Hair Ache

I have a Sunday afternoon hair ache. As 2016 came to a close I wrote “Money“. Two weeks into this year as we were all making promises to do better this year I wrote 更多錢 (More Money). In May I posted “A Fist Full of Fiscal Fears“. 4500 words or so on a topic that hurt my heart since I was a kid. I love saying we can live on less. You need to live on less. Me live on less? How about, “no“.

Hair AcheIn 更多錢 (More Money) I promised to report back at the end of 2017. I need to spill so I don’t feel my hair ache so much. How am I doing? Terrible. I’m really good at hustling when the expenditures exceed revenue, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for FUB reasons. This, living on less when I am making a dollar an hour more than what I made in 2001, not so much.

I made all those nice resolutions about living on less right when a lot of us do. Since then I managed to pay for a flight/hotel/rental car trip for Chinese New Years, put a down payment on a redunkulous (24% for 4 years!) car loan, and not end up destitute in Mount Pleasant, SC after a road trip and hotel stay to see the eclipse. Most years, asking me to find a couple grand above my usual bills for travel would be too big an ask. It is too big an ask. I hustled, worked my ass off, and made it so.

How’s That Hair Ache?

In “A Fist Full of Fiscal Fears” I talked about the fiscal nuclear bombs set to go off in my life this spring and summer. It is the last week of August as I write this. The kids are back in school and though fall doesn’t officially start for another month we are all acting like summer is over. The bombs went off. I came out the other side still housed and still possessing my car and its loan. I made it through.

It is two-thirds through 2017. I used all my bad habits to get to this month with a better car and two big travel events in one year. So, clearly, when I want to, I can live on less. Yeah, I know, why not live on less and be a grownup? Y’know, pay down debt, save for retirement, keep my rainy day money instead of using it to buy yet more new shiny things . . . that. Tithe? Don’t say that word.

I write about money roughly quarterly. The topic keeps coming around to me and making my hair ache. This is yet another promise to actually, physically, truly be authentic when it comes to money and do what I keep saying I ought to do.

Things Work Out

Here I am again, with a Sunday afternoon fiscal hair ache on a payday weekend. One more time I don’t know how I am going to take care of myself for another 11 days. I used to start scheming, deciding who I’d boo-hoo at, pleading for money. But . . . being nearly 60 and able to work, working in fact, and the sympathy card lost its power.

But . . . as I like to say, “and then things work out“. I get in trouble and manage to come out stronger. I started 2002 a convicted wife beater, jobless, homeless, estranged from my son and his mother, and shunned by my family. As I sit in my favorite seat at Starbucks I have a house, a nicer car, better relationships with my son and his mom, and the family is grudgingly accepting the idea that I’m the titular patriarch on our bloodline. I’ve had the same job for almost 18 months. I’m doing ok.

To get here I maxed out the credit card and took money I’d budgeted for car payments to pay for my travel. Now that it is Sunday afternoon and my hair aches, I have to pay off the credit card and get back on track with car payments. I am behind with the City of Richmond so water, gas & trash collection are in jeopardy. Verizon is reminding me that I promised to pay them and I have not kept that promise. Verizon’s response? My phone is off until I pay.

Promises Are Free

Promises only gain credence in retrospect. Until they are fulfilled they are “Sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua“. So, rather than spend another 800 words convincing you that this time I really am going to make a change I’ll just say this: it’s the third quarter and I feel like I’ve failed. I accomplished a hair ache.

If only I had a house I could accomplish my goals. Once I have a car I’ll be able to get things done. I need to make more money to enable me to achieve my bucket list. I have the house. Cars have been the way I get myself around for most of my life. This job pays about 40% more than I really need. My excuses for not living on less are evaporating faster than moonshine spilled in the Mojave Desert.

I’ve said I’d live on less for years. And for years there have been seasons of fiscal storms that give me a reason to live on more. This year, though I am making a living wage, I had to replace my car, I was behind on my bills (wtf? how?) and it felt like a ceaseless march of fiscal thunderstorms across my checking account. Each of which became a reason why I’d start living on less next payday–for 40 years.

Tipping Points

The hair ache has to get bad enough that the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. That is the tipping point for most of us. For 40 years I’ve been more stubborn, more willing to tolerate misery, than it takes to move me away from my bad habits with money. This has included being homeless more than once.

I can’t say why I am promising again to live on less or whether this promise is the one that will stick. I’ve seen many of my peers rise out of their homeless and criminal past to get comfortable only to backslide into another iteration of jail/half-way house/recovery. Will that be me? I hope not.

I am in a comfortable place. It is easier to slide into living on a bit more than what I make. Four decades of living paycheck to paycheck is a lot of momentum to overcome. But, quoting a Fellowship cliche, “nothing changes if nothing changes.”

Talk Walking Out a Hair Ache

My biggest grudge against God, against the church, against most everyone, is a failure to do as we say and say as we do. Virtue signaling is a venial sin. Don’t signal. Do. This puts an onus on myself. I am no better than those I accuse of sophistry if I too signal virtuous fiscal habits and still belly up to the buffet of first world resources possible with what I earn. Hypocrisy, more than a fear of backsliding, is what eats at me as each paycheck arrives and is spent.

