Monday, March 31, 2014

Salty Dogs

That's what we were, today, in another installment of the retirement chronicles.

Some explanation.  We have never, believe it or not, used Groupon for a deal.  Now those of you who know my lovely wife know she is the Mistress of Deals, so why it has taken us so long to take advantage of this wonderful device to save while splurging, I don't really know.  Anyway, we were curious about the incredibly high glass tower of the new Revel casino/resort in Atlantic City, and were inspired to try it out by the availability of a great Groupon offer.  It involved a Sunday night stay, so the excitement level was bound to be low, but that's all right, especially since it would be less crowded there and we really don't start the evening at 11:30 p.m. anyway.

Ignoring the problems Revel has suffered from construction delays and rumors of another possible sale, we took off in a nasty rain storm (sometimes -- usually -- fun is found at the end of a trying trip, we've found) and checked our unsophisticated selves into this most modern -- very Euro -- high-rise and resolved to ignore the lousy weather by just staying inside and exploring.

We found two things that those of you who can stand the idea of Atlantic City, and/or live on the East Coast, should definitely try.  Trust us.

First: Iron Chef Jose Garces' tapas restaurant, Amada, is not to be missed.  Huge sea views, walls of candles and old world/modern design are only the introduction to a gustatory binge worth any pain, although there was only pleasure.  Their signature cocktail, the Matador, will leave you feeling that the $14 it runs was well spent.  I only had one, being an amateur bourbon drinker, and that was just fine until next time.  We arrived for the Sunday night special featuring all tapas for $5 each, and wolfed (no other more polite term would describe it) down six plates.  The staff, despite a nasty negative review we found online, were exceptional in their attention, knowledge, and timing.  Jose and staff, you know what you're doing.

Today we couldn't wait to visit the Himalayan salt room at the spa (part of the Groupon deal, of course), and had it pretty much to ourselves since most singles or couples who came in went right back out.  Strange.  It was visually beautiful, with the walls made of salt bricks lighted from behind, a perfect temperature, cool music, and the color palate of the salt walls:  ranging from clear, through pink and amber, to red-brown.  This salt comes from the Khewra mines in Pakistan, the largest in the world.  Although it can be used also like table salt, it seems to be superior stuff, containing anywhere from 10 to 84 minerals in addition to the usual sodium chloride.  Other than the aesthetic experience, it's supposed to be beneficial in treating respiratory and skin conditions.  I know, I know, there are a million claims for a similar million substances that are supposed to stave off inevitable decay and death.  But it probably can't hurt, and a doctor in the early 19th century observed that the salt miners in Poland never suffered from respiratory ailments or caught colds (and that wasn't the beautiful Himalayan stuff).  In any case, it was a very nice experience, and no aging humans were harmed.

We were thinking that this will be the next big thing in luxury mansions, after home theaters and wine cellars.  It will be on "House Hunters" soon enough, I'm sure.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Local Hero?

If only finding out the truth were this easy

"What kind of society devotes a huge amount of its resources just to lying to itself?"
                          (Theme of a recent post on the blog Hipcrime Vocab)

Right-wing populism enjoyed a strange and thrilling victory recently in Pennsylvania's York County.  Due to a legislator resigning, a special election was held to fill the post for the next few months.  A wealthy businessman who owns Penn Waste and a trucking company did not like the formal Republican nominee (maybe even more than the Democratic one, who of course didn't have a chance anyway), and not only ran a write-in campaign, but won, with a resounding 47.7% of the vote (in a 14% turnout of registered voters).  This appears to be the first time a legislator has been elected in the Commonwealth in that way.

The new state employee is a libertarian tea-partier who hates government (so why not keep your day job?) and promises to try to reduce the size of the legislature (requires constitutional change, but not a bad goal as ours is huge and the second most expensive in the nation), forgo a pension and free health insurance (pretty easy for a millionaire), and work immediately on the elimination of property tax.  There have been letters in the newspaper every week since the Reagan era expressing a devout wish that this be done, so Mr. Scott Wagner has ready-made support and will campaign for re-election touting this crusade, as un-doable though it will probably be.

