Sunday, November 11, 2018

A New York State of Mind

Is it possible to like something and hate something?  New York City is that kind of place for me.  I anticipate my visits, but generally hate the experience.  Yesterday, I spent about 12 hours there.  I only go if I have to, and yesterday I had to.  I take the train because, if I had to drive, there would be nothing left of me but a greasy spot.  If the train doesn’t stop where I have to go, I can walk.  So far, it hasn’t been worth the taxi fare or Uber fee to keep me from walking - even as far as from Penn Station to Carnagie Hall. This year’s trip was similar.

I bought a matinee ticket to Mike Birbiglia’s show "The New One" in midtown and Marc Maron’s show at the Beacon Theater later that night.  I made it to both shows from the train station on foot, going over 22,000 steps on my Garmin.  Both shows were great.  Two talented monologists and funny to boot. But, that isn’t my point.

I live near Philadelphia, and regularly (and voluntarily) visit, even if it’s just to walk around, have a meal and goof around.  It’s a wonderful city, and I always enjoy my time there.  New York? Well ...

I’m not sure how people perceive me. I don’t know what they see when they look at me. In New York, I’m pretty sure there is RUBE on my forehead that appears under the light of the city, like a black light makes semen appear on bed sheets.  I get approached by every charity, scam artist, and otherwise beggar looking for something that is in my pocket. Others walk by, and they single me out. I have to toughen-up and tell them to leave me alone.  I also need to stop carrying cash when I go there, so I can have a valid reason for telling them to "piss off."  It’s a work in progress.

Toward the end of my twelfth hour in the city, I had begun to adopt this attitude, and I figure that it would take a couple of weeks for me to refine it to the point that I was like other New Yorkers.  I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but it’s a necessary defense mechanism for being there.  I’ll remember that the next time I go.

Pedestrians are bold.  I watch traffic lights and those red or white hands that say "Walk"or "Don’t Walk" because my attitude is, "Please don’t hit me."  New Yorkers attitude is, "Hit me, bitch!"  I can’t work that way.  They just walk, regardless of traffic or the color of the light, and it’s an amazing study in human behavior that the drivers do not have the same attitude as the pedestrians.  I suppose it’s because the drivers have more to lose? They stop, and I guess the pedestrians know it - and they just walk.

Getting around is easy, though. The streets are all numbered by Avenue and Street, so if something is at 49th Street and 6th Avenue, and you’re going to 53rd Street and 8th Avenue, you automatically know that it’s four blocks up and two blocks over.  There is almost too much going on.  It’s all jammed-into the Borough of Manhattan, as though it’s necessary to fill every space with ... something.  I wonder how any business develops an identity when they are all crammed into this space. Hordes of people make it difficult to establish eye contact, and the sheer volume and crush of people create a sense of anxiety that I suppose they learn to live with.  For a visitor, it’s almost overwhelming.  I tend to get in and get out as quickly as possible.

The problem, really - is the people. They walk around with their noses in their cell phones, like lots of other people.  However, there are WAY more people on the streets of New York City than there are in any usual situation. I have become better at the "heads up" warning for them. I can’t imagine that they have such a high position in life that they have to be constantly connected.  I have no idea what they are doing, but it’s obviously more important to them than watching where they ar going.

Which is the other thing. They bump into you. Sometimes bluntly, other times it’s just a brush of the arm.  Either way, there is never an apology or an "excuse me."  It seems to be normal, and they seldom move away.  Again, the Rube is supposed to avoid them. I’m working on that, too.

There is a lot of car horn blowing, as if blowing a horn makes traffic disappear. I’ve seen it, and it doesn’t.  All it does is create that city noise.  It gets to where you hardly notice it.  Traffic is constant, whether it’s 3:00pm or 1:00am, it’s there. After all, it’s the City that Doesn’t Sleep.

But, I think it could use a nap.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Election Day

There is an election coming up on Tuesday. Surely, you’ve heard or seen.  Since I’ve been alive for many decades and have seen elections come and go, the process is similar every time:


Meanwhile, Election Day after Election Day goes by and ... do things ever get better?  No, not really.  They keep taxing and spending, and when they cut taxes (so they say) we wonder where the cuts are and how much we really get.  That’s the illusion - making us believe we are getting something when we are really getting nothing. It’s politics 101.

