Lucky cats, to get such good seats.
At ground level, they couldn’t see a thing.
Lucky cats, to get such good seats.
At ground level, they couldn’t see a thing.
Thanks to the give-and-take most book groups require of their members, I recently found myself obliged to read a novel by Penelope Lively called Moon Tiger. I didn’t like it, despite the promise of its early chapters. (A woman in her seventies, dying of cancer, looks back on her life and the important people in it.) But there was one aspect of the story that really held me — so much so I would gladly, and with excitement, have read more and more, and never mind the rest.
The heroine has a brother one year older. They grow up together and in late adolescence become lovers. No one suspects. After a few years, the physical expression of their feeling for each other fades, but not the feeling. No one she meets subsequently, except for a British captain with whom she has a brief (and unconvincing) love affair during World War II, can compare with the brother. Throughout the rest of their lives, this feeling between brother and sister seems to trump any emotions either of them can experience for other potential love partners. When he is about to die, she rides with him and his wife in a taxi to some last meeting he insists on attending:
He goes on talking and she goes on talking and interrupting and beneath what is said they tell each other something entirely different.
I love you, she thinks. Always have. More than I’ve loved anyone, bar one. That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things — love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness. I do not need to tell you, any more than you need to tell me. I have seldom even thought it. You have been my alter ego, and I have been yours. And soon there will only be me, and I shall not know what to do.
Sylvia [the wife], she sees, is weeping again. Not quite silently enough. If you don’t stop that, thinks Claudia [the protagonist], I may simply push you out of this taxi.
I was an only child. I yearned for a slightly older brother when I was growing up. But I did understand early on that as a first-born, I could never have an older sibling, except by adoption, which I felt wouldn’t have been the same. Lacking this much desired older brother, I made one up. [See “Fairy Tale,” an account of my childhood fantasy, its development as I grew older, and how it looks to me now.]
This is not to say I truly believe I could have fallen in love with a male version of me who I had known all my life. Lively’s heroine believes that brother-sister incest requires narcissism in both parties. As I didn’t love myself enough for much of my life, narcissism does not seem to have been my problem. What I yearned for was an alter ego, someone who would accept me as I was, knowing everything about me. Someone who was my other half.
Diana Athill, last mentioned in this blog for having at the age of 89 written “Somewhere Before the End,” a trail-blazing account of old old age — has come up with a sequel of sorts now that she’s 97; it’s called “Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter.” In her introduction to this new book, she observes that persons in retirement homes spend a good deal of time just sitting and thinking. In her case, it’s been thinking about events in the past which were enjoyable.
Until about two months ago, those events included people, usually men. I talked about it the other day with someone who is also in her nineties, though not so far into them as I am, and she said, “Yes, of course, men. What I do when I’m waiting to fall asleep is run through all the men I ever went to bed with,” whereupon we both laughed in a ribald way, because that is exactly what I did too. It cheered me up to learn that I had not been alone in indulging in this foolishness.
Athill has now moved on from thinking about men to thinking of pleasurable scenes in nature. But let’s do a rewind for a moment: How is putting oneself to sleep by reviewing past bedmates “indulging in foolishness?” As the saying goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, talk, write, or think about it. I do have some years left before my nineties, but I too have sometimes counted “sheep” in somewhat the same way as Athill and her acquaintance; I review the sexual particulars of those relatively few men I have biblically known, with emphasis on the memorable ones.
However, and getting back to the theme of this piece, I don’t do that very often. More frequently, I make up erotic stories. They’re short on variety. I provide only two or three mises-en-scene; the two principal characters are always in their late teens or early twenties, and two or three years apart in age; I play both parts, moving in my mind from the point of view of the young man, then the young woman. But irrespective of the details of the flimsy “plot,” the underlying theme is always the same: these two grow up together, a tragic separation tears them apart, they cannot find each other, some time later, quite by accident, they do. Then nothing, nothing at all, can keep them from each other. Yes, they make love, occasionally in satisfying detail. But what is most exciting and rewarding about these pre-sleep lullabies, of which the physical “coming together” is just an expression, is the emotional coming together after having been so painfully separated.