Property taxes support public education in the main, and both of these institutions raise the ire of the landed, wealthy elite, both here and now and throughout the long history of aristocracies and oligarchies.  I understand that in France, the resident of any property pays the taxes, which is mighty nice for old-wealth families living off rental income; their law must sound good to self-made American style barons who hold much land and several buildings.  To cover the loss of income from a repealed property tax, Mr. Wagner wants to expand the sales tax to cover now-exempt purchases such as food, prescription medicine and clothing.  Never mind that employees, owners and real-estate investors in outlet malls placed close to the state's borders will lose all those customers who are escaping their states' sales taxes on necessities, but the heck with those losers who live paycheck to paycheck, or on a fixed income, who would be hurt immediately and almost daily by such a broad regressive tax increase.

There is a very serious problem with property taxes poised to rise dramatically in Pennsylvania, one that did not need to happen and which was only partially ameliorated nine years after some of those "smartest guys in the room" pushed the passing of Act 9 in 2001 which increased school (and other public) employees pensions hugely both in the future and retroactively.  In some school districts, so much of the property tax revenue is going to pay for these insane increases, school funding is evaporating while taxes climb each year.  Because there were such good investment returns in the 1990s, it was decided to burn up the surplus by handing it out to current and future public employees.  A few months after the Act's passage, signed by Republican governor Ridge -- yes, that party of fiscal responsibility -- 9/11 happened and everything went south in terms of investment income.  As if all those in charge did not know that stock market bubbles and crashes always happen and upward growth forever is not possible.*    

Mr. Wagner and all the op-ed page letter-writers cite the probably baseless narrative of retirees who live on fixed incomes being forced out of their homes by property taxes.  I think he and his elite class have as much trouble with arithmetic as their honored Rand Paul, the master of Budgets Made of Smoke.  The York County township, Spring Garden, where our new legislator lives is quite posh with lots of homes going for a half-million or more.  The property tax on these is about $13,000 a year, which is indeed high. An average modest retiree-type home in York County would incur an annual bill of around $2380, about what the same home in other mid-Atlantic states would be taxed at (I looked up some in Ohio).  I don't think that larger amount will harm the millionaires any; it's just the idea that a little of their hoard goes to educate the common people's offspring that has them fuming.  Not only could they really care less about the retirees while they cynically stir them up; $2380 a year is not a deal-breaker for anybody unless they're in such bad financial shape already that owning a home is probably too much to handle anymore.  And I guess the spinners of this narrative have forgotten that the state has long had homestead and senior-citizen reductions on property tax easily available for those who qualify.  My grandfather had a pension quite adequate to live on, yet did qualify and used both programs quite happily.


And in Cumberland County, this retiree bungalow would only be taxed at around $1900/year

Mr. Wagner, who chafes mightily at paying his property tax, turned over $90,000 to a local conservative political action group (Citizens Alliance of PA) in 2012 alone.  That, I guess, is a more productive use.  And his Penn Waste company contracts with local governments which handle the administrative work and the billing while awarding a monopoly of all the township customers.  That's much more profitable than finding, serving and billing scattered customers, if he had to compete with other companies in the ideal "free market."

The Wonderful Wizard did no harm with his deception and was relieved to be done with hiding behind the curtain.  Our new local hero's deception reminds me more of Mr. Burns:

*The same fiscally responsible governor who sent out an order during his term mandating free dry cleaning and laundry for all high-level state government officials, which I saw while working on the new Keystone State Office Building.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

You're So Fine

I've been thinking of Parade Magazine, found buried in your Sunday paper, lately.  Of all the fish-wrappers...a step above tabloids, I guess, but something that should likewise ignored, shoved aside to the trashcan pile with the other filler in the Sunday paper like all those color ads.  It used to be like a little Life magazine, way back, and that's why I still look at it with faint hope. But its decline seems to be an indicator of sorts, like the ills suffered by amphibians which show, early on, what damage is occurring in wetlands.

Note the format size and volume of content:  it has drastically shrunk in recent years, and they have cut Marilyn's brain teaser column down to one item.  For a while now, the first and main articles are usually about what celebs are up to TODAY and RIGHT NOW.  Like their antics aren't always the same, over and over again.  It has turned into daytime TV or a women's 'zine, with a feel-good article and of course a recipe thrown in to balance the sleazy and self-promoting celeb goings-on.

