One Small Step for a Man…

Last night, I made what may be an important move in my attempt to get my electronic life under control. I separated my work e-mail from my personal e-mail.

I’ve complained for months that I’m overwhelmed by my e-mail load. I’m also overwhelmed by my browser tabs and my text documents. Things are out of control. I’ve been paying Michael and Lisa to help me at Get Rich Slowly, but I’ve done a poor job of giving them assignments because I’m buried by all the stuff. I don’t know what they should be doing!

Worse, I’ve turned into a terrible correspondent with my friends. It’s one thing to be slow with my GRS e-mail, but it’s a shame when messages from Dave or Andrew or you get lost in the swamp that is my inbox.

So, in an effort to take control, I’ve told my desktop computer to stop checking foldedspace e-mail. I’ve told my laptop to only check foldedspace e-mail. What’s more, after two years of having a zillion open browser tabs, the laptop now has none. The browser is in its default state, ready for me to poke around. If I use it for work, I’ll try to work on one task at a time, and try to finish that task before moving on.

I don’t have all the text documents closed on the laptop yet, but I think I can get there over the weekend. I may just zip them up and e-mail them to the work machine. What’s another ten text documents when I already have nearly 100 open?

Anyhow, what I’m trying to say is: I’ve begun to compartmentalize my work life and my social life. I’m hoping this leads to a revitalization of the latter. Work has been my whole life for too long…

Building Great Sentences

This is how geeky I am (as if you all needed another example).

For years, I’ve bemoaned the fact that I’ve been unable to find a good college-level grammar class to take. All of the college-level grammar classes around here are remedial. I don’t want a remedial grammar class. I want an advanced grammar class that really gets into the nuts and bolts of the stuff.

As you may know, I’m a huge fan of The Teaching Company. This company offers college-level courses via compact disc and DVD (and, now, audio download). They’re great. Robert Greenberg’s “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” is marvelous, and I recommend it to anyone. Well worth the $95 download.

As much as I love these courses, I try not to look at the catalog when it comes. I’m a frugal fellow, remember, and I don’t need to go out of my way to find reasons to spend money. Hell, I already have several courses from The Teaching Company that I haven’t finished auditing yet:

Today when I received the monthly Teaching Company e-mail solicitation, I dragged it to the trash, just like always. But as I did, something caught my eye: a course called “Building great sentences: Exploring the writer’s craft”.

Well.

As you can probably guess, there were mere microseconds between me noticing that and actually downloading the lectures. That’s right — I am so geeky that I would, without hesitation, pay $35 to download a 12-hour series of lectures on how to write sentences.

Now I’ve got to find an excuse to listen to this course. Anyone up for a trip to Boise and back? I’ll provide the wheels. And the listening material.

The Idea of Having

“You know our house isn’t really cluttered, right?” Kris said last night.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When you write about your battle with clutter, it makes it sound like we live in a house filled with junk. We don’t. Our house is pretty clean. You’ve just got a lot of stuff you’re holding onto that you don’t know how to get rid of.”

“That’s true,” I said.

Our house isn’t cluttered. Sometimes it gets messy, but that’s my doing. For example, the dining room table has been covered with personal finance magazines for the past week as I worked on a forthcoming article at Get Rich Slowly. Or before that, I had all of our exercise stuff (yoga mats, exercise ball, stretch bands, etc.) strewn across the floor. But it’s not like we have junk all over the place.

Instead, I have piles of Stuff in my office, in the guest room, and in the workshop. Even these piles are moderately neat.

“And you know why you can’t get rid of Stuff, don’t you?” Kris continued.

“Because I want it,” I said.

“You think you want it,” she said. “You like the idea of having certain things, but you don’t actually use them. You’ve got dozens of books stacked in the guest room. They’ve been there for a year. Have you needed any of those books in that time?”

“No,” I said.

“That’s my point. You can’t bring yourself to get rid of them, yet you don’t use them, either. So they sit there. You wouldn’t even notice if you got rid of them. You should just do it.”

As always, Kris Gates is right. The difficulty is forcing myself to move from acknowledgment to action. Tiffany has offered to help me get rid of my Stuff. Maybe I’ll take her up on the offer. Or maybe I’ll just pile everything in the workshop and let it sit there for another year or two…

The Curse of Clutter

While Mom was in the hospital, Kris and I spent several hours at her house cleaning. I’ve noticed before that it’s easy to see the clutter in another person’s house, and this time was no different.

The trouble is that it’s difficult to see the clutter in your own house. Coming home from our cleaning trips, I could look around and see that there was too much Stuff around us. I could see that there was lots of stuff I could sell or give away. But I don’t know how to start.

I’ve spent the past year or so working to thin the amount of Stuff I own, and after each session, I feel like I’m down to bare bones. I know I’m not, but that’s how it feels.

