Back to school

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An object of interest

Those of you who read my Facebook posts probably know my wife retired from public education this month. She stepped away with a plan – she has been a hobbyist antique dealer for several decades and now wishes to try to do it full-time; to see if it can be a viable business rather than simply a massive timesuck, not to mention a money pit.

You know how these things work. I have suddenly found myself to be an unwitting partner in the early days of this new chapter. One of our first ventures was putting an antique oak table and chairs up for sale on Craigslist. My wife acquired the set for almost nothing and we priced it to move, and it has…sort of.

I’ve sold a number of things on Craigslist over the years, mostly event tickets and bicycles. The transactions have been easy – you meet-up with the buyer and they trade you cash for the item. So we anticipated that our listing might result in someone driving to our house, looking the table over, and then asking us to knock $50 off the price, which we might well have done.

Well, let’s just say it hasn’t been that simple. We received texts from 11 people in less than 24 hours. They all said they want the table. But only one of them has an area code I recognize, and that’s in Southern California. That tells us two things:

1) We priced the table and chairs too low.

2) We’re dealing with a bunch of pros, some of whom apparently wish to try to steal the set.

We promptly agreed to do business with the first person to respond to our ad, on Saturday, January 13. He asked if the table was sturdy. We said yes and invited him to come over to examine it. He said he regretted that he couldn’t do that as he was currently out of town “conducting training.” He then promised to have his ‘personal assistant’ mail a check and agreed to wait several days for the check to clear our bank before arranging for shipment. Ok, we said. We then asked about timing – what did he foresee? He said the check would arrive Tuesday and movers would be here Wednesday. Wait, movers? And the day after we received the check?

Would it be a cashier’s check? No response.

Could the assistant bring cash? No response.

Would he consider PayPal? Crickets.

How could the check arrive Tuesday when Monday was a federal holiday (MLK Day)? Nothing.

We then pressed for what we called a clear path for the transaction and when he continued to ignore us we told him we were moving in another direction.

We then looked to responder number two. He also wanted to send us a personal check. We declined.

On to number three. We contacted him Sunday the 14th and he told us up front he was a shut-in with throat cancer and would therefore be unable to come view the table. We offered to deliver it and he replied that he is “currently in Chicago.” He promised to use PayPal and then send a mover, and he said he would include the price of shipping with the payment if we would be willing to pay it in cash to the movers. We agreed, which apparently was a signal that we’re hayseeds. Why? Well, after a number of exchanges about the status of payment, the money arrived early Tuesday morning (the 16th) along with a message that the funds are on hold until we wire $300 (the stated cost of shipping) to the buyer via Western Union. So now we’re apparently dealing with a Nigerian prince.

Wow. It seems we were being set-up to pay for the shipping AND reimburse the buyer for the cost of it. We tersely informed him that the transaction was canceled.

In the meantime responder#1 has notified us that “payment has been sent,” apparently choosing to continue to ignore our questions as well as our statement of termination.

As for the table, it’s still here. The other eight out-of-towners will not be considered. We have pulled the Craigslist ad and may re-list it in a week or so at a significantly higher price.

Looks like it was back to school on this one for a couple of old crows. What have we learned? For starters, local buyers only. Cash only. No bullshit.

 

 

 

 

The low end of the junk stream

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Welcome to the Goodwill Outlet

If you’ve ever donated unwanted items to a charity you may have wondered what happens next.  The first stop is probably a thrift store, where the items will sit on a shelf or a rack in frequently disorganized fashion for an indeterminate period of time. They might be purchased for a relatively low price, or they might not. How long will they stay there? What happens after that? Well, the answers to those questions probably depend on the organization. Let’s focus on Goodwill Industries.

In the American west and possibly nationwide, Goodwill is a junk juggernaut, almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks. But a Goodwill thrift store is merely one link in the chain for discarded possessions. Items failing to move there suffer an even less dignified fate – a journey to a Goodwill “outlet” store, where they are apprised anew and sometimes snatched up like fresh meat.

