Coffee heat rising

Shaking off the blues

Of late, I’ve been sliding into the Slough of Despond.

It’s all freaking depressing, what with the dog ailing, hundreds of dollars in vet bills piling up, plagiarizing students (and more recently, a plagiarizing client), barely literate university seniors, the economy, the mess in Iraq, the horror in Burma, the meanness of the Democratic presidential campaign when we so desperately need leaders of good will, the neighbors having fits about a few enterprising burglars, and the general loneliness of onliness.

Time to shake that off!

Here’s the plan: come up with several things I would like and do them. These things have to

  • be within reason;
  • be possible to do in a fairly short time; and
  • create a change, no matter how small, in the routine or the scenery.

So. Here are some things that would brighten my days:

I would like to keep my house cleaner!

  • Start with a real spring housecleaning:
  • Oil the kitchen & bathroom cabinets.
  • Clean & condition the leather furniture.
  • Scrub the dog nests off the walls.
  • Wash the windows.
  • Clean the dust off everything.

I would like my nails to quit splitting.

  • Go to a salon and get a silk wrap or have product applied.

I would like the front yard to look less cluttered.

  • Put Gerardo up to digging out some of the extraneous plants.
  • While he’s at it, persuade him to clip off the frost-killed bougainvillea branches I can’t reach.

I would like to keep my car cleaner—gratis.

  • Use early Sunday a.m. to wash car.
  • Use shop-vac to wet-vacuum areas where coffee has spilled.

I would like to establish a second income stream that will bring in $12,000 to $18,000 a year by the time I retire.

  • Go in with T.M.; frame the proposed business plan.
  • Attend ABPA meetings; schmooze.
  • Figure out how to increase blog traffic; monetize Funny about Money.

Really, there’s nothing we can do about the larger issues around us. We can’t change the damage an incompetent and craven leadership has done to the economy and to our country’s place in the world; we can’t talk sense into any of the candidates who hope to take over that leadership; we can do little or nothing to help the Burmese or make up for the failures of our educational system or get us out of Iraq; we can’t even stop burglars from burgling. Whatever changes make life more tolerable happen on the individual level. Voltaire was right:

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

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!

Time is not money

‘Twasn’t long ago that I posted a comment to a blog in which I held forth on the rock-solid value of my time, which I calculated at around $60 an hour. That was the bargain rate. Platinum Edition: $200.

Wrong.

My time isn’t “worth” anything: it has no monetary value. Neither does yours. Like other clichés we use to order our lives, that fine old saying “time is money” has a nice ring to it, but it’s not the ring of a genuine silver dollar.

As metaphor, the “time is money” turn of phrase is just slightly off kilter. Time is more like water or air: something that is and should be freely available to everyone. You don’t have to work to earn time, or come into it by inheritance, or win it at the gambling table. You already have it. Is it limited? Yes. So is money. But that doesn’t make time the same as money. Water and air, as we’re rapidly learning, are limited, too. But they are not money. Like time, they can be manipulated to create money, but they are not the same as money. Time, water, and air are not intrinsically “worth” the same things that money is “worth”: they do not buy the same thing.

Here is a major source of stress in our lives: the disconnect between the way we think about time and what time really is.

This insight came to me the other day as I was trying to race around the city, charging from dreary destination to dreary destination so that I could get done with my errands, so that I could get on with something else. Every which way I turned, some clown pulled in front of me and ambled down the road at five miles an hour under the speed limit.

Flaring toward road rage, I growled at no one and everyone, What is the matter with these people! Don’t they know how much my time is worth? Where do they get off wasting someone else’s time? If I could have caught one of the morons, I’d have dragged him out of his car and throttled him right in the middle of the street. It felt very much like they were stealing from me: stealing time, stealing money.

The idea that our time possesses monetary value—that it is money—leads naturally to the feeling that it can be wasted, and that if someone else is doing the wasting, they’re effectively stealing something of great worth. It’s an idea that’s so universal you can’t escape it. As workers, we’re paid by the hour. Our vacation time and our sick leave are assigned monetary, hourly value. Lawyers and accountants and psychiatrists and therapists assess us by the hour, not by what they can do for us. We “budget” time; we “spend” time; we “waste” time.

If even half the other drivers out there subscribe to this point of view, I thought, it’s no wonder road rage has become a menace. Who wouldn’t be furious at the theft of something so valuable?

This attitude needs to change. Believing that something as commonplace as air must be husbanded, coveted, budgeted, and even somehow earned just naturally leads to greed, resentment, and stress. It’s hard to see past our culture’s insistence on assigning a monetary value to time—most of us are paid by the hour, leading us to think of life as something that can be broken into coin-like pieces. But that’s an illusion. We are paid for our skills and abilities, for the product of our intellectual or physical labor. The amount we can demand for our time depends not on how much time we have to sell but on how much our skills are valued.

Time is not money!

  • We don’t spend time: we pass time.
  • We don’t budget time: we write lists, make plans, and schedule appointments.
  • We don’t waste time: we idle or get distracted.

When you start looking at the minutes, the hours, and the days in this light, a whole new perspective dawns. Slow-moving traffic, a long line at the grocery checkout, a chatty acquaintance on the phone, a tedious meeting suddenly become a lot less frustrating, because none of them is taking anything of value away from you.

This is huge. A basic change in attitude—time is part of the environment, not the coin of the realm—relieves a vast amount of frustration and stress. It’s not an easy change, because it requires you to throw over a concept that permeates our lives. But what you get for the effort can’t be measured in coin.

Money buys stuff. Time buys experience, wisdom, and peace of mind.

Life in the big city

For the second time today the cop copter is buzzing the neighborhood. This morning it was over the fierce apartments to the west; now it’s racing back and forth above the two-block-long residential street to the north of me. For this mission it’s been up there almost an hour, and because it’s so close, my stereo can’t drown out the racket.

Cop flyovers are among the chronic stressors that go with living in this neighborhood. Every now and again, the airborne police will chase a fleeing perp into someone’s yard. A couple years ago, my ex- and his wife, who live about a mile and a half from my house, watched a teenaged boy jump the fence into their backyard with the cops and their copter in hot pursuit. When they caught up with the kid, they grabbed him and slammed him into the fence so hard it broke the gate. Another friend and her family moved into a house not far from here. On their first night in the home, they heard a helicopter parked overhead, its loudspeaker shouting. Unaware their street was a dead end, the perp had driven into the cul-de-sac, jumped out of his car (leaving it running, so that it climbed into a neighbor’s front lawn), leapt the fence, and was cornered in their backyard by police officers with their guns drawn. The children were terrorized, and you can bet the parents were less than thrilled themselves.

So this aerial presence is not soothing and not comforting. Sometimes I think I’d like to retire to a small town or enclave where the natives don’t feel under siege all the time. However, in Sun City not very long ago a couple and their house guests suffered a home invasion. Sun City is a place where most people leave their doors unlocked and feel confident in the knowledge that the sheriff will show within ten minutes of a call. The thugs grabbed the male guest, dragged him into a bedroom and shot him to death—just for the hell of it.

So. . . It may be better to be reminded regularly that you’re not safe, that you really should keep the doors and windows locked, and that an 80-pound dog with pearly whites to match has something to recommend it than it is to lull yourself into a false sense of security.

What does living in your city or town contribute your overall sense of angst, and how do you deal with it?