Saturday, May 02, 2009

Entering a period of consequences...

"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences…" - Winston Churchill

I'd probably disagree with 75% of Churchill's politics, but as much because he saw a world people don't want to see. He said what he saw, and opened eyes, and when the dark days of war came, he rallied the people to their common defense.

I see in myself an anger at a world I think must fail sooner or later, and yet I participate in madness, only held "above it", by some tokens of resistance, symbols of independence that really do little to make me more independent.

On the issues of Energy, Environment, and Economics, I do a lot of little things
1. Reduce, reuse, recycle. I try to avoid even getting to recycling for my needs, shopping at a food coop, buying bulk. I even carry recycling home from work.
2. I bicycle to work, don't own a car.
3. When I needed a new furnace, I upgraded to a 94% efficient model.
4. I buy clothes largely from thrift stores. I generally buy very little, except good books, which I consider long term investments.
5. I'm fortunate to have a good job, earning more than I need, and I use surplus income to pay down debt. Plus I refinanced to a fixed-rate mortgage, so I could pay off my mortgage in a bit over 3 years if I was devoted and lucky.

Lots of good things, but I'm also largely in a state of denial, a state of paralysis for big changes with an uncertain future. I figure holding my job is a priority at least while I have debt, a no brainer, but there might be more dramatic decisions, like leaving my job now would provide a 5-year company stock buy down, and living expenses for 5 years, but that's IF there was opportunity now that closes later.

I see the biggest issue for me is a wish for security. I'll chose the security of small returns even if they don't match inflation. I'll choose the security of tinkering around safe and harmless Wikipedia than ask myself what my time is really worth. I mean that in the sense of service. My work on Wikipedia is service-oriented, on knowledge and wonder, but it is endless and when I'm afraid of the world, I can stay on the safe side forever, and let the world fall apart!

AND even ignoring the desperation of that claim, it's not the world that needs me. My little contribution won't change destiny of humanity. We'll fall or not whatever I do. So the REAL issue is what is MY LIFE for?

That question a reversal from my title and introduction. Still there is a needed relationship here. In good times, people can be mindless-slobs wandering around picking their nose and obvious. We can assume such people will eventually get bored and think more deeply, but in good times, that's their choice to throw away their lives! But in harder times, bad behavior comes back to bite, and throw people into worse situations, and hurt other people for their obvliousness, and self-pity too!

And I am in such a place myself, cowarded by fear, soothed by distraction. I'd have to call my state depression, since even the smallest of practical things that would move me forward seem a drag. Partly that means not listening to feelings BEFORE trying to do something! But also just seems like a long climb back to reality.

It's nice to try to see the bigger picture, to have bigger goals, but they don't mean anything until my life is in a better place, where all the basics are being done.

So the consequences are here, and time to clean house. A boring conclusion, but I know nothing else is meaningful otherwise.

BUT, my MAIN lesson here, is to see there are things now that I might want to DROP even if they serve some purpose, if they are burden helping to hold me down.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

TEOTWAWKI?

I'm reading "The long decline" by John Greer.
An older essay is here:
http://www.oilcrisis.com/whatToDo/decline.htm

For me it has always been a certainty that an unsustainable economy, an unsustainable dependence upon fossil fuels to run our economy will run our economy into ruin. That's simple trends, but what will it look like?

Seeing the financial debt that is being tacked onto our unsustainable economy shows me one way this will occur. Banking bailouts and government borrowing to keep our economy going is horrid, but shows perhaps how illusionary wealth is destroyed.

Greer's theory of "Catabolic collapse" suggests how we get from where we are to where we need to be - using a lot less energy and resources than we're used to. He says crises knock us down, pruning out the most wasteful aspects of the economy until we find a new temporary equilibrium at a lower overall standard of living.

I have to imagine what's happening now is a part of that process, even if you can blame greed and excess of capitalism itself (and government policy too as you like), it's all sliding along into a lower overall "real economy" hidden behind our illusionary wealth.

Economic contraction is an interesting effect, as observed objectively, without personal costs. As an environmentalist, I think we need to use less fossil fuels, both for pollution effects, and depletion effects. If it wasn't for the inefficencies of restructuring a failing economy, we'd still be trying to shoot the moon for more energy consumption.

