Coffee heat rising

Estate Sales: The canary in the mine?

La Maya and I drove out to Scottsdale this morning, at the crack of proverbial dawn, to attend an estate sale that looked pretty enticing. Pictured on the organizer’s site was a bedroom set in the mode that M’hijito has described as desirable, plus various other interesting-looking loot.

When we got there, we found a half-renovated house in a (relatively!) downscale neighborhood of a ritzy part of town, the pool green and the pickin’s slim. The kitchen was devoid of valuable finds; the tools were old and worn; the bedstead was the wrong size and the bedroom set was cheaply made junk.

That notwithstanding, La Maya is not called the Queen of Estate Sales for nothing. Her discerning eye spotted a handsome loveseat, chair, and ottoman in butter-colored leather. After some study, we decided it probably was a quality product. She nailed all three pieces for $425, a fine 20 percent off the marked price. Not only that, but the estate sale organizer ate the tax.

Although we were numbers 24 and 25 in line to get in the door, no more than ten or twelve people were ahead of us. Evidently the ticket number they started with was higher than 1. It took two trips to haul the furniture. The second time we arrived out there, the furniture-lifting person had gone off for a break, and so we sat with the estate sale company’s owner for a while, helping to calculate tax and hand out bags to the few buyers.

And “few” was the operative word. Over the past several weeks, we’ve found ourselves at the head of the estate-sale line, even when we arrived after a sale was slated to open. This is in vast contrast to the normal experience, where you may arrive a half-hour or an hour early and still wait to get in the door through three or four rafts of people who got there first.

Gina, the estate sale proprietor, echoed other organizers in saying that business was very slow: plenty of sellers but few buyers. She was practically giving things away-name a price for a piece of loot and you could walk with it. Gina said people are not buying, and that times are tough in the estate sale biz. What she does is considered effectively wholesaling. “Retailers”-read dealers in antiques and used furniture-are really suffering. She said her biggest buyers, who indeed are dealers, are in deep trouble.

So, we might add, was her client. They evidently had purchased the house speculatively, figuring to fix it up and turn it around for a profit. Before they were done, though, they fell into bankruptcy. They had completed maybe half their renovation work on the unimpressive little tract house. In one bathroom, blue masking tape around the paint job was still in place, only half-pulled off. A sloppy plaster repair stood out on the ceiling where some defunct fixture had been removed to make way for recessed lighting. The pool water was green, slimy, and evaporated several inches below the tile line. Old dirty carpet remained on the floor.

Understand, an estate sale is a gold mine for two sets of people:

  1. those who are in the business of reselling “antiques” and used furniture (in general, one and the same thing); and
  2. frugalists, folks like you and me looking to furnish our homes and our lives with nearly new, upscale products at second-hand prices.

When neither of these are in evidence, well…it’s not a good sign. It means consumers are not buying. They’re not buying from businesses that sell second-hand goods and genuine antiques, and they’re not buying yard-sale items. When bargain-hunters quit looking for bargains, IMHO, it indicates people are either really hurting or really scared.

Well, at any rate, La Maya scored a lovely pair of luxurious leather seating pieces. They transform her family room, and she is very pleased.

Nevertheless, we worry. We worry.

How do you make a long-term decision rationally?

What strategies do you use when you need to make a decision that will affect your finances and lifestyle for years? Possibly for the rest of your life?

They may be huge decisions: Should we have a baby? Should we adopt a child? Should we move Mom into the spare room or pay to put her up in a life-care community? These are moves that will change your life permanently.

They may be decisions that, while still big ones, can be reversed or won’t necessarily last forever: Should I buy a car? Should I rent or buy housing? Should I quit my job and go back to school to finish a degree?

Or they may be smaller decisions that, while they won’t change the course of your life, will affect your finances for months or even a year or so: Should we get that new Play-Station? Maybe we should buy a $5,000 wide-screen HDTV and subscribe to cable when regular broadcasting goes off the air? Should I lend my weird cousin a couple thousand bucks to start a business, money that he’ll probably never repay?

Thinking through the costs and consequences of decisions like these takes some strategizing. And I must say, strategize as I might, I’m never perfect at arriving at the “right” decision, whatever that might be. Often I end up just going with my gut instinct.

