Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Getting to Know the Neighbors

People are the best thing on Earth.  The little interactions, kindnesses and shared moments make life good.  The problem is, I'm not a people person.  I like teaching my students.  I've loved going overseas for various volunteer trips.  But without a defined role, I'd rather stay quiet and in the shadows.

Nowhere is that more true than in my own neighborhood.  Growing up in the country, I had exactly three neighbors.  Now, I estimate there are 60+ homes in my immediate vicinity.  I know very few of those people.  And I don't know how to meet them.

Unexpectedly, my dog has connected me to the neighborhood in ways I never could.  He's a cute puppy.  People want to pet him, to say hello.  I've had a woman stop in her tracks while jogging to come tell me Winston looked just like the yellow lab she had that just passed away.

In the neighborhood Winston has joined a pack of other young, rapscallion puppies.  Four other people on my street have young dogs (three of those are labs or have lab in them), and we often meet in the field nearby.

Around the corner from my house sits a duplex.  On the porch of that duplex often sits an old man and his wife.  I had never spoken to them before until I started walking Winston by.  They would never fail to tell me how much they like my dog, and then share about their own.  The last time I walked by, the man asked me if I'd like some plums from his tree on the way back.  Of course I would!

On my way back he was waiting for me with a big bag of plums.  We formally introduced ourselves.  He told me how much he liked my dog.  And he told me his dog was his best friend with undeniable solemnity and sincerity.

He said he and his wife are realtors, and he put his card in the bag.  Then he added, "Well, retired" with a smile.  I picked out his card.  On the back, in shaky old man script, he had written "retired realtors".

It wasn't much, but it matters.  His small kindness to me made my day better and me feel like I mattered.  I could easily he see he felt good about doing it.  We both left with smiles on our faces.  I think those small interactions are the cornerstone of a happy and contented life.

 We all have opportunities like Jake had everyday to bless someone, no matter how small the blessing.  We just have to be brave enough, or slow down enough, to look for them.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Why you are a Socialist, why Marijuana Kills (just not those who smoke it), and why Blake Shelton might not be a Good American

Thought trains lead me to interesting conclusions.

Yesterday I hiked Table Rock with my roommate.  If you're in the Portland area it's an absolutely gorgeous drive and hike.  

We were making good time, and I was sweating a lot.  Then the thought train started:

1.)  I'm sure glad I'm wearing this Nike Dry Fit shirt.
2.)  This shirt only cost around $12 at the Nike Employee Store, globalization and capitalism are amazing!

3.)  I wonder if anyone at those WTO protests in Seattle or elsewhere wore a Nike shirt to the protest?  That would be ironic.

4.)  Those people are probably socialists (if this is inaccurate please understand all these thoughts happened in about .5 of a second).
5.)  If they want to redistribute wealth, they should buy another shirt!  

Eureka!  I'm so smart sometimes.

The term "Redistribution of wealth" pops up during political campaigns, usually to label someone a socialist.   Truth is, every time you spend a dollar you redistribute wealth, and few things  in this world have a bigger impact than how you do so.  And I'd argue that few people appreciate where there money goes.

Back to that Nike t-shirt.  When I bought it, I got a great price on a good product.  Most people's thought process stops there: "What value did I get for my money?"  

And that's the beauty of our economic system, businesses have found ways to get us better products for cheaper and cheaper because it makes them rich.  The average American today lives a better life than all but the wealthiest of people a few hundred years ago.

But my purchase had other effects you might not think of:  
  • It paid the wage of a laborer in Indonesia.
  • It funded its trans-Pacific voyage by plane or ship.
  • It enriched Phil Knight (who in turn enriches my beloved Oregon Ducks).
Or you could put this spin on it:
  • It helped outsource an American job.
  • It contributed to global warming by needing to be shipped thousands of miles.
  • It made an obscenely rich man even richer.
The point isn't to argue the merits of globalization.  Rather, I'd just like you to think about where your dollars go.  Take marijuana.  America likes to light up.  It was such a scary bad thing growing up that it took some adjustment when I realized a lot of my friends, and a lot of adults I know smoke it (the author of this blog has never smoked marijuana).  

