What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Virtually in person. Monday was one of those days where I was in the office fulfilling the (in my opinion) questionable requirement that our little team must always have a warm body in the building. Like the ravens at the Tower of London, the whole enterprise would collapse should we all simultaneously be doing the work from anywhere other than our assigned badly lit, gray-toned workstations. The only meeting I had that day involved seven or eight people… half of whom were also physically in the office. It’s awfully telling that despite so many people being on site, the whole meeting was held over Teams with everyone participating from their desk. If we’re all going to be meeting virtually from our own section of cubicle hell, I’d really love a non-corporate speak explanation of why there’s even a push to have more and more people in the office? You’ll never convince me it doesn’t defy logic and plain common sense.

2. Pulling rank. This week, as I may have mentioned, was the yearly spectacle where I attempt to stage manage / executive produce a three-day series of presentations. This year there were 9 organizations and 21 separate presentations across three days. This event rated permanent support from me, three guys who managed the IT infrastructure from soup to nuts, and a handful of rotating support personnel from each of the participating organizations that fell in for their portion of the event and then buggered off. By way of contrast, there was another event on Tuesday morning. This one lasted 90 minutes. It rated support from a staff director, six subject matter experts, three guys to manage IT, and another half dozen aides, support staff, and various strap hangers. If it sounds like I’m in any way angry and a little bitter, I like to think it’s justified hostility and just one of the many reasons why I hate the last week of April.

3. Choices. At the princely cost of $4.25 per gallon, I filled up the truck this morning from about a quarter tank and spent $77.60. I didn’t jump online to “Thank Brandon” or scream “Orange Man Bad” because I know the American president has next to no direct control over setting global commodity prices. I paid my bill without much comment, because paying his way in this endlessly beshitted world is a man’s job. Well, that and because no one twisted my arm 12 years ago in west Tennessee when I bought a big V8 powered pickup truck knowing full well that on its best day, I might get a little more than 16 miles per gallon. Brandon didn’t do that. I did… and so did everyone else who opted for size and power over efficiency. Want to find someone to blame? Take a hard look in the mirror.

You have my interest…

When gas prices were at their previous all-time high, way back in 2008, I walked out of the local Toyota dealership in Memphis with a gas sucking 5.7 liter V8 Tundra. They had at least a hundred of them sitting on the back lot. They might not have been paying people to take them away, but it was awfully close. That original Tundra of mine came with four or five thousand dollars off sticker and 0% financing. They were just happy, it seemed, to get it off their books.

I knew then that the price at the pump was going to be painful, but not necessarily less painful than buying one of the small, fuel-efficient econoboxes that were flying off the sales floor. Sure, I was paying for fuel, but a pretty significant percentage of that was offset by the lower cost of the vehicle, “no cost” financing, and the preventative maintenance plan they threw in. As far as I’m concerned, I took my savings all on the front end of that deal rather than spreading it out over the life of the vehicle through lower fuel costs. 

The same math doesn’t work in today’s environment. Getting into a new truck with the same trim level I’ve currently got comes with an eyewatering price, well above zero percent financing, and about a one mile per gallon improvement in fuel efficiency that does nothing to offset increasing prices. If I had to be in the market for a replacement vehicle right now, I’d be hard pressed to justify the purchase and operating costs.

I hope I’m not forced into a position of needing to replace a vehicle any time soon. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an interested eye on the roll-out of more hybrid and all electric truck and SUV platforms. I always said I wouldn’t be interested in alternative fueled vehicles until they were every bit as comfortable for my fat ass as my big Toyota pickup. It feels like we’re nearing an inflection point where these options won’t be limited to “toy” compacts and bland sedans. True to my word, I’m beginning to get interested.

That math can’t be right…

My Tundra is 12 years old. It’s in fine mechanical shape. Aside from a few chips and minor scratches the body looks great. It’s been in one major and one minor incident. Thanks, most likely, to fanatical devotion to preventative maintenance, it still runs like a top even as it closes in on 140,000 miles on the clock. At some point, though, I know I’m going to need to buy a new truck.

