Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Three Ways to Think about Saving Forty Cents

View from the Exercise Carpet in the Wreck Room: Massage Sheets Drying

I saved forty cents this morning. Something like that. Instead of running my load of massage linens through the dryer, I hung them up to dry. Google tells me that running a dryer once adds about forty cents to my electricity bill.

And forty cents, you know, buys... well... nothing. I don't think there's a single thing I buy for that little money, any more. Throw in another few cents savings, maybe, for the incremental wear and tear saved on the dryer, but it still doesn't add up to much.

And then there's the set-up cost. I bought a hundred feet of line -- we needed line anyway, and we have a good bit left, but still, I spent a dollar at least. So I don't even make back expenses until the third time I do it.

This is the first way, and probably the most common way, to think about saving money. You do all this work (actually this was not a lot of work, but there's five minutes of browsing the internet, lost to me forever!) and you get nothing out of it. What earthly good is forty cents?

Ah, but let's annualize it! A massage therapist does a lot of laundry: I was typically running the dryer four or five times a week, every week of the year: some 250 loads at forty cents apiece. That comes out to $100.

This is the second way of thinking about it, and I confess that it's still not very exciting. $100 is in fact money, but it's not a whole lot of it. And it's earned at the distinctly uninspiring wage of $4.80 per hour. Wouldn't I be better off to sink that time and energy into drumming up more business? $100 is what I charge for a single in-home massage, after all.

There's actually a lot of ways to pursue this line of thought. Do chore time and creative-marketing time actually come out of the same bucket? What about the overhead of doing that $100 massage, the driving, the marketing, the oils, the linens? (And, yes, the sheet-washing?) What about the fact that Uncle Sam is deeply interested in my massage earnings, and expects a cut of them, but turns up his nose at my line-drying earnings? You can bat it around a lot of ways. But it's still true that $100 a year doesn't seem like a lot.

But there is yet a third way to think about it, and this is the one that had me pinning my sheets to clothes-line in the wreck room this morning. To grasp this, you need to understand The Four Percent Rule. This rule says that you can rely on taking out 4% of your savings (intelligently invested) for the rest of your life, without exhausting them. Which means that to be financially independent -- to live on your savings -- your annual expenses must be no more than 4% of your savings; or to turn it around, once you've saved up 25 times what you spend in a year, you never need to work again. (This is hugely controversial, by the way, and can be argued six ways from Sunday, but I find Mr Money Mustache totally convincing, on this one.)

Due to the outrageous good fortune of my life, and a certain innate miserliness, this savings is within hailing distance, for me. (And a good thing, too, because at 58 I don't necessarily have a whole lot of working years left in me.) But I'm not there yet. Despite the fact that Martha and I earn well below the Oregon median income, we are saving money, to the tune of some $3,500 a year. So we are inching towards that financial independence number.

How exactly does this fit in with the forty cents I saved this morning? Well, the "25 times" may sound awfully daunting, but actually what it shows is the extraordinary leverage of reducing your annual spending. $100 per year is not much money. But the savings needed to safely generate that $100? $2,500 dollars. There's no legerdemain here. Saving this forty cents has exactly the same financial impact as saving an extra $2,500 this year. Or to put it another way: it magically scoots me eight months closer to financial independence.

All of a sudden, saving that forty cents looks a whole lot different.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


After the hammer blow, the silence
rocks back and forth: a powdery membrane
a handsbreadth from the ear and keyed
to the faltering rhythm of the heart:

oh beloved

we knew this would be steep,
but we did not know then 
the frailty of knees that are cramped and snagged
by the stillness of a hundred days of dread;

we thought
we would climb with the vigor of young 
clean-bodied ape,

not this hobble.
And at the center, it is nothing but that one same fear
repeated ten thousand different ways. The hammer lifts
and our stunned hand aims again.


all these failures mount to one,
one collapse of bravery:
the inevitable diastole 
of any clench of hope.

Monday, January 16, 2017


And whan that hit ys eve, I renne blyve,
As sone as evere the sonne gynneth weste,

To seen this flour, how it wol go to reste,
For fere of nyght, so hateth she derknesse.

--Chaucer, Prologue to the Legend of Good Women. 

I still don't know how flowers go to rest,
how they draw petal over petal, as might
a man pull on his wretched coat at five;
I still don't know what muscles they contract,

or how they know that dusk has settled in.
I still don't even know what aim is served:
from what night ravening brutality
do they imagine that they save themselves?

But I do know how they feel when the dark
is drifting over lawn and field, and when
such beauty as they have is spread too wide;

each tender raw integument withdraws
and looks for shelter under every other; 
each eye desires a curtain and a close.

Friday, January 13, 2017


The snowy white parallelograms of the rooftops are brighter and harder than the sky, which recedes uncertainly behind them; gray, maybe, or blue -- the color of a heron standing in a lake. I have been walking on the packed snow, so I am sensitized to the minor variations in hue: you need to pay attention on the half-packed snow, because the clumped and battered surface is uneven, and the variations are hard to see; and yet it hardly matters, too, because it's still malleable, hardly real terrain at all. My footprints remade it as I went.

In places it has packed down tight and turned to gray ice, though: there will be more and more of that. Half of Portlanders don't shovel their walks: many of them don't even know you're supposed to. It may be ugly walking for a couple days, when this finally begins to melt.

Last night, a full moon on the unfamiliar snow.

This cold and immobility stops up my heart and clogs my mind. I don't think I've had one clear, definite thought or feeling since the solstice. My longing for rain -- rain that falls and flows and doesn't freeze -- is intense. I want to remake my life and become a better person, somehow, but nothing really moves or changes. It's all a cold whiteness, slowly going to gray.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Late In The Day

Icy cold. I work at rebuilding my life, a life in which I am no longer a prince, nor even a free man. There is no swagger left in me. I mean to survive, one way or another, grimly and meanly. 