The concept may be a bit confusing, as a standard thrift store probably fits most perceptions of an outlet. But a Goodwill outlet is definitely unique; a thing of ruthless efficiency and a kind-of threadbare beauty.

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Unwanted junk in a bin.

You walk in and are greeted by a series of large blue bins on wheels. These are central to the experience. Items are tossed carelessly into the bins by employees and then thrown about in an equally careless fashion by customers. Clothes are grouped together; all types of clothes. I saw a child’s tutu, a Joseph Abboud sportscoat (not my size), and a used pair of men’s underwear (hopefully laundered) side-by-side. There were at least four bins of clothing as well as multiple bins of books and a number of additional bins containing all manner of household knick-knacks and other common items. The entire operation looked like a huge garage sale.

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Low, low prices

As for the prices, they’re generally bottom of the barrel, appropriately. Customers are charged by the pound for most items – $1.49 a pound at the outlet we visited. Furniture, books and other media are priced individually. Paperback books are a quarter apiece. My wife and I spent a grand total of $6 for a 30-year old doll with extensive wardrobe in excellent condition; a Cuban cigar box; a wooden utility box that looked like a kid’s high school shop project decades ago; a never-worn sun hat; and four books.

Still, caveat emptor is a necessity, even there. I saw a used dorm-style mini fridge (the price tag didn’t say if it worked) for $30. You can get one brand new on Amazon for prices starting at $40.

A Goodwill outlet is not an especially friendly place. Manners aren’t a high priority. An undercurrent of desperation hangs in the air, and cut-throat competition is the rule. People grab things simultaneously and engage in quietly vicious tugs-of-war. No one says ‘excuse me’ or stands aside so others can pass. Everybody seems to be angling for the best junk, the big score.

The bins move on and off the floor with regularity, and their reappearance with fresh mounds of items draws an aggressive squadron of pickers like bees to honey, or flies to, um, you know.

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New bins hit the floor.

Elsewhere in the outlet book scouts frown with impatience as they sift through what is probably among the worst-organized collection of drivel they’ve ever seen. But they’re here for good reason. Things occasionally slip through. We know someone who found a dilapidated book of cocktail recipes in a bin at this very location and just had a feeling about it. Turns out it was published in San Francisco prior to the 1906 earthquake and was highly prized among a specialized group of collectors. The book fetched $20,000 on eBay, even in its battered condition. And that’s why this joint is crowded.

Goodwill outlets serve as a post of (almost) last resort for unwanted items. But what happens after that? Believe it or not, there is more. Next stop is a Goodwill auction, where bidders acquire large containers of items sight-unseen, kinda like an episode of Storage Wars, minus the prospect of hidden treasure. And then, finally, items that remain (probably like that pair of underwear) are sent to textile recycling organizations, which opens up a whole new chain of potential outcomes, from disposal in landfills to export to other countries.

So that means that if you someday find yourself in a foreign land and see someone wearing a shirt that seems vaguely familiar, well, you never know.

 

 

 

End Times

On my next birthday I’ll turn 60 and there will be no more denials about reaching the backstretch of life. I’ll be approaching the final chapters of a book that is about to shift gears and unleash a whole new glossary of terms – Medicare, Medicaid, Medi-Cal, Social Security, COLA’s, Last Will and Testament, CalPERS, CalSTRS, Final Expenses, and–of course–the dreaded R-word. (Please note that I kept Alex Trebek and Wilford Brimley out of it.)

Some people welcome retirement. Some have been looking forward to it for their entire working lives. Not me. I told someone recently that when I retire I would likely be doing the same things I do now – reading, writing, being a smart-ass. Might as well get paid for it. If I have any control over future events I would like to work at least another 10 years. I’ll be happy to re-assess everything at age 70. At the moment the prospect of retirement feels a little like death to me. I’d like to push them both back a ways.

A cold reality about this stage of life is the departure of people close to you. It builds until your time comes, I suppose. I haven’t had too much experience with death yet – I’ve lost my grandparents, my father and several close friends. But I certainly know it’s coming. We all know it’s coming.