When you buy that pot, you get high and get munchies.  And you also help fund cartel violence in Mexico, here in the United States, and even in my beloved Oregon.  This is part of the reason why I think pot should be legal.  Just like Prohibition made Al Capone and other bootleggers rich, so our ban on marijuana artificially limits the supply while doing nothing to the demand.  The result: big money for those that can grow it.  But I digress.

Oil is another one.  All that gas you burn makes a lot of people rich in Venezuela, Russia, and Iran.  These are not exactly America's strategic allies.  So while Blake Shelton celebrates rednecks driving big ole trucks, unless those fellas are hypermiling, he's also celebrating some of American's worst geo-political foes getting rich.  And I bet he didn't know it.

I won't tell you to choose the farmer's market over the grocery store, or to shop local instead of at a big chain.  I'd be happy if more people just started thinking about where their money went and what it supported.  There are more costs than just dollar signs.  Once you start to factor those in, you'll draw your own conclusions.  

You have, are, and will leave an impact on this world.  What kind of world do you want it to be?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Purses, Plates and Broken Ebay Dreams

I have about 30 purses sitting in my garage.  Clutches, Shoulder Bags, Travellers, Hobo Bags, you name it.

Awhile ago I wrote about the auction I went too.  On my second trip there, I decided to try to make some money.  I bought a few things I thought I could resell on Ebay.  A box of old music magazines from the 20's.  An odd piece of Japanese art.  And a box of Rage cards for $10.

I'll assume you don't know about Rage cards, because I didn't. Rage is a collectible card game like Magic the Gathering or Pokemon.  Except you play werewolves.  The cards are gruesome:

Turns out, they're also worth a fortune.  The game is discontinued but still has an avid following.  While little else sold, I was able to get about $600 for the cards.  Not a bad day's work.  I figured I would plan on making about $500 or so every Tuesday from now until the end of summer.

The next two weeks I rummaged through the boxes, smart phone in hand.  I scanned bar codes and looked at what had sold on Ebay.  Eyebrows raised when I snagged not one, but eight purses out of a lot.  There was tuttering over a box of china I snagged.

My girlfriend blushed with embarrassment when I showed her my haul of plates and purses.  Werewolf cards she could understand, but she suggested I stay away from handbags.

Still, I was unashamed.  I figured I made about $30 an hour for the work I put into the box of Rage cards.  Not a bad rate.  Plus I had done my homework, everything I bought had sold on Ebay previously, for lots more than I paid.  Easy money!

I spent hours doing the listings, sweating amidst faux leather in my garage.  Somehow, I talked the girl into helping me.  The auctions started and I waited.

Then a few things didn't sell.

Then many things didn't sell.

And when my auctions ended, most things didn't sell.

Apparently, I am a terrible Ebayer.

Now, one corner of my garage holds:

30 purses
10 bobble heads
16 old magazines
5 pieces of vintage Samsonite Luggage
1 antique chocolate box
1 very creepy doll.
1 clock shaped like a cat
18 various books
3 framed paintings
12 collectible plates that no one wants to collect
8 different sets of china.
1 broken dream.

If it's too good to be true, it probably is.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Car Karma

Last Monday I sold my car on Craigslist.  Like I've written before I'm not new to this.  I've bought my last three cars on Craigslist, getting good deals quickly each time. 

This time, I'm not so lucky.  To quickly recap:

1.)  Arranged to buy a 2000 Subaru Outback for $2500.  Shook hands with the woman and agreed to purchase it Wednesday when she returned from a business trip.  She sold it to someone esle the Sunday before.  Curious enough, this woman works at the Oregon Department of Justice.

