January 29, 2021

How Has Covid Affected Your Retirement Travel Plans?

Travel is one of the joys of retirement. The chance to see new sights, explore new cultures, even just to shake up your day-to-day routine helps add spice to life. And, travel doesn't have to be exotic, or long distance to make a difference. A long weekend at a local resort, a short drive to the coast or mountains or desert can be just as therapeutic.

Covid has killed and sickened so many. It has destroyed businesses, harmed our youth's education, put unbelievable stress on relationships, even further divided us between mask wearers and those who see this precaution as part of a plot to steal our freedoms.

So, when I write about how travel has been disrupted, maybe even changed for good, understand in the grand scheme of things, the cancellation of a cruise or a week-long stay at your favorite cottage by the sea is inconvenient and disheartening for you, but when considering the big picture, not all that important.

Yet, in one sense, it really is. Millions of jobs are tied to travel. Many local economies are dependent on tourism, both in this country and around the world. Airlines lay off tens of thousands because so few people are flying. Massive cruise ships remain tied up at docks, crews, and those who supply those floating cities tied up in debt and a ruined career.

Heavens, even the most American of places, Disneyland, remains shuttered, while Disney World is open, but to only a fragment of the crowds, it used to welcome. Nearly 30,000 Disney employees at these two parks and the company's cruise line have joined the unemployed.

What is going to happen to all the jobs connected to the travel industry? Estimates range from 150-200 million jobs related to travel will vanish because of the pandemic. Even when travel starts to return, most of them will be gone for years, many permanently.

So, what does all this mean to us? If we can afford travel, what will be our choices? When will we start booking our next great adventure? Assuming the Covid vaccine has made everything feel a little safer, what will our options be?

For our part, Betty and I are likely done with cruising. Not only Covid, but all sorts of intestinal bugs have caused havoc on these 3-4,000 passenger behemoths. Maybe lockdown has caused this mental change, but being with large groups of people is a turnoff. Our month-long cruise to the South Pacific and New Zealand didn't happen last year; at least for now, we have no intention of trying it again.

Going back to England, Scotland, and Ireland is high on our list. We made some friends on our river cruise three years ago who we'd like to see again. They live an hour or two outside London and would be a real treat to spend time with. 

We both love small English and Irish towns, a complete change from our normal desert environment. Betty has done enough ancestry work to want to visit some ancestral castles and gravesites from her side of the family. In our dreams, this could happen by next fall.

Betty has never been to Quebec City or Montreal. I know she would love the foreign feel and cafe culture. Those destinations are less than 5 hours by plane from home, which is also attractive. Next summer?

We have some very dear friends in the Portland area that we haven't seen in three years. We are overdue for some hugs and good meals together, though that city needs to settle down before we'd feel totally safe. For whatever reason Portland seems to attract some rather upset people. 

A train trip is on my list. Amtrak is not particularly attractive now, and there is word they will eliminate all sleeper cars and long-distance travel over the next several years. Luckily, Canada continues to support, maintain, and encourage train travel. Some routes begin in Vancouver and head east, which excites me.

Oh, I must add Disneyland. Our family has several serious Disney fanatics. When the park in L.A. safely reopens, we will be there!

Unfortunately, all the trips and hopes listed above will be on hold until Covid is no longer a factor. At the moment, the vaccines are being distributed in the U.S. at a rate that will push safe travel back to at least late 2021.

The rollout and availability of shots are so slow that some officials are suggesting everyone receive just a half dose to make what we have go further. How's that for a dumb idea? Only give us half the protection we need just to make things look better. Heavens, I hope that isn't a serious proposal. I have been encouraged by the new administration's full-throated support for attacking the virus head-on with money and a large purchase of more vaccines.

For many reasons, 2021 will be better than 2020. But, travel remains a big question mark. We know where we want to go. What we do not have is a clue about when.

What are your thoughts?

January 25, 2021

Retirement's Biggest Surprises

Almost nine years ago, I wrote about what had surprised me about retirement. At that point, I had been away from the working world for almost 11 years. Now, I have called myself retired for almost two decades.

I thought it would be interesting to review what I thought I knew about this time of life, compared to what another nine years have done to my perspective. Here is the original post from 2012, along with my thoughts all these years later.


June will mark 11 years of being without full-time work - by choice. My satisfying retiremenhas been even better than I imagined, but it isn't exactly what I imagined it would be. That shouldn't be a surprise. Life throws constant curve balls at us. Our job is to change our swing and make the best of what comes our way. Like a baseball player, if you can't hit a slider or curve, you'd had best learn or down to the minors you go. Retirement isn't all that different: adjust and learn or suffer the consequences.

So, after my journey, what are the biggest surprises I have encountered? I don't think I could have predicted any of them ahead of time, which is why they were surprises!

My financial planning has actually worked. I had a double-pronged approach to funding my retirement. I didn't want to start drawing down my IRA account until at least 64. Yes, I could have started earlier but wanted to allow it to compound as long as possible. I also wanted to not take Social Security checks until at least 63 or 64. So far, that is on track.