Now, looking around my office, I wonder what I could part with. My personal finance books? My comic strip compilations? My comic book compilations? My music collection? I don’t know. I’m paralyzed by indecision, so I never start.

The workshop is worse. That’s my staging ground for the Stuff I’ve decided to get rid of, but which I haven’t actually been able to act upon. There are piles of books and records and who-knows-what-else sitting out there. Cleaning experts say that if you haven’t used something in a year, you should get rid of it. There are lots of things like that in the workshop, and yet I cannot pull the trigger.

Sometimes I feel like I should hire a “cleaning consultant” to come in and purge for me. Maybe Andrew or Pam would do the job for me. I’ve seen both of them ruthlessly purge clutter in the past.

Meanwhile, I’ll just sit around looking at all my Stuff.

Marvelous magazine ads from 1904

This post contains many scanned images. Click on any detail to see a larger version.

I believe that one of the best ways to reduce spending is to limit your exposure to advertising. Marketers employ powerful persuasive techniques to circumvent our rational minds, encouraging us to spend our hard-earned money on things we don’t really need.

This isn’t anything new. Advertising has been a pervasive part of American culture for more than a century. I recently picked up some 100-year-old magazines for cheap at a garage sale.

  • One is the May 1904 issue of Women’s Home Journal.
  • The other is the October 1909 issue of Collier’s.

While it’s fun to read the articles — the Wright brothers fly a plane over Manhattan! Admiral Dewey at home! — it’s even more fun to look at the ads. They provide a fascinating glimpse of the rise of U.S. consumerism.

A few advertisements show products that are still familiar today:

[ad for Heinz and its 57 varieties] [ad for Jell-O]

Some of the ads demonstrate new technology that now, 100 years later, we take for granted:

[ad for Pope bicycles] [ad for Opal Refrigerators]
[ad for Hoover Suction Sweepers] [ad for parlor organ]
[ad for Edison Phonographs]

And, of course, certain ads seem quaint or dated:

[ad for some sort of clotheswashing thing, though I'm not sure what] [ad for Domino Sugar]
[ad for a book about how women should please men] [ad for Dr. Graves' tooth powder]

Of course, there were questionable financial schemes being advertised even back then. People have always been lured by the promise of quick riches. Some of these ads offer guarantees of “perfectly safe” returns of 12-18% a year, while others offer sure ways to make a couple hundred dollars in just a few days while working from home.

[ad promising a 12-18% safe return] [ad for a mysterious scheme]

Some of the “make money” ads offered legitimate opportunities. This one from the October 1909 issue of Collier’s seems to give a peek into the origins of the now familiar bowling alley.

[ad for a sort of portable bowling alley]

There are two interesting differences between the ads in the 1904 Women’s Journal and the 1909 Collier’s. In the former, there are several advertisements for carriages:

[ad for Elkhart Carriages] [ad for carriages]

But five years later, there are no ads for carriages at all. Instead, there are several full-page ads for automobiles! (Unfortunately, the magazine was way too big for my scanner, so I can only get about half of this ad.)

[ad for Ford motorcars]

It’s also interesting to see the rise of credit. Though consumer credit has been used for centuries, the sort of credit we think of (using installment payments) is a more recent development. For a long time, it carried a social stigma, but that eased during the first part of the twentieth century.

The 1904 Women’s Home Journal contains one ad (for pianos) that offers installment purchases. The 1909 Collier’s promotes several companies with “easy terms”.

[ad for easy credit terms on a clothing purchase]

I loved reading these old magazines, and intend to keep my eye out for similar bargains in the future. Actually, Kris and I are stopping at an antique store later this afternoon. I should set myself a $10 budget and then see if I can’t find a couple of magazines to take home.

[ad for boys' clothes] [ad for hair renewer]

A Gold Medal in Boring

I find NBC’s Olympic coverage maddening. Asinine, really. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Olympics, and I like Bob Costas. So I’m willing to watch television for the first time since the Academy Awards last winter. But NBC doesn’t seem to care.

Everything here in Portland is tape-delayed. Events that could be live — like the women’s gymnastic all-around competition — are instead delayed three hours, putting them far past my bedtime. Why not run West Coast coverage from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m., NBC?

And why so much frickin’ beach volleyball? Is the sport really that popular? I don’t mind watching a match or two, but every single night? Ugh. Same with Michael Phelps. I admire what he’s done, and I’m glad to watch the races, but yesterday NBC not only ran a half-hour interview with Phelp, his mother, and his coaches, but they re-ran the same damn interview a few hours later. I would have rather watched archery! Or the equestrian events.

I would dearly love for some other network to outbid NBC in the near future so we can have a taste of what competent coverage might be like.

