TIME

In the Latest Issue

Rand Paul Most Interesting Man Politics Time Magazine Cover
Photograph by Mark Seliger for Time

The Reinventions of Rand Paul

Can he fix what ails the GOP?

Game Changer

The New Ebola Protocols

New U.S. cases have health experts rethinking the response and turning to doctors and hospitals that were truly prepared

Meet the New Leader of the Fourth-Largest Country in the World

Indonesia is a democracy with rich natural resources and more Muslims than any other country on the planet. And it just elected a new president

The Millennial Retirement Plan

Staring down his sunset years, a 24-year-old goes in search of a happier, healthier ending for us all

Funny Because It’s True: John Oliver’s New Brand of Sincere Satire

The late-night star has successfully bet on his audience’s intelligence and against its antipathy

Obama’s Leadership Shortage

His policies are fine. But the President is often a prisoner of his instincts

I Hated Halloween

In which I am tricked into enjoying a holiday that has never felt like a treat

Malala Yousafzai

The Nobel Peace Prize

Company-Paid Egg Freezing Will Be the Great Equalizer

From Apple to Facebook, more companies are covering the cost of elective egg freezing for women who want to delay child-bearing. Is this the key to real gender equality?

Book Review: Pro Makes the Case That Abortion Can Be an Act of Love

Who is the abortion debate really about?

Chasing Vapors

Pat Roberts faces an elusive challenger in Kansas’ wild Senate race

Windsor Ways

An ex–press secretary tells … some

10 Questions With Bryan Stevenson

Lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson on crime, death row and kids in prison

Briefing

Milestones

Sam Roberts: “David Greenglass Won’t Be Forgotten”

The reporter who tracked down Ethel Greenberg’s brother remembers his legacy

World

Vatican Strikes New Tone–and Only a Tone–on Homosexuality

Medical Momentum

Scientists make major moves in tackling five challenging diseases

The Culture

Pop Chart

Goya: The Alfred Hitchcock of Painting

No other artist put himself into his own dark pictures so much

We Three Queens: A Triad of Royal Biographies Debuts

Isabella, Victoria and Hatshepsut get the book treatment

Michael Keaton, the Angry Birdman

The story of an actor in extremis

TIME Retirement

The Millennial Retirement Plan

Holly Andres—© 2013 Holly Andres

Staring down his sunset years, a 24-year-old goes in search of a happier, healthier ending for us all

Despite the blessings of youth–I’m 24 years old, with limber joints and without mortgage payments–I am aware that we have something of a retirement crisis on our hands.

You can’t miss it if you watch sports on TV, where financial-services firms pitch themselves to worried middle-aged men. I can’t miss it either when I call home. My parents are in fine shape, thank goodness, but like any other self-respecting late-50-something professionals, they are gaming out survival plans for so many improbable scenarios. And it didn’t take a lot of days on the job for me to notice that my employer was lowering its match on employees’ 401(k)s, leading to grumbling among some of my older co-workers, who saw their defined-benefit pension plans end in 2010.

The boomers, we’re told, might be going bust. But what–if I may be so millennial–about me? Sixty percent of American millennials, the approximately 85 million of us born from 1980 to 1999, expect to retire at age 65 or earlier, according to a recent survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Yet we came of age in an economic climate worse than any since the Great Depression, impossibly far from the postwar prosperity that greased our grandparents into the workforce. That alone seems to limit the chances of retirement’s having a future at all like its present.

More than that, we fancy ourselves a new breed. We think freely. We never unplug. We invented Pinterest. So even if we did have the financial wherewithal to retire in 40 years, should we want to? Are decades spent away from the office good for our bodies and brains? Does it make us happier to officially transition to a new phase so late in life? Perhaps retirement, this august institution that came of age in the era of World War II, has reached its own retirement date. I decided to find out.

Preparing for Retirement

My first call goes to Alexa Von Tobel, the CEO of LearnVest, a firm that bills itself as a financial planner for average Americans. LearnVest aims to make wealth care, as von Tobel puts it, as accessible as health care, with financial-planning packages priced in the mid-hundreds. Though the business won’t disclose its client numbers, LearnVest has raised more than $70 million in venture funding. Von Tobel has been on the cover of Forbes and on the cover of her own book, Financially Fearless. The one caveat about her retirement expertise? She’s 31. But considering she was twice admitted to Harvard (she earned her B.A. in 2006 and left business school in 2008 to start LearnVest), while I was twice rejected from Harvard, I thought myself in no position to judge.