All that meant I had to have a money source to carry me from when I retired at 52 until 64. For that purpose, I developed a second investment account, consisting primarily of tax-free investments like muni bonds and other tax-exempt options. That money would grow but at the same time be available to fund my retirement mostly tax-free for 12 years. Even with a few recessions in the mix, that account that I started 25 years ago will be empty on my 64th birthday, right on schedule. 

Many things could have and did go wrong, but the account designed to carry me from full employment to my IRA account has performed exactly as projected a few decades ago. The most surprised person is me.

Update: The decision to have a separate account to carry me until Social Security was a lifesaver. When my business shut down in 2001, that was the money that kept us afloat. It was funded by saving close to 20% of my income each year and taking advantage of tax-free investments. And, yes, I started accepting Social Security at 64.

I have become deeply involved in something quite alien to me. If you remember the post, Pushing Back Against the Box, I detailed my involvement in prison ministry from just over a year ago. Until that point, I had no contact with prisons, prisoners, parole officers, or an entire subsection of society that wasn't part of my life. Like most of us, I had certain preconceived notions of the people and the system, none of which was pleasant. But, starting five years ago, through a combination of factors, I entered that world, first as a pen pal to incarcerated men, and later as a full-time mentor. 

That involvement is about to take another major step forward: I will be going into two state prisons regularly to meet with men and be involved in Bible studies. Taking up a few days a month and involving several hundred miles of driving, this will take a bite out of my schedule. But, it is something I feel driven to do and I will make whatever adjustments are required. If you had told me when my retirement began, I'd be so deeply involved in this world I would have scoffed. But, it has happened, and I feel my life is richer because of it.

Update: My involvement with this prison ministry organization ended about two years after this post was written. There was a change in top leadership, and the paperwork requirements began to replace the time I spent in compassionate care, so I figured it was time to move on.

Even so, this remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my retirement. To do something so different in both setting and involvement left a mark that continues to resonate with me. The fact that I remain in touch with one of the men I mentored is an added blessing. And, yes, he is doing very, very well.

One of my parents died. I know how life works: you are born and eventually die. Of course, I knew my mom and dad weren't likely to outlive me. But, when a parent does die, regardless of how ready you may believe you are, it is still a shock to the system. My mom died in December 2010 after a long and lingering slide that began with a broken leg and macular degeneration 18 months before her passing. So, death was not a surprise when it finally occurred.

Even so, to not show her my first e-book or know she'd never read this blog was a shock. To know I couldn't call her when I have a grammar question hit me hard. The permanency of the loss isn't something you can actually prepare yourself for until it happens. Intellectually I was ready for her death. Emotionally, I am still adjusting to her not being around to validate and comfort me. 

Update: My dad died five years after mom. He lived a full and happy life, leaving us at age 91. There are days, and especially events or memories I regret not being able to share with them. They were role models in their 63-year long marriage that Betty and I hold as our goal and guideposts.

I have had a harder time with the easier stuff. Why can't I stay on a regular schedule of visiting the gym? Why have I started and stopped and starting again playing the guitar three different times? Why do I still watch too much TV at night when I know it isn't the best use of my time (blaming Netflix is a cop-out!)? Why can't I lose the last 5 pounds I've promised myself for over a year? Why do I feel guilty if I turn on my ham radios and spend an hour listening and talking to other amateur radio operators?

The big things have happened, and I have adjusted. But the little day-to-day stuff of living keeps tripping me up. Is that just the human condition? I don't know, but that is my excuse, and I'm sticking with it.

Update: This hasn't changed, and as I get older, it actually might be worse. My daily to-do list is now my daily "if-I-Get-to-it" list. I have learned to not get as upset when a day doesn't go quite like I planned or an unexpected minor hassle occurs (like waking up last week to a leaking faucet in the bathroom that flooded the floor and parts of the carpeting).

The big stuff of retirement is now into an "it's taken care of" mindset. The little things that add pleasure to the day or that may add years to my life still require extra concentration to accomplish.

January 22, 2021

Cynicism Gives Way To Hope


Not in my wildest dreams, or nightmares, would I have thought I'd witness the events of the last few weeks in my country. Sure, seeing mobs, riots, and armed police on every corner are not unfamiliar events in other places, in other countries.

Americans have marches, protests against racism or sexism or drunk drivers, or any of the dozens of injustices that exist. Waving flags, singing songs, chants, raised fists...that is part of America. We wear our emotions on our sleeves and have the right to protest against what we perceive to be wrong. 

Sometimes things are not peaceful: the 1965 Selma march, the over-the-top protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the riots in Watts, protests in Furguson over the shooting of Michael Brown.....there are times when a lawful gathering became something much worse, or an obvious injustice spark an outpouring of rage that results in mayhem and death.

But, the swarming of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6th created a whole new category. This was the first time since the Civil War that there was a mass of people angry enough at perceived slights to attempt to stop the government in its tracks, to kidnap and maybe even assassinate political leaders. "Hang Mike Pence" was particularly disturbing.

Promises of a repeat performance, with more weapons and worse consequences, was threatened for the period just before and during the inauguration of Joe Biden. Downtown Washington became an armed camp. Rings of blockades, layer upon layer of temporary fencing, upwards of 20,000 National Guard troops added to the Metropolitan Washington police force to create a literal armed wall around key buildings.