It is the first day of September as I make this edit to the post. 2017 is nearing an end. The trend is toward another year of spending a bit above what I make. It is a “pick your moment” moment.

Goals for the second half: Tithe $1200.00. Pay off the credit card. Catch up all my bills. Complete Dave Ramsey’s “Baby Step 1”. So far, these promises are no better than Gaius Valerius Catullus‘ words from a lover. It’s the third quarter and I’m down by seven points. For better or worse, I’m stronger when I am losing. Will I win? Wait 4 months and find out.

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Hello 2017

I don’t have 1500 odd words on a single topic. I have a storm cloud of random thoughts buzzing around like knats on meth. So, this post will be a little (a lot) scattered. Your normally crazy-making, pugnacious blog posts will resume soon enough.

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We have been told for a century that we have no agency, we can’t do it ourselves, we must keep taking what pittance Pimp Daddy US deigns to grant us and praise him for his benevolence. We don’t need to burn down D.C. or anything that dramatic. Just move our commerce into the black market. Yes, some of us will get arrested for failing to pay taxes and such. That’s the cost of doing business in an authoritarian, socialist republic. Pimp Daddy US has never been able to completely shut down the extant black market so I don’t see him able to do so anytime soon. Self-reliance, the thing of 2017.

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These are the current cabinet departments under the Executive Branch: State, Treasury, Defense, Attorney General, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health & Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Education, Energy, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. 15 huge bureaucracies that have an enlightened self-interest in continued existence. In addition, there is the White House Chief of Staff, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Trade Representative, the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and the Administrator of the Small Business Administration. 7 more bureaucracies that are treated like Cabinet level offices in the Executive Branch which also want to continue to get funding.

Congress has its own administrative organization feeding from the trough of Pimp Daddy US. You have to also add in the lobbyists, who are a hidden fifth element of the federal government. Much of the sausage making of governing this empire happens inside the offices of law firms lobbying on behalf of their clients. They provide the staff needed to write the laws, provide congress with the digests of the legislation written, advocate for the laws desired by their clients and provide cover for congressmen and senators who want to claim that the junket to the Turks and Caicos was a working one. We won’t be able to do much with the licentious relations happening on K-Street. Free speech, etc. There are things we can do, though.

We are a multi-trillion dollar economy. We are one of the wealthiest and largest empires in history. It takes a government of a certain size to run this massive empire we have made. That said, we have built an unwieldy and ineffective bureaucracy in the Executive Branch that has become a tail eating serpent. It no longer exists to serve the President or us. It exists to serve itself and to grow. We will not fix our present malaise unless we cut this cancer on the republic down to size. So, if I were king (no danger of that), I’d do several things. First, day one,shut the government down for a hundred days. Essential services like Defense and Homeland Security would stay in operation. Everything else, though, would be shuttered. All Executive orders would be suspended pending review. Next, these cabinet offices would be kept: State, Treasury, Defense, Attorney General, Commerce, Transportation, Homeland Security, White House Chief of Staff, Office of Management and Budget. The others would be shut down over two years. The work they do would be turned over to private, non-profit entities with supporting law and/or regulation through the Attorney General to ensure they behave themselves. These entities would not receive federal funding.

Dumpf campaigned on “Drain the Swamp”. The first president to take a serious whack at the bloated fourth branch of the government will get crucified by the press and those with a vested interest in sustaining it. The opposition will unleash all the political dirty tricks they have. It will be a fight for power unlike anything we have seen since the Civil War. If that president survives the fight and manages to eliminate the Cabinet departments I’d like to see gone it will have the effect of taking money out of Congress’ hands and out of the kitty of any following President, maybe. Anything done on an Executive Order can be reversed by succeeding Presidents. Part of the victory will be to tie the hands of any successors so that putting back the eliminated Cabinet Departments will be too politically expensive. Swamp drained. Power in Washington reduced. Both good things.

I am not so naive as to believe that shrinking the Executive Branch will make the government less corrupt. Wealth and power are like water. They find their own level. In the absence of power vacated by the Executive Branch something will step up to fill the void. We’ve had our century of feeding on Pimp Daddy US’s benevolence. Government is already corrupt. I’d like to try allowing that corruption to go somewhere else. Gone out of the White House maybe we can find a better battlefield on which to fight it to the death.

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I am reading James O. Hannay’s, “The Wisdom of the Desert”. Holy Crap! We are a bunch of glutinous wussies. I keep talking about living on less, devoting a whole blog post (Money) to it recently. I haven’t changed my habits. I still fuss over finding an afternoon at Starbucks on one cup of coffee to be too expensive. Will I follow through in 2017? The new year is 2 days old. We have 363 more days to see if I do.

