Coffee heat rising

It Lives!

And it just quit its job.

Mayo PxYesh. I survived the surgery, apparently (to judge from the nurses’ and doctors’ commentary) better than most old ladies. Other than an overall sensation of having been run over by a truck, I feel pretty good. The tubes are out, everything is out but the IV connection, which they flat refuse to remove until I’m walking out the door. I even managed to figure out how to use the shower, which in its environmental correctness barely trickles out enough water to get your body damp.

In theory, I’m supposed to be discharged at noon, when M’hijito will kindly take MORE time off work to come schlep me around. The surgeon said I could pick up the dogs, which will make it possible for me to deal with them. And if that’s the case, I should be able to handle the pool, since nothing involved in its maintenance weighs more than 20 pounds.

Food is going to be a problem: I have to avoid high-fiber foods, and in my “real food” diet that’s mostly what I eat. The doc favors fake “food supplements,” which I flat refuse to eat. Somehow I’ll have to pick up some things I can cook that will be soft, high in protein, and low in fiber.

And that, I believe, will be chicken à blanc with rice or pasta. Heh. And I happen to have a lifetime supply of Costco chicken in the freezer…

My drinking habits will have to abate for a few weeks, alas. (How will I survive??) But that’s hardly the end of the world. In fact, it may be a good thing.

And: While I’ve been sitting here fielding sass from the current batch of students, some of whom have shown themselves to be exceptional douches, I’ve had a full-blown epiphany: I am NOT going to teach any more!

I’ve had six surgeries over the past year, one of them for a life-threatening condition. Enough is enough: I fail to see any reason to continue making myself miserable for a net income of $1,120 a month, max, averaged over 12 months.

So… I just sent an email to the departmental chair telling him I can finish out this section but wish to be relieved from duty this fall. If I just can’t make it without that $1,120, then I’ll go back in the spring. But somehow I don’t think a $13,400 drawdown from something over $600,000 is going to break me up in business soon. That’s a 2% drawdown. There’s enough in the credit union to cover six months’ of living expenses without any teaching income. So the soonest I’d have to start a drawdown is next January. Probably not even then, with any luck at all.

And with any luck, my proposed new enterprise, which promises to be pretty lively, will generate at least that much. And more, I hope.

“Follow Your Bliss”…REALLY?

Have you read this exceptionally fine post at I Pick Up Pennies? If not, you absolutely should. It’s the most articulate rant I’ve seen yet on an idiotic idea that permeates the American middle class. As Abby encapsulates it: “I’m sick unto death of hearing, ‘Do what you love, and the money will follow.'”

Amen, sister!

The truth of the matter is, there’s a reason we call our jobs “work.” We’re not supposed to think of them as defining our lives. Work is what you do to put food on the table and a roof over your head. Fun, fulfillment, and all that good stuff is what you do outside of work. Nowhere is it written that you have to “follow your bliss” to make a living.

Well. Nowhere credible, anyway.

While there certainly are jobs that are fun and fulfilling for people with a cast of  mind that fits said work, there aren’t enough such jobs to go around. Even those of us who have the skills to become, say, a forest ranger, a handsomely paid travel writer for the New York Times, a rock guitarist, a mightily marketed dog trainer, or an artisanal bread baker are unlikely to find that kind of work, because lots of other folks, most of them with more talent, better training, and more experience than ours, want those jobs, too.

Abby managed to survive a life-threatening illness that very nearly spirited her away and that left her with some long-term disabilities, which she has described at her blog. Now that she can return to the workplace, she has a decidedly pragmatic view of work:

Now, each time I get a paycheck, I’m flooded with an emotion that I can only describe as equal parts pride and greed. Well, 60/40 tops.

Maybe the ability to work — or, more realistically, the paycheck — should be a passion in and of itself. Whether due to unemployment or physical limitations, there are a lot of folks who wouldn’t care what they did, just that they could do it.

I, on the other hand, have been amazingly lucky in the health department and uncommonly privileged in other ways. These circumstances have made it possible for me, over the years, indeed to “follow my bliss.” Several “dream” jobs have come my way, and every time I’ve settled in to a desk at a workplace where some people would kill to be, I’ve thought, “Gee! I could do this forever! I’m going to hang onto this job for as long as I live.”

Uh huh.

I’ve been a freelance writer. I’ve been a magazine editor for the largest regional in the United States. I’ve been a full-time faculty member at a large research university, teaching writing and editing to upper-division and graduate students. I founded and directed a nonfiction writing program at that university. For the same vast learning factory, I founded and directed a scholarly publishing office that was unique in the land, possibly in the world. Today I’m a contract editor and I teach an online course in magazine writing, from home. All in all, these were (and are) pretty fun jobs.