The last time I read Plato’s Symposium in its entirety, somewhat unwillingly, was in the fall of 1949, when I was a sophomore in college. However, one section of it made a sufficient impression on me that I have revisited it on several later occasions. For those of you who haven’t read it, or read about it, the Symposium is a disquisition on love as the ancient Greeks viewed it. Since Plato wrote it, we may assume that in its entirety it represents the Platonic ideal. Briefly, six or seven of Socrates’ disciples gather with him at a dinner where they will all speak, in turn, about each one’s view of this important emotion. The fourth in order is Aristophanes, who attempts to describe the feeling of love in “historic” terms he fears will be laughed at.
Mankind, he [Aristophanes] said, judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honor; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race….
In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different…. The primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast….Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods;….
Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts…. then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained. At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.”
He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson in humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last;….
After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them — being the sections of entire men or women — and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they mighty breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.
Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half….And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself….the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment….And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. [Italics mine.]
After my second husband and I separated, I sequentially looked up (and in my older son’s words, recycled) the two significant boyfriends of my premarital life. You may see where, perhaps not entirely consciously, I was trying to go with this coming together after painful separation. I showed each of them the Aristophanes riff on love. The first was both tactful and rueful as he turned its pages in bed: “Here I am,” he said, “thirty-odd years later: same bathrobe, same book.” At least he didn’t laugh. The second did laugh; halfway through his reading, the phone rang. “Hi,” he said, “I’m reading about these funny round people with four arms, four legs and two heads….”
As you may surmise, neither effort to rejoin what had come apart worked out. There’s a reason the Platonic ideal is called an ideal. Real life just isn’t like that. Romantic love, youthful passion, may feel so compelling nothing can get in its way. But if satisfied, it begins to dilute itself into something else which we also call love. However, that’s a different love: warm, safe, familiar, comfortable, with cranky moments, boring times, tough passages, and also good ones. A love that leaves time and space for the speculations in this piece. A love to be explored in some other post. I invite you to do that.
I’m a copycat. Not a thief, exactly. But always on the alert as to how I can adapt someone else’s good idea. One such “inspiration” has been the idea underlying the past 365 daily posts over at Catching Days, Cynthia Newberry Martin’s blog about reading and writing books. In January 2015, Cynthia decided she would devote a year of blogging to setting down “one true thing” about herself every day. As I understand it, she made this commitment because she was uncomfortable about revealing anything private (possibly even to herself), and thought this daily practice, as she called it, might address those feelings, or at least make her more comfortable with those uncomfortable feelings. Four days ago, she reached the 365th post, entitled “Hallelulah!”
I followed along faithfully — not only as a nosy reader but also, as the year progressed, as a fellow-blogger with mixed emotions about the endeavor. One emotion was increasing admiration for Cynthia’s disciplined stick-to-itiveness wherever she found herself (she travels a lot) and whatever else she might have been doing as the mother of four, grandmother of two, wife running a house, writer attending multiple writing conferences all over the country. The other was envy. She didn’t need to think up something new to write about periodically; she had her subject matter right there inside herself wherever she went. And one or two sentences every day would do it. (“I like red!” for instance.)
Why couldn’t I do something like that? Well, of course I could — but about what? I’m certainly not uncomfortable about revealing private aspects of my life and thoughts, as faithful followers of TGOB must surely realize. Yes, it has at times seemed wiser not to write about some subjects in a venue where the entire English-speaking world can read what I say. However, after twenty-four years of psychotherapy at various times in my life, I’m pretty sure I haven’t been concealing much from myself so far. So a simple monkey-see-monkey-do wouldn’t work for me, even with full credit to Cynthia.
And then I had it! A year of daily blogging, beginning six days from now, about how it will feel as getting older moves me, over the course of the coming year, into what is going to be the last phase of life. (Don’t say, “No, no!” Why mince words?) I was going to do it as a separate blog, in case all that doom and gloom might drive away followers of this one. I even had the title! But wouldn’t a separate blog be too complicated? Daily dedication to the new one would undoubtedly lead to neglect over here. Still, no need to decide that right away when I still had six days before starting.
