Thursday, September 27, 2012

Observations on the Elite One Percent

This weekend I am attending a wedding, black tie optional, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston. We do not live in or near Boston, and so a hotel room was in order. The invitation provided two hotels in addition to the Four Seasons. We immediately eliminated the wedding venue because it was close to $500 a night – and that was a special deal.

This started me wondering. Who stays in these hotels? Who can afford them? How many people pay out of their pocket? A lot of guests are on expense accounts with employer’s footing the bill. What about everyone else?

Then my mind wandered to thoughts of the one percent. $500 a night is probably not a big deal for them.

Who are the 1%?

I do not believe I have ever met one of these individuals. I do not have any friends who were born into or inherited great wealth. I have friends who have done very well over the years, but none have clawed their way into the top group.

How many of us rub shoulders with the 1%? I grew up on Long Island, New York, attending schools built in an iconic middle class development – Levittown. No one was rich. No one came close. A couple of girls at college had money provided by doting, prosperous, but not wealthy, parents. The rest of us scrambled for pizza money.

I worked at a Displaced Homemaker’s Center in the 1970s. Most of the women came from middle class homes, but following divorce struggled to maintain a middle class existence. I later taught at a business school. Most of the adult students were poor single mothers trying to support themselves and their kids. My circle of acquaintances increased when I went to work for a financial services firm. Many clients were well-off, but none were in the top 1%.

So how much money does the top 1% make? To qualify for this elite group a household’s AGI (adjusted gross income) was at least $343,927 in 2009 (latest comprehensive data available). But that is only the beginning. Their pre-tax income was $1,219,700. Sounds a lot richer, doesn’t it? The average 1% household paid $353,000 in taxes.

There is the top 1% in income, and there is the top 1% in net worth. Federal data indicate the top 1% in net worth possess at least $8.4 million in assets. Most people in this category have a lot of investments, whether stocks, bonds, commodities such as gold, real estate, and all kinds of financial instruments accountants and advisers buy in the name of protecting monetary funds, growing wealth, avoiding taxes, and earning themselves a hefty fee. Federal data show that 50% of the 1% meet both criteria; top 1% in income and net worth. These are the super-rich.

We know the wealthy are out there. We see actors, actresses and other entertainment moguls, sports stars and royalty splashed across the pages of People and Us magazines. We turn on the TV and see their homes and lifestyles on shows such as Real Housewives.

During the 1930s Great Depression everyone was poor, or so most people thought. Families, their relatives and neighbors struggled. We now know there were rich people because we have all seen the show and/or movie Annie. People were not bombarded with the world of the rich daily, forced to compare their lives with the lifestyles of movie stars, business entrepreneurs, crooks and royalty.

The Four Seasons is in a neighborhood surrounded by other pricey hotels, classy restaurants and upscale shopping such as Hermes, Ralph Lauren, Neiman Marcus, antique shops and art galleries. It is a fun place to sightsee, I must admit.

By the way, since I do not own a black tie, I am wearing the long black dress I wore to my son’s wedding 10 ½ years ago. It still fits! And, although you cannot put a price on it, that is worth a lot.

One last note to members of the 1% who may be reading this. In the interests of the 99%, I would be privileged, pleased and thrilled to shadow you for one, two, three days or more to get a peek into your life. Do you ever vacuum your house? Clean the toilets? Empty the dishwasher or wash any dishes? Do laundry? Shop for groceries? Inquiring minds want to know... 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Elegy to the Turkey and Remember WKRP?

A fat and happy domestic turkey enjoying his digs at Shelburne Farms, Vermont

 I visited a farm over the weekend and snapped this photo of a fat and happy turkey. Although the poor guy does not know it, he will not be around, enjoying his life for long. He is destined to be ‘harvested’ and the center of attraction on some family’s Thanksgiving table.

Nowadays turkeys are raised for the edible enjoyment of millions of Americans as well as other people around the world. Apparently Americans love white meat, so the birds are fattened to produce the largest breasts possible. But the enlarged male tom turkeys are unable to fertilize the female hen turkeys in the natural mating position. Therefore females are artificially inseminated. Personally, I prefer dark meat and feel badly that males and females don’t get to have any carnal fun…

Modern breeding techniques have resulted in another side effect. Domesticated turkeys are dumb.

