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.

On planning ahead…

It’s possible I spend more time pondering the idea of retirement than is really reasonable for someone who has, at a bare minimum, 13 years, 9 months, 20 days, and a wake up left to go. I’ll make no apologies. The idea of waking up with no mandatory training, creaking inbox, meetings without end, or goofy assed conferences, is just about the happiest place I can imagine. A lot of my retirement-era day dreams center on where I want to land when it comes time to strike my tents here at the top of the Bay.

At one time I harbored thoughts of going west in retirement. Decades ago, I spent some time wandering where the high desert and Cascades slam together. It was a part of the country marked with open land and big skies, making it almost ideal for the kind of hermiting I enjoy. That is to say it’s possible to get far enough away from people so that they’re not a constant source of annoyance, but close enough to civilization to keep a few good book shops within an easy drive. The prevailing political situation in those states coupled with persistent drought and fire threat make the region significantly less attractive.

The lower Eastern Shore of Maryland or Virginia had its own appeal – Particularly somewhere well south of the bridge and tourists that swarm across Kent Island on their way to the beaches. With an elevation no higher than 100 feet much of the Shore could be increasingly problematic. It doesn’t take much, either from storm surge or sea level rise, to swamp a lot of the most attractive bits of land on the Eastern Shore. Add in the idea of saltwater intrusion into freshwater sources and Maryland’s determination to build yet another bridge to bring even more people across the water, and anywhere on the Shore looks less and less like an ideal choice. Better under these circumstances to stay where I am and enjoy the proximity to the Bay and a fairly safe 138-foot elevation. In all likelihood, Maryland won’t make the final cut for a whole host of reasons anyway so the discussion here is a bit academic.

There’s a personal calculus that goes into all this thinking. Taxes need to be favorable. Cost of living needs to be reasonable. Areas prone to natural disaster are right out – Fires, floods, earthquakes are a pass for me. Implications of climate change are absolutely a consideration. Proximity – or at least an easy helicopter flight – to a level one trauma center is almost non-negotiable. Forgive me, please, but if I’m ever faced with something catastrophic, I’d rather not rely entirely on the expertise at Greater East Podunk Community Hospital. 

All of this seems to be carving an area of interest ranging from eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, bits of Kentucky through portions of Virginia and its Western sibling, and then up the eastern seaboard (skipping over a few tax happy and ultra-restrictive states like Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts). I’m even pondering on options as far north as the Canadian Maritimes, though that would be a part-time situation at best.

I know. That still covers a hell of a lot of geography. That doesn’t really feel like much narrowing of the field. At least as I sit here right now, I seem to know what I don’t like and where I don’t want to be. That feels like a reasonably good start on a grand plan that I probably won’t carry to fruition for at least another decade and a half.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The algorithm. Every third ad Facebook has served me in the last couple of weeks is some variation of “Are you saving enough for retirement?” It’s a fine question and I’m almost laser focused on what I need to do to be able to walk out the door in 14 years and 18 days and never work again, but I promise you I’m not taking financial advice from the place I go to find dirty memes and posts about who got arrested in the area.

2. Timing. I’ve been plugging away for six years, putting a bit of money back here and there to correct the deficiencies in my master bathroom. Every time I got close to hitting my estimated budget number, some other critical project would come along and shave a few thousand dollars off that particular pile of cash. During the Great Plague, I managed to finally hit my number… and of course now the cost of building material has gone through the roof. I’ve gone ahead and put out the call for quotes to a couple of local builders, though. It seems my timing for this project is never going to be good… so the only thing left is to proceed. Doing otherwise feels like an open invitation to wake up one morning after another six years and realizing I’m still schlepping down the hall to take a shower.

