What I learned this week?

I’m not usually one for buying into the wisdom of movies, but I’m a life-long watcher of people.

Back in 1997, Tommy Lee Jones played a no nonsense agent keeping the world safe from the aliens among us. He said “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

Watching my fellow Americans “planning” and “preparing” for COVID-19, the zombie apocalypse, or TEOTWAWKI, basically confirms that his lines ring out across the ages as the most truthful words ever committed to film.

You’ll be glad you did…

You can’t miss the funny, funny toilet paper memes. I got it. Large numbers of people pummeling each other in the grocery store isles is good humor, I don’t deny it.

I’ll be the first to agree with you that panic buying is stupid. With that said, I think it’s stupid for reasons different than “coronavirus doesn’t cause you to die of shitting yourself.” For me, the rolling of eyes is triggered more by looking at people who don’t already have a “safety stock” of items essential to keeping a household running for a few days, a few weeks, months, a year or more depending on what your risk tolerance and budget will support.

I know some real, honest to God end of the world prepper types. I’m not even close to being in their league. I’ve got no interest in taking it to that level. They’re legitimately trying to be prepared for the collapse of civilization. It’s not out of the realm of the possible, but I’m not entirely convinced I want to hang around for that party. My personal cognitive bias tends towards the belief that over time, things will trend towards that status quo… that tomorrow will be more or less the same as yesterday. I could also be 100% wrong about that assumption.

I’m extremely comforted in knowing that if, for some reason, I needed to button up Fortress Jeff for a period of a few weeks or a month or two, I could get along without any significant impact on my standard of living. We could probably hold out a bit longer than that if I did a little rationing. It’s the level of insurance and peace of mind that I’m comfortable with maintaining over the long term.

Because I’ve done a little advance planning and bought extras a few items at a time, there’s no need for panic buying. My regular shopping trips involve simply replacing what I’ve used from week to week to maintain the baseline – usually a few canned goods, some fresh mean and vegetables, dog or cat food, and so on. Keeping a bit of extra on hand just makes good sense. When everyone else is panicking and buying up 54-packs of Charmin, you can smile, make another cup of coffee, and get on with your day.

Next time you make your weekly grocery list, add a few extra items that are good for long term storage. Buy stuff you know you’ll use anyway. Try having a little bit of a plan that extends beyond the next three to five days. At some point, because of flood, fire, snow, or pandemic, you’ll be glad you did.

The vine and fig…

It occurs to me that part of the reason weekends are so much better than weekdays is I pay virtually no attention to the news on Saturday or Sunday. Of course I catch bits in dribs and drabs from Facebook posts, whatever is trending on Twitter, or what the BBC pushes out in alerts, but I don’t make a conscious effort to seek out news during those 48 hours blocks.

Maybe some would say it makes me a bad citizen, but it makes me a more sane human being. It’s probably worth the trade off. I think I’ll continue trying to keep the shitshow of events entirely outside my own sphere of influence confined to the 5 days of the week that are already dicked up by other factors. Two days of willful disengagement out of seven days in a week don’t feel like an outrageously big ask. 

I’m left to wonder if we might not all be better off if everyone spent more time tending to the things that are within their own span of control and less tuned in to Big Events over which no one has any real control. It’s a pipe dream, of course. There are too many people too tied in who seem like they might just get off on soaking in the drama. 

As for me and mine, we’ll double down and take a page from General Washington to increasingly strive to be the kind of man who seeks mainly to  “sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Saturday, in the morning…

It’s Saturday. By now it shouldn’t be a suspense to anyone that I have a plan for that. Even in the absence of a plan I’d have a routine to surely keep myself in track.

Wake up. Do dog stuff. Shit, shower, and shave. Coffee. Pay bills, check finances, etc. then my favorite part – after establishing that the household will be on a sound financial footing for at least the next week – the 90 or so minutes of calm and quiet before launching out to get groceries and run the other errands necessary to keep the homestead functioning.

Its probably the most singularly peaceful block of time in my entire week and I love it for that.

It’s a scattergun approach, but that’s by design…

It’s Monday, but it’s a short three-day week and there’s at least one telework day between me and the start of the weekend on Wednesday afternoon. Summer and fall are my favorite times of year to be in Uncle’s employ. Unlike the interminable, holiday-free stretch from February to May, the holidays flow with reasonable regularity in 4-6 week intervals. They’re always something to look forward to on the horizon – a minor way-station on the long trip to 2035.

