Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Public Space

Living in public space makes you appreciate how civilization works.

Traveling by RV, you are dependent on public space, for a place to park as well as simply a place to sit and enjoy the world.  And in any society, public space serves this need.  Increasingly, however, public space is under attack - being sold off to private interests, or viewed as an unnecessary expense on already over-extended local budgets.

But well-maintained public parks and other public spaces are a joy, and really an indicia of how well a civilization is working.    Finding an idyllic park or other spot, just to pause even for a moment or two, is a real joy.  And while your taxes may pay for it, you don't have to pay taxes on it.  Moreover, you can enjoy a space that would be all but impossible for the average person to own.

For example, at Mistletoe State Park, in Georgia, we enjoyed what I call the $20 Million Dollar view.  We parked our RV on a remote site and had a view of the lake and the far shore, uninterrupted by any houses, camps, other people or, well, anything.   In order to own such a view, you would have to pay at least $20 million to own your own lake and the surrounding lands.  But for about $20 a night, you can enjoy it for a lot less.

Increasingly, however, if you want the view, you have to buy the view.  We live in a State Park - Jekyll Island - and few of the homes there "own the view."  The view of the ocean and the marsh are open to everyone, and by State Law, 2/3 of the island is protected from development.   Contrast this with nearby St. Simons Island, where if you want a view, you have to pay a couple of million to get one.  And if you drive on that island, you may not realize you are on an island, as you cannot see the ocean other than at a few isolated public access sites.

And in such spots, even if you "buy the view", chances are, it is a view marred by the presence of so many others like yourself, who wanted to buy a "slice 'o paradise" and thus crowd in with you to get a shot of that fabulous sunset that you watch once a year (but pull the shades on the rest of the time as it overheats the house and reflects off the TeeVee, making it hard to watch).

Public space, on the other hand, is often far superior and, well, paid for.  No $15,000 tax bills will arrive in the mail if you have a picnic on public lands.  And yet, few take advantage of them.  On the Blue Ridge Parkway, we are often the only ones in Picnic areas or camping sites.  We see few, if any people, on the hiking trails.   Folks would rather stay at home and watch television.

Our own island was recently remodeled with beautiful public spaces, including a new picnic park with multiple pavilions with barbecue grills and picnic tables.  It is all nicely done, but when you ask a local resident about it, they feign indifference.  "Oh, I hear it is nice," they say, but of course one doesn't actually go to such places.  They are for other people, who don't own their own picnic table in their backyard (which of course is never used, as who wants to picnic in their back yard?  Besides, America's Idol is on).

As you might guess, we use it all the time.  In fact, pavilion 4 is sort of our own, as it is out of the way and has a nice breeze from the ocean.  It takes little time to pack a picnic dinner and a bottle of wine.  And we keep all the other necessities in the car.  Public space - you paid for it, why not use it?

In the Adirondacks, public space is everywhere - there seems to be a boat launch, public park or hiking trail around every bend.  But other places, such as Long Lake, seem to be "bought up" - at least in parts - with wall-to-wall camps and vacation houses, lining the lake.  The effect is less than ideal.  Not only is it ugly and tacky, you can't even pull your kayak ashore without confronting a "No Trespassing" sign.  I've got mine, jack, you get yours! - that seems to be the order of the day in the places like that.

But after paying staggering property tax bills on trying to "own the view" I am finding that public space is a far more enticing alternative.   It is free, freely available, and you have already paid for it with your tax dollars.  And since most folks today would rather stay home and watch television, it is largely unpopulated and vacant.  You can be lord of a thousand acres, of only for an hour or two, for free, or the low price of a park admission.

Sounds like a good deal to me.  In fact, it is the greatest bargain around.

Choices

Many people think they have no choices in life, even about very silly things.

I wrote before about Choices, and in fact, that is what this blog is all about - realizing you have choices, and that the choices you make affect your life.  When you realize this, you are empowered.

On the other hand, most people don't feel they have choices, and often about very silly things.  For example, I wrote in a recent posting about car insurance for kids, and have written before about speeding.  When I was in my 20's, I did the stupid thing and bought a new car and the insurance was murder.  And the reason for this was speeding tickets.  I got a couple one weekend, and a nice lawyer got me out of them.  He said to me, "If you can just drive speed limit from now on, your insurance rates will go down."

