Coffee heat rising


The coop is flown!

I’m free.


I quit. I’m gone. Out the door, never to return. A bird that has flown the coop.

Last night, after I finally finished the latest iteration of the Index from the Black Lagoon, I mailed the damn thing off with an e-mail to our client editor letting him know I’m taking my 350 unused vacation hours, starting TODAY. That will carry me through to the end of the month, all the way to Canning Day.

And what a fine send-off that was! It was the worst episode of overwork I’ve been through since the days of La Morona, a.k.a. My Bartleby. Truly. I’ve been working from 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning deep into the evening, literally until I could not work any more, every day for the past four or five days. Those are eighteen-hour days. Most of that time was spent writing an index—truly a brain-numbing job—and undoing a screw-up of Herculean proportions in (naturally!) an essay that is long enough to stand as a monograph in its own right.

Yes, on top of the screwed-up index that had to be rebuilt almost from scratch, someone took it into his or her mind to set acres of direct quotation in italic. Why? Because it’s in Latin. We italicize foreign languages. Don’t we?

Well, no. Not always. Not in this case.

The flicking article occupies 148 typeset pages.

When our client editor saw the page proofs, he realized something looked odd but didn’t realize the author had it right in the first place: set roman. His response was to ask that we remove all the quotation marks.

After I had gone through 148 pages marking hundreds of deletions, I realized that couldn’t possibly be right: the guy was indicating direct quotes from primary sources. Belatedly, I drag out Chicago and find all that Latin material should have been set in roman type. That’s when, ever so much more belatedly, it occurs to  me to check the original MS, where I found that Author had it right, and someone on our end—probably the new editor in the sponsor’s office—changed it.

So now I had to go back through the 148 brain-boggling pages, STET all the quotes, and mark all the italic roman.

You can imagine how pleased our graphic designer was when I showed up at his door and dumped this mess on his desk. Ours was the third fiasco to enter his life that morning, and I presented myself at around 9:30. He grabbed the great wad of paper, waved it in the air, and demanded to know “Whose idea is it to publish a book as an article???!??”

Not  mine, of that you can be sure.

From there it was on to the index, 33 endless pages of entries and subentries parsing the most arcane subject matter you can imagine.

I really don’t enjoy indexing. This particular annual is difficult to index, because it not only is arcane, it’s dense. Every page has three or four entries, at least. By the time we reach the indexing stage, I’ve read the copy, which can be excruciatingly detailed, several times. And I Do. Not. Want. To. Read. It. Again. So I have to force myself to do this job, which under the best of circumstances takes about five to seven days.

Stupefied with short-termer’s syndrome, I plotted to foist about half the job onto my R.A. The book consists of discrete articles, and so I gave her several that did not overlap (so I thought) with the ones I kept for myself to work on. She wrote her entries; I wrote mine; then I merged the files.

Bad mistake.

First, the two chunks of copy in fact did have some overlapping content. In some cases, we described that content in different terms, so a subject was indexed in two places under two descriptive headings. And second, this young Ph.D. knows next to nothing about Renaissance and medieval history. This makes it difficult to recognize the names of major figures. Or, for that matter, some of the currents of thought and controversy that were BFDs then, but are lost and long forgotten today.

And finally, the aging editor forgets that young people conceive and map out research strategies differently from the way those of us who came up with hard copy do. They think in Boolean terms. A search is something that you do in Google or in a library database, not in an index or a drawer full of index cards. While there are some similarities, there are also some fundamental differences. And those differences are HUGE. The result: an index designed by a younger mind looks different and is different from one built by a survivor of the Cretaceous.

Ultimately, the only help for it was to throw out everything the kid did and start over. Basically, I ended up doing all the work I should’ve done in the first place, and then some. Quite a lot of some.

When I finally hit “Send” about 7:30 last night and realized it was the last thing I’ll ever have to do for GDU, it felt like a loud shrieking squeal had suddenly stopped.

You know how it feels when a migraine ends? Your head doesn’t hurt any more, but there’s a kind of residual echo of the pain? Like that.