One of the questions we probably all dwell on is ‘when?’ How old will we be? I asked a Ouija Board that question when I was just a kid – maybe 10 years old. I asked when I would die and it told me “50.” Naturally, I was curious and a little frightened in 2008/2009–the year I was 50–but the board must have meant something else, or nothing at all, because it’s a toy. But how the hell did the pointer move?

Ouija

As you probably know, actuaries have turned analyses of lifespans into a robust industry called life insurance. But actuarial tables are widely used in a number of areas to assess risk and uncertainty. The Social Security Administration maintains actuarial tables that tell me my current life expectancy is 81 years, which still doesn’t make any sense of my Ouija Board experience. If I make it to 70 my life expectancy jumps to 84, and if I somehow make it to 86 my life expectancy would become 91, which means I would be scheduled to die in 2050 – aha!

There is some comfort in that information – the actuarial tables, I mean. They say I’m supposed to live quite a bit longer. But we all understand it’s a mere statistic, a projection that has no real bearing on life; no meaning when it comes to health or random occurrences. My heart could explode tomorrow, or I could be run over by a Google robocar while trying to cross the street. Nothing, of course, is certain. A close friend who died just before Christmas was my same age–59–and passed away in his sleep after a lengthy illness. It serves as a poignant reminder that while tomorrow always comes, it certainly didn’t for him, and the day will come when it won’t for you and me.

This friend and I had several discussions about the big questions. Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? He wasn’t a religious man and, I must say, neither am I. But he was somewhat aggressively in-league with Athieism (there is no God, period), while I am more agnostic – I don’t believe there’s a God or afterlife but at some level I hope I’m wrong. One thing is for sure: he now knows the answer, or he doesn’t.

So I guess we’ve now reached a point where I’m supposed to explain what this piece means and try to tie it all together in a nice bow. I’m not sure that’s going to happen. When it comes down to it I really only know a couple of things – 60 years is a long time but not nearly long enough; and life really does go by in a flash.

 

Bitcoin?

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How many of you have asked recently, “What the hell is Bitcoin?” In 2017 it mutated from an obscure new age concept to the investment world’s flavor of the month. News emerged recently of a Bitcoin hedge fund that was up an astonishing 25-thousand percent, while the value of the coin itself (is it an actual coin?) is up about 1,600 percent this year – down from a peak of nearly 2,000 percent but still just flat out remarkable.

Bitcoin may or may not be an actual coin, with a current worth of about 16-thousand dollars apiece (Psssst- I’ll trade you a roll of wheat pennies for one.) Some insist the coin (pictured below) is fictitious, a conjured-up image of a unit to be used solely for purposes of measurement and value. Bitcoin is known as a “cryptocurrency,” which is defined on Wikipedia as “a digital asset designed to work as a medium of exchange that uses cryptography to secure its transactions.” Uh, what? Maybe it’s not a coin then. The reference to cryptography basically means Bitcoin is supposed to be a more secure and secretive method of currency exchange, outside the watchful gaze of financial regulators. Its short history includes a preferred status as currency among online drug dealers.

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A Bitcoin

Curiously, winners in the recent Bitcoin run-up include the Winklevoss twins, who may be familiar from the legal struggle over control of Facebook. They were there at the beginning – Harvard classmates of Mark Zuckerberg. The twins sued and won a $65 million settlement from Zuckerberg, which they used to buy a Bitcoin stake now valued at more than $1.6 billion, or at least it was worth that much closer to the peak.

So that’s all good, right? Or is it just too good to be true? The Securities and Exchange Commission is trying to figure that out. It has suspended trading of a Bitcoin stock, the Crypto Company, until January 3, 2018 amid “concerns regarding the accuracy and adequacy of information” about compensation paid to promote the firm and plans for insider sales. The SEC seems to be worried about potential scams centering on Bitcoin and other digital currencies. Financial experts are warning that the trading frenzy over so-called crypto stocks is reminiscent of the dotcom and tech stock mania of the late 1990s. That, as you may recall, did not end well for a number of investors.

