Hiatus

Source: Nyafuu.org

Our brains are full!

Inspiration is so rampant that ideas are literally colliding with each other!

Okay, okay, not really. The truth is the Royal We have decided that it’s time to take a hiatus from blogging pursuits. Or as we used to say as kids this time of year, Summer Vacation.

We’ll return in late summer or early fall with possibly a new look, perhaps something enlightening, but most likely more of the same drivel you’ve come to expect here. Imbecility and banality takes work, you know.

Have a great summer!

Greasy Confessions

Source: Wendys.com

These are days of upheaval and transition. Yes, yes, the country is suffering from a buffoon in the White House. But I’m literally speaking about matters much closer to home– namely my own.

We’re moving to our “forever home” in about two weeks, and the conditions in our current one are a mite lax. Specifically I’m referring to food preparation and consumption. Or really the lack thereof

The kitchen is open but barely.

Want a bowl of cereal? No problem, help yourself. Better check how much milk there is first, though. Grocery store visits aren’t exactly a high priority at the moment.

Have a hankering for some pasta? Great, there’s one small pot that hasn’t yet been packed. Plus a box of rotini in the cupboard. Knock yourself out. 

What’s that? You say you were hoping for poached salmon with a caramelized sauce and a side of wild rice? Yeah, that does sounds good. It also ain’t happening here at least. Dust off your credit card and throw on a clean shirt. Let’s head over to the bistro down the street – your treat.

Times are tough when the moving boxes are being packed. And one of the first casualties of that is healthy eating. I’m not admitting to anything or even pointing fingers, but one of us had only an ice cream cone for dinner recently.

A recycled pic from an old post, but the guilty party is in plain sight here.
Like my earrings?

I pride myself on generally being a pretty healthy eater. Whole grains and vegetables are a mainstay of my diet, as is a consistent desire for fresh fish and poultry. I try to avoid at least an excessive intake of red meat, high fats, and carbohydrates. I don’t always completely succeed with all of that, but I make a constant effort.

Because my blood pressure is controlled by a 10 mg blood pressure med, I do my best to also stay away from salty snacks. That’s a tough one because I absolutely love popcorn at night when I watch TV. We tend to pop our own and refrain from buying the processed microwave kind which is loaded with sodium.

Where I truly am terrible, however, is with fruit. I’m just not crazy for any of it. Apples are boring, bananas annoying, citrus is messy, and passion fruit is much too flirty for my puritanical bearing. Cherries are fine but only at the bottom of a Manhattan.

Let’s hope the daily multi-vitamin is doing something for what fruit is supposed to provide. To paraphrase the previous commander in chief, I can do better.

Where I’m going with all of this is, is that in spite of my lofty ideals about healthy eating, I have been taking some serious detours lately. For the past six weeks I’ve inhabited a wondrous world of fast food gluttony. My exit lanes off the nutrition highway (specifically Interstate 95) take me back to places I once haunted with regular abandon.

Except for perhaps the short period after I got my driver’s license, I don’t think I actually ever craved eating a Big Mac or Chalupa. Starting in my college years, and certainly all through my twenties, my fast food consumption was borne out of lethargy and a purposeful and intellectually dishonest belief that economic constraints forced me to avoid eating healthy. Because, you know, salad bars or containers of pre-cut veggies were just SO hard to find.

But lately I’ve morphed into something I am decidedly not proud of.

For a few weeks starting in late April and into mid-May, I began traveling up to Jacksonville to cover some law firm accounts for my boss while she was away on vacation. It was a bit of a schlep, driving three hours each way and taking around five hours to complete the actual work. Although I could have taken pains to bring snacks and food from home, I didn’t. Instead, I made my first forays into fast food establishment after many years of abstaining.

I felt guilty and dirty.

Like the preadolescent boy sneaking a peek at an open Hustler Magazine on a counter at the 7-11, I walked into each restaurant scanning the eyes of customers and counter help alike, convinced that at least one of them would recognize I didn’t belong there.

There’s the guy who made promises and vows that he’d never set foot in a place like this.”

Indeed I had done exactly that.

Source: IMDB

In 2004 I saw Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, “Super Size Me.” The film follows Mr. Spurlock’s 30 day experiment of eating only McDonald’s food at every meal, three times a day. The toll on his health is profound and evident. Viewers are given definite proof of precisely how his high-caloric and trans fat-laden diet are a health danger, courtesy of filmed visits to his doctor. The lab results show conclusively that the fast food meals he was eating were harmful to his health.

This was anecdotal evidence that I hadn’t ever really seen before. Although by this period my fast food intake was limited, I did have a habit of dropping into one if I was running late and found myself hungry. What’s a Taco Supreme going to do to me? Please, we’re just talking “fuel” here, right?

But after watching the documentary, I understood that pretty much all fast food is something we need to avoid. I took a personal pledge and decided to keep it. There are clearly other alternatives.

Road trips can admittedly be challenging, especially if you have a tight time frame to reach your destination. But in addition to packing a small cooler of home-prepared snacks, I also followed good ‘ol Jared’s advice and chose healthier options at Subway or Quiznos. A lot of good that ultimately got him in the end though, eh??

I stayed in that mode pretty much until just the last couple of months. It wasn’t hard, and Gorgeous is even more determined than me about eating in a healthful way. We pretty much eat very healthy meals at home.

But on only my second six-hour trek to Jacksonville, I caved and took an I-95 exit straight to a Wendy’s. I ordered a Single with fries. Fries! The one menu item in “Super Size Me” that never went bad in the lab they created to age the food items.

This was my first fast food meal in 13 years. I can’t lie to you. That hamburger was delicious. It was juicy, greasy, and tasted out of this world. It was a combination of my first kiss and the day my 401(k) reached $100,000.

What? You were hoping for Shelley or Yeats?

What followed is ugly. McDonald’s egg and biscuit sandwiches on the way to my morning shift at the library (I asked them to leave off the cheese. Points for that?), a Taco Bell black bean burrito on another Jacksonville trip, and dare I admit the piece de resistance — a classic Whopper while ostensibly out on an errand to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. Which, of course, introduces the concept of closet eating.

Yesterday was National Doughnut Day. Guess what national chain I patronized?  Yep.

Yet another picture from an old post. Guilty as charged.

