If I can make it there ...

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Where did you go??

I haven't been posting much lately, as all three of you might have noticed.

I think Big Apple Bound has run its course. It started mainly as a way to share some photos and stories with everyone back home while we settled in to New York.

Later, I tried morphing it a bit into my version of having a Jo Mathis feature section column. It didn't quite fit. Maybe the forum was wrong, or I was doing it wrong, but I never got over the sense that the whole blog was just a big dig-me fest.

What was I doing besides showing off? Not much.

So I'm changing that. I've launched a new blog. http://newvinegrowing.wordpress.com/

This one's less about me, and more about ideas. It's about people and businesses making changes. Big changes, little changes, personal changes, organizational changes. It's big and open in part because it's new and in part because I want wide open space to play in.

If you still want to see dig-me photos, come on over to Facebook. You'll often see party pics and such there. If you're actually curious what I'm up to, check out Twitter. You can get micro-updates of 140 characters or less.

Or you can just call me. Or email. I'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Autumn in New York

Back around Halloween time, John and I the Young Patrons of Lincoln Center masquerade party -- it was a black tie event in a space overlooking Columbus Circle. As John describes it, it felt very Great Gatsby.

Central Park was absolutely spectacular this fall -- the leaves were so beautiful one afternoon when we took a walk that I couldn't resist taking a load of photos.

We hurt "boom" in the distance one night, and looked out our new windows facing Central Park to discover fireworks. We didn't know fireworks were planned for the New York Marathon, so it was an unexpected treat. We turned off the lights and sat in the living room enjoying the show.

Black Friday turns really dark

I got sick to my stomach reading about the poor Wal-Mart worker who was trampled to death on Friday as shoppers literally busted down the doors.

An article about the death in the Times suggested that with the sour economy, people are panicked about not having enough, that this behavior isn't surprising. To a certain extent, I could understand if the shoppers had been waiting all night in a bread line and they were desperate to get food for their starving families. But to buy toys and TVs? Really??

Are we such a materialistic society that the potential to save money on extravagances we don't need could cause us to kill someone? This isn't about survival. But do Americans know the difference?

A section of this Times story seems to capture the compulsion to spend:
Some shoppers who had seen the stampede said they were shocked. One of them, Kimberly Cribbs of Queens, said the crowd had acted like “savages.” Shoppers behaved badly even as the store was being cleared, she recalled.
“When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning,’ ” Ms. Cribbs told The Associated Press. “They kept shopping.”

John and I have been in Manhattan for more than two years. We sold off so much stuff before we moved, and we continue to take trip after trip to Goodwill to cast off things we don't need or don't have room for.

Living in 695 square feet helps you get clarity about what's a necessity. Honestly, only a handful of times have I missed anything we've gotten rid of, and much more frequently we've looked around and realized that some of what we've kept is just clutter.

Maybe the reason the Wal-Mart incident is so appalling to me is that our forced minimalism gives me no empathy for someone desperate for a third television. Spend some time living with no basement, no garage, no attic, no storage room, really having to be among every item you own, and you develop a different view of the clutter in your life.

Meanwhile, I recently read a heart-warming column in Oprah's O Magazine. An Irish author talked about how her favorite gifts were time -- whether it was a favor by a friend or a hand-written letter, something that really meant something as a connection between the giver and the recipient.

I tried and failed to find an online link for the article, called Acts of Friendship, but one of my favorite anecdotes involved two women who each hated a particular domestic chore. I think one hated ironing and the other hated mending clothes, so once a week they'd get together and the one who hated ironing would mend the other's clothes and the one who hated mending would iron.

Isn't that the greatest gift? Spending time with someone you like AND rescuing her from something she hates?

We're also aware that many of our favorite people are nervously watching the economy to figure out what it means for them. We have loved ones back in Michigan who draw their paychecks directly and indirectly from the automakers, and who earn their living from construction, both of which are shaky these days. Not that working for a university or a school district is bullet proof when tax dollars are shrinking ... really, we're all a little vulnerable.

