Goodbye to Cute Kittens (Yes, I Quit Facebook)

Not to brag, but I have always been a stalwart defender of truth, justice and the American way. No wait, that was Superman.  Not me.  

Well, it’s been accurately said that I march to the beat of my own drum.  This is not necessarily by choice, but more likely due to poor rhythm.  If I am out-of-step with my fellow marchers, it’s because I can’t help it.   

My decision to shut-off Facebook and Twitter has been percolating for some time.  Most intelligent folks would agree that social media is mostly a huge, but benevolent, waste of time.  Regular users argue that it is also a convenient medium for exchanging photos and items of interest among family members and real friends.  The really smart users probably limit their exposure to a few chosen individuals.  

But most of us, seeking ‘free’ entertainment are seduced into expanding our ‘friends’ circle to include friends-of-friends and even the dreaded ‘public’ (i.e., anyone).   As time goes by, we are drawn into seemingly innocent exchanges of information – fun surveys, tests, startling videos, cute pet photos, petition drives, affinity groups, you name it.  We don’t think about how much information we are giving away through seemingly harmless participation under the guise of entertainment.

Recent revelations have made it clear that Social Media is far from a benevolent waste of time.  Rather it has become an invasive industry that crawls up your ass and into your brain, and shares all the information it learned about you along the way — with total strangers, and without your knowledge.  (You consented by agreeing to the fine print in their terms and conditions of use).   So, when you were answering the questions to determine your Leprechaun name, or answering the Mensa quiz or clicking on the discount K-Y Jelly ad, they were gathering information about your preferences, your education level, your political ideology, and so-on.

We are not just talking about Facebook.  There are many other sites that do the same thing.  And the big search engines (Google, Microsoft, AOL)  sell data about what you have searched for — refrigerators, hats, male enhancement products, medicines, cat litter…  

I have been feeling a growing discontent with the silliness of much of the content that was being presented to me. Frankly, I don’t care where you went for lunch or what the dish looked like, or 10 photos of you standing in front of a cathedral in France (which you posted to make me jealous).  I don’t care about your cute cat, and even less about your precocious grand kid, and I especially don’t care about the squirrel that is raiding your bird feeder. (But, thanks for sharing.)

So, after learning about the thousands of fake Facebook accounts set up by Russian operatives to influence the 2016 election, and then more recently hearing about the data breach by Cambridge Analytics, I decided that I could live without Facebook — which for me was a colossal waste of time invested for the amount of entertainment enjoyed.  I also deleted my Twitter account. 

 A significant problem with these platforms is that there is no editor.  Anyone can say anything in the name of free speech regardless of how inane or wrong they are.   

If you like that type of chaos, you are welcome to it.  I’ll  pass.

Seizing This Day

Well, I have passed yet another milestone.  

I arrived at age 75 a few months ago.  Achieved didn’t seem to be the right word, since achievement is commonly defined as “a goal being reached by effort, skill or courage.”  In my case, I kind of snuck-up on it, by merely surviving.  

I did not plan to live this long. According to actuarial tables, the life expectancy for my cohort — males born in 1942 — was about 68 years.  My dad died at the age of 64, and none of his three brothers lived past age 65.  So I went through middle-age years believing that men in my family could count themselves lucky to enjoy a year or two of retirement before the Grim Reaper would cast his shadow..

So,  I decided on early retirement.  I started collecting Social Security at age 62.

But,  here is the interesting thing about life expectancy: From birth, the actuaries have to factor-in the statistical average rate of demise to account for those who will succumb to accidents, war, disaster, infectious disease and other threats to life.  But,  if you survive until age 65, there is a new calculation.  Suddenly, you get a reprieve of another 17 or so years. 

Now, at 75+ my current life expectancy age for my cohort is 86.  Eighty-six  seems old to me.   My current goal is to achieve that age.  

This time, it will be a deliberate objective; I will not sneak-up on it, I will arrive on a band wagon drawn by a team of six Clydesdale.   Well, you get the idea — I will apply effort, skill and courage to get there.  I will seize these bonus days.

I think it will take a lot of effort to stay upright, to keep moving and be as flexible as possible.  Gravity is an enemy of age, it keeps trying to pull us down.  I plan to reduce my body mass significantly to lessen gravity’s effects on knees and joints.  

