Friday, March 21, 2014
Sometimes everything I see or hear or read gives me an idea for a blog post. And sometimes there is nary a blog thought in my head, I forget that I even have a blog at all.
Guess which place I’m in right now.
So while I am here, thought less, I will just give you this.
WordPress spell check is sexist.
Maybe I’ll have more ideas soon, but for now, that’s what I got.
Hope all is well with everyone in blogreaderland.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
I have to make a small confession before I start this post, which is that I am mildly addicted to reading advice columns. “Ask Beth” was a particular favorite of mine back in the day. I also used to love reading “My Problem and How I Solved It” in Good Housekeeping magazine. I don’t know why, I just dig that kind of thing.
A couple of years ago I read this pathetic letter to Carolyn Hax, proprietress of the “Tell Me About It” column (syndicated by the Washington Post and appearing twice a week in the Raleigh News & Observer, which is where I read it) from someone who had a terrible time with holidays, her immediate family was generally dysfunctional and she had no close relatives. She had tried various approaches — volunteering, inviting people from church, inviting friends of her kids — but none of them had panned out. She and her daughter had spent the most recent Thanksgiving “eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers,” and she felt that they were destined to spend the rest of their holidays that way. She wrote to Carolyn asking how she could help prepare her daughter for coping with this sad life.
Carolyn acknowledged that there were some real problems in the letter-writer’s life that she needed try to address, but also pointed out that the rest of the letter seemed to be her taking things to extremes and wallowing in self-pity.
CH’s main piece of advice was that the letter-writer simply let go of the “traditional Thanksgiving script,” and write herself a new one — that she should look at the holiday as nothing more or less than a day off from work, and take it from there.
The reason this letter struck me is not just because eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers sounds like not a bad holiday to me, but because it reminded me of how worked up people get over holidays, and how difficult it can be for people whose lives might not have turned out quite the way they had imagined, to deal with certain situations.
And I thought CH’s advice was generally good, but I would have added one other small bit of advice, which is that the first thing you need to do if, for whatever reason, you find the holiday season distressing or depressing, is to …
TURN OFF THE TELEVISION.
And possibly the radio, too.
Just take my word on this. You need to kill the commercials.
You can’t avoid all holidayness — you will have to leave the house at some point, and Christmas decorations are everywhere — but if you have the television on you are simply bombarded with it. It’s a lot easier to ignore front yards with reindeer in them and baking displays on the end caps at the local Stop and Shop than it is tune out a continuous barrage of commercials involving people giving each other expensive gifts and attending fabulous parties with a whole bunch of beautiful people who live in perfectly decorated houses and who all love each other.
That’s just all I can say. Turn off the television. I guarantee that you will feel better the instant the screen goes dark.
[Aside on living without television...
If you are at a loss as to what to do with yourself now that you cannot watch television, my suggestions would be to:
(a) read something interesting (may I recommend David Copperfield, it is 900+ pages long, that'll keep you out of trouble for a good long while)
(b) get back to an old hobby (knitting, sewing, woodworking)
(c) acquire a new hobby (ceramics, welding, boxing)
Make holiday cards, paint your house, clean the basement, bake cookies for the neighbors, trace your genealogy, dig holes in your yard and then fill them up. Who cares.
If you like having television for background noise, see if you can substitute listening to music, or talk radio (NPR or whatever else you have access to), or even audio books. Whatever you can do that is commercial free.]
This will help you, as Carolyn advised, to “write a new script.” Because you can now think about what is important to you, and what you want to do, and not get all caught up with what you feel like you should be doing based on what you think the rest of the world is doing based on what you see on tv.
The other advice I would give, which she did touch on but didn’t emphasize quite enough, in my opinion, is …
Don’t worry about what the rest of the world is doing.
If you want to be with people, then be with people, and if you want to eat turkey in the kitchen and read newspapers then do that. You can cook and eat a big meal or go to McDonald’s and buy a Big Mac or not eat anything at all. You can spend the day with family, or with friends, or with your dogs, or by yourself. Or any combination thereof. It’s all good.
And if you’re worried about what other people will think, if they will feel sorry for you or just feel like you’re odd, if you do some nontraditional activity, I would give you the advice that someone told me the artist Laurie Anderson gave in response to a question about what other people thought about her and her art. Laurie Anderson reportedly said, “No one else really cares what you’re doing.”
And that is the truth.
No one else really cares what you’re doing. Just do what you want. All the time. But especially during the holidays.