When you add all this up, what does it mean?

Bottom line: we would love it if you didn't buy us anything for Christmas.

I know, Christmas gifts are an expression of love and friendship. I still greedily want your love and friendship. I just don't need you to get trampled at Wal-Mart to do that.

So here's my alternative Christmas wish list:
1. Come visit us -- come to New York, if you don't live here. It's a great city and we love sharing it with friends. If you do live here, come over for dinner and a night of playing Taboo or Rumikub or something.
2. Write me a letter -- a real pen and ink, put it in an envelope with a stamp letter. I have always loved getting real mail (I think it goes back to the Dr. Seuss book club my mom enrolled me in) and it would be a treat to get a letter from a friend. Tell me about what's on your mind, or a favorite memory you have with me or us, or something you're dreaming of.
3. Donate to a charity -- City Harvest needs help feeding people, Best Friends is a no-kill animal shelter that helps animals all over the country, World Wildlife Fund tries to protect our environment ... or find a well-run charity that serves a mission you believe in.

Of course if you'd like to follow the example from O magazine and come over to do some ironing, you're more than welcome. I'd even swap you a lesson on how to use Blogger or Twitter or something if you want. Or I'd cook you some vegetarian spaghetti. Or I can edit your resume.

Anything that doesn't involve busting down the doors at Wal-Mart.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Amazing times in New York

John and I went to a little watering hole on the upper west side on election night, figuring that being out and about in one of the most Democratic neighborhoods in the country would be quite an experience if Obama won.

True, the bar did erupt in applause when CNN declared Obama the winner, and we did hear yelling and noise makers on the streets as we walked home. But it turns out the real festivities were in Brooklyn, where revelers poured into the streets, blocking traffic and creating impromptu festivals of democracy.


Just a few days before the election, the New York Marathon shut down many of the major streets around us. I'm not much of a runner but I was curious to see all the hubbub, so John and I wandered into Central Park, where the finish line was maybe a five-minute walk from our apartment.

I found myself unexpectedly getting weapy as I watched hundreds of runners concluding the final yards of this grueling ordeal. To my surprise, many of them didn't look sweaty and exhausted, but instead thrilled and jubilant. They waved at family members and smiled for the cameras.

Part of what really got to me, though, was the people lining the course. They were shouting things like "You can do it!" and "You're almost there!" and "Good work! Keep going!" But they weren't just yelling it to one person they seemed to know. They were doing it for all the runners.

It seemed like such a beautiful example of how life should be. The runners were pushing themselves to do something that's mostly about achieving a personal success, not about having to beat someone else to achieve, and all around them, people who had no vested interest in their achievement urged them to continue.

Too much of American culture has held up cynical snarky criticism as the height of funny. Hey, I'm not saying I don't find Jon Stewart brilliant. But we aren't all Jon Stewart, and there's a difference between satirizing American government and directing that hostility toward individuals around us.

What if we directed a little of that snark into cheerleading for each other? Like, "hey, congratulations on trying something new at work!" Or, as really happened to me recently, a taxi dispatcher actually yelled out "Great shoes!" Or whatever it is. Just giving each other a little love?

Yes, we can.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Make 'em laugh make 'em laugh make 'em laugh

I like to laugh. Ask anyone who's ever worked with me. Bailey and I had the reputation of being the twin guffaws at the U-M News Service, and I once had an editor at my college paper give me a stern talking to because I laughed too much on the job. (I responded that I was sorry she didn't enjoy her job as much as I did, but I didn't think productivity necessarily equated to an absense of fun.)