But lemme tellya something: the money does not follow.

When you get a raise after ten years at your job and then you learn that a cashier at Costco earns as much as you do but she doesn’t have to take work home with her, she doesn’t put in hours of unpaid overtime with no comp time, she isn’t expected to spend her weekends and vacation time working for no pay…well. It does something to your “bliss.”

At one point I learned Costco was paying its forklift operators more than I was earning.

For this I got a Ph.D.? For this I cranked out a string of books through major publishers and more articles than you or I can count? For this I ended up with Social Security benefits that are a fraction of SDXB’s, who never finished a bachelor’s degree?

Okay, okay. No, money isn’t everything. But it sure as hell beats whatever’s in second place. When you realize you have significant talents, finely honed skills, and can do a job that benefits the society at large and that you’re earning less than a janitor for the City of Phoenix earns, you realize that your “bliss” is simply not valued. And the “bliss” part of the job slips away — imperceptibly at first, but over time the slippage becomes noticeable.

When you’re working every weekend, most evenings, and every holiday for nothing, the bliss starts to show some tarnish.

When you’re paid nine months of the year but are expected to spend your summers in meetings, teacher training,  and course prep — free of pay of course — “bliss” gets tired.

When a former student of yours who’s doing public relations declines to apply for the job you had at the regional magazine (which circulates in every country in the world!) because it pays nowhere near enough — nothing like what she earns in her 9-to-5, paid-overtime job — the blissful bubble in which you dwell gets a hole in it.

Would I care to be a janitor at the City of Phoenix? No. Would I like to be a Costco cashier? Maybe — maybe not. Do I want to be a forklift operator? Mmmm…I think I could do that job. Would I like to work in the PR department of a huge utility producing its light-weight in-house newsletter, tweeting messages from Management over the company’s intranet, and serving on the outfit’s Dilbertish cheerleading team, nine to five, no weekend work, no evening work, full benefits, a defined pension plan and Social Security? Damn right I would.

Just imagine having a life outside of work!

When you “follow your bliss” (heaven help us 🙄 ), what happens is that work merges with life. And when that happens, there is no life outside of work. All of your life is your work.

And that is why, IMHO, it’s not only foolish to go around trumpeting that people should make their living at something that makes them “passionate,” it’s probably dangerous. When you identify yourself with your work, you have no escape from work. And ultimately, you feel you have no worth outside of work.

Seriously. I had an editor who talked about having been out of work for three months after being laid off a job. The words he used in describing that period in his life were “I felt like I wasn’t worth anything.” This was a guy who wasn’t a worker with a fungible job. He was an editor.

That was his identity. No identity, no personhood. No personhood, no value.

From the vantage point of two careers started, built, and (mostly) wrapped up, I’d say the healthy approach is to think of work as separate from self. Work is something you do to support yourself and your children. If you enjoy it, bully for you. If you don’t, try to find a new trade or a new employer.

Either way, build a life outside of work, and seek your “bliss” there.

Resumés: What Do You Have to Say for Yourself?

Over at LinkedIn, a member of an editors’ group posted this link to a very entertaining rant by ghostwriter Jeff Haden. I used to teach resumé-writing and, as a business owner and as the head of an editorial office at the Great Desert University, discovered all that canned resumé advice, straight out of the textbook, came back to haunt.

How many times have you told some prospective employer how “unique” you are? How superlatively unique!

And how could you fail to tell the hiring committee of your “goal-oriented” nature? Your “world-class” administrative assistant skills? Your “creative,” “dynamic,” and “results-oriented” personality?

But did you happen to provide a concrete example to prove any of these steamy claims?

Come on! All I want is someone to do the filing, answer the phone, and learn the university’s involved purchasing software so we can order some paper now and then. Do I need a “world-class” administrative assistant for these Herculean tasks? Especially one who doesn’t know “world-class,” “goal-oriented,” and “results-oriented” are hyphenated?

When I look at a resumé, I hope to see what specifically the applicant has done somewhere else that a) indicates what he can accomplish on the job and b) tells me how she can bring the skills required to bear on the tasks that my organization needs to have done.

It comes right back to the oldest chestnut of advice to budding writers: Show, don’t tell.

Show an example of what you can do. And try to provide specifics, preferably with figures, that bear on the work you’ll be doing in job you’re trying to land.