Today, for example, I’ve discovered the Humane Society has a beautiful little Pembroke Welsh Corgi up for adoption, two years old, female, spayed…perfect! The Corgi is one of several breeds I’ve considered as a likely candidate for a new doggy roommate. They’re relatively small—about 25 to 40 pounds. And although they do shed, they’re generally sound, very smart, and because they’re herding dogs, they have a German shepherd-like disposition. They also have a big dog voice in a small dog body, a consideration for a woman who lives alone in an inner-city neighborhood.

When I consider the pro’s and cons of adopting another dog, I end up listening to a schizophrenic conversation between the Voice of Rationality and the Elf of Whim:

Rationality: You don’t need another dog. You need an engineer to fix the trolley that you’ve slipped!

Whim: Engineers can’t fix a broken heart. And as soon as that engineer has fixed the trolley, he’s outta here. I need some company, and at my age, you can be sure it’s not going to come with two legs.

Rationality: Moron! You spent $21,000 on Anna and Walt! Think of your pocketbook.

Whim: I spent it because I could afford it. You shouldn’t let your cheapskate instincts limit your life.

Rationality: The floors are clean. They’ve been clean for two solid weeks! You don’t even have to vacuum the darn things—you just dustmop and run the steam cleaner. There’s no dogsh** in the backyard to clean up every single day. The Burglar Portal is sealed shut. Corgis shed doghair dunes, just like Ger-sheps, and they track in mud that has to be scoured off the floor! Do you really want to do that again?

Whim: Uhm…well, no.

Rationality: You’re finally free—FREE, I tell you!—to go someplace on vacation! Do you really want to spend the rest of your life vacationing in the backyard?

Whim: Doesn’t much matter. I’ve seen the world and don’t need to see it again.

Rationality: What do you need a dog for?

Whim: To keep me company. To alert me if someone comes around.

Rationality: Join a club. Get a burglar alarm.

Whim: <<sob!>>

Rationality: Okay, okay. List the pro’s of getting a dog.

Whim: Companionship. Something alive to come home to. Rescue a nice dog. Walking burglar deterrent. Entertainment value. Maybe I will stop crying every day.

Rationality: Ducky. Now list the cons.

Whim: Expense, expense, expense, and expense. Dog dunes to clean up every day. Twice-a-day feeding. Filthy floors to scrub on hands and knees. Daily yard cleanup. Risk of dog drowning in pool. Possible excavation of landscaping. Restriction of activities—have to be home to feed dog, can’t travel without extra hassle and expense.

Rationality: I just can’t see a rational trade-off here.

Whim: Who are you, Mr. Spock?

Rationality: Have you thought of adopting a tribble?

The problem with making lists of pro’s and cons is that it’s very difficult to assign weight to subjective elements in the list. In this case, for example: What, really, is a dog’s companionship worth? How much, really, does having a dog limit your life and your ability to meet other people? How much, really, do you care about that?

Do you have any strategies that actually work when it comes to making decisions that involve both financial and subjective considerations?

Friday, June 13, 2008


Mrs. Micah

No tribbles. Ever! Wait…maybe just one would work, maybe it’s when there are 2 that problems start. But I think tribbles just might reproduce asexually.

Maybe while you’re still recovering from the loss you could spend a little time at an animal shelter? Volunteer or somesuch? It might make you want a puppy even more (in which case you could get to know the dog a bit) or you it might give you just enough. Or help your rational side emphasize the downsides.

Friday, June 13, 200802:13 PM

Debbie M

Oh, sure, I make the lists.And they are both the same length.

Then I weight each item on the list, and the two lists still total the same amount.

At this point I decide that either decision would probably be okay.

Another strategy is to think of the worst-case-scenarios for both actions.Or at least worst-case imaginably likely scenarios.For example, if you get a dog, it could be all sweetness and light during the interview, but once you get it home it shreds everything and is always escaping and biting someone.Or maybe you turn out not to enjoy the companionship of that particular dog after all.(Not: the dog could really be an illegal alien in disguise and since you saved it, it’s now going to destroy the planet.)

And if you don’t get the dog, you will always be unhappy and bitter, unable to make connections with anyone, and you get fired and kicked out of your house and die … oh, wait, I am exaggerating again.