In case you like to laugh, too, here are some things that have made me laugh out loud recently:
-- Joe Cocker at Woodstock, with closed captioning
-- Lara's blog posting about one of her earliest books (her posting about the worst rejection letter ever is pretty hilarious, too. well, a whole lotta Lara's blog, really)
--The Facebook statuses of our friend Jeff, waiting impatiently for his first child to arrive:
Jeffrey and Rachel are still waiting!!! It's officially a "Hoomaian" baby - LATE!!! (you'd have to know Jeff, but this is proof positive of the baby's paternity)
Jeffrey is waiting for "special package" to arrive - no tracking number, but now "overdue."

What I love about each of these is that they aren't episodes of SNL or professional content. They're people making each other laugh using the Internet. That might not be what the government nerds who thunk up the Internet intended, but I think it's a pretty fine use of technology. (Sure, all new technology is actually funded by porn, but laughter is a pretty benign benefit.)

Not that I'm opposed to professionals making us laugh.
-- Venture Brothers rules
-- David Sedaris is genius, especially when you hear his stories in his own voice
-- Family Guy's absurdity, like in this five-minute sequence of Peter fighting a six-foot chicken

A friend recently said on Facebook she was having a bad day, and she asked for friends to tell her jokes. I offered my favorite.

Knock knock
Who's there?
Interrupting cow
Interrupting co ... MOO!

(It's better when you see it. Like this.)

Hey, the stock market went up 1,000 points today. Don't you think we all deserve a laugh?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Doing the math

There's a lot about American consumer behavior that baffles me. Their reaction to the economy this year is a perfect example.

Back in the late 1990s, at the height of the dot-com boom, I remember writing a story as a business journalist saying that the average American not only had no money in savings but was several thousand in debt. This wasn't a case that economy had soured so people were using their credit cards to make ends meet. It was a time of incredible prosperity and people were making the lifestyle choice to spend more than they made.

This always confused me. If you can't afford the new TV or tennis shoes or video game now, how will it be different when you charge it, adding the high interest costs to the price of the toy? It won't, but the good news for retailers and banks was that Americans are so gifted at denial that they could pretend the day of reckoning would never come.

Add a decade of increasingly easy credit and you really fuel the fire. No longer did second mortgages carry the stink of economic failure -- they were home equity loans, so much more palatable. Commercials showed happy middle class families using home equity loans to not only pay off their debt but to even have enough money for a swimming pool or a vacation.
Never to save, that I recall. Always to keep on spending.

Maybe because I grew up with working class parents who constantly extolled the value of money, it gives me a knot in my stomach to be in debt. John and I share this priority, and in spite of our ridiculously high rent, we pay off our credit cards every month and have a nice nest egg in savings.

That's part of what makes it hard for me to understand the American ethos of moving into ever bigger houses, ever farther away from work, driving increasingly gigantic cars -- then complaining when the cost of gas and heat go up.

Let's do the math just to make my point. I loved story problems as a kid.

Let's say you live 50 miles from work, so your commute is 100 miles a day five days a week.
That's 500 miles.
Because you're your kids' chauffeur, shuttling them to soccer practice and all the other requisite activities I didn't do, and my parents would have made me ride my bike to if I had done them, let's say you drive 20 extra miles of errands every day.
That's another 140 miles, for a total of 640 miles a week.
You drive a Navigator because an SUV is so much cooler than a minivan, so you get 18 miles to the gallon on the highway, 13 in the city.
We'll split the difference and call it 15 miles per gallon.
To do your 640 miles each week, you must buy about 42 gallons of gas.

At $1.50 a gallon, 42 gallons of gas costs $63.
At $4 a gallon, it's $168.
All this screaming about the high price of gas causing people to cancel vacations or finally consider a hybrid car is about $100 a week?

I'm not saying it's fun to give an extra $100 of your income to the oil companies so they can post record profits. But really, if your home budget can't absorb an extra $100 a week without drastic measures, that might be a sign you want to re-evaluate some of your choices so you have more of a buffer.

A friend asked for my help in making a budget to get out of debt. The first thing I advised was that she had to pay for everything in cash for a month and write down every expense. We then reviewed her spending to look at the difference between necessities and extras, and to look for ways to do the necessities cheaper.