So I drafted the first post:
THE YEAR OF CROSSING OVER
365 truths about how it feels to be moving towards the end
January 23, 2016: 1/365
If I’m still here on July 23, six months from today, I’ll be 85. That’s the age at which geriatricians and other persons professionally knowledgeable about the latter years of life consider that you stop being “young old” and enter the ranks of the “old old.”
I don’t believe I won’t be here six months from today. I don’t believe I won’t be here a year from today. If I really thought that, I wouldn’t be undertaking this year-long daily record of what I’m thinking and feeling as I pass out of that stage of life generally illustrated in brochures for the retired by photographs of handsome silver-haired couples swinging a golf club together or leaning happily over the railing of a cruise ship.
I’m not a golfer, never took a cruise, and don’t regret either of those things. But I do regret that my 86th year is coming up. I’m not ready. (Is anyone not in excruciating pain or misery ever ready for the end?) I’ve always wanted to have things my way, and my way doesn’t include slow but sure physical and emotional decline into loneliness, weakness, dependence, and palliative care – all those things my head, which does still work properly, knows very well lie ahead unless I am carried off in the night while sleeping, a thing even a betting man wouldn’t put money on. Yes, I am selfish. Yes, I am childish. Like everyone else, except that I’m closer to it, I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be dead.
So if I am honest — and I intend to be, or why would I be making this record? – this new one-year blog will probably not be “nice.” Nice and honest are a contradiction in terms. I have another blog where I do try to put my best foot forward. That means there’s a lot left unsaid over there about getting old. Not that all of Salome’s seven veils will necessarily drop in this one. But if I’m going to try to resign myself to what’s coming, I need to tell it like it is, including the hateful, the self-referential, the dehumanizing, the schadenfreude moments. Even if it turns out I’m writing only for myself.
Always best not to rush into something if you can possibly help it. What looks like a sensational project in the evening, doesn’t necessarily look so hot the next day. As many of you may remember, I had trouble hanging in there with only fifty daily blog posts last summer. True, almost all of them were 400 words rather than a single sentence, but after a week or so it was really hard going. How could I have believed I could possibly grind out a different post 365 days in a row? Even if I put down something as short and monosyllabic as “I like red” — that would be just the beginning. I would need to qualify it (when, where, what kinds of red), give illustrations (the living room chairs, the dining room chair upholstery, how Bill feels about it, whether orange — his favorite color — can sometimes qualify as “red”); before we all knew it I’d be launched on a lengthy dissertation about redness.
And then the subject matter! What was that “writing only for myself” business? Who writes only for himself? Actually, I wouldn’t want to read something every day about losing one’s contemporaries to terrible unjust diseases; about fears of running out of money, or of what the next ultrasound or cat scan will show; about gradual loss of mobility, breathlessness, easy fatigue, becoming increasingly stiff, not being able to keep up, feeling more and more left out of the currents and concerns of daily life, sensing oneself to be an afterthought, a burden. About the impotent rage and bitterness that accompanies such feelings. Or (God forbid) about finding one’s thoughts becoming fuzzy, one’s memory wobbly, one’s vocabulary beginning to disappear.
If I don’t want to read these horror stories, why would I be committing myself to writing them? I began this blog — this one right here, not the putative “new” one — slightly more than two years ago, when I was still a relative youngster of 82, with the intention to live as fully as I can until I die, blogging about it as I go. Was I whistling in the wind? “As fully as I can” should still be the operative words for me. I may indeed in time encounter some, or all, of the matters in the preceding paragraph, which means mention of them will undoubtedly creep in here from time to time. They are, after all, part of getting old.
But I’m afraid you’ve just seen as much as there’s ever going to be of “The Year of Crossing Over” (YOCO), the blog. It is that year, and I am on a moving walkway with no place to get off till it reaches the end. (As are we all.) But let’s hope that end is a long way off yet, for me as well as all of you.
Stillborn new blog: RIP.
