Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Post-Thanksgiving Notes

We hosted Thanksgiving at our house this year. In attendance were 15 adults, 6 children, and 1 newborn baby.

After the fact, a few of our guests were kind enough to send us some thank you text messages. One even sent us a handwritten, mailed thank you note. I'd say his parents raised him right.

Unless the person is a professional baker, their homemade rolls will never, ever beat the awesome ease of the Pillsbury Crescent rolls. It kills me to admit that though.

Next time we do Thanksgiving dinner, we need to make sure there are enough mashed potatoes to have some leftover.

I ran a Turkey Trot 5k race on the morning of Thanksgiving (26:12 yo!). Five of my friends had originally said they'd run it with me. But come race day, only one of my friends actually showed up - she went most of the distance with me, despite just getting over the friggin' stomach flu. Folks like her are the ones that make the world go 'round. People who do what they say they're going to do are terribly underrated.

Saw the excellent movie "Lincoln." My favorite film reviewer is A.O. Scott from the NYT, and he gave it 4 stars, which he rarely does. He says "See it. Take your kids to see it." (School-aged kids is what I think he really means.)

Tomorrow I leave for a trip to Boston to see one of my BFF's (and I'll be doing a bit of work, but mostly a lot of play). See you next week!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Petraeus Scandal

Never ceases to amaze me how stupid powerful men can be. I just can't ignore the coverage of the truly bizarre, oddly compelling Petraeus Affair. Such a perfect case of the truth being stranger than fiction.

Even though this is all arguably about lawful sex between two consenting adults, I'm convinced Petraeus still should have been automatically disqualified as head of the CIA - not for his failure to keep it in his pants though - but for lacking the basic common sense to avoid conducting his affair over Gmail. Holy hell. I get that old guys might not be particularly tech savvy, but come on! Blackmail could have happened. State secrets could have fallen into the wrong hands (insert plot of most recent Bond film here. And since we're on the topic of Bond, I'd like to award Tweet of the Year to @feMOMhist for this one: "Daniel Craig's face looks like a hide.  If a female star had that skin she'd be peeled & lasered until her face looked like a newborn's ass").

As for the "real" Petraeus scandal? I absolutely loved Glenn Greenwald's piece in The Guardian: "FBI's abuse of the surveillance state is the real scandal needing investigation":
So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of [Petraeus paramour Paula] Broadwell's physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime - at most, they had a case of "cyber-harassment" more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people - and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court... 
But, as unwarranted and invasive as this all is, there is some sweet justice in having the stars of America's national security state destroyed by the very surveillance system which they implemented and over which they preside. As Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it this morning: "Who knew the key to stopping the Surveillance State was to just wait until it got so big that it ate itself?"
Exactly. Though the most recent brouhaha this week suggests that Broadwell's emails were overtly threatening of Kelley's life... who (besides that jokey, shirtless FBI agent) really knows anyway?

Two other aspects of this scandal are pushing some buttons for me.

First, seeing pictures of Mrs. Holly Petraeus just breaks my heart a little bit. Maybe it's her vulnerability as an older, cheated upon, career-less wife that I'm feeling. I just hate how folks are taking this opportunity to critique her appearance, which, to my eyes, frankly, she appears dignified, refreshingly surgically un-altered, and perfectly age-appropriate. I find the obvious victim-blaming and ageism damn depressing. Nice reminder that women are too often valued only for their sexual attractiveness to men.

Secondly, it disturbed me to see this creepy picture of Ms. Broadwell, presumably taken by the paparazzi from outside, clearly showing her inside the private home of her brother. The obvious invasion of privacy is totally jarring.

Your thoughts?

Friday, November 16, 2012

In Which I'm Asked for Financial Advice

Sometimes we never really know the honest shape of someone's financial situation.

One of my BFF's called me up the other day in tears because she felt frustrated over not having enough money in her bank account to buy herself a $3 pumpkin spiced latte (or something or other - I don't drink coffee). I was shocked.

From all outside appearances, you would never know she and her husband are having financial problems: they drive a BMW, live in a $800k-ish house in a very nice section of a major city, and take an annual family Caribbean vacation. (But see The Millionaire Next Door for a description of the consumer preferences of truly rich folks: tastes running pretty much the exact opposite of my friend's.)

She perceives me as someone to go to for financial advice. Why ask me? Because she knows I'm financially independent now despite my parents never having made more than 6 figures, plus she knows I had some student loans, and I hardly ever buy new, etc. Admittedly, it comes somewhat naturally to me.

I should add that she's blessed with two very caring, very wealthy parents who have given her a lot of cash over the years - they technically own her house and instead of a mortgage, she's paying them back... they also paid for her college, grad school, her lavish 500-person wedding, two new cars for her, and are also funding her two kids' college educations. Now if only I had chosen my parents that well - actually that's my best financial advice right there: choose rich parents!

What can she do to have more money now?

My first piece of advice for my friend: Stop accepting money from your parents. Start managing your own income more effectively.

Yes, the parents are happy to give it, but when you boil it down, it is actually having the effect of making her unhappy. See, I have this little theory about certain ex-rich kids, and I channel a bit of the Warren Buffet in my thinking on this topic. Rich people, please stop giving large sums of money to your kids. It may gratify them in the near term, but their inability to manage that money effectively seems to hurt them in the long term. Pay for their college, then go see your estate lawyer about how to stop being their ATM.