I sped on the way home from court.

Drive the speed limit?  Who can do that?  That is not a realistic choice, I thought at the time.   No one drives the speed limit!  Well, that asshole in front of me who is "going too slow" does, but he is the exception, not the rule.  Speed limits are for jerks!  Everyone drives over the limit!  Right?

Well, not exactly.  Speeding is a choice, and you don't have to do it.  No, really.  About half of all Americans think they "have to" drive at least 5 mph over the limit, if not 10 or 15 mph.  About a quarter think they need to drive as fast as the car will go.  But these are not dictates or essentials, but personal choices.

And you realize, over time, that speeding gets you nowhere.  As I noted in my previous posting, we had a motorhome that was very slow, and at full throttle would do little more than 65 mph.  On the Interstate, we would see people pass us at 10-15 mph over the speed limit.  An hour later, they would pass us again.  Or we would meet up with them, once we got off the Interstate, and got into city traffic.   It was an eye-opener.  Most people never have this epiphany.

Or take Cable Television - the work of Satan himself.   When I was in my 20's, I had cable TV, perhaps illegally (hey, I hooked the TV to the cable in the living room, and it worked, what am I supposed to do? Call them and ask it be unplugged?).   But of course, they finally did pull the plug and I was outraged to find I had to pay $30 a month for Cable, which was a lot of money back then, or even today.  And with each rate increase, I was similarly outraged and put-upon.  I want my MTV, dammit!

The idea of not having cable was as alien to me as not speeding.  And for many young people today, this is the case.  Throw in the smart phone and the Abercrombie shirt, and you have a long list of entitlements and sacred cows that cannot be cut from their budgets.  So they go down to protest on Wall Street, with smart phones in hand.  How can those evil people in the corporate world raise our cable rates or cell phone fees?  We need these like oxygen!

Or, maybe not.  Maybe, like in any argument, the answer is in challenging the premise of the argument.  And here, the premise is that you "have to speed", "have to have cable", or "have to have a smart phone" or fill in the blank about the 500 "have to have" things in your life that are not really essential, but rather are just frittering away your estate, a little bit at a time.

A reader writes that they cannot understand why it is hard to unlearn this behavior.  That simple mediation should reveal the ultimate truth to all.   Of course, the same reader hyperlinks to a perpetual motion site, so I am not sure meditation is the answer.

It takes time to unlearn these things because your brain is programmed by the media and our society, thousands of times a day, with contrary messages.   Everyone watches cable TeeVee - Cable TeeVee tells us this.  In fact, back around the mid 1980's, the networks, and later cable, started running ads on TeeVee for TeeVee.   In addition to particular programs, they would show "warm and fuzzy" ads of people gathered around the set (a lie, most watch alone) watching their "favorite programs" together.  The message?  Watching TeeVee is a way of life and a "normal" activity for a human being.  And the average American watches about 4.6 hours a day.  No, really. 

Unplugging from Cable and television in general is the most important step, as more than half of the poor normative cues pummeling your brain are from the television.  You cut off that cult-like programming, and the rest is easier.

Getting off the speeding mindset is harder, as it seems that "everyone" speeds, or at least that they do when you speed.  When you stop speeding (and tailgating and other horrific behaviors) you realize that all those cars you were passing are doing the speed limit, and in fact, make up about half the road traffic.

And you realize that the savings, in terms of wear and tear on your car, are terrific.  I bought theX5 with 50,000 miles on it.  BMW had replaced the brake pads and rotors under warranty at that point.  Eight years later, it now has 130,000 miles, and is still running on the same brakes.  80,000 miles on one set of pads.  How does that compare to your usage?

Most folks who speed end up jamming on their brakes at 80 mph, when a "slower" car has the tenacity to actually try to pass a truck.  This is a huge amount of kinetic energy to convert into heat, and not surprisingly, it converts brake pads into dust.

Poor choices snowball into poorer ones.  You speed, you get a ticket - it is an inevitable probability, a predictable outcome.  And then your insurance rates skyrocket, and like most weak-thinking Americans, you blame the insurance companies for running a racket.  I know I did.  Hey, so what if I speed, its not like I get into accidents, right?  Oh, whoops.