And you can think of other ways to handle your concerns (like your “Join a club.Get a burglar alarm.” response)

You can think of ways to minimize the probable and possible negatives of both decisions, like start a pet savings account or brainstorm ways to find companionship.

I’m wondering if calling one point of view Rationality and one Whim is a hint for you.One could also argue that continuing having a dog is rational and suddenly deciding this is the time to go dog-free is a whim!

Good luck.

Friday, June 13, 200802:17 PM


Hey there. I’m a believer in having a dog. The trick is to get the right dog. You’ve got other comments already with good advice on the list making. My only additional advice is that you need to start your list from true zero. When you made your list you were already focused on a specific dog so you are already locked into some of the cons. Think about starting over from the point of view that you will manage the cons any way you can, including choosing a breed of dog that will eliminate some of them, and then figure out ways to minimize the rest.

I had to go through the same process two years ago. When my baby girl wanted a puppy for her graduation, I was against it. My list of cons was very similar to yours. I know I’m not going to stay on top of cleaning up dog hair every day, and I’m not willing to live with it. Most of the year there is nobody at my house for 10 hours a day. That’s no life for a young thing. I also knew we couldn’t stand the chewing, puddling puppy phase. I also had concerns about traveling with a dog, how it would behave in public and whether it would trash my car. The list got long, but my baby wanted a puppy and all my reasons for denying her were selfish.

So for months I secretly researched dog breeds, finally settling on a miniature schnauzer. They don’t shed. Not at all. The breed also met my size requirements and had a decent reputation for health, temperament and activity level. With the breed picked out, I started looking for the right dog. I didn’t get far before I realized I had to define what was right for us. Based on past experience, I knew we needed a dog with a temperament midway between total alpha and trembling submissive. Instead of a new puppy, we needed one that was four to six months old. At that age they can stand more alone time, and if you get one that is socialized properly, lots of the bad puppy stuff is over.

As baby girl’s graduation date neared, I scoured pet ads, rescue organization postings, talked to local veterinary assistants, and tried every other possible source looking for leads. Then I went and actually saw all the pups I found in the right age range. It was hard to walk away from some, but I knew it was best in the long run to pass on the timid and the hyper, no matter how cute they were. With four weeks to go, I found the perfect little five month old male. His family had to let him go because they discovered their son had a pet allergy. Because I could see the dog with the family in their home while we visited, I could tell that there was a very good chance that he had the right temperament and had been well socialized. They were even willing to give the puppy a temporary home with the child’s grandmother until my daughter’s graduation day so that once he joined our family, she would be home with him all day every day for three months. That way he’d be even older before he had to face a 10 hour stretch without his family.

All the work and waiting paid off. We can’t imagine being without the little guy, and he is almost no trouble at all. The key is that I held out for the right dog even though it took four months to find him. The rest of the cons on my list have been easy too. He was mostly trained from the start and has practically trained himself ever since. The house stays cleaner than I imagined it could be with an inside dog. Keeping him clipped every month ($35/mo for me and well worth it) means he doesn’t drag leaves and crud into the house. I manage the muddy paws by keeping the doggy door locked on rainy days and meeting him at the door with a towel every time I let him in. I feed him outrageously expensive food made from human-grade ingredients with no cheap fillers and low on potential allergens. I’m fine with the expense because I know it will pay off in less pooper scooping and stave off expensive degenerative diseases. Now that he’s fully grown, he eats once a day in the morning before I leave for work. I feed him just enough to keep him trim and limit snacks and treats the rest of the day. Feeding him last thing before I leave helps to minimize the separation anxiety. It also means that I can run errands after work or go out with friends without worrying about him home alone wondering where his dinner is. When we go on a trip without him he goes to a doggy daycare. On the financial side, yes, we spend money owning a dog, but we’ve got it to spend and there is no question that having him improves our quality of life.

Wow, that was long. Sorry. I’ll be stepping off my soapbox now, except for one last thought – Walt and Anna gave you lots of good blog material. Are you really ready to give that up?

