q). The Queen, Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second. In a year where really no politician looked very good, she reigns above them all. Pun intended. You’re the boss, Lizzie!

(R). Retroactive payments. I had two this year because of retirement paperwork problems (see “O”above). While I wasn’t happy for the actual reasons they were made retroactive, it was nice getting a big chunk of change all at one time. Cha-Ching!

(S). Single malt scotch. There’s always a bottle of it in our liquor cabinet, but it’s only brought out for special occasions. I need a lot more “Cha-Chings!” in my life to have it more often. For me, it’s the dictionary definition of smooth.

(T). Roast turkey with all the trimmings. My absolute favorite meal.

(U). Unions. Much maligned these days, but I will always be grateful for the indirect benefits I enjoyed as a child from one via a parent who was a card-carrying member. Solidarity forever!

(V). Our veterans. Lest we forget…

[W]. WiFi. When you’re sitting buck naked for 40 minutes in the examining room waiting for the doctor to come back, at least you have a  means to let your Twitter followers know how pissed you are about it.

(X). Xanax. What did I do for dental appointments before this was invented? Oh, yeah, I sweated and panicked a lot.

(Y). YouTube. My absolute favorite way to waste time. Thank you for all those moments that you saved me from paying bills, writing a family member, learning a second language, etc. Watching Paul Lynde compilations on Hollywood Squares was so much more enjoyable.

(Z). Robert Allen Zimmerman. You gotta hand it to someone whose “prior commitments” prevent him from being honored with a Nobel prize. That takes keeping it real to a very profound place. Well done, Bob. And congratulations too.

From our home to yours, we wish you a very beautiful holiday season. Peace.

Until next time…

goergeous-me-beach-bar