Thursday, December 16, 2010

7 Web Sites to Help You Become Someone Else

Okay, I'm not referring you to fake ID sites.  But most of us daydream about the what-ifs - a teacher who wishes to become an author,  or jettisoning the corporate world for a small farm, that sort of thing, or even just master a style of cooking.  Here are 7 web sites that can help you learn a new skill, even if just for fun:   

1. You want to master Italian cooking
Go here:  Vincent Scordo's blog is nothing short of brilliant, and his recipes are the real deal. Be prepared to develop an arancini addiction.

2. You want to learn how to think like, or become, a CEO
Go talk to Eric.  At the very least you'll be entertained by his narration of his Acela trip to New York City.   I can relate -back in my public transport days, I must have had a sign on my back that read: If you ate too much garlic for dinner last night, and it's eking out  your pores, plus you like to elbow people when you turn the pages of your newspaper, sit next to me!  I really don't miss that.  I'm all for public transport.  Hold the garlic.

3.  You want to be prepared for the Apocalypse, or at least become one of those mountain man types
Actually, some of the articles and information on Backwoods Home's website is quite good.  And if you are looking for an all-camo wardrobe and a 5-year supply of freeze-dried food, these are the folks that can help with that.

4. You want to become a consultant
Years of watching consultants work at your firm have convinced you that the lifestyle is one of travel and glamour.  (PSA: travel is often a yes, glamour not so much)  Go read Consultant Journal.  Good blog, good information.  

5. You want to escape the Rat Race
If you want a career change, or to retire early, there's a lot of web sites out there to help. But the most thoughtful and well-written article I think I've ever read on the topic is here.  For help with executing an early retirement plan, try here.  

6. You want to develop the next cool mobile device app - but don't have unlimited funds
Go here first.  Then do some googling.  Even if you don't, reading Business Insider is a good idea.

7. You want to be the next reality TV star
Think Mike Holmes has nothing on you?  Have more kids and better hair than Kate Gosselin?
Go here to learn how to get the cameras trained on you.  But be careful what you wish for...

Well, there you have it.   Just remember to tell all your future fans that you learned it here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How Does My Garden Grow: 2011 Planning Edition

Today I skipped right past the holidays, ignoring the fact that I still have a gobzillion presents to wrap and baking to do - and ordered some seeds for next year's garden.  

Since I haven't done a full seed order in a couple years, nor have I kept track of the age of my seeds (PSA: most seeds increase, instead of decrease, germination year over year for a period of several years.  Onions and the rest of the allium family are an exception), it was time for a new seed inventory.  I promise to keep better track of this one.

My seed orders have improved over the years.  For one thing, I have a better handle on what we don't have success with, and what will get eaten vs. passed over once picked.  Do not talk to me of the nutritional value of rutabagas - I don't like them, and to paraphrase a former president, I'm 37 years old and I don't have to eat them if I don't want to.  You can mail my portion of rutabagas to the hungry children in Africa, okay? 

I'll even provide the envelope.

So there.

But despite that, I still get sucked into descriptions of French heirloom winter squashes (note to the squeamish, those bumps are created by the sugars in the pumpkin, which means it's sweet and tasty), tomato breeds created by Thomas Jefferson, beans bred by my own ancestors, the Cherokee, and so on.  If it says old and rare, I probably want it.

Because growing Reisentraube tomatoes, Vert Grimmpant melons (don't you just love the name Grimmpant?  If we ever get a pet we're totally naming him or her Grimmpant.  If I get my way, that is.), and Yok Kao cucumers is totally cool.  Would you like some Bleu of Solaise lettuce?  Doesn't it sound like it needs to be in a salad with blue cheese, candied walnuts and maple-roasted pears?

I do.  But maybe I'm just hungry.

We'll also grow some things the adorable one can enjoy - she's already planted last year's garden with us, and has become an expert at raspberry picking.  We can't seem to convince her to wait until the tomatoes are actually ripe to pick them, but what's a few cherry tomatoes sacrificed on the alter of learning to love being outdoors?  So this year we'll add miniature pumpkins, birdhouse gourds, and more annual flowers.  All the flowers, too, are old school - sweet peas, bachelor's buttons, love-in-a-mist, pansies, bells of ireland, and my personal favorite: 

                                                   Kiss me over the garden gate. 
                                                   The name says it all, does it not?

When the adorable one is a little older, say, in a year, we'll add Four O'Clocks too, and I'll read her the poem by my favorite unlikely poet about the naughty Four O' Clocks who refused to have their faces washed.  

We're also going to add apricot trees, a couple Cornelian cherry trees, and some blackberries.    I'd like to put in more apples and some peach trees, but we have to take down some trees first.   
I'd love to have some nut trees too, but space and the layout of our land do not permit it at the moment.

Oh well.

I'm in no rush for the holidays or winter to be over.  But gardening is important, and not just because I love to do it.  The number of people in this country that are food insecure is rapidly increasing.  Kitchen gardens are one way to solve that problem - perhaps even the best way. 

Chew on this from 1943-45: 

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 20 million victory gardens were planted. Fruit and vegetables harvested in these home and community plots was estimated to be 9-10 million tons, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables. So, the program made a difference.

We grew, during WWII, 9-10 million tons of food in our front and back yards.  

Imagine what knowing we could, with just a few minutes a week, produce 9-10 million tons of fresh food from our back yards would do for our national optimism, which, quite frankly, could do with a bit of a bump.  What it might do for those going hungry.  What it might do for our own health and weight.  Imagine the wonder that kids have when they grow a pumpkin themselves, or make a birdhouse out of a gourd, or run through a field of giant sunflowers.  Imagine it's your kid.

It could happen again - one Quadrato D'asti Rosso pepper at a time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Yes, Madeline, There Really Is a Santa Claus

For weeks now, the back corner of my living room has looked like a department store threw up in there.  So has my guest room, but that's a different Christmas altogether.

For the last several years, Sander and I have 'adopted a family' for the holidays, through Beverly Bootstraps, a local food pantry and outreach organization.  For the last two years, my in-laws have joined us, and basically doubled our ability to provide Christmas for a needy family.

The lists are heartbreaking.   Sizes for coats and shoes, needs for mittens and hats and underwear described.  This year the family that my parents 'got' had a little boy who needed a blanket for his bed.  I can only desperately hope his family doesn't wait until Christmas to give it to him. All too often, these are single parents, working and out of work, who can barely break even, and face the reality of having to hold out their hat for a donation or tell their kids that Santa isn't coming this year. 

We go a little overboard on the giving.  Everyone has some 'societal trigger' - something wrong with the world that bothers them more than anything.  For me it's kids being hungry and cold.  I find it utterly inexcusable, and totally frustrating.  It's not that I don't care about the cold and hungry adults- I do.  But kids are powerless to control or change their situations.  Add on top of that the notion that Christmas is the time of year that the discrepancy between children that are 'haves', like my daughter, are in stark relief to the 'have not' children themselves - they know they aren't getting what other kids are -  and that hunger actually affects a child's brain development, and you not only get the short term pain of no presents under the tree, but the long term societal impact of kids who grow into adults that are starting life out 10 steps behind the rest of us.