Von Tobel invited me this summer to LearnVest’s New York City offices, on two sunny floors a few blocks from Union Square. Even sunnier than the space is von Tobel herself, energetic and quick to launch into a speech confirming the nation’s collective retirement peril. “In my book, Financially Fearless,” she says, “I almost wrote a whole chapter on the history of why I believe we have a huge financial crisis looming.” She fears that the mixture of widespread access to credit and widespread financial illiteracy will doom the nation.

The numbers do cast a distinct pall. A 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research says 53% of U.S. households are at risk of losing their standard of living when their earners retire; in 1989 only 30% of households faced such a predicament. And that number concerns only people over the age of 30. The long-term financial prospects for millennials are even gloomier: according to the Project on Student Debt, 7 in 10 college graduates from the class of 2012 carried debt, with an average per-debtor load of $29,400. They graduated into an economy seemingly hostile to young workers, with an unemployment rate for job seekers ages 20 to 24 that averaged 12.8% for the year 2013. The unemployment rate for those ages 25 to 54 was less than half that, at 6.3%. And young workers with jobs should not consider themselves especially lucky; studies show that recession-era graduates often deal with depressed wages for the first decade of their careers.

Though millennial workers began saving for retirement earlier–the Transamerica study says 22 is the median age at which my generation’s workers started saving, compared with 27 for Gen X and 35 for baby boomers–they’ve also been under more pressure. According to a recent Wells Fargo study, 47% of millennials spend more than half their monthly income paying off debt; 4 in 10 call themselves “overwhelmed” by debt. They’re saving to dispel future gloom, but they’re already in the thick of it.

Von Tobel says a change in perspective helps. To our sit-down, she brought along Stephany Kirkpatrick, the firm’s resident retirement expert. Kirkpatrick considers saving a matter of behavioral psychology. No one wants to save for retirement, she says, when it looks like a mountain in need of scaling. But when clients see the merits of incremental savings modeled over 30 years, they perk up. Kirkpatrick and von Tobel tell me I ought to sock away a little bit more in a Roth IRA. It could do so much for me, and the numbers do look good.

But, I protest, I’m young and employed. I’m supposed to spend money on frivolous things! Besides, I say, what little employability I have comes from my brain. I’m not going to break down in my mid-60s. Why would I ever need to retire?

Von Tobel looks at me, and her tone turns serious again. “How do you know you’re not going to have a brain injury or something else happen? We just don’t know. We’re in this line of business, so we see all kinds of really great people that just didn’t know that something could happen.” Nice brain ya got there, I silently translate. It would be a real shame if something happened to it.

So I guess I have no choice but to save: Save by investing in the stock market, save by abstaining from indulgence, save by any means necessary. In preparing for retirement, there is no magic, only savings and more savings. I leave my LearnVest consultation planning to act on von Tobel’s simplest tips. I sign up for a high-yield online savings account and a Roth IRA (down a cool 1.85% at press time) and vow to limit my credit-card debt, buy more insurance and plan my monthly budgets. But I also get to asking myself many questions about the savings gospel. The biggest one: What’s in it for us?

The Early Retiree

One muggy Friday morning in houston, I meet a very happy retiree a little more than two years removed from the working world. His name is John Arnold. The father of three is all of 40 years old, and with his boyish, sheepish grin, he looks younger. Per Forbes, he possesses a modest nest egg of $2.9 billion, putting him among the 200 richest Americans.

In May 2012, Arnold did what so many workers dream of one day doing. He had gotten tired of running his hedge fund and he had made enough money at it, so he quit. But in place of a gold watch and a dinner at the Elks Lodge, he earned headlines in the New York Times and Houston Chronicle. In 17 years, Arnold had reached the top of his cutthroat profession, reportedly returning more than 300% on investments in 2006, closing his fund with billions under management after opening it with $8 million and with 60 employees after starting with three.