If you must use a vague term like “creative” because you figure your resumé is being sorted by a computer searching for keywords, list accomplishments that prove you’re creative:

Established and oversaw two new departments for Arizona Highways, “Hike of the Month” and “Mileposts”
Created and taught the College of Arts and Sciences’ first fully online course

You’re “goal-oriented”? Prove it:

Wrote four feature-length articles a month plus several shorter pieces for regional and national magazines
Obtained a contract for and completed a fourth book

“Results-oriented”? Show what results you obtained:

Co-wrote national bestseller for William Morrow that returned $1.5 million in revenues during its first year and $1 million the second year
Redesigned research newsletter, turning it into a “magaletter” that became the basis of its current magazine format

You say you’re a “team player”? Whose team did you play on?

Established and developed office and designed all management policies. Developed and regularly updated strategic plan.
Initiated collaboration with Scholarly Publishing Program and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Coordinated management of unit with office of the Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Consulted with faculty editors and Dean’s Office on publishing matters.
Mentored graduate students in Scholarly Publishing Program.

If you’re feeding bloviated terms from a job description back to the employer, remember that the person doing the hiring wants to know what you can do for the company, not what you think of yourself — even if you think your qualifications exactly match the hot air in the job ad.

Find out something about the employer. Then massage your resumé so it highlights past accomplishments or training that bears directly on the kind of work you will be doing in the coveted new job. It’s all very nice that you did x or y for some other outfit. But what can you do for me? In your cover letter, show how that will come to pass.

The cover letter, in particular, should explicitly show that you understand something about the hiring company or agency and explain what, exactly, you can do for it. Don’t talk about your needs, for heaven’s sake. Talk about what you can do for the employer.

One of the funniest application letters that ever crossed my desk came from a guy whose cover letter went on and on about why he was applying to my company. He explained in great detail how he had moved to Florida in search of a better life. He decided he didn’t like the weather there and so he was moving to Arizona and wished to come to work for me.

Second runner-up: an application from a newly minted J-school graduate who couldn’t spell and didn’t recognize the comma splices with which she had salted her cover letter.

😆 🙄 😆

Sure: it’s all about you. But your task is to make it look like you’re all about the employer. And prove it.

Another best-laid plan defunct

{sigh} So the scheme to do a little market research and then race out to Tempe to meet my business partner got derailed last night.

I was thinking the real estate course’s final exam took place next week, during finals week. No. It’s tomorrow!

Forgot that these five-week short courses do not have dedicated final exam periods. I assumed we would meet next Tuesday for the exam. And of course, since I was figuring I’d have Friday, Saturday, half of Sunday, and Monday to read the three chapters I haven’t looked at and to figure out the math procedures that went over my head, I am SO not prepared. Not only that, but I’m only about 3/4 of the way through the page proofs that are due tomorrow morning—had figured to spend late afternoon and evening finishing that, since I’ll hit the road at 6:45 tomorrow morning.

So had to cancel everything for today and dedicate the entire day to reading page proofs and trying to catch up with the course material that I fell behind on while dealing with the toxic client. Shee-ut! That was not what I had in mind.

Fortunately, I scored a 96 on the mid-term. Asked the instructor if I would get a “C” in the course if I fail the final, which I fully expect to do. Did I really need to ask? This is a junior college, after all… He said not to worry, everyone in the class would get an A or a B, and that the final would have no meaning.

Why are we doing this? Why…why…? Because we have to sit in a classroom for 90 hours before we’re allowed to take a certification exam that could easily be passed by simply reading a 26-chapter book, about 80 percent of which consists of common sense and about 20 percent of which contains career-specific information that really does need to be learned?

So I figure I can prioritize the page proofs. Get that done by noon, maybe sooner—about 11 would be good. Bolt down some cheese and crackers for lunch. Then move on to trying to learn something about real estate; work on that into the night, until I can’t hold my head up anymore.

You know…the crazed thing about “retirement” is that the number of hours in the day seems to shrink. You never seem to have enough time to get through all the stuff you need or want to do. Mostly “need.” Rarely “want,” in my case, given the joy and pleasure I take in teaching and in reading the ramblings of demented wannabe writers.

And—here’s the weird part—the phenomenon is not exclusive to neurotic little moi. Almost everyone I know who is retired or semiretired says exactly the same thing. Most of those people manage time a great deal better than I do. SDXB, for example—no one is better organized than that guy, and on top of that he’s a freaking rocketship. He does so many things, every day, day in and day out, and he gets them all done between around 5 in the morning and 9 at night, when he goes to bed. But for him everything is quite orderly (he has, yes, a military mind). His schedule is not gestalt, the way mine is: he gets one thing done at a time.