3. Extortion. This week, one of the main oil pipelines servicing the east coast of the United States was held hostage. It’s owners reportedly paid $5 million to a vaguely described group of Russian or Eastern European cyber terrorists to regain control of their network. Here’s the thing… the Colonial Pipeline is, by definition, key infrastructure. We’ve seen the news reports of the chaos caused by this brief interruption. Setting aside that much of the panic was entirely self-inflicted by people rushing to fill every container they could find, our enemies have also seen the chaos a service disruption in one of our major pipelines can cause. Paying out millions of dollars was a business decision… but what I want to know is why we’re not now seeing reports of cruise missiles leveling the known and suspected safe harbors from which these and other cyber terrorists operate. If a country or non-state actor blew up a building or bridge, we’d come crashing down on their head like a mailed fist. I don’t make a relevant distinction between those who’d launch a kinetic attack and those who do their damage with keystrokes. 

Second week…

I’m now into the second week of this long Christmas break. I’m quite sure I feel more relaxed, though probably no better rested than I did a few weeks ago. Lying about in bed or whiling away the hours snoozing on the couch aren’t really in my repertoire. The psychological imperative to “do something” is far too strong, even if that something is just tinkering around with truly minor repairs or sticking my nose in a book.

I’d usually spend this week chasing down new (old) books for the collection or running errands/tackling projects that are more involved than is convenient to fit into typical weekends. Life in a plague year has given me ample opportunity to take on those projects already – or at least the ones that don’t involve any specialized skills or abilities and therefore need to be farmed out. The search for books, of course, will have to wait for a bit yet, despite the almost overwhelming temptation to mask up and roll the dice. I could plug in some online orders to scratch that itch, but seeing them fall into the black hole of the US Postal Service for delivery God knows when feels like it would do the exact opposite of improving my sense of relaxation.

Probably more than anything else, what this two-week reset has done is reaffirm my firm belief that I’ll be beyond satisfied not schlepping to work (either in office or virtually) at the moment I reach that magical congruence of age, years of service, and fiscal sufficiency. Even here, in the belly of a plague year, when I can’t or opt not to do many of the things that I so heartily enjoy, time is better spent than it would be knocking together version fourteen of a random set of slides or flinging email into the bureaucratic void. 

Plague economics…

I can’t tell you how many times in the last 6 months I’ve heard or read someone say “Wall Street isn’t Main Street” or “the stock market isn’t the economy.”

That’s usually shorthand for telling your readers or viewers you want them to ignore record setting highs in the market in favor of focusing on more gritty, personal stories about small businesses. Those businesses are important. No one loves their small, local book shops more than I do, but I’m not going to sit here pretending that how the market does is irrelevant to the overall health of the economy or that it’s only “the 1%” who take advantage of its magical power of wealth creation.

Despite the popular press narrative that most people aren’t impacted by the stock market, the opposite is really the case. According to an article released by Pew Research in March 2020, “a majority (52%) have some level of investment in the market. Most of this comes in the form of retirement accounts such as 401(k)s.” If something north of half the people having a vested interest in Wall Street doesn’t count as having a deep influence on Main Street, I don’t know what would.

Yes, how “invested” someone is depends on many factors – age, race, and income, among others – but you really sound like an idiot when you write an article trying to convince me that I should feel badly that the market is booming. I’m never going to be upset by a story that tells me real money is being made by real people. Even when it’s painted as a story of winners and losers, I’d reminded them that there are winners and losers in ever field of endeavor – none of the great -isms of history have managed to change that beyond shifting a bit of who gets what. The wheel turns, but some group is always on top at any given moment – princes of the church, members of the politburo, or heirs to the House of Morgan – and they reap the reward of being in the right seat at the right time. I’ve never felt the need to hate them for that.

The two streets measure (mostly) different aspects of the economy. While I’ve made an effort to support local businesses with my spending during the Great Plague, I won’t for a moment feel bad about seeing growing equity prices. Both sides of the economy are important and while I’d love to see both go like gangbusters in an endless bull market, having half a loaf in this plague-ravaged environment is something to celebrate.

My new obsession…

Some people have used the last few months of forced disengagement to learn languages, write their great American novel, or somehow make themselves into more productive human beings. Meanwhile I’ve been over here mostly living the same life I’ve lived for years.. with the exception of developing a new minor obsession. I now find myself spending at least a few minutes every day looking over floorplans of houses I’ll never build.