Improper Usage

I have an editor. Each week one of my posts from Get Rich Slowly is reprinted at MSN Money’s personal finance blog, Smart Spending. I work with a woman named Karen Datko, whom I admire a great deal. She’s funny and helpful and full of advice.

Karen and I have a difference of opinion on commas, especially as they relate to quotations. I follow standard usage for dialogue, but I cannot bring myself to do so in a situation like this:

Kris Gates is always “right,” according to her husband.

That’s the correct usage, but it makes me tense. That comma does not belong inside the quotation marks. When I write, I always do the following:

Kris Gates is always “right”, according to her husband.

To me, this is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also logical.

Unfortunately, Karen isn’t a fan of aesthetics and logic. She’s a fan of standard usage. “Won’t you please make an effort to fix your commas?” she asked me last spring. And I did for a while. But it’s difficult! I’ve been doing sensible commas for decades; it’s not a natural thing for me to “correct”. (Heh. See what I did there?)

Karen recently corrected another usage error that I consistently make. “‘Personal finance’ needs a hyphen when it’s a compound modifier,” she said.

She probably thought that was an innocuous statement, but to me it was a revelation. I’m not joking. I’ve been using hyphenated adjectival phrases (and adverbial phrases) a lot since starting to write full-time, but I’ve always just used my gut to tell me when to use a hyphen and when not to. As soon as Karen mentioned compound modifiers, the rule became clear!

Still, I’m not sure I can bring myself to write “personal-finance book.” I’ll probably write “personal finance book”. And Karen will weep.

Gros Manseng

Kris’ parents were in town last week. While they were here, we took them to some of our favorite restaurants. (We didn’t get to Pok Pok — maybe next time.) On Sunday night, we dined at South Park for the first time in two or three years.

South Park has altered its menu a little since the last time we were there. There are fewer choices, but each one seems more interesting than before. They still have the paella, though, and so I ordered it. First, though, I had a plate of fruit and cheese. I asked the waitress to bring me a wine that would match.

She chose a 2007 Alain Brumont gros manseng/sauvignon blanc blend. No, I’d never heard of gros manseng, either, but I love sauvignon blanc. (It’s my favorite white.)

Well.

I took one sip of the wine and was floored. I’m not a wine snob, so I can’t tell you what about its nose and notes. All I know is that it was crisp and refreshing — perfect for a summer cheese plate. (The cheese plate was good, too.)

When the paella came, I was a little startled to see that it was nothing at all like South Park’s old paella. Formerly, it had been almost soupy. Now it’s dry — seafood and rice. Don’t get me wrong: it’s good, if a bit too laden with shrimp. (I only tolerate shrimp — I’d rather have more mussels in my paella.)

“Can you bring me a wine to go with this?” I asked the waitress. She seemed puzzled, so Kris said, “Just bring him another glass of that.” And she did. Yum.

On Monday, I did a very non-J.D. thing. I bought a case of the 2007 Alain Brumont gros manseng/sauvignon blanc from Liner & Elsen. The only case of wine I’ve ever bought before was three-buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s. I’ve never found a wine I liked so much before, though.

“I feel decadent buying a case of wine,” I told Kris.

“It’s fine,” she said. “You like it. You’ll have fun sharing it with other people. I think it’s good to buy a case because it saves you a little money.”

She’s right of course, so while I was at it, I also ordered a case of the Domaine St. Michelle blanc de noir sparkling wine, which Marcela and Pierre introduced us to last spring. That stuff is yummy, too.

Cleaning House: When Little Messes Become Big Problems

Kris and I drove down to clean Mom’s house last night. Over the past decade, her place has gradually been overtaken by Stuff and clutter. Since Mom is still in the hospital, we figured this was a great time to tackle some of the mess.

After three hours of cleaning clutter and sorting Stuff, there’s no mystery about where I acquired my compulsion to buy. I come by it honestly. But while I’ve managed to kick the habit, Mom is still under its sway.

The gift that keeps on giving
We started cleaning upstairs in the spare bedroom. It was difficult to even get the door open, and when we did, we didn’t know where to begin. The room was piled with boxes and bags and bubble wrap.

Mom has a thing for ordering from catalogs like Current, ABC Distributing, and Colorful Images. Over the years, she’s ordered boxes and boxes and boxes of Stuff from these companies to give as birthday and Christmas presents. She’s given most (but not all) of these things away, but, for some reason, she’s kept the boxes.

She’s also kept some of the gifts, misplacing them beneath stacks of paper and plastic. Kris found one item intended for our nephew, Michael. Mom wrote herself a sticky note: “Christmas 2002 2004″. It’s now 2008. Michael will be ten years old this winter, and the gift is no longer appropriate.