The shopping and sorting and dropping off has become the marker of my holiday for me.  I love Christmas with my family.  With every decoration we add to the house my daughter's excitement grows palpably.  I love to cook Christmas dinner, and I love the lights and decorations.  Cutting a Christmas tree from the tree farm next door and hauling it home is a favorite tradition.

But that's the fun.  For me, Christmas is knowing that this year, 3 kids and their Mom get to believe Santa Claus is real. 

My husband and my mother-in-law dropped everything off yesterday.  The pile in my living room is gone. 

And so Christmas for me is over, even as it is just beginning. 

This year, Beverly Bootstraps had 75 more applications for their holiday 'adopt a family' program than last year.  I'm happy to say that they covered every single family, and have extras toys to give out to walk-in parents as the season goes on. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Theory of Economic Relativity: The Cost of Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Over the last few weeks, our hot water heater has started acting up.  Some mornings we get water so hot you could cook an egg in the shower on the cool setting.  Other mornings, it's on the lukewarm side at best.

So this week we'll have someone out to look at it.  Could be just a sensor, could be the whole thing is on it's last legs.

I like to be proactive about these things, and not wait until it dies, which will inevitably be on a morning when I'm midway through the shower, with shampoo suds running down my back, and I'm going to be late to a meeting. They say that Alfred Hitchcock turned the water to freezing cold without warning Janet Leigh during the shower scene of Psycho in order to get the appropriate reaction from her, although Leigh denied it.  Still, I've no doubt it would be effective.  There's nothing like an icy blast of water to elicit a shriek.

Water heaters are pricey, but in the realm of home repair, not that big of a deal. Traditional heaters run about $600 plus installation.  Tankless heaters are more expensive, running about $1000 + installation, but much more energy efficient.  If you can afford it, tankless is the way to roll.

But then there is the commitment we made to 'go solar' the minute it became feasible.  A grid-tied solar heating system is really costly, and low on the priority list right now, as it falls behind other big projects that are a tad more urgent, like insulating and residing the house.  But solar hot water is another story.

Solar hot water systems are more expensive than traditional systems.  We haven't yet gotten a quote on one, but let's give a safe estimate of maybe $3000-$3500 to install.  Which is a bunch more than $1000 for a tankless heater.  Still, a recent post on my sister's blog put this into perspective - and I'll quote her quoting her friend:

My friend Pat Meadows, a very, very smart woman, has a wonderful idea she calls “The Theory of Anyway.” What it entails is this – she argues that 95% of what is needed to resolve the coming crises in energy depletion, or climate change, or most other global crises are the same sort of efforts. When in doubt about how to change, we should change our lives to reflect what we should be doing “Anyway.” Living more simply, more frugally, using less, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community, these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels. That they also have the potential to save our lives is merely a side benefit (a big one, though).

So in other words, if solar is the moral choice in our opinion - and it is - we have an obligation to look at implementing it.

Still, the difference (for argument's sake, let's go with a $3200 estimate) in cost is big.  If a tankless heater is $1000 + installation - let's call it $1500, and a solar system is $3200 + installation - let's call it $4k, then that's a $2500 difference in cost. 

Let's say we take advantage of the 30% tax credit that we'd get early next year when we file our taxes.  That brings the cost down to $2700.  Then lets say it saves us $30 on our electric bill for the next 10 years.  That means that at the end of 2020, we've come up with a net profit of $900. 

It's a long haul investment, to be sure.  And it's a bunch of dough out of the gate.  But it has the result of being both the 'anyway' choice and being an economic benefit over many years.  It is one of those places where our morals and our pocketbook get to come together, which is what I call 'economic relativity'. 

What will we do?  Not sure yet.  But I like the fit.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Radical Thinking in the Garden

If you have an extra 5 minutes today, go read this invitation to the Tea Party by Dar Williams. 
It's just brilliant, spot on, absolutely on target.  

If you are still here, here's a little bit to whet your appetite:

"As you might have guessed, I don't want to scrap what you might call big government. I distrust big business more than big government. But often enough the two entities have been bedfellows with silk sheets and matching toothbrushes, so I'm willing to meet you halfway. I'll meet you in a community garden. Community gardens close the loop, decentralize power, and let people help people, addressing issues that differ from region to region. They improve our physical health and increase self-reliance. With greater strength of the community mind and body, we're better able to deflect the buzz and hype of anyone that does not have our best interests at heart. We The People can do that."

Radical thinking at it's best. 

Oh, and if you thought my idea that keeping kids warm, well-fed and safe was a means to a brighter future was idealistic or simplistic, go read this.  Even the Washington Post agrees with me. 

Holidays are the Gateway to Seed Season

Back in the day when my husband and I were in the midst of planning our wedding, which, being a somewhat DIY affair, was a time-intensive undertaking, my older sister gave me some particularly sage advice. 

"The wedding", she said with a wise nod, having done the deed herself a few years back, "is the gateway to the honeymoon". 

And whenever wedding planning got overly time consuming, as fun as it was, we reminded ourselves that it was the ticket to the 11 days we were spending up in the Canadian Rockies hiking and having daily cocktail hours. 

I feel similarly as the holidays approach.  I love the winter holidays.  There's eating, there's parties, there's cutting down a Christmas tree, there's eggnog, and mulled cider, and cookies. Every gathering seems to involve mashed potatoes, and heck, you could invite me to a closet cleaning if you served me mashed potatoes.  Especially if they have cheese in them.

But I digress.

Still, the holidays can be a lot of work.  There's the shopping and wrapping and baking.  Our December weekends seem to book up by mid-June.   And so as the relative chaos grows, and my living room becomes buried under a pile of pine needles and ribbon scraps, I start to look forward to January.  A lot.

Because January is when the seed catalogs arrive.  And so while everyone else is complaining about the dark and the cold (I whine about it too, just with a 2-week lag while I drool over descriptions of pumpkins and tomatoes), I'm curled up on the couch making lists of things to plant, and with drafting paper, planning where the seeds will go.

I always buy too many.  I'm always far more ambitious with the seeds I start than the space I have.  But I love seed season - because it reminds me, in the dark and cold of winter, that soon the snowdrops will peek up over the crusts of snow in the yard, and the ice will, eventually, 4 months later, melt.  

Usually I'm in no rush though.   I'm content to tuck the yard and garden in every year and take the breather that is January-March.  No leaves to rake, no weeding to do, few social demands - it's respite from the endless business of planting, growing and harvesting, the start of every year.  Lots of soup and bread dinners in front of the woodstove.

But I still plot and plan about growing season again.   We all have to choose what we work for.  Some people build things in clay or brick.  I like to build in dirt.   

