Warning signs…

I should have known the kind of day it was going to be when the first two alarms failed to coax me from sleep’s comfortable embrace. The day started behind schedule and never recovered… late to lunch, then a two hour soul suck of a meeting that ran late, then another meeting that should have lasted 5 minutes ran over and promptly spawned another hour-long meeting later in the week, and by that point I was already late for end-of-tour. Blasting out emails for the next thirty minutes in order to make sure the later-in-the-week meeting actually took place then put the day further behind. Or more specifically it put the end of the day even further behind. And that, obviously, is where the real snarling started.

As perfectly willing as I am to admit that some things are unavoidable, I’ve always thought the total number of those unavoidable things is pretty small. Most things, with a bit of planning, are utterly an completely avoidable if you just pay a bit of attention. For instance you can count on one finger the number of times in any give year I show up at the office late. I build in what some would consider excess time in order to make sure I hit the mark as expected. It doesn’t feel at all unreasonable to expect a bit of consideration coming back the other way, though recent history leaves that in doubt.

I guess it’s my fault for not seeing the warning signs. I don’t want to have to make a scene to remind anyone that there’s a holy line of demarcation between “my time” and “your time,” but I absolutely will if that’s what needs doing. I’m in no way above making an ass of myself to make a point when it needs made.

The stuff of dreams…

Since before we bothered with something as trifling as writing down our great deeds, human beings have made a point of moving stupefyingly large amounts of earth to build their monuments. There are pyramids in Egypt and Central America. Stone circles dot the European continent. We’ve excavated a highway of water to connect the Atlantic and Pacific – and then sent buildings racing a thousand feet into the sky. Historically speaking, we’re monument builders.

The little project I have getting underway this week isn’t monumental in any way. In fact by the time it’s finished and the grass sprouts telling the difference between before and after would give you trouble if you weren’t intimately familiar with the ground we’re covering. Even so, in my own little way I’ll be cutting into the earth in an effort to make my surroundings more hospitable… and by that I mean I’m writing a ridiculously large check to someone else who will actually do that while I stand in the kitchen drinking coffee and watching the work in progress.

As long as it means I can be a little less twitchy every time the rain falls, I’ll at least be monumentally happy with the result, even if there isn’t much to see for the effort. New hardscape, underground drainage for the back yard, and a slope that means water isn’t naturally inclined to flow directly into the basement and garage… be still my middle aged, suburban heart. It’s the stuff of dreams.

Five years and another $60 or $70,000 and we might just have this old homestead properly beaten into shape. In retrospect it may have been more cost effective to just knock down some trees and build my own henge…

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. National Whatever Day. Yesterday was allegedly “National Dog Day.” Are you serious? There are somewhere between 70-80 million dogs in America. In 2015 the American pet industry as a whole is estimated to take in about $60 billion. Do you think we’ve somehow collectively forgotten about dogs? As if the 1/3 of American households who have them came home suddenly and wondered what this 4-legged furry thing was that greeted them at the door? Look, I’m fine seeing everyone’s dog plastered all over Facebook. If I can be frank, it’s a nice change of pace from the usually endless parade of baby pictures, first day of school snaps, and instas of what’s for dinner. Still, I think we can give National “Whatever” Day a rest.

2. The Wackadoodle Right. I read an article a few days ago wagging the specter of another government shutdown. Except this one isn’t because we’ve actually run out of (pretend) money or haven’t been able to pass a budget (or at least a continuing resolution). This impending shutdown will come because a couple of right wing wackjobs have decided that no government at all is better than a government that might accidentally fund an abortion. If I’m going to be thrown out of work, I’d appreciate it be for a reason other than a handful of politicians who think they have a “special relationship” with the Almighty. I’m not going to get sucked into a discussion on the virtues of Planned Parenthood versus the right wing of my own party, but there are enough actual real world dangers we can worry about to knock this one way down the priority list.

3. “Ten Years Later” Coverage of Katrina. Without grinding through the details, let’s just accept that Hurricane Katrina is a topic I know a little something about. I lived 1000+ miles from landfall and the bitch still consumed just about every part of my life for months. She’s also the reason I know the media are well and truly idiots when it comes to reporting the facts of a complicated story. Unless it boils down to a three second sound bite (like “Being stuck on stupid”) or lets them take a few jabs at a favored punching bag, they just miss the big picture. The moment that small portion of the story goes over the air it’s accepted as received truth, but it’s only ever just a very small slice of the real story.

100 bottles…

Somewhere, somehow, someone is lurking around our building complex sucking down cheap liquor like it’s their job. No. Literally. Like it’s really their job. Most people might say that’s pure speculation, but I know it’s a fact. I know it because the facilities people blasted out an “all hands” fireball-liqueur-shot-300x300nastygram informing us that in excess of 100 “miniature” bottles of Fireball (empty, of course) had been found making a mess of the local sewer lift pump station… which means the individual in question is hanging around in the can to get their morning eye opener or afternoon pick me up and then flushing the evidence.

As a tax payer I should probably be profoundly offended. As a professional I should be ashamed at the actions of someone who is nominally my colleague. But really all I really am is pissed off that this asshat has managed to sneak a little happiness in a bottle into the place and they haven’t been polite enough to share anything. That’s just rude, because God knows most days the sun isn’t even over the yard arm before I start feeling like it’s time for a cold one… or a warm one, depending on how the prick is smuggling in his contraband.

Trusted professionals, indeed.

Working dog…

I’ve read countless times that dogs behave better when they have a job. Some are trained to sniff out bombs or drugs, others pull carts, a few, the happiest probably, carry drums of liquor to skiers stranded somewhere on an Alp.

