Birthday musings about ageing and mortality

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Old man and dog – photo by Bob Wilson

So I’ve picked a table at the combined 70th birthday party, met the woman next to me and nodded to her husband. It’s an outdoor setting for 40 people with five big tables and much background noise from kitchen activities. We say hello to the hosts, and, according to the way their lips moved, they reply “glad you could make it to our birthday”.

After a while, I set my hearing aids to ‘noisy room’ which basically meant I could talk to the person on my right and She Who Sits on My Left. After the main meal I got up and milled about, having one-on-one discourse with people who tended to lean towards me and say things like “Sorry I missed that?”

The birthday girl made a short but gracious speech without benefit of microphone. We were all lip-reading like billyo.

“It’s good to see you all – and as Keith Richards said, ‘it’s good to see anybody,’ ” she quipped.

The birthday boy also spoke briefly and said that while it was lovely to see us all, he doubted he’d ever see all of us again in the same room. It was just the right sentiment for a 70th, where the guests were either approaching that day or had passed it some years earlier.

Crikey, this is becoming a habit, raising our glasses to people crossing the threshold of seven decades. Who’d have thought?

The conversations ranged around ageing, mortality, health scares, belief systems, technology and Donald Trump. I told someone mortality rarely occurred to me these days though when I turned 40 I’d lie awake observing my heart beat and wondering if and when it would stop. Neurotic, yes, but you knew that.

Comedian, actor and writer George Burns, who died at 100, once said “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” Burns also said that when he was a boy, the Dead Sea was only sick. So he carved out a later-life career making fun of his ability to live into his 90s and still smoke cigars.

Making A Movie About Moses

Some people seem able to reach a great age staying mentally supple. I picked up a book in the library by one Herman Wouk, author of the Caine Mutiny, et al. Turns out this book (The Lawmaker, about a new Moses movie), was written when Wouk was 98. He followed up at 99 with: Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author. He described the latter as “…the story of my life, light-hearted because I’m an inveterate Jewish optimist.” It was released in January 2016 to mark his 100th birthday. Wouk married Betty Sarah Brown in 1945. Betty, who was also his literary agent, died in 2011, aged 90.

I felt a surge of guilt about my long-neglected habit of keeping a daily journal when I read that Wouk has been doing this since 1932. What a trove for historians.

Like Wouk, George Burns advocated staving off old age by continuing to work.

“Age to me means nothing. I can’t get old, I’m working,” he said. “I was old when I was twenty-one and out of work. As long as you’re working, you stay young.”

Yeh, maybe, but Burns also said the key to longevity is to avoid stress and tension. Just how you do that and keep working is a secret many of us have never learned.

So we of the nearly-70 brigade return to our routines, tucked away in our semi-rural house, fans set on high, watching Breaking Bad and waiting for the next invitation to an event that isn’t a funeral. No wonder so many older Australians buy a road rig, preferably with the bumper sticker ‘adventure before dementia’, and traverse this big red continent.

In our society, siblings resolve between them the decision about caring for elderly parents. Some take care of their parents in their own homes, or under the one roof. Others hand-ball the folks to a retirement village, preferably one with an associated nursing home.

The onset of dementia usually accelerates the decision to admit Mum and/or Dad to an aged care facility. It’s not easy caring for people with dementia and it can only get worse.

In some societies, this outplacement of old folk is not culturally acceptable. Seniors, demented or not, are the respected elders of the tribe and take their rightful place at the head of the table.

Global Agewatch maintains an index which measures income security, health, personal capability and whether elders live in an “enabling environment”. Indicators include life expectancy, coverage by pension plans, access to public transit and the poverty rate for people over 60.

Switzerland is the best place to be if you are past 65 and wondering what comes next. Norway and Sweden are 2 and 3 in this important global index, which is to be updated in 2018.

Australia is ranked 17th, below countries including Canada, the UK and New Zealand. Australia ranks highly in some domains (health, social connectivity) but it ranks lowest in its region in the income security domain (62), due to high old age poverty rate (33.4%) and pension income coverage (83%) below the regional average.

So yes, some societies revere the elderly and there is never any question about one’s parents being moved to a retirement village or aged care facility. In China and Japan there is the Confucian code of filial piety, in essence a system of selfless subordinate relationships. An article by Mayumi Hayashi, however, considers the myths surrounding family care, filial piety and how these systems can break down in urban Japan.