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Ray RobertaBob’s rules to live by:

  1. Lidera con compasión y misericordia. Solamente después de que su encuentro con alguien desafíe su opción para comenzar con la compasión usted encuentra maneras de limitar creativamente su misericordia hacia ellos. Incluso entonces, considere a los monjes y su voluntad de sufrir más allá de lo que la mayoría de la gente consideraría sana.
  2. El perdón te hace libre.
  3. Constantemente pregunte si sus elecciones actuales le acercan a su deidad o interfieren con su relación con su deidad. Todo lo que te aleje de una relación sana con tu deidad debe dejar tu vida.
  4. Un poco de miseria es bueno para el alma. Algunos de lo que quieres sólo pueden venir a través de la lucha.
  5. El rey no es tu papá de azúcar ni tu amigo. Deja de esperar que él te cuide.
  6. La sabiduría comienza con parientes y amigos. Amad a vuestros parientes, amigos y enemigos por igual.
  7. La forma en que usted califica para ser servido es servir a otra persona.

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That’s pretty much it. I joined my local YMCA as 2016 neared an end. I’ve done 3 workouts so far. I’ve been on diabetes meds long enough to be addicted and overly tolerant of their effects. Bringing my disease under control will mean more addictive/damaging/powerful meds or a much more impactful change in habits. If you want to pray for something, pray that I’ll get it in gear and eat better/exercise more. I’ve said enough about my money dysfunction. It’s not a matter of more knowledge or more words. New Year’s Resolutions are slow-news-day filler. I am a writer. Talking about doing something isn’t the hard thing. It’s the follow through. Stay tuned. This story will play itself out over the next few years. Keep reading the blog to find out how it ends.

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Luna de los Muertos

Christmas isn’t my happy place. The popular press has several narratives. One is a constant, Chihuahua on crack exortation to get out there and spend money on gifts and holiday meals. It’s a choir of info-babes and merchants cajoling us into spending money we don’t really have. It’s a season of giving, they say. We are also told we must help the doe-eyed po’ folk they parade before the camera once a year. This is the time when we show how compassionate and generous we are. 1 month out of 12 we hear about kids who are giving coats & blankets to the homeless, the bare shelves at the local food bank, the poor child with leukemia whose parents can’t pay for medical care and some benevolent one-percenter drops a wad of cash to cover the cost, the anonymous donor who pays off the layaways of strangers, the local charities who do the angel tree thing, you know the drill. All the while the merchants continue their nagging that we haven’t spent enough yet. Easy credit, everybody gets approved, no payments until 2115, come on down, prices will never be lower . . .

The other almost fits how I feel. It’s the “reason for the season” thing. I was raised in the church, spending Sunday mornings for most of my youth in Sunday School. I’ve been up there at the alter giving my life to Christ more than once. I am very aware of the real reason for the season. It’s about Cheeezus, and so we should spend the Advent season flopping about the floor in front of the altar speaking in tongues and confessing what a shit we’ve been then take what we were going to spend at Macy’s and give it to the church. You still end up in the same place January 1st–broke, hung-over and a little desperate.

hello-kitty-christmas-treeThough, dumping your Christmas shopping cash into the offering plate will mean some long faces Christmas morning when the family goes to look at the tree and it’s some sad, pink artificial thing with no gifts under it and a short in the wiring which means the lights don’t work and there is a scary smell of burning plastic. If you go this route I’d be careful about eating the milk & cookies. You never know.

I’ve been that grump that stomps about the mall mumbling about the show of wealth on display, how there are starving children in Africa, the world has no peas, Santa is a creepy drunk, and these people need to get themselves to revival forthwith.

This is the time of year when things feel bleak. It’s warm outside but I feel a chill in my home. I’m not in a very celebratory mood. This is when the harvest has come in, the fields are brown with corn husks and soybean plant stalks covered by manure from the neighbor’s cows. It is when the trees look like they died. The whole world seems to have picked up and moved to Hades. Anybody that can afford to has gone elsewhere, to more pleasant climes where the service staff knows the GFE game. The rest of us schlubs are still getting up at 5am to clean out the stalls, put down fresh hay, and try again to get the old tractor fixed. My yard is covered in leaves and the grass is a sickly brown. When I got back from the road the cold that had been lurking about came on full force. I feel like crap.

Something about us, that whistles in the dark against our fears and nightmares, that wants life to always be immortal sunshine and lollipops, that wishes for the days before we knew what the word, “no” meant and could count on the comforting nursery of our mothers. We don’t like to acknowledge the dead, admit that in the spring as life reawakens there are storms which flood and tear down homes. There is something desperate about us this season, as the world hibernates, that wants our binkie and desirous weather. It’s that something desperate that makes me annoyed.

Life inhales and exhales. There are seasons of the dead, of winter and miserable grey skies, the ground sometimes covered in snow, a time to sit close to a hot wood stove and read post-apocalyptic fiction by candlelight. To be asked to binge on giving, binge on food, to pretend it isn’t winter while everything is in Hades, feels like a lie. I don’t want to exhale yet. My sinuses hurt and I’m low on Kleenex. Merry Texmas, y’all.