We all have choices in life, even when it does not appear you have choices.  What is appalling about Americans is that they cannot even perceive obvious choices.  They believe that silly things like Cable TV, designer coffee, fast food, smart phones, and speeding, are all necessary to living, and that they cannot do without them.  However, they are a choice - a poor choice in terms of health and wealth - but a choice they make, nevertheless.

And no, I don't feel sorry for them - for the simple reason no one felt sorry for me when I made the same bonehead stupid choices that allowed others to exploit me financially.  Getting ahead, it turns out, requires not a money-making system or trick, but just realizing that poor choices are offered to you daily, gaudily dressed up and presented to look like good choices.  Just turning away from them is the only real "secret" to wealth and happiness.

Naturism

Nudist or Naturist Resorts are quite popular in the USA.  They are all over the place, even in your own home town, although you likely wouldn't know it.  What is it like to go "all natural" and does it really make much sense?

We decided to stop at a "Naturist" RV resort to see what this Nudism thing is all about.  Americans get all freaked out by nudism, even as their European ancestors embrace it pretty much wholeheartedly (particularly the Germans).   We are still at the slap-and-tickle stage of adolescence in this country, and we connect nudism with sex, which is really about as far apart as you can get.   Believe me, nudist colonies or camps are not sex resorts, and if you think they are, you will be asked to leave.

And of course, few of us look good, naked.  Yea, when I was 25, I could look keen in a Speedo, but at age 52, it is more of a sad joke.  And alas, with America's obesity epidemic (eating epidemic), few look good naked, and many are downright scary.

Yea, I looked good at age 25.  Twenty five years and the law of gravity have changed all that.


But what is the big deal?  Is Naturism or Nudism some "answer" to everything?  Were we made not to wear clothes, "but for" the conventions of society, are forced to?  The answer is, well, not really.  People who make that argument are like Vegans who claim that the human body is "not designed" to consume dairy products, which is a load of hooey, as they have no inside track into the designer's mind, nor is there any scientific evidence (just para-science) to that.  But I digress....

Being naked all the time is kind of fun, in that you don't have to decide what to wear all the time, and your laundry usage shrinks considerably.  When you are traveling by RV, this is kind of handy.  You need to get something out of the car, you can just run out there naked, and no one will say anything.

But this does not mean you have no clothes.  To begin with, you have to have a towel - not to dry off with, but to sit down on.  Why?  Well, if you sit bare-naked on a chair or bench, you are going to leave a sweaty butt-print on the seat, and possibly a skid-mark, if you are having digestive troubles (all together now: "Eeeeeew!").   So you are required to carry around and use a towel.  So right off the bat there, the nudists have reinvented underwear.  And you understand why underwear was invented.

Of course, being naked in the 90-degree heat is fine and all, but when the temperature drops to 60, well, it gets cold, really fast, when you are naked.  And many refuse to give up, but rather resort to a larger towel, which they wrap around themselves like a toga.  Bingo!  They just invented clothing - or should I say, reinvented it.

And you quickly discover that clothing is more than some societal norm, but rather a form of protection from the cold.  And sunburn.  Yes, getting sunburned "all over" is no fun, but I have seen it happen to more than one over-enthusiastic naturist.  So clothing serves two purposes - keeps out the cold, and keeps out the sun.

"...Naturism is all fun and games until the mosquitoes come out."

And the mosquitoes.  Yes, Naturism is all fun and games until the mosquitoes come out.  And while Skin-So-Soft and other bug sprays work (and you do have to spray them all over), there reaches a time of day when the little buggers are so hungry that all the OFF! and DEET won't keep them away.  And you get bit.  All Over.  Usually around sunset.

Clothes cover your body and prevent this problem.  So you see, they have yet another function as well.   Protection from the cold, sun, insects, and as underwear.  Clothing is far more than mere societal norms harassing the individual.

And yes, there is the modesty factor.  At the Naturist resort, there is a suspension bridge (whose engineering I question, but that is another story) that traverses a small river.  Since it is visible to the "outside", you are requested to "cover up" when crossing the bridge.  So, people either carry another piece of clothing, or the ubiquitous towel is put into service, yet again.