And whether the subject is famous this month for being in something or an unknown young athlete who is an inspiration to us all, the theme throughout is: admire this person.  Puff pieces placed by publicists are nothing new, but why do we fall for it?  Photoshop is ubiquitous, and there is no correlation between what is true and what you read in print or hear from TV talking heads in suits.
The hyper morning TV show hosts are well-paid celebrities themselves, but I can find no reason why:  recently I watched in horror, then anger, as all four talked on top of each other and then drowned out their guest at the Olympics, who just gave up.  Ted Cruz, you have a career after politics just waiting for you.

When you dig a little and find out about the whole person, whether political figure, leader, icon, or star, the result is usually the evaporation of superficial admiration.  You must realize, with a sigh, that "out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight and true thing was ever made."  That's hard to live with; it's so much easier to just believe.  The king (or ex-President) is divine, the Pope infallible, the general experienced and wise, the media star perfection itself, the author or scholar always brilliant throughout a long career.  George Harrison, who certainly met everybody and didn't suffer fools at all, said the only person he admired was Ravi Shankar.  Without my ever meeting him, I'd add Pete Seeger.  But my list is really short, like George's.

The problem lies in our confusing physical attractiveness or talent with the whole person, while consistently failing to recognize psychopathic personality traits.  The icons themselves, living in a bubble of praise and admiration, come to believe that, like George W. Bush, being born on third base (with huge advantages in social status or physical/mental talents) means that they've hit a home run.
The media, local or national, is saturated with sports heroes.  I can admire the immense amount of work, that most of us would not ever be capable of, that goes into such achievements, but I can't admire someone for being born with the genes that mean an exceptionally fast, coordinated or strong body, or intense focus or even eidetic memory.  I can't admire the extremely rich and ruthless people, like the ones on "Shark Tank" or in Fortune magazine, we're supposed to be in awe of; they've got the qualities of a salt-water crocodile, not a human being with a spirit or soul.

My favorite financial blogger (speaking of another bunch of mostly scoundrels) suggests a "low-information diet."  Don't trouble your mind or body by accepting the endless junk -- manipulated media or food -- that is thrown at you 24/7.  Even the Buddha had that figured out, 2500  years ago!



Thursday, March 6, 2014

Last Flight

Lt Eugene Rice, USAAF, 1943

I have had a half-dozen ideas for posts in the past few weeks, but they seem too trivial to think about, given the events of the past week.

Our father was found unresponsive a week ago in his nursing home near us in Mechanicsburg and was quickly sent by ambulance, not for the first time, to Holy Spirit Hospital.  He had been overwhelmed once again by pneumonia and internal infection.  He never really regained consciousness except to acknowledge my brothers Ron and Jeff when they called; his last words to Nancy and I when we visited him the day before were: "More than you know, I appreciate your visits."  The three doctors involved over the next three days concluded Dad could not get any better; the anitbiotics he had then and many times before just wouldn't work anymore.  We were warned that when the respirator was removed, he may not last long, but he did indeed keep going for 24 hours until 4 p.m., March 1.  Without the medical interventions, poking with needles and the painful-looking respirator, he became more and more peaceful and we saw him breathe his last quietly, with no struggle.

We had never spent so much time together as the last nine months, while Dad was first in the hospital and then a nursing home in Florida, and after August when he was moved here.  Brother Steve gathered up many old pictures and as they stimulated his memory, we heard stories of very long ago, the people and places in the pictures not remembered by hardly anyone still living.  Memories of family visits to his grandparents way up in the country of Perry County were the fondest.  He also asked about old co-workers and schoolmates, and we found a good deal of information that he appreciated hearing.  A way of saying goodbye to everyone, it seemed.

There were about a dozen boxes of pictures, records (even a set of report cards from the early 1930s), souvenirs, letters and  greeting cards at their home, so we have a lot to remember our parents by.  High school graduation announcements, dance cards, awards, newspaper articles -- especially his moment of fame when the hometown paper published a handsome picture and account of his B-24 sinking two Japanese vessels and wrecking a half-dozen more.  They were all recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross, but got Air Medals instead.  Dad was the bombardier and well deserved it. 

He never told us much about his WWII service from 1941 to 1946, except for two stories about how miserable life was in the Southwest Pacific:  that they learned to wear helmets all the time, since the monkeys loved to drop coconuts on their heads, and a grim one about a tentmate being fatally bitten by a giant spider.  Oh, and how much they enjoyed their banana moonshine.

We will all be speaking at the funeral tomorrow and if I go on like this then, I will take up all the time.  There is so much more to remember about a 95-year life, but I know we can all say,

                                                    "Well done."