Just out of sheer curiosity, I recently used the Toyota website to price out what more or less replicating exactly the truck I currently own would cost if I were in the market right now. It came out to $61,103… before taxes. So, we’ll figure a nice round $65,000 all-in cost for a middle of the range Tundra here in 2022. 

I’m sorry. What?

Part of the trouble, I know, is it’s been 12 years since I bought a truck… and back then it was in the middle of “all time high” gas prices and they were almost begging people to take the big V8s off the lot. Add in 12 years of inflation, plague related supply shortage, and the general growth in popularity for the pickup form factor. Intellectually there’s no reason I should be surprised at where the price points are now.

Emotionally, though, I’m stunned. Maybe some of it is just age. I’m old enough now to remember when $60,000 was the price of some of the most luxurious vehicles then widely available on the market. Way back in 1995, my used ’91 Chevy Cavalier cost the princely sum of $5,700. Sixty grand would have put me into a brand-new Cadillac Deville with $20,000 to spare. It would have put me in a C-class Mercedes and still left me with $5,000 or $10,000 in change.

I’m having trouble getting my head wrapped around it. Sure, I mean I could buy something that isn’t a truck or look for something coming off a lease, which leads to many other considerations… or maybe I’ll just keep Big Red on the road until the wheels fall off and the floorboards rust through. I damn near bought a whole house in 2001 for what a new truck would cost me 20 years later and just the thought of it is making my brain hurt.

Closing a gap…

I’ve been chasing one particular book for about eighteen months. First edition later printings seemed to have a floor around $100. True first editions in fine condition regularly list in the range of $400 and up. I could have snapped one of those up, but it would have blown the book budget for several months all to hell and back.

I have auto-searches on several used book sites that send me periodic emails on when this book shows up for sale. A fresh 1st edition (albeit a 5th printing) showed up on the list this morning.  With an asking price of a mere $65 it’s obviously not the perfect copy I’d like to have, but it is signed, so there’s that going for it. 

I’ve dealt with this particular bookseller before. They’re a reputable outfit running both a respected storefront in the District and a vast discount warehouse I’ve come to love picking through when I have hours to spend wandering their stacks. That’s pretty much the only reason I took a wild chance on a book that otherwise seemed to be markedly underpriced based on its description and photos. 

The trouble with online book sales, like everything else that arrives in a cardboard box, is that you never really know what you’re getting. Based on past experience, I’m cautiously optimistic that what shows up will be something close to “as described.” Worse case, in a week or two I’ll have slightly overpaid for a nice, signed reading copy of Dunning’s Booked to Die… and the search can continue for a true first that doesn’t crush the budget. It doesn’t seem like I’ll have any trouble selling off my new copy to help defray the cost if I ever run across a reasonably priced copy.

As always, I stumble along the fine line between wanting a collection that looks good on the shelves, but that I’m not afraid to take down and fondle a little. At least now my Cliff Janeway series won’t look like a gap-toothed smile. 

Unacknowledged milestones…

It seems to me that we’ve largely been conditioned as a society not to talk about money. I’m sure there’s a plethora of sociological studies that define exactly what this is, but I’m not quite interested enough in the details to go digging. Suffice to say, the number of conversations I’ve had with anyone other than various paid advisors about issues of salary, retirement, and general finance is, in a word, limited.

Money and finances are just not topics we bring up in polite company, though maybe it should be. It feels like there would surely be a whole lot of people who would be better off if only they had a bit of financial education – or even just a passing interest and some kind of basic financial literacy. 

I only mention it now because after the terror of watching the hemorrhaging in February and March 2020, and wondering if the blood in the streets would ever stop flowing, a few weeks ago I passed through what I consider a major milestone on the road to reaching a decently funded retirement. Unlike most of the other major milestones we celebrate or at least acknowledge in life – graduations, weddings, births, deaths – there’s no accepted way to mark the occasion.

So don’t mind me, I’m just over here screaming into the void of the internet because we as a society have some kind of complex when it comes to talking about money… except when it comes to complaining about the price of gas or why on earth a beef roast now costs $20.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Facebook. If you’re looking at a meme I post and think to yourself “By god, ol’ Jeff is right. It is my Constitutional right to stick a fork in this power outlet,” I’m not sure Facebook should even try to save you from yourself. Similarly, Facebook needs to refine its sarcasm detector, because this is some ridiculous content to spend a lot of time trying to eradicate from everyone’s precious feed. Lighten up, Francis. 