Eventually you reach the point where most of your life is behind you. You have to exert considerable imagination to keep the days from being repetitive. What’s coming down the pike is at best not likely to be particularly exciting, at worst not advisable to think about too much. That’s when some of us who are crossing over into old age may be tempted to amuse ourselves by wondering what sort of life we might have had if we’d played our cards differently.
Bill is a big one for this kind of fantasy. If only he hadn’t done thus and so. If only he’d listened to M. If only he’d chosen a different career path, a different wife, a different country in which to settle. Right now he’s mourning the fact he never applied for dual citizenship and a Swiss passport at the time he was married to a Swiss national, had just become the father of a Swiss-born son, and was practicing medicine in Geneva. When he becomes especially disgusted with the domestic and international news, he so yearns to live in Geneva again! What he would do about me if he could take off for Geneva we don’t discuss, because it’s a pipe dream. Not only would he likely find lots to dislike about present-day Geneva. He doesn’t have the passport, or the social benefits Switzerland affords its citizens. Becoming Swiss was the road not taken.
He’s tried playing this game with my history, too. He thinks younger me, the one he never knew, had an unnecessarily hard time, beginning with college. “You’d have had a much better life if you’d gone to Radcliffe,” he declares. In this scenario, he gives me a happier, more flirtatious four college years than the ones I lived through. He also has me engaged to a Harvard man by the time I graduate, preferably someone who will go on to become well-fixed and famous. I will then have the money, leisure and connections to develop my talents, whatever they might have been, instead of having had to “settle” for less than optimal husband material and then having to slog away at earning a living in various jobs/industries/professions while being married to men less meritorious, in his view, than I deserved. When he talks like this, he almost sounds like my mother.
Does he really believe I could have attracted the likes of, let’s say, John Updike, who actually was at Harvard during the years I attended college? Maybe he does. (He overestimates my abilities in almost every area.) He’d be wrong. Or if not completely wrong, if John Updike had been fool enough to fall for insecure, emotionally immature me — then we almost certainly would have divorced each other pretty soon, as both of us did, with other people, in our actual real lives. Besides, would twenty-year-old John Updike, fresh from Shillington, Pennsylvania, have been attractive to irrationally picky me? Bill doesn’t factor in questions like that when he’s spinning straw into gold.
Mind you, he’s no dummy. He’s not a believer in the actual possibility of these alternate reality fairy tales. Maybe it’s a holdover from all those years of doing psychiatric talk therapy with patients. He just enjoys speculating. But count me out of the “if only” game. I don’t want to waste time on trips to la-la land. (We are ying and yang about that.) In my view, most of us played the cards we were dealt as best we could, often after careful consideration, although sometimes also driven by irrational impulses of which we were at the time unaware. If in retrospect, it seems there might have been preferable alternatives, they weren’t real alternatives.
For the record, I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College — the school Bill believes I would have done better not to attend — at a time when the last few World War II vets, beneficiaries of the GI Bill, were graduating. It would be about twenty years before the college again became co-ed. I nonetheless accepted its offer, despite the absence of men, like a wallflower being asked to dance.
Sarah Lawrence in 1948 was a twenty-year-old college, slightly north of New York City, which for its first couple of years seems to have functioned as a two-year holding pen for young ladies waiting to become wives of future lawyers, doctors and financiers. But in the early 1930s it somehow managed to transform itself into an experimental four-year adventure in learning to learn for oneself. Alas, in 1948 I was a highly conventional young person of seventeen who wanted to be like everyone else. I would have felt perfectly comfortable with a conventional college education. Experimental adventures in learning for oneself sounded absolutely terrifying. I knew how to memorize, to do extremely well on examinations, and to compose in fluent, dutiful prose any number of well-organized but boring thoughts on set topics.
This was absolutely not what Sarah Lawrence was about. There were no exams, and no memorizing, except for vocabulary in foreign language courses, of which there were few. There were no textbooks; one read source material. Small classes met for an hour and a half around a conference table, but only once a week. In addition, there was an independent term-long project associated with the class subject matter on which each student worked by herself and on which she reported every other week to the course professor in a private conference in his or her office. The project was supposed to culminate at term’s end in a long paper called a “contract.” There were also no grades, and therefore no conventional way of knowing how well you were doing. Every semester, you received a paragraph or so of commentary on your work from the professor of each course, assessed in terms of your ability and potential. (The office kept grade equivalents of these reports, in the event you needed to apply to graduate school afterwards, but you never saw them while you were an undergraduate. You weren’t supposed to be working for grades.)