You may be asking, “Why Bitcoin?” Why anything, for that matter? A look back to the very beginnings of any number of monetary systems might well reveal a moment when value was assigned to a seemingly random object. It’s simple, really, provided there is public buy-in for the value – that’s the tricky part, not to mention the monetary complexity that follows. Bitcoin caught on.

There’s an old adage about investing that goes something like this: by the time you learn about an opportunity in the mainstream it’s probably too late. I happened to hear a couple of guys talking about Bitcoin recently while in San Francisco’s Union Square, so that was my signal that I missed yet another get-rich-quick scheme, one of dozens in my lifetime. I seem to have little feel for all that, which is one reason why I’m not a wealthy investor.  Then again, a lot of investors probably don’t write much. If I could have one or the other I’d choose this; actually, I have chosen this, although it really feels like it chose me. Having said that, though, I wouldn’t mind finding out what both roles are like.

 

Olde Yule Memories

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For those of us of a certain age, much of what we have during the holidays is memories. With that in mind I recently rediscovered several Christmas poems I wrote many years ago and thought I would share them here. Please be kind. These are the ruminations of a much younger man. My apologies for the spacing irregularity. Formatting is apparently beyond my pay grade.

Christmas ‘96

Christmas comes and and our family is larger
We know it now
Because we’re meeting under several filtered suns
After weeks of spinning in our quiet cocoon

The way it used to be, so much simpler, collides with the way it is
And it launches us to the freeways
Our tires flapping one-thousand miles

We know it will be more complicated
After we deliver some little ones

We’re hoping the tires will press this way then
We’ll host feasts for Jesus
And prayers to Santa
And unspoken wishes for the revered

 

Christmas at 30

30 is supposed to represent the top of some kind of hill

Never again physically as strong

Never again mentally as limited

The top of one hill, midpoint of another, undiscernable locations on a whole bunch more

Gray hills

30 is old when you’re 10

And Christmas is Santa Claus

 

What’s this thing with age, anyway?

You wonder what it’s like to be old

In 20 years you’ll still wonder what it’s like to be old

Development creeps…you don’t ever wake up to proclaim sudden transformation

What about those hills?

30 is blurry when you’re 30

And Christmas has changed

 

And hills become plateaus as you go along

Wisdom is your muscle, and there is much less strain

Work to the point where you sit calmly on mountaintops

Throwing ropes to the uninitiated

This time, these years, the experiences

They all count

30 is young when you’re 70 (or 59 for that matter)

And Christmas is celebration

Christmas ’91

I’m taking my time in a clock shop
Studying the different tools for measuring our lives
And I think of my grandmother
Dead only recently
I gave her a clock for Christmas 1991
I didn’t have a lot of ideas
Didn’t have a lot of money
And this affordable, presentable clock jumped out at me

As I shipped it I wondered
How will she read this?
She was in her mid-90’s then
Did she really want to know what time it was?
Or, would she see it as hope for her limited future?
She revealed nothing
As she praised the gift with enthusiasm when we talked on Christmas Day

After she died
As we parceled out her possessions
I passed on the clock
I wish I hadn’t now
I could glance at it and remember the vow I’m formulating in the clock shop
A vow for my old age
Out with them all
The calendars, too
I’ll rest with the ancient circadians

Have Yourself an El Segundo Christmas

Sleigh bells on the Geo Prizm

For our trip over the hills

And through the woods

To grandmother’s house

She’s just not our grandma

And the forest features palm trees

 

Southern California…

Where the meadows are filled with sand

And the waves thunder down with rhythm

We listen for “Sleigh Ride” in the white water

 

The Valley…

Where the season smells like gas

And the Christmas lights filter through schmaze

Good thing they don’t burn in the day

 

The Prizm sports new snow tires

Because we forgot our destination

Still, we’re ready for those flurries

But it’s 85 degrees

Yet the women wear Santa hats

As they saunter nearly naked on the shore

Merry Christmas America

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It’s our first Christmas with the infantile Donald J. Trump in the White House, and if some of Melania Trump’s holiday decorations failed to convince you that this is a very strange time, the record of this administration just might do the trick.