My Maggie never trained to do any of those things. She’s the definitive house pet… mostly well behaved, but possessed of a few bad habits that I’ve simply allowed to develop over time because they didn’t bother me enough to correct.

This chocolate lab of mine has always taken her patrol duties in the yard seriously – birds, squirrels, and cats have all felt her wrath at one time or another. Interlopers are less welcome by her than they are by me. That’s saying something. Since we moved, though, she’s taken on a whole new role.

The front windows aren’t quite floor to ceiling but they’re big enough to give her an unobstructed view of the front yard and the street beyond. Her domain is all she surveys. My working dog has appointed herself protector of the cul-de-sac. Every living thing that moves upon it is fair game for her hell-hound-like bark and ferocious snarl. Children on small motorized scooters are particularly hated enemies. The barking for them is the loudest and most long lived.

Technically I should probably be correcting her at every opportunity… but if I’m really dead honest about it, I’m not sure I hate the idea of everyone who drives, walks, or otherwise wanders past having a thought that herein lives one of the most vicious dogs on the face of the earth. It’s not a job for your typical working dog, but it fits in just fine around here.

Crushed it…

In the first ten minutes of trading this morning, the Dow sloughed off over 1,000 points. Let that sink in for a minute. 1,000 points, by anyone’s calculation, translates into the evaporation of serious wealth. The only good news on the day that I’ve read is that it didn’t stay down a thousand. It’s a strange day, indeed, when the good news is that we kept the hemorrhaging to something under 600 points.

I’m as if not more risk tolerant than most when it comes to investing, but today had me following the rest of the herd and plowing everything into the (relative) safety of bonds in an effort to preserve principle rather than chase future performance. We’re in correction territory here… and definitive “bear market” status isn’t too far off – especially if we find another trading day or two like we’ve already seen this week.

Still, although this is big news and I find it all delightfully interesting from an academic perspective, I don’t think the sky is falling. I’ve got a mercifully long horizon before I’m going to need to dip into any of the funds I’m trying to diligently shepherd along. Nineteen years is an awfully long time to see the market surge and fall and surge and fall again and again before I need to worry. That being said, I would like to get through this mess quickly and find a bottom so the boys on the street can get back into the business of making money for all of us instead of finding new and creative ways to shelter and protect what we have already.

Today was an impressive example of the market’s ability to crush it on the way down. I don’t need to see them crush it on the way back up, but a little stability after a rapid downhill ride would be greatly appreciated.

Capitalism doesn’t work…

I’m never quite sure how to respond when someone tells me “capitalism doesn’t work” or that it only works for the uber-wealthy. I generally deflect the issue, because even in a well-reasoned discussion there’s virtually no chance of them changing their position – and there’s absolutely no chance of me changing mine. I’m not a philosopher and I’m not an economist. I’m just a guy from coal country who got a decent public school education and has had some life experience. I accept that my experiences are different than others, but I don’t consider them particularly unique to me in any way.

Growing up I was never in danger of being described as ultra-wealthy. I’m not in that position now, either. Thirty-seven years hence, that still doesn’t seem likely to be the case – though I do still buy a weekly Powerball ticket in case the fates have declared otherwise. At best I’m part of that vast swath of people who consider themselves middle class. I’m somewhere in the middle part of the curve of income distribution.

I made about $30,000 as a first year teacher. That first year I put $25 every two weeks into my IRA. That’s $50 a month towards what was then a very distant idea of retirement. Some months that $50 was painful – and in that first year as a “professional” I still ate a hell of a lot of ramen and lived in an efficiency apartment way off the beaten path because that’s what I could afford. Still, over that year I was able to scrape together a very modest downpayment. I found a mortgage company who was willing to take a risk on someone with little real credit history and bought a condo for $72,000. It was a 742 square foot, ground floor bunker of a place, but it was mine. Instead of paying rent I was building equity and paying 5.25% (which at the time was a real sweetheart deal) interest for the privilege.

A few years later I took another job (another risk), and rented out my little condo for $200 more a month than I was paying on the mortgage. Some months got awfully lean while I was waiting for a new tenant or the refrigerator needed repair, but you see, that’s capitalism. I used my own money to build value over time. I still have that little place and today it’s renting out for more than twice the mortgage payment. That’s capitalism… and I hardly feel like I’m taking advantage of the person who’s paying the rent. I’m still the one taking the risk that the air conditioner won’t conk out or the building won’t burn down.

I’m still making twice a month deposits into my retirement accounts. Planning for that part of my future is my responsibility. Despite the “correction” of the last few weeks, all told those accounts are still doing well over time. The growth of those early deposits, driven by overall increase in stock prices and the beauty of compounding interest is simply staggering. Some months are obviously better than others. Risk is a real mother like that. Sometimes she gives and sometimes she takes away. Even so, I don’t blame JP Morgan, or Citibank, or GM for doing what they do. There’s a reason we have the phrase “it’s just business.” They all seek to maximize profits at the macro level the same way I do on the micro level with my small rental property.

Populism and distrust of big business and big banks has a long history in this country stretching back to well before William Jennings Bryan’s cross of gold. Socialism hasn’t had it’s roots here quite as long, but it’s no spring chicken in America either. I’ve done the reading. I’m not sold on either model.

I choose to believe in my own experiences – of every time Amazon sends me a check for selling a short story and every time the rent is deposited into my account and every time a stock pays out a dividend. So I have no idea how to respond to someone who says capitalism doesn’t work. I’m seeing it work every single day.