You’d think someone whose modus operandi had hitherto been to claw her way to the top of her classes might not be ideal raw material for this educational experiment. But based on my academic record and completion of a sixteen-page application consisting of thirty-two questions about myself, each to be answered on half a blank page, I was offered a full scholarship. It was probably a mistake in judgment on the college’s part. They may have thought they could shake up the way my mind worked. As for me, I didn’t question their motives. Despite some apprehension about the novel educational environment into which I was about to plunge myself — would I be able to keep the scholarship being the principal fear — I had no hesitation in saying yes, yes, yes. Sauve qui peut.
The situation at home which drove my acceptance was as follows:
(1) Radcliffe, where I did really want to go (because it was the sister school of Harvard), did not give me a scholarship and didn’t even admit me, probably because there was no point in wasting an admission on someone who needed financial aid and wasn’t going to get it. I was “wait-listed,” a polite way of saying, “Sorry.” Did being Jewish have something to do with that? Some might have said yes, although you probably couldn’t have gotten anyone in the Admissions Office to admit it. A girl from my high school with the exact same grades as mine, but who wore a cross around her neck and sang in her church choir, was admitted — with financial aid from the Radcliffe Club of New York. I had no cross or church choir membership, although I did then play classical piano fairly well. I also remember sinking fast with the ladies from the Radcliffe Club at their tea for applicants during our high-school senior year. I was entirely inexperienced at gracefully holding a teacup and saucer, plus a cookie, plus my handbag, while trying to balance on rarely worn cuban heels and searching for subjects about which to converse with the several minimally polite Radcliffe Club members in their forties and fifties circulating the room to check me out. Bill’s reveries about my going to Radcliffe might have made allowances for these circumstances; he himself had to go to medical school abroad — in Geneva, to be specific — because Jewish boys had such a hard time getting into medical schools here at home.
(2) Vassar, my second choice, did make an offer but provided no aid. The Admissions Office there informed my parents that if they could swing the first year and I did well, there might be a scholarship for the second year. Tuition and board that year was $1200. My father earned $5000 a year (before taxes) when he was working, thanks to Local 802 of the AFL Musicians’ Union. But a hotel musician had no guarantee of a steady job, could be let go on two weeks notice, and frequently was. So my parents banked half of every paycheck that came in, and managed on the other half. $1200 would have just about cleaned out the savings account. My father was reluctantly willing, my mother less so. She believed a woman’s economic security lay in finding a husband with a good job, not in acquiring fancy higher education that might lead to who knew what. As for me, I was afraid of wiping my father out and then finding that Vassar’s conditional second-year scholarship did not come through, leaving me without any alternative after the first year.
(3) There was also a fallback school, where I didn’t even have to apply. It was Hunter College, to which the high school for girls I attended was attached, both administratively and geographically. A diploma from Hunter College High School automatically entitled you to a place in the freshman class of Hunter College. Moreover, because it was a city school, it was free, or almost free. I could have gone on living at home, in the tiny room at the end of the short hall behind the kitchen which I had occupied since I was eleven, and taken the subway from Kew Gardens into Manhattan and back every day, just as I had done all through high school. I’m sure I would have received a good, if conventional, college education in some subject of my choice, probably English, and then gone on to teach it, perhaps at Hunter. Maybe I might also have met someone to marry, although I wasn’t sure where. I would also have had to go on spending too much time alone in the small apartment with my by-then depressed and menopausal mother, since my father frequently had to take out-of-town jobs. This future so much didn’t make my heart beat faster I wanted to cry whenever I thought of it.