Other, more normal folks, whose inclinations lie more centrally on the spectrum between gestalt and pristinely organized, report that after they quit their jobs they never seem to have enough hours in the day to do all the things they need or want to do. Maybe it’s a function of age. Or maybe it has to do with making a shift between the regimentation of work life and the naturally gestalt structure of freedom.

Whatever. I need to get back to work just now. Bye!

Plodding toward a New Career

Spent yesterday afternoon reading Chapter 16 in the real-estate textbook—”Title and Transferring Title”—and filling in four-page single-spaced study instrument on Chapter 15, “Contracts.” All this, by way of pursuing a new career in real estate.

Though it sounds dry as an empty Arizona housing tract, it’s surprisingly interesting. We tend not to think about where these customs, rules, and laws came from, nor, I think, do many of us understand their implications for us personally. Just in reading those two chapters, I came across a number of eye-openers and weirdnesses.

Did you realize, for example, that a person can take a piece of property away from you by openly occupying it for three years, by creating the illusion of owning the title, and/or by paying the property taxes on it? That if you make an offer on a house and then change your mind after the seller has accepted the offer, you may be liable not only to lose your earnest money deposit but also for a number of other hefty fees?

Between now and this evening, I’d like to read Chapter 14, “Environmental Issues and Arizona Water Law.” Exactly how a textbook is supposed to cover the water law of any Southwestern state in one chapter escapes me. There are attorneys who spend three years in law school followed by entire careers studying this subject. But whatEVER. The classmates had already been assigned this chapter at the end of the five-week RE 179 course—I and one other student walked in as the course morphed into the second semester, RE 180. So I’ll need to do a little catchup to come abreast of the other budding Realtors.

Unfortunately, between now and this evening I have to teach two sections of English 102 and drop by Costco on the way home.

One of the magazine-writing students reports that she recently started working in real estate sales, and that she has more work than she can cope with: “literally,” says she, “working from 7am until 2am.”

Welp, it’ll be interesting to find out if one gets paid for all those hours or if, like teaching, it’s just so much unpaid labor.

I figure sales of six $200,000 houses in a year would pay exactly what I’m earning at teaching adjunct, assuming one’s commission comes down to 1.5%. I have no idea whether that’s realistic.

Several online sites say real estate sales people end up with about 1.5% of sales, after the broker grabs half the commission. However, JS says his broker takes 40% of the 6% sales commission, not half (of which the sales rep nets about half). So that would mean he would get something more like two or three percent. Let’s assume he’s pocketing 2%: that would require me to sell 3.75 $200,000 houses in a year to supplement Social Security enough to support a lower-middle-class lifestyle. At 1.5%, I’d have to sell five such shacks.

More than that, actually: you have to cover a variety of expenses, depending on what brokerage you’re working for. And I’d certainly have to get a newer vehicle…can’t schlep prospects around in a 12-year-old dog chariot. So let’s add two houses to each of those: a very modest but for me acceptable income probably could be had by selling five to eight mid-range houses a year. Double that for low-end properties; halve it for upper-middle-class homes.

It’ll be interesting to see how (or if) this develops. I just can’t continue to do what I’m doing at the pay I’m earning.

Is That Light a Will o’ the Wisp? Or a Train at the End of the Tunnel?

Real estate is definitely starting to wake up around here, thanks to the influx of Canadian and Chinese investors. Everyone thinks the market is improving and will continue to rise. In Phoenix, the inventory of houses for sale has dropped by 42.1% and the median price has risen by 34.5%, with both indicators trending positive at the end of March. Unemployment here appears to be dropping; in January it fell .3 percentage points to 8.7%—not great, but better than a continuing rise. Last night the instructor of my new real estate class remarked that the people who will be taking the licensing exam at the end of this spring or early next fall will be in an excellent position to start working.

Moi, I remain skeptical. My mother got a real estate license in southern California, back when I was in high school. She never made a penny at it. However…she didn’t work at it full time, and she knew little about marketing or business practices. Though I don’t know much, I sure know more about it than she did. And of course, she had my father and so didn’t have to earn a living; I’m pushed by an element of desperation.

Exactly how desperate that element is remains to be seen.

Last night I was noodling with the numbers and realized that if I were to take a 4% drawdown now, rather than continuing to put off drawing down retirement savings until I really can’t work anymore, I could live in reasonable comfort. Actually, there are several ways I could bring enough money into the house to restore something like a middle-class lifestyle. Each has its problems. But it could be done.

One is to draw down 4% from savings.

