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Archive for February, 2020

Apocalyptic Thinking: Wrong Again

It’s astonishing how negative young people’s worldview has become. Let’s say under 35 or so is young. If you chat with them about the world we live in today it’s the rare young one who can bring up more than one or two things positive to say. Get them talking about the future (not a terribly difficult task) and the only variability you are likely to encounter is how bad the apocalypse will be and perhaps when it will arrive. Doom and gloom abound. I really can’t remember any talk about the future with someone under 35, even those who are generally happy, in which they didn’t tumble into hopelessness and despair.

Breaking news: the apocalypse isn’t nigh.

How do I know this? Well, of course I have the distinct advantage of having lived 60 years. Some of them without too very much in the way of income, most of them in relative comfort, but none of them in anything that could be construed as hopeless or a state of despair. Even after my “genius moment” business plan succeeded only in reducing my salary by 80% and wiping out my retirement account in my 40′s, the worst case scenario never included an apocalyptic demise. Yet what I hear from young people at an age at which Beth and I spent our last nickel each pay period is just that: despair and hopelessness.

In our age of blaring headlines always in our face it is impossible to avoid hearing the bleatings  of all types of doomsayers. What we hear is how much better it was before, well, before pretty much everything. And yet everything that has happened in the world basically adds up to a powerful and direct repudiation of all things apocalypse. Deep down I’ve known this, but I’ve been at a loss to describe why I know this in a way that would convince, or would comfort the young who are so distressed by what they think they see in our world.

In my search for a narrative that would convincingly combat the braying of the apocalyptic prognosticators I recently came across an interview with a gentleman by the name of Laurence Siegel. Mr. Siegel has written a book titled “Fewer, Richer, Greener” in which he proclaims “We are on the verge of the greatest democratization of wealth and well-being that the world has ever known.” I’ll share some highlights from the WSJ interview (with Jason Zweig), but I’m sure that I will have much to share after I read the book itself.

Let’s start with capitalism, at the moment the hoariest villain around. Capitalism has been roundly criticized for creating a historically huge degree of income and wealth inequality. In truth inequality of at least this degree has been with us since humans came together in groups larger than families. While it is certainly the case that the richest among us are far, far richer than the poor and middle class it is also inarguable that it is capitalism that has raised up the majority of humanity from crushing poverty. In the past year alone more than half of the world’s population has now become middle-class or wealthier. The defining level of income for extreme poverty continues to rise, and despite that the percentage of the world’s population that can be so described has plummeted. Wealth inequality is real; it’s effect on the daily existence of typical Americans is infinitesimal.

And yet like climate change it is the sheer magnitude of the issue coupled with the absolute impossibility that any one individual can have any significant effect on changing either that seems to be causing the despair I witness. “Young people can’t afford to buy a home” seems to be all the more cause for despair if you truly believe that the world will be near the end before you can scrape together a down payment. But just like in the 50′s when everyone was building fall-out shelters and every grade school kid was taught what to do when the air raid siren went off, life doesn’t come to and end, it just continues to get inexorably better.

Are there huge things out there that really could derail civilization as we know it? Sure. But every one of them is as likely to do so as every one that has come before.What about the environment?  In every country that has come up from poverty the process has, indeed, resulted in a dirtier environment. We’ve certainly seen that in Western Europe and the U.S., and for sure you are seeing it in places like India and China. Siegel: “…as they continue to become wealthier, people start to be willing and able to sacrifice some of those gains to get a cleaner environment. As the world gets richer it will continue to get greener. Switzerland is probably the most environmentally clean country in the world, and it is one of the richest.” As time goes on newly richer countries will behave more like Switzerland.

What matters when in comes to income and wealth is not so much what someone else has, but what you have and what it allows you to do. Mike Bloomberg’s wealth is unimaginable to me; his wealth came from the creation of a business which has created several other layers of wealth, and below those layers still more of middle-class comfort and security. So, too, the wealth of people like Bill Gates. His company is arguably responsible for much of the ease in your life brought about by the modern use of the microprocessor. I don’t choose to communicate with my refrigerator with my cell phone, but thanks in part to stuff that started with Microsoft I could. Bill Gates income and wealth is meaningless to those who type into Word documents like I’m doing right now. Our lives are immeasurably better because we can.

Climate change, wealth inequality, and the other macro issues that cannot be fixed on an individual level have always been with us. It is the fact that one literally can do nothing to change them that seems to be the cause of the sense of hopelessness and despair we hear so much of. But they’ve yet to come anywhere near reversing centuries of human progress. Again, Siegel: “Apocalyptic thinking is a neural mistake based on our need to survive in a cruelly hostile environment that doesn’t exist anymore. Apocalyptic thinking has always been wrong, and it will continue to be wrong.”