When the sun rises, I go to work.

When the sun goes down I take my rest,

I dig the well from which I drink,

I farm the soil which yields my food,

I share creation, Kings can do no more.

- Chinese Proverb, 2500 B.C.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hobby Shopping

This past Saturday, my husband and I took a wine making class at Old Sturbridge Village.  We've been wanting to make wine for a long time, and so when news about the class popped up this summer, just as my parents were asking me what I wanted for my birthday, we jumped on it.

On the surface, wine making is pretty simple.  You can pretty much turn anything into wine - fruit, vegetables, stinky athletic socks, whatever.  All you need is water, sugar, fruit (I'm skipping the sweat socks myself, your mileage may vary) and yeast.  A food-grade plastic bucket to ferment it in, a few sterilized glass bottles to rack it in, and food-grade tubing to siphon it with. Listerine makes for a great sterilizing agent for your corks and tubing and that sort of thing.  Rubber gaskets and corks may be the most expensive part of the deal, and those can be reused, albeit carefully.  The bucket can be gotten for the asking from a local restaurant.  Glass bottles can be picked up at a recycling center.  If you plan to strain your ingredients, bleach an old pillow case. 

 Wine making can be dead cheap.  Well, okay, unless you want to make really good wine, then it can get more complicated, and potentially more expensive.  But you can make some pretty good stuff with a minimum of cost and effort.  After all, people have been making wine for thousands of years before you could have frozen grapes shipped from Napa or before a hydrometer was even invented. 

Which brings me to my philosophy around hobbies.  The modern approach to hobbying seems to be an expensive one.  Take biking, or skiing.  Buy expensive, brand-new bike or skis.  Buy matching gear and single-purpose footwear (bike shoes that clip in, say, or $300 ski boots).  Then go out and play, after an investment of considerable money.  By then, of course, playing is serious business.  After all, look at what you have spent!

My personal opinion is that approach is backwards.  First decide if you like to do something, having made the most minimal investment possible, then put your money into it.  Let's take that biking example again.  Borrow, buy on CraigsList, or find on sale an inexpensive bike.  Buy a helmet, since spending $30 is worth not spending your remaining days as a drooling vegetable.  Put on some old sneakers and go for a ride.  Enjoy.

Love it?  Fine, invest.  Padded bike shorts definitely make long rides more pleasant.  Better, lighter bikes are much faster and easier to lug around, and you'll offset the cost by reselling your old bike anyway.  Hate it?  Resell your cheap stuff and make your money back. 

You may not look as fancy, but that isn't the point of a hobby.  The point is to take up something you enjoy.  I can't tell you how many good sets of golf clubs I see at yard sales for a fraction of the cost, after spending a few years gathering dust in the owner's basement. 

Try it first.  Decide if you like it.  Then spend your money.  Chances are you'll make better decisions about what to buy anyway. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Not Exactly E.M. Forster

Do you ever read something someone has written and think "That was perfect.  I might as well just hang up my keyboard right now."

That's how I feel about this blog: The Occasional CEO

I have nothing but admiration for good writing - something I hope someday someone will say about my writing (I'm not there yet and not fishing for compliments.  Really).  Really good writing?  Rare, even in the world of 100 million blogs.  

Eric's blog is simultaneously informative, witty, interesting, and smart.  Go read it.  Do not pass go, do not collect $200.00, skip a day of work if you have to.  Fortunately, reading The Marshmallow Test might only make you 5 minutes late to a meeting.  You might even leave the meeting with a promotion.

Why are you still here, anyway? 

And by the way, if you haven't read A Passage To India, by the man this blog post is named after, get thee to a library.  There are a lot of books out there.   Few are perfect.   This one is.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Are You Allowed To Enjoy Unemployment?

So, my husband is unemployed.   If you've been following along for the last few months, you know this.  

Next month he begins to fall into the category of Long Term Unemployed which has a whole host of negative connotations especially if you listen to certain individuals, who apparently think that those who can't find a job have a host of personal failings the rest of us are immune to, and perhaps should just float away on an ice floe, so as not to continue to bother the rest of us hardworking, morally superior Americans who are employed.

Huh.  I've never quite understood that particular line of thought, and I'm grateful that the people around me don't either.

Unemployment brings out a lot of different emotions during the course of it, especially the type of  unemployment that the current economy has brought about.  It's scary, it's overwhelming, it's filled with uncertainty, it can make people question their own self worth.

But it can also be a lot of fun.

I can hear the lynch mob screaming, even as I type.  "Unemployment should not be fun!  Unemployment is serious business.  These people are taking money from other hardworking Americans!   Unemployment is probably enjoyed only by those people who want a permanent government handout, and prefer to sit on their lazy asses all day!"

Let's ignore those moralizing basilisks for a moment though, while I make another, more important point.

More Important Point:  I do not mean to make light of unemployment.  At all.  It IS scary.  And it makes people who want nothing more than to go to work lose their homes, their savings, and creates food insecurity, which, in a country as bountiful and full of plenty as ours is - well, the fact that people around us can't be sure if they can feed themselves is shameful.  

But I'm a firm believer that you only get one life.   And that life is meant to be enjoyed as much as possible.  Even when money is tight and you don't know what is going to come next.

Money is important.   But when you get right down to it, money is not the value of a human being.

14.9 million people are unemployed. More are coming to join their ranks this December.  And walking around in a state of puritanical misery is neither good for the economy, their individual  job prospects, or their mental and physical health.  Adopting an unemployment hair shirt also teaches the children of said unemployed that money = happiness.

Let me repeat that, because I think it may be the most important thing I have ever written: It teaches their children that money = happiness and lack thereof should = unhappiness.  

Now really, is that the lesson we want the next generation to come away with? 

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is how to have fun on very little.  It's not a gift in the sense that being able to have fun without money is somehow morally superior to having fun with money.  Not at all.  In many ways, it's much easier to have fun with money.  And often I crave the type of fun that money brings.  As we all do.   Nothing wrong with that.


To teach your kids - or yourself - to have fun, and to see adventure even when circumstances are less than ideal gives not only a sense of safety in an uncertain world, but it grants a level of resilience as well.  In other words, having fun is healthy.  Normal.  And really really important.  Let's quantify this - who would you rather hire, the person who is optimistic and hopeful, or the person who walks around pissing and moaning?

Yeah, I thought so.   

So here's the thing: Enjoying unemployment may be the best way to stop being unemployed. Heck, enjoying your life is probably the best way to have a good one under any circumstances.

That doesn't mean you stop looking for a job, or spend lots of money on unnecessary things, but it does mean that perhaps if you are unemployed, you consider doing some of the things you have never had time for - stuff around the house, volunteering, learning a new skill, that sort of thing.  

Life is uncertain by it's nature.  So have a little fun, will ya?

Here are some ways you might go about it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Best Of MoneyPenny

After almost 4 years of blogging erratically, I've written um, a decent number of posts.  Some were good.  Some were bad.  Some were even really really good.