I went to college with a handful of rich kids whose parents constantly gave, gave, gave material things to them. In one case, the guy got $150k cash from his folks at age 22. It was gone in less than a year, thanks in part to his poor marital choices, namely, his ex-wife who spent $18k of it on wedding photos (it literally pains me to type that). Since he's been living in the same city all this time, he could have used that $150k to purchase a 2 bed/2 bath condo in the 1990s, then maybe traded up once or twice pre-2007, and he could be living mortgage-free today in a very nice home. But no.

My second piece of advice for my friend: Fill out new W4's to adjust your tax withholding, so you can stop giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan.

She and her husband are both employed by corporations. They receive W2's and a large tax refund every year. You never want to get a refund (the concept of the time value of money, anyone?). I told her to gather her most recent tax returns and check out the withholding calculator at Kiplinger's. Then they should each fill out a new IRS Form W4, and submit the forms to their employers. Voila! More money in each paycheck. (But will they have enough to pay their taxes next Spring? hmmm...)

My third piece of advice: Do a quarterly balance sheet. Get to know your own net worth. Understand your cash flow. Then you can set some specific goals.

One goal might be to have at least $1000 in the bank 6 months from now - or whatever amount would make her feel comfortable enough to be able to indulge in her favorite latte once a month.

My fourth piece of advice: Read up on money and investing.

There are a lot of great personal finance books out there, and your local library is the place to get them. Many years ago, I had the good fortune to read The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias, and I learned all the basics from it - it made me open a Roth IRA as a teenager (awesome). Other people I respect have loved Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. Oh yes, and I understand there are some fantastic and free blogs out there, too.

Got anything else for my friend?

Friday, November 9, 2012

How Do You Handle Gossip?

I'm a big fan of Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project. Someday soon I hope to read her follow-up book Happier At Home (which @Cloud recently reviewed here.)

One of the best takeaways from THP is the suggestion that we all stop gossiping. "Gossip" is defined as saying mean-spirited information about someone behind their back. There's also a difference between innocuous gossip and malicious gossip. Rubin has blogged about her thoughts on gossip, and also has a short video that I like.

My question for today is how do you handle gossip?

In general, I do not gossip about people IRL (I try to reserve my gossip for the anonymous internets, heh, heh). But I often struggle with how to handle myself when I suddenly find myself in the awkward position of being the unwitting audience for someone else's gossiping. This is complicated by living in a small town, where lots of people gossip and have fun doing it - and also often learn something useful.

Here's an example from last weekend at the local bar. A friend, I'll call her Gossip Girl, out of nowhere starts gossiping about another friend of ours who just had a baby and could not come out with us that evening. The things she was saying weren't very mean, but they definitely would not have been appreciated by the person who was not there.

I wish I had said something to clue Gossip Girl into the fact that she was being inappropriate, something like - "It would really hurt her feelings if she were here right now to hear you saying this." Someone else tried to give her a hint that night - "this is a very, very small town you know..." but G.G. did not pick up the cue.

The whole interaction just left a bad taste in my mouth about G.G. While I had her correctly pegged from the get-go as someone to whom I shouldn't feel safe revealing anything important, it was still a disappointing interaction. I wonder what she's saying about me!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Waiting for Election Results

I just want to say that I cannot wait until we're older and someday the election results are instantaneous.

That, and it is so strange how FoxNews of all places has reported Obama ahead for over the last hour, while CNN of all places has had Romney ahead.

At this point, I don't see how Romney can win Florida, and so goes the election.

That is all.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser

Finally, I recommended a book club book that everyone else hated! I think this has got to be some sort of odd rite of passage.

"Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow" by Elizabeth Lesser was my pick. Well, it was sort of my pick in a way but not really.... See, I bought a copy as a birthday present for my friend, C, who loved it. C then recommended it to our book club as her pick, before she had actually read it. Turns out, C and I were the only ones who liked it. But C did not show up to book club, so I was the only one present to defend the book that everyone else hated. Hence it suddenly became "my pick" to defend.

It felt damn strange.

Defending it made me feel vulnerable, due to the subject matter.  The basic thesis is more complex than what I'm about to describe, but here goes: we're all just a bunch of bozos on the bus, and nobody is perfect. Yet almost everyone puts on a capable face and tries desperately to act like they've got it together all the time. Then, usually when something pretty bad happens in their life, they find their old capable face has to go, and they choose to start behaving more authentically.

Ok, not the best sales pitch anyone ever did for a book, I admit.

What can I say. This is not a book for everyone. INFJ-types like me will probably like it or at the very least appreciate it. Anti-therapy types who belittle the idea that people can go through a Phoenix Process after something bad happens to them will not care for this book. And people who cannot abide the story of a mother who cheats on her husband and ends a marriage for what our larger culture construes as frivolous reasons also will not like this book. Folks who don't want to think about aging, death, and dying will hate this book.

So to the 1% of the population I have not already described here: go ahead and read it!

I loved it, and am finding it hard to articulate why. Perhaps it is because I found one message of the book so appealing - and that's the encouragement to stop playing it so safe. Stop clinging to your most closely held judgments about the way you think others are living their lives so incorrectly. Instead, be flexible, be vulnerable, trust the universe, look for the signs that are there.