Friday, June 13, 200803:37 PM

Bret Frohlich

I learned about worst-case-scenario decision making a while back and it has changed my life for the better.Now, I can make quick well-reasoned decisions and I feel confident, even if it doesn’t turn out perfect.

Before, I used pros-and-cons decision making and it always left me with a nagging doubt, even if everything turned out OK in the end.

If you want the dog, then just get it.Life is too short to deprive yourself of the companionship.My friend had a Corgi and she loved it.Me, I love my aging German Shepherd.She sheds a lot, but nobdody jumps in my backyard.

Friday, June 13, 200811:13 PM


I like the “worst-case” approach. It cuts through a lot of dithering…and listing pro’s and cons certainly does lend itself to dithering.

Finally I decided in favor of getting the little dog (see the next day’s post for a photo). It may be dumb…but what’s the worst that can happen? She’ll chew up $3,000 worth of leather furniture, bark until the neighbors call their lawyers, and end up back at the Humane Society. Hey…how could I turn her down?

Saturday, June 14, 200809:24 AM

Beelzebub Central

Great Zot! What have I done to tick off Lady Karma?

Last night I encountered a vast fly infestation in the house. Thought I’d killed them all off-something over a dozen. Disinfected the kitchen countertops with Mr. Clean, I product I just loathe for its vile perfume, and so went to bed with the whole house stinking of that stuff.

This morning: MORE flies! The place was just swarming with them! After swatting and swatting and swatting and SWATTING, I finally gave up and got out the spray. I hate that stuff far more than I hate Mr. Clean, and I really, really don’t want to use it in the house-especially with a famously sick dog at hand. But there really was no choice. Flies quickly learn to avoid a fly swatter, and my hand-eye coordination and speed are no match for the little guys.

So I sprayed around the arcadia doors and then opened them up with the screens shut. This didn’t come anywhere near killing all the critters, but at least slowed them down so I could hit them. Did in about three dozen flies.

I found more of them clinging to the security door in the garage. Spraying in there is highly problematic, because of the gas heater, but the door is a distance from the heater. So I sprayed the security screen and then slammed the wood door shut on it.

Off for the morning walk. When I got back: MORE FLIES. More inside the house, and another gigantic swarm inside the garage, clustered in a great buggy mob on the closed wooden door.

I guess the spray in the garage had stunned the survivors enough that I could whack them: I killed over two dozen in there.

So I’ve done in about seven dozen flies, all told. . .and counting.

But WHERE are they coming from? The dog mounds are picked up outside and stay picked up. There’s no garbage inside the house. The trash in the garage, yes, was a little ripe (yesterday, it was 109 degrees outdoors, hotter in the uninsulated garage, whose big door operates as a radiator), but there’s a screen door between the garbage and the outside, and I don’t leave the door between the kitchen and the garage open. ????

Dragged the garbage out, along with a few dried-out flowers, to find an enormous stench in the communal garbage can in the alley. The neighbor behind me uses adult diapers, and her companion dumps them in the garbage. And of course there were plenty of flies there. I doubt if they’re breeding there, though: Sally wraps everything up tight in plastic bags. At any rate, I sprayed the rim and lid of the giant garbage can.

It’s almost as if they’re breeding inside the house. There just aren’t that many flies in the yard for seven dozen of them to get in while the dog is wandering in and out the door. I wonder if they could be breeding in one of the plant pots? Guess I’ll have to haul those outside and inspect them.

Meanwhile, it was hotter than the hubs of Hades when we went for our walk. I haven’t been able to get in the pool (which needs some tending, too) because of the fly fiasco.

I had to disinfect the countertops and dishes in the drainer all over again.

Then I put my back out-again!-wrestling with the dog while trying to medicate her nether parts. She threatened to bite-again!-so I had to muzzle her-again!-and personhandle her down to the floor. That was jolly fun. Dang! My back was almost better. Now for another week or ten days of that…what fun.

Guess I’d better drag the plants onto the patio before breakfast. If the flies are coming from a plant pot, the sooner it’s outdoors the better. It’s already close to 100 out there, and the house plants won’t tolerate much of that. So…better get moving.

Then I have to clean all the windows where I smashed flies, vacuum up some more corpses, and take the fly-splattered curtains down and wash them.

<<Chortle!>> Woe woe pore li’l me!

