Archive for February, 2011

Non-Disposable Assets

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Steve’s birthday is a little over a week away and I know what he would really like for his birthday is a flat panel TV. In fact, he’s wanted one for at least the last five birthdays and Christmases. The only TV we have in the house is more than 10 years old and for someone like him who loves movies, being able to watch them on a 40″ LCD HDTV with a picture so crisp that you can count the follicles on Bruce Willis’ scalp would certainly enhance the movie-watching experience.

But how do I know that the recession has really had an impact on the way we see the life span of our stuff?

Because this year, Steve hasn’t even asked for the flat panel TV. Steve, like many Americans, has changed his attitude about replacing something that still works perfectly well just to get an incremental improvement in quality.

Once again, we saw ourselves reflected in an article about this in Sunday’s Press Democrat with the headline “Frugal has become a way of life for many.”Â  The article talked about how we are not such a disposable society and people are hanging onto cars, computers and cell phones that still have value instead of upgrading just for vanity’s sake. The article cites research that the average length of car ownership is at a record 52.5 months.

Wow. That’s means that even in the recession people are still only keeping their cars on average for less than a year and a half. If our family is an indication of future trends, I think that number will continue increasing.

You see, even though I was always more frugal (that means cheaper) than Steve, I too have taken a longer term view on the life span of our stuff. It used to be that I dreaded our cars creeping up to the 100,000 mile mark because I thought that once they had reached that milestone, we should replace them even if they were still running fine.

Now, both our cars are will probably reach 100k in 2011. A hundred thousand miles? That’s no big deal. My attitude now is that they still have a third of their life left.

The cars are just one example of possessions that we’re making last longer. There is Steve’s five year old computer that turns temperamental whenever he edits video on it, the washing machine that vibrates so much on the spin cycle that the light fixtures shake, and even the jeans that are stretched out and droopy in the butt. Would it be nice to replace these things? Sure, but would it make a huge difference in our lives? Nope.

And while a birthday card is nice, I do hope the economy turns around so Steve doesn’t have to wait too many more years to get that flat panel TV.

Owning a Home isn’t Where the Heart Is

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

It’s always surprises me when I open the newspaper and there’s a headline about a current trend that perfectly describes my own attitude or situation. It’s one of those, “Oh, wow, I guess I’m not the only one feeling that way” kind of moments. So there it was on the front page of Saturday’s Press Democrat: “Homeownership loses its luster for many Americans.”

The gist of the article is that more and more people no longer see buying a home as a safe investment and that they can live better by renting than buying a house.

Steve and I would agree with that. We are part of that growing percentage for whom homeownership has moved from the asset column to liability column.

I used to think that renting was only something that people in their 20’s did and that owning a home was part of being a responsible adult. So why does selling our house and renting something small with a postage stamp size yard sound really good to us?

Certainly the financial considerations have a lot to do with it. How liberating to be out from the under the burden of home repairs, property tax, and maintenance, not to mention the “Would you like that supersized?” mortgage that we got when “Stated Income” was all you needed to qualify.

Another key reason that we are ready to downsize is that the amount of living space we need had dropped dramatically. Two out of our three kids are adults. Ok, I hear you saying, “So that means they are never moving back home? What about all the articles talking about how more adult children than ever are moving back in with their parents.” We think that even if they need to move back in with us, hopefully only while they are in transition, we can accommodate them in a much smaller and more affordable, space than our current house.

Talking about selling our house has caused Steve and me to think about how much space we really need and it’s not very much. Since you can only be in one room at a time, how much more do we need than a kitchen, family room, and bedrooms for us and Jennifer?

And it’s not just space and financial considerations that have made the glory days of home ownership a thing of the past for us. It’s also the draining investment of non-monetary resources such as our time and energy.

Steve will freely admit that he’s not Mr. Fixit nor does he want to be. I have to agree with him that’s why God made people with different skills. His time is much better used working in front of a computer to earn the money to pay someone who’s really good at resetting a fence post.

And while I’m perfectly capable of attacking the yard with a gallon of Round-Up in one hand and my electric hedge trimmers in the other, it’s not the way I want to spend every Saturday between February and October.

So like the non-homeowners talked about in the article, I’m ready to feel “less bogged down” and more buoyed up.

Tiger Mother Unleashed

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

If you follow the media themes you’ve probably noticed the brouhaha created by Amy Chua’s book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” I blogged my own small voice to the public outcry two weeks ago. In fact the “tiger mother” concept has taken root in our house in an unexpected way. When our youngest daughter reported to me that her current grade in English was 89.5, she half-jokingly said, “You’re not going to go all “˜tiger mother’ on me, are you?”

No I won’t. I’m much more likely to go “Nazi sergeant” on her given my German heritage.

