Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Friday lovely as a Tree

This is the view from my bedroom window, at least as it appeared the day after Thanksgiving.
I don't often get to look out this window in the daylight in the winter, so my post-Thanksgiving window meditations got me all Sgt. Joyce Kilmer-y.

I love the look of trees in winter.  There are so many more branches than you'd think, so many more than you'd ever draw into a picture.  The trees are an amazing network of abundance.  My running buddy spent a recent Saturday morning unloading nine hundred (900!) Christmas trees off of trucks and into her nursery, and she tells me how surprised she was that the trees were not as heavy as she feared they'd be.  There's a lot of wood in a tree, but there's a lot of space in a tree, too.

In spite of their lightness, or perhaps because of it, trees are strong.  Even when their leaves are gone, there are so many boughs/branches/stems/twigs that the trees are almost hairy with wood.  They carry not only their own weight, but also the weight of what nature throws at them.  "Upon their bosom snow has lain; they intimately live with rain" says Kilmer, and you can see that the recent rain and snow has collected in these branches, that the ground under the trees is still grassy instead of snowy.  The trees, which look on God all day, lift their bare but water-logged arms to pray.

It's a lovely metaphor for my after-Thankgiving day.  In some ways, I did so much: so so much.  I canned turkey stock, prepared for my last weeks of teaching, ran a few miles with my husband, wrote letters, celebrated Tuba Christmas downtown with my daughters.  But it was also an airy day, with space for a rare mid-morming nap (when I could look at the trees though the blue-gray light of morning), a day when I could pretend I am retired already, a day when at times I teetered on the edge of being bored.

It was also a day of cleaning up.   The incredible collection of pots and pans, each one of them a reminder of a different delicious kind of food, gathered together in the kitchen for a giant soap-and-hot-water party.  (The dog of course got to help with the first round of clean up).  Even cleaning is not that bad when there is space for it -- space in the kitchen, and space in the calendar.  Like the trees, I'm soaking up this abundance around me, lifting my soapy hands to pray.

There's something wonderful about green leaves, but it's in the winter, when the crazy throng of leaves have fallen away, that you get to see the structure and skin of the trees.   It's the same aspect I love about a quiet weekend, when the meetings and memos have fallen away, where I can peer past the foliage and get a quiet glimpse of the intricacies in my own life.

Silver bark of beech, and sallow
Bark of yellow birch and yellow
Twig of willow.

Stripe of green in moosewood maple,
Colour seen in leaf of apple,
Bark of popple.

Wood of popple pale as moonbeam,
Wood of oak for yoke and barn-beam,
Wood of hornbeam.

Silver bark of beech, and hollow
Stem of elder, tall and yellow
Twig of willow.

by Edna St. Vincent Millay 
Counting-Out Rhyme

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Impersonal Finance

This is a blog post I've started about 57 times and then trashed 56 times.  I can't quite figure out an elegant or kind way to begin, so everything that follows is riddled with vast imperfections.  But perhaps this latest version is good enough to share.  Fifty seventh time is the charm, so they say . . .

Here's the general gist:  I love the personal finance genre.   But I hate the phrase "personal finance".

The "personal" that kicks off the phrase "personal finance"  can be selfish (at worst) and tunnel-visioned (at best).  The very word "personal" shoves us relentlessly into ourselves.  By implication, it distracts us from all of those obligations that tether us to noble aspects beyond ourselves.   The phrase "personal finance" seems so much smaller-minded than "philanthropy finance",  or "social justice finance", or "environment finance", or other (as far as I can tell) non-existent genres of finance advice.  If you want to read about financial planning that places you and your money in service to a Higher Cause, PF ain't it.  The phrase "personal finance" evokes images of individualism, not of connections.

So, are my favorite personal finance authors selfish, self-centered hermits?  No, not by any means.

My favorite authors are my favorite authors in large part because of how much they care about justice, or mercy, or ecological sustainability, or the transcendent.  As just one for-example, Joe Dominguez of Your Money or Your Life turned my life around.  He is probably the most widely read personal finance author of the past few decades, and he spent much of his life donating both his money and time to helping others.  But even in his book, the idea of being able to help others was seen to be almost an afterthought---a kind of a side effect---that comes from achieving financial independence.  The spotlight of his book shone on the idea of independence; the notions of charity and service stood to the side and got only a second-hand halo.

