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.

Entrepreneurs: Adirondack Chimney Sweep

A chimney sweep in one of America’s warmest cities: Mark C. Keever is the second in Funny’s series of stories about entrepreneurs who find creative and unusual ways to jump off the treadmill.

I came across Mark and his business, Adirondack Chimney Sweep, in Angie’s List, where a long line of customers had left ecstatic reviews about his work. Not knowing whether the chimney in my 1971 house had ever been cleaned, about the beginning of December I gave him a call, hoping to have the job done before the big Christmas party.

Mais non! The man was booked into the beginning of January! A chimney sweep with personality, it develops, has more work than he can handle. When Mark dropped in the other day to apply his skills to my old fireplace, complete with his broom and old black stovepipe hat, I asked him a few questions.

FaM: Mark, how on earth did you get into the chimney-sweep business?

Keever: Well, I grew up in Queensbury, New York, a small town between Glens Falls and Lake George. Most people didn’t have much, and when you graduated from high school, your career choice was going to work in the paper mills or going to work in the local prison. Because people had to do for themselves, one of the things we learned in our shop class was how to clean potbellied stoves and chimneys.

In my senior year, I got in a motorcycle accident and was seriously hurt: broke my left foot in twelve places, broke my left leg, messed up my knees and elbows. That was the end of my future in the paper mill.

FaM: It must have kept you out of Vietnam, too.

Keever: That’s right. Couldn’t get into the military, either, because the damage to my foot made me unfit for combat.

FaM: So what did you do?

Keever: I came out to Arizona to recuperate and ended up going to work for the Greyhound Corporation. I worked for seven years, and then I went with the Southern Pacific Railroad. That was a good job, but after four years I was laid off—along with about 9,000 other people.

Not knowing what to do next, I looked around and found out that one in four houses in the Phoenix area has a fireplace. Well, that was a natural: I already knew how to sweep chimneys.

I started a business, but by the time we were up and running, it was out of season. Nobody thinks about their fireplaces on a 110-degree summer day. So I was really struggling.

To make ends meet, I decided I’d better take a full-time job with the City of Glendale. I was happy to get the job, but I kept the chimney-sweep business as a sideline.

And I also thought I’d better go to college to learn how to run a business, so I enrolled in a business course at Phoenix College. It only took me 25 years to finish my associate’s degree!

Meanwhile, I kept on working at the city and also kept sweeping chimneys as a side job.

FaM: It’s always a good idea to have a second income stream, isn’t it?

Keever: Yes. I was glad I had it, because last spring the city offered its employees a buy-out deal. I had only just earned the 80 “points” city and state workers need to retire, but there they were: I actually was in a position to retire. I thought it over for a while, and then finally I decided to take it.

So I got a good severance package and plenty of time to make a go of Adirondack.

FaM: That must have been a breathtaking moment!

Keever: I’ve never been happier! No more stress of a day job and a commute, no more working for a big bureaucracy. I’ve got all the work I can do, most of it in the wintertime while the weather’s nice, and the business has really taken off. All told, Adirondack Chimney Sweep  has had 2,187 customers.

* * *

Cleaning the fireplace, a two-and-a-half-hour project, entailed climbing on the roof to brush out the chimney and then engaging in some lengthy and vigorous cleanup with a large shop vac. By the time Mark finished, the firebox and the family room were spotless.

He sprinkled a handful of salt at the back of the firebox. “This brings good luck,” he said. Then he set a shiny copper penny in the front right corner of the fireplace. “A penny in the fireplace not only brings more good luck,” he continued, “but because it’s this year’s date, all you  have to do is look at it to remember what year you last had the chimney cleaned. This one should be cleaned about once every four or five years.”

After a short demonstration of how to lay a fire and how to use a newspaper torch to warm the cold air seeping down a chimney to make the flue draw better, he was off.

And the next time that thing needs to be cleaned, I know who I’m gonna call!


w00t! I’m never going back to work at GDU again. Over at the community college, the last of the student papers are graded, and all that remains is to meet one class this afternoon to return their papers. I’m waiting till this evening to post grades, because there’s still a shot my marvelously brilliant but distracted Asperger’s student will turn in a final draft (I gave a couple of foot-draggers until today to finish).

LOL! This kid is so amazing that even if I grade from the work-in-progress he turned in by way of proving that he is working on it, he’ll finish with a strong B.