Christmas is in 9 days. We start a new year in 16 days. Another year gone by, another few months gripping the kerosene lantern and it’s feeble light not quite beating back the malaise of the season. Typical for me, the cupboard is bare, the wallet too thin, I don’t have a job, the job I had claims that I defied some rules so no bonus for me, bills are due in a couple weeks and the well intentioned wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year don’t make me feel better.

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The Twenty Percent

Old habits die hard. I’m trying in 2016 to break the habit of preaching. The ethic among those in recovery is to share. It’s a good ethic. This post is a fail in that regard. A couple years ago I was in love with yelling at anybody in earshot that if they had a dollar they could tithe a dime. Most of my ire was directed at a particular friend who had kept up his hungry maw ways. The Calvary came for him, helped out, and he iterated.

by Ken Rockwell
by Ken Rockwell©

Next month, same thing. A poor-mouth speech about how he couldn’t afford his bills and the man was oppressing him and if he could just get that one big score or the man would cut him a check, he’d be straight. Next month, +1 iteration. It got old. He has a late model Cadillac. Whatever thrift store he shops at must have friends in expensive places. His clothes have that “Pimp Daddy” vibe to them. I thought I had him checkmated with the premise that everybody, no matter how broke, can tithe a dime on a dollar. I thought this move was brilliant. It isn’t. The point then was that you can’t really say you can’t afford to tithe. So . . . how did that work for me? Not so well.

Looking at all my income sources last year, I had a decent year. I made $4,000.00 above my 7 year average income. I had that job at Bing Maps and Uber Map Improvement which paid about double what I usually make. With all my bluster about having a dollar and giving a dime, how did I do? meep. Charitable giving was 2%. I gave 2¢ on each dollar I earned.

Let’s make things worse while that turd sits on the screen and reveals me to be the hypocrite. How about savings? Dave Ramsey in his book, “Financial Peace”, recommends that we save 15% of our income. Did I save $5,000.00? Nope. There is a difference between depositing money in an account and saving. I deposited $2600 in my investment banking account. I have $8.00 in that account. In a previous post I gloried in depositing enough money in that account to have Baby Step 1 done. $8.00 of that money is left. So, I have saved $8.00 (0.025%) of my $2600.00. Woo.

Here is what I shoulda, woulda, coulda done, what you can do (sorry, sermonizing). Live on under 80% of what you make. Give 10% to charity and save the other 10%. Yeah, I have that rant in my head, that our tax burden can be a big hit on our net income. If we pay child support that can be a big hurt on the budget. Minimum wage isn’t enough, the job you have isn’t enough. My bills average about $1100.00/month, or about a 40% of what I usually make.

The other turd in my life is that every time I compare my income and expense averages the claim that I can’t afford to live on 80% shows up as a lie. Last year I spent $1200.00 on dining out. I gave fast food restaurants 10¢ of my dollar earned, five times what I gave in charity. Another fine, oft spoken trope about us spendthrifts, if we just stop with the Starbucks and McDonald’s we could easily afford a 20% cut in our spendable cash. I know, we know. It’s not about knowledge. It’s about making the choice (again) and doing it.

You and I that run from paycheck to paycheck, always chasing bills, never quite able to get ahead, perhaps envying the 1%, we have to decide. Do we want to keep being miserable this way or are we willing to invest in a little more misery for the short term to make a change? No, no, I won’t listen to a rant about how if the 1% just cut you a check you’d be fine. Go look at my “Big Score” post if you have forgotten.

I have a nice little thing running. I get a job, I get money, I spend money, the job ends, I cry wolf, the Calvary comes, we eat wolf steak for a bit, rinse & repeat. I’ve slowly climbed from a cot in a church social hall as a client of Richmond’s CARITAS to sitting in the second bedroom of a single family home with all my toys. Yes, it’s a gap time and for now, I am broke as a joke. Some bills will not get paid until I find money for them. As things sit it looks like I might lose my cable TV and wired Internet access. It’s a pause in my growth curve. But as things sit it doesn’t look like I’ll fall as far as CARITAS.

The standing question I haven’t answered, though, is whether I will rinse & repeat or I’ll break my rhythm and do what I so proudly declaim as the right thing to do? Will I live on 80% of what I make, even now, as I am broke as a joke. One of those Twelve Step clichés: nothing changes if nothing changes. I totally get you reading this and snorting with sarcastic derision at me because it’s another iteration of, “I’ll do better this time.” Will I? Will you?

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Asian Fare

First Posted 04-Sep-2015

Some years ago I told my buddy James Rustler about a late night run to Sacramento from Berkeley while I was a member of Taxi Unlimited. The ride itself was uneventful, the best kind as a cab driver. My fare wasn’t very talkative. All I could get out of her is that she was a courier. She was dressed in black—black turtleneck, black jeans, black running shoes. She was Asian and striking. Clearly mid-30’s and world worn. Some courier, being paid to take a cab from Berkeley to Sacramento. I dropped her at the Best Western near Old Town. The drive home . . . not so much. I spun out while trying to avoid a head-on crash with oncoming traffic. I almost made it. The other car was a beautiful 1960’s Pontiac GTO. My cab dented the other car just a bit. Enough to sully the near perfect restoration of this gorgeous car and get me in trouble.