Monday, October 28, 2013
So I’d heard a few people mention Afford Anything as a blog they like. I’d looked at it briefly a few months ago, but decided to take another look over the weekend.
It seems like a well organized site, with focused, well-written articles. Though it seems to me that it is not really a personal finance blog, it’s more of a “lifestyle design” blog. And, like most lifestyle design blogs, it is all Rah! Rah! Quit Your Job! Travel the World! Move to Thailand! Buy Rental Property! PASSIVE INCOME PASSIVE INCOME PASSIVE INCOME!
Which makes me cower in a corner and cover my head.
Please do not make me travel around the world and own rental property. Please.
I can’t even manage to fix my own house, much less take care of a house I don’t even live in. Every time I take time off to do things around the house I am SO GLAD when I’m done and I get to go back to sitting at my desk figuring things out on my computer. All these people who see rental property as the way to a fabulous future kill me. Man. Total torture.
Also the whole “outsource everything and do your job for four hours a week while travelling the world” is completely not appealing to me. For one, I am a control freak, and therefore find the concept of outsourcing problematic. Also I do not like to travel. With the possible exception of places that I have a prior relationship with (i.e., places I used to live, places I’ve visited often, or places I visited once and enjoyed) or where I have someone I really like a lot who lives there that I can stay with.
I know, weird. But whatever. That is me.
Here are some things in life that I like
1. sleeping in my own bed
2. walking around town and running into people I know
3. going to a restaurant that I’ve eaten at before and had a really good meal, and getting the same thing again. Because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
4. riding my bike for ten, twenty, thirty mile rides and knowing exactly where I am
5. sleeping in my own bed
Did I mention sleeping in my own bed?
Can I just have my nice peaceful life here in North Carolina? Is that okay? I will even pay extra to get my wisdom teeth removed by my friendly local oral surgeon up the street, instead of going to Thailand or Costa Rica for it. (This is especially useful if a week later you get dry socket, you can just go up the street and get that taken care of, and again six weeks later when you get an infection, you can also get that taken care of right in your own neighborhood.)
A lot of these blogs, when I read them, I wonder if these are real people. People who move to Thailand and write ebooks about location-independent lives and make a living off their blogs. Do people really do this?
Do they like it?
I read blogs like that and it makes me think that I’m just not cut out to be a blogger. Because all I have to write about is things like hanging my laundry and mowing the lawn.
And sleeping in my own bed.
Because that is my life.
There you have it.
Friday, October 18, 2013
[Ed. Note: Last year around this time, I wrote a post that referenced an essay by Umberto Eco, published in the collection How to Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays. Below is something I wrote just afterwards, but then didn't post because after writing it, decided that it wasn't relevant to anything, and, in the end, I wasn't sure what the point was. But I'm doing a little computer housekeeping and I just read it again. And I decided not to worry about whether it is relevant, or whether it has a point. It poses an interesting question. I like it. That is enough.]
The essay in Umberto Eco’s How to Travel with a Salmon that follows “How to Eat Ice Cream” is also great. It’s called “How It Begins, and How It Ends,” and, like “How to Eat Ice Cream,” seemed to speak directly to some of the themes I’ve been thinking about and writing about lately — specifically the idea of what brings happiness.
The essay is about how when he was a scholarship student at university, he and his friends learned that they could bribe the usher for admission to films and plays, but the dorms were locked at midnight, so they had to leave before the end of the show in order to get home in time.
“And so it was,” Eco writes, “that, over a four-year period, I saw the theatrical masterpieces of every time and place, except for their last ten minutes.”
He talks about all of the things he doesn’t know — “if Othello punched up Iago before setting off on a second honeymoon, if the imaginary invalid’s health improved, if everyone threw rice after Romeo and Juliet, and who was Bunbury” — and thought he was the only one who suffered from this problem. But then he happened to have a conversation with an old friend who, as it turned out, “suffered from the same anguish in reverse.”
As a student, his friend had worked at a theater run by students and had taken tickets at the door, but because many people arrived late, it was always the start of the second act by the time he was able to slip into a seat and begin watching the production.
Well to make a long story short, Paolo and I exchanged confidences. And we discovered that a splendid old age lies before us. Seated on the front steps of a country house or on a bench in the park, for years we will tell each other stories: he, endings; I, beginnings, amid cries of amazement at every discovery of prelude or catharsis.
He runs through some of the things they will learn, about Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear.