Here's the best of the best, for your reading pleasure:

1. 7 Beliefs That Prevent Wealth
If you aren't accumulating assets, some of your beliefs might be in the way.

2. Poverty Of The Soul
I worry about a society that thinks the amount of money you have equals the quality of you as a person. 

3. About Those HENRYS
High Income, Not Rich Yet people are often confused with the weathy.  Here's my take on HENRYs

4. Peak Oil and Us (You, Me, Everyone) Part 1: What Is It, and Why Do I Care?
What is peak oil?  Why should I care? 

5. How To Prepare For The Apocalypse Part 1
What you need to know, just in case. 

6. To Be or Not To Be Mathematically Optimal
Money is not just about numbers.

7. How To Avoid a Descent Into Madness
What to do when life spins out of control.

8. 12 Goats, 2 Chickens, and a Camel
Negotiation is an art.

9. Plan For The Worst, Hope For The Best
It can keep you out of hot water.

The Real Problem With The Economy

Happy Veteran's Day to me and all the other Vets out there.  Thank you for your service!

Last night as I was driving home, I heard this interview on NPR.  Paul Auster has a new book out, and it's about, amongst other things, home loss due to foreclosure. 

I'd been thinking about the economy again during my ride home.  It's something that I, along with many of my fellow Americans, think about a lot these days.  And something the author said during the interview hit me square in the chest. 

Auster says that home is a place where you should feel absolutely safe. "It's the place where you don't really have to defend yourself," the author says, speaking from his Brooklyn brownstone. "I think that's the idea everyone holds in his head, is that this is the place you are welcome no matter what you've done, no matter how rocky things have become for you. And unfortunately not everyone has this refuge."

And I got it.  For the first time I could put into words why we as a nation have gone from hopeful to perpetually anxious in the last nine years.
We don't feel safe

Too many CEOs enhance their profit margins by cutting jobs instead of, oh, I don't know, making something good.  And we're complicit in this one too - cheering as our stock value rises, even as our colleagues are packing up their desks.  It's just business, right?

We don't feel safe in our jobs.  It's no longer a matter of how hard you work.

Too many of us have watched someone go from the top of the world to the bottom.  One of my colleagues watched his neighbor, a highly paid exec, lose his job, be out of work for 2+ years, and then the house, the retirement funds, all of it - because few, if any, of us can last forever without income.

We don't feel safe in our homes.  It feels risky to have a mortgage, it's just one more exposure.

Too many of us have watched our 401ks and IRAs lose value, or just hold steady, over and over again.

We don't feel safe for retirement.  It's almost certain that a huge percentage of the population will not be able to sustain themselves.

In short, the places that are supposed to be safe are now areas of deep insecurity. 

I grew up poor.  Subsidized housing for the first few years of my life, actually.  And it has far-reaching impacts on many areas of your life when you grow up without.  

1 in 5 kids right now is growing up in poverty.  The impacts, both long-term and short are well-documented. Being hungry or cold or perpetually worried shortens the focus.  Instead of keeping one's eyes on goals, one's eyes become focused on much shorter term things- enough clothes, enough food.

In short, survival.

When you are focused on survival, it's hard to think about things like getting an A on the test.  Long term life success is out there in the future - it's not like today.  Today is now, present.  We want kids focused on their future?  Keep them warm, well fed and safe.  You want to sustain the arts, build America's scientific acheivements, create a strong job market?  Keep kids warm, well-fed, and safe.  You want everyone to be able to stand on their own two feet? 

KEEP KIDS WARM, WELL-FED AND SAFE.  It really is that simple.  Until we figure out how to create a sense of safety and well-being for our society again - not just optimism for the middle class, but optimism that one can rise out of poverty, we're going to be stuck here, in this rather unpleasant place of worry, fear and insecurity. 

No one wants to see their hard-earned money go out the door.  I've yet to meet a liberal that thought all the social programs were particularly well run.  But I've yet to meet a private interest that didn't have it's own agenda or set of preferences in dealing with people.  We need to figure out a way to invest in our future, which might just be heat, hot water, soap, food, abuse prevention, a winter coat, a safe place to live, and a lot of hugs.  No, I'm not just idealistic.  If you want long-term strategic thinking from someone, they have to be able to focus past the immediate to move on to the long run.

Some individuals can do that without the things listed above, but that doesn't mean that they are stronger or better than those who can't.  It just means that there was some external or internal force that helped them along. 

We need to figure out how to make our current population of adults feel safer in their jobs and homes.  But until we figure out how to do it for the kids in our world, over the long haul, we're not ever going to feel safe again. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stay The Course

“To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”
 - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the course of the last 5 months, my husband and I have gone from what was a deep sense of unease with his unemployment, to at least a relative sense that no matter what happens, we're okay.

While we still haven't sorted out all the details we need to, we think that we've reached a place where we can afford our life - minus some of the previously enjoyed luxuries, adding in some new and equally enjoyable things - for the long haul.  And by afford, I mean that we can still save for retirement, put a little in the bank, and maybe take the occasional vacation.  We just need to stay on careful track.  Which is okay, neither of us really minds short term constraints for long term gain. 

So we're lucky.  And I never forget it.  Except those occasional times when trading short term constraints for long term gains gets annoying and frustrating, and I want to skip town for a weekend.  Or something. 

It's very easy to go off course, and start thinking 'well, maybe we could just..."  And all of a sudden, I find myself pricing out a trip or something like that.

It's not that I'm into self-sabotage.  It's that I get bored or tired or cranky, or some combination thereof, and I want a change.  Preferably one that involves a jacuzzi tub in some hotel or bed and breakfast. 

It's not like I'll never have that, either.  It's just that I get tired of waiting and planning for it.  I call these moments having 'iwantsies'.  Whether it's a weekend in the mountains, taking my daughter to a show she almost certainly isn't yet capable of sitting through, or replacing my entire wardrobe, the iwantsies are awfully inconvenient.  They take up time, energy, and focus me on what I don't have instead of what I do. 

Which is the thing I find especially annoying, since I'm working hard to never forget how lucky I am. 

It most recently popped up around New Years Eve.  In the BAOA era (before the adorable one arrived) we used to party with friends.  Last year, we got chinese take out and were in bed by 10ish.  This year, I started fantasizing about a luxury resort in the mountains, relaxing in front of a fire after a day in the snow and a 5-star dinner.

Then reality intervened.   First, every hotel in the universe jacks up their prices for NYE.  If we want to continue along the comfortable path, a $1200 weekend is not in the cards (and that was a cheap quote).  Then there's the fact that the adorable one crashes at 7:30, tying one or both of us to said hotel room.  5-star dinners?  With a toddler?  Are you nuts? 

Right then.  But then I thought maybe we could go for just one night to a Christmas-themed park in the same mountains.  Cheaper stay, lots of fun.  Right?