Imagine working for the Centers for Disease Control and being ordered to eliminate words from your professional vocabulary on budget documents – words like fetus, science-based, evidence-based, transgender, and diversity. The only possible explanation is that Trump and his people seem determined not to let actual descriptions of progress stand in the way of their defiant ignorance.

Elsewhere there are signs of a conspiracy between Republicans and their in-house news agency, Pravda, er, Fux News, which was first to report a story about Trump transition lawyers claiming that special counsel Robert Mueller illegally obtained emails from the transition team in his ongoing investigation of Russia’s influence in last year’s election. A theory is that the conspirators are trying to lay down a cover story so Trump can fire Mueller, if he wishes. Trump, for his part, says he has no plans to do that, but since when can we take the guy at his word? Trump could be lying when he says ‘good morning.’  He probably lies in his dreams.IMG_9544

As for those emails, a spokesman for Mueller was careful to point out they were acquired lawfully. One possibility for the mix-up is that the transitioners failed to comprehend that the communications infrastructure of the General Services Administration, the government agency that aided the team, is considered public rather than private, so when Mueller’s people requested the emails they were simply handed over.

One thing seems certain in this first year of the New Trump Order – the little guy is getting screwed. Analyses of the tax bill continue to suggest that the rich will get richer from tax cuts–a departure from repeated claims by Trump and top officials that the bill would not benefit the rich–and there will be huge cuts for corporations. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times Opinion section that a last-minute addition gives huge breaks to elected officials who own a lot of income-producing real estate — officials like Donald Trump and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who vehemently opposed the tax bill until suddenly he didn’t, with little in the way of an explanation. The web site Vox, which points out that we’re currently witnessing the “wholesale looting of America,” also explains that the bill raises taxes on 53 percent of Americans in its last year, a year in which nearly 83 percent of the bill’s benefit would go to the top one percent of earners.

And now it’s time to discuss Net Neutrality. Just about the time many of us began to understand what it actually was, we learned that it’s going away. Trump’s FCC has decided to eliminate it. So what does that mean? Well, there has been plenty of speculation, very little of it good. The leading scenario is this, according to a site called Save the Internet: “Companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will be able to call all the shots and decide which websites, content and applications succeed. These companies can now slow down their competitors’ content or block political opinions they disagree with. They can charge extra fees to the few content companies that can afford to pay for preferential treatment — relegating everyone else to a slower tier of service. So much for the internet as a utility.” Many developed countries around the world practice uphold Net Neutrality. Among the nations that don’t: North Korea, Burma, China, Iran, Syria, Russia and Turkmenistan. That’s quite a roll call.

While President Numb Nuts continues to blow up Twitter over slights real and imagined, a recipe for chaos he has been using effectively for quite some time, quiet revolutions are underway across a couple of fronts. Let’s start with the judiciary. Trump has won appointments for a number of federal and appellate nominees as well as a Supreme Court nominee, and while the administration has suffered embarrassments from several candidates recently, suggesting some incomplete vetting, the net effect is that a substantial reshaping of the federal bench is underway.  The new judges are young, have strong academic credentials, and have clerked for well-known conservative judges. And they’re appointed for life, which means, of course, that they’ll be ruling on cases long after Trump’s departure. And observers warn of an ever greater danger, as explained in the New York Times: “when Democrats regain power, if they follow the same playbook and systematically appoint outspoken liberal judges, the appeals courts will end up as ideologically split as Congress is today.”Santa

The other revolution is in the regulatory world. The recent decision on Net Neutrality was a rare well-publicized example. Many, many other regulations have been lifted quietly or soon will be, decisions that figure to primarily benefit big business and/or Trump cronies. Trump recently claimed that for every new regulation within the federal government, his administration has removed a staggering 22. A look at just the environmental side is distressing. National Geographic is keeping a running list of environmental actions and policy changes, including the recent removal of climate change from a list of national security threats. The running list has several dozen items.