I took a trip to Mexico a year ago, and flying back I realized how easy it would be to "get used" the idea that flying thousands of miles in a few hours was normal. Today I ran a race with a friend from Colorado, and he invited me to visit him there. I imagined I could do it in a 3-4 day weekend! I'm sure it would be a memorable trip, hiking in the mountains and all! At the moment I could afford it quite well, so if I decide on price, perhaps I would go!

Perhaps, if I do, it'll be the last fight I'll ever take. Perhaps I really could appreciate this age of "miracles and wonders" that allows this travel. I've been in Colorado once before, a 10-day road trip in 1992. I sort of prefer that sort of trip, and think a 3-day weekend is rather extravagant, not enough time to really relax and explore and everything!

So, anyway, as long as a majority of people think air travel for vacation is "normal", and commuting an hour a day by car is "normal", we live in a world that I don't believe can exist in the future, or at least the minority that will live this way must decline.

That's my biggest question - if the decline happens by holding 1% on the top at their level of consumption, and the middle class slide away into relative poverty. I think whatever level people are at, wealth comes from spending less than you earn, but spending so easily becomes "nonnegociable", so it's all scary to me.

If you could jump forward 20 years you might be horrified to see what life is like for most people, but to them it'll be normal. That's the power and weakness of perspective. The future looks scary for the shock of change.

I think of seeing movies about the primitive tribes, doing their dances around the fire, and all. It was so foreign, I couldn't imagine being a part. But if I look at my life now, perhaps it is shocking from the outside, my isolation and dependence upon a crazy economy for it all.

And within all these "adjustments", there's room for new opportunity as well, as we have choices that move us in the right direction, or avoid making the hard choices.

The End Of The World As We Know It?

Eventually, but the world we know isn't normal!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Signifying nothing

I must be quick since I have work that's needed, but just curious how life OUGHT to be lived, you know, what really matters? Given a limited amount of time, how should it be spent in a way that is most fulfilling, most useful.

One vital example is something called a "social life", and I don't play that game well. I don't keep up with everything going on around me, and in fact, as much as not, if I try to expand my circle of awareness too much, I start to panic.

I think of Shakespeare's quote in McBeth:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


All the little dramas we all experience in our little lives seem so important, at least in that moment. We want our outrage recognized as just and good. We want our suffering known as heroic and tragic. We want above all to signify for something.

It's much easier to judge the illusions of others, and to want to run away from their false dramas. But at least it reminds why we must all look in the mirror and see what drives us as well.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Motto for 2009 "no more crybabies!"

Love him, hate him, or dimiss him, Kunstler is one-of-a-kind, always able to position himself where he wants to be, judging the stupidity of our culture mercilessly.

http://jameshowardkunstler.typepad.com/clusterfuck_nation/2008/12/forecast-for-2009.html

I don't have a clear view for 2009, and accept whatever President Obama wants or does, whatever Congress wants or does, whatever the American people want or do, we're in a pickle which may or may not lead us, fast or slow into a very dark place not seen by Americans for a long time, and perhaps ever, if things really fall as far as they seem to be able to fall.

So far, I've played my hand about as well as I could, at least mixing an interesting life without great debt besides a mortgage, and using surplus income, and with an ARM-mortgage now adjusting mildly, perhaps future less mildly, up $10k in saved interest over 5 years, and a refinancing option openning up, I feel very fortunate, even if I fail on my most optimistic plan to pay off my mortgage in 3 years. Having a 30-year fixed-rate would be the final puzzle piece, one step short of being debt-free, but means I can choose what's my best investment - reducing debt, investing to reduce expenses, or pure altuistic philantropy surrounded by a world of need greater than my own. Well, still carried by the assuming I can keep a job with something like my income now. No guarantees there I know, but I could live on 1/4 my income if I had to, something most people can't imagine. I can live without a car, as I have now for 3 years. I can grow a bit of my own food, and know how to conserve whatever resources are around me.

It's really not real to me, to imagine the possibility everything we know might be lost. My pessimism is vast, but historical success makes me think somehow senseless things can go on forever.