It will take skill as well; the brain wants to shrink, to erase memories, to shut down — just when we need it the most. We can’t let that happen.  We must encourage our own curiosity, caring,  and social interaction just when it is easier to sit in front of the TV like zombies watching Jeopardy, The Kardashians or NCIS.    We need to keep reading, doing crosswords, challenging mental acuity by debating those who disagree with us.  

It will take courage —  I like the definition: “Strength in the face of pain or grief.”   We need to keep a perspective on ourselves and the world, recognize those emotional triggers and fears which are the meat of media “news”.  We need to stay positive, to be thankful, remain hopeful, and to stay funny.  A sense of humor is indispensable.  There is no time left to waste wallowing in anger, regret or blame. 

Frankly, I have given-up on questions like “Why are we here?”  “Is there an afterlife?”  I  can accept that my life may have no more meaning than a crow’s. 

Just the same, both the crow and I want to stay alive as long as possible.


The Case for Procrastination

 For several years now, I have been working on an essay titled “The Case for Procrastination.” It takes issue with our over planned and goal oriented society. It examines the deleterious effects of the crazy-busy lives of people – especially those who are working at a career and raising families – who never have time to “Stop and smell the roses”.

I have a few paragraphs completed, but I doubt that I’ll get to it in the foreseeable future. Lots of other stuff to do that seems more interesting right now.

The unfinished essay examines procrastination as a personal style rather than a chronic illness that some people seem to inherit.  (I have no scientific evidence that procrastination is inherited. I just believe it to be so after years of observing my siblings and myself. We are inveterate and practiced procrastinators.)

Successful procrastinators tend to work exceedingly well under the pressure of an imminent deadline.  They may put things off until the last minute but they tend to work quite efficiently during that last minute.  This is why I can start working on my tax returns on April 14 and finish before the deadline.  I’m sure there are other positive things to say about procrastinators, and when I think of them I will finish the essay, I promise….

There are certain luxuries appertaining to being a retired, life-long procrastinator. One can choose to adopt an un-hurried approach to goals. (Some people who know me may be saying to themselves Hey Mr. No-sense-of-urgency, what’s new?   What’s new is that now I don’t hurry on my own time. I don’t feel the same pressure as I would if I had to report my activities to a boss. )

I believe that the ability to remain calm in the face of zipping time is actually a sign of wisdom. Who needs to rush around getting-things-done when there will always be more things to be done? Young people do not have the acquired wisdom to recognize this fact of life. They imagine that if they rush and get stuff done, they will have earned the chill-time to take an afternoon off to play golf or sit on the deck with a trashy novel.

But seldom do working people actually realize those imagined rewards because work will not let up on you. Getting things done begets more things, The boss – seeing that you have a capacity for getting lots of things done, sends more things to your inbox. In a business there is no respite. Sure there are rewards. You get more pay, and you inevitably get promoted to a position of increased responsibility – which results in even more demands on your available time.  If you do get to the golf course or weekend getaway, you must keep checking your smarphone, because you are always “on-call.”

There is always a price tag on anything you get in an organization: usually, the price of perks and rewards is the increasing trade-off of your personal time. Successful people recognize this trade-off as a Faustian deal with the devil, and they assure themselves that they will repair the damaged relationships and health if they can survive long enough to get that well-earned retirement. Sadly for them, this strategy does not work. The halls of retirement are filled with once successful executives who are perplexed to find themselves estranged from the home and family they believed they were working to support.

Looking back, I am not sorry that I took the less stressful road – not that I had a choice, mind you.  When I was born, three weeks past the forecasted due date, weighing-in at nearly 11 pounds, the doctor took one look and gravely pointed-out to my mother, “He was born without a sense of urgency.” 

Memory and Vision

Recently, I decided to do something about my PC, which was running like a turtle. It took forever to open new applications or to save data. I read somewhere that you can speed things up by adding a RAM card. Simply put, the more RAM memory, the faster the computer processes the data. My old Dell had only .5 GB.

 I went to Staples. For $44, I was able to buy a 1 GB memory card which I was able to install in my computer. Presto, now my PC runs like a jackrabbit.