Well…it’ll be a good excuse to have a beer this afternoon, eh? By 3:00 or 4:00 p.m., I’ll have earned it. :-))))


The guy who’s taken the lead in our local homeowner’s association is having a frenzy over a rash of break-ins and burglaries we’ve been enjoying around here. He’s been e-mailing “Safety Alert” bulletins filled with neighbors’ reports on the latest happenings.

Surprisingly, he missed the shooting, though, which did make the local Play-Nooz. Over in the ritzier section, several armed neighbors have formed an impromptu posse. They actually caught an SOB breaking in to one of the million-dollar homes, and so one of them broke out his blunderbuss and blasted the guy’s tires. The cops were not amused. But the homeowners looked pretty smug. “We’re armed,” one of them growled, glaring into the camera. “Don’t come around here!”

He did send us this great story:

. . . watch out for a window washer. We live on E. Orangewood Ave. My husband was out mowing the lawn about 10:30 May 7th when a white, long bed Chevrolet truck between 1998-2000 drove up to the house. Driver was an African-American man over 6′ tall and 220 lbs. in his late 30’s-early 40’s. He said he was supposed to wash the windows of the house. He said “The homeowners want me to wash them.” My husband said he didn’t have any tools in the back of his truck.He must have thought my husband was a yard worker because when my husband told him he was the homeowner and asked for his business card he sped off very quickly.

That address is a ways from here. Pretty funny, though. Poor guy was too dumb to tell the difference between a homeowner and a yard dude. Ohh well.

Closer to home, we have the following entertainment:

Three weeks ago at about 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, we had an incident near 15th Avenue and west Golden Lane. A man and woman in a car were being followed by PD. They parked in our driveway and told the officers that they lived here at our home. (Both my husband and I were at work at the time.) We are so thankful that a vigilant neighbor (who is in law enforcement) saw what was happening, came over and told the police officer that the people did not live at our house. A quick background check revealed the car was not registered, the driver’s license was suspended and who knows what else. The driver was arrested.

Heh heh heh heh heh!

Yesterday morning while I was breakfasting on the patio, the neighbor’s alarm went off. Sounds like she has the same squeally little Costco stick-on alarms pasted to her windows that I’ve installed. Darn things are ear-splitting, and they can be heard across the street. I walked over to look down the alley-Manny caught some perps by spotting their car parked outside another neighbor’s back gate-but couldn’t see anything. By the time I got there, the alarm had given up the ghost. Forty-five minutes later, the cops pulled up and I heard her talking with them; she’d apparently come home and found a window open.

It’s not much help to call the police. They don’t show up in time to do any good. Last time I called 911 when some guy was outside a bedroom window, the dispatcher said (I kid you not!), “Well, if he tries to get in, call us back.”

Uhm…and why would I have dialled 911 if I didn’t think he was trying to get in? The only way you can get the cops here promptly is to tell them you have a shotgun and are prepared to shoot an intruder. Then they show up instantly.

Frankly, I don’t think dwelling on these matters does much good. Broadcasting alarms at every little incident just frightens people. Other than locking up the house and sticking alarms on the windows, there’s not a thing we can do about prowlers. You can’t stay home guarding the palace every minute: sooner or later, you have to go to work or at least out to the grocery store. Nor is it healthy to live behind bars, glaring security lights, and alarm systems. The bad buys belong in jail, not us!

During the vandalism episode, when my lawyers were urging me to take a $100,000 bath and sell the house for my own safety, I installed a fancy burglar alarm system, which is wired to the cops and the alarm company. Never turned the darn thing on, and after the contract lapsed, I quit paying the recurring fees. The main reason, above and beyond the hassle factor and the costs (you get a fine for a false alarm, which is easy to set off), is the feeling that I’m not the one who should be living in prison and I’m not going to make my home into a prison. Eventually I put a few of those stick-on battery-run alarms on the windows and the only easily opened door, so that I’ll know if someone tries to get in while I’m here.

One of the advantages of simple living is that I don’t own a lot of stuff worth stealing, and so I don’t feel very concerned about burglary. The only thing I’d really prefer not to lose is the computer. Otherwise, I own practically nothing of significant value, and the only negotiable instruments in the house are hidden in some very unlikely places (no, not the freezer).