I like Kunster's 2009 motto "No more crybabies". I don't like to judge people, and I don't like to think about how many people are much more adversely affected by circumstances than me. But I don't think Kunstler is being critical of weakness, just reflecting that it isn't enough any more. There's no one to save us individually or collectively but ourselves. All the support systems that allow mistake after mistake to repeat indefinitely may soon evaporate and we'll be left with whatever we're left with, which is primarily our own sense of confidence to act in an uncertain world, to act wisely to protect our own needs, and to widen that protections as we each are capable, so our communities can be collectively stronger to handle the messiness of collapse.

It's funny my only connective spirit I have with the republicans is the idea of self-suffiency and a recognition of the limits of "programs" and "policy" to protect individuals. Responsibility and honest assessment of one's own resources and needs and what it costs to use those resources wisely, that's what will get us through what's coming. It's all nice to have "universal rights", but they always must break down without "universal responsibility".

I hate all the messiness of individual freedom, and self-destructive impulses within all of us. I see them most within myself, apathy to treat my time as something important. I'm sure it's a balancing point. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And all play and no work makes Jack a child and a fool. In between, real people make compromises, facing opportunity with ambition and dreams, and when times are good they overreach, and suffer for it.

I keep my life small, but I overreach also. I see a life that will end someday. I don't even see a purpose for my life, except exploring a few interesting ideas, and having enough to share with others close to me. Even so, I live in an expansive universe of possibilities, and lament the day I can not play as much. I'm spoiled as they can get, and I know there's a grindstone I could follow a little closer, just in case I fall short of what's "my fair share", and what I'll need in the future.

Ultimately my biggest failing might be I don't want the responsibility of a failing society on my shoulders. I wish happily for a future I could believe in, but just a wish, I don't easily accept my responsibility to help create that future. Maybe it's not really my place to lead. I don't have a vision for the future. I think we're going to fall, and maybe there's really nothing to be done, but stay prepared, keep my needs small, and help clean up my corner of the world as things fall. I don't know what more I can do. I know I could try harder than I do.

Happy 2009, truly I have no wish for the world but to see itself rightly, neither blinded by false light or false darkness, but somewhere between...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Line in the sand - credit limit!

I seem to be periodically shocked when I hear yet another friend, another seemingly intelligent and rational friend, is sitting half over their head in credit card debt, another friend hit by 28% interest rates for 6 months for being late on ONE payment.

I think of my own emotional place, a fear of throwing money away senseless, a fear of being taken advantage of by evil greedy companies looking to use my well-being as their nest-egg onto easy street. I'm perhaps as vulnerable as anyone into looking for a good deal, one too good to be true.

What's not to like about a credit card? You spend money on things you need. You don't have to pay the bill until a month later, an interest-free 30 day loan! Plus, many cards have "cash back" percentage! AND amazingly, just paying your bill every month, you accumulate a "credit history" which allows you to borrow bigger money later in a home mortgage! It looks like a win-win-win-win offer!

Well, maybe always there's a dark side, and I pretend it doesn't exist. I see no reason to NOT pay off a credit card each month.

SURE, when I've seen crazy offers like 6-months 0% interest, I think, HEY, why don't I write a $5000 check to my mortgage, spend 6 months paying it off, and save money on my mortgage interest? Well, admittingly, even if there's no fees at all, it's only $125 savings, not really worth it to me.

Anyway, I try to imagine conditions where I'd appreciate the convenience of holding a balance on my credit card, perhaps to improve my short term cash flow - my gosh(!) property tax month can be harsh! I mean sure, I live by savings, but how much cushion do I need? And it's not like the savings account 0.5% interest rates are worth anything. So why not use a CC instead of a surplus savings? It works out to the same thing, assuming I can pay off the balance within a few months anyway.

So I scheme and wonder, and ultimately, coming from a place of financial strength, think "games" aren't worth my time or energy. So I might keep a bit lower savings knowing I could use a CC for unexpected expenses, I try to adjust my savings to cover everything knowable PLUS a bit more to cover the unknown.