My office is empty. Sometime between now and the 31st, I’ll have to go back to campus to return the College’s laptop and turn in the keys. Probably there’ll be one more frustrating runaround with HR. And that is it.

I hope never to have to set foot on the campus of the Great Desert University again.


Toby Hudson, Domestic Rock Pigeons in Flight, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

w00t! Budget success!!!

The American Express bill  arrived today. Hot dang! Just a little over $1,000!!

That’s within easy shooting distance of the $1,000/month post-Canning Day figure I’ve set for total discretionary spending (i.e., all costs that are not recurring monthly bills), and it’s well below my current $1,200/month budget.

And that’s without even trying very hard!

Last month’s success included a $97 bill for pool repair, a $50 trip to Home Depot, and a $25 junket to Lowe’s. Plus the $30 flu shot that GDU’s cockamamie insurance wouldn’t cover. Criminey, I even went to Whole Foods in this billing cycle!

So pretty clearly, even at the $1,000 target, there’s room for some play.

This month I’ve been consciously aiming for the $1,000 budget—last month, I had in mind $1,200 as the spending limit. So far, I’m in the black overall…but we’re only a week into the budget cycle, and I’ve spent about $60 more than planned for that first week. But catching up should be fairly easy: I’ve got all the food in the house I need, probably won’t have to buy gas for another week…uh oh.

Nooo… I take that back: the plumber’s coming over this morning. Day-umn! Bathtub drain is clogged. That’ll be a hundred bucks.

Okay…so I’m about to be about $160 over budget for the first week of this month’s budget cycle. That just means I’ll have to stay out of grocery stores next week. Not a very tall order, since the freezer is so full I can barely close the lid.

So, what’s the explanation for this little flicker of budgetary joy? A couple of things:

1. Mindset. I just made up my mind that I was going to spend less. Somehow, like making up your mind that you’re going to eat less and eat better to lose weight, that seems to set you on the right track.

2. Keeping track of every expense, to the penny. I keep an Excel spreadsheet in which I subtract expenditures from the amount budgeted for each billing cycle.

3. Strategizing shopping trips. I made three Costco runs and three trips to Safeway, each time with lists in hand. All were scheduled shopping trips, not serendipitous drop-ins on the way home from work. During the month, then, I had three shopping days, and on those days I went to Costco, Safeway, AJ’s, Trader Joe’s (once), and Whole Paycheck (once). Because I bought only what I’d planned to buy, costs at each of these emporia were kept under control.

4. Staying out of stores! Other than the grocers’ (if Costco can exactly be called a “grocery”), the only other stores I went into last month were Lowe’s and Home Depot, and the only reason I went to the Depot was that Lowe’s didn’t have everything I needed.

5. Not getting discouraged. Several times in the past few months, I’ve thought there’s no way in He** I can possibly get monthly expenditures down to $1,200. Then when I realized even that was too high, I thought I was doomed! But lo! Here we are closing in on Canning Day, and spending is getting right down to where it needs to be.

Don’t give up! You can meet your goal if you keep at it.

With my share of the Downtown House mortgage coming out of a tax-free draw from a whole life policy, if “non-regular” spending stays at $1,000, my bare-minimum costs next year will come to $27,672. They’re that high because the cost of Medicare will be many times what I’m paying now for health insurance. Though I think my projection is accurate, I may be overestimating the total Medicare cost by as much as $100 a month. If that’s true, then I might get by on $26,472. My projected net from teaching and Social Security alone will be $26,453. Not quite enough to cover costs, but it doesn’t count the $2,000 I can pull down as a dividend from the S-corporation or the $3,960 in projected net vacation pay. In 2010, total net income should outpace total costs by at least $2,600.

The year 2011 will have to take care of itself. And it probably will.

Another fun day at Human Resources

It’s probably my mistake. Most things are. Whatever, when I showed up yesterday morning at Human Resources for the required meeting for exiting retirees, I was told that the meeting wasn’t yesterday; it was Wednesday.

Now, I would swear the woman who made the appointment for me was on the phone when I had the calendar in hand, and that I said, as I always do, “Let me confirm that…” But maybe not. Maybe I wrote it down on Thursday and just imagined I entered it on Wednesday.