Well, except that we really want to get the adorable one a kitten for Christmas.  Leaving a kitten 2 days after getting it is just irresponsible. Oh, we could put it off.  Getting the kitten, I mean - it could wait until January. But she loves 'Eeows', and we've been planning it, you see. 

The reality is we could go if it really was important to us.  But instead, I'm going to take the week between Christmas and New Year's off.  We'll stay home, all of us, including the aforementioned future member of our family, the Eeow.  

And on NYE, we'll sit in front of the fire made in our very own woodstove in the family room, or if we decide to be really wild and crazy, in the fireplace in the living room, and drink wine.  And have a nice dinner, maybe of takeout, maybe not, depending on our lazy factor.

No packing, no stressing, no big expensive getaway.  That's later.  And what will we get in return?  The knowledge that when we do go away later on, there's no guilt.  No blowing the budget.  That we're on course.

That is, unless I give in to temptation....

Monday, November 8, 2010

Peeling Pumpkins

The first time I peeled a pumpkin and cooked it down into puree, I was about 25.   The other day, I remembered why I'd waited 12 years to do it again.

It's not that I don't like fresh pumpkin, it blows away pumpkin puree out of the can.   But peeling a pumpkin and cooking it down is a pain in the butt.  No, actually, just the peeling part.

Usually when I want to peel a squash or a pumpkin, I slow roast it.  But with puree, roasting does slightly change the flavor, and I just think it comes out better if you peel it and cook it down with just a teeny bit of water on the stove.

But like I said, it's a pain to peel a raw pumpkin.   It went like this: we bought a beautiful cinderella-shaped pumpkin at a local farm stand last month.   I was sucked in by the word heirloom and the lovely orange color.  What can I say, I'm a sucker for a pretty squash.

So there it sat, on a shelf in the kitchen for a few weeks, waiting for the right moment.  That moment was  Saturday.  I'd been fighting a cold, and was finally feeling better.  We had a family party on Sunday, and I'd promised to make the cake.  Pumpkin Chocolate Cake, to be exact, baked in my pumpkin-shaped Bundt pan.  Okay, so I like pumpkins.  A lot.

So I found myself, after a long day of errands, peeling pumpkin.  Because I believe in local food, less packaging, and eating as close to (but with the dirt washed off, thank you very much) the earth as possible, this was the only way to start.  Plus roasted pumpkin seeds are really really good.

1/2 way through, at about 25 minutes - it was a big pumpkin - I was thoroughly irritated and tired.  3/4 of the way through the pumpkin got wrapped in plastic wrap and I left it for later (later has not yet arrived).

In the end, I didn't have heavy cream for the cake anyway, so I made Gingerbread cake instead.   With a toffee glaze.   It was good.  And I stuck the cooked pumpkin in the freezer for something else.

But it reminded me that sometimes, sometimes, convenience foods are awesome.  And really convenient. No, they don't taste as good. Yes, they create environmental impact.

But dammit, a can opener is just so much easier to use.

And so it goes.  Talk to me about it again in another 12 years.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Asking For It

I want to talk about networking. And yes, this does have a monetary component.

I'm an okay networker. I'm very good at making friends with people I work with - you know, the 'I really like you and want to hang out with you outside of work' kind of friends. And over time, that's become something of a network. These are people I genuinely like, so it's easy.

Leveraging that network is something that I have long tried to avoid though. Mostly because I hate the idea that I might be using someone in a way I would hate to be used. I avoid that like the plague. I'm not good at asking for things like work, consideration for a position, whatever. I'll advocate to to the skies for someone else. But for me? It makes me feel sorta queasy.

Oh, I do it anyway. It's a requirement of being a consultant to let people know how you are the perfect fit to help them with a problem. But it makes me uncomfortable, and feels shallow.

Or it did. Something recently changed. My husband got laid off. For a little while, I hesitated in asking colleagues, clients and others if they would pass on his resume. I didn't want to be considered needy, or make anyone feel uncomfortable. And I didn't want my husband to be judged for needing a job.

My biggest fear stems from the fact that our society is pretty judgy about out of work people, despite the millions of them - and seems to have an idea that perhaps getting laid off is a personal failing. So while I would mention it, I skirted actually 'needing' anything from anybody. Because my husband is freaking awesome, and anyone that judges him like that deserves a hand sandwich or a slice of palm quiche. Okay, that's the Marine in me talking. I wouldn't really.

I think.

The reality is the best way to find a job in this economy is to know someone. And I know a lot of people. And so I've found myself stepping out of my shell and asking if I can send along his resume. If folks know of anything. How great he is. I've been surprised at the response. It's been great.

And I've been surprised at the change in me. I found myself comfortably telling the VP that recently hired me how it was going to make things easier for him, since I knew the people and the culture that we were trying to change in my current role. He agreed wholeheartedly that it was a great fit for just that reason. And now I know what to say for the next thing that comes up in this organization.

It's true, it's simple, and it's a sales pitch - and that last thing doesn't invalidate the truth of it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

29 Gifts and the Kindness of Strangers

This week, I was the recipient of a gift. Quite a special one, actually. From a stranger.

We have a wedding to go to next Saturday, you see. The adorable one is invited as well. And well, she didn't have a dress.

Okay, so she has dresses - a couple corduroy jumpers for fall, and a couple really pretty holiday dresses that I got on clearance last winter, which it's a tad early to wear. But nothing for a wedding. And since that's the sort of dress that probably would never see another wearing, I hated to spend the money.

But, being her Mom, and seeing as we really wanted to bring her (this is a girl that loves a party), I bit the bullet, and started looking. I even asked for some input on a message board I frequent to see if I could come up with some inexpensive options.

And out of the blue, a woman, another mother, on the message board offered me the loan of a lovely dress her daughter had worn last winter. Just because my daughter needed a dress. You hear about the kindness of strangers all the time on the news, but this was one of those things that I never expected.

Along with the dress, she included the loan of a book, and a very nice handwritten note in a card. The book is called 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life by a woman named Cami Walker - suffers from MS. Had her life turned upside down by illness and pain. The premise of the book is that giving comes from a place of abundance, and that sharing what you have in a deliberate manner can change your life.

I was, of course, one of the gifts in my benefactor's 29 days of gifts.

So I opened it and started reading. "Oh heavens", I thought. "Feel good drivel."
But then I couldn't put it down. I read it through to the end in 3 days. And I was caught. As much by the generosity of the woman who had sent me the book as the book itself. I'm not a big fan of these sorts of things. But the 29 Gifts movement is something different.

Today was day 1. I gave a baby gift to my friend Kath, who just had a baby, her 3rd daughter. And I gave another gift too - my town hosts the oldest agricultural fair in the country, and the fairgrounds is about a 1/2 mile walk from my house. Traffic is absolutely horrific for the 10 days of the year the fair is going on - it can take hours to go a mile or two. So Sander and I offered, like we do every year to friends and family, our driveway as a parking spot - saving the traffic and the parking fee. I also offered the same to some colleagues. And tonight one of my colleagues took me up on it, and brought his family to my driveway. It was a small gift, but what matters is not the size or the dollar value. It made me feel good to do, he and his family are wonderful people.