But what if your goal of finance is bigger than just personal?  What if it's not just about you and yours?  What if it's about more than just getting out of (your own) debt?  About more than (your own) retirement?  About more than (your own) independence?

I can't think of the phrase I'd use to describe what I actually mean; that's part of why this is version number 57 of this essay.  In my own head, the perfect phrase would describe that I want to use my money and time not just to take care of my own needs (although that's part of it), but that I also become a force for good in the larger world.  But every phrase I actually try seems too new-age-y.  Last week in church, one of the deacons mentioned that "genesis" and "generosity" have the same etymological roots, and I started mulling over the idea of "Regenerative Finance", imagining that I was tending my finances to be a fertile field for many, a kind of a compost pile of financial planning.  It might look like mucky dirt, folks, but it's really black gold.

The questions of "Personal Finance" and "Fertile Finance"--or whatever the heck it ought to be called--are probably largely the same.

What the heck, the answers are probably largely the same, too.  (Spend less than you earn; keep track of where your money goes; be prepared for emergencies).

But even if you wind up in close to the same place at the end, it's a different mindset to believe that your money is in service not just to you, but also to something bigger than you are.
  • Can you save money by showering at the gym instead of at home?  (The money for the showers at the gym come from somewhere, after all -- does that matter to you?)
  • How do you deal with people who "borrow" things of yours and don't give them back?  (The story of the person who has your waffle iron might be an important part of your final answer, just maybe.)
  • Do you donate money to charity now, or wait until you're retired/wealthy?  (Wisdom always has to matter on this question, right?  But I think it's important to keep asking myself the question over and over, to let it nag at me.  And sometimes to let it inspire me.) 
Which I guess leads me back to where I started, which is that I love the personal finance genre.  It's awfully hard to take care of the entire world if you can't even take care of yourself.  So here's a big Thank You to my favorite bloggers for being the voices that I love to read every morning:  for giving me inspiration and ideas, and for connecting me to a world bigger than myself.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Update on our (non) adoption

About three years ago, my husband and I went down to Haiti to visit a young teenaged boy that our friend met on a missions trip; we thought we might want to adopt him.

The adoption fell through, but my friend and I still send him some financial support.  Basically, we pay for his schooling and for his school clothes.  More on that, below.  

We just got a letter from the missionary who visited him most recently.  Here's that letter.

I was so blessed to spend time with [X-son] . . .  
Here is a photo of him and his mom. I saw him several times and tried to explain things to him. He would love to see you both. If it is all possible I would encourage you to go to Haiti and visit him. We had him to dinner at Club Indigo as well as saw him at My friend E's home.  
He is doing well. He goes to Mario's school. It is a Haitian school. A poor school.  I cannot promise the quality of education but he is happy. He lives with his mom. Life is hard. There is no running water or electric in their area. All water must be carried a long distance. There supposedly is a truck that brings water but if you do not have money to pay, you do not get water. 
He wrote you a letter and gave you a photo which I will mail to you. They are such a fine family. Just know he is disappointed but is happy. 
Thanks for all you do.
Here are some other random details.  Several people have asked us about adopting a kid who already has a mom -- what did she think about this idea?  Well, like many in Haiti, she has very little money and at many times didn't have enough to feed herself, much less her son.  When my friend first met X-son, in fact, he was living in an orphanage because she couldn't support him.  She would have been very happy for him to come with us, apparently.  (Actually, come to think of it, the majority of my children have moms elsewhere).

Figuring out how to get money to X-son in a way that it would do good and no harm was tough.  (You might just imagine that giving a big pile o' cash to a teenage boy could have one or two negative consequences, right?)  So we give money to a group that does missions work in Haiti--the same group that visited him and sent this note and picture.  They pay the school directly and  they help him buy clothes.   I'm going to ask them about ways to get X-son and his mom money for water (sheesh).

My friend and I, together with people on the ground in Haiti, had a long back-and-forth discussion about which school to send X-son to.  While he was living at Annie's orphanage and preparing for the adoption, he'd gone to an American school that was (apparently) quite nice.  But the director of the school told us that, once the adoption fell through, she thought the Haitian school was better for him -- for one thing, his English skills were weak enough still that the American school would require many more years to graduate; for another, because of the different curricula the Haitian school  prepared him for life in Haiti better.


How do I think about this situation above?  Obviously, it makes me feel like a total ingrate for complaining about anything at all in my own life, and simultaneously it reminds me to be glad for little things like (say) light switches that work and toilets and tap water.  Oh, and paved roads where I can ride a bike.  And paper.