art car bugLately, Rustler has been between jobs so he’s soliciting writing gigs and I offered to let him write for me. He did the thing about the clap causing the apocalypse. This is his second piece for me, offered without edits or commentary. My apologies to Rustler for the re-edit of his work after losing the first version in the latest crash of my site: “It was a hot summer’s night in the Year of the Rooster. The cab’s air conditioning wasn’t working right again, and keeping the window halfway rolled down only did so much. But once the driver had dropped the fare off at the airport, he’d roll down both from windows for the long trip back across the Bay Bridge. It would be a long drive back across the bay with no return fare, but it was late, and the peace and quiet of a little break from the customers would be nice. At the airport, the man in the three-piece suit who he’d picked up at the edge of the UC Berkeley campus got out without a word, gave him an unimpressive tip, and disappeared into the terminal. Well, at least he’d paid without a fuss.
The driver got back in the cab and leaned over to roll the passenger side front window down. The window fought him every inch of the way. He almost had it down when a tremendous thud shuddered across the roof of the cab. He looked up—something big had landed on the car’s roof, though (thankfully, he thought) nothing heavy enough to cave it in. He was about to get out and inspect the damage when whatever it was – or maybe, whoever it as – came sliding off the roof by the left rear door. A second passed, and then the door opened, and someone got in the cab. The door slammed shut with a heavy mechanical clank. ‘DRIVE!!!’ The voice was a woman’s—stern, commanding, but not panicked.
The driver looked back at her in the rearview mirror, but saw only her silhouette. The words ‘Look, lady, I’m not supposed to pick up passengers here, and besides . . .’ had just managed to escape from his mouth when he noticed, behind her in the mirror, two Asian men of about thir-ty approaching the car. One was reaching under his jacket for something, and the driver had a sudden sinking feeling that it wasn’t a business card. Two seconds later, they were out in traffic, accelerating away from the terminal. They had nearly reached the highway on-ramp when it occurred to him to ask where they were going, ‘Erm, so where to?’
The woman’s voice was flat, unemotional, unruffled by anything that had happened, ‘Golden Gate Park’. Half an hour later, they were stopped in front of the Dutch Windmill at the west end of the park. The driver was still processing everything that had happened. He was happy that she’d be getting out of the cab now. He was happy that in a few minutes he’d be on his way back to the east bay to pick up his normal clientele of junkies, crazies, and gang members. Nothing bad had happened yet, but there was something about her that spelled trouble. When the door opened and she stepped out, he felt suddenly like someone had taken a weight off his back. Until she knocked on the window. He had already rolled it down before the sensible part of his brain caught up with him, but when it finally did, it screamed out, ‘What are you doing?! Hit the gas!’
He looked up at her, intending to deliver a goodbye as he stomped on the pedal. But seeing her clearly for the first time showed her to be in her mid-20s, East Asian, short-haired, and gorgeous. His resolve weakened just enough to give her the chance to say, ‘Wait here. You can keep the meter running’. He did, without really understanding why. He watched her as she walked towards the windmill. She was dressed for action – boots, cargo pants, and a tank top, with a small black bag slung over her shoulder. He watched her curves while she walked up to a very specific rock, lifted it, retrieved something from underneath it, and carefully put it back in place. She was fit without being masculine, neither too slim nor too muscular. He wondered what her legs looked like under those pants. He understood why he had stayed with no small amount of disappointment in himself.
She got back in the car, closing the door with a loud slam, ‘airport. Lose the blue Impala that’s been following us since we got off 280.’
He hadn’t even noticed it, but now, as he looked back over his shoulder, he saw it parked along the side of the Great Highway. He saw the orange glow of the tip of a cigarette through the right side of the windsheild. He realized that the two men seated in the Impala had been waiting for her to retrieve the item, and now that she had it. NOW he hit the gas. The Impala awoke and hustled into traffic along the Great Highway a few cars back. He couldn’t outrun them in this old Dodge Dart remade into a cab – to do that he’d need something like a police package Crown Vic. Even then Impalas of that vintage had Corvette V8’s as an option. Lose the Chevy how?
It was 2AM, so losing them in traffic wasn’t going to happen. He had an idea. It was crazy, but this whole situation was crazy, and this wasn’t any more so than the rest of it. They’d crossed Westlake and Daly City with the Impala never more than a few cars back. He waited, thinking about the timing this would need. Just a few seconds off, and it wouldn’t work. But there was half a chance it wouldn’t work anyway, so all he could do was hope. He pressed down on the gas pedal, asking the old slant-6 to press on through 50, then 65, then 80 miles an hour. The cab’s k-frame creaked as it waddled down its lane going faster than was wise. All the while, the Chevy kept pace, staying just out of his mirrors and a few cars back. He looked ahead, and saw the overpass near Tanforan he was looking for coming closer. From the back, the mysterious lady hissed, ‘What are you doing? You’ll never outrun them in this thing!’
‘Not trying to, honey! Hold on to your tits!’, in a flash, the cab was a lane over to the left, tires screeching as it slowed by twenty miles an hour in the few seconds it took to reach the overpass. One lane to the right, the Chevy passed them, still doing 85. By the time they reached the other side of the overpass, the cab doing a modest 65, while the Chevy smoked its brakes, waving crazily in its lane as it tried to slow down. An instant that seemed like forever passed, with the driver wondering if his plan would work. And then he heard the siren and saw the flashing blue and red lights of the CHP cruiser that he knew sat next to that very overpass every single night looking for speeders. The cruiser pulled into the lane right behind the blue Chevy. The driver slowed the cab even more, letting the Chevy and the cruiser pass by.
Whoever those dudes in the car were, they were the CHP’s problem now. The timing had worked – by the time both cars passed the cruiser, the cab had been doing a sane speed in its lane, and the driver of the Chevy looked like a midnight highway racer who had spotted a speed trap too late and tried to get out of a ticket by slamming on the brakes. That was reckless driv-ing, and somebody was going to be getting a very expensive ticket. That is, after the CHP was done talking to them. Which was going to take a while. Faced with the choice of whether to try to run, and end up in a high-speed chase with half of the CHP following it, or to slow down and let them go, the Chevy did the sane thing and slowly pulled over.
The cab continued on its way. As he looked back in the rearview mirror, he saw that some-how, without his noticing, the mystery lady had changed into a prim gray ladies’ business suit that had apparently come out of the bag she had been carrying. Her voice didn’t waver a bit when she said, ‘Inventive. I’m impressed. A few minutes later, they were back at the airport, and the driver felt a little tinge of regret as he pulled to a stop in front of the international ter-minal. Driving a cab was normally boring, except for the few moments when it could be terrify-ing. This had been terrifying, too, but not the same way that the other times had been. This was exciting.
The door of the cab opened, then closed, and he heard the clacking of high heels as his pas-senger walked up to his window. She extended her hand, and instinctively he reached out and took the wad of paper that was in it. He brought his hand inside the cab, examined what she had given him, and fount it to be 10,000 Hong Kong Dollars. ‘Sorry, it’s all I have. I’m sure you can get it changed somewhere.’ Her voice was softer now. Almost pleasant.
This better not turn out to be worth twenty bucks. I deserve more than that for all this trou-ble. She smiled, which surprised him more than anything else that had happened that night, ‘That you do. I think you’ll be happy when you get it changed’. Then she turned and started walking away.
‘You know, I wouldn’t mind having you in my cab again sometime! he shouted after her. She turned, and with an expression that told him that she wasn’t joking, ‘Don’t worry – the next time I need a good driver, I’ll be in touch.’
He tried to think of something witty to reply, with, but by the time he had come up with something, she had disappeared into the terminal, and he didn’t see her again after that. Well, at least not until . . .”