Tomorrow we host a cookout, delayed since August. I guess gathering and feeding people we love and care for is a gift of sorts, but there may be another opportunity for giving as well. And I have something special in mind for Sunday.

If you get a chance, read the book. It's worth it.

And I'll keep you posted on my giving, which already seems to be giving back. Because I feel pretty darn good.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

No Better Option - At Least For Now

A lot of people read my blog - I know, because I look at the numbers, but I don't have a lot of followers or commentators. But interestingly, I had two fairly strong-minded commentators for my recent post It's Really Easy To Cop Out. Both came from backgrounds with an absence of abundance, and both decried the government as the way forward to social and financial well being for all.

It's a common refrain, especially these days.

A particularly interesting point in the lengthy and well-written comments was the idea that instead of supporting taxation for social programs, I should 'write a check to a charity'.
What's interesting is that we do support a lot of not for profit programs. We sponsor a child and give regularly in addition to World Vision. We support our church, which has a huge number of social programs it supports - in fact, I recently (gulp) became a co-chair of their capital campaign committee, which is working to create more resources to help more people. In addition to the dollars we tithe, I give up my time, missing bedtimes with my daughter, something I hate to miss, to ensure that their mission continues. Add to that our regular donations to a local food pantry, Beverly Bootstraps, the Salvation Army (bless them, really - they help the people most of us would cross the street to avoid, and that alone makes them worthy of our money), and our ongoing support of a Massachusetts living history museum that we love, Old Sturbridge Village, and I'd say that our giving is pretty well rounded.

I don't tell you this to toot my own horn. I tell you this so that you know that yes, we give - substantially in some cases, continue to give through a period of diminished income, and think that giving is important.

But there are limitations to charities. For one, they can pick and choose their audiences. I really don't believe in Catholic Charities social policies that demean women to lesser roles, and effectively rule out helping gays and other individuals that meet their perspective. I don't like it, but they are well within their rights to refuse to aid - it is, after all, their charity.

I'm not saying that the government does it all well or right. Obviously, they do not. But they have to help everyone - regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age or any other potential limitor in the private charity space. And because of their size and scope, they can literally force the requirement to help people down the throats of those who would rather not. Personally, I think that's good. If the free market system was working, we wouldn't be in the economic place we are. Remember, government oversight didn't create this mess. Lack of it did. If you think Lloyd Blankfein is working for the greater good, you need to put down your crack pipe. If you think that the richest 5% controlling 85% of the wealth is good - and if you think they all earned it honestly, I can't tell you enough how wrong you are. You probably won't believe me, but you are.

I'm not a fan of ever-expanding government, but I've yet to see a proffered better way. The markets don't take care of those who cannot, or will not, care for themselves- and really, on some level does it matter if the fact of the matter is that someone will not step up and take care of themselves vs. those that cannot? Sure, it's easier to want to support the cannots, but ultimately, the will nots are the cannots for whatever reason. I'm not saying it's right that some people game the system. But I am saying it is our responsibility as a society to ensure that everyone has a place to stay, food in their stomachs and basic health care.

The measure of us as a people is how we treat our fellow human beings -especially those that need the most. I for one don't think I should get to decide who is deserving of help and who is not, rarely do we ever have all the facts about our fellow man.

Your mileage may vary with what I have to say. But screaming about the failure of the government is screaming about the failure of yourself to come up with a better option.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Ebb and Flow of Money

Back in my early twenties, when I landed on the IT infrastructure project that would launch my career, I was pretty broke. To make ends meet, I had been duct-taping together temp work with after hours retail work. I could pay the bills, but I was definitely not getting ahead.

Then I landed on an SAP implementation. Massachusetts was undergoing deregulation in the electric supply industry, and the company I worked for was buying up the electricity generating assets. A consulting partner was brought in to provide the expertise to implement a new operations and financial system.

It was late 1998 and early 1999 - still the days of wine and roses in the IT consulting world. And I found myself living in a curious state of dichotomy - on my smallish salary, I would go home to my lightly furnished apartment some nights for a dinner of mac n' cheese, but other nights I would go out with the consultants, and find myself eating fine food and drinking excellent wine at some of Boston's top restaurants. I started travelling for work, and the gap between my actual (income) means and my (expensed) lifestyle got even greater. I would be taking colleagues out to high-end steakhouses on my corporate card and staying weekly at the Hilton, while privately wondering how I was going to afford groceries until payday on Friday once I returned home.

It was a pretty odd way of living, to say the least.

Over the years my career took off, my means improved significantly, and the gap between my means and my lifestyle got smaller. If anything, most of the time my lifestyle allowed for a fairly abundant amount left over.

But in May, my husband lost his job. And so all of a sudden, I find myself back down that odd little rabbit hole in which I started my career: a $200 dinner with clients one night, packing leftovers for lunch the next day. Curiouser and Curiouser, as Alice would say.

It's not that we are scrounging, in fact quite the opposite - our means in comparison to our lifestyle has allowed for us to build up a cushion that protects us from most of the worst that the current economy is dishing out. And in point of fact, I almost always prefer leftovers for lunch, coffee from home and cooking in. We're in no danger of going hungry or losing our home, and we're still able to give of our time and money to causes we believe in. But it is a fairly odd way to live.

In thinking about it, I realized that I agreed with Suze Ormon that money flows through our lives like water. Sometimes a rush, sometimes as trickle. If you make a fist, you lose it all, but if you cup your hands you can fill them up with enough to quench your thirst.

Right now, money is flowing into our lives, but not at the rate that it once was. That's okay, we're figuring out how to adapt. It's interesting, revisiting a place so similar to where I started, where life is overabundant one moment, and not so much the next. I've learned - from way back when - that I can savor the leftovers as much as the good wine. And so the ebb and flow doesn't matter so much to me any more. Sure, I'd still like a swimming pool full of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, but it's not necessary for me to be happy.

And that is abundance indeed.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's Really Easy to Cop Out

You know, as I get older, I get more political, and more liberal. It's funny, because in my early 20s, I contended that grassroots upswells were for 'little people' who couldn't affect change. And now, I'm a believer.

Why? Because it's become clearer to me how far we have to go.

Here's what I believe.

It's really easy to say that health insurance or housing isn't a right when you have no worries of losing either.

It's really easy to say that the poor should pull themselves up by their bootstraps when you've never been poor, never had to dodge a gang on the way to work, never had to wonder if you'd have dinner on the table, and never had to work 3 jobs to keep a roof over your kids head.

It's really easy to say that women's rights don't need to be protected by the courts, as that jackass to end all jackasses, Antonin Scalia recently said, when you don't make less than your male counterparts just because you happen to wear a bra instead of a jockstrap.

