A Little Taste of Liberal

Warning: This entry contains profanity and political ranting.

I am a small-i independent.

I have some Conservative views, especially with regards to money. But I have some Liberal views, too, especially with regards to social issues. You might say that Get Rich Slowly is devoted to my Conservative side. Today, let’s explore my Liberal side, shall we?

First comes word that the Catholic church will excommunicate the doctors who performed an abortion on an 11-year-old girl, a girl pregnant because her stepfather had raped her. Repeatedly. For four years.

A Vatican official has said the Catholic church will excommunicate a medical team who performed Colombia’s first legal abortion on an 11-year-old girl, who was eight weeks pregnant after being raped by her stepfather.

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, said in addition to the doctors and nurses, the measure could apply to “relatives, politicians and lawmakers” whom he called “protagonists in this abominable crime”.

The girl, whose identity has not been released, had “fallen in the hands of evildoers”, the cardinal said in an interview with local television on Tuesday.

What the fuck, Catholic church? What is really the “abominable crime” here? This is where your priorities rest? Screw the poor girl who has been raped since she was seven years old. She can carry that baby to term! It’s what God wants! “Suffer the little children”, indeed.

Fucking idiots.

Secondly, here’s a fabulous piece from Keith Olbermann, decrying Donald Rumsfeld’s myopic assertion that dissent harms the security of the United States. I’ve posted the YouTube video (via) and the complete transcript (via).

The man who sees absolutes where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.

[Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarkable speech to the American Legion yesterday demands] the deep analysis and the sober contemplation of every American. For it did not merely serve to impugn the morality or intelligence — indeed, the loyalty — of the majority of Americans who oppose the transient occupants of the highest offices in the land; worse, still, it credits those same transient occupants — our employees — with a total omniscience, a total omniscience which neither common sense, nor this administration’s track record at home or abroad, suggests they deserve.

Dissent and disagreement with government is the life’s blood of human freedom, and not merely because it is the first roadblock against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as “his” still fight, this very evening, in Iraq. It is also essential because just every once in awhile it is right, and the power to which it speaks, is wrong.

In a small irony, however, Mr. Rumsfeld’s speechwriter was adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis. For, in their time, there was another government faced with true peril, with a growing evil, powerful and remorseless. That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld’s, had a monopoly on all the facts. It, too, had the secret information. It alone had the true picture of the threat. It too dismissed and insulted its critics in terms like Mr. Rumsfeld’s, questioning their intellect and their morality.

That government was England’s in the 1930s. It knew Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let alone England. It knew Germany was not re-arming, in violation of all treaties and accords. It knew that the hard evidence it received — which contradicted its own policies, its own conclusions, its own omniscience — needed to be dismissed.

The English government of Neville Chamberlain already knew the truth. Most relevant of all, it “knew” that its staunchest critics needed to be marginalized and isolated. In fact, it portrayed the foremost of them as a blood-thirsty war-monger who was, if not truly senile, at best morally or intellectually confused. That critic’s name was Winston Churchill.

Sadly, we have no Winston Churchills evident among us this evening. We have only Donald Rumsfelds, demonizing disagreement the way Neville Chamberlain demonized Winston Churchill. History — and 163 million pounds of Luftwaffe bombs over England — have taught us that all Mr. Chamberlain had was his certainty and his own confusion. A confusion that suggested that the office can not only make the man, but that the office can also make the facts.

Thus did Mr. Rumsfeld make an apt historical analogy, excepting the fact that he has the battery plugged in backwards. His government, absolute and exclusive in its knowledge, is not the modern version of the one which stood up to the Nazis. It is the modern version of the government of Neville Chamberlain.

But back to today’s omniscient ones. That about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this: This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely. And as such, all voices count, and not just his. Had he or his President perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience — about Osama Bin Laden’s plans five years ago, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons four years ago, about Hurricane Katrina’s impact one year ago — we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their omniscience as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact, plus ego.

But, to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance and its own hubris. Mr. Rumsfeld is also personally confused, morally or intellectually, about his own standing in this matter. From Iraq to Katrina to flu vaccine shortages to the entire “Fog of Fear” which continues to envelop this nation, he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies, have — inadvertently or intentionally — profited and benefited, both personally, and politically.

And yet he can stand up in public and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the Emporer’s New Clothes.

In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?

The confusion we, as its citizens, must now address is stark and forbidding. But variations of it have faced our forefathers, when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened our skies and obscured our flag. Note, with hope in your heart, that those earlier Americans always found their way to the light and we can, too.

The confusion is about whether this Secretary of Defense and this Administration, are in fact now accomplishing what they claim the terrorists seek: The destruction of our freedoms, the very ones for which the same veterans Mr. Rumsfeld addressed yesterday in Salt Lake City, so valiantly fought.

And about Mr. Rumsfeld’s other main assertion — that this country faces a “new type of fascism” — as he was correct to remind us how a government that knew everything could get everything wrong, so too was he right when he said that, though probably not in the way he thought he meant it. This country faces a new type of fascism indeed.