And like I said, while it may be fun to run around naked, it might not be so fun for others, who have to look at your sorry ass, particularly if it is a saggy sorry ass.

But on the whole, I guess I can see the point these Naturists have.  But on the other hand, I am not prepared to adopt it as a "lifestyle" or anything....

Monday, August 27, 2012

Car Insurance and Teenage Drivers

Friends of mine in High School drove cars like this to school at age 16 or 17, yet lived in the poorest of neighborhoods.  How could they afford it?  Or is there a connection here?

A reader writes:
"How about teenagers and cars for teenagers and insurance for teenagers - or do you feel unqualified to comment without real experience?  Lawsuits seem to have ruined the entire "Can't wait 'til I'm 16" driving experience, at least for parents.  My wife and I are pretty well off (at least compared to most of America) and if our son gets a couple of tickets or has a fender bender I don't know how we can cover it.  Which means, how is everyone else in America doing it?  (Driving without insurance?  Minimum 10,000/20,000 liability coverage - do they still allow that?)  Who decided that teenagers couldn't drink until 21 but were entitled to drive at 16 anyway - wouldn't it make more sense to reverse those ages?  (Or at least make the driving age 18.)  At my sons high school, which is admittedly on a busy road, you're only allowed to leave by bus or in a car - they consider walking too dangerous, there being no sidewalks.  Isn't this crazy?  And I don't think anyone in our metropolitan area at any age is allowed to ride a bike to school (Norfolk/Virginia Beach, VA)."
Good question.  Car insurance for teens has always been prohibitively expensive.   And yet many parents go out and buy new cars for their kids, or give them late-model hand-me-downs.  When I was a kid, the poor kids in town all had nice cars, but lived in crappy houses.  Their parents subscribed to the model that you bought a brand-new car (a crappy Dodge or other cheaply made American car) every three years.  When their kids reached driving age, instead of trading in, Dad would hand over a three-year-old used car to Junior, who would drive the Satellite Sebring to school.

My dad, on the other hand, wailed long and loud about the cost of car insurance for two teenagers in the house.  He agreed to pay for the insurance, provided we bought our own cars.  As a result, my brother and I ended up with a succession of $50 and $100 clunkers that we cobbled together, in order to get around.  While it was not a fun way to ride, we did learn about how to keep an older car alive.

And of course, we lived in a better part of town and lived in a fairly expensive house.  But perhaps that is the point.  My parents spent their money on their home, which appreciated in value, as opposed to a string of new cars, which end up in the junkyard after ten years (if that, back then), and also invested in stocks and bonds, both of which would be alien to my friends' parents with the new cars.   In other words, poor folks become poor by spending and rich folks become rich by saving - and investing wisely.  The road to middle-class poverty is paved with new car payments.

And when I look back at it, my Dad was remarkably cheap about cars.  Maybe that is where I get my cheapness from.  He had a company car, which was leased by his company and paid for and insured by his company, and he bought a succession of fairly cheap cars for my Mother - a Fiat, a Vega, and an Aspen, the latter of which was leased, which turned out to be a huge mistake when my Brother wrecked it.  But overall, his auto expenses were fairly minimal, compared to most families.

And since we drove cheap cars, the insurance was cheap, at least from a collision standpoint.  I wrote before about collision insurance for young drivers - it is astronomical, particularly if you get a few tickets.  And I got a few, to say the least, as a young driver.  Most do.  The cost of my car insurance exceeded the monthly payments on my car, which was just insane, from my point of view, but logical from the insurance company's point of view.  From their perspective, it was an even bet I would wreck a car before the payments were up, so they collected twice on the cost, just to cover their expenses.

And that is about the odds, particularly for young men, when it comes to accident rates.  Chances are, your kids will wreck a car between the ages of 16 and 25.  You just have to hope they don't kill themselves or someone else, doing it.  And sometimes, those deaths are just that - concealed suicides - the classic car-leaving-the-road at a high speed and hitting a bridge abutment.  It happened to a friend of mine's older brother, but no one likes to talk about that, except insurance company actuaries.

So, you have two teenage kids, reaching puberty and driving age at about the same time.   And your insurance bill comes and it is staggering - thousands and thousands of dollars a year.  What can you do about it?