I also get a guilty stab-in-the-heart for that last line: "thanks for all you do".  Because I sent less money down to Haiti this year than I sent to, say, our cell phone company this month.  Because the chasm between what I could do and what I do do stretches so wide before me.

But also, I am gladdened.   Because X-son does get to live with his mom again.  And even if life is hard, he does seem happy.  And the story isn't over yet; I get to remain a part of his life, which is possibly a little bit better than it would have been if my friend K hadn't introduced us.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Lightbulb Bureaucracy

LED lightbulbs are expensive at first, but save money eventually.

Well, that's the spiel, and I actually believe it, somewhat.  But I believe it with a bit of careful skepticism.  And so, here, I'm going to talk about how I administrate my lightbulbs (if that phrase makes sense).

I've been buying LED lightbulbs from our nearby hardware store.  Because I want at least 1000 lumens (the equivalent of 75-to-100 watt lightbulbs from the old days), the bulbs are pricey -- about $25 per bulb, on average.  (Yoicks!)   The theory is that LED light bulbs are supposed to last a VERY long time, and thereby save me gobs of money.  But the practice is that I already had one bulb burn out after about 7 months.  And fixing a $25 bulb every year or so could be expensive, even if the associated energy costs are low.

An LED lightbulb is supposed to last a long time.  It has some kind of a long-term warranty, which is useful if you actually keep track of details of acquisition and installation.  Keeping track can be tricky.

So here's what I do.

1.  I've started saving my lightbulb receipts in an envelope that I store together with my lightbulbs, not with the rest of my receipts.  Honestly, I think this is pretty clever.
I now keep an envelope like this . . . 
. . . in this box in my linen closet, which is where I store my light bulbs.

2.  I write the date on the lightbulb itself, using a sharpie, when I install it.
This is the most recent light bulb I've installed -- October 2014.
If it does burn out, at least I'll know for sure when I first screwed it in.
That's how I know that the lightbulb that burned out in my son's bedroom just last month was first installed eight months earlier (February 2014).

So when J-son came to tell me that the light in his bedroom had burned out, here's what we did.  I unscrewed it, and saw (because of the sharpie markings) that I'd installed it in February. I found the receipt from January, and my husband took the receipt and bulb back to the hardware store.

And just like that, we got a new lightbulb -- not exactly the same, but pretty much equivalent-- for free.  phew!

Moral of the story:   I'm going to start thinking harder about keeping my receipts where I'd start looking if I actually need them, not in a giant envelope with all my many other receipts.

Storing my receipts by use, instead of by date, might make more sense.   

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Great green globs of . . .

. . . greasy grimy gopher guts!  That was what was in my frying pan on Friday night.
(Well, actually -- shhh! -- it was noodles with bok choy, peanut butter and soy sauce).  We also broke out the Zombie Eyeballs (deviled eggs), plus Salted Rat Brains . . .
. . . which look suspiciously like cauliflower, don't they?   And new to our Halloween menu was Monkey Skulls.  A huge hit!
Carving peppers and stuffing is a heck of a lot easier than carving pumpkins, fyi.  The faces sag a bit after cooking, but I think that makes the dinner even more ghoulish, yes?.  But if you freeze them for a week because your daughter happens to get suddenly married on the day you had first planned to eat them, then they take a VERY long time to defrost.  Icy Monkey Skulls are not as tempting a delicacy as Hot Monkey Skulls.
Halloween dinner is still fun a week late.  And when the kids see a menu of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts and Salted Rat Brains, and all they ask is "Where are the cockroaches?", then you know you've got a tradition on your hands.

p.s. We didn't make cockroaches this year.  Maybe next year we'll bring them back.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sorry, Charlie! (more adventures in minimalism)

I got an email the other day from a colleague I admire.  She began the email this way:
I think you may have thought I was running away from you this morning
...because I was.
You're probably not aware of this (because I've never mentioned it to you before)...but there is a scent you sometimes use that I'm allergic to.  It's much worse for me in the morning and I was afraid that if I stuck around, I'd cough and sneeze in [someone's] class, so I rushed off to avoid that . . .
When I read this letter and saw the word "scent", my immediate reaction was about body stink.  With two teenage boys in the house, our family spends a heck of a lot of time managing BO.  My knee-jerk reflex was to think I'd bombed out on the shower department. Ewww.