 It occurred to me: Wouldn’t it be great if we could just go down to the Mall and buy a snap-in, add-on memory upgrade for our human brains?

 As we age, most of us lose our keys and glasses periodically, but these are not the dreaded signs of senility. The experts say that you don’t need to start worrying when someone misplaces the keys; you worry when they don’t know what the keys are for.

 As I grow older I tend to be sensitive to memory issues. While I often have flashbacks that are vivid and detailed, I find that large chunks of memories have seemingly disappeared. Sometimes it is just a temporary lapse of memory, like when you are looking for your keys and suddenly you wonder “What the heck am I looking for?”

 Not long ago, I read a new book by Nora Ephron titled “I Remember Nothing.” If you have forgotten who Nora Ephron is, she wrote the screenplays to the movies “When Harry met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

 She admits that she can’t remember the names of people she meets at parties, and can’t even recall the names of her favorite movie stars without Googling them on her Smartphone. She frequently gets lost.

 This may sound like familiar complaints to aging baby boomers. It is inspirational to read her reflections which are often, admittedly, blurry. It shows that a mentally competent writer can forget important people and things, just like the rest of us.

 My most annoying item of forgetfulness is reading glasses.  I am always losing them.  I cant read the computer screen, caller-id readout, or read the daily newspaper without magnifiers.  Recently, I decided to solve my vision problem. 

BJ’s,  one of the warehouse outlets nearby was offering a free trial membership, and while perusing the vast aisles, we noticed a display of 4 pairs of eyeglasses (readers)  for less than $20.  Clearly this was the solution to the problem. The plan: put one pair by the PC, one in the bedroom nightstand, one on the kitchen counter and one in my coat so wherever I went there would always be a pair of glasses to read small print. 

This worked great for a few days.  Last night, searching for a pair of glasses, I noticed that there were five pair on my bureau. 

 Where the heck did the other pair come from?

The Retirement Conundrum

As a non scientist, I can get away with saying just about anything and not have to defend my views with research data.  One of the conclusions I’ve come to after 3 years of semi-retirement is this: humans do not do well doing nothing.

Anyone who has been around the over-55 clubhouse, has seen that many retirees are prone to become depressed and unhappy – even sick – when they do not have something to do that requires them to get out of bed in the morning, take a shower and get dressed. For a lot of folks who never had problems with alcohol, the boredom of retirement gets one to thinking that cocktail hour doesn’t really need to wait past 4pm – even earlier.  Men who spent decades yearning for a life of daily golf or fishing eventually become bored with the same routine – (just like a work life, you say? )

I think I am typical of men of my generation who grew up in the 50’s and who worked for forty plus years, raised a family and owned a house. We spent our working years waking-up every day and smelling the coffee. Now we are grandparents and ready to kick back and smell the roses. Maybe take that road trip we always talked about.

But something is missing. We miss the Income. We miss the socialization. We miss being part of something. Those Social Security deposits to the bank account are not to be sniffed at, but it is not a level of income that will allow retirees to enjoy the amenities of life that they were accustomed to when they were working and drawing a decent salary.  As bad as our coworkers were, they were better than having no one to complain about. And, not to forget,  there were some good times: Successful projects, ideas that worked, friendships, occasional recognition.

My attitude toward the work was not negative but my feelings about organizations tended toward a healthy mistrust of authority. This attitude was not helpful to my career advancement, but I couldn’t help it. It was mainly due to my conviction that the power in organizations is often misplaced. Instead of finding the best leaders, most organizations promote the most productive and ambitious do-ers.  I guess the theory is that they will show others how to be more productive like they were.  Most of us know that isn’t what happens.

What really happens is elegantly explained by the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. Many managers who I worked for were incompetent as leaders but didn’t know it. They called themselves “eagles”. And the metaphor is accurate.  Eagles do not operate as a leader of a team of other eagles.  They are nasty predators and efficient hunters.  Eagles don’t do team – and it is only through team effort that anything worthwhile is accomplished in an organization.