Well, to begin with, you need to talk to your kids and stress how even one or two speeding tickets can mean that the whole deal is off - that the cost of insuring them will be staggering.  And the problem is, if you have teenagers in the household of driving age, your rates go up, regardless of whether they drive or not.

The second thing is to examine your coverage.  Chances are you are spending a ton of money insuring the fenders of your 10-year-old Honda, and not spending enough to cover your real risk - your liability.

I have written about this before, again and again.  A simple umbrella liability policy for a million dollars can cost as little as $200 a year.  And if your kid wrecks the family car and kills someone else, such as a passenger in that car, you will be glad you had that umbrella liability policy, and you won't give a damn about the wrecked Honda.

Most Insurance Agents sell you policies that include liability, medical coverage ($10,000), uninsured motorists, property damage, and collision and comprehensive.  Then they try to throw in rental car coverage (to give you a rental car when yours is in the shop) and towing.  These latter two are junk coverage, in my opinion,   The Medical Coverage thing, I think, is also junk, as $10,000 isn't bubkis, and most people have medical insurance that will cover them if they are in a wreck.

Uninsured motorists is also a conundrum.  To get enough to make it worthwhile, it costs a fortune, as it is ripe for fraud.  Buying $25,000 worth, on the other hand, seems kind of pointless.  You lose a limb, what is $25,000 going to do for you?

But the big enchilada is Collision and Comp, as the insurance company figures that your kids are going to wreck the family car (or whatever clapped-out POS you give the kids to drive) and price the policy accordingly - adding hundreds per month to cover the cost of the car that they will have to pay for.  Dumping Collision and Comp is one way to save a bundle.

And in order to do this, you have to own cars that are (a) paid for, and (b) inexpensive enough that you can afford to take the risk of not insuring them for Collision and Comp.  This means that when your kids turn 16, it is a bad time to go out and buy a brand-new BMW, as your insurance rates will be murder.  You are better off, for this short period of time (when your kids are age 16 to 21 or so) to drive an older, paid-for car, as well as have your kids drive paid-for cars as well.

If you can do this, you can dump excess insurance coverage from your policies and at least minimize the cost of having teenagers in the house.  And you can then afford that umbrella liability policy, which will protect you from your real risk and exposure - that your kid will injure or kill someone with his car.

But, like I said, others choose differently.  Many people won't make such sacrifices, but instead go out and buy new cars, oblivious to how having a 16-year-old in the house will affect their insurance rates.  Their rates go up, and they sit there like deer in the headlights, wondering what happened.  And of course, the idea that they might be able to drive older, paid-for, cheaper cars, is just not on the table.

And that is one reason why many poorer folks have the nicest cars - for every member of the family - parked in the driveway (often five or six) and yet live in a house not worth as much as the cars in the driveway.  They choose poorly, and invest in depreciating scrap metal instead of their homes.

But what if your kids gets a string of tickets or a DUI?  What can you do then?  It is difficult, and at one time, my poor Dad was faced with this problem as my Brother had a DUI and I had about five speeding tickets.  His solution, which I do not think was legal, was to have me get a New Jersey Drivers License and claim to be living with my Grandmother.  I am not sure how he came up with the idea, but it seemed to work, at least for a while.  It meant that I was no longer a "resident" in his household, so I did not appear on his insurance records.   Like I said, I doubt that was legal.  But it goes to show you how having two rambunctious teens can really jack your insurance rates.

A lot has changed since then.  I finally realized that driving as fast as possible everywhere wasn't saving me any time, and costing a lot of money.  Today, I pay $15 a month for car insurance through GEICO, and I drive the speed limit all the time - and I have a clean license.

Others choose differently.  On a recent trip through the Adirondacks, I noticed that most people like to drive fast - but rarely get anywhere faster.  Someone passes me on a road out of town, and we meet up with them at a traffic light at the next town, 20 miles later.  They drive 5-10 miles-per-hour over the limit, but don't really make any more progress.  But they spend more on gas, and no doubt spend more on insurance.  And they live in fear of the red-and-blue lights of the State Trooper, as they know they are constantly breaking the law and are subject to fine and arrest and any moment.