Because of the mortgage on the downtown house, I’d still have to teach. But not much. The amount I’d need to come up with annually, above and beyond the drawdown plus Social Security, would be $4,400. That’s 1.85 courses per year, a huge improvement on 3 +3 + 1. Since the online magazine writing course is now well established and drawing enough students to make every semester, it would mean I’d never have to go into a physical classroom again. And I’d never have to read another barfiferous fresman comp essay again.

Drawback: it wouldn’t improve my financial situation. I’d still have to pinch pennies and often would run unnervingly in the red.

A second strategy is to take a drawdown but continue to teach composition courses.

I compared my last GDU paycheck, in the fall of 2009, with what I’m making now. One regular month’s net pay came to $3,170. Today, my infinitely pared-back, rock-bottom expenses come to $3044 a month. So if I could somehow bring monthly  net income back to where it was in 2009, I could cover my living costs and pay my share of the mortgage. A drawdown of 4% added to Social Security would give me $2,674 a month, a $496 monthly shortfall, or $5,952 a year.

To make up the shortfall, I’d have to teach 3.1 sections a year—much better than three a semester plus one in the summer.

This scheme—start taking a 4% drawdown now (not later) and make up the difference by teaching (but teaching a lot less)—presents some major drawbacks.

1. I would have to teach. And I don’t want to. Nor will I be able to do so for the rest of my life, unless I drop dead soon.
2. I’d have to marshal every penny in savings. It would leave me nothing to buy a new car, and keeping my 12-year-old vehicle running is starting to cost more than I can afford.
3. It would do nothing to improve my penurious  lifestyle. I’m sick of pinching pennies.

If I taught 2 & 2, I’d net an average $3,314 a month. That would at least give a little wriggle room, but it doesn’t erase the problem that I need a newer vehicle.

Another possibility is to earn a rather small amount in another job—something in the real estate industry is what I have in mind—continue to teach while I can, and not take a drawdown.

As we noted the other day, my friend JS says he earns $200,000 a year selling real estate. That’s in the present supposedly peakèd market! Now, he’s been at it for 10 years, he has an MBA, and he’s a very fine marketer. However, a tiny fraction of that, just $30,000, would suffice to support me, if I kept on teaching—not unfeasible given that I’ve managed to reduce teaching to a minimal workload. Let’s assume I netted $15,000 after taxes and expenses:

That’s teaching three sections a semester (one of which is the online magazine writing course, a piece of cake), and nothing in the summer.

The result is more than I earned at the Great Desert University. It would be a bitch of a lot of work, at least until I could develop a business to the point where I could drop the teaching. But it would return my income to its former glory.

There’s a third alternative: take a 4% drawdown, net 15 grand in working in a real estate office, and don’t teach:

This would provide a monthly net of $3,924, significantly more than GDU was paying me. If I continued to keep an iron grip on spending, it would be enough to buy a car, which I’d have to do anyway if I were hauling prospects around to look at real estate.

And finally, a fourth possibility: continue to teach two sections a semester (only one of which would be in the classroom) while taking a drawdown and hustling a net 15 grand in the proposed other endeavor.

In this scenario, I would net $4,564 a month, more than I’ve ever earned in my entire life. It would be a lot of work. However, two sections a semester would be relatively easy, since only one would be a composition course (work for the online course is now minimal, since I have that down to a template).

The disadvantage to pulling down savings now is huge: it could mean I will outlive my savings. Women in my family have lived into their mid-90s…and they were freaking Christian Scientists! They never saw a doctor in their lives. Given decent medical care (assuming I can get it), I might live longer than that. With inflation forcing me to take larger cuts of savings, I certainly could deplete my savings before I die. And that is a real nasty prospect, given what we know of elder care in this country. One needs a large chunk of money at the end of life to avoid dying in hideous squalor, suffering, and  neglect.

The disadvantages of teaching while trying to build a new career are large, too. I figure I’ll have to hang onto two or three sections while I’m getting started, in order to guarantee enough income to pay my bills. But if the real estate plan starts to fly, then I would want to quit teaching. The question is, would teaching in that first year or two or three be such a distraction that I couldn’t make the real estate idea work?

It certainly could be. Even though I’m not putting many hours into it now, even a few hours a week could be quite a hindrance. I may need all my energy and attention to build a new business.

None of the four schemes is ideal. What would have been ideal would have been to have kept my GDU job until I was 70, by which time I would have accrued enough in savings to support me and my son would be in a position either to sell the downtown house, as planned, or at least take on most or all of the mortgage payment.

Knowing that “ideal” will never happen again, I need to figure out how to make a choice among four less than perfect strategies to keep a roof over my head, food on my table, and wheels under my feet.