And while all of this is going on, I continue to go to the gym most mornings while also managing to somehow eat healthy dinners in the evenings — pretty much all by take-out from that bistro down the street. To add insult to injury, I’m even losing weight much to the chagrin of Gorgeous (alert readers will recall that we’ve been through this scenario before).

As blogger Juan over at Tooneetales is fond of saying, this too will pass. We move in less than two weeks, and healthier habits are sure to return as soon as normal routines come back into play.

Plus, most of us know that the first bite of a forbidden fruit tastes good only the first time. After that it’s just a guilt trip gone really bad.

In the interim, perhaps I’ll run into you at McDonald’s. Super size me.

Until next time…

The Art of Being Out of One’s Depth

There is current discussion on whether our president has a complete grasp and understanding for the necessities required to fulfill the duties of his office. In particular, his awareness of the need for caution, restraint, and discretion.

I can sort of relate to his predicament.

Many years ago someone rather high in my workplace had a habit of calling me just to gab. At first I thought it was work related, and I so I would quickly grab a paper and pen to write down everything he said. I figured wherever he was going, it would ultimately end up as some kind of assignment. But it never did. I would write furiously, add in a few oral “mm-hmm’s” just to let him know I was still on the line, and eventually he would end the call with a thanks for the chance to bend my ear. I would shake my head, ask myself what the hell just happened, and eventually move on to the next thing.

This routine went on for the better part of two years. Weeks and months would go by with no contact at all, but then sure enough he would call again at some point for a chat. I finally stopped reaching for the pen and paper and just sat back in my chair and listened.

Some calls were long, others short. What every call had in common, though, were topics germane to our organization and workplace. I was hearing information which had an appearance of being privileged. More than a few times I hung up the phone thinking, “am I supposed to actually know this stuff?

It was both intriguing and uncomfortable at the same time.

Source: Wikihow

Eventually the day came when I finally felt I was hearing information not intended for a mere mortal such as myself. Over time it morphed into being more gossipy and less privileged, but it still felt like the kind of dope shared only at senior executive meetings or get-togethers.

Don’t get me wrong, I love office gossip as much as the next person. But all things being equal, I’m more comfortable hearing it from blabby ‘ol Doris in Procurement than someone as high up as my phone buddy was. With such access comes the same need for caution, restraint, and discretion.

Quite frankly I was really only there for the paycheck and the 401(k), thank you very much. I didn’t want that kind of responsibility. Ambition for me was being the first one out the door at quittin’ time. Out of my way, I have a date with an elliptical machine.

I realized that I was out of my depth in having to keep all of this to myself.

One day I decided to contact my boss to tell her about the calls. Like any supervisor worth her salt, she went with the response I’m pretty sure they teach at manager’s school: delay and avoidance. I was to monitor the situation, write a memo to the file if I felt anything privileged was revealed, and get back to her with occasional updates. That definitely worked for me– I was given the opportunity to cover my ass and still not really have to do anything. God, I love bureaucracies.

Eventually the calls stopped coming because the man left the organization. I never had to write a memo and there was no paper trial. End of story… for me anyway.

Which brings me back to the Orange One. Apparently we’re learning that there is a paper trail in his situation with the fired FBI director. While I suspect Mr. Trump’s tweet about recordings and tapes is most likely shooting blanks across an imaginary bow, Mr. Comey, on the other hand, is loaded and ready for bear. Reports are that he’s written a memo or two after each one of his conversations with the president. Congress is noticing and wants to both read the memos and hear from Mr. Comey in person.

We are only at the very beginning stages of this particular drama. There is a lot more that will play out over the next weeks and months.

The president is also out of depth. But unlike me, he won’t cut and fold by coming clean with his superiors (i.e. the American people). I think we pretty much know by now that admitting errors, apologizing, etc., are all signs of weakness to him. He will continue to double down with accusations, toss blame at staff, throw vulnerable subordinates under the bus, and tar all of his critics with his usual abandon. He’s a man with a Twitter account after all.

I won’t even compliment his strategy with that old saw of “the best defense is a good offense.” In order to use that sports analogy you have to understand the rules of the game. Mr. Trump doesn’t understand DC’s “swamp,” and he’s completely unable to drain it because he can’t be bothered to try to learn how it really functions.

A plea to fellow liberals: please keep your gunpowder dry for a bit. For once don’t overplay your hand like you normally do, and stop using the “I” word so frequently. Apt comparisons to Watergate are fine, but remember that this is going to take plenty of Republicans to start moving towards the center. Stop alienating everyone with histrionics that might play well on Rachel Maddow’s show or the Daily Kos, but will also turn off voters in “purple” districts.

Until next time…

Paper Chase

Dear Mortgage Broker: please know that you’ve gotten all from us that you possibly can. I think there’s an old statement savings book from 1974 that I still haven’t sent you, and there’s always our birth and marriage certificates. But the well is dry, Honey. We really haven’t got any more information to send you.

We are heading into the final stages for the purchase of our new home. Like all of you who’ve been through this yourself a few times, I’m rediscovering how it’s never a smooth sailing process. Unless you’re rich, of course. Which we’re not.

Oh, the horrors of being so middle class.

Lest you be concerned, nothing dire or foreboding is occurring thankfully. Rather, it’s all just part and parcel of what one must endure in order to get a mortgage approved. In fact just prior to the revision of this particular post, we were notified that an agreement for a closing date has been cut with the sellers. So apparently the mortgage is actually approved. The end is in sight.

All things being equal, this might even be the easiest home purchase I’ve ever experienced. But the proceedings are so paperwork intensive that it can end up being a soul-crushing experience for the uninitiated. Which is precisely how it’s been for Gorgeous. It’s the first time that she’s ever purchased a home in her own name, and the relentless and repetitive need for documentation is making her weary. If our mortgage broker contacts us for one more financial item, she might curl up into the fetal position.

Not everyone has to suffer through such indignities, of course. Some who walk amongst us are able to pay for a home completely from cash and are immediately relieved from having to come into contact with mortgage issues. With money in hand, they go straight to the title company for closing. To those who grace such rarefied circles, I tip my hat in respectful acknowledgment. You insufferable gits.