Although I presumptuously use his sign-off each night, in feeble tribute, I have utterly no claim to the words of the exemplary journalist Edward R. Murrow. But never in the trial of a thousand years of writing could I come close to matching how he phrased a warning to an earlier generation of us, at a time when other politicians thought they, and they alone, knew everything, and branded those who disagreed “confused” or “immoral.”

Thus forgive me for reading Murrow in full: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” he said, in 1954. “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”

And so: good night, and good luck.

It’s no secret that I think our current President is worse than incompetent — he’s a bigger threat to this country’s security and prosperity than any terrorist. My greatest fear is that there’s going to be some sort of monkey business to arrange for him to get a third term. Fortunately, I think the Administration has squandered their political clout. While they might have been able to achieve this once, I don’t think it’s possible now.

For all of my Liberal friends: Kris swears by the Cursor Link news summaries, an ongoing daily summary of current events with hyperlinks to (biased) news stories with more information. I’ll let her praise the site in the comments.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go post something Conservative at my personal finance weblog.

A Girl Named Wayne

Ah, spammers. You gotta love ’em. The following message was clever enough to fool my spam filter. It’s also dumb enough that I’m posting it here:

From: Wayne <[email protected]>
Subject: my dream come true
Date: 29 August 2006 12:38:56 PDT
To: [email protected]
Reply-To: Wayne <[email protected]>

Hi,
Hope I am not writing to wrong address. I am nbice, pretty looking
gbirl. I am planning ona visiting your town this month. Can
we meet each other in person? Messabge me back at [email protected]

No thanks, Wayne — I’ll pass.

Actually, come to think of it: what does this particular spammer hope to get out of this? Maybe she’s hoping to sell me Viagra or Levatra or penis-enlargement pills. There must be something wrong in this country, what with the chronic penis deficit we’re running. (And now I’ve just made this entry a huge bullseye for the comment spammers, who are just as eager to help me increase the size of my member.)

You Don’t Have to Explain the Math to *Me*!

This story will be a repeat to those of you who read Get Rich Slowly (though I don’t know what percentage of you do). The more you know of my personal mythology, the funnier this story is, in a total self-depricating sort of way.

The Woodstock Writers Guild met last night. We meet one Wednesday a month at the local pub. The food isn’t very good, but my fellow writers find it difficult to resist $2.50 pints. They quaff cheap beer; I drink diet soda.

I arrive at the pub early to take advantage of Happy Hour. Very frugal. Cheap hot wings are hard to beat. I eat my hot wings and mozzarella sticks and drink my diet soda while reading the latest issues of Smart Money (“10 Things Your Gas Station Won’t Tell You!“) and Business 2.0 (“Blogging for Dollars!“).

My fellow writers filter in. The meeting begins. They quaff their beers. I drink my diet soda. We talk about the craft of writing. The waitress comes by — my friends order more beer; I order another diet soda and a slice of apple pie.

Our discussion is interrupted when Andrew is declared the winner of the pub’s nightly raffle. He wins a t-shirt — a t-shirt with a beer logo. He’s pleased. Cheap beer, cheap hot wings, and a free t-shirt — we’re doing well.

When our critique of the story is finished, we catch up on our personal lives. Rick got married last month. Paul has just begun dating someone new. Josh and his wife are expecting their first child. Andrew and his wife just had their second. I just returned from vacation in San Francisco.

The check arrives, and the monthly ritual of “who owes what” begins. It’s always the same thing: five brilliant guys (seriously — each of us is pretty damn smart) trying to decipher a restaurant tab. It should be child’s play. It’s not. Andrew, in particular, seems to have a hard time. I give him a lot of crap for it — he has a math degree. Once, in a large group, he declared defensively, “You don’t have to explain the math to me!” as someone was trying to tell him about Malthusian population growth.

So there we are, trying to figure out who owes what. Mine is easy. Since I was there first, the top three items are my order. I calculate the total, write it in the corner, and hand over my debit card. I let the other four geniuses dissect the rest of the bill.

The waitress comes and takes it away. We talk some more.

When she returns, the “who gets how much change” ritual begins. There’s a great deal of confusion. The numbers don’t add up. “This is why I paid with a debit card,” I say. I stare absently out the window, savoring the lingering taste of diet soda and apple pie in my mouth.

Apple pie in my mouth.

It occurs to me that perhaps I’ve been a little too smug. While it would be amusing to allow the confusion to continue, my fellow writers are becoming a little cranky. “I think I know where the problem is,” I say. “I forgot to pay for my apple pie.” My five-dollar bill is greeted by a chorus of jeers.

I’ll never be able to live this down.

Lapsang Souchong: Strong Tea for People Who Hate Coffee

I hate coffee.

I like the idea of coffee — and I love the smell — but I think it tastes like crap. Literally.

I had a girlfriend in college who once played a mean trick on me. Willamette had an annual marching competition between classes (don’t ask) just before Spring Break. The losing class had to walk the Mill Stream through campus. Friends made crazy bets with each other. Amy and I made the following bet:

  • If she lost, she would eat a mug of raisins. She hates raisins.
  • If I lost, I would drink a cup of coffee. As we’ve established, I hate coffee.