Hayashi says the limits of family care were recognised by successive governments in the 1960s. But public residential care was restricted to people lacking financial means and family support. Other problems with Japan’s system include family ‘care’ that involves neglect and abuse. From the 1970s, large numbers of ‘abandoned’ older people became resident in hospitals, often with little need of medical care. This ‘social hospitalisation’ remains stigmatised, says Hayashi, and an option of last resort, like Obasuteyama.

The latter is a Japanese custom of the distant past where frail aged relatives (usually women), were allegedly taken to remote mountain areas and left to their fate. The practice was said to be most common during times of drought and famine. It was also sometimes mandated by feudal officials (although Wikipedia notes a citation is needed to verify this).

Myths persist of similar practices among other societies – for example the Inuit, placing their frail old ones on ice flows and letting them drift off to a certain death.

The notion of a loving son or daughter propping their old Da up against a tree in his favourite part of the forest has (for me) some appeal. The alternative, 24/7 care in an aged care facility, has none. The denouement is the same.

More reading:

Founder and former chairman of National Seniors Australia Everald Compton, now in his 80s, continues to campaign for seniors.

Kathryn Johnston’s blog Scattered Straws has lately has been focussing on the (financial) plight of the Naked Retiree.

 

Trump vs the rest

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US Supreme Court – photo by Freeimages.com

President-elect Donald Trump is taking the oath of inauguration tomorrow (our time) burdened by a legacy of some 75 unresolved civil court cases. Trump or his businesses are involved in these cases, all at varying stages, with Trump as plaintiff or defendant. This would normally be business as usual for Trump, but for the fact that he is the President-elect.

Exhaustive research by US Today shows Trump and his businesses have been involved in more than 4,000 civil cases over the past three decades. They include branding and trademark cases, contract disputes, employment cases, personal defamation suits and about 190 government and tax cases. About half of the civil suits involve Trump’s casino businesses and a large number involve his real estate businesses.

US Today set a team of reporters and researchers on a monumental, ongoing task of tracing the litigious President-elect’s track record.

Of immediate concern are the 75 open cases in the background as Donald John Trump prepares to take office as US Commander-in-Chief.

The type of civil action which can prove difficult for an incoming President or Prime Minister is defamation. Some consider it unsporting for the leader of a country to sue someone (usually a media organisation) for defamation. As the number one public figure in a democracy, you’re supposed to roll with the punches.

This may not be the case with Donald Trump. During his presidential campaign, he threatened to sue all the women who accused him of unwanted sexual advances and also said he would sue media outlets who reported the claims. (By extension this ought to be worrisome to anyone who re-posted related remarks on Facebook or Twitter).

US Today say that although Donald Trump has frequently threatened to sue for defamation, he rarely follows through and has won only one of 14 cases since 1976.

It may well have been the case if he had not won the presidency that Trump would have pursued the women he called ‘liars’. However, it would seem a bridge too far to expect a brand-new President to deal with such distractions, which, if pursued to trial, could result in (President) Trump being called to give testimony under oath. So as his presidency begins, can we expect to see more civil cases being dropped or settled?

The BBC reported that Mr Trump faced three fraud cases related to Trump University, which closed in 2010. The first case, brought by students who claim they were deceived by Trump University’s marketing, was to have been heard 20 days after the election.

Although repeatedly saying during his campaign that he would “never settle”, in November Trump closed all three cases in a $25 million private settlement.

The issue of Trump and his legal legacy has not been greatly pursued by the media, but it is an immediate impediment and distraction to his getting on with making America great again.

The President-elect will no doubt make his own mind up whether he can afford to be distracted by these 75 legal challenges, carried over from his volatile business life and the long campaign to establish himself as a presidential contender. None of these cases can be ignored. As plaintiff he must either pursue his claim or withdraw. As defendant, he must defend or offer to settle. In just one example cited by the BBC, Trump is being sued by Republican political consultant Cheryl Jacobus. She filed a $4 million libel lawsuit claiming he “destroyed her career” by calling her a derogatory name on Twitter.

John Dean, former legal advisor to Richard Nixon, analysed similar outcomes for four other Presidents in a Newsweek article. Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton all carried civil suits into the Oval Office. Most of these cases were quickly disposed of; however Bill Clinton was not so fortunate. Clinton vs Jones went all the way to the US Supreme court, which held that a US president is not immune from civil litigation involving matters occurring before he took office. If you had forgotten or were curious, searching Clinton vs Jones will take you on a journey.

I’ve been pursued by one or two lawyers whose clients claimed I had defamed them (in my newspaper reporting days). Typically, a news outlet can make a claim for defamation go away by printing or broadcasting an apology. Since most cases of libel amount to mistakes (the mistake occurred in the production process), apologising seems the sensible option.