(4) Finally, there was Sarah Lawrence. The high-school college guidance counselor had suggested applying to at least three schools if I wanted to try to avoid enrolling at Hunter. It would have been prudent for all three to be in New York State, because there was a good chance I would win a New York State Regents scholarship in the competitive statewide examinations held midway through the last year of high school, and thereby receive $300 a year for each of four years of attendance at a New York institution of higher education. True, Radcliffe was in Massachusetts. But even the guidance counselor thought I should give Radcliffe a shot. However, Vassar was in New York State. Now I needed another. Skidmore? Barnard? NYU? What about this one, with the pretty light blue catalogue cover? It offered courses described in expansive terms that had nothing to do with specific subjects — “The Individual in History,” “Classical and Christian Civilization,” “Renaissance and Reformation” — and therefore sounded grown-up and sophisticated. “Why not? What’s the harm?” I thought, with my mind focussed on Radcliffe. I listed Sarah Lawrence as my third choice on the SATs. The catalogue cover was really very attractive.
And that, dear friends and dear Bill, is the story of how I became a Sarah Lawrence girl rather than a Radcliffe girl (or, for that matter, a Vassar girl). There really was no choice; “if only” never entered into it. What came afterwards may not have been the easier ride Bill might have wanted for me if he could have rearranged things his way, or the opportunity for a rich choice of well-heeled husbands that was undoubtedly my mother’s dashed hope. But when I look back, it seems to me I wouldn’t have become whoever I am had I been able to follow a hypothetically easier road. At Sarah Lawrence, I did (with angst) eventually learn to learn for myself, to connect disparate facts in a new way, and thus equipped, was later able to survive and even somewhat prosper in what was then still really a man’s world. Yes, it was sometimes lonely. Yes, I was sometimes envious. But with time it became evident that no road is really easy. Better to learn to tough it out early, while you’re still resilient and can roll with the punches. There’s also a bonus. In your later years, you can always blog about it, and it won’t be boring.
I was all set to do a companion piece to my last post. I was going to call it, “Medicare Part D: Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It was going to weigh the annual cost of the “optional” Medicare Part D insurance premiums deducted every month from Social Security benefits paid to eligible seniors in the United States against the very real risk of finding oneself in need of having to pay out of pocket at some time in one’s future for prescription pharmaceuticals that could bankrupt you in order to keep you alive.
(Like, just by way of example, $84,000 for the latest, and most effective, treatment for Hepatitis C. What’s Hep C to you? Well, I don’t know. But it’s estimated that four million Americans are walking around with those little Hep C suckers swimming in their blood streams and slowly destroying their livers. Many of the four million don’t even know they’re infected, because it happened before the virus became identifiable and could be screened out of blood banks.)
Then I discovered I had already written this companion piece — two years ago! (It was minus the reference to Hep C medication, which came along later. But still….) The post was called Why Am I Paying $101 a Month for Medicare Part D? You may even remember it if you’ve been hanging around “The Getting Old Blog” that long. And if you don’t, because you haven’t, you can certainly click the link to read it now. The piece hasn’t aged a bit, except for the stated price of the Part D premium, which (of course) was somewhat lower two years ago. So rather than repeat myself, as old folks are wont to do, I had better change the subject.
The first thing that comes to mind as a quicky replacement post is a cartoon recently placed on our refrigerator door by Bill, who has taken to musing aloud that our life together would be even more perfect if we had a third cat. Not so coincidentally, the cartoon is another example of someone beginning to repeat himself (like me). But it’s somewhat more amusing than anything I wrote, or could write again, about Medicare Part D. So here it is, even though it may very well fall flat with dog lovers. I’ll try harder next time.
If you’re too young for Social Security benefits, you may not be aware that every December the Social Security Administration (SSA) sends out a notice to benefit recipients of their “benefit amount” for the coming year. It doesn’t want us elderly Americans to be surprised when the first monthly deposit of the new “benefit amount” arrives electronically in checking accounts come January 3.