For some reason I can no longer remember, I was gone on the night of the competition. I got back to the dorm (er, “residence hall”) to find it nearly empty. Only Amy’s roommate, Mari, was around.

“Who won?” I asked.

Mari looked sad. “I’m sorry, J.D. You’ll have to drink a cup of coffee.”

“Crap,” I said.

Mari brightened. “Would you like to get it over with now? I can brew a cup for you.”

“Okay,” I said. I sat down on the lower bunk and watched Mari pour in the grounds and start the coffee-maker.

Amy came into the room. “J.D.’s agreed to pay off his bet now,” Mari told her. Amy laughed. “Good thinking she said.”

The coffee finished percolating, and Mari poured me a cup. “Enjoy,” she said. I took the mug and stared at it. I smelled it. It smelled fine. Coffee always smells fine. I took a sip. It tasted like crap. “Do you want some cream or sugar?” asked Mari. I shook my head. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I took another sip.

I’d finished about half of the mug when a very loud and drunk Pat Kurkoski barged into the room. Pat, who lived upstairs, was a fellow freshman. He looked at me with bleary eyes. “WOOOO-HOOOO!” he bellered. “We won! Can you believe it? We won!”

I set the coffee down. I turned and fixed my gaze on Mari and Amy who were silently dying of laughter on the other side of the room. “You owe me,” I said. But they were laughing too hard to care.

Amy never did pay up on her bet. I tried to get her to eat raisins at dinner the next night, and for several nights thereafter. She refused. I was sorely angry with her for duping me and then refusing to pay up.

That entire setup is just to lead to this: I still hate coffee, but I’ve found that I love strong tea. In particular, I’ve found that I love:

  • Thai tea (the same stuff used for iced tea, but I like it hot)
  • Lapsang Souchong, a smoked tea from China (the “Scotch whiskey of teas”)

Both of these are deep, dark teas with rich flavor. The varieties I buy are highly caffeinated. Lapsang Souchong, in particular, is sometimes used as a coffee substitute, not so much for the flavor as the idea of it. I like the blend from Portland’s The Tao of Tea.

I’ve been brewing myself Lapsang Souchong every morning since we got back from San Francisco. I love its smokey almost-tobacco-like smell. Jeff says it smells like barbecue sauce I love the earthy flavor. I love the fact that these teas are rich and robust, not like wimpy chamomile or mint herbal teas.

I love strong tea, but I still hate coffee.

An Entrepreneurial Leap of Faith

My friend Sparky called last night. “I’m thinking of starting my own business,” he said. “I need some advice.”

I wondered why he wanted my advice until I realized that:

  • I help run a million-dollar-plus family business;
  • For the past six years I’ve operated a small computer consulting firm on the side; and
  • I’ve often mentioned how I treat Get Rich Slowly as being similar to a business venture (in mindsest, not in application).

Sparky’s proposed bike-fitting business seems very much like my computer consulting business; they’re more similar than different. We spent an hour discussing best practices and the entrepreneurial leap of faith.

“What made you decide to do this?” I asked.

“It’s crazy,” Sparky said, “I was biking to work the other day and it hit me. I recognized I had a passion for something and I couldn’t deny it. I love bikes. I want to help people find the right bike. I’d be good at it. Then I got to thinking about that CD you made for your 31st birthday. Back then, you said it represented your entrance to adulthood. We’re 37 now, and I don’t feel like an adult.”

I agreed. “I still feel like I’m seventeen,” I said. I told him about my own Eureka! moment, the spark of inspiration for this blog. “I was soaking in the bath reading Loral Langemeier’s The Millionaire Maker when something in the book hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized I had a passion for personal finance and wanted to share it. I put the book down, got out of the tub, didn’t even towel off, and sat down naked at the computer to draw up plans for Get Rich Slowly.”

Sparky laughed. “Too much information,” he said. “But yeah, this was was like that. I had a flash and knew that I could do it. That I should do it.” His voice was edgy. He was nervous. He was bursting with enthusiasm, with excitement, and with trepidation. That’s awesome. It’s a great combination for a new entrepreneur to have — you want to be eager, but you also want to be a little scared.

“So what advice can you offer me?” he asked.

“Well, first of all, you need to know that I’m no business expert. All I can do is give you anecdotes based on my experience. Some of what I tell you might be wrong. You’re going to need to consult an accountant.

“To my mind, the most important thing you can do at the start is to keep your business accounts and personal accounts separate. Open a checking account specifically for the business. Deposit $100 or $500 or $1000, whatever you think you’ll need. Document everything that enters and leaves that account. Keep files. Don’t intermingle business and personal funds.”

“Why is this important?” asked Sparky.

“It accomplishes a number of things. It helps you know the status of your business, and it covers your ass in case something goes wrong. It also helps your tax preparer. Most of all, it makes the IRS happy. They don’t want to see you mixing funds. They want to know if your business is making money or losing it. Your business needs to make money in three out of five years to even be considered a business and not a hobby.