It's really easy to say that we shouldn't extend unemployment benefits when you have a job.

It's really easy to say that extended unemployment keeps people from looking for a job when you don't have to worry about whether you are going to lose your house tomorrow morning, and have to live in your car.

It's really easy to say that the free market solves problems when deregulation over the last 20 years has benefited you and yours, and you aren't one of the millions who it hurt.

It's really easy to say that federal social programs are too expensive when you don't need them.

It's really easy to pretend that their aren't kids who are going hungry, without immunizations and medical care, and without basic needs when you don't see them every day.

It's really easy to say that people want to get a handout, when you don't have to see the shame on their faces when taking it.

These things are all cop outs. They are all said from positions of relative power, education, and well being. They are rarely said by the people that truly need the services and the help. Our government doesn't always do the best job, that's true. But human need is never so simple as 'get it together and get a job' or 'survival of the fittest'.

We're a society, we Americans. We're not just consumers, we're citizens. I was a US Marine. The one thing you know about your fellow Marines - whether you are BFFs or not - is that they have your back.

Somewhere along the way we've forgotten what it means to have our fellow American's backs. I pray that the current trend of selfishness takes a turn for the better. Because more people fell into poverty over the last 24 months than at any time since the depression. And if we don't have those people's backs, who is going to have ours if something bad happens to us?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Diary of a Working Mom - Part something-or-other

So in the interest of sensible budgeting, we cut the housekeeper down to once a month. And you can tell. Or you could, except that I won't let you past the front door.

Sigh. It's not that it's a mess when she doesn't come by for 4 weeks because we do tidy up, vacuum and mop, it's just a tad dusty and the clutter breeds in the corners when we don't have to clear surfaces as often. We did dust for a dinner guest last week, but seeing as it's cobweb season (that is a season in my house, please don't ask) I noticed a few spiderwebs we missed after our guest left.

I'm not ready to give up my housekeeper yet. We could - it's $90 that we'd save, but it's still a lifesaver for us, so we've given up other things first. Eventually we'll probably have to - our income is still less than outgo with Sander out of work.

Interestingly, cutting back hasn't really bothered us too much. We miss our wine club, and a few other things, but we're not missing too much. We're even getting out some. More for picnics than lunches or dinners out, but we've made efforts to get out and do things, since we have time now.

In November we'll finally see some unemployment checks. We're not clear whether he'll be eligible for any extensions so we're assuming that we'll have unemployment from November-June, and at that point, we'll make hard decisions if this is still going on. Fortunately, we should be able to bank a little with unemployment to make up for some of the savings we've burned down.

Refinancing the house will save us about $360 a month, less than we hoped for, but definitely still worth doing. We decided to take the offered gift to pay off our 2nd mortgage, but as a loan. Still, our payments until he returns to work are about 1/2 the 2nd mortgage. And once he returns, we'll pay that loan off very aggressively.

We're going to a 25 year loan, and when Sander goes back to work, we'll return to the biweekly repayment plan that takes an additional 4 or so years off the loan. We're hoping to pay it off before we're making college tuition payments, so we'll up the ante as we can over the years. While we don't intend to retire here, we would like to stay for a long time.

So where does that leave us? With a fairly small delta of income to outgo, maybe $800 or so, maybe less, once unemployment runs out. If we get to that point, which I hope we don't. The sort of thing that can be made up for with part time work.

Assuming all goes well on my employment end, we should see my income rise a bit over the next few years as well. So eventually we could be fine, if we just hold out. And so we've tied the knot, and are going to hang on.

This whole process has been a learning experience for all of us. It's tough to get laid off, and it's tough to transition from income earner to full-time caregiver. My husband is a wonderful Dad, but there are some long days for him. For me, it's been tough to plan, and I'm a planner - giving up a bit of control-freakishness is good, but hard for me. For Kiera, she has seen tons of routine disruption and less social time with other kids, primarily her cousins. On the upside, she loves being with her Dad, and we're working hard to make sure she gets to spend time with other kids.

And it's been an adjustment to figure out our roles for all of us. But we've been lucky - if anything, this experience has made our marriage stronger, and taking full control of our daughter's routines (okay, she's got a lot of control there too, just try to make her nap when she doesn't want to) has probably made us better parents. When she returns to child care, I think we'll have a much better picture of what works for us as a family and what works for her in terms of environment.

Sander losing his job has ultimately been a mixed blessing. We've got less money but more time. We've had to react to circumstances instead of being able to choose the course, in many ways. But I think on the other end, I'm going to come to the conclusion that I wouldn't have traded this experience for an easier time of it. Watching my daughter and my husband bond like they have, and learning how to pull together even more than ever have been lessons that no amount of income can replace.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Week in the Kitchen

Our race to process and preserve all the food we brought home from upstate NY at the end of August took a total of 8 days, when we cut the final corn kernels off the cobs and froze them - not as sweet as if we'd gotten to it within the first day or so, but not bad, the peaches were turned into a peach raspberry pie for a party we attended and the final pot of sauce came off the stove and went into the freezer.

We've eaten well as a result, and will all winter, but both Sander and I were pretty tired from it all. We literally sliced, chopped, pressed, strained, blanched and cooked for 8 days straight. I worked, he had the adorable one full-time during the week, and I was writing an article for work. At least my life is not boring, right?

Cool weather finally rolled in towards the end of our kitchenathon, ending a 6-day streak of hot, humid summer weather. I was grateful - we'd spent most of that time working over a hot stove, and there's nothing less appealing than that when it's 99 degrees out. Because of the heat, most of the food this year was frozen instead of canned. I have a pressure canner, and a gobzillion jars, but had neither the energy or the inclination to deal with it.

Over Labor Day weekend, as the pile of food-waiting-to-be-dealt-with was dwindling, and the 8412 tons of dishes that result from putting up the produce was dealt with, we decided to add to the pile and went apple picking. Hey, I'm not saying we're sane. But in my husband's and my defense, we love to pick apples. The smell of an apple orchard full of ripe fruit is something to be savored. My daughter, who would eat apples and almost nothing but, given the choice, was in absolute heaven. We picked a 10 lb bag (1/4 peck) but I'm guessing it was more like 18-20 pounds of them.
It was a big pile of apples. This batch is just for eating as-is, although I am tempted to turn a few into apple cake. But the next batch in early October will be for sauce, apple butter, apple anything.

Then I went out to the garden and looked at an absolutely insane amount of chard, sighed, and started picking. The first batch was sauteed for dinner guests and turned into a frittata.

But there's a lot more now. And kale. Lots of kale.

I turned the $1 butternut squash into soup last night, so all the produce we brought back is used up or tucked away in the freezer.

I like chard and kale. But now I have to figure out what to do with that, too. There's a ton of green tomatoes still out there too. I'm hoping they ripen, but if not, I'll be making green tomato preserves. I'm most appreciative of the bounty, it's just the all-at-onceness that overwhelms me. Yeah yeah, I know I do it to myself, but still.