So here is the paradox: Organizations tend to promote people with ego-centric skills and put them in charge of teams of people. It’s no wonder that the newly minted manager is unable to understand the motivations and personalities of his assigned team. He only knows one way to succeed and that is by outperforming the others. How can someone lead a team when he/she knows nothing about cooperation?   Thus the eagle tends to manage by dint of his power, that is to say, by generating fear in subordinates. This is how bureaucracy migrates into autocracy. Astute underlings rapidly adjust to the environment of command and control; nattering nay bobs are harassed until they either shut-up or go away.

Yeah, I still miss it. Even when it sucked, it was better than watching “The View” or surfing the Internet for funny pet videos.

The Myth of Multitasking

We hear it all the time – people on their I-phones apologizing for something they overlooked or forgot to do.  They excuse the lapse, blaming their “crazy-busy”  life styles as though the hectic craziness was inflicted on them, instead of a choice they have made voluntarily.

These are often the same people who talk about how good they are at multitasking.  But, if they could get out of their muddled heads for just a few minutes, they might realize that, in fact, they are not so good at multitasking. In reality, they just do a lot of things marginally well. 

Granted, most of my own research on human behavior is done waiting in line at Starbucks, but some people who actually get paid to study human behavior, have concluded that so-called multi-taskers are not as efficient as they think they are.   Chances are you are just skimming at this very moment, but if you are interested enough you might check-out what real journalists and researchers are saying.

Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and has written a book with the self-explanatory title CrazyBusy, has been offering therapies to combat extreme multitasking for years; in his book he calls multitasking a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” In a 2005 article, he described a new condition, “Attention Deficit Trait,” which he claims is rampant in the business world.

What we call “multitasking” is really the ability to switch between a number of tasks quickly. The term was first applied to computer processors, which operate sequentially at such a high speed that designers invented a method of rapidly switching tasks (they called it multiplexing in the early days) to give the impression of multiple simultaneous actions.

Most of us humans are born with only one processor. In some of us, that processor is capable of faster speeds. This explains Mensa types. They are great at chess and crossword puzzles , but maybe not so good at doing a job that requires sociability, contextual cognition or persuasive skills. IQ is really a measure of how fast the processor is, not how much fun it is to be around.

Multitasking is not doing many things at once, rather it is the ability to switch focus from one task to another very quickly. The problem is that – unlike the digital computer – the human brain needs time to refocus at the same level it was concentrating before the interruption.

You will often see examples of this (delay in refocusing)  when you are in a conversation with someone on an electronic device.  Let’s say you on a phone conversation discussing a book. The other person says:

“John Irving is a fine writer, but he is so manipulative.
“What do you mean?
“Well he gets you to fall in love with his characters and then… oops wait a sec I need to take this call…
While waiting you absently go through your e-mail and see that you have a new message, so you click on it..
“Sorry about that. Where was I?”

“Ah, Let’s see, we were talking about books I think..”
“Yes… books.  Who has time for books anymore?  I am swamped here so I need to get back to work. it’s been fun talking with you.”
“Ok, so long”

Because of the interruptions, you did not find out what the other person was going to say about John Irving’s penchant for murdering or maiming his best characters.  Then, you got distracted by your own incoming e-mail.  Because the human brain is slow to re-focus on the book topic,  the conversation ended before the information was communicated.

Studies have shown something we intuitively know: as we age, the recovery time to re-focus is even longer, especially in males. 

Ah, the football game has started, time for me to interrupt myself and do some experimental multi-tasking.  By which I mean watching the Game while simultaneously sipping a frosty Sierra Nevada.

The Subtle Joy of Being Unstructured

People ask me why I keep thinking about giving-up my current unstructured retired-guy lifestyle and trading away my glorious free time for a low paying, potentially boring or otherwise unsatisfying part-time job.   Put in those terms, I can’t really give a logical defense for my periodic impulses to seek work.   But the impulses are there.

I’m not clear whether there is just an ingrained need to be doing something measurable, or boredom with my choices.   Part of it is the sense that I am standing still, and the world is going by.  I’m not doing any thing that matters.  No one expects me to show up and save the day.  Maybe I just miss identifying myself with a group.  I don’t know. 

Last year,  after I decided to leave the retail job I had done for a year, a friend had written to exclaim wonderment that I was still looking for the dream job.   Why wasn’t I satisfied with retirement and leisure?  In my reply I wrote:

“IF (big if) I ever go back to work, it will be in some admin or professional organization, part-time, earning at least $20 an hour, no weekends, no commute, no staff meetings and no status reports.  If that is too much to ask, then I will just stay retired: staying-up late watching TV, sleeping till nine every morning, having a leisurely breakfast (involving chicken and pork products), reading the paper, planning the rest of the day.”