Missing the beginning or end of a story would always seem like something to be avoided — of course you would want to know the whole story. But Eco ends the essay with an intriguing question:
Will we be happier afterwards? Or will we have lost the freshness of those who are privileged to experience art as real life, where we enter after the trumps have been played, and we leave without knowing who’s going to win or lose the game?
Sunday, August 25, 2013
After I graduated college and found my first job, the final order of business for my parents to launch me into adulthood was to get me set up with a car. The arrangement they offered was to make a down payment on the new vehicle of my choice and to co-sign on a loan for the balance, with payments of around two hundred dollars a month for three years. (The amount of the down payment would depend on the amount of the car and the interest rate of the loan. Implicit in this arrangement was the idea that the car I picked out would be reasonable. No Maseratis.)
[And for the record, if you are a car-buying kind of family and can afford this, I think this is a great strategy. Your kids go through the car-buying process to learn how that works, they get to start life with a good, reliable car that is unlikely to start having mechanical problems for quite some time, and by paying off the loan, they get a credit history. Also they feel like they earned the car, it wasn't given to them, because they are paying for it every month for three years. It's always better to earn things yourself than to be given them.
And then once they are done with the car loan, they can save the money they've been paying on the note for something else. My mom pointed this out to me once, she said, "When you're done paying the loan, you can save that two hundred dollars a month for the down payment for your next car." And I said, "Okay," while thinking, "But I have a car, why would I need a new one?"]
So that was the deal.
We went out car shopping and I test drove a bunch of different cars and liked some and didn’t like some and the car I ended up selecting was a black Mazda 323 with an “off-black” interior. (I remember this detail because I told a friend about it, and he said, “Hmm, off-black … Would that be … gray?”)
I took possession of the car in September 1989 and packed it up and drove it off to my new life in Princeton, New Jersey, with pretty much everything I owned stuffed inside. (One of the nice things about the car was that it fit much more than you would think, the trunk was positively huge, and the seats folded down giving you a very large interior space.) My parents brought the leftovers with them a few months later when they came for a visit, and then I really did have everything I owned with me.
The picture above is from my parents’ visit in the fall of 1989, I think in October. I’m standing with the car, in all its shiny newness, with my mom (and my housemate’s Volvo) in the background. The car is parked in front of the house I lived in, which was a very beautiful old farmhouse built in the 1700s. It had a little plaque on the door that identified it as the Bernardus Van Zandt House.
[In case you are wondering about the house, at that time it was split into two parts, the upper left quadrant of the house, top three windows in the picture, was a separate apartment. I sublet a small bedroom for four-hundred dollars a month, utilities included, from the person who rented the main part of the house. For the first year or so that I lived there, Susan and I were the only people living there -- plus one standard poodle, named Daisy, who was a very smart and funny dog -- and Susan was gone most of the time. The whole process of finding a place to live in Princeton was an ordeal, but it turned out okay in the end.]
On Friday, August 23, 2013, I sold the car. Which I had had in my possession, and driven as my primary vehicle, the entire time, for almost exactly twenty-four years.
It still drove great and got great gas mileage, and I probably would have driven it for the rest of my life, except that last year, I got a new car.
This is my new car.
The Miata belonged to my Auntie Fran, who passed away in December 2011. Through a slightly complicated series of events that I will spare you the details of, I ended up with the car.
It is a 1990 and had just over 41,000 miles on it when I picked it up at my parents’ house last August. Prior to that, it had spent its whole life on an island (Lopez, in the San Juan Islands of Washington State) and was not my aunt’s primary vehicle. There’s not really anywhere to go on Lopez, it’s hard to put a lot of miles on a car that you just drive around the island for fun.
My aunt liked sporty cars. I remember she drove an MG for a while when I was young, and then later had a white Jaguar with a red leather interior that was very beautiful, but was forever going into the shop.
One of the reasons I am enjoying driving the Miata is because it reminds me of my aunt, the fun and interesting things about her.
Since I picked up the Miata last year, I’ve had two cars. Now, I barely even need one car, I certainly don’t need two. And the thing about driving is that it’s mostly instinctive. You get in your car and do what you do. You don’t think about it.
After I got the Miata, and still had the 323, I would switch back and forth between the cars, sometimes drive the Miata and sometimes the 323. I quickly realized that this was a bad idea. The cars are similar in many ways — they are both Mazdas, both made around the same time, both stick shift — but the way they drive is completely different.
The Miata is a sports car. It is very low to the ground. It has good pickup, and can take turns at high rates of speed. It is designed for zipping around.