Me, a tiger mother or some version of a dictatorial soccer mom? Well, I’m afraid that Jennifer does have a point. I guess that’s why the book resonated so strongly with me…and several million others judging by the number of follow-up articles, rebuttals, and media appearances by Ms. Chua. And it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. At the recent Davos international conference of business leaders, Ms. Chua, a Yale law professor, was asked to debate Larry Summers, a former Harvard president and more recently, President Obama’s top economic adviser about child-rearing techniques.

But back to why one side of me relates to Ms. Chua’s rule that only A’s are acceptable and the other side of me wants to rescue my children from being pushed into something that they really don’t want to do.

In raising our children, Steve and I have struggled between being overly nurturing (permissive), and very demanding. Our oldest, Ethan still remembers the time we put all of his toys into a box, and put the box into the garage after we learned that he had spurned a gift at his 2nd grade Christmas gift exchange because he didn’t like it. Of course, he’d behaved so badly because we’d spoiled him.

Valerie, the middle child, internalized this good cop / bad cop conflict in her characteristic angst over satisfactorily completing school assignments, which would frequently consume her time, mine, and Steve’s…and anyone else who didn’t flee the scene.

Jennifer, having witnessed the child-rearing pendulum in our house swing from tough to timid and back, has found some sort of middle ground on her own. Though she’s remarkably free of homework angst, her grades are every bit as good as Valerie’s. So, why would I go “all tiger mother” if she hits a minor bump? Because while reading Ms. Chua’s article, I had a twinge that maybe Ms. Chua was right about not giving children an option and I should have insisted that Jennifer stay in tennis, ballet, swimming, karate”¦the list goes on”¦until she had gotten good enough to have some success at it.

Chalk up the confusion to my own tiger mother who, suffice it to say, was a stern presence on her best day. And I guess that goes to the root of my own fascination with and conflict about the subject.

So on those times when I feel my tiger mother wanting to roar, I’m going to remember two points that Mr. Summers, a guy with some impressive academic credentials, made in his debate with Ms. Chua. First, “A” students tend to become professors and the “C” students become wealthy donors.

Secondly, and more importantly, here’s what else Mr. Summers had to say, “People on average live a quarter of their lives as children. That’s a lot. It’s important that they be as happy as possible during those 18 years. That counts too.”

A Cat with Too Much Brain

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Steve and I thought that middle-of-the-night feedings were a thing of the distant past for us. After all, our youngest child is 14.

They were, until we got our orange cat, Nigel.

Let me tell you about last night as an example: at about 1:00 a.m., Nigel who almost always sleeps between Steve’s legs, jumps off the bed and starts plucking the carpet. “Nigel stop it!” He stops for about 30 seconds and then resumes working his claws until Steve gets out of bed and goes out to the kitchen to feed him. It doesn’t matter that there is already food in his dish, Nigel wants his Iams cat food freshly plated.

This scenario is repeated at 4:30 and 6:45 a.m. with Steve and I alternating who gets up to feed him until we are worn down to the point that regardless that it’s Sunday, and we could sleep in another half-an-hour, it’s just easier to submit to his will. We tried squirting him with a water bottle but he thought that me chasing him down a dark hall murmuring swear words under my breath was a really fun game. OMG. Thirteen pounds of orange fur is ruling our lives.

Based on the way Nigel acts compared to our other two cats, we are sure the problem is that Nigel has about one-and-a-half times more brain matter than most cats. Charm, our oldest cat who is probably 16, is so domesticated that his only interest is in finding the most readily available warm lap. Day after day, when Charm wanders into the bathroom, his slightly crossed eyes always have a look of bewilderment, “Have I been here before?”

Nigel was a feral cat who was rescued from abandonment by a loving family and hand-fed until we adopted him as a kitten four years ago. He was so cute as a kitten. And it was so charming when he learned to play fetch; we could throw a little squishy ball and he would actually chase it and bring it back and drop it for us to throw it again.

We thought his predatory instincts would mellow with age and he would become a furry, free-loading slug who sleeps 22 hours a day like most cats. But Nigel is the one cat who we wish would sleep more because when he is awake, he is constantly pestering us for attention. And because he is so smart, he has figured out the ways that are most annoying to us to make sure that we do his bidding.

If he isn’t attempting to shred the carpet, he is up on the desk using his teeth to put puncture holes in every piece of paper within his reach. Every manila folder on my desk looks like it was attacked by an angry rattlesnake when it was actually just Nigel trying to get Steve to stop working and go sit on the couch so he can settle into his usual spot between Steve’s legs.

But here is the biggest problem. We love him to pieces. If Nigel could learn how to push a button on the computer, Valerie would probably just Skype him and skip talking to us altogether because it is Nigel who she really misses. Every phone call with her, we have to find Nigel and hold him up to the video camera so she can see his fuzzy face.

I know this sounds ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t had a cat, but when he curls up and sleeps with his eyes shut very tightly, he looks almost angelic and all the bad deeds are forgiven. So despite the pulled threads in the carpet, chewed shoelaces and cords, and missed sleep, our lives would seem very empty without him. We sometimes wonder, what did we talk about before Nigel?