Trump’s biggest “gift” to America may be that he’s making an already-polarized country even more divided. His job-approval ratings have scraped along at historically low levels, but there is a huge partisan gap within those numbers. While he has retained strong support from many Republicans, he is almost universally reviled by Democrats. In Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling, some 80 percent of Republicans consistently say they approve of the president’s performance, a historically high figure.  But fewer than 10 percent of Democrats approve of Trump’s performance. That 70-point gap is as big as any seen in modern polling. It is more than double the partisan gap created by another infamous president, Richard Nixon, more than 40 years ago.

While it’s basically true that this year’s holiday bundle from Trump isn’t looking good for many of us, there’s hope on the horizon – there is always hope. Recent polling indicates that a majority of Americans favor a Congress controlled by Democrats, which at the very least would clip Trump’s wings and perhaps even send him packing, and that would be a thoroughly delightful gift in 2018. But there’s a long way to go between now and November – 11 months might as well be several geological ages when it comes to politics. So hold on, everybody; hold on to your wallets.

 

 

 

 

 

Baptists in the house of Young

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My great-grandfather, Henry Bolton Steelman

The Old West was still a thing in the state of Utah as the year 1899 gave way to 1900 and the 20th Century began. Actual statehood there was still in its infancy, having been bestowed by the U.S. just four years earlier.

Mormon pioneers, whose descendants would become synonymous with Utah, began arriving 53 years previously, and the ensuing decades were raucous indeed, including an early dalliance with slavery, an awarding of the vote to women before the rest of the country took that step, and actual warfare with the federal government over polygamy. The Mormons, led by Brigham Young, seemed determined to establish a theocracy (proposed name – Deseret) within American democracy, and some would argue they have effectively succeeded in modern times.

So Utah in 1900 was also still the Wild West – volatile and violent despite the heavy influence of religion, or maybe because of it. Wedged into that hardscrabble world was my great-grandfather, Henry Bolton Steelman, a Baptist minister sent to Salt Lake City in 1891 with a call to build the congregation there – in effect, to erode the Mormon base.

One of Reverend Steelman’s daughters was my maternal grandmother, Eleanor Steelman Dark. She was born in Salt Lake City in 1898, the second youngest of seven children close enough together in age to make Utah central to the development of that young family. While Great-Grandpa was transferred to Minnesota a short time later, in 1901, the Wasatch Front remained a primary gathering point for the Steelmans for the rest of my grandmother’s life. They were Baptists in the house of Young.

Henry Bolton Steelman did pretty well in Salt Lake City. As explained in the book The American Baptist Pulpit at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, “the Baptist cause made distinct gains” under Reverend Steelman, attracting enough worshippers in that city of 53,000 (population in 1900) to drive the construction of three new churches, prompting a merger after his departure that resulted in a much more robust First Baptist Church.

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First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City

There isn’t a lot more history than that available on the internet, and it leaves a great-grandson of Henry Bolton Steelman with numerous questions about the man and his mission. How did he do it? Did he consider the Mormon church a competitor? What about other faiths? How did he convince people to change faiths, assuming that occurred? How did he convince the godless to reconsider and embrace religion? Was it a civil environment for such pursuits or was it fraught with conflict, petty rivalries, and physical risk? How was his family treated in Salt Lake City?

Perhaps I’ll never know. But I wonder if memories of my grandfather occupy space deep inside the historical archive of the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and if I went to Utah and asked nicely if I would be able to see them. There’s another item for the ol’ bucket list.

When I was a journalist many years ago I interviewed a Protestant minister who had just moved to Sacramento from Salt Lake City, and I asked him some of those same questions about competing with the Mormons. He didn’t say much, other than confirming that, in his opinion, Utah was in fact a theocracy. And then he told a joke about making sure you took two Mormons fishing with you instead of one so they wouldn’t drink your beer. That probably went for Baptists, too. You know, that may be part of the reason my mother led us down a different denominational path. We were raised as Presbyterians, and while my brother and I largely stepped away from the church in adulthood (sorry, GG), my sister led her family into the Lutheran church, where they remain to this day and are active in leadership – direct descendants of a legendary spiritual leader who, if he is indeed looking on from the afterlife, is hopefully doing so with ecumenical pride.