The world is a beautiful place that actually may be getting more beautiful by the year. It is safe, and getting safer for almost everyone every year. Fewer and fewer people live in poverty, as more and more people achieve a middle-class life or better each year. While we as a species must always strive to continue doing those things that have brought us this far, our lives would be far, far happier and more enjoyable if we directed our attention toward those things close to us that we control.

To my young (and not so young) friends out there please don’t despair. We’re gonna be ok. The world is still gonna be there when you finally scrape up that down payment, and you’re gonna find a house you’ll like. There’ll be air to breath and water to drink, and we’re neither going to burn up nor freeze. You may not drive the same car as Jamie Dimon but, you know, the way things are going none of us are going to have to drive ourselves anyway. You’re still going to arrive on time.

Life is good. Despite all headlines to the contrary the world isn’t coming to an end. It just keeps on getting better.

Sunday musings…2/9/2020

Sunday musings…

1) Pickle. As legend has it the name of a dog after which the relatively new game of Pickleball is named. About 1 in 4 courts in Florida are now lined and set up for this instead of tennis.

With apologies to my buddy Ralph the tennis pro, this looks like the next adventure for yours truly.

2) Season. As in “high season” and seasoning, the act of moving lock, stock, and barrel to someplace other than home during that place’s high season,.

Beth and I headed to the southwest coast of FL to see what the big deal is. Many of our friends and acquaintances have headed there over the years, primarily the west coast and particularly the area around Naples. It was pretty nice. Lots of varied choices for how you live. We were particularly taken with Sanibel Island and its low-key style.

Still, all in all, there is too much for us here in our little NE Ohio home, even in winter, to consider “seasoning” for weeks at a time anywhere, even during the teeth of our winter.

3) Decline. I wrote an essay some years ago about my Dad and how he had become physically smaller as he aged. He was so big, big in all ways both physical and metaphysical. You know, big like you were always safe in his shadow big. Remember? As he got older everything about him go so much smaller. Mom, too, but you always notice it more with your Dad, I think.

Do you remember that famous poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”? “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. Visiting an area that is famous for its retirement communities and amenities is to visit a bit of your own future. It begins as you step off the plane and see 5 or 10 or 15 wheelchairs lined up in the jet way awaiting their passengers as they deplane. Restaurants and shops are all “accessible”. Decline is on display. Beth: “It’s as if you can see your future.”

Ah, indeed. But which version of the future is yours? We saw some folks who had aged very quickly. Again, Beth: “It’s almost embarrassing, like we are intruding just looking at their decline. Like we’re invading our own space, they’re so close to our age.” Yet there are others like our hosts Beth and Steve and my close friend from high school Tom who push back against age and infirmity. They meet each aging milestone or setback not with quiet resignation but with firm resolve. Perhaps not “raging” but rebelling. Not today, not this year, not yet.

Those who seem to do that best, push back at the inexorable pulls of time and gravity, seem to do so not so much from plotting and planning as they do from a kind of purposeful daily pattern. A bit of movement, whether it be what one could call exercise or not, but enough to battle both gravity and gravy. Something that makes the neurons move a bit, too (I learned how to play American Mah Jong), enough to fight off the pull of the familiar. The folks we watched who seemed to stay the youngest did both in a way that seemed altogether natural. Less rage and more routine. A routine of physical and mental movement.

One need not “season” to adopt the lessons of those who season well.

4) Mature. “I love the way you two talk to each other.” Our friend as Beth and I worked through the complexities of a little family crisis.

When you think of love what almost always comes to mind first is that fiery, fierce love in the beginning of the affair. I don’t have to describe what that is, right? After all, this is a PG blog and my Mom reads it, too. Any movie about love seems to be mostly concerned with that early stage, no matter what age the characters may be at the time. Some folks never get past that stage, always and ever chasing the next endorphin rush in the barrel at the expense of the tranquility and beauty that lies just behind the breaking wave.

It’s a shame, really. There is so much beauty in the quiet, tender acts of a love that has been years in the making. The quick squeeze of a hand as your loved one walks by. A tiny, knowing smile you share when you both have the same exact thought at the same time and you just know that he was going to be in the same exact mind space you were right then. You communicate with a gentle honesty that allows for complete understanding. Your happiness is magnified if she is happier.

Love over time seems to be about space. Sharing enough space so that there is no room for loneliness, and yet leaving enough space for each of you to continue growing. It’s a cliche, often a hilarious cliche, the couple who find themselves struggling when one retires and takes up too much of the other’s space. No room to grow if your recently retired husband Velcro’s himself to your hip. On the other side Beth and I saw the sorrow in the solitude of friends who are alone, no matter how it is that they’ve come to that place. All the more poignant when you saw that loneliness in a crowd. To a person each says it’s not the fire or passion they miss but the shared passage leading to those quiet, tender acts of a love that’s grown over time. Riding the waves. Flowing with the tides. A love that’s growing, still.