But then I realized the problem wasn't insufficient hygiene; in fact it was the opposite.  The culprit was a bottle of perfume I'd bought several years ago.   I was a perfume perpetrator.  
Now, I've read in various places about people who are allergic to perfume.  For a long time, I've worn occasional perfume wondering whether I ought to just give it up.

But on the other hand, this particular bottle was a more than just a bottle.  In the way that the things we own sometimes take on extra meaning and begin to own us, this particular perfume bottle had become a memory:  a gleeful memory of finding it on sale at a super low price ($5, I think) and of buying enough for both me and my friend Kristie, a go-for-the-gusto friend of mine who passed away from cancer about 6 months after this particular perfume purchase.  So this bottle of perfume was a symbol also of living life exuberantly, of honoring my long-lost Diva of a friend.

Which, honestly, is pretty silly.  Because Kristie didn't want to make people sick; she wanted to make life a giant celebration of festivity.   And in the back of my mind, I'd known that my perfume habit made me into a walking allergy attack for unknown strangers -- and now I even knew the names of one of my victims.

So, my morning routine has gotten one step shorter.  The perfume is gone.  Sorry, Charlie.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Just a drip off the old faucet

My dad (whom I've written about before) sent his daughters an email recently, telling us all about how he fixed a leaky faucet.  Wow, this story is so like our family!  I love how he ends the letter with a moral (or actually, two morals).  And I love this reminder that skills count, and so does the willingness to learn new skills and take on hard work, even nearly eight decades into life.

Here's his letter.

When we first moved into our new home, one of the faucets in the Master Bathroom showed a small drip.  I could not figure out a way to take this particular faucet handle apart, and so we called a plumber.  That plumber told me that the faucet had frozen shut and needed to be replaced, but also pointed out that the drip was from water stored in the faucet, and went away if one waited long enough.

Fast forward 8 months.  The cold water faucet handle on [my wife's] side stopped being functional.  One could turn the handle around and around but it had no effect on the water flow.  We valved off the cold water from below and called a different plumbing company.  This plumber took the handle apart ( I learned something) and showed me all the interior parts (among which were two gears and two screws).  The plumber told me the threads were stripped and the only solution was to replace all four faucet handles, since the handles were no longer made, and we would want them all to match.  This would cost approximately $1,500.  He charged $45 for his visit, which was very reasonable for one hour of plumber time.

We immediately looked into other faucets and other plumbers, and got the price down to approximately $700.  We order the new faucets and a new plumber.  Since the new plumber could  schedule only for two weeks hence, I decided to attempt a temporary fix with some glue.  I took the offending faucet apart and carefully examined the parts.  I could observe no stripped threads, but I did notice a loose set screw, which could be tightened with a number 3 metric hex wrench, which I had. I adjusted the height of the handle by 1 mm by grinding down the base with my grinding wheel and now the faucet works fine.  And it only cost $45.

We cancelled the new faucet order and the plumber.

Morals of this story.  First, do not always trust a supposed expert who wants to sell you something.  Second, it may be hard to pull the wool over the eyes of an experimental physicist.


Saturday, November 1, 2014

K-daughter gets married

For a few weeks now, K-daughter had been letting her family know she and her guy were getting ready to "elope".  On Tuesday, I got this message from her, explaining why she wouldn't be coming to the annual family Halloween Dinner:
We now have our license and are ready to go for friday! Yay!
However, we ran into a snag. The JP judge who was supposed to marry us is not available, so we got a nearby minister to marry us. Unfortunately, he is only available from 5:30 pm on. We have booked him for 5:30 pm. We are still deciding on the venue, but I think we are going to decide on Italian Lake in [nearby city]. I know that the Halloween dinner is scheduled, so I am not expecting you to be there, however, I am extending the invite to you guys anyway. :) 
Well, to heck with the Halloween Dinner, then!   Instead, my husband and I offered to arrange the after-wedding dinner at a nearby restaurant.  We dressed up (some of us in Halloween costumes, because really) and drove on over to Nearby City.

My camera stinks.  There are better pictures somewhere, but this is what I got.
K-daughter and I-daughter (dressed as Belle) walk to the site of the ceremony.

N-son bounces along happily next to his sisters.
The ceremony itself probably lasted 7 minutes.
Just enough time for some of us to shed a few happy tears.

Groom and bride
Congratulations to my new son-in-law and to my wonderful daughter!