It has recurred to me often, over the decades, that originally education was for princes, and that we still fill students' heads with all sorts of nonsense appropriate to persons of political power and social influence. Really, of course, we are powerless and without influence, and we would have done better to learn how to keep our heads down and our mouths shut.

"The good priest studies till he dies," says a Hungarian proverb: and I still study. I can't help myself anymore: it's old, old habit. 

For what? Well, I like to know things, and it comes in handy oftener than you might think. There's a reason why better-educated people live longer, even controlling for economic and social class. Bad information and stupid ideas will kill you.

But return: if neither a prince nor a citizen, then what? And why? Questions I should have attempted answers to a long time ago. It's a bit late in the game to ask them now.

These are not questions I can answer after one good think, or a year's good thinks. I will build them, over time. I am feeling my way in a dark and unfamiliar mansion, having woken without a name or a purpose: only, still, with the blood beating in my ears, and with the conviction that enemies and allies are asleep close by. 

Well. Many things are going to happen, rapidly, that none of the sleepers expect. Of that, at least, I am sure.


So at times I look into where to run. Ecuador, where reasonably good health insurance costs $80.00 a month? Possibly the best deal, if it stays that way: but uncomfortably close to the northern hemisphere. If one is to run somewhere that might survive a few minor nuclear exchanges, one would want to be much further south... New Zealand is a lovely place, but I doubt I could afford to retire there. I think more of el cono sur: Chile or Argentina. I could retire there right now, and hoe my beans, and think philosophic thoughts. 

Though when I ramble the countryside of the Chilean south, in Google maps, I don't find the lush temperate rain forests that I love. Even far south, there is a desolate feel to the countryside. Maybe that's just thinking ahead to exile: but to me there's an austerity to Patagonia. It will never be, as Western Oregon so palpably is, the Shire.

And of course, as the oligarchs consolidate their power everywhere, their hands will reach south as well, as they have so often in the past. There is no place beyond their reach -- certainly no place that has anything worth stealing.

So. Selfish thoughts, selfish thoughts: but my political despair is so complete at the moment that expressions of hope grate on my ear like the sawing of a beginner on an out-of-tune fiddle. People don't seem to realize. It's not just that we lost: of course one loses from time to time. I've spent my life losing. It's that it's no longer possible to win: I regard my supposed allies with no gladder eye than my enemies. The basic democratic political virtues -- courage, honesty, and trust in one's countrymen -- no longer have critical mass. I don't believe that Americans as I know them are capable of self-government. Once people don't trust their fellow-citizens to count their votes, democracy is dead: whether the votes are actually counted right or not no longer matters. 

So I wander the lonely roads on the hills above Concepción, and look down at the glimmering ocean, and reckon my retirement income in Chilean or Argentinean pesos. Probably, of course, I just stay, and the tide just comes to me wherever it finds me: in my little house in East Portland, probably, scrambling eggs in the morning and looking up the etymology of stubborn Spanish words. I never have been quick or nimble. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

In the Week of the Winter Solstice

Early this morning, through the laundry room window: a tiny square of gray sky, black laurel leaves streaked with snow, and the moon limping westward.

Nothing I ever wanted means anything to me, now: the leaf-shadows nodded on the concrete floor, while the rectangles of moonlight containing them moved just slow enough that I never saw them doing it, like the minute hand of an old clock. There is a metaphor for days and years, here, if I were clever enough to make it. Or maybe there isn't, and I'm just clever enough to tell that there's not, without being able to say why.

The mountain was out this morning, in a new dress of snow, the brilliant white and bluish shadow in stylized blotches, so that I wanted to copy down the ideograph the ridge lines made: forward and backward esses forming the borders between the shades of white. See, I would say, this is the character for mountain.

But there is no need for a character for mountain when the mountain is there to point at. And what's the point of talking about a mountain when it's gone? What are we doing now, and what have we ever done? We have grown old talking about what we remember, or wanted to remember. There's a hitch and slow-down, every time I rise from a chair recently: a caution. Perhaps I cracked a rib the other day.

Tomorrow, maybe, the ice will be gone, and life will be more pliant. My petulance at not being able to go out precisely when and how I like begins to wear on me: and then I think of the people in Mosul or Aleppo, of what real constriction looks like, and I'm ashamed of myself.

I go slowly in the dark, holding my hand out to find the door. There. When the door is at arms' length, the steps up to it are there to be stepped on: two shallow steps and and then a third half-step onto the sill, from the garage into the kitchen. I wonder if this little house is the last physical place I will memorize, and be able to move around easily without light.

Sunday, December 04, 2016


Frontispiece by Walter Crane, 1907

The theme of my recent reading, by chance, if you wish, has been donkeys, asses, burros. I just reread with pleasure Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes -- with an internal shiver at Stevenson's odd precocity: he was in his twenties, but he muses with a brittle, elderly wisdom, as if caught in a temporal backwash from his early death -- and I am slowly making my way through Juan Ramón Jiménez's Platero y Yo. I don't think I've read Platero before, but I wonder if I read it when young and forgot it: if it set me the example for the sort of blog-writing I do best. Anyway, Platero is the poet's donkey, and often addressed in the mode I call "the second person blogular." You -- yes, you -- are the intimate who will understand, though the rest of the world mock: the object of all the tenderness that would otherwise be spilled and wasted.

Stevenson thinks of writing as I do: in the dedication to the Travels he writes:
Every book is, in an intimate sense, a circular letter to the friends of him who writes it.  They alone take his meaning; they find private messages, assurances of love, and expressions of gratitude, dropped for them in every corner.  The public is but a generous patron who defrays the postage.
You can read it in an evening, free from Gutenberg: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.