Indeed, I'm basically in a place of surplus income. I've been self-employed, lived entirely off savings between projects, and had to be careful, but with a regualr job, I simply make more than I need, so I just have to decide what to do with it. For now I put all surplus into my mortgage, so my extra principle payments are adjusted to keep a healthy savings, and nothing else. If I have unexpected expenses, I reduce (or halt) my extra principle payments. A good life!

So I admit it is perhaps impossible for me to understand "the average person" who has designed a life that demands 101% of their income to make ends meet, and the fear of what to do when unexpected expenses come up. SO I forgive their apparent foolishness in holding credit card balances and throwing money away senselessly.

But it seems I must expand my opinions somewhat. Obviously there's a difference between "temporary strategic borrowing" and an "unviable lifestyle". I accept there's a continuum of compromises in these limits. But I wondered, can a line be drawn?

I ask BECAUSE credit card companies will NOT draw this line for YOU. Or I should say they draw the line for THEM. They'll happily keep raising your credit limit as you hold larger balances and keep up minimum payments. Plus if you get a few credit cards, you can keep expanding your credit line for YEARS and YEARS! You can fall down the slippery slope of unviability so slowly that you never see the point of no return, where you ought to admit there's no way in hell you're going to pay off this debt.

So, I see two issues (1) People who hold CC debt ought to have a PLAN to clear the debt within a relatively small period of time, like 6 months (good) to 5 years (horrid!) and (2) People who have a large CC debt and previously never set their own limit, must find one they like AND if there is no viable payback period, they should consider bankruptsy.

I don't know anything really about bankruptsy law. I heard it got tougher to be able to cancel all debts, that "ability to pay" can be considered. Personally I think bankrupsy itself is hard enough so CC debt should offer "NO PROTECTION" to CC companies at all.

I MEAN, if CC companies have bankruptsy protection, what incentive do they have to discourage excessive debt, to hold the line on a responsible credit limit and help people get out of debt? NONE AT ALL!

So, I don't know about laws, just common sense. AND if I had a debt that I could NOT pay off within 5 years AND they were playing games with my interest rate, I'd throw it back in their face and declare bankrupsy!

SO, in summary, I don't know what a "credit limit" should be, but I think it should be defined more as a "payback period" than amount. How much discretionary income do you have each month? If you take HALF of that, how fast can you pay off your CC debt? If it's over 6 months, you have a PROBLEM!

It really hurts me to see others throwing away their time and money. I know first hand that "family" help is harder in the short term, but if done well is FAR superior to depending on greedy bastard banks.

It's all scary to me. I wish we could rein in those cc bastards! Mass-bankruptsy is the only tool I know that can help them see the light. I hope it's possible!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

401k stupidity

I suppose the "great minds" of the financial world will say in a crisis like now:
1) Keep your 401k as-is if your young and far from retirement.
2) Market downturns are GREAT times for investing.

For all I know they're right, but for me, I'm just pissed. I started my 401k in 1999 and gotten an average return basically lower than my SAFE-AS-ANYTHING credit union Roth IRA returns, and that was before the stock market turned into a black hole of death swallowing everything.

Now I can play the "Deer in headlights" as well as ANYONE, and say my already deposited $50k, or whatever it's down to now is a lost cause, BUT I do wonder if I should stop playing the deer in putting MORE money into the black hole of death.

SURE I'll accept perhaps the market will return to good times, or at least perhaps beat inflation, but I'm equally open to the idea that a great depression (and inflation) will kill all value, and I'm better off throwing the money NOW into something worth something in the future!

It's all nasty crap. My employer matches my contributions, so I put in $100 and my employer puts in $100, and its tax free. If I cut my contributions, I lose the $200 and gain back $100 taxable income, so perhaps worth $70. Is that $70 really worth more NOW than $200 of pretend compounding in scary 401k funds?

It's all sort of funny to me. Paying down my mortgage seems a no-brainer to me, guaranteed interest returns, saving for retirement as good as anything for me now. And I have have an ARM which just started adjusting, so far only 5.375% (5.51% APR), but might keep going up with the Libor rate. And my rate and minimum mortgage payments are recalculated every 6 months, so the lower my principle balance, the lower my minimum, which might be useful if I lose my job and have to living on savings for 6 months!