A crowd of spectators hoping to see this once every four-year swearing-in ceremony were kept so far away that watching television made much more sense. I must note, however, that the display of 200,000 flags was awe-inspiring and a perfect statement of national unity.

All the upheavals were because millions of us live in a world detached from reality. What is desired, wanted, expected, and hoped for, even when based on a completely fictional foundation, is plenty to trigger the worst in way too many people. The willingness to sacrifice both themselves and a society of laws was chillingly obvious.

To feel very nervous about our immediate future is not really cynicism; it is pragmatic. To ignore or downplay how seriously off track we are is to live with our collective head in the sand., The QAnon satanic pedophile-run cannibalistic government deep state and other conspiracy theories are no longer the stuff of horror movies or those who wear tinfoil on their head. They have moved from the shadows to the sunlight, though the lack of any dramatic event on January 20th has left many QAnoners dispirited. That is the tough part about believing gibberish.

Even so,  I sense a feeling of hope, not only in myself and Betty but in the folks who leave comments on this blog and those I interact with in other settings. We are not rose-colored-glasses kind of people. Making it to our age means we have seen and experienced enough to have a healthy dose of cynicism coursing through our veins.

The change of leadership in Washington feels so much more consequential. There is a real sense that the shift in attitude and programs are going to start to put the last four years behind us. There is a trust that the country will move back into the coalition of nations, no longer shunning our allies, and no longer ignoring or coddling our enemies.

A recognition of the seriousness of climate change, on a meaningful immigration policy that isn't built around the misery of others, a concerted effort to bring Covid under control, the protection of those damaged economically by the massive loss of jobs....all these things suddenly seem possible. 

An administration that goes about its sworn duty, without demeaning others, lying as a matter of course, embracing wild-eyed conspiracy theories, and announcing policies and airing grievances on Twitter. A government built on the basic premise that men, women, white, black, brown, Asian, and Native Americans are all equal in God's sight and deserve a meaningful seat at the table.

The road ahead will not be easy. We have decades, if not centuries of injustices to finally admit and find a way to move forward. The fractures in our sense of community and a shared future are deep, dangerous, and not going away quickly or without more pain and struggle.

Nevertheless, the cynicism, anger, even rage of the past four years is being replaced with hope. I am more than ready to endure whatever we must go through now that I can see a future that is better than our past.

Maybe Bon Dylan said it best almost 60 years ago:

And how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

The wind I feel is the wind of change, and it feels good to me.

January 19, 2021

Making The Choices We Do

First written over six years ago, I have found new relevance in this post. Many of the problems we face today result from the same findings from my days in market research. The principles that radio stations used to build an audience back then are now used to create a narrative about what someone wants us to believe.

As the events of 2020 and the first few weeks of the new year make quite obvious, a properly targeted advertising, promotional, or marketing message still works. Whether on social media, television, print, or simply word of mouth, the psychological underpinnings are the same. 

See if you don't agree.

For many years before my satisfying journey through retirement began, I earned my living conducting market research for radio stations. The clients wanted to know which songs to play, what kind of contests would attract the most listeners, which advertising campaigns might be most effective, even whether a particular announcer should be hired or fired.

Over the course of hundreds of different studies all across the country, there were some obvious similarities in the results. It really didn't matter where the research was conducted; the key findings would be very much the same. Even knowing what the answers were likely to be, clients still believed their market and their situation would be different, they would be the exception to the rule. Of course, that didn't prove to be true. But, confirmation was important to them, so they still felt good about all the money being spent.

What does any of that have to do with retirement and the world we live in? Frankly, quite a lot.  Not surprisingly, the results gathered thirty years ago for radio stations apply to you and me today. Human psychology, our needs, and wants, and what motivates us hasn't changed.

One of the key findings remains the cornerstone of advertising today: Tell someone something often enough, and it is believed to be true. In radio, a station would simply declare itself #1, repeat the claim over and over for months and months, and then have listeners tell researchers like me that the station was #1.

Politicians are prime examples in today's world. Repeat a talking point or sound bite over and over until its truthfulness isn't even questioned. Repetition of an advertising message eventually convinces you that a certain laundry detergent really is better than all the others or that a brand of automobile is the one missing ingredient to make you happy and sexy.

This makes a difference to us in one significant way: it calls into question the validity of "experts" who tell you how to invest your money, what to do to protect your health, or how to be happy when you follow their five easy steps. The real answer is there is no simple answer. One size does not fit all. Saying it is so doesn't make it so. To build a satisfying retirement, you will ultimately be responsible for the decisions. You can't out-source your retirement and expect it to be a happy one.

That doesn't mean there isn't much to be learned from someone who has gathered experience along the way. After all, that is pretty much what this blog is all about: almost 15 years of retirement has taught me some things I'd like to share. But, it is important to understand that your life, your experiences, and your desires, are yours. Gather all in the input you can. Listen to what others say. Read extensively. Then make up your own plan. Take the road that is best for you.

