Monthly Archives: January 2012

Are you one of those people who will actually die?

On August 4, following the last time I saw my aunt alive, I blogged about her. On Sept 20 I got The Call and 3 hours later was en route to Costa Rica, where she had left her home, her life of over 24 years, and all her belongings. I want to insert here two words to anyone who may, at some point in an unforeseen future, actually die and may have friends, family or strangers to clean up after them:

Downsize. NOW.

I don’t want to sound like an insurance agent or an Estate attorney, but for Christ sake face IT. Not doing so won’t make IT go away because IT will happen to any being ever born, and perhaps unlike my 93-year old aunt who’d been tapping her elderly finger’s on death’s door asking if she could please enter, it might happen to any of us when we least expect it.

You know the sort-of-funny undertaker joke? The hardest part of their job is to wipe off the look of surprise on the face of the corpse.

That would not have been a problem for my aunt Blanche. My aunt was an ace planner. She was a bookkeeper when a young sprat who later became a highly successful businesswoman. She was a fabulous organizer. A terrific manager. She drew up a Last Will and Testament almost 20 years ago. I knew when I last saw her that I was to inherit her house, art collection, books, furniture and car.

I should have been elated. I should have been prepared. I was neither.

That was not only because she seemed pretty much immortal, but also because Blanche had assured me repeatedly that everything was in the Will. And I knew she was a planner an an organizer. It was true, everything was in the Will. Down to the last detail about managing the cats. She even wrote her own obit, had me go over it with her and then wrote a note to me at the end saying I could ‘put it in my own words.’ So yes, she planned.

But here’s what really happened. By a strange twist of fate I found out that in CR the only way to avoid huge, gigantic, monster size fees when you pass on property is to do it through a corporation. I was able to blindside the attorney, who had managed to keep that little secret from my aunt for 20 years and — by chance and on a visit I almost didn’t make — got everyone to agree to create the corporation. If I had left it to the well-planned Will, the house and everything in it would have gone on the auction block. Not maybe, but definitely.

Lesson learned: Stay up-to-date on regulations. This should be written in size 2,500 font, bold and underscored if the death is in a foreign country. Double that if it’s a foreign country in which you do not reside, or if you do but tend to live under a rock or in a dream world.

Trusts are generally best, but stay informed applies both to donor and recipient.  I will not stoop to make any attorney jokes (although I have to hold my fingers back), but caveat emptor, or in this case let both the living and the dying beware.

Next. Like I said, my aunt was a fabulous organizer. Things were labeled and filed and sometimes cross-filed. While she was alive, I overlooked the fact that she was also a pack rat – maybe because she was so well-organized. After her death, I spent days and nights for a full month going through every corner, every drawer, all of which were full. This happened to be in a Very Large House. It took me more than two months of dealing with Stuff to contain most of the damage. I say damage not only because it was rough slogging, but because the losses were huge.

Next Lesson Learned: Stuff, like everything else in life, has its time. Use stuff. Wear it out or give it to someone who will. We don’t — or shouldn’t — live in museums. Bric-a-brac, books, art, any Thing has its day and does not necessarily retain an inherent value because it’s vintage or really old or beautiful. Much of Blanche’s stuff was stunning, and many things cost a lot of money. But that brings me to my final Lesson Learned:

No matter how much we love our stuff, it is Our Stuff. Our siblings, sons, daughters or any heirs  — other than our partner who is left to deal with the Stuff — did not choose these things. They’ve got their own Stuff anyway. It’s great to cherish what we have, but heirs will find life a lot easier if they know the actual sale value of your used Stuff and if they don’t feel guilty about not wanting it.

Get rid of what you don’t need in the new life you live with each major passage. Almost all of us will continue to gather new Stuff, even if we let go of the old. Life flows. Let your Stuff flow with it.

Because any unnecessary Stuff that lives on your one-way street will find itself out on your heir’s dead end alley.


What Would Martin Do?

If you’re over the age of 4, that’s probably a simple question. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be talking, preaching, and out there supporting the 99%. Probably. I mean I really think so.

I think that partly because when he was killed in 1968 we had already begun some serious tackling of social issues that included more than racism. We looked into the eye of sexism, we began to value inclusiveness and diversity. We admitted to illiteracy and underliteracy in our midst. We accepted the concept of vulnerability as it pertained to race, class and sex, un- and under-employment. We admitted to having race, gender, poverty and class issues that was life-destroying and as a nation decided we didn’t like it.

There are so many pieces of the 60’s tapestry, of MLK’s legacy that we can consider. What resonates most for me though, when I look at the differences between that USA and USA 2012, is the existence of a discomfort, a national pain,  a growning awareness that a noose of vulnerability was choking members of what we had believed was the world’s greatest society.

The social activism and voices of the 60’s that decried racism had in fact a far grander  vision than an opposition to racism. The larger message and the larger motivator was a desire to align vulnerability with historic American values of opportunity. It was not a nation that said we would be blind to color or class, gender or disability agism or xenophobia. Or that we could completely do away with it.

It was a nation that admitted, with an unaccustomed amount of humility, to the concept of vulnerablility. That vision said no to some things — like that differences, exclusion, and hate, would not rule. That we would root out unequal legislation and education, do away with strong if intangible barriers to opportunity. In the 60’s we agreed, generally as a nation, that the stronger of us would protect the weaker and that we did not want a society built on an unequal foundation in which the vulnerable could be brutalized by their difference or their lack.

But the vision was overwhelmingly a positive one — it was profoundly more ‘for’ than ‘against.’ Martin Luther King became the iconic voice of that larger vision of inclusiveness, appreciation of diversity, and protection of and service to the vulnerable. His metaphors, including of the mountain top, moved mountains and galvanized the hearts of a nation. Well most of it anyway. Obviously not those that managed to assassinate some of our greatest leaders and orators.

Nor did the 60’s fully resolve anything. But as a nation, we were reasonably united in wanting to spread the Reverend’s Dream to all.

Would Martin even recognize our world today? What would he say about inclusivity if he knew that almost 50 years after his death, ninety percent of Americans make less in real dollars than they did in 1973? [1]

What would he say about diversity if he knew that today the wealthiest 400 Americans control more wealth than half the people — not of the US — but more than half the wealth of the entire world? [1]

What would he say about vulnerability if he knew that instead of that taxes for the top 400 have plummeted from 51.2 percent in 1955 to 16.6 percent in 2007 (no later stats available, for the top 400.) [2]

What would he say about his dream if he knew that the USA had become the least socially mobile of the world’s economically advanced countries? [3]

What would Martin say? Stated more precisely, what would Martin do?