As we age, growing smaller by the day, it’s that quiet love shared over a lifetime that pushes back against the decline. The love that lives on in the eddies behind the surf. A love that continues to grow. One that will carry us home.

I’ll see you next week…

 

 

 

Sunday musings…2/2/2020

Sunday musing…

1) Palindrome. 02022020. Apparently the first time in 900+ years.

Just thought you should know that.

2) Unwind. Pretty sure this is a synonym for fart.

If not it certainly should be.

3) Super Bowl. Pretty sure it’s today. Right?

Admit it, you’re just like everyone else…it’s really all about the commercials. You don’t GAS about who wins.

4) Lanai. At the moment I am sitting next to Beth x 2, a gentle sea breeze kinda sliding over me as we gaze out over the Gulf in southwest Florida. Frankly we’ve never really gotten the whole “head to Florida” thing. Seems like half of our age group just up and emigrated to the Naples area around January 2nd each year. Since we are not in Mexico (long, boring, self-indulgent story I won’t bore you with) this seemed like the  perfect time to accept Beth and Steve’s invitation to come hang out.

Super glad we did.

After a walk to the oldest continually active lighthouse in America we are slowly sliding toward a leisurely lunch as we prepare to watch commercials. Sanibel Island may also have one of the oldest bike trails in America, our next activity. Seems you can pedal pretty much anywhere here. So it’s off to the farmer’s market just because.

Is this how it is behind the scenes of all those fancy travel posters advertising the island life? I doubt we will ever know for sure. But at least for the moment it’s terrific fun to pretend that we are retired pirates, putting up our feet on tables made of wood from reclaimed shipwrecks, now only doing battle with various sea birds over the day’s catch. The best writing seems to come from some sort of hardship or misfortune.

I’m gonna write anyway. Given the circumstances I’m just gonna have to be ok with a mediocre “musings…” today.

5) Retirement. It’s interesting how often people ask me if I’m going to be retiring soon. Especially those who are aware that I just turned 60, but even patients who’ve just been in my care for a long time (usually right after remarking  on how young I look) are wondering. Lots of docs my age really are starting to bail. Heck, some of my buddies from college are already on their second stab at retiring. The topic comes up so often that I have to admit that it’s made me give it some thought.

What is it that makes some folks rush into retirement/out of the workforce, while others seem to be inexhaustible? What it is that one does for work doesn’t seem to be a factor. We all know doctors who have retired seemingly right after they finish training as well as those of all kinds who are still going strong at 70. Why are guys like Carl Icahn still in the game, striking fear in execs decades younger when they learn that they are in Carl’s bullseye? Ross Perot, or the guy who was forced out at AIG at age 90 or whatever, Sumner Redstone and all the rest. What drives these people to not only work but to work as hard as they did when they were in the process of “making it”? As I sit here with my Better 95% and our friends watching the neighborhood osprey “make” lunch I can’t help but wonder what’s missing from their lives that they don’t perceive the value in my present circumstances. Where are they finding joy?

On the other side of the ledger are people who make just enough, however much that may be for them, and walk away. The hedge fund guy who makes a killing and hangs it up at 30 or 40. Your sister’s best friend who has that one killer idea, turns it into a business, and then sells it all so that she can send the jet to pick up your sister for lunch. This weekend, heck right this minute on the lanai looking at the Gulf, it’s a little easier for me to understand these folks, the ones who literally don’t need to work in order to have what they need and do what they want. Still, I have this little bit of unease kinda gnawing at the back of my brain: what are they really doing all day. Where are they finding purpose?

As I work through this I can’t help coming back around to Lovely Daughter and the concept of “Harmony”. After all, life after we leave the workforce, or while we are leaving the workforce, is still, you know, life. There’s no real balance involved; the false construct of discrete entities put on and taken off the sides of the proverbial scale is as false later in life as it is in the teeth of your working life. Moving in and out of what we can think of as our “working lives” is in need of Harmony as much as any other stage of our lives.

So what’s the answer? Am I going to be retiring soon, as so many people seem to wonder? Well, my little taste of “retirement” as I recovered from my hip surgery in April leads me to believe that my life is much fuller, all my pieces parts in a much better state of Harmony, when I have as much unstructured times of greater leisure as I do times that are tightly structured and outcome directed. There was not enough work and too much free time on my calendar. Both seem to bring me joy, and neither on its own seems to be enough to fill me up. Harmony, for the moment, requires both. Pleasure and purpose.

Speaking of which, I’m about to hop on a bike along with”The Beths” for a little ride. We’re off to see some sights, sample some ice cream from an ancient island standby, and pick up some fresh vegetables at the Farmer’s Market for our Super Bowl dinner. More pleasure than purpose to be truthful, but likely to be a joyful experience nonetheless. Go whoever! Beat the other guy!

Enjoy the commercials.

I’ll see you next week…

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