So, here we are in 2018 - with another mid-term election that “they” say is the most important in recent times. OK then, show me.  Show me that the person I vote for will actually make things easier for me, because I pay your salary and all.

Ronald Reagan said he would “take government off our backs,” but he was so old and senile that I don’t think he realized what the fuck was going on.  Government is more on our backs than ever.

Go ahead and vote. It’s your right, and kind of a privilege. But, don’t expect anything to get better for YOU because you aren’t voting for YOU - you are voting for THEM.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

So, Now What?

"Nail in my hand, from my creator.
You gave me life now, 
Show me how to live."
 - the late great Chris Cornell

The thing that most big companies don't understand is - OK, we gave you this - now, what?

And, it isn't as if I don't work for a "big company" because I do not - but that doesn't influence the way the people in charge view themselves. Big? Yeah - OK. Us? Maybe not so much.

They have a department called Human Resources, but they often lack the Human part.  The Resources are there, but who is in charge?

So --- I am faced with the third most important decision of my life tomorrow, and I have virtually no one to lean on to say whether or not I am making the right decision.

As it has always been.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

OK, So Here’s the Thing

My company - out of left field - has offered an early retirement package to old-timers like myself.  They didn’t say it outright (because they cannot) but it appears that there is no future for those of us over 60.  The world has moved onto Millenials and their ilk who are content to earn a few bucks and move on.  People like me want to make a career out of our job and count on full employment until age 65.  Well, that’s out the window.

As you probably do not know, I turned 61 last week.  As such, I’m a year away from claiming Social Security benefits and at least three years away from retiring securely.  As many of you know, I have been investing in growth stocks believing that I have some time left. Well then -  that has changed.

WIth the company’s notice last week, I suddenly find that I am less than two years away from being “out of work.”  I have been working since I was 17 years old, and the prospect of being unemployed at 62 is not at all appealing to me. Wondering if any women could use a middle-aged giggo. I’m open for the job, and figure it’s easy money - but that is by the way.

I am literally losing sleep over their announcement and the subsequent market downturn, which seems to be well-timed. [What did they know, and when did they know it?]. It leaves me with several questions:

  • Do they really want me to retire, or is it just a mass email and it’s up to us?
  • Are we being forced out?
  • Is this a one-time deal” (Probably)
  • If I say “no,” will I be let go without any of the proposed benefits?
  • Can I survive on my savings and my pension?

All of these are crystal ball questions, and since I do not have one, I am left with my own senses, which have now always served me well.  

The gypsy in me says, “Yeah, go ahead” and fuck the job.  Sure. 

The sensible part of me says, “You still have a 93-year-old mother to care for, and you’re responsible for part of her income.”  That’s the bigger part.  I can’t be a total dick and just leave her on her own without my help.

These are not easy decisions.

If I had it left to me, I’d sell this condo and move to Alabama - where living is cheap and life is easy.  But it’s not left to me.

It almost never is.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Road Worrier (Part Three)

I don’t travel much. In fact, I don’t often leave the house - so traveling is a luxury that I do reluctantly and usually at someone else’s expense.  However, once I commit to it, I’m enthusiastic about seeing new places and learning about them.  Lately, my advanced age has led me to being curious as to what life is like [here] and talking to locals, picking their brains and finding out if the place is as nice as it seems.

Coming from New Jersey, almost anyplace I go is both different and interesting.  Perhaps people from other parts of the world feel like that about New Jersey, but if they spoke to residents, they’d discover what a crap-hole New Jersey is.  For example:

When I go someplace, I work the conversation around what it’s like to live there, because I’m curious about whether it’s as nice as it seems.

I ask about the cost of living, and what it’s like to be there on a day-to-day basis.  My new example comes from my latest visit to Alabama.  I went on Zillow and found two homes in a nearby neighborhood.  Three-bedroom ranchers, new kitchen, garage, and a nice sized lot. $77,000 and ... property taxes were $250 a year.  I tell people that the average property tax in New Jersey is $8,600. When their head explodes, I also inform them that we have a State lottery, State income tax, State sales tax, casino gambling, and the highest car insurance rates in the United States.  I wonder where all the money goes, and they just shake their heads and commiserate. 