“On a related note, as much as possible, don’t incur debt. Some businesses have to. If you were opening a bookstore, you’d probably have to go into debt to stock your inventory. But for your bike-fitting business, you shouldn’t have many up-front expenses. You already have excellent personal finance skills, and those should stand you in good stead here. My box company, which has hundreds of thousands in inventory, is completely debt free, though it wasn’t at the start.”

“What about training?” asked Sparky.

“Training is an exception,” I said. “Be willing to spend for training. Buy the books and manuals you need. Take classes. If you can avoid debt, do it, but be willing to view training as a necessary business expense, much like paying for college in the Real World.”

“I hope to borrow some of the books I need,” said Sparky. “I want to keep my expenses down.”

“That’s a great attitude,” I said. “This is the kind of business you can start on the side and slowly grow into. You’re not planning to quit your current job, are you?”

“Not at all,” he said.

“Excellent. Don’t quit your day job. For a business like yours, or like my computer consulting gig, it’s best to begin by working evenings and weekends. This allows you to get a feel for it, to discover if you truly want to pursue it full time. In my case, I discovered that although the money was five times what I make at the box factory, I really didn’t want to work with computers the rest of my life.”

“Right,” Sparky said. “But at the same time, I’m prepared to quit if my business is successful. If I can make $X a month at bike-fitting, that’s a sign I can make it on my own, and I’ll do it.”

“Perfect.”

“Your advice is great so far,” said Sparky. “Looking back, what are three things you’d do differently if you started over today?”

“Three things, huh? Well, first, I’d be confident. People come to me for computer help because they don’t know the answers. And they’ll come to you for bike fittings because they don’t know how to figure this out themselves. They’re lost. They want us to guide them. They don’t want to think that we’re lost, too. Even if you don’t know where you are, act like you do. When you start out, there will be times that you feel overwhelmed. You’ll feel like you’re drowning. Don’t let your clients see this. Remain calm. They don’t know you’re scared. If you’re really in over your head, break off the meeting and set up a time to get back together. Research that which was giving you trouble. You’ll get it.”

Sparky interrupted. “That reminds me. How should I price my services at the start?”

“Well, that’s another thing I’d do differently,” I said. “When I started my computer consulting business, I made myself available dirt cheap. I charged $25 an hour. I hated it. I absolutely loathed it. I wasn’t making enough to keep me happy, and the customers who didn’t know me suspected they were getting somebody who didn’t know what he was doing. Charge the going rate, or something close to it. If a bike fitting normally costs $150, don’t do one for $75. Charge $125 at a minimum. You may feel like you’re taking advantage of people, but they won’t. They expect to be charged that much. And you can deal with any pricing complaints on a case-by-case basis.”

“Right,” said Sparky. “That’s what I’d already decided with one of my mentors.”

“Mentors?”

“Yeah. I know a couple of guys who do bike-fittings in other cities, and I bought one of them lunch the other day. He let me pick his brain.”

“Great move,” I said. “That’s a the third thing I’d do differently. Use your contacts. Networking is an important tool.”

Sparky laughed. “Networking is often treated as a joke,” he said.

“It’s not a joke,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “I see that now.”

I told him that I have a good friend who is an accountant. One of my oldest friends is a lawyer. Professionals like these are good friends to have. Moreover, my network of family and friends was my best source for new computer jobs when I was starting out. “Networking isn’t about superficiality,” I said. “It’s about cultivating friendships and acquaintanceships. It’s like in The Godfather: you do something for me, I do something for you. Most people like to help.”

“I’ve started doing this a little,” said Sparky. “I know a guy who owns a bike shop, and he’s going to let me rent space in it for cheap. And I called you didn’t I?”

We laughed.

“I’m so emotionally charged by this,” Sparky told me. “But at the same time I’m scared.”

Exactly,” I said. “That’s how you know you’re on the right path. You’re stupid if you’re not scared. You’re even stupider if you’re not excited. That’s the entrepreneurial mentality.”

The Milwaukie-Gladstone Trolley Trail

Kris and I went for a walk through the neighborhood tonight.

As we strolled up Lee and onto Oak Grove, we noted the two houses that had recently sold. We turned onto Rupert and walked past the church. “I wonder what they’re doing there,” Kris said. “It almost looks like the church is developing it for their own use. There’s a driveway that cuts back behind it.”

“And look at that,” I said. “That old house has subdivided its lot; there’s a new building going up.”

Just then a couple in a red station wagon slowed to a stop. “Can you help us?” the driver asked. “We’re looking for the trolley tracks.”

“I think they’re down there at the bottom of the hill,” I said, pointing the way. “Or used to be. There’s just a divided street now.” The man thanked me and drove way.

As we reached the bottom of the hill, we noticed that there were, indeed, trolley tracks still visible, running from Arista back through some yards and out onto the other Arista.

The Interurban Line was one of the first rural trolley lines in the United States. (In fact, I think it was the first.) It was built in 1893, and ran from Portland to Milwaukie to Oregon City. It is likely that our house was built soon after the trolley went in. What is now our back door used to be the front door, and the lot extended back another hundred feet to the trolley. The land was subdivided long ago. When the Superhighway (99e) came in the thirties, trolley usage declined, and it was shut down in 1959. What happened next?