2. Updates. At some time during the weekend, my home computer updated itself automagically. As part of this helpful update, “dark mode” was turned on by default for all my Microsoft Office products. Look, I get that software updates are necessary inconvenience. Some of them are downright critical. Still, it would be helpful if changes I didn’t request or expect wouldn’t randomly change the settings I’ve left alone since basically the dawn of personal computing. Then again, I wouldn’t get the opportunity to spend 20 minutes trying to diagnose why my computer was going off the rails.

3. Sizes. I’m going to need food and beverage companies to just stop fucking with product sizes. I suppose the theory is that as long as the price stays the same, people will never notice they’re getting less and less of whatever product they’re purchasing. I’m old enough to remember when coffee was still sold in one-pound packages. Now it’s 12 ounces if you’re lucky. Most packaged products seem to be going the same way. What is now selling as “large” or “jumbo” is what a decade or two ago was just the regular size. But hey, if I need sixteen ounces of something for a recipe it’s definitely better to buy two 14-ounce cans, take a scoop out of one of them and then toss the remainder. Maybe I’ll start mailing these leftover ingredients destined to go bad in the fridge back to their corporate offices. I’m a generally reasonable human being who understands inflation happens over time and price increases are the inevitable consequence. How about just passing along that increase instead of adopting slick marketing gimmicks?

I’m going to sleep on it…

Six weeks ago, I was on a wild tear to get the master bathroom, at long last, updated to the point where it was a functional space for something beyond walking through to get to my closet and an out of the way corner to keep Hershel’s litter box. Getting proposals back that saw my own preliminary cost estimate bested by about 50% has given me a moment of pause… not because I want a real functioning master bathroom any less, but because it is only one item on my list of things to do.

The others, in no particular order of importance are: 1) Patch and reseal the asphalt driveway; 2) Repair or replace leaking gutters; 3) Replace 21 year old air conditioning condenser unit; 4) Replace kitchen counter tops; 5) Be prepared to replace all major kitchen and laundry appliances since every one of them is now well past the point of economical repair; 6) More bookcases (because we always need more bookcases here). There are, of course, other more minor items that need continuous repair and replacement as needed.

Before the cost run ups associated with the Great Plague, the price of a new bathroom would have been an all cash operation. Funding was saved and earmarked. Now, it would mean pulling a loan to cover the unanticipated increase in cost. Doing the bathroom now means sucking all the oxygen out of the room – and being unable to address any of the other projects without further borrowing or kicking them years into the future in order to reestablish a sufficient cash reserve.

I’m going to take the weekend to sleep on it. The most likely solution feels like taking on some of the smaller projects while stashing away more cash to get the bathroom done right. That’s all hoping, of course, that rampaging inflation doesn’t completely throttle the value of the dollar and that at some point the COVID premium on construction supplies and labor moderates back towards historical levels. Those are two significant “maybes’ that there is no way to control for other than sucking it up and paying the bill now.

So yeah, tell me more about this joy of home ownership, won’t you?

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The office. There’s nothing like being back in the office to really drive home the absolute absurdity of basing employment in the information age solely on the ability of / requirement for someone to sit in a specific geographic space for eight hours five times a week. I’m sure there are some jobs where “being there” makes an actual difference in how well or swiftly the information flows, but in my little corner of the bureaucracy, this week has stood as stark evidence that where work is location agnostic, corralling people into an office just because it’s how we did things in the before time isn’t so much strategic decision making as it is acquiescence to organizational inertia.

2. The end of an error. The fact that a serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other unformed officials were put in a position to actively ponder how to counter the possibility of a coup d’état in the United States isn’t so much annoying as it is horrifying… but I’ve been thinking a lot about it the last 36 hours or so. I suspect that as history sorts the wheat and chaff from January 2020 the details will be far more horrific than anything we know in the present. That so many among us still think the end of the Trump Administration was “business as usual” or it was somehow the victim of a vast and unprecedented left-wing conspiracy is both heartbreaking and infuriating.