And for what?  To go a little faster?  But again, it is one of those things that takes a long time to learn, and often bad habits are learned in the cradle.  My parents were both speeders (and their tickets no doubt exasperated their insurance difficulties) and taught me that driving 5 mph over the limit was sort of the minimum speed you were expected to do.  Unlearning that was hard.

Which gets me back to the first point.  Your insurance rates, with teens in the house, will be murder.  If they get tickets (or you have some) or an accident, it will be murder to the second power.  Driving carefully and within the speed limits is the best thing you can do (and it is a CHOICE, not a necessity, to speed) and also teach your kids a lot about driving.

My parents rarely said much about driving, or gave much in the manner of driving instruction.  Well, there was the one time my Dad gave me pointers about how to drive carefully after you've "had a few drinks" to avoid getting a DUI.  But I am not sure that is a good example of good parenting or driving instruction.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Corporate Socialism Lives!

International Paper donated land to make a handicapped accessible campsite in the Adirondacks.  It is completely free and very under-utilized.

I wrote before about Corporate Socialism and how it is largely dead.  A half-century ago, companies would spend money on social programs and social goods, even if they did not pay back in terms of publicity, advertising, or a benefit to the company.  Today, in this dog-eat-dog bottom-line world, such things are the first on the chopping block, once the Bain Capitals of the world take over.  There is no room for sentiment or good deeds in the Corporate Board Room anymore.

Well, there are a few exceptions.  International Paper donated land to build the John Dillon Park, a private park that is handicapped accessible, in the Adirondacks, near Long Lake.  There are only about a dozen sites, and they are all FREE and include lean-tos and picnic tables.  They even deliver firewood to your site, free of charge.  Students from nearby Paul Smith's College, studying to be forest rangers or whatever, run the place.  It is immaculate, beautiful, remote, and free.

Unfortunately, we arrived on the last day of the year they are open, and at 3:00 in the Afternoon.  So, we sat out on the dock and opened a bottle of Champagne, and toasted John Dillion.  And at 6:00 they booted our asses out, the last visitors for 2012.

If you are looking for a place to camp in the Adirondacks, it is worth checking out, doubly so if you, a friend, or a family member are handicapped.....

Corporate Socialism.  It lives!

Big Kids

Spoiled Brats are a pain in the ass.  But as adults, are we really any different?

We are camping in the Adirondacks, and while it is beautiful, the campgrounds here are far more crowded than on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  On the Blue Ridge, you might find a handful of campers in a campground designed for 200 or more.  In the Adirondacks, you find nearly every site full.  We are closer to civilization, and closer to the beginning of the school year as well.

Two families brought their noisy kids, and they are camping about 1/8th mile away.  The little girls have discovered that delightful noise they can make when they scream at the top of their lungs – a shrieking noise that sounds like a banshee.  It is merely annoying in the afternoon, it is torture late at night.  One wonders what the parents are doing, or should I say “parent” as both families seem to be non-intact (you know, Dad was the disciplinarian, and we’re all glad he’s out of the picture, right?).

Well, someone finally complained (not me) and the park ranger got them all to shut up.  I am not sure how the parents could stand the noise, so close up, and at 11:00 at night.  Perhaps they were drunk or on Valium, or perhaps you get used to the bloodcurdling screams.  It sounded like the little girls were being mauled by bears, and in my worst moments, I kind of hoped they were.  After all, it would be Darwinian justice, for making so much noise in the woods.

And I wondered if I did similar things as a kid – shouting (which they all seem to do, even when only two or three feet from each other) and screaming, and running around and generally giving adults migraines.  I must have, as I do recall Mother often complaining about the noise, but perhaps that was only because she was hung over at the time.  One starts to understand why parents “park” their kids in front of a TeeVee for eight hours a day – it keeps them relatively quiet.

But then again perhaps not.  While we were no doubt brats at that age as well, our media and society did not cater to that mentality as it does today.  There was no “Chuck-E-Cheese” back then, where a “kid can be a kid” – where being a kid, apparently, means running around out of control and screaming as loud as you can.

And yet, kids are capable of so much more – and yet are not challenged at all in our society, and thus they devolve into these hyperactive screaming monsters, aided and abetted by energy drinks, soda-pop and sugary cereals.