The first 14 years of work he loved. Arnold, an economics and math major at Vanderbilt, started at Enron in 1995, just a few days after graduation. He says the job–a junior-trader gig that paid $35,000 a year plus a 15K bonus–suited his skills perfectly. His boffo returns in the go-go late ’90s at Enron facilitated a steady rise, and even the company’s bankruptcy and criminal downfall (in which Arnold was not implicated) barely stalled him. Then came the big returns and the big days for Centaurus Advisors, the fund he launched in 2002. The job consumed him, but he liked it. He was working straight from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., waking many mornings having dreamed about what he traded–natural gas.

By 2009 he began to question his passion as natural gas prices slumped. In 2011 he knew he wanted out. He figured his moneymaking opportunities were gone, his best days behind him. So he closed the fund just shy of its 10th anniversary. He took a summer vacation in Colorado and then got into philanthropy, which is what he spends the bulk of his time on now.

For a self-made man with such a spectacular mike drop to his credit, Arnold has little to share in the way of business maxims. His advice is simple enough: Find a career that suits you well, and try to make a lot of money at it. Then have an exit strategy concerning a passion of yours. His was public policy. “The one thing that money does–it allows you to follow your heart rather than do a particular job,” he says.

And in his retirement, one of Arnold’s primary causes is the reform of defined-benefit public-employee pensions. He wants rules mandating timelier funding for them and thinks it might be wisest for the defined-benefit plan to disappear altogether. (This change has long since been under way in the private sector, where defined-benefit pensions covered 35% of the workforce in 1990 but only 18% of it by 2011.) Since the 2008 financial crisis, six states have introduced plans with a mandatory defined-contribution component.

The story that pension politics and the expected exhaustion of Social Security’s trust fund in 2033 tells is the same one von Tobel told me: we millennials will be on our own in retirement.

Ready-Made Suburbia

Retirement, as an institution, traces its founding to 1889, when Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, promised Germans over 70 that the state would provide them with income. It wasn’t until the 1935 signing of the Social Security Act, which endeavored to lift the elderly from poverty, that America’s retirement culture began to take shape. But it took postwar prosperity and the attendant improvement in seniors’ quality of life to vault retirement up to what it is now for the fortunate many, a round-the-clock actualization of a Jimmy Buffett song.

Retirement is, after all, sold to us from both sides: it’s not only the financial-services firms’ looming horror but also the real estate developers’ well-deserved, leisure-filled reward–the shimmering twilight years spent frivolously but guiltlessly before dotage arrives. Retirees defect, free of puritan compunction, from the Northern and Midwestern metropolises that gave them grueling if remunerative careers and head to warm climes with little industry to speak of other than condominium construction and physical therapy.

Maybe this lifestyle ought to come to an end. In search of answers, I give the Pulte Group a call. Pulte, one of America’s largest homebuilders, offers homes for prosperous active adults ages 55 and over, known as the Del Webb line. This is a name with some history. TIME put construction tycoon Del E. Webb on its cover in August 1962, heralding the rise of The retirement city: A new way of life for the old. Three years earlier, Webb had started selling houses at his Sun City development in Arizona, where in 1954 the first age-restricted residential community had cropped up. (Punning developers named it Youngtown.)

Today, even though Webb himself is 40 years deceased, about 50 still-selling 55-and-older communities bear his name. Securing my piece of these developments, or whatever their 2055 equivalent may be, is just what my new friends at LearnVest have me saving for. I had to explore. That’s how I find myself sitting shotgun in a double-length golf cart, touring Sun City Carolina Lakes, a newish development 30 minutes south of Charlotte, N.C. (Base prices start at more than $200,000, out of the range of many seniors and most assuredly out of mine.) Pam, a resident who gives tours, is behind the wheel, with Shannon, a sales VP, in back.

As we roll over the roads, statistics keep coming: 11 lakes on the property (two stocked for fishing–catch and release), eight softball teams (the primary source of business for local orthopedists, one resident jokes), four seasons (more than Florida has!), $50,000 (the state’s discount on the fair market value, for tax purposes, of homes with residents over 65). All of it, especially the last part, seems well suited for convincing stickler-y seniors.