As Kris and I were marveling at the short section of remaining track, the red station wagon happened by again. We waved it down. “Look,” we said, pointing at the track. “There’s some rail still here. We think it used to run at an angle back thataway.”

“It did,” proclaimed a voice. We turned, and there was a man sitting on his front porch, listening to our conversation. “The rail line ran back through there, and then up the other Arista to Milwaukie. And from here, it ran all the way to Gladstone. Over the years, the right of way has been ceded to landowners, but Metro and the Clackamas County Parks District have acquired the entire length. They’ve got the funding and are going to turn it into a trolley trail. You could walk it now if you wanted to.”

The woman in the passenger seat of the car leaned over. “I know a man who has photographs of the old trolley line, all along its entire length. He has photos of every stop.” (Here I was stupid — I should have got the woman’s name and phone number.) The couple in the car waved and drove away, but we stayed and talked with the man on the porch, who introduced himself as Doug Woods, a member of what passes for Oak Grove government. (Oak Grove is actually part of unincorporated Clackamas County. It’s a fiercely independent area that refuses to incorporate even though the larger governments ache for it to become a city.)

Doug was full of area history. He explained how upper Arista used to be split level. “One lane of traffic was several feet higher than the other,” he said. “A few years ago, the county got tired of that and leveled the whole street out, removing the old railway median. Now they’ve got to put it back in.”

In fact, along whole stretches of the old trolley line, people are going to have to make concessions. It’s lain “fallow” for decades, unused, and slowly residents and businesses have staked claims to the unused land. Doug pointed out that the lady who lives next door to him was cranky that the proposed linear park would cut behind her property. It would essentially take away a twenty-foot wide stretch of land that she’d come to use as her own, even though the right-of-way belonged to the county. Further down the line, in Jennings Lodge, the trail has been annexed by a car dealership and by the parking lot of Buster’s Bar-B-Q. These residents and businesses will lose some land they’ve been using for free.


We live due east of the “e” in River Road, just west of the trail.
I’ll let the other neighborhood bloggers share their location if so inclined.

“When it’s all done,” said Doug, “there will be a multi-use trail that runs all the way from Milwaukie to Gladstone. It will be eight-feet wide and completely paved with asphalt. It’ll have soft shoulders. The local high schools can use it for cross-country training. Local equestrians can use it. Bicyclists can use it, but they won’t be able to dominate it like they do the Springwater Corridor. It’ll be a truly multiuse trail.”

I asked him what the timeline for completion was, but he couldn’t say. Plans were already behind schedule. He hoped it would be done in five years, or maybe ten, but there just isn’t any way to know for sure.

We asked him about other stuff in the neighborhood. He told us that the church at the top of the hill used to own the vacant lot, but sold it. It’s being developed, and the fire department had demanded another accessway into the church. That’s why there’s a new road back there. Doug told us about the big white house on the bluff overlooking River Road. The woman who bought it came before the county with a proposal to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. “Or,” she said, “I could subdivide it. I could legally turn it into a fifteen-lot development.” The country approved the bed-and-breakfast.

We talked for a long time. Twenty minutes? Half an hour? Eventually we took our leave and walked home, better acquainted with our neighborhood than when we’d started.

(I first wrote about the Trolley Trail on 08 February 2005.)

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Kris and I are back from our trip to San Francisco. We had fun, but it’s good to be home.

Day One
We left home at 7:15 on the morning of Thursday the 10th. Because I’ve always wanted to make a longish road trip, and because we thought it would be cheaper, and because we wanted greater freedom, we drove our own car. In a way, this was a challenge for me. I’m normally a speed-limit driver, but I surrendered this compulsion early on, and by the end of the trip I was a certified California driver. (“You don’t need to use your horn,” Kris told me this morning as we drove to meet Rhonda and Mike for breakfast. Oops.)

We stopped in Medford/Ashland for lunch (and to see the southern Oregon crime lab). After a way-too-long two-hour break, we hit the road again, crossing into California at 2:00. The amazing thing about crossing the border is that California immediately looks like California. It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. The afternoon drive was pleasant, though at one time I freaked out because I couldn’t see any hills — the land around us was flat and open. That’s unnatural. We also drove through a large swarm of moths just west of Sacramento. That was disconcerting. And messy.

We crossed the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco at about 7:15, twelve hours after we’d started. We’d made the 635 mile journey in about nine hours of driving time.

My first culture shock was the traffic. San Francisco drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians seem to view traffic laws as mere guidelines. And the drivers enforce their view of the guidelines with ample usage of their horns. San Francisco streets are filled with a cacophony of tooting horns. There are also no left-turn lanes. (“Three rights to make a left,” Andrew told me later in the trip.)

When we arrived at our hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf, I was perplexed to find that it would cost us $32/night to park. Yikes! I worried further about how much to tip the parking attendant. (My fretting over tips was a recurring theme on this trip.)

After a far-too-expensive mediocre dinner, we hit the sack, exhausted.