Did you know Big Bird of Sesame Street fame is dressed in turkey feathers? His feathers are died bright yellow.

Wild turkeys are native to Central America and Mexico. Mexicans were probably the first people to domesticate the turkey. The Spanish introduced turkeys to Europe in 1519; they reached England by 1524.

English farmers in the 1700’s walked the turkeys to market and it was sometimes a long march. Farmers placed little booties on the turkeys’ feet to protect them.

Ben Franklin believed the wild turkey, a multi-colored, aggressive bird of flight, should be the national bird.

Wild turkeys can fly; domestic ones cannot.

How many readers remember the 1970s sitcom WKRP? There is an infamous episode about turkeys. I still remember it, and found a clip on YouTube. Watch the first four minutes and enjoy!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The 1960s, Twiggy and Me

Today is the birthday of what I would consider a nemesis of my younger years – someone I never met - and while I want to wish her a happy birthday, let me explain my relationship, or rather lack of one, with her.

I am taking a memoir writing class at a local university, and each class we write on a different theme. A recent theme was what I call body beautiful, all about health, appearances and our body. Thinking about the topic brought back memories – not fond ones – of the styles and clothes of the 1960s, most of which looked horrible on me. Luckily sometime during the second half of the decade jeans became a fashion statement, and that was fine with me. But I never quite recovered from the anti-reality ideal of body beautiful popular at the time.

My body awareness was the result of a slow process of realizing that I was born at the totally wrong time when it comes to cultural body ideals and fashion history.

Let me explain. I am barely 5 foot 2 inches tall. As a little girl I assumed I would be tall and slim like my father’s mother, my Nana, and my Aunt Harriet, her daughter. At the time I did not know anything about genetics, DNA and other pertinent information that would later dash my hopes and dreams.

Nana was tall and slim, a model in New York City before she married. When her husband died and left her with two children, she got a job at a high-end dress shop in Manhattan and worked there for decades. I remember visiting the shop a couple of times and being in awe of the furnishings, the fashions, and the women ensconced in those surroundings. I was only a kid, but I understood even then it was not my world.

I ended up inheriting my height (or lack thereof) from my mother’s family, although even my mother was taller than me. I received my body shape from my mother’s mother, Grandma Rose. I grew not in height, but in other ways. My breasts began to bud when I was in the fifth grade, and continued growing.

I have a waist, but have not seen it in decades. Even when it was sort of apparent, it was kind of squishy. My generation, or at least the friends I hung out with, did not prioritize firm physiques honed through exercise and strenuous physical activity. Weight was an all-consuming topic of discussion and dieting a mainstay, but taut muscles and a lean, mean gym scene never an issue.

Somewhere during my teen years, coinciding with the 1960s, the world transformed in more ways than any of us realized at the time. My friends and I did not understand how fast our world was changing, from the rise of the Beatles in the early part of the decade to a man on the moon at the close of the era. There was the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe art, and Marilyn Monroe’s death. There was the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. President Kennedy was assassinated, and so were Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Edward Kennedy left the scene of an accident, and thousands descended on Woodstock. The first Super Bowl played and Star Trek premiered. Classmates went to Vietnam and some never returned.  Sesame Street was created and Twiggy’s picture was splashed all over newspapers and magazines.

An anorexic-looking English model epitomized the essence of body beautiful in the 1960s.
And it was not my beautiful body.

At least I had long hair reaching my waist. My mother never wanted me to grow it long – she constantly berated me to cut it – but I loved my long hair. It was curly, contrary to the straight locks of every woman in every magazine in the world, but it was mine. I could straighten it and iron it and brush it. And I guess, looking back, it was my statement that I was a child of the 60s.

I should have been a 17th century European woman, for my body is more like the round, substantial (today we might label them plus-size) women of Rubens paintings than the ever tall, thin American ideal.

The 1960s ended, I graduated college a couple of years later, married and had two children. My obsession with weight has been a life-long annoyance, but not as consuming as when I was a self-conscious teenager. As I age my weight fixation centers on health concerns. I exercise to fend off some of the ravages of aging as long as possible.
I googled Twiggy and found her website. Apparently she is still modeling. I did not recognize her. She actually looks much prettier now than she did over forty years ago. But then I am sure her picture was photoshopped and doctored to make her look gorgeous, however she may look in real life today. By the way, today she is 63.