Moving on: by this evening, I am going to be free of any sort of slave labor (except for copyediting another detective novel….heh heh heh heh!) for an ENTIRE MONTH.


I had forgotten how lovely winter breaks and summer vacations are. The only thing hanging over my head between now and the middle of January will be designing next semester’s courses. And I’m actually looking forward to that, because I have some highly creative new ideas.

Springing free from the Great Desert University is an enormous relief. One of the other things I’d lost sight of is how toxic that place is. I do not know one soul who works there who is happy in her or his job. At least one therapist in the city has a practice that consists almost entirely of GDU employees.

Imagine: a shrink who specializes in treating employees of a single organization. Does that tell you something, or does that tell you something?


The god of Sleep has returned to my precincts. I’m sleeping through almost every night undisturbed! It’s literally been years since I’ve had a full night’s sleep, one that wasn’t interrupted by a spate of wakefulness between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m. Matter of fact, that was the genesis of Funny about Money: nothin’ else to do in the wee hours but read blog posts and write a few of my own.

And since, for the first time since the memory of Person runneth not to the contrary, I feel rested when I wake up in the morning, I’m not irritable and on edge all day, I feel no desire for a drink every afternoon, and navigating our homicidal streets no longer reduces  me to screaming rage.

Do I worry about money? A little. But I know I’ll get by at least through 2010. By this time next year, I should be well accustomed to living on a third of what I earned at GDU, and if that’s the case, I can go along forever on Social Security, part-time teaching, editing, and a very small drawdown (if any!) from savings.

Yesterday’s guest post by Revanche struck a chord, when she remarked on her surprise at realizing how much she revels in freedom from the workplace. Right on, lady!

I think a lot of wage slaves who trudge into an office, factory, or retail store stay on the gerbil wheel for one reason and one reason only: health insurance. It certainly was true for me: shortly after I divorced I realized that once the COBRA ran out (my ex- covered that, as part of the agreement), I would be uninsured and unable to afford my own insurance. That mooted the prospect of freelancing, which, in my financial naïveté at the time, I imagined would support me. Several times during my tenure at GDU, I thought I should quit the damn job and go back to freelance writing and editing, but the reality was that I could not get insurance to cover me fully and even if I could, nothing was affordable.

Insurers dream up every reason from Hell to short you on coverage. In my case, I was told  that because I had a “diagnosis” that I had never heard of—something a doctor had innocently noted on my record but thought so minor he didn’t bother to tell me about it—Blue Cross would not cover any broken bones, back pain, or muscle spasms. This meant that a good car wreck would bankrupt me. And good car wrecks are commonplace around here. In any event, the cost was prohibitive. If I wanted to be able to go to a doctor, I had to keep working for GDU. Which of course was what was sending me to doctors…

Starting in January, the discounted COBRA will carry me through to Medicare. Though Medicare costs about 11 times more than GDU’s EPO does, it still is not beyond reason. The state of Arizona’s health insurance is so cheap (and you get what you pay for, BTW) that it far underprices what most Americans pay for group insurance, and so Medicare probably looks like a bargain for most folks.

Once government-provided health insurance is in place (if it ever gets past the retrograde types who are resisting it), I wonder what effect that will have on the labor force.

I suspect a lot of people figure they could get by with self-employment or in part-time jobs, but keep trudging because they can’t afford health insurance and are unwilling to go bare. How many workers who dream of jumping off the treadmill will do it, once that barrier falls?

I know I would have left GDU a long time ago if affordable public insurance had been an option. Why would anyone put herself through a lifetime of misery if there were a reasonable way to get out of it?

Maybe this is the reason the right-wingers oppose a public option: they know darned well the more self-starting wage slaves will flee if we don’t have to stay in the traces to get medical care when we’re sick.

What’s freedom worth to you? If you had access to decent, affordable health insurance and you could earn enough to cover your living costs on your own or through light part-time work, would you quit your full-time job—even if it meant cutting back on your lifestyle a bit?

Image: Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Morpheus and Iris. Public Domain.

So this is retirement?

With retirement like this, who needs work?