For the past several weeks, we have been providing to our broker bank statements, income tax returns, pension annuity stubs, and my 401(k) balance. Basically any and all financial paperwork which the bank and underwriter will then study to determine our credit worthiness.

We’ve also been asked to furnish a snapshot of our current income from my part-time job and Gorgeous’ home business. The latter actually provided some comic relief because it means that we had a conversation with a financial authority figure about her job. Gorgeous is a psychic medium, which can make exchanges kind of interesting with people who are “bottom liners” such as accountants, financial advisors, and mortgage brokers. If you like silence anyway. It’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of value judgments.

Conversationally speaking, what transpires immediately afterwards is usually a long pregnant pause followed by the very succinct response of “Oh.” Or if not that then we’re sometimes treated to the more colorful but still veiled, “Howinteresting!

Until they start to actually pore over our paperwork, I always assume the “DENY” stamp on their desk is within easy reach.

Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Source: Topyaps.com

Also requested for official review is my divorce decree and the later alimony revision I negotiated with my ex-wife. That’s the other thing about applying for a mortgage — your life comes under scrutiny by complete strangers. They say it’s only about the bottom line, but I have to believe that they’re also making personal judgments about you. Full disclosure: were I in their shoes, I would too.

I took an early distribution from my 401(k) to add to our down payment. Though I’m not yet age 59 1/2, I am avoiding the 10% IRS penalty courtesy of the “Age 55 Rule.” This rule allows for a distribution from a qualified retirement plan to those who were at least 55 years old in the year that they retired (see the specific IRS Rule or this link for a plain language explanation). The distribution is still subject to federal income taxes, though. So I coordinated ahead of time with our accountant to determine how much to request and also how much to hold back for next year’s taxes.

But in spite of all this preparation and transparency, I still have to provide documentary proof to our mortgage broker for where I am presently holding onto the above funds. Unless your last name is Trump, you have to disclose everything. There’s no hiding of your money allowed.

Of course, lost in all of these dry matters is the excitement and anticipation that one is supposed feel when buying a new home. The enthusiasm of new surroundings, sounds, smells, furnishings, routines, etc., has been overtaken by the drudgery of constant calls for more and more paperwork. Where just a few short weeks ago we were sitting on the couch sipping glasses of wine and glancing through Wisteria catalogs together, lately we’ve instead been arguing about the merits of signing in black or blue pen for documents to be scanned and returned. And speaking of scanning, why is it that suddenly only my laptop is the one which works properly for that onerous task ? I smell a conspiracy of matrimonial dimensions here.

Source: Wisteria.com

I had assumed that all haggling with the sellers was completed after we came to a quick agreement on the purchase price, and then briefly later over a few repairs found during the home inspection.

But it turns out that we each have different dates in mind for closing. This has turned out to be the hardest (and silliest) back and forth yet, mainly because we’ve learned that, sadly, the sellers are getting a divorce. Unbeknownst to us, each negotiation has apparently been fodder for acrimonious exchanges between the two of them. Who knew that the grout we asked to be repaired in the bathroom tub was probably emblematic of matters bigger than, well, the tub itself? Gorgeous decided that the lighting of sage should be commenced immediately after the movers complete their work next month. Note to self: cover the smoke detectors for a few minutes.

Anyway, as this post was being written, we came to an agreement on a closing date for the end of this month.

So, dear mortgage broker lady. It seems our short but intense relationship with you is coming to a close. I’ll miss the 5:00pm cocktail hour interruptions to send you savings account snapshots (designed to ensure that I haven’t transferred the down payment money to an offshore fund still managed by Bernie Madoff). But the well is indeed dry. I’ve only my elementary school attendance record left to share with you if you want it. Let me know.

Until next time…

Melancholy Retail: Where America Shopped

“Every cloud must have a silver lining
Just wait until the sun shines through
Smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear
Or else I shall be melancholy too”¹

 

Detroit Sears store at Grand River and Oakman. My dad worked at this location in the 1950s and 1960s.
Source: Wayne State University Libraries

On a long drive last week, I listened to an NPR story about the uphill battle for survival that the Sears department store is facing. The odds of it succeeding are long. There is speculation that the company’s current management is purposely dragging out its demise so that it can continue to sell off valuable assets before eventually closing all the stores for good. It reminds me of a corporate version of the Bataan Death March.

The decline of Sears is sad for me because I have so many fond memories of the place from my childhood. Even as I relentlessly mocked it sometime around the mid-eighties, it was mostly out of love and affection for its former place in my life. I had a nonsensical belief that I alone was allowed to tell Sears jokes because I was as much Sears as Italians are Italians, Poles are Poles, Irish are Irish, etc.

Sears & Roebuck was a big deal to my family. My father worked there starting in the early 1950s selling shoes, and eventually became a manager of the shoe department at Detroit’s Grand River store. For a brief period he was groomed to be an executive and sent on trips to its headquarters in Chicago for meetings.

He never really made it as an executive, though. Dad pissed off upper management one too many times for not marching in lockstep with the other gray flannel suits. He just wasn’t boardroom material. Family lore has it that he ultimately told management to “stuff it” in favor of going back to the friendlier confines of the sales floor. By the time I was a toddler in the early 1960s, he was transferred to their Lincoln Park store selling TV’s, radios, and stereos.

He retired at age 55 sometime in the mid seventies. Any resemblance to certain bloggers, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Of course, as an adult I now understand that Dad had been demoted. His career as an executive was curtailed because of his mouth. The many versions of whitewashed stories we were repeatedly told over the years made him out to be Dilbert long before Scott Adams invented the comic character. Whatever disappointments Dad may have harbored about his Sears career, they were discreetly kept under wraps in favor of spinning yet another yarn about how he once stuck it to the corporate Man. Indeed, those stories were hilarious.

In spite of his thoughts about the company’s management, though, my dad believed in Sears as an institution which catered to the public at large. He thought highly of his colleagues and even more so for the products they sold.

We were a Sears family. It was represented everywhere in our house by the clothes that hung in our closets, the shoes on our feet, the clock radios next to our beds, the appliances in our kitchen, the tools on Dad’s workbench (including the workbench itself), and all the outdoor gear such as hoses, lawn chairs, lawn mowers, and grills. The cars we owned were all Chevy’s, Fords, Dodges, etc., but you can be damn sure they had Diehard batteries in them. And, of course, they were insured by Allstate.