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The Big Score

First Posted 26-Feb-2015

This one is as nuts as some of my recent posts, maybe more. A friend of mine, who did a long bit in prison, still wants to hit the big score and dump a bunch of cash into his neighborhood. His idea is that if the score was big enough he could buy off all the poor people and in one fell swoop, fix the problems in his neighborhood. People would love him, he’d get his (new) Cadillac, young women would want to be with him, and so on. It’s a fantasy that only works on TV or in Hollywood. In Real Life, it’s a non-starter.

diamond_dollarThese ideas come up. It’s a popular fantasy that you could dump enough cash into one locality to end poverty there. Let’s play with it for a bit. To make the score big enough we are talking $32.1 billion or so. There are roughly 26,000 people in this guy’s neighborhood. It’s a nice mix, with the median income being about $28,000.00/year. To make the math easy, we’ll say the median income is $30,000.00/year. Median age is 38. So, we are talking about $30,000/year for almost 40 years for 26,000 people. $31,200,000,000 to create enough cash that all 26,000 could spend $30,000.00/year for 40 years and not be broke. Show me a single crime that can pay off 31.2 billion in once score. IMHO, doesn’t exist. So, the size of the score is one problem.

The other concern is 26,000 instant millionaires who may not have the life skills necessary to be disciplined with $1,200,000.00. The feeding frenzy potential here is pretty intense. 26,000 to 1 that everyone would behave with their 1.5 million is lottery odds. If 1,300 (5%) misbehave that’s still $1,560,000,000.00 worth of cash dumped into the grey & black market economies. The possibilities are scary.

that’s the number in play if we are going to give everyone in his neighborhood enough money to retire comfortably. It is that much money. Enough that the size of the wad of cash starts twinkling in the eyes of the politicians and the one holding that bankroll suddenly has friends in high places he didn’t have before. It is a big impact on the social and political scene in which it appears.

That’s enough cash dumped into one zip code that it would change the character of the neighborhood. Before the money Highland Park is perceived as a a ghetto. It isn’t, actually. The medium income is decent and the majority of the folk in the area work. It’s only a small number of bad actors that get the attention and drive the news narrative about this zip code. After dumping $31.2 billion into it and just the cash makes it a desirable place to be. Suddenly lots of folks want to buy the 19th century homes in the area, driving property values and initiating the sort of gentrification that would permanently alter the character of Highland Park.