The only possibility that concerns me is home invasion, which is pretty commonplace around here. I keep the security door in front locked, never answer the door to strangers, and have alarms on the windows. And, decrepit as she is, Anna can still emit a fierce-sounding bark. So I don’t worry much that anyone will get in while I’m home. Matter of fact, I’ve made a conscious decision to reject worrying about the bogeyman.

Maybe if we all got rid of the stuff, burglars would have to find another line of work!

Get a job Sha na na na, sha na na na na
Every morning about this time
she get me out of my bed
a-crying get a job.
After breakfast, everyday,
she throws the want ads right my way
And never fails to say,
Get a job Sha na na na, sha na na na na
Sha na na na, sha na na na na,
Sha na na na, sha na na na na,
Sha na na na, sha na na na na,
Yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip
Mum mum mum mum mum mum
Get a job Sha na na na, sha na na na na

—The Silhouettes

Bartleby, the late, great scrivener

Deus ex machina, my stress-manufacturing personnel problem has resolved itself, because the Problem quit.

For almost four years, I’ve had to deal with my own Bartleby. It’s been four years of hassle, grief, and resurgent annoyance that peaked, for me, about a year ago with a stress attack that landed me in a hospital for 12 hours of poking and prodding while ER doctors tried to figure out whether I was having a heart attack or merely taking a long dive off the deep end.

During those four years, I’ve learned from Bartleby. Bartleby taught me a lot about stress and a lot about management.

First, I believe I’m right in saying the “time is money” metaphor is off-kilter. In fact, stress has more in common with money than does time. Stress is like interest and principal on a debt. The more stress you pay down on a problem up front, the less you will have to pay over time. The less you invest up front, the more stress you’re going to owe over the long run.

Like the narrator in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, I felt a lot of empathy for my Bartleby, an older person who had been alone for several decades. As an older mind, I know how difficult it is to keep up with the fluid changes in computer technology, that failing eyesight and slipping memory create daily challenges—more and more of them with the passing days. As a single person who also lives alone, I know the odd twists and eccentricities we develop as solitary beings.

But a manager’s job is not to be empathetic. A manager’s job is to keep an operation running and see to it that everyone in that operation can and does function productively. That is not to say a manager should not try to be kind; only that a manager can not let kindness get in the way of the job.

By the time I fully appreciated that my Bartleby was wrong in the nonexempt job for which I had hired her, the six-month probationary was almost over. My request that she be dismissed hit HR exactly one day after her probationary period ended.

To fire a nonexempt state employee, a manager has to go through the tortures of the damned. The process involves a series of disciplinary reports, each of which must be reviewed in detail and approved by an HR representative, followed by a series of committee hearings. Some employees will quit in the face of the onslaught this involves. However, if the employee is smart and knows how to work the system, she or he will recognize that there is no reason to quit. So, the process can stretch out over a year or more. Much more.

With all the back-and-forth between me and HR, it took six months to prepare the first disciplinary memo. Writing this document was agonizingly stressful. It required me to articulate frustrating and difficult matters and then to rehearse them, over and over, through revision after revision. Meanwhile, I did feel empathetic and indeed I often felt sorry for my Bartleby. These feelings added to the stress of working up a disciplinary statement, because they added a load of ambiguity and guilt. As time passed, the stress built.

Did my Bartleby resign when faced with several pages of complaints and demands about performance? No. Bartleby preferred not.

My Bartleby evaded dismissal by correcting everything described in the disciplinary memo. But the problem was, for every correction a new eccentricity or incompetence developed. When it became clear that six months of anguish had come to naught, I made the a decision to try to accommodate Bartleby’s oddities. She was, after all, laboring under a disability: she clearly had mental problems, some of them evidently cognitive issues related to age. Did I not have a duty to accommodate her disabilities?

Well, no. That was a mistake.

What I actually was doing was avoiding stress that I should have confronted, accepted, and taken on in a timely way. Had I “invested” the stress required to demand competent performance and to report and discipline incompetence, I would have saved myself and everyone around me—Bartleby included—a great deal of grief.