The vast majority of us have no idea why we make the choices we do. No one really knew why they preferred a particular radio station over another that played the same music. They couldn't even remember which stations they listened to over a typical week. Something in the subconscious made one choice preferable over another, but verbalizing the reasons was often impossible.

For us, knowing that we operate on automatic pilot is important information. It is very easy to do something the same way without actually understanding why. It is challenging to break a bad habit for the same reason. You must recognize you live a certain way, not necessarily from a mindful choice, but from a lifetime of habit. When you understand that basic fact, it becomes easier to begin to change what you do.

Experience is a good teacher. Over time we learn some of the things that are best for us. The problem is we don't always follow those lessons, and we don't know why. That is OK. You will make mistakes. You will make choices that, when looking back, amaze you at their stupidity. All that proves is you are human. Accept that motivations are sometimes going to be unknown.

Peer pressure affects everyone, not just kids. Advertising depends on peer pressure. "Keeping up with the Jones" motivates a lot of people to aspire to a lifestyle they can't afford and may not even like. In radio, listeners want to report they listen to the most popular or "hottest" station in town, even if they don't. There is pressure to be part of the majority.

Maybe you believe you must spend part of each year on a cruise ship or biking through Europe. Maybe the people you aspire to copy own a luxurious RV or a vacation home in Aspen. You drive a giant SUV even though you and your spouse rarely leave town. Others in your social circle drive one, so it must be the right choice. Your house has three flat-screen TVs that you rarely turn on.

It is quite possible that your life has been shaped by peer pressure and not by what you really want. There is nothing wrong with any of the things listed above as long as you truly want them, use them, and can afford them. It is when you possess something to be like others that you can encounter serious problems.

Familiar always beats unfamiliar. This simple fact makes developing a new product, or in my case, creating a new radio station so difficult. No matter how often people claim to want new and different, it simply isn't true. Safe and familiar almost always trumps new and untested. Part of this is peer pressure, part of this is fear of the unknown, and part of this is laziness. We know what we get from product A. It may not be perfect, but who knows what product B will be like. Why take the risk?

This is a major stumbling block to a satisfying retirement. Rather than try a new lifestyle, a new hobby, a trip to a foreign country, a new friendship, or even a new way to manage our time, human nature will attempt to revert to the familiar. We are programmed to default to the known. We hate uncertainty, which is odd when you realize life is constant uncertainty.

Your creativity, happiness, and entire retirement experience can depend on understanding this core fact of life and rejecting it. Something familiar isn't better unless it is. Living life fully is knowing what you don't know and finding out if that is a mistake.

Above is exactly what I wrote in 2014. Yet, the key points are just as relevant, just as on target today, just as responsible for the state we find ourselves in at the moment. Maybe by being more aware of how our opinions, desires, and motivations are shaped, we can be a little more discerning in our choices and actions. 

January 15, 2021

Stolen From Me and Some Youngsters By Covid

One of the volunteer activities I truly enjoy has been stolen from me by the pandemic. I come from a long line of teachers and spent a good part of my career as a consultant (teacher). Engaging with young people is satisfying and, I hope, helpful, to them. My last in-class interaction was in January of 2020:

The hand in the very back of the room shot up. The boy was waving it vigorously back and forth to get my attention. "Mr. Lowry, Mr. Lowry," he almost shouted, " I know the answer!" Since this the first time in three weeks he had shown much interest, he was rewarded with my response to his plea.

What was going on? Where was I and who were these 26 children, none of whom knew me or I had even met them just three short weeks ago? 

For the last several years I have spent part of each Spring and Fall, teaching 5th graders about our economic system through the Junior Achievement program. 

More importantly, I was hoping to inspire each one of them to not see the limits that society may impose on them, but grasp the opportunities and a future they could craft.

The school is located in a  lower-middle-class neighborhood, about 5 miles from my home. The 10 and 11-year-old kids were clean and well-dressed, the teacher supportive and eager for this extra instruction for her kiddos.

Most came from homes where both parents worked, often in places like auto repair shops, neighborhood grocers, barbershops, or beauty salons. Older brothers and sisters held positions at McDonald's or Target stores. Most of the children were like sponges, looking to soak up whatever I could pass along to help them get a job and support themselves.

At first, each semester the children had the same reaction, sometimes unspoken, other times, not: "Who is the old man, and what is he doing here?" Old enough to be a grandfather or even great-father to a few, naturally they wondered about my appearance in their classroom. Yet, like most children, any interruption to the normal routine of math, English lessons, and quizzes was welcomed. 

I am provided with teaching lessons to help me stay on track and various supplies to keep the kids engaged. When I bring out giant game boards, a pair of dice, special take-home bookmarks, and flashcards all eyes are on me.

After several times through the material, I have learned how to skip some parts of the prepared lessons and bring something of my own into the lessons. For these kids, the key is to make what I have to share relevant to their real-world experience. Talking about college prep is important. Stressing the use of technology and keeping up with the latest trends is important. 

But, the day-to-day reality of what these boys and girls face is more important to them, right now, at this moment, in their young lives. Learning about credit, how to get it, use it, and not abuse it is high on my list of lessons. Several had no idea that what is put on a credit card must be paid back. Checking accounts? Most had never seen a check or what it was for. 