Or the publisher can get on his high horse and defend the charges, which can, as you may have noticed, cost millions and go on for years.

It is often the case for those mounting a defamation case, here or in the US, that the length of time it takes to come to trial and the extent of legal costs increasingly encourages the aggrieved person to settle for an apology and (sometimes) an undisclosed amount.

I worry about people who make heated comments online about politicians. There’s no doubt the people they are castigating deserve a level of criticism. But it has to be defensible.

There have already been cases in Australia where people were sued for defamation over Facebook posts with some payouts approaching six figures. So next time you’re set to post about the neighbour’s barking dogs or the idiots who party till five in the morning every day of the week, take a break, go for a walk, calm down.

Meanwhile, here’s a bit of evidence that politicians may not always be prepared to take the flak that comes with being a public figure, Crikey has compiled a list of politicians who have sued Australian media outlets for defamation. It’s a long list.

As for Donald Trump and his ongoing civil litigation caseload, the length of time it takes for a case to come to trial may be one factor influencing decisions to settle. The average time (in America) from complaint to trial is 22 months and all that time the legal system’s meters are running. According to California Labour and Law’s Eugene Lee, a US Bureau of Justice Statistics national survey revealed that only 3.5% of disputes were resolved by trial. Most are resolved by settlement.

Columnist Sadhbh Walshe writing in The Guardian claims America’s ‘litigious society’ is a myth. He cites data that shows only 10% of injured Americans ever file a claim for compensation and only 2% file lawsuits.

“So we’re really not all that litigious, yet we continue to be treated with kid gloves as though all it will take is a scraped knee for us to be on the phone to our lawyers.”

This will be no comfort at all to incoming President Trump, whose net worth of $3.7 billion makes him an obvious target. US Today also looked into presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s exposure to the courts. They found her named in 900 actions, most as defendant. More than a third of these claims were lodged by federal prisoners, activists and other citizens seeking redress from government.

The ‘pick a big target’ tactic seems at odds with the argument that the ‘litigious society’ is a myth. What do you reckon?

 

Elephant captured on Nullarbor Plain

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Photo by Mario Micklisch https://flic.kr/p/peLSQA

An African elephant dubbed ‘Ferd’ by social media followers has been cornered in an industrial shed near a roadhouse on the Nullarbor Plain. Ferd escaped from the Perth Zoo three months ago and has been spotted variously in WA and the Northern Territory. Facebook posts claimed sightings on Groote Eylandt.

Shed owner Tony is making a bit of cash on the side charging travellers $10 to pose for an elephant selfie. The Grey Nomad website www.welikefreestuff.dot described this as “exploitation” and lamented the lack of a seniors’ discount.

“It’s weird,” said Tony. “Everybody takes selfies to post on Facebook but nobody actually wants to talk about the elephant in the room.”

At which point you can see this  story about Ferd the elephant is not unlike the proliferating fake news stories on social media which commonly use a  headline and intro like this to suck you in. The more insidious fake news items, however, are portrayed as legitimate news stories and are often picked up and shared.

Satire is not fake news and vice versa

Some of the fake news websites which churn out stories cast themselves as satirists, but it is a loose label, apt to blow off in the wind. A yarn about an elephant wandering the Australian desert is probably satire.

It is satire when someone suggests the Pope is marrying (famous female pop singer) and running for the White House. Fake news is a story about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump (quickly debunked by hoax tracking website www.snopes.com.

WTOE 5 News, which broke the story, claimed that news outlets around the world were reporting on the Pope’s unprecedented endorsement. But Snopes found that no reputable news publications confirmed it, because WTOE 5 News, masquerading as a local television news outlet, does not publish factual stories.

But social media is not so discriminating. As Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab pointed out, this fake yarn, which appeared in July, was shared almost 1 million times, versus 36,000 shares for the story debunking it.

One such story prior to the US election suggested the Amish had committed their vote to Donald Trump. Only 10% of Amish vote at all.

Another story suggested Barack Obama was abolishing the oath of allegiance in US schools. Sounds believable but simply not true.

Before people caught on to the idea of making money by spreading fake news on social media, the so-called supermarket tabloids cornered the market.

Here you will see obviously misleading headlines like “Diana is still alive” or “Hillary Gay Crisis” or “Aliens settle in San Francisco”.

By contrast, fake news stories circulated on social media prior to the election were entirely plausible – until you read to the end or read the website’s disclaimer.