But the social climate, more than the grounds, is what draws seniors to Sun City. In conversations with so many residents, the phrase like-minded people pops up. In exchange for surrendering lifelong friendships, the kind forged by happy accident in heterogeneous communities, seniors often seek out places where the residents act the same as them and do the same things they do. (Imagine picking a college, if college had no classes and lasted 20 years.) So the people here are mostly retired professionals, mostly friendly, mostly from the East Coast, mostly active, mostly with pensions and grandkids, mostly conservative, nearly all white.

At an afternoon cocktail hour at the home of Melissa and Rich, who came here from Columbus, Ohio, the talk is of richer lives and newfound passions. It’s important, Melissa tells me, to feel like you’re doing something meaningful after you’ve moved on from your old job and community and into a place full of people your own age. She used to be a teacher; now she works as a life coach and pursues creative arts. Barb and Joe, another couple, moved there from Erie, Pa. Joe left his government job early; Barb was reluctant to leave hers. But a friend gave her a copy of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, and she soon realized she had to leave town to grow. Joe says they know more people here than they did in Erie, where they lived for 60 years. Barb misses her friends. They keep in touch through Facebook.

The Sun City residents tell me that they cannot picture my generation wanting to retire there; apparently we don’t care for outdoor recreation. True enough. (Investment idea: Find a fixer-upper sanatorium next to an Apple Store.)

But it’s not just their immersion in screens that may scare millennials away from retirement communities. We’re also averse, I figure, to the homogeneous, ready-made suburbias the master builders have long sold. Instead, despite the prices, my generation has headed for cramped housing in diverse, historic cities. And we have done so largely in search of culture, which is hard to find at Sun City, even with Charlotte just a 30-minute drive away. Other communities have sprung up to corner the culture market–some universities have offered alumni the chance to retire on campus-adjacent developments–but that goes only so far. I can hardly fathom enjoying a life in which I interact only with people my own age, people largely just like me, with all the same cultural points of reference. Besides, I can get that free on Twitter.

Time to Save

I wanted, though, to square my assumptions with at least one senior. So I went to see the U.S.’s ranking consumer-advocate curmudgeon. “A healthy society,” Ralph Nader says, “provides opportunities across the board that send a message to the elderly: ‘We need you, we want you.’ ” Residential communities “put seniors out to pasture.”

Don’t even think about asking him about his own potential retirement date. Nader, 80, is no longer a frequent presidential candidate–his last campaign was in 2008, when he captured more than 700,000 votes–but he says he’s working harder than ever. He reads, writes, talks, advises, demonstrates, cajoles. Whatever it takes. He’s made just a few concessions to time, he says, cutting pastries out of his diet and surrendering his hopes for an uninterrupted night of sleep. Otherwise he’s the same Nader he was when he appeared on Time’s cover in 1969; he is still brimming with the blend of scorn and optimism that made him a civic leader. He still forgoes a computer in favor of his Underwood typewriter.

Nader laments the generational gap brought on by technology and, indeed, the whole retirement industry. “Take China. There’s no retirement. But older people, they’re revered for their wisdom and experience and willingness to help the young. Well, here, if you don’t know how to use an iPad,” he tells me, “you don’t have anything left for people your age.” Seniors feel lonely, burdensome, terrified of even the slightest hint of Alzheimer’s. And marketers, Nader says, prey on that anxiety. Seniors lose, and so does everyone else.

After my afternoon with Nader, I kick some of these matters to academic experts. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, predicts that the weakened American family structure will take a particular toll on retirees in the next few decades. Adult children usually serve as seniors’ most important caregivers, but fathers who are absent during their children’s formative years will struggle to enlist them later. (More than 8 million of the 33.2 million U.S. households with children under 18 are headed by unmarried women.) Yet there is some small reason for hope, from an unlikely source. According to Cherlin, the Great Recession has brought some families together, with adult children living with their parents out of necessity. Perhaps this closeness will persist into boom times.

Ursula Staudinger, the director of the Butler Aging Center at Columbia University, says the healthiest seniors are the ones who keep working. While short-term breaks from the structure and demands of a job can improve the mind, medium- and long-term absences often lead to downturns in mental and physical health, research suggests.

The average 65-year-old, ready to collect his first Social Security check, has 20 years to live, most of them rather healthy. And scientists expect the proportion of healthy years to increase. Retirement as we have long known it wastes the healthy minds of good people. A solution, Staudinger says, might be for large American employers to allow their middle-aged workers to take sabbaticals and gradually reduce their hours as they age, as some European firms have done. But we need an attitude change first.