Like so many other homes of that era, ours was a microcosm of the post-war American experience for the middle class. This was still the period when the phrase “Made in Japan” was said in jest. Chinese manufacturing hadn’t yet hit the U.S. radar. American-made products were omnipresent, and Sears was where America shopped.

Stepping inside a Sears store was definitely fun for a pre-teen in the mid-sixties. Probably for the adults too. You entered an environment where the aroma of freshly popped popcorn, chocolates, and warm nuts hit your senses immediately. Parents may have been forcing you to try on snowsuits, but your mind was only on getting them to take you to those goodies before exiting to the parking lot. If you were really lucky in those pre-Toys-R-Us days, you might even manage to somehow get ten minutes of browsing in at what was then considered to be a pretty respectable toy department.

Sales staff worked strictly in the departments for which they had been hired. This was important because it made them experts on the merchandise being sold. Don’t see the item you were hoping to find? No problem, they would nearly always go in the backroom and look for it. And while all of this was happening, those unusual store chimes were paging managers in a secret code that only employees understood (for some inane reason, my father never explained it to us).

The cherry on top of the shopping sundae for this Sears family of mine is that Dad was entitled to an employee discount. It mattered not if the item was on sale, employees still received a flat 15% discount on clothing items and 10% on everything else. This cut both ways, however. As I reached my early teens, my desire for name brand clothes instead of the proprietary Sears brands started to materialize. A test of wills commenced over whether I could have Levi’s jeans purchased at another store, or continue to wear the Sears Toughskins I had worn since grade school. The compromise that was ostensibly offered– that I “graduate” to the more expensive Sears Roebucks jeans went over like a lead balloon.

It took me till age 14 before I finally got my first pair of Levi’s. I remember it being an absolute nightmare having to wear those damn Toughskins to school.

Eventually after my dad retired, he finally eased up on the requirement that we had to first consider Sears before other retailers. Not working there everyday eventually gave him a healthy separation.

The country was also changing, with national department store chains having less of a hold on consumers. Where stores like Sears and Montgomery Wards might have once offered a sense of comfort and security to consumers, other retailers and brands were becoming more creative. When beer of all things was being sold as a positive lifestyle choice, that probably didn’t fare well for stodgy old Sears and Roebuck.

As my siblings and I began to marry and have homes of our own, we still took advantage of Dad’s discount, shockingly still offered to retirees as late as the early 2000’s. All of us at one point or another used him to purchase big-ticket appliances such as refrigerators or washers and dryers for that additional 10% off, and then we would immediately pay him back after we left the store. The company later eliminated the discount, or Dad was simply too old and frail to help us anymore. I can’t recall which happened first.

By now we all pretty much know the current condition of their stores. A hilarious Family Guy parody lampooned what it’s like to actually walk into a Sears now. It’s not quite like that, but it’s an awfully depressing experience all the same. Shelves are empty, cash registers are placed in center aisles away from each department, and you’re lucky to find an employee who has much knowledge about a particular item. There is a feeling of doom and finality. This company is breathing its last breath.

It’s sad only when I think about it, and I really don’t think about Sears much anymore. Still, the NPR report did make think about my dad and how disappointed he’d be to see what’s happened to his former employer. But at least I have those wonderful whitewashed old stories of his.

Until next time…

¹ My Melancholy Baby, songwriters: E. Burnett / G. Norton, 1912.

Never Mind Stella, I Want *MY* Groove Back

A smattering of what’s left of my once-large record collection. Patiently waiting for components to be purchased…

I recently stepped into the home of a man who owns an incredibly impressive audio system sitting front and center in his living room. He had the largest set of speakers I have ever seen outside of a commercial establishment. Overkill? Perhaps, but they were a thing of beauty, encased in custom-made teak cabinets which in turn matched the modern Scandinavian decor of his home furnishings.

Those speakers dwarfed everything else in the room, making it clear that the enjoyment of music is the most important thing to this man. If he owned a TV it was placed elsewhere. This particular room was all about the music.

What was missing for me, however, were the components into which his speakers were connected. I saw nothing to adjust the volume, pop in a CD, etc. It was just those amazing looking speakers and nothing else.

I didn’t actually know this man. I was only in his home because I was with a friend who was dropping off some paperwork. But as the two of them completed their business, I had a chance to ask him where the rest of his stereo components were. He absolutely delighted in answering me. He pulled out his phone, brought up some kind of an app, and punched in a few keystrokes. Within seconds Sarah Vaughn’s exquisite “Lover Man” filled the air. It sounded beautiful and the room’s acoustics were terrific.

The man explained that all of his music is digital and loaded on some kind of software similar to iTunes but apparently much more advanced. He showed me how he can create playlists on the fly by artist, genre, year recorded, etc. From an automation standpoint it was impressive. But for an old-fashioned audiophile like me? It was disappointing. Still, I was a guest in his home, and so I lavished praise on his system and congratulated him. The speakers were to die for after all.

But no dials, knobs or buttons? No big headphone jack in the bottom corner? And most important, no turntable playing that warm analog sound? I looked at this man who obviously spent a fortune on this system, and all I could do was pity him.

This, from someone whose only current sound system is two tabletop radios (albeit one is satellite) and a Sears Silvertone transistor clock radio, circa 1966. Talk about reverse snobbery.

My faithful clock radio.

It wasn’t always this way, though. I once had a beautiful stereo system with a Mcintosh preamp¹, Marantz receiver, Garrard turntable, Teac reel-to-reel, and standalone Advent floor speakers. The speakers were Advent /1‘s, which perhaps would make the above man pity me with his own reverse snobbery. I remember how they took all summer to pay for on “the drip” at the Gramophone, a former high-end stereo store in Birmingham, Michigan. I absolutely loved their sound.

Eventually that stereo was sold along with so many other possessions prior to a big west coast move to California about 15 years ago. The theory was that I would buy a newer, more modern system which would integrate with the TV and other video devices. In practice what happened is that we bought a flat screened TV and a DVR that was added by the cable company. CD’s were played using a Wave radio or in the car. There was no integration.

I’ve been without a full-fledged stereo ever since.

But that’s only one part of the tragedy. The real calamity is the near death of my record collection.