But who has the time to (a) read the whole article before (b) sharing it or (c) checking out the veracity via factcheck.com or snopes.com?

Fake news here to stay

David Glance, writing in The Conversation, says fake news is driven by advertising and is here to stay. Glance, Director of Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia, says a great deal of the recent fake news targeted at Trump supporters appears to have originated in the Macedonian town of Veles. Websites with legitimate-sounding names fed pro-Trump fake news, which in turn generated large revenues from traffic generated through Facebook shares.

Glance says it may be tempting to think that news from reputable media organisations is more reliable, but they too are still influenced by partisan opinion and the pressures to advertise and generate traffic and sales.

“Ultimately, there is no protection from fake news other than to adopt a sceptical view of all news and take the truth of it on balance of likelihood and confirmation from multiple reputable sources.”

Facebook and parent company Google say they are going to crack down on fake news sites. The New York Times reported last week that Google would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Facebook updated its policy, which already says it will not display ads on sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites.

Paul Who?

So who are the people who spend their days (and nights) churning out fake news? Some publications have identified Paul Horner, described by Wikipedia as an internet news satirist and writer. Horner confesses to being as described and highlights a few of the stories he has written that have been picked up and shared by internet news sites. The Amish was his, so too Obama banning the oath of allegiance and Horner has recently told the Washington Post that he helped get Donald Trump elected.

Horner’s various websites pose as legitimate websites, but if you jump to the disclaimer, the author leaves himself an out by clearly stating that “…all news articles contained within are fiction, and presumably fake news.”

As David Glance observed, mainstream media is not immune to fakery, or at least allowing embellished news to be published. The blame is placed upon gutted newsrooms, where veterans with 20 years’ or more experience are replaced by school leavers and interns. The Guardian quoted an (un-named) journalist who described the pressure to perform online:

“So much news that is reported online happens online. There is no need to get out and doorstep someone. You just sit at your desk and do it and, because it is so immediate, you are going to take that risk. Editors will say, ‘The BBC got that six seconds before we did.’”

Some editors defend the bull at a gate approach as online news can be instantly updated (or taken down), when errors become obvious. FOMM can confirm this strategy as we have occasionally corrected minor errors on our website (it’s Hillary with two l’s, Bob).

Fake news is nothing new. As David Glance says, quoting French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (re the turmoil and divisions of 16th century France):

“Is it not better to remain in suspense than to entangle yourself in the many errors that the human fancy has produced? Is it not better to suspend your convictions than to get mixed up in these seditious and quarrelsome divisions?”

Fake news stories only a problem if you read them

Facebook has been blamed by some commentators for helping The Donald get elected, but it’s a specious argument. Filmmaker Michael Moore said people in America’s forgotten ‘rust belt’ made their minds up about Trump years ago.

Moore was interviewed in July by www.cnn.com (a real news website), where he talked about the reasons why Trump would win.

If he’s able to pull it off, it will be because on that day, a lot of angry white guys, a lot of guys who have a justifiable right to be angry — guys and women– who have suffered during the last decade,” Moore said.

The Pew Institute says 13% of Americans (about 41 million, 41% of whom are over 65); do not have internet access because: the internet is too difficult to use (34%), they have no interest in going online (32%), or internet access is too expensive (19%).

Moore’s angry white men were never going to be swayed by fake stories about the Pope or the Amish, if indeed they read them in the first place.

 

Surfing the gender vote

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Photo “The Watch” by Eric Neitzel https://flic.kr/p/kQRQLp

So we’re walking along the beach, me feeling over-dressed in board shorts, t-shirt, socks and joggers (to protect a bruised toe). We passed a group of more appropriately beach-clad women and girls (though one wore a wet suit), taking surfing lessons from a sun-worn guy in his 30s. Not that I ever surfed, but it seems to me that in the 1960s, surfing was something boys did while the girls sat on the beach, admiring their boyfriends and guarding personal items.

Later, She Who Always Wears Sunscreen came out of the change rooms wearing shorts and a bra.

“Seems I left my t-shirt on the beach,” she mused. “And I don’t feel like going back to get it.”

It says a bit about feminism in 2016 that a woman can feel OK about going around in public in a bra, however temporarily.

It covers considerably more of me than some of the women I’ve seen on the beach,” she rightly observed.

Despite statistics that suggest women make up only 15% of the surfing cohort, the sport is rising in popularity among the under-20s. There’s lots of research about this, though you need to get behind click bait articles like “Top 20 Hottest Girl Surfers” to find there has always been a determined posse of women who wanted to surf waves – since the 1920s even.