Day Two
Tiffany arrived on an early flight. The entire family gathered for a two-hour paid sight-seeing tour on a pseudo-trolley car. This was actually rather useful. The narrated drive around the city gave us a rough feel for where things were located. We headed up Columbus, into Chinatown, downtown to Union Square, up to Nob Hill, through the Presidio, and then across the Golden Gate Bridge. By doing this tour first, I was able to get a rough feel for the city’s geography, and we were able to plan our agenda as a group.


It was cold and VERY windy when I made this shot.

In the afternoon, the women shopped at Ghiradelli Square. I waited patiently. We also made our way to Lombard Street and walked down the “crookedest street in the world”. This is not a must-see attraction, although it’s easy enough to find and do.

Day Three
On Saturday we strolled up Columbus to Chinatown. We spent a couple hours looking at the shops, which were filled with all sorts of strange and wonderful things. Kris and I took a sort of perverse glee at the poultry shop: in the right-hand window were the fresh chickens, alive and clucking — down the hall was a boiling vat; in the left window we could watch the no-longer-alive chickens being butchered by an expert worker. It’s lucky I think chickens are dumb, or I might have wanted to rescue them.

We ate lunch at a dim sum restaurant. Dim sum is a sort of light meal. (It’s only for breakfast and lunch, not for dinner.) A waitress brings around various dishes — vegetable wontons, pork wontons, BBQ beef buns, hunks of chicken, balls of sticky rice, etc. — and the table selects those they’d like to share.


Adventurous sisters…

In the afternoon, we kids walked down to Union Square. Kris and Tiff shopped for shoes. I waited patiently.

We also found time to stop at City Lights, a notable San Francisco bookstore. It sucked. It’s just a run-of-the-mill bookstore now with run-of-the-mill surly bookstore employees. (Is this a requirement for bookstore workers? Even Powell’s has this problem.)

Day Four
On Sunday we drove to Golden Gate Park so that Kris’ mother could see the carousel and the bison paddock. Then, on a whim, we stopped to explore the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood (map), once a center of Sixties counterculture. It’s now a center of pretentious wannabe counterculture. Still, Haight is lined by dozens of vintage clothing shops. The women had fun shopping these. I waited patiently.

I found a potentially great bookstore called Forever After books, but it was marred by an awful user experience. “You can’t bring that ice cream in here,” the guy behind the counter told me. Fine. I can understand that. I stood outside and finished my ice cream, looking at the books in the window. But when I went inside and wanted to actually examine some of these books, the guy told me I couldn’t. When I wanted to examine some plastic-wrapped pocket books just inside the door, he came from behind the counter and hovered over me while I looked. “Can I open this to see what it’s like inside?” I asked regarding one book. I could not. What the hell? Fine. I won’t buy it then. (I’ve never been in a shop that wouldn’t let you open a plastic-wrapped book or comic. It’s absurd.) Signs were hung all around the shop declaring that customers were not allowed to do this and were not allowed to do that. There were several books I wanted there, but ultimately I decided I would not give my business to a place that treated its customers with such contempt. Kris’ father later pointed out that given the nature of its clientele — the riff-raff we saw along Haight — most of the store’s policies were understandable. Maybe so. But I still think it’s a poor idea to treat all of your customers as if they were crap.

Day Five
On Monday we said good-bye to Kris’ family and drove north to Berkeley. Michael Rawdon had recommended a store called Comic Relief, and I wanted to check it out. I paid for half-an-hour of parking and entered the store. I knew right away that I was in trouble. There was little hope of me getting out of the store in thirty minutes. And while I’d done well on my budget until this point, I knew that the store was going to strip me of a lot of money. I was right on both counts.

Comic Relief is a shop devoted to the sort of comics I buy: bound volumes collecting several issues at once. The store contains thousands of these books, as well as a wide selection of graphic novels and, to my delight, comic strip compilations. (More than anything, I’ve come to love collecting comic strips.) I didn’t score anything particularly rare, but I picked up some fun stuff. “I’m glad this shop isn’t in Portland,” I told Kris. “I’d be broke.” Comic Relief was awesome.

We then drove to Novato (thirty minutes north of San Francisco). Andrew Parker, a good friend from grade school, had offered to put us up for a couple of days. His wife Joann prepared a fine meal for us, although I was heckled for my picky eating habits. (Which most of you are already familiar with.) We ate cheese and bread and crackers and lasagna and consumed a lot of wine. The conversation was great fun as we learned about Joann’s life in Texas, and about what these two do for a living.

Day Six
Andrew and Joann indulged us on Tuesday, driving us back into the city so that we could catch a couple of attractions we’d missed before. In particular, I wanted to see the Cartoon Art Museum. I’m glad we went, as this was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We also indulged Kris by paying an exorbitant fee to walk through an exhibition of artifacts from Titanic. The display was neat, no question, but not worth the price. Also, I was offended by the many blatant grammar and punctuation problems in the signage.


We first met in second grade…

We wanted to take our hosts out for a nice dinner, but instead we returned home where Joann prepared a delicious cheese fondue. Yum. (Thanks, Joann and Andrew — we owe you a nice meal the next time you’re in Portland.)