As I re-read these words, I feel at peace.   The dream job did not materialize, but I am doing just fine without a job.   Many times since retiring from full-time employment, I had been struck with a sense of loss.  Not depression – more like a vague sense that I was missing something.  I decided that I missed the structure and sociability of a formal workplace – going to an office everyday, where they expect you to show-up and do something important.

But, as time has passed, I am becoming more comfortable with the prospect of full retirement and the subtle joy of not being structured.

For example, it is 10:40am and I am dressed; I have had my weekly shower and shave. I’ve fed the cats, read the Globe, eaten a bacon toast sandwich, drank 3 cups of Starbucks Cafe Verona, and spent a half hour answering email. If it wasn’t raining, I probably would be outside, finishing my painting activities, but I am in no real hurry; I can finish next week (or the next). Later this afternoon, perhaps I will mosey on down to the cheap haircut place and get a senior cut for $11.95 plus tip. (When I was working my haircuts at the fancy salon cost $35. (I did look good, but these days looking good is an unnecessary luxury). Most of the day will be amiably frittered and puttered away. I didn’t get my morning walk because of the weather, but who knows – it might clear up.

Tomorrow, assuming a partly sunny day, I plan to go fishing with a buddy. Striped bass for dinner! (Ok, if this outing is as bad as my last day of fishing , I may have to stop at the fish market on my way home.)

Last week turned out to be pretty full too. Got my teeth cleaned, repaired a broken washer arm on the dishwasher, saw my children and grandchildren, went for walks every day, scraped and painted the east side of the house, cut down an overgrown yew that was blocking a window, spent Sunday at Little Compton, R.I. eating and drinking with friends, had a day-trip to York, Maine with my wife, did laundry, went to the dump, read a book, and so-on. Nothing remunerative or remarkable, but not so bad….

Hey, It’s stopped raining, I gotta go take a walk.

Seekers Need Not Apply

After diligent searching over the past year or more, I have been somewhat discouraged by the paucity of professional part-time jobs. Beyond a few specialized industries, such as Health Care (Nurses) and Higher Education (Instructors), I have not seen a demand for part-time business professionals. It seems strange – especially during hard economic times – that companies have not realized the cost savings that could result from the hiring less-than-full-time professionals.Perhaps this is reflective of the general downturn in employment opportunities over the past few years due to the crappy economy. Just as likely, it reflects the historical attitudes of many companies towards part-time workers – a vestige of a bygone era when company loyalty was considered to be valuable, and part-timers were considered transient. Traditionally, such jobs have been plentiful in retail, customer service, farm labor and hospitality industries where the routine nature of tasks require only basic skills and moderate experience. These skill sets are highly transferable. Indeed, most employers of part-time workers treat them as interchangeable parts. These jobs typically require little judgement or creativity on the part of the worker. Tasks are proceduralized to the nth degree to eliminate potential variables, and all unexpected questions are bucked-up to the ever-present supervisor.

But for some reason,when it comes to “professional” work(i.e., Sitting in an office working at a keyboard, staring at the PC, clicking the mouse)  hiring managers   seem to ignore the patent advantages of hiring people who cannot/do not wish to work full time.
To list a few:
– Less wasted time. I know from long experience that most salaried office workers are less effective than they are busy. They worry about career, status, promotion. They waste large chunks of time sucking around Mr Big and getting very little done. A part-time worker on the other hand comes in and works 4 hours a day 5 days a week, head down and gets stuff done.
– Reduced expectation of benefits. Most part-time workers earn about $9-11 per hour in retail establishments. Elite part-timers might make 12-14 per hour. Professionals might get $20 per hour. Over a year, that amounts to a payroll cost of 20K vs an equivalent full-time worker costing three times that amount counting benefits.
– High function low cost. There are lots of guys like me who have retired from the career track. We still know how to do things and we have a pretty respectable work ethic. We don’t need constant supervision. We can handle problems and find solutions. We are not interchangeable parts. We want to feel valued. We miss the action, but not enough to make us go back to the 40+ hour a week grind. And we are willing to the same level of work for considerably less than the going rate for a full-timer.