The 323, to say the least, is not.
I would find myself driving along in the 323 doing what I’m doing and inadvertently making very bad decisions. I would see a yellow light where I was turning left and think that I could make it, no problem. But I wouldn’t have enough pickup to get to the light in the time I thought, and then I was going much too fast for the turn. Whooaahh….
Made things exciting. But I was like okay I think this is not going to work.
Also once I started driving a nice, solidly built car with less than 50,000 miles on it, my 323 started to feel like a tin can. I noticed all of the quirks, all of the rattles, all of the broken things. Not to mention that I had to pay to register and insure it, and I still had to maintain it and put gas in it.
I knew it was time.
It was time to find the 323 a new home.
I thought about donating it but the first organization I contacted did not get back to me after I told them how many miles it had on it (for the record, 162,345, not bad for a twenty-four year old car). So then I reached out to friends to see if anyone knew someone in the market for a sweet, reliable, little used car. (I said I felt like I was trying to find a new home for an aging pet.)
A friend I used to work with said she might know someone. She put us in touch, we emailed, they came and took the car for a test drive, I gave the prospective buyer my printout from the database I kept with all of the work I’d ever done on it from 1989 to the present.
She was smitten.
She had lost her car last year in a wreck in the middle of Kansas while driving with a friend to Burning Man. Her friend was driving, she was sleeping in the back seat, it was raining, they got sideswiped by a semi. The car was totalled. (Fortunately, neither of them was seriously injured.) She works for an artists’ collaborative in Greensboro called Elsewhere, where no one gets paid hardly anything, they’re like indentured servants there. She hadn’t been able to find a good car at a price she could afford. I agreed to sell her the car for a hundred dollars.
I delivered the car to her on Friday. Earlier in the week, I took it for an oil change and a once-over by a mechanic to make sure it all looked okay. (It did.) Before I dropped it off, I filled the tank with gas. (When I told her it had a full tank of gas, she said, “Oh my gosh, you’re like my fairy godmother!”)
She has a new car now. This is its new home (though not its new owner, just some folks enjoying the window swings).
I think it will like it there. So much more interesting than my house.
I texted a friend after I delivered the car, telling her I’d sold it. I said, “The person who bought the car is WAY more excited to have it than I’ve been about that car in a long time.”
So that is all good.
I no longer have to worry about taking care of a car I don’t need, and someone who didn’t have a car is completely thrilled to have it.
But right now it still feels really weird to not have that car in my life.
Saturday, August 10, 2013
I recently purchased an Android phone (but not a permanent phone plan — possible future post coming about The Sometimes Phone, a long-awaited and finally realized dream).
The phone part I can take or leave, but I liked having a camera in my pocket wherever I went on my last trip.
One thing I noticed is that having a camera with you all the time serves to highlight what you find interesting. You see something and think, oh I should take a picture of that.
Having a camera with me all the time has highlighted for me the fact that I have a small fascination with signage. I guess it makes sense, I’m someone who spends a lot of time trying to explain things to people; of course I might find it interesting to see what other people do when they are trying to explain things in as few words as possible.
It turns out that I especially like oddly specific signs.
Like this one.
I don’t know, it just seems so … thorough. Like anyone who suddenly found themselves in front of that door and didn’t know what to do was totally covered. It’s okay, honey, here’s what you do.
If only every door we ever found ourselves in front of was so accommodating.
Sunday, June 9, 2013
I lost my cell phone in September.
I somehow managed to lose my cell phone after having it in my car, and before leaving my house again. I know I had it in the car, I did not leave the car between when I had it and when I got home, except to go into my house. It did not turn up in my car. It did not turn up in my house. I took that as a sign from God that I should no longer have a cell phone. I’ve missed it maybe twice since then. (Though I have a trip coming up that might be complicated so I guess we’ll have to see how that turns out.)
One of the things that people say a lot when talking about new technology — usually in a breathless, incredulous voice — is, “How did we ever live without this??”
The answer is that when you didn’t have that technology, you wouldn’t have tried to do a lot of the things you try to do now. You wouldn’t go to a concert with 20,000 people with vague plans to meet up with friends at some point during the day. You just wouldn’t. You would set up specific plans, with multiple levels — I’ll meet you at one o’clock at the west entrance. If I’m not there, then we’ll meet at two-thirty at the concession stand where we usually get popcorn. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll just see you at the bar afterwards.