Sometime around 1986 or so, I began making the transition to compact discs. To make matters worse, I started to replace everything I had once owned on vinyl and buying it on CD instead. Vinyl records by the carton and box were taken to used record stores and sold for nickels on the dollar. Except for a few sentimental favorites or rarities which I fortunately did keep, the lion share of my records are gone. What I have now is a pittance compared to the original collection.

What was I thinking?! doesn’t even begin to come close to the remorse I feel for that misguided decision. I spent many happy hours staring at Roger Dean’s artwork on all the Yes albums, the famous Sgt. Pepper cover created by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, and that cool poster tucked inside the White Album. Album covers have it all over the CD case for sheer beauty and trivia.

Later when I attended college, I learned how useful having a double-album was for cleaning… oh, never mind. That was a long time ago.

My poor dad never really quite understood precisely what I actually did at college. Each fall we would pack up my possessions in the car to return to campus, and a good 70% of the trunk and back seat space was taken up by stereo components and milk crates full of albums. I think I maybe had two small suitcases of clothes, one box of study supplies, and perhaps a razor and some tooth paste.

My priorities were clear and it sure as hell wasn’t the academic curriculum. Or apparently how I looked.

Fast forward to today, more than anything else what I miss about vinyl is that glorious sound. There’s a warm richness in those analog recordings, which for me anyway, beats the digital format. Yes, I enjoy the convenience of playing CD’s in my car, having music on my phone, and joining the six other people in the country who also still use an iPod. Small and light is good.

But I now realize just how much more wonderful that earlier sound was. Yeah, sure, there were “snap, crackle, and pop” hisses in those record grooves. And indeed, we did all celebrate the supposed end of that format when CD’s were introduced. I just think in hindsight that those blemishes are now more of a comfort than a hindrance.² 

Recently, to my delight and utter surprise because it happened so fast, Gorgeous and I put in on a successful offer for a new home (more on this in a later post). We are now facing lots of paperwork for the mortgage, arranging for home and termite inspections, and transferring funds from this account to that account. While she is thinking all about furniture, rugs, kitchen cabinets, light fixtures, etc., all I can think about is the later purchase of that vintage stereo system, and where in this new place I’ll be putting it.

Oh, and also the purging lots of lots of CD’s to be replaced with vinyl versions. I’ll forgo the milk crates this time, if I know what’s good for me anyway. I suspect they probably won’t pass the feng shui test.

Source: Pinterest

In honor of the upcoming Record Store Day, I want to highlight two of my favorite bloggers who each devote nearly all of their posts to the beauty of vinyl. They are worth your taking the time to drop by their blogs and checking them out.

Bruce Jenkins at Vinyl Connections lives in Australia and has a huge and varied interest of pretty much every musical genre. Just when I think I know everything about an artist or group, he’ll offer an entire facet about which I was completely unaware. He also occasionally gets off-topic and writes about his earlier life with tales of school, early jobs, etc. He’s fun to read.

Thom Hickey is the blogger at The Immortal Jukebox. Thom doesn’t just write about how much he likes artists, he actually researches their life, where they lived, and the influences and cultural heritages that shaped their music. The reader ends up not just learning about the legacy of a musician, but also the human(s) behind their songs. Thom lives in England, but probably knows more about Detroit, Memphis, New York, New Orleans, and so many other American musical capitals than some of the actual residents of those cities. His posts are always a treat.

So move over Stella, and get yer ya-ya’s out. It’s time to boogie.

Until next time…

 

¹ Technically the preamp was completely unnecessary since by this time (circa 1979), receivers were more than capable of providing the necessary amplification and power needed for most audio components. So why did I have it? It was cool looking.

² If you need a more technical commentary on the differences between CD’s and vinyl, you can find it here

What? Me Worry?

Source: Mad Magazine

Let’s talk serendipity, shall we?

I am amazed at the moment at how some obstacles are smoothed out simply by doing nothing. It’s the ultimate reward for procrastinators or those caught in what we in polite society refer to as “circumstances.” Naturally, it doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, I see it as a strike against all those authority figures from my childhood. Take that, you previous brow beaters.

It’s also not the smartest approach to problem-solving either, of course. We can look no further than governmental bodies for what happens when things are swept under the rug. Be it carcinogenic water pipes in Flint or inadequate care at VA hospitals, problems fester until the public at large eventually shouts a full-throated roar of protest.

Occasionally, though, some of us mere mortals privately strike a little gold in the avoidance department. Take your humble blogger, for instance. I’ve managed to pull off a couple of feats lately and done absolutely nothing in making them happen. I’d say it’s karma or even fate, but then I’d be going all crunchy granola on you with that higher vibrational claptrap. So we’ll just chalk it all up to really dumb luck and leave it at that.

What originally lured us to live in Florida, or as Gorgeous might put it on a challenging day, “the false pretenses under which I was brought here,” was based on an understanding I thought I had with my ex-wife about a condo property that we still jointly own. The agreement — such as it was — lasted for a few weeks until my ex decided that it wasn’t in her best interest. So she subsequently changed her mind. At the risk of coloring myself a chauvinist, I’ll just leave it that it was her prerogative to do that. Words were quickly exchanged and then we collectively moved on in search of our separate Kumbayas.

In spite of that initial disappointment, my own internal compass was resolute. I believed, and continue to believe, that moving to the Sunshine State was the best decision. I love palm trees, beaches, and a place where election results are shrouded in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not invisibility cloak. And, okay, Florida not having a personal income taxes may play a small role here too. I do have my greedy side.

“Taxes? Never!
Source: Openclipart.org

Without boring you on the details (a sly way of saying that I’m still intimidated by my ex’s attorney), I have been waiting forever to have my name removed from the above property, and also a second one. It’s been both a waiting game and also a test of wills between the mortgage company and the tendency of my ex to make quick, sweeping decisions about her life. Time was on my side if I remained patient.

Sure enough, in January she decided that she’d had enough of year-round humidity and hurricane watches. With the snap of a finger she made plans to move back to California. Both condo properties were immediately put on the market, and now within three months there are solid buyers for both. Closing is scheduled for next week and a date has been set aside for me to go in to separately to sign the documents. In the language of my tribe, I’m kvelling.