2.)  Test drove a very nice 1999 Subaru Outback.  Negotiated the price down to $3000.  Was about to buy the car, but on my final walk around spotted rust.  Turned out the entire back left wheel well was rotting out.  I could flick the car apart with my hand.

3.)  Drove 75 minutes to Vancouver, Washington to test and hopefully purchase a 1999 Subaru Outback.  I arrived on time, but was told by the man whose number was listed it was his girlfriend's car and she hadn't arrived yet.  After waiting another hour he told me she wasn't coming.

On one hand, its kind of nice not having a car.  More space in the driveway, I could cancel my insurance, and I have a lot of money in my bank account.  Plus I have to walk or bike everywhere, which is certainly good for me.

On the other hand, I'm quickly becoming that guy who borrows his girlfriend's car.  She's been great about it for a week, but I'm certain there's a time limit.  Most women in their twenties see having a job, a car, and not-living-at-home as the required relational triad.  I don't want her getting flak for dating a dead beat with no car.

So I'll keep beating the Craigslist pavement.  I just want an affordable vehicle I can stick a canoe on and put my dog in, with a clean title and under 200,000 miles.  That's not too much to ask is it!?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Sometimes when your puppy wants your attention, he means it.

I was organizing some collector cards on the couch.  They were spread on the coffee table, at my feet, and everywhere else.  Winston came up to me, stepping on the cards.  "Go." I said.  He went a little ways.

Then it started.  Quietly at first.


It built in speed and intensity.


Finally I realized, barf is coming!  "Go! Go!" I yelled and Winston bolted for the door.  I flung it open only to see my sprinkler had gotten stuck and was spraying the entrance to the home.  Winston hates sprinklers.

He came to a screeching halt and barfed on the carpet.  Then he ate it.  I went back to organizing my cards.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Cars, Used Cars, and People's Word in the Online World

New cars are a tremendous waste of money for anyone making less than $80,000 a year.  I've come to this belief academically through Dave Ramsey, but also by experience.  My only new car was a 2010 Hyundai Elantra.  I spent about $14,000 on it.  It was shiny, black, and came with a $280 car payment.

It also came with unexpected consequences:

First, my insurance tripled to $100 a month.  I didn't think about it at the time, but it obviously cost more to insure a brand new car than my old high school clunker.

Second, I hated driving it to the places I love to go (up mountain roads) because I was afraid of scratching it.

Third, it lost value the second I drove it off the lot.  Edmunds says cars lose 9% the minute you drive it.  Stupid investment.

So I sold it on and have bought used cars for cash ever since.  No car payments.  My marketplace of choice for buying and selling is Craigslist.  Used car dealers mark cars up extremely high.  Buying from a private party can be up to twice as cheap.  Again, a good tool to see the difference between the retail (dealership) price of a car and the private party price is Kelly Blue Book.  I just sold my 2004 Toyota Corolla LE at the private party blue book price for $4,650.  Dealership price?  $6,200.

Now of course you've got to be careful.  There are shady characters out there.  I always run the cars by a mechanic before I buy, but I've had a lot of success on Craigslist.  Of the five different cars I've bought and sold, I've made a little bit of money on three, and lost a little bit of money on two.  Not bad compared to the value I lost driving my new car off the lot.

Dealing with people there and on other sites has got me thinking about online ethics.  Just this week I had met a woman selling her Subaru Outback.  We went a test drive.  I liked it.  She was asking $2,800 and we negotiated down to $2,500.   We shook hands, and agreed I would buy it when she returned from a business trip.  Two days later she informs me by email she sold it to someone else.

I felt this was wrong.  We didn't sign a contract, but we had a verbal agreement, sealed with a handshake.  Perhaps people are more inclined to renege on their word online because of its depersonalized nature and anonimity it offers.  This woman assumes she'll never see me, or interact with me again.  She feared no social consequences or stigma by breaking her word.

Still, I do believe in the saying "you are only as good as your word."  And I certainly believe our actions towards those who have no power to help us or harm us reveal our character.  Ironically, this woman works for the Oregon Department of Justice.