How to get a job, whether it is at McDonald's, or eventually at Microsoft, is a skill they will need in just a few more years. Most of these children have teen-aged siblings who contribute to the family income; they expect to be in that position, too.

Understanding how to market oneself, stress skills, and aptitudes, what not to do during a job interview, like not responding to a text while seated in front of your potential employer - these are crucial to my kids and not given enough stress in my teacher's guide. So, I use my experiences and basic employment-oriented presentations to help equip them for something only a few years away.

One week is designed to focus on the global economy and how we are all interconnected. That is all true, but these kids were very much aware of the message coming from Washington over the past four years. So, they had all sorts of questions about what are trade tariffs and why should they care, what about the border wall and our country's position on immigration. Several of these children had relatives in Central America and were rightly concerned about ever seeing them again.

The time in the classroom allowed me to calm some of their fears, explain how world economies work, and the effect of politics on the present situation. Without taking any side, it was my desire to give them a glimpse of reality, a helping of hope, and enough information to begin to think about these issues on their own. 

At the end of the five weeks together, these young minds had the beginnings of an understanding of how the world and local economy works, how to get and keep a job, manage one's income and outgo, and glimpse a future that their hard work and dedication could create for them. 

For me, personal satisfaction was enormous. By the third week, I was greeted with smiles, handshakes, and (after I OK'd it with the teacher) the children coming to me for a hug. By the end of the last lesson, there were moans and displays of unhappiness that I would not be back. Our time together was much more than teacher and student: it had become more like friends sharing time together, a granddad teaching his kids something important, and the sharing of affection and concern from both the front and the back of the room.

As the last class came to an end, I gave the teacher a $100 gift card for her to use for class supplies or anything she felt her students would enjoy. In return, I was presented with a card signed by all the students, along with a framed picture of all of them.

Considering all of the horrible things we have had to endure because of Covid, my missing a chance to teach a few classes of 5th graders ranks quite low on the damage list. Even so, I am sorry for the opportunity both the kids and I have missed to learn from each other and prepare the next generation for some of what they will face in the near future.

Damn you, Covid.

January 11, 2021

Could You Live In a Tiny House?

Over the last few years, various TV home improvement channels have dedicated a fair amount of time to extolling the virtues of tiny house living. Young couples just starting a life together, retirees looking to simplify, a family that needs to cut expenses, a single who doesn't need much more than a roof over her head and a place for her hobbies and entertaining a few friends, are shown adjusting to a few hundred feet square feet and calling it home. 

A tiny home could be a small trailer or RV., a houseboat, even a treehouse. It might be manufactured by a company specializing in such things or built by hand by someone who wants everything to be just so. 

Space under the ladder to a sleeping loft becomes dresser drawers. A door slides out from the wall, with a compact clothing closet built-in. A kitchen contains everything from a simple hotplate and dorm room-sized refrigerator to a gourmet cook's dream.

The way every inch is used to make the space more livable and convenient is, frankly, amazing. For those who want to seriously down-size and make a much smaller footprint on the earth, tiny houses are quite attractive.

What size qualifies as tiny? The answer varies greatly. I have seen some people shoehorned into no more than a small RV, or as large as 700 squarer feet of living space. The average seems to be somewhere between 200 and 300 square feet...about the size of a larger master bedroom in a traditional home.  

With the number of possessions radically reduced, minimal utility costs, and usually no mortgage, tiny house living is a tight budget's best friend. The average cost is usually in the $30-$40,000 range but can be much more inexpensive or much higher, depending on the amount of customization desired.

Betty and I just met a couple who have sold their large home and virtually all their possessions. They are in the process of buying an RV that will become their full-time home for the next several years. 

So, that raises the question: Could you, or would you, live in a house or motorhome that small?

Could you be happy in a space about 85% smaller than the average American home? How about less than half a typical one-person apartment?

Is a tiny home a good choice for a single retiree or couple? Or, is that amount of closeness just a little too close for you?

January 7, 2021

Streaming : What Do You Choose to Get You Through The Night?

If nothing else, 2020 cemented our relationship with the wide world of streaming. It is almost hard to remember when you'd wait several days for the red envelope in the mailbox with a DVD inside. It wasn't until 2007 that Netflix began offering streaming to your home as an alternative to the mailed DVD option.

Amazingly, there are still nearly 3 million subscribers to the mailed DVD service, folks who live in areas without reliable or fast enough Internet service. That division of Netflix continues to lose subscribers as more of the country is able to access the Internet. Yet, the DVD service is profitable, a full 13 years after streaming first became an option.

With 83 million subscribers, cable and satellite delivery remain widely available and the first (and only) choice for many of us. And, of course, there are plenty of people who depend on that TV antenna on the roof to watch local, free television. In my area, I can receive over 40 channels using just a small flat panel in my living room.

Bottom line: most of us have enough choices for TV entertainment that we could spend every waking moment watching something and still miss 99% of what is available at that moment.

The providers of all this programming are well aware of our apparently insatiable appetite, and willingness to pay for additional options. Watch Hulu for free or dump the ads with the premium version? Multiple streams in HD? Netflix has a package for that. Sling TV or YouTube TV are like cable without the cable. 