The role I played in bringing this about? Zilch, nada.

I have had my share of sleepless nights thinking about it all, but I kept my mouth shut after our earlier row for fear of engendering any bad feelings or purposeful delays out of spite.

My new mantra for surviving life issues is a simple rhetorical device: “what would Donald Trump do?” I then do the opposite. Nevertheless, it is a shock to actually see a successful resolution come about. Which is more than he can say lately.

Source: Memegenerator.net1

The second area in which I’ve found some good fortune is with my part-time job. In January along with my W-2 for taxes, my boss extended her sincere thanks to me for coming aboard last year. She said she was pleased about how it all had worked out, and she hoped I was enjoying the job. She also said she looked forward to working with me over the next year.

<GULP>

Immediately I felt a pang of guilt. Missing from her message was any mention of the fact that I would be leaving by late spring or early summer because of our move north to St. Augustine later this year. I only see her occasionally because she manages several libraries, and I am but one of many staff members in her employment. I didn’t necessarily expect her to remember, but this seemed like such a lousy time to remind her.

A “hey, right back at ya, and oh by the way, don’t forget I’m leaving you!” response seemed a little course. I instead wrote a thoughtful reply saying how much I appreciated her hiring me, and that I hope I can use her as a reference when I begin looking for another part-time job sometime after we move.

Later that evening I received a very short response: “I now have some accounts in Jacksonville for which I’ll later need someone to service. Just one or two days a week. Care to talk about this?

I did indeed. The total sum of time I had thought about finding a job for after we move came to zero. Getting our ducks in a row with finding a real estate agent, obtaining pre-approval for a mortgage, and arranging for our down payment to be safely sequestered seemed like more of a priority these past few months than anything else.

But after several phone conversations and emails with my boss, it appears I also now had a ready job waiting for me on that other end. I will be servicing law firms and helping to maintain their lawbook collections. It’s a little bit of the cart before the horse, but who am I to question it? All I know is that I absolutely wasn’t looking for it.

Last week I traveled up there to get oriented with the accounts. My boss will be going away for five weeks, and I will be covering while she is away. The timing couldn’t be better because April was always the time in which we were planning to start looking at new homes anyway. Gorgeous will amuse herself in downtown Jacksonville while I work each time, and then at day’s end we’ll drive to St. Augustine for an overnight before spending the following day with our real estate agent. With a little luck, we might even find a place before the boss returns from her trip.

Things never quite work out this easy for me, so I am waiting for the proverbial Other Shoe to drop. At the same time, though, I’m also trying not to think about the following things:

  1. A Mega Millions winning lotto ticket.
  2. Airline tickets and hotel accommodations to see Phil Collins in London this coming summer.
  3. News that my ex-wife has re-married (re: end of alimony).

Not necessarily in that order, of course. I’ll keep you posted.

Until next time…

 

¹ This wonderful meme graphic from Memegenerator was uploaded by a Russian user. After a bit of consideration (preceded by the firing up of my malware software), I’ve decided not to provide the link for your own computer or phone/tablet’s safety. As Mr. Stills once sang, “paranoia strikes deep…

Cacti, Baseball, And One Very Cool Apollonia: A Visit to Arizona

I traveled to Arizona last week to spend a few days with my oldest sister. I haven’t seen her since the death of her husband last summer, and so it was time to check in on her in person to see how she’s doing. We keep in touch regularly, but it really is important to actually make an effort to be with those we love in the flesh. Otherwise they can literally become like strangers, which to me is the ultimate result when people resort to communicating only by text message or email.

Big Sis lives in Michigan but now spends December through March in Scottsdale to escape the harsh winters. She and her husband had started this routine shortly after he was forced to retire because of some serious health issues. They made two winter visits before he unfortunately had to permanently enter a care facility to live full time. I then watched her soldier through four very difficult years with very little time to herself.

It was good to see her return for a recuperative migration and also some post-mourning soul cleansing. As she does in seemingly every life situation in which she finds herself, she’s already made a ton of friends there via the local synagogue and also among those who love the arts, particularly classical music. Sis is a networker. She hates social media, so she does it all the old-fashioned way– by meeting and greeting people face-to-face.

This was a solo trip for me. Gorgeous stayed home and stuck to her regular work schedule and painting activities. In fact, she was so productive with the latter that I’ve begun to wonder just how much my presence interrupts her creative output on a daily basis. It seems like someone had their own little private Ferris Bueller moment. Or two.

Here’s a sample of her efforts while I was away…

Except for a brief visit to Tucson one time (Hi, D!), the majority of my previous time in Arizona has been through countless transfers in the Phoenix airport. And as we all know, that really doesn’t count.

An old friend and I once spent an entire evening debating the merits of whether changing planes in an airport constitutes having “visited” that city. As a structured proposition, it bordered on the ludicrous. However, for an argument in which beer consumption was the primary aim, we fancied ourselves to be Oxford-quality debating society standouts. I recall the only winner of our match to be the bartender (a very large tip given by us). Still, it remains my absolute belief that unless you leave the airport grounds, you are merely passing through in a quasi-virtual fashion.

Finally, though, I can now honestly say that I’ve visited the Phoenix area. It was only a three-day stay (or as Sis felt she needed to point out — two and 1/2 days because of travel time), but we filled the time cramming in as much as possible.

I arrived in the middle of a rare March heat wave with temperatures in the mid nineties. I’m now acclimated to the humid Florida heat, so this was a bit of a reminder for me of what western dry heat feels like. Curiously, I enjoyed all of it while Sis did not. Careful what you wish for when you escape those midwestern winters, I guess.

Many weeks ago, Sis proudly bought tickets for us to attend a spring training “Cactus League” game. This was during a period of normal Arizona temperatures for late January. But in the days prior to my arrival, she began fret about having to sit outside in ninety degree weather. It sounded like heaven to me, but somehow it didn’t have the same allure for her. We had premium seats right behind home plate but sadly only stayed for about three innings. I was fine with that because it was about spending quality time together.

And besides, ahem, she paid for the tickets.

At the same time, though, I did get to meet one of Tennessee’s honored statesman at the game. In Arizona no less.