Sometimes the amount actually goes up a tiny bit. That’s because benefits for “senior citizens” are supposed to rise with the cost of living. However, when there’s no such rise, as measured in ways described below, the benefit does not go up. Or, as the SSA described it reassuringly to me and millions of other elderly citizens last month:
We review Social Security benefits each year to make sure they keep up with the cost of living. The law does not permit an increase in benefits when there is no increase in the cost of living. So your benefit will stay the same in 2016. [Italics added.] There was no increase in the cost of living during the past year based on the Consumer Prince Index (CPI) published by the Department of Labor. The CPI is the Federal government’s official measure used to calculate cost of living increases.
The Consumer Price Index used by the SSA for its periodic Cost of Living Adjustment is the CPI-W. According to Wikipedia, the CPI-W is based on the price of an alleged market basket of products used by an urban wage earner and clerical worker population consisting of clerical workers, sales workers, craft workers, operations and service workers, and laborers. Excluded from this population are professional, managerial and technical workers, the self-employed, short-term workers, the unemployed and retirees and others not in the labor force. Since retirees are excluded, it follows that their increased medical and drug expenses are not factored into the CPI-W. The CPI-W apparently did not go up in 2015.
Bill and I have just spent the past few weeks investigating several well-recommended non-profit retirement communities in our area, where I specifically asked about the estimated increase in monthly fees from year to year — the fees representing a sort of unofficial consumer price index for the elderly who might be considering a move to one of these places. These are the fees which cover the price of one hot meal a day, heat, electricity, basic television, cleaning, plant and grounds maintenance, and the like. At Pennswood, a Quaker retirement community in Newtown, Pennsylvania, I was told it is just under 3% every year, including 2015. At Stonebridge, in Montgomery, New Jersey, it was reported as between 2.6% and 2.7%. At Windrows, in Plainsboro, New Jersey, it was similar. Does it make sense for the SSA, whose beneficiaries are the old and the disabled, to base its Consumer Price Index calculations on putative expenditures by a wholly different population?
Let’s leave that one unanswered for the time being and move on to the SSA’s December message. The truth is that the SSA was jerking us around when it announced that because the cost of living did not go up in 2015 (yeah, yeah), our benefits would “stay the same” in 2016. Yes, gross benefits will remain the same. But as a practical matter, the message is a lie. The gross benefit is reduced by the monthly premium for Medicare Part B (insurance for out-of-hospital medical costs such as doctor visits, outpatient “procedures,” and the like), so that the money which reaches your bank is net of that premium. If you signed up for Medicare Part D, which covers most of the cost of prescription medication, that monthly premium also comes out of the gross. And guess what? The monthly cost of the two premiums together went up between 2015 and 2016. Which lowered the net benefit — the actual amount of money old people get to spend on the “cost of living.”
It didn’t lower it very much — only by $15.60 a month. But the average Social Security monthly benefit is $1.230.00 gross. (Again, I credit Wikipedia for this information.) Take away $209.60 — the 2016 monthly premiums for Part B and Part D together — and only $1.020.40 is left. If I were in that parlous situation, I would rather not pay the additional $15.60 in premiums and have $1,036.00 in income every month, like last year. $15.60 represents at least a couple of thrifty home-cooked dinners.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the original Social Security Act into law in 1935, the benefits were intended to be only one leg in a three-legged stool, supported on its other two sides by a private pension and by retirement savings. But according to Eduardo Porter, in “An Aging Society Changes the Story on Poverty for Retirees” (New York Times, December, 22, 2015), a recent study by the Government Accountability Office estimated that fewer than one in five retirees among the bottom 20% had any kind of defined benefit pension that pays a guaranteed monthly amount, and fewer than 1 in 10 have any retirement savings at all. Moreover, a typical low-wage retiree can expect to receive only 44% of his or her lifetime wage from Social Security.
That being the case, one could, of course, advise our “average” beneficiary to forgo prescription medication insurance in 2016. But is that really a “luxury” for the old? Are the still relatively healthy young aware of how much it’s going to cost to ride bareback — that is, uninsured — into the wilds of pharmaceutical costs awaiting them when they age, even if they’re among the relatively few who’ve always taken care to eat right, exercise, avoid stress, and be born to genetically lucky parents? Why not advise the pharmaceutical and insurance industries to forgo just a little profit instead?