Retirement, I’ve learned, isn’t so much an essential social institution as it is a fun-house mirror for the old generation. In middle age, we’re all more or less the same. Everybody works, and everybody’s unhappy. But when age 65 rolls around, our differences get magnified.

In retirement, those who had good jobs can play tennis all day and work part-time: consulting, advising, expert-witnessing. But those who did manual labor without the protection of a pension plan will have sore backs and need full schedules, hoping for scraps of service labor to be thrown their way.

Trends be damned, millennials should expect fairer and better–not a blessing to drop out of society and ignore its problems. Maybe it would serve us well to give up on our mythologized retirements.

Sure, I’ll save a little more cash just in case, and I’ll tell my friends to do the same. But I’m dreaming of starting a movement. My brain feels better than ever. I can keep it that way into my 80s or 90s, I bet, if I play the right games on my iPhone. With fresh eyes and a sharp mind and a renewed sense of purpose, I look forward to spending 60-some more years as I spent this one, writing for weekly magazines.

TIME Retirement

Millennials Actually Have an Edge on Retirement

The surprising advantage of the younger generation

Every generation likes to think it’s nothing like the one that came before it. As for retirement, millennials might actually be right. Twenty- and 30-year-olds make up the first postwar generation with almost no shot at getting a traditional pension from a private company. Today fewer than 7% of Fortune 500 companies offer such plans to new hires, according to the consulting firm Towers Watson. In 1998, when members of Generation X entered the workforce, 50% of Fortune 500 companies offered such plans.

It’s not all long odds. Here are some things to remember as you prepare for your sunset years.

Relax, you’ve got time. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, if you can start setting aside money at age 25, you’ll need to save only about 10% of your annual income to retire at 65. Start at age 35 and your target is a manageable 15%. But wait until age 45 and you’ll be stuck socking away 27% of your annual income.

You can also spend money to improve your chances of a happy retirement. In your 20s it can make sense to forgo some saving to invest in your future earnings potential, says financial planner Michael Kitces of Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md. Think education–not only degree programs but also short courses that teach marketable skills. You should also pay off high-interest credit-card debt and build a cash reserve. That can cover emergencies, Kitces says. It can also provide greater flexibility, like the ability to finance a move to another city for a better job.

Even so, if you have a 401(k) plan, try to save enough (typically 6%) to get your maximum employer match. That’s like free money, says Anthony Webb, an economist at the Center for Retirement Research. If you save 6% and your company matches 50¢ on the dollar, you’ll save 9% of your income, nearly what a millennial should be doing.

You have the best tools ever. One advantage today’s savers have over previous generations is that investing can now be simple and cheap. An index fund that holds a representative slice of the U.S. stock market–like the giant Vanguard 500 or newer cut-rate competitors like Schwab Total Stock Market Index–charges investors 0.17% of assets or less per year. Compare that with the 1% or so charged by typical fund managers, who tend to perform worse than index funds after fees. Index funds are now common in 401(k)s. Why stress about a measly 1% charge? William Sharpe, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, recently projected the returns of indexers vs. expensive funds over a lifetime and found that the low-cost funds could deliver over 20% more wealth in retirement.

You can handle some risk. At your age, a big market loss represents a tolerable drop in your true lifetime wealth, says investment adviser William Bernstein. Consider investing much of your 401(k) in a stock fund, which should earn a higher return than bonds or cash over time, though with greater risk.

But be ready for large swings. “A 30-year-old who sees a $19,000 portfolio cut in half is going to feel devastated,” Bernstein says. If you don’t know how much risk you can handle, consider a 60-40 split. Sixty percent can be divided between a U.S. stock-market index fund and, for diversification, a similar fund holding foreign stocks, such as Fidelity Spartan International or Vanguard Total International Stock. The rest can go into a bond fund, like Vanguard Total Bond Market. If your 401(k) doesn’t offer index funds in all three areas, look for options with low costs and a broad mix of assets.

After you set up a simple portfolio, try to leave it alone. You are unlikely to correctly time the twists and turns of the market. And at your age, you have better things to think about.