Jack and me

From the ballgame, we went directly to the fabulous Desert Botanical Gardens, where we lucky enough to see their annual Spring Butterfly Exhibit. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit so many beautiful gardens on my travels over the years, but this was my very first desert-themed one. As warm as it was walking around, I’m so glad I had the opportunity to go there. I will definitely want to return on a future visit.

The best stop was saved for last. On my final day we visited the Musical Instrument Museum, simply known locally as the “MIM.” It’s an absolutely fascinating look at musical instruments from around the world. A treat for me was seeing the extensive Asian offerings, which have always been a bit of a mystery when I hear their exotic sounds in TV documentaries, movies, and of course in Chinese and Indian restaurants. To actually see them up close and get to hear snippets of their sounds was educational and fun. Guided headsets are offered and encouraged, and they really are a must if you venture into the global exhibits to look at the various instruments of those cultures.

But no matter how educational a museum is about music, I’m still a sucker for western pop music and jazz. And the MIM doesn’t disappoint. Displays on Elvis, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Willie Nelson, and so many others are offered. As a somewhat new devotee to the Hammond B3 organ, it was exhilarating to be able to touch Joey DeFrancesco’s Hammond which was on display. Was this allowed? Absolutely not. Let’s just keep this between us, okay?

A lively part of the MIM is their mechanical music collection. Have YOU ever been able to see and hear an actual Apollonia organ played? Well, thanks to me you now can by clicking on this link. I recorded it with my cell phone. You’re welcome.

An Apollonia organ. Waiting for the revival.

In between activities and sightseeing, I was taken to plenty of the area’s restaurants. Most of that is a blur in hindsight, unfortunately. But I can recommend the Camelback Inn’s Pretty Ricky.¹ It was the perfect end-of-the-day libation in an absolutely beautiful setting.

The Camelback Inn’s Pretty Ricky

Sis is 12 years older than me. Sibling rivalry has fortunately never been an issue with us because of that age gap. Nevertheless, moments still arose when we poked, pressed each other’s buttons, and had a few cursory squabbles that siblings sometimes have with one another. That’s where the 12 years really makes no different – siblings can and will squabble no matter their age. Fortunately each incident was over as quickly as it started. That’s what getting together in the flesh is all about after all.

I will return next year to see her, hopefully with Gorgeous. Maybe the western landscape will inspire her artwork. If not, there’s always the Pretty Ricky.

Until next time…

¹ Hendricks gin, Cointreau, hibiscus, raspberry, lemon. They offer it sweet or “less sweet.”  I went for the latter.

 

 

Missing My Calling: The New Honesty

I’m always late to the party.

It’s not that I’m incapable of lying. It’s just that my lies are mostly of the white variety designed not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

No, no, you’ve got it all wrong. Yes, your hairdresser did cut more off than probably necessary, but it actually makes you look younger. Thinner even!

My lies always sit on the edge of that gray, murky precipice where sincerity is loosely connected to compassion and truth.

Take love, for instance. Back in my dating days, where some guys were marked as cads by making bald-face lies to end a romantic relationship, I opted trying for diplomacy; I was trying for at least an honest version of the truth. The end result was no different than those other cads — I still ended up looking pretty much like, well, a cad. But I did take some solace — manufactured completely out of whole cloth, btw– that while those other guys probably didn’t give a damn about their predicament, I at least did…

.. or thought I did. Or maybe faked that I did. 

Will you settle for a sum of the parts?

But oh, Lordy, I had no idea lying how fashionable lying would suddenly become in this decade. Had I for one moment realized that someday the flimsiest and most transparent of lies could be given full consideration and even acceptance in some quarters, I would have worked harder at developing some decent chops. Other than my miserable attempts with the opposite sex, really my most flagrant violations with the truth were in tabulating statistics for library visits back during my career as a librarian (the custodian who changed light bulbs got counted each time he came down the ladder).

I at least felt guilty about such nuances. But what we’re now witnessing on a daily basis at the highest levels of our government is so brazen, I’m certain Ron Ziegler himself would probably blush. A “third rate” blush, but a blush all the same.

Ron Ziegler
Source: Wikipedia

For instance, my mouth is still agape since the president accused President Obama of tapping his phones during the last campaign. What I found utterly fascinating is how Mr. Trump had very few compunctions about tossing his own staff under the bus after he made his comments. He seemingly never cared in how they would go about actually proving the accusation. All that week it was like watching a bad film noir, with White House spokesmen and women attempting to clarify those tweets of his.

In one of the tweets, Mr. Trump had the strange temerity to actually mention Watergate. Again I think of Mr. Ziegler, but I’m fairly certain that this president wouldn’t know who he is.

I’ll leave it to other bloggers to chronicle these moments in a more comprehensive way. But I do feel I’d be remiss to not also mention the new EPA Administrator’s denial of the link between human activity and climate change. I suppose one could say that he was simply stating his opinion and not actually lying. However, if so, this flies in the face of the science presented on his own agency’s web site (still posted as of this date, 3/12/2017). This man, Mr. Pruitt, is to the environment what Captain Beatty in “Fahrenheit 451” is to books.

As a kid I was an absolutely terrible liar. My parents and teachers were able to spot my fibs even before I finished speaking. The last time I attempted a bald-faced lie of any great proportions was right after I graduated from college. I had devised a half-cocked scheme to launder money given to me by my mom and dad. I don’t recall the details of the plan, but I do remember their cross-examination of me as I stood mute at the living room witness stand. My testimony was shredded within seconds. I realized that any future shading of the truth would have to be painted in white tones only.

Fast forward to today, I now realize that I simply had really bad role models. I admired people who possessed a high degree of integrity and moral purpose. While I may not have successfully followed their example to the letter (ahem, we can perhaps explore that another time), it’s now apparent that their teachings put me at a severe disadvantage for this millennium.

I still cling to that antiquated virtue known as truth, nobly represented by established facts, verified science, and historical precedence. It’s at best an unhealthy reliance and also ill-suited in this current environment of “alternative facts.”

My new hero?
Source: NBC Meet The Press

So damn those earlier elders and betters of mine. They left me unprepared to survive in this climate. Worse yet, I am decidedly unfashionable. Maybe if I had studied chemistry instead of history and politics, I’d be better at creating new potions and versions of the truth.