Bartleby’s incompetence increased everybody’s workloads. Admins in other parts of the unit quietly took on her responsibilities, because in her inability to do routine tasks she created more work for others. It was easier to simply do the tasks than to try to tutor her through them and make her undo the fiascos she created. I found myself spending evenings and weekends redoing assignments I had given her and undoing messes she had made.

About eighteen months ago, after she infuriated one of our client journal’s authors with an episode of screaming incompetence that involved habits she had repeatedly been warned about, stupidity and arrogance of monumental proportions, and astonishing absence of common sense, I removed her from all functional tasks and started assigning her busywork. This kept her out of everyone’s hair except mine; I took on the function of firewall between Bartleby and the rest of the world.

At the request of my boss, who correctly observed that my annual reviews of Bartleby’s performance were altogether too mellow (not to say “cowardly”), I decided to use the busywork as a training device and a well from which to draw support for a 2008 annual review that would honestly describe the incompetence with which we had been dealing for some time. I would review each of her make-work projects and explain, in writing, every error she had made and what she needed to do to correct it. This resulted in my repeating myself over and over and over—but now I had a year-long record of the fruitless repetitions. It also doubled my workload, because I had to reread documents I had edited months before, many of which had already gone to press; I had try to figure out what Bartleby was doing and articulate every single error, every incident of stubborn disobedience, and every misapprehension. Meanwhile, of course, I had to keep up with the new work that flowed across my desk every day.

A year of negative memos full of examples of errors and bêtises, each one repeating the same instructions over and over (mostly “learn Chicago style” and “learn how to use Word”) must have convinced Bartleby that I intended to fire her. Rather than accept that, she decided to resign.

Melville’s solicitor, the real Bartleby’s employer, never did get around to demanding adequate performance, but continued—as I was doing—to accommodate the eccentric employee’s bizarre behavior out of empathy, guilt, confusion, and downright flummoxing. The disaster that ensued was and was not the solicitor’s doing.

In the case of my Bartleby, however, the long-drawn-out ordeal was entirely my fault. I made two enormous mistakes:

1. I felt sorry for my Bartleby and I allowed that feeling to influence me; and

2. I tried to evade the stress I should have accepted at the outset, the stress that would have been entailed in cracking down on my Bartleby from the beginning.

By deferring stress, I only bought more stress for myself and all my coworkers.

I suggest to you that there is a metaphor here, one that works: stress is like interest payable. The longer you put it off, the more you pay.

It’s a money metaphor that applies in any situation where you could make things better over the long run by “paying” to address problems up front. It applies to parents who indulge their children and teenagers instead of insisting on civil behavior. If you don’t help a child to learn what is responsible—how to earn your way in life—you will end up with a young adult who will bring vast quantities of grief home to Mom and Dad. It applies to the predicament we get ourselves into when we run up debt to indulge our wants and then find ourselves over our heads—if we’d “invested” some stress early on to get our spending under control, we would not have to expend so much effort and grief later to get ourselves out of debt.

Stress is money, my friends. Soylent Green is people. To Serve Humanity is a cookbook.

Ah, Bartleby. Ah, humanity. Indeed.

Financial goals, urban angst

Yesterday afternoon when I got home from work and climbed out of the car, I smelled burning rubber in the garage. Thinking something was wrong with the van–did I drive across two rain-soaked freeways with the handbrake on? is that fan belt flaring up again?–I looked the vehicle over but could find nothing wrong. Then I walked out to the curb to pick up the daily delivery of junk mail and smelled acrid fumes on the air. Lo, to the northwest a plume of black smoke was rising toward the clouds.

It looked like it was coming from the decrepit strip shopping center where Fry’s recently shut down a ghetto grocery store. Neighbors were glad to see that store close. It’s been a public nuisance for years, allowing (illegal) 2:00 a.m. trash pickups that sound like a wrecking yard in action, sheltering derelicts in the oleanders behind the parking lot, and charging inflated prices to the captive audience of low-income apartment dwellers along 19th Avenue who can’t afford a car or whose driver’s licenses have been suspended.

The fire appeared to be close to my friend Shari’s rental house, the place she’s been trying without luck (largely thanks to Fry’s) to sell for the past two years. I jumped on my bicycle and headed over there to check on her property.