In that vein, I realize that, on my future retirement fixed income, any place ANY PLACE would be better to live than New Jersey.  Granted, living in Arizona would be a little more expensive than living in Alabama (which is probably the cheapest in the country) but the overall experience would be worth it - and still cheaper than New Jersey.

The advantage of living in New Jersey is that it’s better to go ANY PLACE than here. At one point, I wondered, “Where would I shop?” But the advent of Amazon, online shopping, and the general ability to get anything delivered makes the convenience of nearby shopping a moot point. I have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Ebay, and mobile payment of my bills - so what do I need with shopping centers and banks?

It is difficult to get an accurate opinion of a place by being there for a week, and I try to temper my enthusiasm with the idea that I’d probably get sick of some tiny part of living there once I was a resident for a while, but that’s probably true of any place I’d go.  But then again, if I never left the house, would it matter where I was?

NEXT: Where will I go?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Road Worrier (Part Two)

My traveling anxiety exists in several levels, with the final level being zero - which I suppose is the ideal level. However, the overall average level of anxiety is many levels above zero, and therein lies the problem.

The highest level exists shortly after I commit to the trip. Signing-into Expedia and booking the trip are exciting, since I get to choose when I leave and what sort of vehicle I am renting.  Shortly thereafter, however, I get the shivers thinking about all of the things I have to do before I leave, and how I have to arrange my schedule and alter my lifestyle to accommodate this trip.

The main problem with having an ordered life is finding out what to do with the things that are part of that ordered life once the order is changed.  Perhaps I would be less anxious if I traveled for work frequently, or had some sort of oddball lifestyle that gave me the opportunity to travel more than once or twice a year for something other than work.  The only thing that lessens my anxiety is the fact that I am usually not paying for the travel. It’s almost always for work, and as such, I carry less concern over the difference over a non-stop flight versus layovers, or the cost of parking.  In the long run, it’s not worth agonizing over.  Usually, the hotel accommodations are part of the trip, so I don’t have to worry about how that works out.  The only issue is the booking of travel, and I have only had one issue with that:

Last year, I went to Alabama for a workshop.  Since I was staying longer than what the workshop entitled, I booked the airfare separately than the rental car.  I booked the Philadelphia-to-Birmingham airfare easily.  Separately, I booked a rental car in Birmingham.  Looked cheap, and the fact that it was a manual transmission neither concerned me nor bothered me, as I was looking forward to driving a manual transmission car for a week.

Once I got to the rental counter in Birmingham, the clerk looked a few times at her computer and my booking reservation - back and forth enough to worry me - and then finally tell me, "Your rental car is in Birmingham, England."  Ooops.  The ensuing struggle between their customer service and myself was enough to make me pay more attention to which country I am in when I reserve a rental car.  Fortunately, for my next trip to Alabama earlier this year, I flew to and from Nashville - and there is no Nashville, England - so my rental car reservation was filled smoothly.  We learn from our mistakes, right?

My anxiety level decreases gradually. From the high of booking to a lower level of leaving well in advance of my scheduled time, to getting to my car-park, to getting me from car-park to airline check-in, to checking-in my bags, and getting through airport security.  Once I am through security and near by boarding area, my anxiety level decreases to almost zero.  I have taken the responsibility away from ME and transferred it to THEM, and I now know that there is nothing I can do that will further enhance my experience.  Once something is out of my control, I no longer have any worry over it. Strange maybe, but me.

I am crazy-early for everything I do: Work, entertainment, travel ... whatever. I can’t stand being late for anything - or even on time. I want to limit as much stress from my life as possible, and being early means that I will have one less thing to worry about. As a result, for my latest flight from Phoenix to Philadelphia that left at 9:58am, I arrived at the airport at 6:30am. I thought nothing of having almost four hours to kill, and in fact, reveled in it.