HBO or HBO Max? Do you like the Discovery Channel on cable or the streaming version, Discovery+? Want something that is part of the Disney family of companies? The streaming service, Disney+, is a necessity, as well as several choices of ESPN on cable. You'll need Peacock for some material produced by the owner, NBC. Many of the more popular PBS shows require making a $60 yearly "donation" to access them.

Like Foreign or art films? Kanopy is the place to be. With a local library card, you are free to browse hundreds of films and documentaries that don't appear anywhere else. Don't forget Pluto TV, the Roku Channel, or Apple TV+.

Love the theater experience for new movies, but hesitant to attend because of Covid, or turned off by the high prices for tickets and popcorn? Covid has forced most new movies to appear on a streaming service or paysite on the same day it is released to your local multiplex. Disney+, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Vudu, and now HBOI Max are making a trek to a movie theater pretty much unnecessary.

A new wrinkle is to pay a rather hefty charge to watch a new movie at home when it is first released. Example? Mulan for $30, Or wait two months and it is part of Disney+ with no extra charge.

Of course, with all our choices, it is becoming easier to actually pay more for individual streaming channels than we once did for cable service. As entertainment becomes much more home-centric, even a quick glance at the bills for all these streaming services shows how deeply we have become enthralled by the at-home options.

For full disclosure, the Lowry household does have Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, Sling, and the free version of Hulu. We can watch live TV, with NFL football and PBS channels being favorites. But, so far, we have resisted the call of the others who are after a larger share of our entertainment budget.

Today's question: which streaming services do you turn to most often? Which services may not be worth your money in the new year? Are there newer choices that you have decided are worth the cost like Disney+ for all the Stars Wars and Disney movies? Or, maybe HBO Max because the TV show, Friends, is no longer on Netflix?

The Covid vaccine is becoming available. But, I seriously doubt that means we will give up the convenience and sheer volume of choices we have to make any time soon. Home-based entertainment is here to stay. 

So, what streaming services have gotten you through the long Covid darkness? What shows can you strongly recommend? And, which stinkers will you help us avoid?


January 4, 2021

Who Is Stealing The G.O.P. ?

UPDATE: It is Wednesday afternoon and the Capitol Building is being overrun, invaded, damaged by traitorous criminals. President Trump continues to lie about the election while provoking today's attack by 10,000 of his most out-of-control believers.

I have never been more enraged, more afraid, and more frustrated by the enabling members of the party behind this entire sequence of events.

This is horrific and comes with absolutely no excuse or justification. Whether we, as a country, will still be standing 13 days from now when the evil that is Donal Trump finally exists government, is suddenly an open question.

I grew up in a Republican Party household. As part of a mostly white suburb in America in the 1950s and '60s, that was the norm. My parents weren't particularly political, but the message of less government interference in daily life and being wary of deficit spending met their expectations.

Being even less interested in what happened in Washington than my parents, I happily followed suit. Of course, I couldn't vote, but if a Republican said something newsworthy, it was, by definition, good.

All that changed in 1974. Richard Nixon's behavior and the Watergate scandal pushed my parents to abandon the G.O.P. and never look back. By then, as a college student and able to vote, my allegiances had already shifted. Anti-war demonstrations, student sit-ins, a more diverse, liberal student body at Syracuse University, and having a very low draft number in the 1969 lottery opened my eyes to the wonderful world of politics. 

Even so, I didn't think of the Republican Party members as a collection of people who seemed much different than Democrats. Deep down, we all wanted a strong democracy, a solid economy, and the ability for anyone to aspire to the "American Dream," even if that "dream" was fiction for a good chunk of society.

Thinking back, I know I voted for Ronald Regan the first time and George H.W. Bush. For other elections, my vote went to the Democratic Party's nominee to be president. Regardless of who won, I believed the winner would not harm the country or institutions much. After all, in four years, that person had to reapply for the job. There were enough checks and balances in the system from keeping one rouge politician from doing too many dastardly things. Republicans and Democrats went about solving our problems differently, but there was no evil intent.

Well, that all went out the window in 2016. We elected someone uniquely unqualified to lead much of anything. With a world view that revolved only around himself, many of us held our collective breath that he wouldn't do something so dangerous that it couldn't be kept in check. Our system had survived all sorts of trama over the years; we would be fine until the fall of 2020 allowed for a referendum on that choice.

The year 2020, which will go down in history as one of the worst ever, seems to be proving that belief as seriously flawed. For only the second time in our history, a presidential loser is refusing to accept the will of the majority of voters and the electoral system that has been in place since day one.

He will not concede. He and his most loyal followers have tried everything to prevent him from leaving the White House on the 20th of this month. Not incidentally\, he is calling on his most rabid followers to come to Washington on January 6th and get wild, the day Congress deals with the electoral vote confirmation. 

This past weekend, the president is recorded asking a Georgia election official to "find" just enough missing votes to change the results of the popular vote and award that state to him. Because it is his voice and the transcript matches the recording, no one can call this fake news. No one can unhear the president of the United States badgering, even threatening, the Republican official he is asking to magically locate just enough votes to change the outcome.