This created a double inconvenience: The pointless 44-mile round-trip trudge out there (where I have nothing to do other than pack up some more of my junk and haul it out to the car), and then, because they sent a packet of information through the campus mail, another pointless round trip in the next day or two to pick that up.

Swallowing my fury, I remarked to the woman at the reception desk that I had some questions that I haven’t been able to get answered. In the conversation that ensued, it developed that she was the very person who had made this pointless appointment for me—and, we may add, so far the only one who seems to have made some sense over the telephone. She was sitting at the front desk because, thanks to the layoffs, they’re so short-handed they don’t have enough staff to run the office properly. At any rate, she offered to answer said questions.

You understand: in dealing with HR what you get is a passel of information that you already know. Whatever they tell you is a) boilerplate and b) already on their website. But when you have a real question, one that isn’t answered on their website, they don’t know the answer. Consequently, they either tell you they don’t know and they don’t really know where you can find out, or they give you an answer that’s wrong.

For example, the last time I was out there (and I do mean out: HR’s offices are way to the south of the huge campus. It’s too far away to walk, and the parking lot is permit-only, so that employees have to pay to park there or take a chance on getting a whopping ticket)…the last time I was out there, I was told that the proposed December 31 canning day would get me in under the wire for the discounted COBRA.

Without the discount on COBRA, my health insurance premium will jump from $26 a month to something over $600. With it, the premium will be somewhat less than Medicare, around $185. Not really affordable, but at least attainable, more or less.

Yesterday the HR lady read the rules for the discounted COBRA closely (isn’t that a quaint idea?) and concluded that what I’d been told was wrong. My benefits actually have to have stopped before the 31st. So, she proposed, I need to ask the Dean’s office to can me significantly sooner. She suggested the 11th—arbitrarily, because some other disgruntled retiree had chosen that day at yesterday’s meeting.

I informed her that Social Security will not deliver a benefit check before the middle of February, even though it “starts” (snark!!) in January, and that they refused to “start” it in December so that I can get some money in my bank account in January, because I’m earning a salary in December that would trigger the 50 percent penalty for working while drawing SS. I pointed out that I will have a difficult enough time living for a month and a half with no income, and that there’s no way I can manage that for something like two months.

Then she decided I probably could get away with it by having them can me on the 27th, the date of the last paycheck of the month. But, she said, I’ll have to get the Dean’s office a) to do that (meaning I have to get that bureaucracy off the dime) and b) I have to get those people to state that I’m being terminated involuntarily (even though in fact what’s happening is they’ve arranged to have my contract stop then, and it’s entirely possible the government will argue that not renewing a contract is different from firing a regular worker).

Then I asked how I get my money out of the 403(b) plans to roll it into my IRA. She didn’t know. She said I had to call Fidelity and TIAA-Cref, and she did not know how to reach a human being at either outfit.

So I asked what is the minimum amount I’m required to leave in the plan in order to be regarded as “retired” over the next three years so that I can get my accrued sick leave payments, which are doled out over a three-year period. She didn’t know. She said I needed to call the state’s general accounting office.

I asked if benefits are taken out of our vacation pay, and if so, did that mean my health care insurance would be extended over the month or so of time for which GDU owes me. She said she believed that the health insurance stopped on the termination day, but she wasn’t sure. She called a payroll clerk up to the front, to discuss this question.

That woman said that the only thing that was taken out of back vacation pay was state and federal taxes, but that the federal tax bite would be 25 percent, and that your benefits stop on the day you are terminated. I asked why the tax rate was so high. She said that was just the rules. Then she said the state tax deduction would be over 30 percent, because that’s what I put on my A-4 form. (I did? Well, that explains why I keep getting such large state tax refunds). I said that would mean they would be grabbing over half my pay!

She said no, by “30 percent” she meant the state takes 30 percent of the federal tax. Then she said it was possible to elect a slightly smaller bite. I said I would like to do that. So she produced a new A-4, which is the same as a W-4 only for the state of Arizona. The lowest amount I could select was 21.1 percent.