It would mean my friend could not live there and pay the same rent he currently pays. I reckon he includes himself in the group of folk who would collect their $1.2 million so maybe this doesn’t matter. My friend, in his naiveté, believes that he could do this and it would come out the way he wanted it to. People would behave, invest the money wisely, and be able to afford a reasonable income for the rest of their lives. I disagree.

This is so much cash that it would take on a life of its own. The challenge of mastering it rather than becoming a slave to it is daunting. With this much money in play could he live a disciplined life? He could totally, stupidly indulge every one of the seven deadly sins and have plenty of money left over for his philanthropic largess. Right now, he’s living on Social Security Disability. There isn’t enough money in his life for him to get into much trouble. $31.2 billion, though, is a lot of potential mischief. It’d take a remarkable person not to be drawn into at least a little excessive behavior. He’s not that remarkable. He’d do something and depending on what he did, make a mess of it, maybe a irrecoverable mess. This too, $1,560,000,000.00 given to the drug & crime lords in his neighborhood from a guy whose expressed purpose is to eliminate economic misery and the monetary motivation to commit crime. Somehow, having 1,560,000,000.00 loose in the black market doesn’t seem like a crime reduction plan. It seems like a cash fueled bacchanal that would spike crime and have the opposite result from what is intended. Then, the cash would be gone at some point and what then?

That 5% that fueled the bacchanal would have to deal with a community hangover of prodigious size. The money is gone so the lifestyle it supported would collapse. The support systems that existed before the windfall may have been pushed aside by all that cash and thus, wouldn’t be there when the hangover began. It would be an epic economic crash, an epic community hangover. You can poke around to find stories of lottery winners or others that had a sudden windfall of cash and instead of it solving problems, it creates them. I don’t see any difference here. Even if 95% of the folk who got their $1.5 million dollar gift from my bank robber friend did behave, the other 5% that didn’t would still have a big effect on the community. 2,000 people in a small geographic area who are suddenly rich and then suddenly facing Sunday morning, hungry, broke, hung-over and in trouble. Bad news, I’d say. I made much of Robert Lupton’s, “Toxic Charity“ and Dambisa Moyo’s, “Dead Aid“ last year. These two writers talk about the damage that can be done by ignorant resource dumps of the sort that my friend imagines as the answer. More money isn’t the answer. Intelligent engagement with the community and a long term plan for micro-investment to promote economic development is a better answer than $32,100,000,000.00 dropped into the ghetto he lives in. One last thing. Alongside this wish for the one big score is a core belief that he doesn’t want to do more time. If he did pull off a $32,100,000,000.00 job, he’d be prime beef for the FBI. He’s already done 30 years in prison. He’s in his 60’s. If he did this, he’d die in prison. There is no way they’d let him get away with it. So, the two don’t go together. He can’t have his big score without doing big time. The whole thing is nuts.

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Define Poor

As I sit in the office I set up in the spare bedroom in my house without a job, with less than $40.00 of accessible cash, it’s easy to label myself as poor. If I don’t figure out how to pay my cable TV bill soon I’ll be stuck watching Netflix and will miss the new Season of Mythbusters. Horrible, right?

wretched_man-213x300This still sticks in my head like a stray cocaine addled ex-girlfriend who won’t leave. When we say we want to end poverty, what do we mean? Half of the world lives on less than $2.50/day. I feel impoverished because after I buy my cup of coffee from Starbucks I’ll only have 23¢. Who is really poor? Am I poor because I don’t have enough cash to buy my usual list from our local supermarket? Those people who live on $2.50 a day, are we saying those are the poor folk?

Let’s just make that claim. That for things to be fair everybody has to live on more than $2.50/day. Thus the answer is to dump cash into their country so that everybody can have oh, maybe $10.00/day to live on. We’ll make some sort of UN resolution that imposes sanctions or whatever on nations that we consider wealthy and force them to give their wealth to our designated poor countries so that everyone can have their daily Alexander Hamilton. Good plan, no?

Best Laid Plans

No. The places in the world where we in the first world have diagnosed the problem as a lack of cash and thus the solution is to empty the coffers of the first world into the third are cesspools. The sudden influx of cash breeds crime & corruption. The well meaning, utopian ngo’s & government officials responsible for administering the flood of cash are too easily corrupted. Something like 90% of the money sent is swallowed up in costs and corruption. I know, a rapid fire paragraph of seeming glittering generalities. Don’t believe I’m factual? Check out Dambiza Moyo’s, “Dead Aid”. Go read the old news articles on the Symbionese Liberation Army and their food drop. Ask a local soup kitchen how many of those in line for a meal are regulars the staff suspects are not as down in the mouth as they claim. Redistributing assets to make things fair too often escalates the unfairness.