I’ve spent time looking at floorplans for old houses, new houses, prop houses from TV series and movies, castles, Roman villas, and family compounds. At first blush, it doesn’t make much sense, but hear me out.

Even though the Tennessee house was “new construction,” the only personalization came in picking the finishes. The bones of the house were all pre-determined by others. Every other place I’ve lived was designed and built originally to meet someone else’s expectations and needs. In every one of them, I’ve found myself asking often, “Why the hell did they do it this way” as opposed to in an alternate way that would make more sense to me. Having spent my life living with other’s decisions, the only grand ambition I have left at this point is to build a house from the basement up – Fortress Jeff achieving its final form that puts walls, switches, and doors exactly where I want them and all with a general layout that makes sense for how I intent to live in it.

Even though I’ve spent months looking at floorplans, none of them has been quite right. Most of them have been miles off. Many of them, though, have had distinct elements that are perfect – or that could be perfect with just a bit of architectural rejiggering. I’m keeping an open file (a self-contained Pinterest board?) with screen shots and notes about each of them. That goes a long way towards showing what right looks like from my perspective here and now. We’ll see what right looks like after it’s had a decade and a half to percolate.

So, what does this perfect place look like? Well, my current kitchen layout basically gets transposed into a new setting, the front door doesn’t dump directly into the main living area, there’s a room for dogs – tiled and suitable for hosing down – a pocket office to keep the computer and other bits that keep the household running from dominating whatever other room they’d be in, three garage bays, and some bedrooms, I suppose. Forgive me, please, but I haven’t put much brainpower into the rooms whose purpose is largely to be places to go lay down in the dark with your eyes closed.

I know, describing it doesn’t do justice to what I’m seeing in my head. Sorry about that.

The heart, though, of any house I would ever build is almost certainly a “great hall of books.” You know, something medieval, but with excellent shelving. In fact, if the construction budget looks thin, you should probably just expect a library with a monk’s cell bedroom and kitchen attached… although giving up the garage would be extraordinarily painful.

The real trick, of course, will be figuring out how to cram everything I want into a footprint that doesn’t go sprawling across the countryside and send me into bankruptcy. Those details, though, are far less interesting than where, exactly, to put the inglenook. Hopefully my next obsession will be a self education in creative construction financing.

Clawed back…

Looking at the various trackers I use to keep tabs on “money stuff” it appears I’ve clawed back somewhere around 80% of what was lost when the floor fell out from under the stock market during the opening days of the Great Plague. I wish I could take some kind of credit for having a shrewd financial mind. It has far more to do with being willing to just stand there and take a beating without locking in all those losses by fleeing to the safety of cash equivalents… though I suppose sitting around watching the market erode your nest egg day after day after day without screaming “uncle,” is a certain kind of financial bravery of its own.

I’m happy to see a lot less red ink on the page, but I’m not even cautiously optimistic of the market’s ability to hold on to its gains in the absence of the truly massive amount of money the Federal Reserve has pushed into the system. Until I start seeing unemployment numbers normalizing, consumer confidence picking up, and a reckoning about how the foreclosures and evictions that have been held in abeyance for the last few months will be addressed, I won’t be convinced it’s not an aberration.

Call me a pessimist, if you will, but aside from there being a nice blue sky and sunshine overhead I don’t see how or where we’ve really turned a corner – and I’m fairly sure the economy doesn’t turn on how pretty a day it happens to be outside. Then again it’s possible I have completely lost track about what it is that actually does drive the economy. So much seems to have changed since I took my basic classes twenty years ago… or at least we’re pretending they’ve changed right up until the old rules jump up and bite us in the collective ass later this year.

Panic, correction, and why it doesn’t necessarily suck…

Anyone following the markets this week already knows that they took a beating. Global stock markets are down across the board, a fact mostly attributable to at least some level of panic about what coronavirus will mean to the overall global economy. Markets hate uncertainty and that seems to be what we’ve had from all directions for the last few days.

Because I do want to retire some day, I’m not immune to keeping one eye on the business channels throughout the day. Days when I’m tempted to panic I find it helpful to remember a couple of things: 1) In the short term stock markets always move in two directions; 2) Trading based on emotion is stupid; and 3) Over the long term, the market has never moved in any direction but up.