3. Renovation. With multiple proposals now in hand, I’m edging dangerously close to becoming a broken record that says only “That’s almost what I paid for my first condo” or “I could buy a new damned pickup truck with that.” Evaluating the proposals shouldn’t be hard since they’re all within 8% of each other. I suppose technically that’s good news insofar as it means that’s probably a reasonably accurate estimate of what it’s going to take to put a new bathroom in this place. The hurdle I’m trying to get over, is that across the range of proposals, we’re about 50% over my original planning factor and into a point where cash on hand isn’t going to get the job done. Logically I know home equity loans can be had near lifetime low rates, but it all begs the question if I’m willing to pull a loan because I’m tired of schlepping down the hall to get a shower in the morning. 

A rare moment of indecisiveness…

I’ll admit that a decade ago I picked the vet whose office location was the most convenient. I was just back to Maryland with a bulldog who at least once a month seemed to need to go to the vet immediately. Their office being between five and seven minutes from the house was a much appreciated convenience.

That office closed a few years ago and folded many of their clients, myself included, into their sister facility twenty-five minutes away. We’ve gotten good service there and I like my regular vet and the staff, but their fees tend towards eyewatering territory on a pretty regular basis.

I’m leaning towards transitioning the two youngest members of the household over to a different vet – one that’s still locally owned and operated (and presumably with lower costs for basic veterinary care). With Maggie’s long and complex history over the last several years, though, I expect to keep her with people who know the full back story until we’ve played that hand all the way through.

Part of the reason I liked the big corporate chain vet in the first place was having ready access to emergency and specialists “in the family.” With a host of them now sprung up within reasonable driving distance, I’m not sure that’s the selling point it was then. It feels likely that nothing more than the inertia of dealing with a known quantity is what really kept us where we’ve been this long.

Or not. I’m currently feeling mightily indecisive… and since a decision isn’t needed right the hell now, I’ll probably continue to dither for a bit yet.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Diminishing supply. My to be read shelves are starting to look a bit picked over despite the regular trickle of online orders over the last nine months. Sure, there’s still an easy 400 or so lined up in the fiction section and another 150 in non-fiction, but the gaps that weren’t there when the Great Plague started are starting to be noticeable. I’d usually spend the week after Christmas casting net through used book stores and thrift shops in a geographical area that stretched north to south from Philadelphia to DC and east to west from Dover to Frederick. It’s the second of what are historically my two big, bulk buying weeks I’ve missed this year. I’m not at much risk of running short on reading material, but I do miss the hunt – and finding the occasional rare-ish first edition, or signed copy, or the one long out-of-print volume I need to make the set. Book shops are probably a low threat environment, eminently suited for social distancing, but every trip out increases the chance of being exposed unnecessarily. With vaccines now ramping up to full rate production and being shipped out by the millions, it feels like a stupid time to force old patterns to fit present circumstances. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

2. Staying put. As I sit here finalizing this post, it’s Christmas Eve morning. Tomorrow will be the first Christmas in 42 years I won’t wake up in the shadow of Savage Mountain. Like a salmon driven by thousands of generations of history to swim back up stream to the gravel beds where they were born, the trip home for Christmas was as inviolable part of my yearly calendar no matter where in the country I found myself living. Staying put this year is absolutely the right decision… even though there’s a deep, primordial part of my brain is screaming that something is wrong.

3. Shipping. I ordered a book from a shop in Indiana on the 7th of December. It shipped out on the 10th. It pinged in various places on the 12th and 13th before coming to rest in York, Pennsylvania in the 19th, where according to the helpful USPS tracking website it hasn’t been seen since. By contrast, the package I currently have in transit from southern Sweden was picked up by UPS on December 22nd and flown through the night across the Atlantic bloody Ocean. It arrived in Philadelphia, and cleared customs on the 23rd, was driven overnight to New Castle, Delaware and now, on the 24th, is loaded on a truck for delivery. I absolutely paid more for the UPS delivery than I did for the package shipped through the postal service, but if that’s the cost of actually getting what you order in a timely manner, it’s a price I’ll happily pay. I fully understand that things ordered in December sometimes take a bit longer than usual to arrive, but come on, man.