This is the state that recounted the votes three times, including 5 million ballots by hand, to satisfy party officials and lawsuits that tried to manufacture something that is not there. This is the state with two Senate elections going on this week that will determine who holds the majority in that body. What happens if one or both candidates lose? Can't we just about guarantee the calls of fraud and refusing to accept the results?

Over sixty lawsuits have been filed: all but one minor issue have been tossed out of local and Federal courts, even the Supreme Court. The poor state of Georgia endured demands the Republican Governor resign because he wouldn't bend to the demand to throw out legitimate votes and declare the incumbent as the winner. The same displeasure with the vote totals surfaced in Pennslyvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona, among others.

Then, hundreds of duly-elected G.O.P. representatives and Senators, along with both the president and the vice-president, have promised to attempt a feat that would, in essence, end democracy in this country. In their desperate attempt to hold onto power and placate the most fervent supporters for the losing administration, they are promising to force the delay of the validation of the Electoral College results so baseless accusations of voter fraud can be debated yet again.

With absolutely no proof, only allegations that something must be wrong if their Golden Boy lost, this attempt to throw out the election results so one party can install electors of their choosing will profoundly change our country's history.

With this precedent established, the losing political party in any election will be encouraged to deny the results and ignore the votes that are inconvenient to their purposes. It shouldn't matter what political side of the aisle any of us live on. This attempt to throw out 81 million votes should terrify everyone. Democracy only survives when the majority believe the results of an election are fair; distressing maybe to many, but still valid.

From this very dangerous charade going on in Congress, one must conclude that the G.O.P. has been hijacked by some power-hungry, morally deficient, short term charlatans. This group is so focused on pleasing the "base" of the current president and so afraid of his wrath in coming years that they are willing to tear up our system of government and blatantly ignore their own oath to protect the Constitution.

I am quite aware that 74 million of us voted for the Republican candidate. That is several million more than put him into office in the first place. Clearly, his policies and approach to governance pleased a lot of citizens.

I am also aware that Hilary Clinton garnered more popular votes than her opponent but lost the presidency by roughly 79,000 votes out of 138 million cast due to the electoral college system. I will also point out that she did not scream foul, fraud, and massive voter cheating in that razor-thin loss but conceded on election night.

Many of those most vocal about this Electoral College vote counting have admitted their gambit has zero chance of working. Yet, their political ambitions demand they pick a side in this made-up battle, and that side is to stand with someone who wants to hold onto power even at the cost of our future.

I have been a Democrat for most of the last fifty years of my life. Even so, my votes for Ronald Regan and George Bush, Sr. are an indication I don't just blindly follow one party but vote for who I believe is best for the job.

I do not believe for a second that the majority of Republicans support this attempt to pervert this election. I have absolutely no doubt that, as a whole, those who support the G.O.P. want democracy to remain our form of government and would fight, tooth and nail, against attempts to dismantle it.

So, that begs the question: who is attempting to steal the G.O.P.? What are the rank and file Republican Party supporters thinking as they see some of their representatives making a concerted effort to deny the will of the majority? What do they believe will be the long term consequences of this attempted coup, which is really what is going on? Is there a reaction to a sitting president trying to coerce someone to just change the vote totals? Would all the Republican candidates elected on November 3rd agree that their votes were part of all the cheating and shouldn't be counted either?

The G.O.P. is under attack by those who don't support its history, beliefs, or importance in a two-party system. They are on a path to weaken or even destroy the future of the Republican Party. They are flinging wide the door on a movement from a growing group to form a third party that believes in this country more than a cult of personality and power.

Like the morbid fascination of seeing the video of a particularly gruesome car crash, or a  town destroyed by a tidal wave, we will all be watching how this attack plays out. 

The G.O.P., The Grand Old Party, cannot allow some outliers to hijack and destroy the party and our future as Americans.

Whatever happens over the next few days, the consequences for our fate are immense. All good men and women who believe in the America of the Constitution, in the rule of law, and not of the cult of personality and power grabs, must say, "Enough."

January 2, 2021

Living Safely At Home ...For Longer Than We Thought?


All of us are much more familiar with our living spaces today than we were ten months ago. A pandemic lockdown and fear of infection or death can do that to a person. The safest place is within our own four walls. Whether a home, apartment, condo, farmhouse, RV, yurt...wherever we call home, has been our refuge. Of course, at times, it has felt like a prison, too. 

Betty and I spent part of New Year's day talking about this year's budget and our spending plans. For now, long and involved vacation trips are still off the table, though we might take a few three or four-day jaunts in the immediate area. Luckily, where we live has enough variety in climate and scenery to make that interesting enough to keep us from going stir-crazy.

More of our thought went into a few renovation and remodeling plans for our home. We have been in this house for almost six years and expect to live here for another eight years or so. With that amount of time in one place, we discussed a desire to freshen our living space by making some decoration changes.

More importantly, we wondered what we could do to make the home safer as we age. While a retirement community is our ultimate plan, Covid has forced us to wonder about that choice. The horror stories of unchecked illness in such settings and the inability of the family to visit us in the event of another pandemic are terrifying scenarios.