Sure, when you’re sitting around watching tens of thousands of dollars of savings disappear, there’s an undeniable instinct to try to save whatever you’ve got left. That’s the emotional response. The logical response, of course, is not making those losses permeant by selling into the teeth of such large moves.

I’ve got fifteen years left before I’ll need to touch anything that’s currently subject to the vagaries of the stock market. The sane, rational part of my brain knows full well that fifteen years from now the prices today are going to look like an absolute fire sale compared to where they will be then. I’ll keep plugging my cash into a well balanced mutual fund every two weeks and let history be my guide. If I were planning to retire at close of business today, of course, I’d probably be a bit more wild-eyed in my estimates, but I like to think even then I’d manage to let sanity prevail.

The day I start betting against America and against the long track record of capitalism creating real wealth over time, you might as well put a fork in me. I’ve bought the ticket and I’m taking the ride.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Getting in through the back door. Every time I hear one of the Democratic primary candidates wax philosophical about one of their wealth redistribution schemes by confiding to the camera that “it’s a tax on Wall Street,” I look around and wonder how many people really believe that. My reading on their collective plans is that this chimera of making the “big banks and hedge fund managers” pay is ultimately a tax on every working person who has a retirement account. Your 401k, 403b, IRA, or TSP can’t help but be taxed under these plans, because at heart these accounts are nothing more than fractional shares that get traded on a regular basis to keep the fund balanced… and these funds are the definition of big players in the financial market. The Democratic candidates know they’re going to have to tap into huge sources of capital for their plans. I just wish they had the stones to admit that getting it done is going to require levying this backdoor tax on every man and woman in America who’s bothered to make an effort to save for retirement and not just the guy in charge of running the fund.

2. When you can’t even half ass the work. I worked on three things today. Simultaneously. All were a priority of effort… at least to someone. What that really means, of course, is each of them got exactly the level of effort and attention you’d think they got. Instead of half assed efforts, the very best they could hope for was being third assed. It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad. You’d think after 17 years I’d have started to get use to the idea that most days good enough just has to be good enough. Then again some days don’t even rise to that paltry standard.

3. Facebook memories. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to disable Facebook Memories, because every morning I open the damned app I’m met with the picture of a bulldog doing something alternately ridiculous or endearing. Jorah has done quite a lot in the last six months to patch up the sucking chest wound Winston left behind, but those pictures every morning still catch me directly in the feels. Despite the myriad of issues, vet bills, and costs, I don’t think I’ll ever really get to a place where I don’t miss such a good dog.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Office pot luck lunches. In my opinion there is no more sad and depressing sendoff into retirement than an office pot luck lunch. Somehow showing appreciation for years of dedicated service by taking over the conference room, piling the credenzas high with veggie trays, deli sandwiches, packaged deserts, and lukewarm entrees just doesn’t fill me with a sense of purposeful recognition… it’s more like getting away with a bare minimum level of acknowledgment. I’ve never liked office pot lucks. The “special occasion” pot lucks, though, smack of insult to injury. Al least when my time comes I know what I won’t be doing. Some day, when people come looking for me, there’s just going to be an empty cubicle where Tharp use to sit. No pot luck, no certificate of appreciation, just a vague memory – a shadow receding into the distance just as quickly as his little legs will carry him.

2. Being a sonofabitch. I know it doesn’t seem it, but I’m generally a reasonable individual. My expectations of people are usually limited, based on experience. I’m almost never looking for a fight. I’m almost the definition of live and let live because I so rarely feel the need to engage. There are some times, though, when I have to be the sonofabitch. I can do it. I’m good at it. But all things considered I’d rather be left alone.

3. $10 a pill. I’ve picked up Maggie’s next round of antibiotics… ten days to the tune of $10.34 a pill. I love these dogs and I appreciate the marvel of modern pharmaceuticals, but hells bells, I’m taking whole fists full of human grade medications that don’t carry that kind of price tag all in.