Fortunately I have a pretty good internal bullshit barometer. There’s so much of it flying around at the moment, and the bar thankfully is set so low for what’s being said (and tweeted) that you’d have to be in a pretty, ‘er, deplorable shape to accept it all at face value.

But do feel free to take ME at face value because I’d never mislead or otherwise lie to you. Besides, that outfit you’re wearing? You look fabulous and it makes you look at least 10 years younger.

Until next time…

Tax Refunds and Stress Tests: An Early Retirement Milestone

Source: Zazzle.com

Source: Zazzle.com

Right in the middle of making popcorn one evening last week the phone rang. A perfect example of snack interruptus. As I continue to mend from a recent surgery, snacks are pretty much the only excitement I have at the moment.

The call was from our accountant and her timing couldn’t have been worse. The new season of “Humans” was just about to start, and I was psyched to again watch actors portraying robots who in turn are portraying humans. I really like this show.¹ As disappointed as I was with the interruption, I had to admit that this is what happens when one keeps a west coast accountant and then moves to the east. Our evening was in full gear; hers hadn’t even started yet.

Only the week before I had mailed back her “organizer” with all of our tax information for 2016. I knew that we’d hear from her soon, and I was bracing myself for what fresh hell awaited us this year. The past two tax seasons had been disappointing due to Gorgeous earning more money than any of us anticipated. Darn the luck, you know?

To stem our April bleeding this time around, Gorgeous made sure in 2016 to send the IRS a higher fixed percentage of her estimated quarterly payments. Our accountant’s software tends to suggest payments that aren’t realistic compared to what she’s making in real time. So after a long discussion with her last season, we changed the calculation and upped the amounts for the new year.

Our newly found diligence paid off for us. Between her higher estimated payments, and the automatic withholdings taken from both my retirement annuity and part-time job, we got a refund back this year of just under $5,000. It’s not ideal to overpay like that, but at the same time it’s a message that we’re finally getting this whole retirement thing under control. It’s a meaningful milestone.

At the accountant’s suggestion, we applied the refund to Gorgeous’ next estimated tax payment for this coming April.

Well. How nice that she’s taken care of. I guess I can kiss goodbye that box set of vinyl Genesis albums I’ve had my eye on for over a year. I remember a time when a refund meant that you could celebrate and buy something nice for yourself. Those days have apparently ended. It’s now all about prudence. Bitter? Who, me? Nah. 

Sigh. Always "next year"... Source: Amazon.com

Sigh. Always “next year”…
Source: Amazon.com

My taking early retirement in 2014 was a sudden and spontaneous decision. A medical concern for me at the time had a major influence, as was a change in my job that hadn’t worked out quite as I hoped it would. Although I never had a strict time frame in mind, it was always a dream of mine to retire before I reached age 60. But at that point in 2014, I was at least three or four years away from busting a move.

Nevertheless I went ahead and took the plunge. I was 55. 

But there were some hurdles in my path:

  • In spite of being divorced for four years, I had a couple of financial entanglements with my ex which remained unresolved.
  • My 401(k) took a small hit four years earlier courtesy of our divorce decree. I was able to get it back to pre-divorce levels thanks to increased contributions, but the overall balance was still short of my previous goals.
  • My amazing new wife brought me lots of unconditional love and happiness, plus a Julia Child-like mastery in the kitchen. But sadly, she had absolutely no personal savings of her own. Divorce hadn’t been as “generous” for her as it was my ex.

Nearly every single retirement article you read advises to plan way ahead of time before walking away from a career. But my own planning was literally squeezed into months instead of years. Although my fundamentals were all there (pension, a substantial 401(k), ample Social Security credits), I was nonetheless confronted by a creeping parental-type voice whispering in my ear saying, “Dude, you’re really taking a risk here.”

Even as a spirit, I really wish Mom would stop calling me “Dude” on those periodic visits of hers. It’s creepy.

Gorgeous and I spent many a night before I retired discussing our plans and going over different financial scenarios. We used spreadsheets and a pendulum (each of us bring different skill sets to the table). We were trying to wrap our minds around how we’d pull this whole thing off without my having to become a dish washer at IHOP and her waiting on tables.²

"Can we assume a modest 3% in the S&P for the next ten years or a more robust 12%?" Only her archangel knows for sure. Source: Pixabay.com

“Can we assume a modest 3% in the S&P for the next ten years, or perhaps a more robust 12%?” Only our archangel knows for sure.
Source: Pixabay.com

To be sure, we’ve experienced some rocky moments and unexpected challenges after I walked out that career door a free man in 2014. For one thing, Gorgeous drastically underpaid her estimated taxes that first year, and boy did we get a whopper of a tax bill the following April. That one hurt.

She was also hit by an absolutely perfect storm of dental issues that began as soon as we arrived in Florida. Like a series of dominos falling, it started with one tooth, then the adjacent tooth, followed by the next one, and so on. When all the dental repair was finally finished by early 2016, our total out-of-pocket expenses for two dentists, one endodontist, and an oral surgeon amounted to over $17,000 (after insurance payments).

I decided later to view all of the above as a kind of “stress test,” similar to those written for the Dodd-Frank Act to test if a banking institution has enough capital to withstand adverse conditions. Ours wasn’t a simulation but we thankfully passed the test with enough of our own capital still intact.

So one milestone noted and filed in the cabinet.

Other milestones on the horizon are the purchase of a new home later this year, building a sizable Roth IRA investment for Gorgeous, and somehow find a way to start traveling more around the U.S. We both have a strong desire to make our way up to Nantucket and beyond.

Oh, and someone desperately wants two kitties.

And while all of that is happening, I once again repeat how I’ll be watching (and bracing myself) for deviations to the campaign pledges the Orange One made about social security and medicare. He made strong promises about keeping both programs intact because of their “popularity” (his word). Let’s pray someone in that administration can explain to him that a government program’s popularity isn’t the same as ratings on TV. I’m not very optimistic about our chances.

Now if you don’t mind, please leave me alone with my popcorn. I’ve had enough interruptions for one day.

Until next time…

¹ For American audiences: Monday nights on AMC. Please also be advised that whenever I publicly endorse a TV show, it becomes a fate worse than death for that particular series. Look for it to be cancelled sometime next summer.

² Apologies to readers who actually work at IHOP and are offended. I think I actually meant Denny’s.