By the time I walked out of there, steam was shooting out of my ears.

These developments—assuming they’re true—represent substantial more hassle, substantial more uncertainty, and four fewer days of pay: $960 less than I thought I would get!!!!!

The bright spot is that I’ll net a little more in vacation pay than the $3186 I expected: $3670. Not much—$486 less than the $960 I’ll lose by moving my termination day forward—but better than yet another hit on the head.

Moving on, I tried to contact the college’s business office manager, cc-ing my dean, and was told that she’s out until next Monday. So now all this complicated mess has to hang fire until then, and then hang fire still longer until she gets around to answering me. By then I will have forgotten some of the details and also will be engaged in dealing with other messes.

Today, whenever it gets to be business hours, I’ve got to track down the woman I found at GAO and find out just how little cash I’m allowed to leave in the 403(b) without losing my RASL payment.

Then, somewhere, somehow (I have no idea where or how) I’ve got to find someone who understands enough about COBRA to confirm or deconfirm whether I really have to sacrifice $960 of pay in order to keep my health insurance premiums in a range that I can even remotely afford to pay.

What I don’t understand is that, assuming the HR lady is right in thinking I have to be off the payroll before December 31 because my benefits would extend to that day, why can’t I be canned on December 30, thereby losing only $240 worth of pay? The rule says “eligible for COBRA” and the last day on which you may have been canned is the 31st.

She interprets “eligible for COBRA” as meaning not only that you were canned involuntarily but that your benefits have stopped. In her view, because my benefits would still be in force on the 31st, and because GDU will have to not pay me for the extra four days after the December 27 payday until the first payday in January 2010, those two things together will make me ineligible for the discount. I don’t think so: I think the rule says you may have been canned as late as the 31st. If she’s right that hanging onto my job until the 31st makes me ineligible for the discount but letting them can me on the 27th makes me eligible, then by that reasoning (if “reasoning” it can be called), I should still be eligible on the 30th. IMHO, I should be eligible on the 31st, but I’m willing to forego $240 (less tax, less benefits, less every other gouge GDU can think of) to keep my insurance premiums “down” to a mere $186 a month.

So far, I’ve been unable to find anyone, anywhere who can explain this rule. Most of the HR people barely know it exists at all, and they certainly don’t understand its fine points.

Jayzus Aitch Keerist on a crutch! Is it any wonder I’m grinding my teeth until they break?

Retirement/unemployment: A slightly brighter light

A meeting with the investment adviser yielded a little decent news on the pending unemployment (i.e., forced retirement) front. He figured out that $10,000 of the $25,000 sitting in the whole life insurance policy my ex- bought back in the early 1980s is not subject to taxes.

So, he proposes that I withdraw that in January 2010 and use it to pay my share of the mortgage on the investment house. This should keep taxes low and, because it’s not earned income, will not work against me in the Social Security earnings limit department. With the mortgage covered and the likelihood that the community college teaching gigs will max out the earnings limit, I may not have to take a drawdown from investments at all next year.

This, he thinks, will allow my much-battered investments to recover from the depredations of the Bush economy.

If, as planned, I add the net amount of the vacation pay GDU will owe me to the living expenses fund, I should end up with about the same monthly income that I have right now. It will delay having to raid my retirement funds for as long as a year, and meanwhile, it’ll give me a chance to apply for full-time work. The community college district has had a hiring freeze going for quite some time; that one job has opened up means the ice-pack may be melting. Between now and next fall, several more opportunities may arise.

O’course, the fly in that ointment is Medicare. Even with the inflated health-care premiums presented to us in this month’s open enrollment, the cost of cobbling together coverage comparable to my present health-care coverage will be about 10 times what I’m paying now. That’s going to be a big hit, and because of the earnings limitation, I won’t be allowed to use freelance income or take on a summer course to take up the slack.

So…2010 is gonna be a little pinched, but it should be survivable. As for 2011: it’ll just have to take care of itself.