I make a point of pride out of making sure I’ve burnt off all my leave by the end of the year. I generally aim to carry precisely the maximum amount of leave across from year to year… not an hour more or an hour less. Keeping a big honking pile of leave available is a safety blanket of sorts – an insurance policy – against the idea that something catastrophic could happen at any time, but I have a cushion of paid time off owed to me to help mitigate whatever the problem might be.

Life experience has also taught me that I appreciate time off more in small doses than I do en block. With the exception of maybe a week or ten days across Christmas and New Years, I take most of my leave a day or two at a time. A four day weekend seems to hit some sort of neurological sweet spot for me – enough to feel rested, like it’s been something more than a regular weekend, but not so long that the very act of coming back to work feels torturous. Coming back after a long stretch – like the “Christmas break,” has a funny way of leaving me more annoyed and dispirited than I was before I left. For me that’s the real danger of taking too much time in one run.

So, here I am, my projected leave schedule covering the calendar like shot from a scattergun. Most aren’t random strikes, though. I try to set them to maximize preexisting holidays or to compliment the few days of the year I know I like being somewhere other than work. Throw in four or five more days held in reserve for the inevitable mornings I just can’t face eight hours in the cube farm, and it’s my own special, patent pending formula for dragging my carcass through another year while preserving some semblance of sanity.

On the downhill slide…

Even though I should have been happily ensconced today in my home office, I walked in to the building this morning with a little extra spring in my step. Unremarked and unknown to anyone I have slid past an auspicious milestone and that knowledge has, at least for today, has helped give me a little better perspective. 

You see, I’ve rolled by the halfway mark of my anticipated career as a professional bureaucrat. That means, should everything go to plan, I’ve already spent more days sitting in a cubicle than I’ll have to spend sitting in a cubicle in the future. 

Yes, an extraordinary number of things have to go right to make this reality – the stock market needs to match or exceed its historic rates of return, I have to avoid doing anything egregious and getting fired, and I need to not drop dead or otherwise completely wreck my health. 

Still, though, for the first time I’m on the right side of the countdown and I have a rough plan for the way ahead. It’s hard to believe that finding myself on the downhill slide could possibly feel so good… but it does. 

Plans…

Let me start by saying I roll out of bed every morning with a rough plan in my head of how I expect the day to go. Plans are wonderful things, even if they are so often driven completely off the rails by outside influences.

IMG_2720It doesn’t happen very often but every now and then the perfect image how how a weekend might go lives up to all the hype in planning. You see, in my deepest dreams, weekends are long unbroken stretches of quiet time – time to be alone with my thoughts, time to tinker in the house or yard, time spent companionably silent with the resident critters, or neck deep in a stack of books.

Every now and then I manage to hit one right in the sweet spot. If I’ve remembered everything on the grocery list and tended to all the other errands than need tending, when the garage door slides down on Saturday morning it need not open again until Tuesday. It’s like living inside my very one dreamscape.

I got to walk the property and note down trees and limbs ready to feed fall’s backyard fires. I got to spend a long time just standing in the yard playing out different plantings for next spring and what arrangement they may take. I got to distract a chocolate lab long enough for one of a friendly rink-necked snakes living in the back yard to make a get away. And I got to enjoy an inordinate amount of time spent watching five hummingbirds dive bomb each other for getting too close to the feeders.

Sigh, yeah, if money were no object… but of course it is an object so these plans are but a dream to be observed through a glass darkly. At least I know I’ve got a solid grip on what I want to do when I don’t have to do anything. It might not be the hole plan, but it feels like a solid first step.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Surprises. I will never in my life understand why anyone likes being surprised. In my experience being caught off guard, having a bombshell dropped in your lap, getting a wake-up call, or enduring a rude awakening are all fundamentally bad things. It is, sadly, impossible for any one person to know all the things and to be prepared for all the eventualities. Even so, that doesn’t mean we have to like getting blindsided even in the exceedingly rare case where it’s a “good” surprise.