I read student papers till 11:30 last night (the result of having loafed half the day before, if reading page proofs can be called loafing); leapt up at 6:00 a.m.; shot across the city with La Maya to an estate sale (nice stuff: too expensive); shot home, delivering edited page proofs to a publisher on the way; worked till class met; collected another mound of papers to add to the mound from the other class (yet to be read); shot back out to Scottsdale to a business reception; flew back; fed the dog; took the dog for a walk, wherein we witnessed the immediate aftermath of a three-fatality wreck (teenagers from the tenements across 19th Avenue); trudged home; sat down to write a few lines of copy I’d said I’d do on a volunteer basis for the choir director; listened to the clock tick while trying to figure out what to say (it ain’t easy to praise God when you’ve just seen the end of three kids); heard the Mac boing at the arrival of a new e-mail message bearing not one, not two, not three, but twelve new documents from a client…

Oh, God. At this rate, I’m not going to live through retirement!

What’s an intellectual worker’s real overhead?

Over at The Copyeditor’s Desk, TM opines that a freelance editor working from home does business with a very low overhead: a computer, an Internet connection, appropriate software, some inexpensive paper, a few pens or pencils, maybe babysitting or day-care costs.

On a superficial level, I’d agree with that. But I’d like to argue that there’s a lot more cost behind editing, writing, graphic design, programming, and similar pursuits than just hardware, software, and some office supplies. The truth is, none of us can do our jobs without one very expensive piece of overhead: education. By and large, the more education the intellectual worker has, the more his or her skills are worth . . . but the higher the person’s overhead.

Consider what a good education costs. An undergraduate degree at an in-state public school can easily run you $15,000 to $20,000 a year. We paid $40,000 a year for M’hijito’s four-year degree at a private liberal arts college.

Two years of graduate school will take you to the M.A. (assuming you’re trotting right along): add another $30,000 to $80,000. A professional degree will set you back even more: the Great Desert University, which bills its law school as “among the lowest of all American Bar Association accredited law schools,” presents in-state students with a tab of $35,041 and bills out-of-state students $47,606. At GDU, a Ph.D. in a less marketable subject, such as English, runs from $7,052 a year for in-state students to $19,606 a year for out-of-state students (not counting books, housing, food, transportation, and personal costs); attaining a doctorate can take six to eight years.

So… A bright mind, a bachelor’s degree, and a few years of on-the-job experience probably will put you in a position to freelance as an editor, a writer, a graphic artist, or a computer programmer. Let’s figure the start-up costs:

Computer: $1,000
Printer/FAX/Scanner: $300
Internet connection: $360/year
Software:$300 (e.g., indexing program, etc.; assumes MS Office comes with computer)
Student loan: $8,724/year (approx: $60,000 repaid over 10 years at 8% interest)
Office supplies: $200
Desk: $300 (Ikea or other knock-down furniture)
Chair: $100 (Ikea or other cheap furniture)
Total: $11,984

Assuming you could bill 30 hours a week (a generous estimate, indeed!) and you needed a pre-tax income of $40,000 to live on, you would have to gross $51,984 a year to get by. Giving yourself two weeks of vacation time, you would have 1,560 hours in which to earn that amount, meaning you would have to gross $33.32 an hour: consistently and steadily.

This doesn’t count items that would be in your house anyway, such as a telephone connection, air conditioning and heating, water, and access to a bathroom and kitchen. And the biggie: it doesn’t include health insurance!

If you had a low-end master’s degree that you managed to complete in only two years, you’d add $30,000 to the cost of your training (assuming you count books, living expenses, & the like). What the heck: let’s pay that back in 20 years instead of a mere 10; at 8% that would run you $426 a month, or $5,112 a year. This actually brings your annual overhead down to a mere $7,672; to get that 40 grand of pre-tax income, you’d need to earn $47,672, or $30.59 an hour over fifty thirty-hour weeks.

Hm. What if you had a Ph.D.? Let’s say eight years of graduate school at $14,000 a year, since research assistantships and fellowships usually cover most of your living expenses. Again, you pay it back at 8% over 20 years: $936.81 a month, or $11,244 a year! This puts your annual overhead at $13,804. Now you need to pull in $53,804 to end up with a pre-tax, pre-health insurance take of 40 grand: $34.49 an hour.

In any of these scenarios, you’re having to earn $30 to $35 an hour and bill 30 hours a week consistently for 50 weeks a year. That’s to bring in an amount that’s just enough to call a living wage. Sort of.