TIME

Obama’s Leadership Shortage

His policies are fine. But the President is often a prisoner of his instincts

On the first Monday in October, Kasie Hunt of NBC asked U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, what his feelings were about President Obama’s response to the Ebola threat. He said, and I quote, “Ahhh-uhhhhhhhhhm,” followed by two minutes of gobbledygook. Two days later, Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator from Kentucky, was asked who she voted for in 2008 and 2012. Her answer was similarly excruciating, and foolish. She cited the privacy of the ballot box. And about the same time, former-nearly-everything Leon Panetta landed a hammer blow on his old boss: “He [Obama] approaches things like a law professor in presenting a logic of his position … My experience in Washington is that logic alone doesn’t work. Once you lay out a position, you are going to roll up your sleeves and you have to fight to get it done … In order for Presidents to succeed, they cannot just–when they run into problems–step back and give up.”

All of this, especially Panetta, added fuel to the eternal bonfire of venality from the right. That Obama’s presidency has “disintegrated” or “crumbled” is now an article of faith in the Fox holes. Drudge featured an Ebola poster with the O an Obama symbol. That’s about as funny as MoveOn.org’s infamous “General Betrayus” ad. So it’s over, right? Obama’s toast, or a spectacularly terrible President at the very least, right?

Uhhhhhm. This is the part where I’m supposed to defend the President. He really did pull us out of a probable depression with an effective stimulus package; the economy continues to wheeze, but it wheezes forward. He really did make history by producing a universal health care plan that will not be repealed but will be reformed over time. The nonstop Republican critique that these programs were “disasters” has been rendered ridiculous. (In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell had to pull a Mark Pryor on that state’s very successful version of Obama’s plan.) The President has been sane and relatively moderate in his selection of Supreme Court Justices. His proposed job-growth policies would probably work, if given a chance by the Republicans.

He has been sane, too, in his foreign policy, for the most part. Those who say he should have been tougher on ISIS by arming the Syrian rebels–talking to you, Madam Secretary and Mr. Panetta–are wildly wrong. We would have wound up arming ISIS. There is precedent for this: we offered a fabulous buffet of armaments to the Iraqis, who left them for ISIS as they turned tail and ran in Mosul. Obama did cleave to the dreadful Nouri al-Maliki too uncritically–and thereby allowed a corrupt Shi’ite fragment to call its sectarian tune. That was Obama’s fundamental Iraq mistake.

But who hasn’t made an Iraq mistake over the past decade? The proof of Obama’s moderation can be found in the blundering simplicity of his critics: the neo-imperialists who think we can actually determine, by force of arms, what happens in the Middle East; the left-libertarians who don’t think we have the right to protect ourselves from terrorism by launching drone strikes, conducting special operations and tracking terrorist phone calls. Obama has stood as a bulwark against the irrationalities of both parties.

That’s the case for Obama. I really believe it. But I also believe that Panetta has a point. It is about the ethereal nature of true leadership. I remember writing a similar defense of Jimmy Carter nearly 40 years ago: a great number of the policies that Ronald Reagan was later given credit for launching–Paul Volcker’s tough inflation cure; a bristling stand against the Soviets, including intermediate missiles in Europe–were Carter’s policies first. He slugged his way to a historic peace treaty in the Middle East, but he didn’t convey two essential American qualities: forcefulness and optimism. Indeed, if you look at his infamous “malaise” speech, it’s a riveting piece of work, containing more tough truth about the country than the pile of Democratic utterances in the ensuing decade. I remember thinking, Poor Jimmy: history has led America to a rut, and we’ll never be as powerful as we once were. Reagan proved me young and foolish. Some of his achievements are illusory or attributable to Carter policies (as in economics), but the man knew how to lead.

I can’t say that for Obama. I sense that Panetta is right about his unwillingness to fight. Lately, the President’s body language has too often conveyed disgust and cynicism. He seems defeated by the trivial pursuits of the media and his opponents. He does not have the sunny conviction necessary to carry the country through a period of near biblical plagues and wars. His policies and popularity have been crippled by his dour political sense. A basic law of politics: this cannot last. But I have no idea what comes next.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

Read next: A Troubled American Moment

TIME halloween

A Halloween Miracle

In which I am tricked into enjoying a holiday that has never felt like a treat

This feels weirdly unpatriotic and definitely fun-killing, but I’m just going to admit it: I hate Halloween.