On a quick calculation, I'm putting $192/month into my 401k, so perhaps $134/month of net increase in my paycheck if I cut my 401k contributions, or $1600/year. That's nothing to sneeze at, but won't much dent my mortgage debt in the time scale of a few years.

So sadly, I'll hold the course, throw bad money at bad money, and maybe it'll turn out okay.

My position is extravagance anyway. I can throw $1000/month away and make a good living as long as I have a job. Scarier is friends who CASH OUT their 401k to pay for car repairs to drive to work, and all the tax liability and penalties. That's seriously throwing away money!

I just won't look at my 401k, and I won't get pissed off.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Spirit of the Marathon

The final words in the trailer, from Dick Beardley "When you cross the finish line, it will change your life forever."
http://www.marathonmovie.com/home.html

Grand words, and surely true, and I'm inspired by the symbolism as well of a marathon. I do feel some need to "expose the hype", some strange intellectual need to demean and dismiss experience itself as the source of anything at all.

I ran my first marathon distance last Saturday, 26.2 miles, just short of 9 loops on my 3-mile running trail in Minneapolis. I chose it because I could be independent and keep my water available each 3-miles, and one energy-gel "boost" to give me the energy to keep going. I "hit my wall" at 24 miles, and probably could have stopped there and felt okay, but no, I figured close enough, and finished the last 2.2 miles and crossed my imaginary finish line in 3 hours 33 minutes, 1 second.

So it's been a fairly long journey for me. The real marathon is the months leading up to the event! Myself I've been running now for nearly 30 months, 499 miles in 2006, 1000 miles in 2007, and over 900 miles now in 2008. STILL, I admit my training was far insufficent to run a smooth marathon, BUT it was enough to finish the distance on my feet, and in decent time.

Hurray! I think the greater triumph than finishing was not hurting myself too badly, although it was a tough final walk back alone to safety after drinking my third water bottle dry, and I had nothing more left in me except to lying down on the floor for 30 minutes. Then I had the energy for some food and a warm and then cold shower to help my poor muscles.

Most people who "climb the mountain" (decide to run a marathon) see it as some sort of magical destination where "just finishing" makes them a winner. Well, I of many talents and much grace from god in health and ability, can't accept such a low-balled goal.

For YEARS AND YEARS, I demeaned the marathon as an unworthy goal. I always told myself "Any day you pick, I'll walk ya a marathon distance", no training, no problem!

The year after graduating from college, one nice month of May, I RAN 7 miles one weekend evening in an hour. Then I WALKED 35 miles in 10-hours one day the next weekend. Then I BIKED 154 miles in 10-hours the weekend following that. Imagine that - I could WALK and BIKE 154 miles for 10-hours SOLID, but could only run an hour. What's up with that nonsense?!

Well, think about it! When I walked 10 hours, I carried my backpack with food and water. When I biked 10 hours I could carry even more food and water with me.

And the month after that I traveled to Colorado and hiked up Pike's Peak, 7300' vertical elevation change from the base of the trail to the peak, 13 miles each way, a full marathon distance up and down. Again, I carried all my food and water, and luckily I ate enough on the way up, since altitude sickness made all thoughts of food on the way down unattractive, but I did it, all no more training than being an active 20 year old, biking for transportation, and a love for walking.

Yes, there's a marathon race up Pike's peak, and I'm impressed ANYONE could run at that elevation so far, so high, but walking was good enough for me.

Now I've proved I can run 3+1/2 hours, at least having water available along the way, and one energy-gel. I'm also 16 years older than my post-college run/walk/bike challenges. I timed one mile run around that time, like 6:08. Now that's my 5k race pace, and best mile 5:38 (only one race). I'm as fast or faster as I was, after training a lot harder!

Now I'm supposed to believe somehow running a marathon event (the real McCoy, not my little evening sideshow.), that it'll change my life forever?