2. Decisions. Look, if you’re not going to “empower” me to be a decision maker, the very least I should be able to expect is that someone up the line will actually be making decisions in something approaching a timely manner. Sure, some questions are difficult and need great thought and discussion, but mostly are run of the mill and answerable as part of a simple yes/no or this/that dyad. Getting the answer shouldn’t take weeks and slow every project down to the point where forward progress can only be measured in a lab environment by high-precision lasers.

3. Training. My employer has made a few stuttering baby steps towards eliminating some of the onerous annual training requirements that eat up time and net very little in the way of return on investment. However, they still insist of gaggling everyone up for far too many of these “valuable opportunities to learn.” After fifteen years on the job if I haven’t learned not to be a rapist or walk around making sexually suggestive comments to my coworkers, I’m not sure the 16th time around is going to generate that magical “aha moment” they seem to want. At least the box is checked for another year… and that’s what really matters.

By 35…

I’d never really thought of MarketWatch as a leading newsmaker, but after their social media post noting that “By 35, you should have twice your salary saved, according to retirement experts.” They’ve experienced their 15 minutes and then some.

The thing is, if you’re contemplating what it takes to achieve a “normal” retirement at the “normal” age in the “normal” way, their post isn’t broadly off the mark. Their point, beyond being something that seems to beggar belief to millennials, is that if you ever want to retire in the traditional sense of the word, you need to plan for it… and more importantly you need to save for it. Only you know for sure what right number – 2x, 10x, or 50x your annual salary invested – is going to meet your needs at any given time along your glide path.

“But,” you say, “Everything is so expensive. I have loans, and bills, and kids, and a master’s degree in advanced basketweaving. I can’t save anything.”

That’s fine. In many cases those expenses came along with decisions you made. That means you placed a premium on those other options rather than building a stable platform for retirement. It means you’re going to have to work past the traditional retirement age or contemplate a significant lifestyle change in order to realign you financial priorities. In some cases, especially for those who decide the whole long-range planning things is just too hard, you may have to accept that there’s a good chance you’re going to die in harness.

I got my first “grown up” job at 22. Making about $30K a year, paying rent, a car note, household bills, buying groceries, and all the other expenses that come along with being a grown ass man. It sucked. Money was always short, but before I saw a nickel of it in my checking account $25 of every check that first year went into my retirement account. Let me be clear on this – to me, back then, $50 was a shit ton of money to “do without” from month to month. There were a lot of things I could have spent that cash on to make life a little more civilized and comfortable that first year. The thing is, even at 22, when I still believed I was on my way to a long and fulfilling teaching career, I knew I didn’t want to still be touching America’s youth when I was in my 70s.

Here’s the kicker: Life isn’t easy. It’s full of hard decision, medical emergencies, and events that don’t work out quite as you had planned. Take it from a guy who changed careers, lived through five regional or cross country moves in 18 years to follow better opportunities, and then took a bath on a house he bought at the height of the real estate bubble. I know this shit isn’t easy.

There are precisely 300 million websites out there that can help you develop the mindset and skills that make retirement a thing that’s possible. But it means you’re going to have to do more hard work and educate yourself on the topics and the tools available. If you’re sitting around waiting for someone to do it for you while shitposting on Twitter, well, I guess you’re right – retirement is definitely never going to happen.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Good ideas. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with good ideas. There is, however, a point in every project when your thoughts need to turn away from adding bells and whistles and focus in on executing the damned mission. Some guy with a bunch of stars on his collar and a shit ton of fruit salad on his chest once said “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Words that we’d be well served to keep in mind.

2. Voicemail. Calling a designated customer service number and having to wait a few minutes is standard operating procedure. I got it. Calling the customer service line for a major business and then getting shunted to voicemail isn’t going to get the job done. I’m trying to give your company a not insufficient amount of money. I’m calling you at a time that is convenient for me to talk. Chances are you’ll return my call at a time that is not convenient. Then I’ll call you and leave a message. Then you’ll call me and leave a message and so on. Instead of that, I’ll just go ahead and call the next closest registered dealer that handles the same product and spend my money at their location. Thanks for playing, though.

3. Confusion. Job: “a paid position of regular employment.” Holy Quest: “a chivalric journey undertaken by a knight in order to procure or achieve a particular object or end.” More people should know the difference.