Yet Cori Schumacher, writing in The Guardian, contends that despite female pro surfers pushing the standards ever higher, they still have to compete with a double standard that demands they define their femininity within ‘a male sexual economy’.

Schumacher explained this double standard goes further than female surfers feeling pressure to surf in a bathing suit. Body image issues aside, prize money for professional surfers is skewed heavily in favour of men.

In 1976, the first year pro women surfers were paid, 20% of prize money was allocated to women. In 2011, when Schumacher wrote this, 22% of the total prize purse went to female surfers.

The ‘babes in bikinis’ gender caricature aside, there are plenty of strong female role models listed in Surfer Today.

In politics, as in surfing, one not ought to confuse a woman’s right to compete with an assumption that being female equals feminist ideals and/or leftie politics.

There have been more than enough female world leaders to suggest that they are just as likely to lean to the right as the left of politics.

It is now known that 42% of women voted for Donald Trump in last week’s shock election result. The New York Times noted that 70% of those participating in an exit poll said they thought Trump’s behaviour toward women was ‘a problem’, yet 30% of people who said that voted for him anyway.

One can hardly rely upon US election statistics to define social trends when 46% of Americans did not vote at all.

The Atlantic tried to set the record straight about gender voting in the US, maintaining that 54% of women voted for Hillary Clinton and 42% for Donald Trump (it also means 4% voted for someone else, but let’s not muddy the waters).

Exit-poll data indicated that 94% of black women and 68% of Hispanic women voted for Clinton, The Atlantic reported a few days ago.

The article cited Kelly Dittmar from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University: “If only women voted in this election (and no one else), Clinton would have won.”

That kind of wishful thinking aside, the more relevant number is that roughly 100 million eligible people (approximately 48% of whom are women), did not vote. Many journalists opined that those who did not vote were lazy or apathetic.

Yet the Pew Institute’s research on non-voters said only 2% cited ‘laziness’ as an excuse, the same proportion of those who said they could not vote because they were in jail or on parole.

The five main reasons for not voting were:

  • No time or just haven’t done it (voted) 19%;
  • Recently moved 17%;
  • Don’t care about politics 14%;
  • No confidence in government 12%;
  • Not a US citizen 7%.

We have seen many successful women come and go in the ruthless sphere of international politics. Recent female Prime Ministers include Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley (New Zealand), Julia Gillard (Australia) and Portia Simpson-Miller (Jamaica). Incumbent government heads include Theresa May (UK), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

Forbes Magazine recently published a list of the world’s most powerful women, currently headed by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen. After November 8, 2016, Hillary Clinton may be off the list altogether.

One might also expect First Lady Michelle Obama to drop off this list too, although she has plenty of support to have a crack at the top job.

The list included 11 heads of state, one 90-year-old monarch, two first ladies and two top-seed diplomats.

A FOMM reader greeted me at the markets one day, suggesting as a future topic the humble bicycle’s role in gender relations, circa 1890. Simply put, the bicycle allowed Victoria-era women freedom of movement; moreover, the practicalities of riding a bike dressed in hoop skirt and girdle led to less cumbersome garments and, ahem, greater freedom of movement. David Hendrick remarked upon this in a paper for the University of Virginia, noting that the advent of the bicycle gave Victorian women autonomy and a way of leaving the house without relying on men for travel. He agreed with women’s rights advocate Susan B Anthony that the bicycle had “done more to emancipate women that anything else in the world”.

This was a good 30 years before the first Wahine took a long board out beyond the breakers, but perhaps you’ll see my point.

Cori Schumacher, an openly gay, world-ranked surfer, says she grew up surfing in California in the 1980s and 1990s, but very few women surfed in the earliest days of her youth.

Surfing was then described as a ‘male-dominated’ activity, but even with the growing population of female surfers, there has not been a corresponding increase in representation or equal pay.

Schumacher said “…rather than surfing being merely male-dominated, it is also a farm for masculinity and androcentrism.”

No doubt someone is running a book right now on the prospect of an androcentric Trump presidency appointing any women (apart from the third first lady, if you get my meaning), to a position of influence.

The odds of a prominent Muslim woman being appointed, even as a White House advisor, are longer still. Interestingly (facts gleaned from my kind of surfing), show that two of the Muslim women described in this article were appointed as White House advisors.

As if that were not enough, FOMM’s online surfing also uncovered three new words: androcentrism (placing the male human being at the centre of one’s world view), Wahine (female surfer) and Awk! (old school cry of alarm or excitement – e.g., spotted an excellent wave).