“It was less dumb than I thought.” – Kris’ review of the Cartoon Art Museum

Day Seven
We said goodbye to the Parkers and drove north on 101. We stopped in Santa Rosa to attend the Charles M. Schulz Museum. This was disappointing. The exhibits aren’t awful, but they are rather dull. I was hoping for a more comprehensive history of Peanuts and an exploration of how it fits into the context of comic strip history. Instead we got an exhibit on Woodstock and an exhibit on the kite-eating tree. Lame. The museum is new, though, and there’s room for future improvement.


A mural made up of thousands of individual comic strips.

In the afternoon, we departed the highway to drive through the redwoods on a scenic byway. We stopped at one point to take a short jaunt through the trees, marveling at the mass of one fallen specimen. It was ginormous.

We stopped for the evening in Arcata, which was a mistake. The town is home of Humboldt State University, and this was apparently the week that new students arrived in town. We managed to snag one of the last hotel rooms, then drove off to look for someplace to eat. Downtown Arcata might be considered quaint, with its old buildings and its central square, except for the loud and scraggly young adults who had gathered to tell stories about their summer. There was also a greater beggar density here then there had been in San Francisco (and the density in San Francisco was staggering).

We ate at Jambalaya, which had decent food but terrible service.

Day Eight
We got a slow start on Thursday, which made me cranky. After breakfast, we stopped north of Arcata for an hour-long hike through the forest. Unfortunately, there’d been a recent bear siting: a black bear and her two cubs were known to be in the area. Now, I may not have mentioned this before, but I’m terribly afraid of bears. I know it’s irrational, but I’m certain that I’m going to die by mauling. The entire time we were hiking, I was petrified we’d be attacked. It didn’t make for a nice jaunt in the woods.


Our hike through the Redwoods featured many ferns…

I was even crankier when, by two o’clock, we’d only travelled one hundred miles. But then things turned around. I entered some sort of mystical driving “zone” and for four hours cruised up the Oregon Coast, grooving to techno tunes while Kris read a book. At six, we found ourselves in Florence on the Central Oregon coast. “Where are we going to stay tonight?” asked Kris. “I don’t know,” I said, and just then we noticed a sign that pointed toward Eugene. We were both starving, and decided Eugene offered the best hope of a good meal, so we cut east.

We made excellent time for fifteen minutes before our journey was brought to a halt. We found ourselves in a long line of semi-trucks and RVs and other big vehicles. A minivan had flipped ahead and was blocking both lanes of traffic. We turned around and found another highway that headed north, snaking through the hills to Junction City, which is just north of Eugene. We couldn’t find a decent place to eat in Junction City, and I didn’t want to go south to Eugene, so we drove north, desperate for food. Finally we stopped at a Wendy’s in Albany. We were willing to eat anything at this point.

“It’s nine o’clock,” I told Kris. “We might as well drive all the way home.” And so we did.

Conclusion
We had a fun trip, but it’s good to be home. I regret not seeing more of San Francisco. We didn’t do the Alcatraz tour. We didn’t head south to see Michael or to meet Ramit. We didn’t do a lot of things.

But I guess that means there’s a reason to go back!

Beggars on the Streets of San Francisco

We were walking up Columbus to breakfast this morning. As we came to a corner, a well-dressed Asian man came out of a coffee shop carrying two steaming cups. A gaunt beggar stepped toward him and held out his hand saying, “Can you lend me some money for breakfast?”

The Asian man threw back his head and laughed loudly. “That’s funny,” he said, striding away. He laughed again.

“I hope you’re never poor and hungry,” the beggar muttered under his breath. His eyes caught mine. “Can you lend me some money for breakfast?” he asked. I looked away and walked on, embarrassed.

The streets of San Francisco are filled with beggars. Portland has them, too, but not like this. Here there seem to be one or two on every block. (I know that’s an exaggeration, but that’s how it feels.) In Portland they’re mostly scraggly older white men. Here they come in every age, type, and color.

Off the top of my head, I’ve seen:

  • A man in a wheelchair selling his “art” along Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • A man in Haight-Ashbury holding a cardboard sign reading “Need $ for Weed”. He was gregarious, stopping people to chat with them. He was making a lot of money.
  • Another man holding a sign that said “Dollars for Booze”
  • A grizzled middle-aged man sprawled on Haight, disoriented. Another beggar was crouching next to him. “You okay, man?” he was saying. “I’ll get you help. Here’s all I’ve made today.” And he poured his coins into the other man’s cup. The sick man tried to hug him. “I’ll be back with help,” said the benevolent beggar.
  • In Chinatown, every block had an old Chinese man playing a two-stringed bowed instrument (something from the erhu family?). The streets were filled with strange music.

Beggars are a moral quandary for me. I want to help. In an ideal world, I’d help them all. Or I’d at least help those who are legitimately in trouble. But how can I tell which beggars are truly needy, and which are just going to use the money for booze or pot? Does it matter? And who am I to judge?