Back to the car I sold on Craigslist.

My prospective buyer test drove it, liked it and wanted to buy it for his daughter in college.  He negotiated me down from $4,800 to $4,650.  We shook hands, and he said he'd pick it up the next day after arranging financing.  But he didn't show.  He called and said it would be the next day.  Again, no show.  He calls and says he's had trouble with the bank but he'd get it the next day for sure.  That same night I got a better offer for my car, which I declined.

The next afternoon he arrived right when he said he would, cash in hand.  He drove away happy.  His daughter was happy.  And I was glad I kept my word.

Monday, July 1, 2013

People Are Good (Usually)

I've always felt that people are fundamentally good.  Any given person is more likely to help you than hurt you.  I love meeting new people, and chance encounters with strangers have turned into some of the most wonderful opportunities for me.  A good friend of mine disagrees.  She sees people more through the lens of the nightly news.

A recent weekend in Bend, Oregon illustrates both sides of the coin.  My girlfriend and I are walking to a local brewery on the kind of clear warm night you associate with summer.  A few blocks away a nice looking older gentlemen approaches, asking us which establishment we were headed too.  We answer Ten Barrel Brewing, and get a 30 second diatribe about why we should not go there in response.  And so our night with Paul began.

Paul was tall, wiry with a lot of nervous energy.  Jittery.  At first I thought he was drunk.  He informed us he had just been asked to leave Ten Barrel, for dumping a hamburger cooked not to his liking in the garbage.  He clutched a number of menus with handwritten scribbles all over them.  He also had an old digital camera and a notebook.

Paul quickly pulled a U-turn and walked with us to the bar.  I didn't mind the company, he seemed odd, but nice.  Paul spoke in rapid fire clips.  Pointing out his car.  Talking about beer.  Defending his ejection.  Paul rather forcefully suggested we go to Brother John's across the street.  Both places I heard were good, so we went.

We sat down, got our menus.  Moments later, in walks Paul, ejected again from across the street.  He joined our table and recommend some beers, and then announced he was paying.   The night had gotten odder, but there was free beer in the deal so I was game.  He asked me to look at his papers and handed me a stack of loose white notepaper.  It was filled with reviews of local bars.  He wanted to make a newsletter he said.  The conversation jumped around, loudly.  Others in the bar started to turn their heads.  The wait staff looked at me quizzically as they passed by, one eyebrow raised ready to offer support if needed.

Then his questions crossed into the uncomfortable.  Where are you staying?  I made up a place.  Where are you from?  I invented a new home town for us.  He then teared up talking about his long dead father.  Next he called the waiter over asked him to take his beer away, and asked if they had anything actually drinkable.  At this point I felt embarrassed to be sitting with him.  The waiter returned not with more beer, but to kick him out.

Was Paul dangerous?  Probably not.  He was probably lonely, and acting out for other reasons I won't understand.  Still, he made me uncomfortable and my girlfriend ten times more.  If the waiter hadn't kicked him out, I would have found some escape plan for my girlfriend and I.  I apologized to the waiter profusely and left him a generous tip for his troubles.

To contrast that, at the wedding we went to I was recognized by an old friend of my fathers.  I barely knew her, she even forgot my name and had to ask.  Still, she was delighted to see me and promised a spare room and boating trips if we ever came back.  She had no reason to do it, other than being generous to an acquaintance from long ago.

I do believe people are good.  And if your intentions are good, you will attract good people.  A random conversation with an old woman in the streets of Seville, Spain turned into a week stay in an apartment in downtown Paris once.  That same woman's family then flew to the United States to stay with mine, and my brother flew to Paris to stay with them.  All because I was willing to say "hi."  Of course, you need to be careful and use common since.  And always listen to your instincts.

But don't live life scared, you only live it once.  We pass by opportunities of all sorts because we are scared to put ourselves out there.  Saying "hi" to someone could change your life today.