Once I am on the plane, the only issue I’ll have is whether I can get through the flight without having to get up to urinate. For a flight to Birmingham, that’s a cinch. Anything longer than three hours, and we may have an issue.  I hate asking anyone to get up, so I request an aisle seat wherever I go - sporting events, concerts, movies, etc., and I can relax a little if I know I won’t have to ask someone to get up who may be sleeping or involved in some media that I may be interrupting.  "Sorry, but I have to perform a natural bodily function. Hope you don’t mind," would be a good way to start that request, but I don’t want to get into an argument in a confined space 30,000 feet above the ground, so I deal with it the best I can.

For someone as neurotic and anxious as I, the flight doesn’t bother me in the least. As I believe, once something is out of my control, I have no worries. Either the plane crashes or it lands safely. It’s out of my hands - literally.  What surprises me a little is how noisy it is. Our experiences of TV and movies tells us that plane travel is silent enough to have quiet conversations with your seat mates, and pick out subtle noises.  The fact is, it’s a high-decibel experience, and you’re likely to have an easier time talking to someone in a bar or small concert setting than aboard a flight. Don’t believe what you see on TV.

We used to get meals on long flights. Now, they charge for "fresh" meals, so you’re better off having a big meal in the airport. I’d guess that’s what has inspired the glut of airport eateries.  Overall, it makes me feel better about arriving four hours early for a flight.  It gives me time to have a nice meal and use the rest room three or four times before takeoff.  In fact, for my last trip from Phoenix to Philly, I wound up with at least two hours to sit down and have a nice breakfast.  The five-hour flight was filled hunger-free with only Fred Stoller’s Kindle Single book "Five Minutes to Kill" which oddly took me WAY more than five minutes to read - thankfully. Well done, Fred.  Getting lost in something is a great way to stop thinking about how long it’s been since I last ate or urinated.

The anxiety level goes back up once the plane gets on the ground and I have to get my luggage and find my rental car or shuttle. That responsibility goes from me to them, and that’s the problem.  Perhaps I don’t trust people enough?
I don’t believe that my life matters as much to me as it does to them. That is certainly a truth, It’s also a problem.

NEXT: Getting Around and Getting Along.

Road Worrier (Part One)

Twice in the last month, I have traveled for work.  Lately, it’s the only sort of traveling I do. Fortunately, it is mostly paid for by my company - airfare, hotel, rental car, parking, meals, etc.; as long as it’s on what would normally be my time.  The only things I feel like I should pay for (and do) are extra meals or snacks and alcoholic beverages.  It’s the least I can do.

My experiences with flying are limited, but improving. I have learned the subtle art of self-check-in, and uploading boarding passes to my cell phone - all of which are probably basic to those of you who travel frequently. I have had varied experiences with airports in Philadelphia, Birmingham, Nashville, and Phoenix to get a gist of what it’s like to be in different airports.  Mostly, it’s filled with people who want to get somewhere as quickly as possible, even though often, the effort is worthless.

American Airlines boards flights in groups. I think the priority depends on how often you travel, since originally, I was in Group 9 (the last group) and lately I was in Group 6.  They seem to value the group numbering system as some sort of privilege, but I’m happier to be in Group 9, since I want to spend the least amount of time on the airplane as possible.  Why is it a privilege to board first, and then sit for a half hour on the tarmac? I’d rather be last to board, make that final trip to the rest room, and then get on the plane 10 minutes before it leaves the boarding area.

Almost everyone on the plane takes some sort of carry-on bag with them.  Always, the airline announces that "We are out of overhead space" and they offer free check-in for carry-on bags because of the lack of space. I figure, it’s a scam for passengers who just do it to get their bags checked for free. Schmucks like me pay $25 for our checked bags and carry-on a small bag with my cell phone and personal items.  I’d rather pay the 25 bucks than go through the hassle of finding overhead space or scamming the airline out of the bag fee. That’s just how I am.

I’m not sure about the sense of the "Group" boarding system.  You can be in Group One and be in the back row or the front row. You can be in Group Nine and be in the front row or the back row. It makes more sense to be to board the plane from back to front. That way, the people in Group Eight won’t have to wait 10 minutes while the people in Group Six wait to find overhead space and their seats.  They could get the plane boarded quicker and leave on time, instead of ten minutes later than scheduled.  But then, I don’t run an airline, so what do I know?