Lists seem to be a fad among bloggers. They show up well on the little 4.3″ screens of everybody’s iPhones. I am a bit mobile unfriendly on this site. I tend to write long, at least 1,000 words or so. You have to scroll down (so fustrating) to read all of one of my posts. +1 way in which this blog is a pain in the ass. Before I finish this I have a list below for you:

Things Alan Owns
# Item Days to Earn @ $2.50/day
1 1 Can Bustello Coffee 1.5
2 Oscar Meyer Beef Franks 2.0
3 ½ gallon Soy Milk 2.0
4 Whole Chicken 4.0
5 Melita Drip Coffee Maker 5.0
6 Peet’s Coffee Whole Bean Major Dickenson’s Blend 5.2
7 TFal Pot & Pan set 50.0
8 Microwave Oven 36.0
9 Convection Oven 37.0
10 Vacuum Cleaner 40.0

These are just a few small things. I also own a laptop (600 days), a smart phone (160 days) and live in a single family home (240 days for one month’s rent). I drive an old car that by the standards of my friends, is a hoopty. At $2.50/day it would take 14 years to earn enough money to replace it. One mechanic offered to fix everything broken for 2 years wages. I have friends paying a mortgage on $250,000.00 homes. For 80% of the world 100,000 days (274 years, 14 generations) would pass before they could pay that off.

Color Blind Privilege

That’s one aspect of this. What I feel as poverty is wealth by a large percentage of the world’s population. This happens every once in a while and makes the news. Someone from a remote corner of the world where they hunt & gather is flown to a place like New York City and they have a meltdown. Something as simple as a small corner grocery is such an abundance of food at such extraordinary prices that they cannot believe what they are seeing. For most of their lives if they don’t go hunt something today they don’t eat today. And here they are among millions of people staring at the shelves of a small grocer with enough food to feed their village for a long time. And it’s just one small store. Walmart? OMG! Walmart makes them run in tears from the store. Walmart makes their head explode.

Yet these people have lived in hunter gatherer cultures for thousands of years. They are doing something right. Something else to consider–UN Relief and other foreign aid efforts have sent several trillion dollars to African nations over the last half-century or so. You would think that by now everybody there could be assured of their daily Hamilton and four times the amount of money they live on. Yet, over 50 years the cash has fostered incredible corruption and violence as the money is stolen by those who are able. Those for whom it was intended for absorb yet another sandpaper dildo shoved up their dignity. Go read Dambiza Moyo’s, “Dead Aid” if you want to hear more about this. I met someone from Uganda who giggled that when we send cash and food they just eat it and leave us good hearted folk with nothing to show for our well intentioned generosity.

I hope none of what I write here is news. If you want to know why I don’t give to UNICEF or respond to those heartbreaking TV ads for various NGO’s feeding the poor it is because mercy is one more thing that scales badly. Once governments get involved and there is substantial cash in play it’s hard for the establishment to be humble and do the right thing. To often their SumYung HotTea wants a fur coat and gets it for an equivalent price of 20 years salary for a lot of the world. Instead I’ve advocated working small, in our own neighborhoods, seeking to foster the gifts of my neighbors. Yes, yes, this does come from Robert Lupton’s, “Toxic Charity“. I like the book.

As we sit in our local café and bemoan the miseries of the third world it is easy to take another sip of our doppio-half-caf-soy-hazelnut cappuccino (2 days wages) and accuse the rich of our first world of having too much. I have a suggestion I make frequently. Grab somebody sitting next to you in that café and ask them to hold your table. Go outside and give $20.00 (8 days wages) to somebody who looks like they need it. Each time you feel the urge to shake your fist at the evil rich, do a small act of kindness with great love. Then do another and keep doing them.

Rome was an empire for 1400 years. For the first millennium it was an invincible force. Then a no account bastard Nazarene son of a carpenter was born in Bethlehem. At about age 30 he was crucified by the Romans at the request of the boy’s church leadership after being accused of blasphemy. Followers of this no-account boy were tormented, murdered, brutalized in the most vicious means imaginable. What could not be done by any in a thousand years was done by a few who sacrificed themselves over 4 centuries. His Way leached its way into the heart of Constantine.

Rome was sacked repeatedly until it fell for the last time around 440AD. You will hear that followers of Jesus of Nazareth were not the ones who brought down the great Empire. It was the Visigoths. Maybe so. Four centuries of speaking to the hearts of those in power, four centuries of asking them to follow the way of a ragamuffin boy from Nazareth, had its effect. The kingdom of Jesus lives in the hearts of billions of followers. Rome is a ruined city tourists visit to eat pizza and stare at fallen sports arenas. I think that carpenter’s boy won.

That’s my answer to those smoking Galious cigarettes, sipping that organic, fair trade latte and eyeing the “kill the 1%” protest sign proudly hung on the café wall above the flyer for river tours of the Douro. Christianity won against Rome by invading its heart. We won by small acts of kindness and uncommon grace.

You can be part of this revolution. No flags or riots needed. You know the drill. No, that old six word prayer is only a small part of it. I care more about these simple things: Love God with all your heart, mind and strength. Love friends, family and enemies alike. Forgive first, beyond 70 times 7. Wash feet. If you don’t understand what I mean by washing feet, ask one of us who follow Jesus. We invaded Rome’s heart and live in it rent free. I’ll take that as a win you can be part of for less than a day’s wages.

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