Some things are easy -- no, you don't need another expensive purse, you can do without the mani-pedi. But I think part of our problem is that we've lost the ability to tell the difference between necessities and luxuries. Our parents got along fine without DVD players, answering machines (well, now voice mail), garage door openers and the other gizmos we now simply cannot live without. Look around your house right now and mentally list everything you didn't have 20 years ago, and consider for a second whether you really need it.

Yes, food is a necessity. However, going out to eat is typically a lot more expensive than cooking for yourself, and processed, prepared foods at the grocery store are typically more expensive than simpler foods. Trimming one or two lunches out during the week can save money. For some families, one more dinner in a week might equal the difference in gas.

I would call coffee a necessity. I do not call a $3-4 a day latte habit a necessity. Make your coffee at home, put it in a travel mug, and ta-da, you might have just found a good chunk of your gas budget.

Clothes are a necessity. But one woman I know who seemed always to be complaining about being broke also always seemed to have new outfits. Take care of what you have and stay out of the stores if you don't have the cash. Oh, and I just read that about 65 percent of the clothes women dry clean could actually be machine washed, so if you hate spending on dry cleaning like I do, try out your gentle cycle or give those Dryel bags a whirl.

My personal favorite -- the car payment. In most places, yes, you need a car to get around. But I still can't wrap my head around leasing cars. You build no equity and you never get yourself to a point of not having a car payment. Here's an idea: buy a two-year-old car, pay it off, and enjoy the pleasure of driving it a few years without a car payment. Then when you finally do sell it, put that money down on your next two-year-old car. My '93 Escort had I think 140,000 miles on it when I sold it to leave for New York, and it had been paid off since John and I started dating.

Cut out one car payment a month and you've probably covered the price of the gas increase. Do it for two family cars and you might find some money for a savings account. No, Andy Jacobs, do not spend that money on a pool or a vacation.

I think unfortunately our typical middle class lifestyle becomes a vicious cycle of spending. If you live so far from work, your commute is so long, you might feel you have no time to cook so you get trapped into convenience foods and restaurant food.

Here's something I'd love to see happen from the economic downturn -- people re-assess their lifestyle choices and make some different decisions. Live closer to work so you have more time to cook and spend more time with your family. Live in a smaller house and drive a smaller car so you're a little more immune to fuel costs, and as a bonus, maybe you're better to the environment. Skip the $200 jeans, buy a no-name purse, and generally scale back a bit so you can put some money into a nice, safe savings account. (yes, I know, your 401k is painful right now. me, too.)

Next time you're tempted to grouse about the rising price of food, heat or gas, try this experiment. Spend the next month writing down every single item you spend money on. Honestly assess whether it's a necessity, and if it is, if there's a way you could do it more affordably.

Our culture has been drunk on spending for a so long that you might find the real issue isn't the price of gas.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Wall Street *is* our Main Street

I suppose living in the financial capital of the U.S., I'm obligated to blog something about this financial meltdown.

Sidestepping any commentary on the massive bailout/rescue package and instead focusing on the heart of the issue, I think the anonymity of corporate America has relieved us all of guilt in our business dealings.

Yes, I grew up Catholic so I'm well acquainted with community-inflicted guilt. But here, I think there actually is something positive to be said.

My dad likes to tell a story of two big burly guys coming to his parents' home when he was a kid. The men were there to repossess a washing machine my grandfather had missed some payments on. My dad, of course, was mortified that all the neighbors were going to see this washing machine getting bounced down the front steps and into a collection truck.

Think about how much has changed.

John and I recently bought a nice bedroom set from Pottery Barn. Like many Americans, we put it on our credit card. We did not put it on an account with a locally owned department store, where we know the people who work there.

So if we decide to stop paying on our new bedroom furniture, the people at our Pottery Barn store don't care. Not only are they hourly employees of a massive, faceless corporation -- so it doesn't affect their paycheck one way or another whether we pay -- but Pottery Barn gets its money regardless.