You would agree to something and then all parties would attempt to do that thing. And it would work out, usually. And if it didn’t, no problem, because you wouldn’t have made everything dependent on this thing that had all kinds of uncontrollable variables and might not work the way it was supposed to.
You would just do something else, it would be fine.
Also people had different kinds of infrastructure that were replaced by later technologies.
In the memoir of her life that my Aunt Blanche wrote, she talked about how her family and their close friends who lived next store, before the advent of telephones, would hang a dish towel out the window if they had something to tell the other person.
You’ve got mail.
Prior to the advent of ubiquitous communication, you would also sometimes end up with unexpected free space.
I remember one of the last trips I took without a cell phone, when someone needed to change plans at the last minute because they were under the weather. I didn’t get the message because I’d already left the place I was staying by the time they called, so I showed up at their house at the appointed time. Then I felt bad that they were sick and there I was anyway.
I had plans later that afternoon, but no phone to set up something else in this newly opened gap. So I went to a park down the street and sat in the grass for a few hours and napped and read a book until it was time to go meet my other friend who I was getting together with in the afternoon. It was lovely.
And it made me think about the tradeoffs with continuous communication devices.
Having a way to receive information continuously is great, you can make plans at the last minute and change things around if you need to. You always know what’s going on. You can be maximally productive, if something opens up, quick, you can set up something else. No wasted time, no wasted space.
But what does it mean to waste time?
I sat in the grass and read a book and watched the bikers and joggers go past, and looked at the water in the Potomac River. I remember so much about that day, because it was so beautiful, and such a vacation from my usual trips where I have things packed together, trying to get together with two or three or four different groups of people every day, moving from one thing to the next to the next.
Having no cell phone makes it hard to coordinate a lot of different things in a single day, especially if anything changes. But is that bad?
The immediate cause of this line of thinking was because I took Friday off from checking messages entirely, and thus missed the message that told me I didn’t have to be at work on Saturday at seven-thirty after all, I didn’t have to be there until nine o’clock. So I went to work an hour and a half early.
Oh well. I sat and read the New Yorker for an extra hour and a half. Poor me.
And this made me think about a time when I lived in DC, when I played soccer, and the pre-season tournament we were playing in was moved from a field out near Manassas to a field near Fort Belvoir. These fields were both a pain in the keister to get to, and they were nowhere near each other. The field change came the morning of the tournament.
This was in 1994 or 1995, when a few people I knew had pagers, but no one had a mobile phone. If you needed to talk to someone you called them at home or at work.
We were able to get in touch with everyone except one person who was taking a class in the morning and then going to the games straight from there. She was planning on missing the first game but would be there for the rest of the afternoon.
She lived with her parents and she worked like eighty hours a week, so she wasn’t the easiest person to get in touch with in the first place. She only played with our team occasionally but she was really, really, really good. She was also a really great person. I did not want her to drive out to Manassas and find herself at an empty soccer field, with no indication of what had happened. I knew she would never play with us again if that happened, and I would feel really terrible about the wasted time and gas and everything. I just did not want that to happen.
I had to figure something out.
I talked to the person who knew her, who had called and found out she was at a class. I said where is the class? She said, “It’s at Georgetown.”
My brother went to Georgetown for undergrad, and I had taken a continuing education class there, so I knew the basic layout and I knew that there wasn’t a lot of parking there, there was really only one main lot.
I said, “Find out what kind of car she’s driving.” So Tegan called Michelle’s dad back and got a detailed description of the car.
I drove to the parking lot where I thought it might be and drove around looking for the car. I found the car. I put a note on the windshield — “MICHELLE, Today’s games have been moved from Linton Hall to FORT BELVOIR!! See you there!!!” I drew a map of where the fields were.
I went to the games.
Michelle managed to find us after the first game. I saw her, I said, “You made it!” She was like who put the note on my car, was that you? I said it was. She said, “Oh my gosh, that was amazing!”
And it’s true. It was. But it wasn’t that hard, I just had to think of it in the first place.
So my point is, if you want to make something happen, you can make it happen, and there are a million options for making something work. If the most obvious choice (just call them on the phone!) isn’t going to work, think of something else.
Hang a dish towel out the window.
I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who considered driving around a parking lot at Georgetown looking for someone’s car to be a viable option, but I was right, it was, and it worked. Michelle got the message, she made it to the games, she played with my team for two more years, and we all lived happily ever after.
Humans are a creative species. That’s what your brain is for.
Figure it out.