So Happy Birthday Twiggy! May you be happy, healthy and have a few more pounds today! Eat a bissel (a little), as my grandmother used to say...

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Dated Fashion Find Refashioned

Warning: Men may find this post boring. Or silly. Or both. 

Last night I had to ‘dress up’. I have not worn good clothes in weeks, and probably months, and cannot remember the last time I wore a skirt or dress. I have a pair of black slacks I pair with a top that takes me out to dinner, and even to a funeral recently.

But I could no longer avoid the inevitable. It was time to don a dress and real shoes.

First I had to find something to wear. Scrounging around my closet, filled mainly with summer attire, I rummaged through lots of T-shirts and cheap summer tops, shorts and capris and jeans. I am attached to a couple of long peasant skirts, but they were too summery and unsuitable.

When we relocated and downsized a couple of years ago, I threw out and gave away stacks of clothes. I exchanged my professional job and office-focused, daily dress routine for a career spent sitting and writing at my kitchen counter. Nowadays any attire works, but the looser fitting and more casual the better.

I finally found a knit suit that dates back to the last century. But it was in excellent condition and timeless, probably the reason I did not get rid of it in the first place. Actually, a more important reason I kept the outfit is undoubtedly because the skirt has an elastic waistband.

I refused, however, to wear stockings. The skirt was long enough that I could get away without them, and it is still September and very warm.

My heels are also dated, but I do love feeling tall. I was not walking too far or going to stand a long time, so my feet successfully survived the evening.

I dressed and threw the jacket on as we walked out the door. At which point I realized the problem with the suit –

It had big, wide, thick shoulder pads.

I do not believe shoulder pads have been in fashion for decades, unless they are in again and I am, as usual, way behind the fashion curve. But I doubt it.

I grabbed a scissor from the kitchen drawer and ran out to the car. I did not have a lot of time - about 20 minutes. The pads were thick, with what looked like a piece of carpet padding embedded between two securely sewn pieces of knit fabric.

I tore, I snipped, I sweated and feverishly worked to get rid of the pads. I did not want to rip the jacket and end up unable to wear it. Then I would really be in a jam.

I succeeded with a couple of minutes to spare. I got out of the car, tossed the jacket on, wiped the sweat from my brow, attempted to fix my hair, and was good to go, or at least as prepared as I ever would be.

It certainly is hard to put myself all together when the occasion demands more than jeans or sweats. I am just not used to doing it anymore. And I did not even mention the makeup experience. Practice makes perfect, and little practice results in imperfection. That about summarizes my makeup ability and the final results.

I guess the moral of the story is to try on an outfit before an event to ensure it fits properly, allowing time for adjustments or finding another one if necessary. And practice putting on makeup, actually wearing makeup once in a while.

And perhaps the most important lesson of all. Take any clothes remaining in the closet with shoulder pads to the nearest vintage or thrift shop.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

So as not to bore—Final Footnotes on Guatemala

Dancers in traditional Mayan costumes.
Today I officially close the book on my Guatemalan adventure. This morning I swallowed my last preventive malaria pill. Alas, goodbye Guatemala

Before the trip I visited a travel doctor and received a tetanus shot, typhoid pills, and hepatitis A vaccine. The hep A is good for five years. I suppose I should travel to another place requiring the shot within the next five years; that way I will maximize my cost.

I also took along pills in case of diarrhea, a not uncommon occurrence because of the less-than-pristine water, and unique and varied bacteria lurking on fruits and vegetables foreign to my digestive system. As a precaution we did not eat raw fruits unless thick skinned (bananas, pineapples and watermelon passed the test), and no salads or raw vegetables. Luckily, the precautionary pills were unnecessary.

Some interesting odds and ends about the country and our trip

Most of the population is Catholic, with a strong dose of Mayan religion overlaying traditional Catholicism. Our tour guide took us to visit the idol of an important Mayan god/saint, Maximon (pronounced mashimon), housed in Santiago, Lake Atitlan. He is considered a bad saint (sounds like an oxymoron to me, but…). The idol is protected by a select group of men (shamans) and every year resides in a different home. The idol lies in a glass-encased casket decorated with garlands and lights. The room is adorned with colorful wall and ceiling hangings, and lots of candles. People come and pray, offering gifts of scarfs and ties, cigars, liquor, candles, and money. Max is the god of business, among other things, and people pray for business success. We learned later that Max is also responsible for male sexual fertility. Our (male) tour guide was probably too embarrassed to furnish this information. Max is also a link to the underworld.