Most job listings for interesting work demand a full 40 hour week. Most of us who have escaped from hellholes have no desire to return to the work-obsessed existence that characterizes full-time employment these days. I don’t want/need to carry a mobile phone (except to order take-out on my way home). Today’s career-minded workers must be blackberried or i-phoned up to be taken seriously. They must be willing to give-up luxuries like undisturbed dinners, time with family or even vacations.
During my Florida vacation in February, I was forced by proximity to overhear many phone conversations at the pool and on the beach. People who were supposed to be relaxing who were still tethered to the office. And then there were the fully dressed people who looked like they were attending a conference, but on duty 24X7. It was pathetic to see four people sitting at a table eating breakfast, not enjoying the view or even looking at the others, each one texting on their mobile phone or laptop.

The biggest difference is that part-time professional worker wants to leave the office behind when he goes home or on vacation. He can still work without a supervisor monitoring every action. He doesn’t expect to be paid for hours not worked. So I wonder why is this not a reasonable value proposition for an employer.

Some people think I sound irrational, talking about still searching for a minor league job when I should be spending my time fishing and golfing, looking at the wonders of nature and seeking the answer to life’s eternal questions.
Maybe they are right…

Normandy, France

Memorial Day

The greeting, “Happy Memorial Day,” always strikes me as ironic. I know it is intended to say “Enjoy the Holiday weekend,” but it seems odd, like saying “Have a nice funeral.”

Different people have different perceptions about the significance of Memorial day. To some people, it is just a holiday – a day when you get paid to stay home, drink beer and have some friends over for a cook-out. To many gardeners in northern climes, Memorial day is traditionally recognized as the day to safely plant delicate annuals such as tomato sets or other frost sensitive crops in the garden. Sun worshipers here in New England see Memorial Day as the first day of the beach season. People start heading for the Cape or other shore venues. To many coastal business people Memorial Day is thought of as the harbinger (if not the unofficial  beginning) of Summer.

Sometimes we forget the original purpose of the day: to remember those who died in service to their country. It is hard to fathom the incredible sacrifice made by these human beings to advance a concept called liberty. Many of those who died never got to be heroes – they were cut-down on the beaches of Normandy before they even got a shot off, or, blasted by a roadside bomb in Iraq, or asleep in a barrack in Beirut. Still, we rightfully honor them all for going out into the world to fight for their country.  For us.

Those of us who are lucky enough not to have had our asses shot at, can ascribe blame, opine and pontificate about the political reasons behind war, but the world is a complicated place. The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. 

 I recently saw a documentary about life in the Palestinian territory. One man was asked if he would want his son to become a militant fighter. The video showed the kid who was 4 years old, cute and happily playing kickball with his siblings. The dad said that he would be honored to have this boy – his son – become a martyr. It was shocking and sad to think that a father could be eager to make such a sacrifice.

There was a time when some of us actually thought that peace in the world was possible. I seem to recall having that feeling very briefly when the Soviet Union collapsed. Then we discovered that the hidden positive effect of totalitarianism was that it suppressed civil/ethnic squabbles. Without the harsh rule of an invading empire, tribes and villages will resume fighting with each other.

In one sense the kids who died in wars did not die in vain. Collectively, through their sacrifice, they  helped to preserve a “peaceful” way of life for the rest of us – so we could go about our lives, getting and spending, having cook-outs, with uninterrupted TV programming and texting on our Blackberries. We need to thank them because we are not living in dirt floor huts with government loudspeakers blaring on every corner.

So we take a few moments today to remember them.  The fallen.  And to marvel at their bravery and suffering.  

Recently, I saw the movie “Hurt Locker” which is about a team of US Army bomb specialists on duty in Iraq. It was a powerful reminder that American soldiers are out there every day, risking it all, in an unfriendly place, trying to stay alive for another day. 

Today is a day to give a special thought to our soldiers who are at war.  Who may die today.   For what cause?  Another day for each of us to ask ourselves “Are we willing sacrifice our lives (or those of our children) to keep religious nuts from killing each other?” Would we not be better off to just let them fight?