My flight to Phoenix from Philadelphia took 5.5 hours. I paid extra for an aisle seat, because I knew I couldn’t sit still for that long without having to use the rest room at least twice - and I’d rather get up for other people than to ask them to get up. That’s who I am.  Watching my fellow passengers, I noticed that, out of about 200 passengers on our 321 Airbus, only 30 or so got up.  "How can anyone sit for more than five hours without having to get up to pee?" I wondered.  The sociologist in me wanted to ask them as they got off, but the rest of me decided to just chalk it up to the oddities of human behavior.

We sit, schrunched-in next to each other for a long time, and often, we don’t say a word to each other. Either they have their head buried in a book (or Kindle) or they are wearing headphones watching episodes of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maizel." I suppose the idea is, "I’m never going to see these people again, so why bother?"  It’s the same as being in an elevator. Look around, but don’t break the ice.

There are two types of people: Open-window sight-seers and closed-window privacy seekers. Being in the middle or aisle seat leaves one at the mercy of them, and the problem with the closed-window group is the THUNK that I feel when the plane lands and I have no idea of our altitude.  For me, it’s interesting to see our world from thousands of feet in the air, and I’ll never forget the look of Las Vegas at night, coming into McCarran Airport, and seeing "The Jewel of the Desert" in all its glory.  How often does that happen in ones life and why wouldn’t you want to see it?

And then, there is the inevitable rush to get to baggage claim. It’s the classic "hurry up and wait" scenario. I had time to saunter along the walkway, stop to use the rest room, and then had 10 minutes to kill before the carousel started moving. I wonder if so many of them have never traveled before, or if they’re just goofy?  My airport experiences are limited, and even I know that unloading baggage, transporting it, and getting it on the carousel is laborious. What’s their hurry?  Again, I chalk it up to the vagaries of human behavior and how important it is for some people to be first in line, regardless of whether or not they are the first to leave.

They are in that Group One deal, I’d guess.

NEXT: Travel Prep and my levels of anxiety.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing.  Such may be the case now.  The markets are in turmoil.  The Federal Reserve is hawkish on rates. The President says they are "crazy."  Bond yields are going up...

At the same time, companies are reporting increasing earnings. Revenues are up, and the tax break has given them billions of dollars with which to buy back their own stock - which is now trading at a low compared to a year ago.

Meanwhile, my favorite company Square (NYSE: SQ) has lost its CFO, and the sellers have bitten into our former $100 share price, taking it down to today’s $69.  But fear not (he said) Jack is still running the show, and they have multiple assets in house that are being run by other great leaders, so if you’re interested, there may be a time to get in over the next few days.  The Wayback Machine has been set to early summer levels.

For the record (if there is one) I have sold nothing, even though the temptation is there.  I invested in these companies because I liked their fundamentals. The only thing that has changed is the market. Nothing about the companies has changed, so if anything, I have reason to buy more, not sell.  That said, I am most interested in Microsoft, AMD, Target, and (still) Del Taco, who seems to be overlooked in the domestic food industry. We’ll see soon enough, as they have earnings coming up at the end of October.

What else?  Oh yeah - the safe haven of commodities.  You should be looking at copper (CPER) silver (SIVR) and an overall commodities ETF that trades under the ticker symbol GCC.  If you are nervous about stocks, several commodities are trading at historical lows, and you could do worse than investing in silver, copper, and raw materials. Dribble money in over the next few months and be prepared to hold on for five years or so.

If you like bonds, go ahead, but as rates rise, your good old cash will start paying in the 3% range, so that’s also a safe haven for you.  For now though, I’d sit tight and see what happens over the next week or so.  The Fed has yet to decide on another rate increase, and we’re at the start of earnings season.  A lot will depend on what the banks (Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Citibank et al) say about the overall outlook and their revenues going forward. Bad news could be a sell signal. Good news could be -- well -- good.

Just don’t be in a hurry to do anything.  It’s bigger than we may realize.