The spare bedroom also contained:

  • Over 50 rolls of wrapping paper
  • Mom’s collection of mail-order dolls
  • Unused exercise equipment
  • A personal computer from about 1993
  • Stacks of newspapers from the mid-1990s
  • Immense quantities of packing peanuts and bubble wrap and other shipping debris

At one point I stopped and sighed as I looked around the room. “This is a great example of why you shouldn’t buy too much in advance,” I said. “This whole thing is a mess.” I’m sure Mom no longer has any idea what is left in the room. She ought to take an inventory.

Best by date
Next we worked on cleaning Mom’s refrigerator and pantry. We sorted the old, expired food from the good. Little was good. “This soup is from 1997,” Kris said, discarding a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom. “And this Wheaties box has Clyde Drexler on it.” We laughed.

We found many similar examples:

  • Mayonnaise “best by” 1996
  • Juice boxes from 2003
  • Green olives black with mold
  • Snapple long since turned to sludge

Mom apparently buys a lot of food at Costco in bulk packages. She might drink the first two bottles of a Snapple four-pack, but then the last two become spoiled. Or she’ll buy a six-pound bag of pretzels but forget about them.

(“Maybe she likes pretzels,” I said when Kris showed me the bag. But she replied: “No woman living alone should buy a six-pound bag of pretzels.” The bag was from 2001, so I’ll give Kris the point on that one.)

We threw out several hundred dollars in spoiled food, nearly all of it in giant Costco containers or bound as part of a Costco bulk pack. Costco (and other warehouse clubs) can be a great way to save money, but not if the food doesn’t get used. A bargain is not a bargain if it goes to waste.

Little messes become big problems
Eventually we noticed something alarming. My father had actually purchased many of the items in the freezer and the fridge. My father died in 1995. Obviously it makes no sense to throw food away just because the person who bought it has died. But it also makes no sense to keep the food for twelve years past the expiration date.

“You know,” I said. “Mom probably never meant to save this Stuff so long. I’ll bet it started small. She let a couple little things slide. She kept this jam, for example, or those pickles. Before long, she wasn’t throwing away any of her old food.”

A similar problem became apparent with the cats’ litter boxes. What had started as a single “accident” is now a looming disaster, an accretion of months or years of similar accidents. The stinky mess has ruined not only the linoleum, but perhaps also floorboards underneath. If you let the little things slide, they eventually become big things. In this case, a mess that might have taken a few moments to clean will probably now cost several hundred (or several thousand) dollars to repair.

A small step
Going through all of Mom’s Stuff, and handling her finances recently, I feel like I’ve been given a peek at a secret life. I’m able to see how she handles money, what she spends it on. Mostly she’s doing okay, but like all of us, she has blind spots.

We didn’t finish the job tonight. We managed to get a lot of Stuff out of the house, but Mom’s back porch is littered with trash. Her laundry room reeks of cat urine. We have a shopping list of things to buy for her. Even after we take care of these tasks, the work will continue in the weeks and months ahead.

Caffeine is Not My Friend

This has sort of turned into the “dumb things J.D. does” blog. Here’s yesterday’s dumb thing.

I drove to Eugene to participate in a neuroeconomics study. I spent an hour inside an MRI scanner answering questions about personal finance. For this, I was paid $120.

Because I knew I might fall asleep, I had a diet soda for lunch. Lying on my back for an hour (or more) is a recipe for slumber, even if I’m supposedly taking a survey for money. Sure enough, even with the diet soda, I was very, very groggy.

After the study, Paul and I spent more than an hour working out at the gym, and then went out for Thai food. (I could splurge — I had an extra $120!) I was still groggy, though, even though I had exercised. The sun was warm, and I had a long drive ahead, so I ordered diet soda. Three times.

“You know what I do when I’m groggy and have to drive?” Paul said. “I stop at a minimart and pick up an energy drink.”

“Like a Red Bull?” I asked.

“Sort of,” he said. “Only bigger. And with more caffeine.”

So, about half an hour north of Eugene, I pulled over to pick up an energy drink. There was an enormous selection. I had no way of knowing which one was “best”, so I just grabbed a can of something that boasted 344mg of caffeine. I drank it. I drove home.

“Are you coming to bed with me?” Kris asked at ten o’clock. I wasn’t tired.

“Uh,” I said. “It’s too hot. Plus I had too much caffeine.”

“How much caffeine did you have?” she asked, but I didn’t really have an answer. Now, a few hours later, I do have an answer. Twelve ounces of Diet Pepsi have 36mg of caffeine. By my calculations, I had four such servings yesterday, plus the energy drink, which contained the equivalent of ten similar drinks. In other words, I had a much caffeine as if I’d had fourteen Diet Pepsis.

No wonder I couldn’t fall asleep until 3 am. I probably won’t be able to sleep again until next week.