Well, I may choose to try a marathon, OR I may not. I don't know. Life has so many more interesting challenges, and 5k races are much more fun! Perhaps this DOUBT comes from being an intellectual, seeing more value in creating than performing. I like to TEST my limits, but I don't greatly like performance, don't like the feeling of pushing myself on some external goal or someone else's time and place.

Incidentally, my slight grumpiness now, I in no way wish to demean those who are interested in setting a goal of finishing a marathon. I think it's amazing that anyone can set such a goal. Still, I suppose I do demean it whatever I wish for niceness. A marathon is a cool symbol, but let's be good about this, okay? Let's have some fun too! Let's not say finishing a marathon is more important than hurting yourself, you know?!

A part of me is SO REBELLIOUS. I imagined in school of finishing all the class work, and then refusing to get the diploma, refusing to believe the "symbol" is worth more than the experience. I think like that with a marathon as well.

What if I ran my damned best marathon effort, and then 5 feet before the finish line, I sat down and waited a full hour or two before walking across the finish line, JUST to prove a point - that the SYMBOL was nonsense, arbitrary nonsense, and held no intrinsic value at all. OF COURSE, as rebellious as my imagination, I don't LIKE to make a specticle of myself, so it wouldn't do.

AND it IS MEAN, mean to publicly reject a symbol that many thousands of others deem valuable. It's a very strange meanness, I can't quite explain. Why would I wish to do anything like that?

No, the thing is, there's games that are MORE FUN than mere rebellion. If I'm going to run a marathon in a SUBSTANDARD way, I'd want to have more fun with it, like WALKING the last 6-miles. That sounds MORE FUN. I know I can run 20-miles, and at a great pace too, much better than I can run 26 miles. I just ran my 25k race (15.54 miles) at a 6:55 pace, suggesting a 7:11 marathon pace, but that's too much work. Why not run 20-miles at my 7:04 pace and walk the last 6.2 miles? That sounds more fun!

So I could run a 2:21 20-miler, and then walk the last 6.2 miles in 80 minutes, for a marathon time of 3:42. Wouldn't that be great? How many people can finish a marathon in 3:42, a cool 8:28 pace.

See how my mind works? I take an "impossible goal" (to run my BEST marathon), and side-step it into something different, something I don't have to work as hard. And in the process, do I wreck the "Spirit of the marathon"?

Well, I just don't know. There's something special in "pushing yourself to your limit", the experience of knowing a goal is possible, but hard, and doing it anyway.

I understand the issue MORE in a shorter race, where EVERYTHING is knowing your limit and pushing just below the limit. There's NEVER any real fear I can't finish a 5k or 10k race, just the embarressment if I over-pace the start and have to slow down to finish. That to me is an interesting balance, the tension. BUT a marathon is different - there's really serious risk of physical harm, of letting WILL exceed good judgement. It's EASY to improve aerobic ability - do and your body responds. BUT with longer distances, greater fatigue, other systems break down - muscles, joints, and everything else has to keep up with the pounding. That's where YEARS of training make a difference, but its still always possible to "go too far".

For me, its an interesting question, more than intentionally "throwing a marathon" by walking the last 6-miles, but MORE knowing I COULD choose to walk the last 6-miles, if my body says I need to slow down.

From all the various injuries I've had, I can say that everyone probably had plenty of warning signals that I chose to ignore. I kept going when injury was likely, and I paid a price. Ideally you train smart for a marathon, and reduce risk.

It is curious to me - to see people who repeatly choose to run marathons. I suppose I could imagine it like any other race, learn from each experience, and see how I can improve, run smarter, run within my limits better, and see how I do. BUT I KNOW the "perfect run" will always be out there, and its takes ALOT of work.

I have to ask "Isn't there anything better to do?"

I suppose I'm more like the beginners than not. I like a challenge, like to test myself, but "improve" is a mysterious idea. If I run a slower marathon, did I fail? It HURTS my ego to imagine setting myself up for such failure. I avoid risk by keep my goals in a constant juggle, so once of them is bound to succeed, and the rest can keep on plugging, you know?

What is the Spirit of the Marathon?

It is a "symbol". It is an external measure people use to challenge themselves. And it is what we choose it to be.

When you cross the finish line ... you can rest for a while.

That's a nice idea to me, more believable!