Stone walls surround many of the homes, businesses and large plantations throughout the country. The walls in many areas are topped with barbed wire – testament to the country’s difficulty controlling lawless citizens.

The national symbol of Guatemala is a bird called the quetzal. Quetzal is also the name of their currency. The quetzal is a beautiful, multi-colored bird, but unfortunately we did not see any. Quetzals are rare and in danger of extinction. The bird was sacred to the Mayans, symbolizing freedom and wealth. 

Jade is a natural resource and considered amongst the best quality in the world. We toured a jade factory and bought small pieces of jade jewelry. The Mayans believed jade was the most precious stone on earth, and their royalty was buried with several pounds of jade ornaments.
Workers in the jade factory.
I am sure readers are wondering about rest room facilities. Our hotel bathrooms were modern and clean. Antiqua had public toilets. Patrons paid a small fee for the privilege of using the bathrooms, and attendants maintained the facilities. Public places visited – museums, tourist sites and restaurants – had modern, clean bathrooms. When we got to the rainforest, however, we encountered a rather unique (to us) practice. Signs in the bathrooms stated something like, “please do not throw bathroom tissue in the toilet.” Convenient wastebaskets were available…I know, I can see everyone’s nose wrinkle and shoulders shutter. Modern sewage facilities have not yet been built in the rainforest region...

A note of warning when considering an outdoor activity such as a bike ride in an unfamiliar area. Carefully research the type of terrain and roads you will be traveling. We were assured the bike ride we were taking was rated “beginner”.  In fact, our tour coordinator sent us the following e-mail after we voiced concern about the nature of the ride:

Don't worry about the biking tour since the route we are offering you is a route for beginners, and the guide will take care of you, all the time.

I cannot describe how difficult the ride was (for us). We did not have a clue what was in store. We envisioned a nice, leisurely ride on a fairly flat road around the lake.

We picked up our guide and mountain bikes (clue #1) at the tour office. We then enjoyed a boat ride across the lake to our starting point. As we approached the town I looked at my sister and said, “Do you see any flat areas?” There were none. (clue #2)

We walked the bikes off the boat, turned a corner and our guide said,”OK, get on your bikes and let’s go!” (not really - he spoke Spanish and minimal English, but we got the message.)

Facing us was a poorly paved, steep, windy road. We stared at the road, traversing more than a hill, and not much less than a mountain. Our guide hops on his bike and rides up. A few minutes later he stops and looks back. The three of us were attempting to get on our bikes, adjust the gears and ride uphill. We were all over the place, on and off the bikes – and had made zero progress.

The bike ride turned into a hike and bike. We walked the bikes up one mountain after another. They were long and too steep (for us) to ride. We rode our brakes downhill so we did not go too fast. We did not want to fall, tumble over the handlebars and land in the nearest medical clinic.

The towns and countryside we rode through were supposed to be picturesque and beautiful. We were too focused on surviving and too tired to notice.

A note about flying Spirit Air. Their motto should be, “you get what you pay for.” We got cheap flights to Guatemala, and our pocketbooks are grateful. The planes were packed and seats close-fitting. I cannot imagine a tall person fitting into a seat (unless paying additional for exit row seats) without their legs hitting the back of the seat in front, or an obese person fitting into the seat at all. The planes are the equivalent of riding city buses during rush hour. The only difference is that everyone must be seated on take off and landing.

On our plane home we were in row 36 of 37 rows. Behind us were three children ages 4, 5, and 6. Their mother was in the seat directly across the aisle. The kids’ high-pitched screeches and constant kicking drove us crazy. I asked the stewardess if we could move, and she kindly allowed us to change seats (there were only three or four empty seats in the entire plane). I wondered why Mom did not sit between the kids, putting a damper on their lively goings-on, but I guess I am getting old and crotchety…Anyway, thank you Spirit Air stewardess!

A couple more of my way-less-than-professional pictures -
A Mayan woman - note traditional skirt - weaving another beautiful item.
Notice the woman carrying items on her head - a common means of transporting products.

Salud and Adios, Guatemala - "place of many trees"