Planning for layoff-induced “retirement”

In a moment of lucidity, I realized that of course if my basic survival account is padded with a five- or ten thousand-dollar cushion, what will matter in “retirement” is not month-by-month income (earnings will fluctuate wildly because teaching money will come only in spring and fall), but how much I will earn on average. That is, after the layoff, I won’t be living on bimonthly paychecks. I’ll be living on a fund of money that is restocked once a month from a variety of sources. 

When income from these sources runs low, I’ll have to use some of the cushion to live on. But when income rises while community college classes are in session, the cushion should be replenished, assuming my average costs don’t overrun average income.

Thinking about this the other day, I realized to my amazement that—any way you look at it!—my income in forced retirement will be higher than my salary. Unfortunately, the changed circumstances of retirement will make that irrelevant, because costs will rise significantly. However…there it is.

When GDU is paying my full salary, the net is $3,044. The pay cut created by two furlough days a month has reduced my take-home pay to $2,836.

My financial advisor says that with a 5 percent drawdown, my savings will last 100 years. At 7% the money would last 50 years. A 5 percent drawdown plus Social Security plus teaching income should create a net of $3,288, assuming the total tax gouge is around 20 percent. 

This looks wonderful, eh? Well…not so fast.

Even though my net monthly expenses will drop because I’ve paid off the second mortgage on my house and because I will cash in the whole life insurance policy as soon as this tax year ends, it still won’t be enough.

Right now I’m paying my share of the mortgage on the downtown house with a small drawdown from my largest IRA. In other words, I’m not paying the mortgage out of my salary. That cost will have to be folded in to the 5 percent survival drawdown—in fake “retirement,” I will have to help pay the mortgage out of money I would ordinarily use to live on.

Even that would be manageable…except for Medicare.

Medicare, Medicare Part D, and Medigap insurance will cost twelve times what I’m paying for health insurance now! And that will run my average costs over $3,288 a month.

Freelance income might take up the slack, but it’s so sporadic and so unreliable, I’m not including it as a source of average monthly income. As we’ve seen, the likelihood that I can keep my credit card charges down to $1,200 is slim, and so overruns of this tight little budget are probable and may be frequent. All it will take is one vet bill or one repair bill to run the thing deep into the red.

It looks like I’ll be forced to take a 6 percent drawdown, even though I don’t want to and even though I think it’s highly ill-advised.

One pool repair bill runs upwards of $115. You can’t walk into the vet’s office for less than $100. A pair of glasses costs $300. As you can see, then, at 6 percent I’ll get by…but it’ll be tight. Very, very tight. 

Probably some freelance money will continue to flow in, maybe as much as two or three hundred dollars a month. whoop-de-doo!

Yesterday I dropped by the college, where the departmental chairman was hanging out with the secretary. They said not to worry about enrollments: because the college nullifies unpaid early enrollments and community college students are just as broke as the rest of us, most people wait until the week before classes start to sign up for classes. The chair was confident all three classes would make, but, he said, even if they don’t, he still has several unstaffed sections. He said he was sure I would end up, willy-nilly, with three sections. 

So that will help to fill up the fund that I’ll be living on after December.

And it’s pretty clear there’ll be no problem landing three sections a semester as long as I can dodder onto a college campus. GDU has so massively shot itself in the foot—in both feet!—by jacking up tuition, adding a per-credit surcharge to the inflated tuition, and by generally mistreating students that vast numbers of students who would qualify to get into the university are going to the community colleges for their first two years. 

It will be a very long time before the university recovers from its own missteps and from our right-wing legislators’ fierce, vengeful animosity toward higher education, set loose by the departure of Governor Janet Napolitano, who was able to keep the kookocracy under control to some degree. The universities in this state, especially GDU, have been permanently damaged by the crash of the Bush economy and actions of the surviving extremists in our elected offices.

It’s too bad—a disaster, really, for our state—but on a selfish, personal level…what redounds to the junior colleges’ benefit may redound to mine.

Projected cash flow at 5% drawdown
Projected cash flow at 5% drawdown; red = outgo

Résumés on the wind!