Slipping past a fireman whose back was turned as he wrestled a hose onto a fire hydrant, I got onto the street that borders the run-down shopping center. A few houses up the road, one of the neighbors was standing in his carport watching the commotion, which was directly behind his home. I asked him what had happened.

He said that some idiot had tried to commit suicide–at least, that was his take on it. The guy had driven his vehicle up to one of the locked steel loading doors and floored the gas pedal, spinning the tires until he quite literally burned rubber. And then the car exploded! He said he was sure the perp had to be dead.

Charming. Explains the screams that could be heard from my front yard.

My friend’s house seemed to be OK; it backs onto the east side of the shopping center and the cremation occurred on the south side. But I personally am not OK with this. It’s another incident in a string of incidents and circumstances that say it’s time to get out of this area.

I’ve been undecided whether to stay in my house in retirement. It probably costs more than I’ll be able to afford on a reduced income (some months I barely make it on what I’m earning, a good $20,000 more than I’ll have in retirement). But I like the house a lot–I’ve put a ton of work into it, and the backyard is now very pleasant, full of fruit trees and flowering gardens. I love the wonderful swimming pool, my only real indulgence. I like living in a diverse neighborhood and I like being centrally located.

However, the truth is that the middle-class infrastructure has moved to Scottsdale, the East Valley, and the far Northwest Valley, following white flight and the money that fled with it. To buy clothing and upscale food, to go to doctors and talented hair stylists, to take the dog to a top-flight vet, even to shop at an ordinary department store, you have to drive halfway across the planet. The Costco a couple miles down the road is an entirely different store from the one seven or eight miles up the road at the 101 and Cave Creek, and the difference is not to the advantage of shoppers in our neighborhood. And the city is about to spend the next four years ripping up 19th Avenue for our insensate light rail project, an unsightly monstrosity that will bring us festoons of overhead wires, a curb up the middle of the road prohibiting left turns into the few surviving businesses, and traffic funneled through our residential streets as drivers dodge around the traffic jams.

How exactly the endlessly touted light rail is supposed to enhance property values escapes me: it’s no improvement over the bus, because it makes exactly the same stops and moves people at exactly the same milk-run speed, taking two hours to cover a commute I can drive in 30 minutes. It trashes the streetscape and is truly hideous. My guess is we’ll be lucky if our property values don’t drop even further once that thing is in. Certainly four years of chaotic, noisy, dirty construction won’t help values.

So, I guess it’s time to set a new financial goal: Find the money to move someplace quieter and safer by or upon retirement.

But how? Houses are selling here, but only if you set the price low and wait a long, long time. My house is paid off. At my age I’d be crazy to take on a new mortgage. What I can get for this place will not buy a comparable house, free and clear, in a better neighborhood.

And move where? I certainly can’t afford Scottsdale. I don’t at all care for the East Valley, I truly don’t want to live in Sun City, and the West Valley doesn’t turn me on any more than the eastside does. The relatively short commute I have now sets my teeth on edge, and the prospect of driving from Surprise or points west into Tempe fills me with horror. The downtown area suffers from the same issue as North Central: it’s surrounded by blight and devoid of middle-class infrastructure. All that “historic” (read “outrageously overpriced”) housing down there is even more decrepit than what I’m living in: holes in the ground into which to pour money. Newer downtown housing, mostly hard-edged concrete “lofts” that are really nothing other than mid-rise apartments, is priced in the out-of-the-question range.

To accomplish the goal of moving, I guess I need a set of strategies:

Within the next three years:

  • Pay off the Renovation Loan, or set aside an equivalent amount in cash holdings.
  • Find a desirable, affordable place to live.

Explore Prescott and Tucson.
Reconsider Sun City.
Revisit Fountain Hills.

  • Determine how much of a bath I can take on housing and still have enough in savings to live adequately in retirement.
  • Calculate the best timing for putting the house on the market.

Sell before light rail construction begins?
Wait until commuting is no longer an issue?
Rent it until the market improves?

  • Consider putting the house on the market now, since it may take two years to sell.

The conundrum at hand is another case where money issues and stress go hand in hand. To live within my means, I apparently must live in a neighborhood where I don’t feel safe. There has to be a way to resolve this!