Still, 2 weeks after the kitchenathon is over, I'm missing it a bit. My Mom is heading out to my sister's at the end of the month, and she will bring more back - most likely more broccoli, some squash, and more onions.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Go Liz!

I've been keeping my fingers crossed for Elizabeth Warren to head the new consumer agency created by the Dodd-Frank Act.

If you haven't already read the Two Income Trap, you really should. It's absolutely fascinating.

But it's time for someone to head up an agency that isn't bought and paid for by Wall Street. And I love it when a girl gets ahead.

Good Luck, Ms. Warren. My fingers are crossed for you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Living Well on a Shoestring: Toddler Fun Edition

Having a toddler at home practically full-time, as my husband does, creates a need to get the heck out of the house on a regular basis. The park is a good option, but as the weather cools or it rains for a few days straight, the need for free or very low-cost fun pops up.

So here's what we've dug up around us so far:
Free intro classes at Gymboree and Little Gym. Enrolling costs, but taking the intro classes is free, and spread over 2 weeks, gives a great thing to look forward to.

Our nearby mall has a great playspace for kids. It's free, and it's a good place to go when the weather isn't great.

Our local library has a toy area, a fish tank, and free story hour. Plus all the DVDs and kids books we could want to bring home, but not keep. It's great for a 'try before you buy' book acquisition strategy.

Groupon recently offered $5 admission for adults (kids under 2 are free) to the Stone Zoo. For someone as animal-crazy as my daughter, this is a really good time - $10 for the family for the afternoon.

For $5, Monkey Joe's is a great place to go and play, with bouncy houses galore and a toddler area. Big red balloons are an additional $1.75. This is a huge winner for us.

For the book-loving kids, a visit to the Used Book Superstore is not to be missed. For very little money, about $1.25 each, often less on sale, a child can get a 'new' book. Most are in very good condition. An additional perk is parent recommendations from the parents browsing in the store. A random Mom was the reason we came home with Counting Our Way To Maine, which is a perpetual favorite in our house.

A nearby farm, Russell Orchards is always a hit for us - there's ducks and chickens to feed ($0.25 feed dispenser), horses to pet, a playground that's appropriate for a lot of ages, hay rides and apple picking in the fall, ice cream, and hay rides. And the animal visits and playground are free and open to the public.

While apple-picking isn't free, $15.00 last weekend brought home a tote bag (probably 20 lbs?) of apples at the aforesaid Russell Orchards, and was a good 90 minutes of running around and having family fun.

Later this month we'll be driving up to Quichee, Vermont to camp overnight in the local state park. A cheap tent, an air mattress, and some food, plus the $18.00 camping fee makes for a fun weekend getaway. We have the tent and air mattress, so aside from gas and some marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers, there isn't much we need.

Just typing this list, which is probably a very small subset of the fun things to do with a toddler, makes me appreciate how many no-or-low-cost things to do are around me. And all are things that we'd enjoy whether the economy was good or bad.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Interesting News

Michael Burry is in the news again. Yeah, he's the guy from The Big Short. And he's betting on farmland.

Here's what he said to Bloomberg:
“I believe that agriculture land -- productive agricultural land with water on site -- will be very valuable in the future,” Burry, 39, said in a Bloomberg Television interview scheduled for broadcast this morning in New York. “I’ve put a good amount of money into that.”

I'm not a big believer in market oracles. But if ever there was one I believe in, it's Mike Burry. Sure, he's validating my take on future events, so that makes it easier. But this is a guy who studies things obsessively. If he's going in a direction, even if you don't agree with my take on Peak Oil and the economic impacts, watching someone who correctly identified the biggest market failure since 1929 is a worthwhile task.

Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Betting On Black Swans

I recently finished reading Michael Lewis's book about the stock market crash and the start of the Great Recession, The Big Short. I love ML's books - I read Liar's Poker about a dozen years ago, before I knew anything about Wall Street, markets, or investing. I think I picked it up off a $1 book table, and was mesmerized. Unlike many others, I did not read it as a 'how-to' manual.

The Big Short though, that hit a nerve. No, no, I wasn't betting against the subprime market, although I did wonder how long the general population thought that maxing out their credit cards and cashing out home equity to shop at Pottery Barn would last. I really wondered how certain individuals managed to afford the homes they bought, and I was fairly certain that most of Wall Street was reasonably corrupt. That said, until I read The Big Short, I did not have a clue how corrupt and stupid the people that created this mess were. To say the book is enlightening may be one of the greatest understatements of all time.

But it got me thinking about something I've been mulling for a while, which is hedging the market against peak oil. Or starting a hedge fund. But since I don't know anything about hedge funds except that they sound like 'hedgehog' (I'm not sure that some of the people running them know more, to be honest, but we'll leave that alone for now), for now, we'll talk about my personal money.

I am a big believer in investing in what you know. But I'm not a believer in trying to time markets, or predict the behavior of people. Both are pretty fallible, and most of us bank on the idea that the future will look somewhat like the present. The idea that it might not is often discarded out of hand, or referred to as a 'Black Swan Event'. I've long taken the tack that Black Swan events are not necessarily the outliers they are assumed to be, but often predictable and natural outcomes of actions and reactions. It goes back to kindergarten science: What goes up must come down.

This often paints me as a pessimist. I'm not really, I just tend to think using the idea that life as it is will be fundamentally similar to how it has been as a predictor of the future is really sort of short-sighted. Assuming that things will change, sometimes radically and unpleasantly, sometimes for the better, but will always have an outcome of change, seems like a better bet.

So I've been thinking about taking a few market positions based on my theory of the outcome of Peak Oil impact on the next 25 years. If I'm wrong, I could lose money. If I'm right, I could become one of the few that makes money out of the crisis. My only reluctance is a moral one - is it right to bet on a catastrophic outcome? I think yes, and no. Yes in the sense that planning for the future, no matter what you think it will look like, is a good thing. No in the sense that there is some moral hazard to betting on things falling apart - especially because there is always a loser in these bets. That said, they might be losers anyway.

Most of us build our lives around the predication that catastrophe will not affect us. This is a good thing - trying to build up barriers against all potential risk and/or hiding under the covers is rarely a good approach to life. But the assessment of feasible risk is a smart thing. The trouble is the realization that there might be a finer line than most of us prefer between reasonable risk assessment and paranoia. I'm going to go for the idea that I'm using the former, while taking into account the idea that crazy people rarely know that they are crazy. Hedging on one's own point of view is often the ultimate risk.

So where will I put my money? Probably some into oil futures, some into the local economy, and some into businesses that will allow information flow in an era of decreased mobility. As I firm up my plans I'll blog more about them - my husband and I are still dealing with the immediacy of his job loss, so making bets on the future is something I have to wait on right now.

If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. It might hurt to lose money, but that's all. And if I'm right, it won't be a happy collection of profit. But it will be a predictable one.