Statistics show that one in 3 people over 65 will fall at some point, and most suffer some type of damage. Among this age group, a fall is the leading cause of death by injury. That group includes both of us, so suddenly, I was paying full attention.

I did some basic research and found several things we could do over the next few years to our home if aging in place became our preferred option, at least for longer than we had originally planned.  Some are quite pricey and may not be worth the cost. Others are both affordable and proactive steps to keep us safer at home. 

Here is the full list I developed that has become part of our discussions. We will not tackle all of these straight away, but it is good to have all the options in front of us.

  • Walk-In Tubs: Walk-In Tubs are not cheap but a major modification to consider. They are safe, easy to use, and allow anyone the independence of giving themselves a bath. Walk-in tubs have slip-resistant floors and built-in hand grips. They are much safer than a standard bathtub or shower. While modifying the bathroom, we could install a raised toilet seat with handles. Thousands are hurt each year by using too low a toilet for an aging body to use safely.
  • Throw rugs. If placed over wood floors or tiles, small rugs can easily cause one to trip or slip. Plastic mats placed by doors to prevent mud or snow from being tracked into the house are an accident waiting to happen. We have mats by each door that, even with anti-slip bottoms, will move. Our carpeting is a low nap, so that is good.
  • Levered Handles: Levered handles are much easier to use than standard doorknobs. Instead of turning a knob, levered handles allow a door to open by merely pushing the handle down. Arthritis can make twisting a knob quite difficult. With a lever, a push-down, and the door opens. I easily installed several of these this past fall. It was a welcome change.
  • Stair Railings: If there are stairs in your home, it is a good idea to have additional hand railings installed. Usually, there is a railing on only one side of the staircase. Make sure all railings extend the full length of the stairs. Place nonskid tape strips or reflective strips on stair risers to prevent any sliding or falling on the staircase.  Our home is one level, so this is one worry we do not have.
  • Widened Door Openings: Widened door openings are essential for anyone who uses a walker or wheelchair. Housing with narrow doorways or hallways can essentially trap someone in a wheelchair in just a few areas of the home. We will have to consider this expensive retrofit for one of the bathrooms and Betty's office door.
  • Sinks and cabinets: Sinks are another modification that can make life much easier for seniors. With levered faucets and lowered counter surfaces, they can be used without as much effort. Check that there is enough room between the floor and bottom of the sink to allow wheelchair access. The same approach applies to cabinets in the bathroom or kitchen. If possible, lower them so reaching isn't necessary. This might become an expensive necessity for us later on. For now, we use safe stepstools when something is too high to reach comfortably.
  • Extensions cords. Ensure those wires from lamps, fans, or stereos are not crossing a path through a room or sticking out from behind the couch. Many older homes may not have GFI (ground fault interrupter) electrical outlets in bathrooms and kitchens. That oversight can kill. Replacement outlets are quite affordable. I have done so both inside and outside our home with no damage to our wiring or my body! Now, I must move/hide a few cords.
  • Brighter Lighting. As we age, our eyesight declines. Brighter light is required for all tasks, as well as reading and safely moving through a room. Install extra lamps (though watch out for excessive cords..see above) or wall lamps. Use brighter bulbs where possible. This is high on our list. The living room and master bedroom are too dark.
  • Remove unnecessary clutter. It is simply amazing the amount of stuff we accumulate if we live in a house for any number of years. You don't even have to have a pack rat-type personality to have a dangerous amount of clutter. In addition to being a tripping hazard, fire is another concern as we age. Our ability to quickly exit a burning home is diminished if things are cluttered. Also, we are rethinking the placement of furniture. If someone uses a wheelchair or a walker the general guideline is at least 5 feet between any two pieces of furniture. 

Like me, until I undertook this review, you may be thinking that none of this applies to you yet. That may be true, but you are only one accident away. How about a relative or friend? Do you know someone else who could benefit from some of these safety fixes? 

There are probably another dozen suggestions that I could have added, but I want to encourage you to jump in now with your thoughts. What else could make a house safer? What modifications will allow us to stay in our homes as long as possible, as independent as we'd to like be, and still be safe?

At this point, our budget for remodels and repairs hasn't been finalized. Help me out!

January 1, 2021

Goodbye 2020 - Hello 2021


I hope this photo is inspirational. Don't we all feel like we just about fell into a chasm in 2020? Don't we relish the leap into a new year, with promises of better things ahead?

The pandemic didn't end at the stroke of midnight. The chaos in Washington isn't close to settling down. The economy needs a strong shot of...something, anything. Face masks will not go into a drawer anytime soon.

Yet, through the quirk of our system of measuring time, the click of the clock gives the sense of a fresh slate. It is largely symbolic and never a guarantee of better times. However, for at least a while, we all band together with new determination to leave a miserable year in our rearview mirror.

I wish the very best to you and your loved ones in the days, weeks, and months ahead. 

Betty and I will spend New Year's Eve and New Year's morning with the grandkids...playing games, staying up until the stroke of midnight, and collapsing on beds and couches until scrambled eggs and bacon and strong coffee for me ushers in a new dawn.

Good riddance 2020

Happy New Year 2021