It might seem silly to write about this — it’s such a trivial part of personal finance (if a part of it at all) — but I think it presents important moral implications. I know many people are opposed to giving money to beggars ever, and I cannot blame them. I’m always reminded of one of my favorite Bible passages, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), which reads in part:

For I hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

Last night I was in a great mood. I’d just had a great meal — clam chowder, fresh crab, a few ribs — and was walking back to the hotel. I passed a one-eyed black man holding a styrofoam cup outside a 7-11. “Change?” he whispered. “Change?” I stopped, pivoted, dug in my pocket and gave him all the change I’ve accumulated on this trip so far. “God bless you, brother,” the man whispered. And I walked on.

I wish I could do more.

Skinflint on Vacation

This is the first vacation I’ve taken since developing a frugal mindset. It’s tough for me to let loose. My pennypinching ways are causing me pain.

For example, we drove to San Francisco because (a) I love to drive, and have never had a chance to do a long trip like this; (b) having our own car would allow us greater flexibility; and (c) I believed it would save us money. (We’ll tally expenses at the end to see if it really did so.)

However, as soon as we arrived at the hotel I was greeted by a rude slap in the face: we must pay $32/night in parking! This had never even crossed my mind. I’m a hick at heart, and hicks never pay for parking. This setback is going to cost us 6.4% of our vacation budget. That’s basically the equivalent of a hotel stay on the drive home. (We’re driving back up the California and Oregon coasts.) This made me sulky until Kris pointed out how ridiculous I was being. There’s nothing we can do about the cost, and we can afford it, so we should just roll with it. It’s a bummer, yes, but what can we do?

We’ve exercised our frugality muscles in other areas.

We packed some fruit and water and snacks from home so that we didn’t have to stop along the way. These snacks will also stand us in good stead so that we can avoid paying for breakfast. To save a little money, we fueled up and ate lunch in Ashland. (There’s no sales tax in Oregon.)

Aside from the Parking Debacle, I had one other minor case of non-frugality. I was drowsy while driving, so we pulled into a rest stop to get some caffeine. I could have had a Coke for a buck, but I decided to try a Red Bull energy drink. There was no price listed on the vending machine, so I assumed they were also a buck. Bad assumption. The machine took my dollar and asked for $1.50 more. Holy cats! I pressed the coin return, but no luck. It wouldn’t refund my money. I threw good money after bad and ended up with a $2.50 beverage. (Which, fortunately, did its job: it woke me up.)

Today we join Kris’ family for a touristy exploration of San Francisco. I’m surprised at how overwhelming it is. I don’t have much experience outside Portland and, especially, its rural towns. San Francisco is big. And cosmopolitan. And a little intimidating. (Yet very, very exciting.) It feels sort of European, actually. My goal is to forget about the $32 parking and just have fun. And stay frugal.

Addendum: Kris notes that I’ve also been flustered by tipping. When we travel, we normally stay in motels. Because we’re traveling with her parents — and because this hotel is being subsidized by inheritance money — we’re staying someplace a little nicer. People keep doing things for us. Some guy parked our car. Do I tip him? I don’t know. I asked the woman at the front desk, and she seemed offended that I had asked. Faux pas piled upon faux pas. Fortunately, I did know how to tip the bellhop — one-dollar a bag, right?

J.D. the Duck

Lieberman lost,” Kris told me today.

“Lost what?” I asked.

She fixed me with her gaze, shook her head, then ambled upstairs. “Lost what?” I called after her.

“I’m going to watch the news,” she muttered.

I went upstairs to watch the news with her. Apparently Joe Lieberman, Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost a primary election. Connecticut has primaries in August? What are they smoking over there? “So what?” I said. “Who cares?”

“I’m not talking to you,” she said. I watched the rest of the Lehrer News Hour with her, and my questions were answered. Then I went downstairs to take a bath.

Kris came downstairs as I was soaking (and reading an article in Men’s Journal about the twelve greatest sports cars of all time). She pulled back the shower curtain and stared at me (and my fleshy lumps). “You know what the difference between you and Celeste is?” she asked. Celeste is her good friend and co-worker.

I thought for a moment. “I’m happy?” I said, hoping that was the right answer. I snuck a peak at the Corvette pictured in the article.

“No,” she said. “The difference between you and Celeste is that when I said to her this morning, ‘Lieberman lost,’ her reply was, ‘Omygod — are you kidding? How do you think this will affect the upcoming elections?’ When I said to you, ‘Lieberman lost,’ your reply was, ‘Lost what?’ That’s the difference between you and Celeste.”

I half-listened, half-read a great run-down on a classic Jaguar. “Huh,” I said. “I thought you were going to say the difference was that I was happy.”

“You know what? A duck is happy. A duck! A duck walks around all day oblivious to what’s going on in the world. That’s what you are: a duck. You’re a duck.”

I tossed my magazine onto the floor and slid back into the warm water. “Quack quack,” I said. Kris sighed and left the room.


We’re leaving for San Francisco in the morning. We won’t return for a couple weeks. I hope to be able to post while I’m gone, but no promises. Maybe we should have paid the housesitter to write weblog entries, too…