Our credit card has already paid Pottery Barn so our obligation is to Chase. Not that we know the people we deal with at a local Chase branch or anything. If we stopped paying on our credit card, we'd likely get a phone call from some hard working guy in India, calling himself Dave or Rick or some other middle America name, urging us to pay.

If we don't, though, what are the real consequences?

Do we have to worry that burly men are going to come take our dressers away? Do we have to hang our heads in shame next time we go to the bank to deposit a paycheck, because we know everyone who works there and they all know we're behind?

No. It's all pretty detached, and I suppose at worst, we'd just screen our calls and let everything go to voice mail so we didn't have to talk to the collections folks. Then we'd go on enjoying our new bedroom set.

I think most people, in their hearts, want to be good. And I think most people don't feel much guilt taking a little extra when they don't think there's a real victim.

So if overextending myself means I know I'm going to have to face the appliance store owner in church on Sunday, I might rein it in. I don't want to hurt someone I know. I'd probably know that his mother's been really sick or he's saving up to send his kid to college -- I'd know how my actions affected another human being.

However, if some amorphous entity, some ginormous bank wants to give me the power to spend myself silly, maybe I don't feel it's actually hurting anyone. On the flip side, if I'm the mortgage officer approving a loan I know full well the people have no hope of keeping up on, but I'm in some far-flung location where I won't have to see those people after they've sat at their kitchen table wondering how to stave off foreclosure, maybe it's not about hurting anyone, it's just making my quota for the month so I get my bonus.

I think back when we all lived in smaller, interconnected ecosystems, our actions probably felt more like we had accountability for them. Like back in the days when lots of people still paid by check, you really didn't want to bounce a check to your local grocery store if you knew they'd do what lots of retailers did -- taping copies of the bounced checks to the register, for all your busy-body neighbors to see.

The more I read and hear about the mortgage meltdown, the more I wonder if anyone felt any accountability: the people taking out the loans, the people making the loans, the Wall Street guys buying and selling the loans.

Maybe if we all worried about how our neighbors would think of us when we got our latest toy repossessed, rather than trying to show off to our neighbors with cars and homes we can't pay for, we wouldn't need a reminder like this -- "Don't Buy Stuff You Can't Afford."

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

This is like watching our vacation slides

Except you aren't trapped in the dark on our couch, so you can skim through them as quickly as you'd like without risking offending us.

John and I recently returned from a week in northern California, including a few days in San Francisco and the rest of the time in Sonoma, which is the sort of low-key wine country sibling to Napa Valley.

In SF, we stayed at a funky B&B run by a Brooklyn native who's now a sort of San Francisco fashionista party girl. While we were there, they had a backyard wedding for some middle aged Jewish hippies and on the morning of the wedding, we had breakfast with the bride, groom and pretty much the entire party.

The photos below show the amazing view from our third-floor room, as well as the wake we stumbled into at John's favorite coffee shop, Caffe Trieste, celebrating the life of a beloved SF musician. There were musicians playing inside, musicians jamming and smoking pot outside, and generally the kind of adoring send off we should all aspire to.

Here's me at a hipster coffee shop where they roast their own beans, and John about to dive into a sampler of some microbrews at a brewpub near the Pacific Ocean. Finally, us on one of SF's many hills, with a great view out over the city.

Then it was time to drive north, up over the Golden Gate Bridge, and into Sonoma, where it was grape harvest season.

One of my favorite photos of the trip -- us with Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood, which makes some of my favorite wines.

Some vino highlights of our copious tastings: Random Ridge 2002 cabernet, Benziger's about-to-be-released Tribute cab, Little Vineyards syrah, Viansa prindelo, Gloria Ferrer blanc de noir, Gundlach Bundschu gewurtziminer. Can't find these in your local wine shop? The Wine Exchange in Sonoma would be happy to help by shipping wine from tiny wineries straight to your doorstep!