Why hate Halloween?

Four reasons:

1. I’m pretty sure it’s a fake holiday.

2. My children’s candy consumption, questionable during the rest of the year, becomes impossible to monitor and possibly life-threatening for 48 hours.

3. Random people wearing masks ring my doorbell in the dark when no one is home but me and our big dopey dogs, who may as well be wearing signs that say (with apologies to W.B. Yeats), “There are no strangers only friends I haven’t met and I know I love you already so please scratch my belly.”

4. The decorations. Oh, the decorations! For years I’ve wanted to opt out of Halloween, the way you can opt out of the vision-care plan at work, because the sight of all those decorations hurts me, both aesthetically and psychically. And every year it gets more out of hand. All I can say is, it’s a good thing Edward Gorey died before he had to see fake orange spider webbing coating every privet hedge in suburban America.

Did you know that, according to the National Retail Federation, Americans are projected to spend $7.4 billion on Halloween this year? Including $350 million on costumes for pets? I’m just guessing, but I suspect my dogs would rather I donate their costume money to a pet-rescue organization. Oh, never mind. What the dogs and I definitely agree on is that the decoration situation is a problem, particularly when measured by my patented decoration-to-holiday-significance ratio.

Let me explain. Every holiday has a unique decoration-to-significance ratio. Take Christmas, for example. Very significant to many people, and lots and lots of decorations. So basically a ratio of 1:1. Thanksgiving: very significant to lots of people, not many decorations. So 1:20, give or take. Fourth of July: significant, not a lot of decorations. Ratio: 3:50.

Halloween? What are we celebrating on Halloween? Can anybody tell me? Type “What does Halloween celebrate?” into Google and you’re confronted with “the triduum of Allhallowtide,” “the devil” and “the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain.” So basically nobody knows, not even the Internet. Hence my fake-holiday suspicion, and calculation that Halloween’s decoration-to-significance ratio is 37,000:1. Which means that when my neighbor with the generator-powered blow-up jack-o’-lantern thingy with black cats rotating inside fires up his yearly tribute to the holiday he can’t explain, I just want to close my eyes and get on the next flight to Aruba.

But this year I was given a Halloween miracle. Our oldest son’s university scheduled Family Weekend to begin on–wait for it–Oct. 31. Perfect! For a moment, I was elated that I didn’t need to go all the way to Aruba to skip Halloween. But … but … but: we also have a child who is 7, i.e., in his prime trick-or-treating years. And although there was a time, back in the pre-helicopter-parenting age, when Family Weekend was merely Parents’ Weekend, now that it’s been rebranded, the entire nuclear unit must attend or risk getting reported to the family-values police. But what sort of institute of higher learning schedules Family Weekend on Halloween? Maybe it’s an ivory-tower machination so multilayered and clever that people of average intelligence like me can’t possibly understand it. Regardless, I just can’t picture our little guy attending the Friday-night dinner and lecture in his Tron costume.

Am I exaggerating to say that this felt just like Sophie’s Choice? Maybe a bit. But making the right decision, pitting Tron against his older brother, with sentiments of I-now-hate-Halloween-even-more clouding my brain, seemed impossible.

And then I remembered when our college sophomore, our oldest, was 7. That Halloween I rushed home from the office to help him change into his costume, then watched him proudly march in the elementary-school parade. It was one of the highlights of the school year. I made vegetarian chili for my friend Sharene’s annual post-trick-or-treating party, which featured a giant backyard maze made from tall wooden stakes and endless rolls of thick black plastic that took weeks to assemble. When it got dark, the kids would lose themselves in the maze, whooping with delight. It was magic.

The maze is now just a memory, and most of the kids who raced through it are in college. Including my oldest, suddenly so grown up and full of wisdom that he advised us to skip Family Weekend for the sake of his 7-year-old brother. He knows that our trick-or-treating days are numbered. And as much as I truly, truly hate Halloween–the fake orange spider webbing and generator-powered decorations and strangers who ring the doorbell even after I’ve turned off the front porch light–I suppose I know it too.

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