No grass grows under this old lady’s feet, that’s for sure. Just sent out a résumé for a sweet part-time job that would be a great hoot, and e-mailed my book-length curriculum vitae to the English department chair at a nearby community college.

Hey! We’ve only got nine months here to find a new job! Better get to work.

Truth to tell, I believe I could do either of these p/t jobs on the side, while wrapping up the deconstruction of our office. We know I’m capable of teaching the equivalent of four bloated sections of freshman comp for juniors and seniors while supervising an editorial crew; after that, two sections of real freshman comp whose size is limited to normal NCTE guidelines should be a piece of cake.

Far more appealing, though, is the prospect of serving as p/t gofer and sidekick for an editor (and friendly acquaintance) at my favorite local press. This is the outfit that pays me to read detective novels. Mirabilis! Some of the novels I’ve had the privilege to read have been pretty entertaining. If you enjoy detective fiction and thrillers, you should take a look at their booklist. I know I can do this job to a T, and it sure would be easier than teaching freshman comp. Not only that, but once I walk out the door, it probably would provide the income I’ll need to keep from starving.

Yesh. I scared the bejabbers out of myself, along about three in the morning (as you can imagine, I enjoyed about 2 1/2 hours of sleep last night, between 4:30 and 7:00 a.m.), by loading Excel and massaging some figures. Didn’t take long before I was asking myself the Great Dark-of-Night Ontological Question:
What on earth was I thinking when I imagined I could support myself on Social Security and investment proceeds?

Wait! I remember: at the time, we all actually had some investments.

I was horrified to find that what with the 12-fold increase in healthcare premiums that Medicare will represent plus the need to take my share of the Investment House mortgage out of cash flow, my expenses will exceed my present net income, in the highest-paying full-time job I’ve ever held!

To get by, I’ll need to earn an extra $19,000 to $21,000 a year, above and beyond investment returns and Social Security. This will be a trick, since you’re allowed to earn a grandiose $14,000 before Social Security starts docking your benefits.

Not having the mortgage payments wouldn’t help a lot: even without those, Social Security plus proceeds from my total savings (including the money set aside to pay off the Renovation Loan and the savings fund to buy the next car) will not cover my expenses, post-layoff. Check it out:

Projected Expenses


Projected Net Income from Social Security and Investments


And oops, indeed: take a close look at what it’s going to cost me to live in blissful bumhood. And consider that my net income today is $39,000. I live like an ascetic: don’t travel, don’t own a cell phone, don’t subscribe to cable, satellite, or any other pay-per-view TV, don’t play computer games, rarely eat out, never buy more than the basic clothes and shoes, drive a 10-year-old car, don’t run a tab on the credit card, don’t even go to a freaking picture show! And I use up all but about about $2,000 of that each year. We’re looking at a $4,560 increase in my expenses once I’m on Medicare! Meanwhile, my income drops into the poverty range.

Clearly, I’ll have to work: either get a job or cultivate several income streams. The candidates are part-time teaching, growing The Copyeditor’s Desk, and monetizing Funny about Money.

Community colleges around here pay part-timers about $2,000 a course. The universities now pay about $3,000. Typical income from a freelance business is about $10,000 a year; I would be surprised, rusticated as we are in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, if Tina and I could generate much more than that, apiece. And what would FaM earn? It’s anybody’s guess. So guessy as to be negligible.

Hiring out to teach two courses from the community college district and two from the Great Desert University each year and ramping up our freelance business so that it pays a consistent 10 grand a year will produce something that looks like this:

projectedincomestreamsTwenty thousand extra dollars would do the trick, in theory. But that exceeds the Social Security earnings limitation by $6,000. Have the temerity to earn more than $14,000 a year, and you get your Social Security benefits axed. So, I would have to earn significantly more than 20 grand to end up with enough income to cover the bloated expenses of retirement.

If I’d had the prescience to sell my investments in the spring of 2008, today I would have plenty of money to live on, between SS and investment income. Too bad we didn’t all have crystal balls, eh?

Well, I felt a lot better, anyway, having sent out a couple of job feelers. Even if they come to naught, just doing something other than hunkering in the headlight while waiting to be run down feels like a positive move.