You may recall the Suzuki method of violin instruction.  Suzuki discovered that if you made instruments child-sized, and gave the children lessons and had them practice in a fairly strict regimen, they could be come quite accomplished violinists at a very early age.  All you have to do is challenge them and provide them with focus and a regimen.  A child’s mind is like a sponge and it will absorb so much.  Yet in America, we give them nothing to soak up except self-indulgence and Sunny-D in a sippy cup.

And as I have noted before, this trend is accelerating and extending.  Today, “kids” can “be a kid” well until age 30, living in Mother’s basement, smoking dope and generally being totally irresponsible and self-indulgent.  We are given no instruction, we are not challenged, we have no regimen.

And yet again, it is possible to so do much more.  As I noted in an earlier posting, in 1942, a 21-year-old might be in charge of a four-engine bomber and the lives of ten other men.  Today, you would not trust them with the family car – nor could you afford the insurance.

What brought this to my mind was that we stopped at a local trading post, where a family ran a small camping supply store, Laundromat, and liquor store.  Behind the counter was an alarmingly young man, apparently the son of the owner, who was minding the counter of the camp store while Dad was working out back.   Not only was he able to handle the work, he did it with remarkable aplomb. And the contrast between this serious young man and the screaming imbeciles in the campground struck me as astounding.

But in a way, it is an aspect of human nature – for people of all ages.  When you indulge people and cater to their every whim, and fail to challenge them or set boundaries, goals, or a regimen, they basically devolve into, well, spoiled brats.

Across from me in the campground is an older man in a pickup truck festooned with Romney stickers.  To hear him talk (and you will hear him talk, like it or not, just as you will hear the screaming girl) nothing bad in his life is his fault.  He is a victim of one sort or another, put-upon by the government, the liberals, and of course, those pampered minorities and immigrants, who are getting “all his tax dollars.”

He drives a vehicle that gets 15 miles per gallon, on a good day, and blames Obama for the high cost of gas (neglecting to recall that it was $5 a gallon during the waning days of the Bush administration).  And he faults the government for running up a deficit, while neglecting to account for how much money he takes out of said same government every month in the form of Social Security and Medicare.   Worse yet, he believes that those same programs should be cut, but of course, only for those who are presently under the age of 55, who apparently have other options available to them.

It is selfishness on the level of a small child at Chuck-E-Cheese.

And yet, our country – our people – are capable of so much more, if challenged and given a regimen.  And that, I think, was the greatest failure of the Bush Administration.  During the “War on Terror” (which is still going on), we were no asked to sacrifice at all, but rather told that our patriotic duty was to spend more, borrow more, and live an opulent lifestyle, to show those terrorists how great it is to live in a Democracy.  Now that it has all gone horribly wrong (perhaps by design – creating a debtor nation) we wonder what happened.  Did the terrorists win?

In past wars, we were asked to sacrifice – buy war bonds, run a scrap metal drive.  Volunteer for some service, no matter what.  Today?  No focus, no discipline, no regimen.

You would think with the Nation’s debt problems and the cost of the war, that Bush would have at least encouraged people to buy bonds or something, as a patriotic act – issue a special Series “War Bond” and ask people to invest – and pay for the cost of the war.

But no, we were and are pampered.  And the last great leader to do that in wartime was Hitler – who well until 1944 was reluctant to put the German economy on a full war-footing and discontinue production of civilian goods in favor of the war effort.  It was not until he was losing the war that he had Albert Speer put in charge of armaments.  And Speer was horrified to discover that even at that late date, civilian goods often had priority over war material.

Why do leaders do this?  They want to remain popular.  They believe that pamper their populations with beads and trinkets – bread and circuses – will appease them and allow the leader to stay in power.  But history has shown this doesn’t work.  People, left without discipline and structure, devolve into spoiled brats, and no matter how much bling you throw at them, they will simply pout and demand more.

Or scream at the top of their lungs at the “injustice of it all.”

Big Kids.  That is all they really are.  Children who have never grown up.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Facebook Lockout Period Ends



Picking on Facebook seems like beating a dead horse these days.  However, it bears comment that the lockout period for insiders to sell their Facebook shares has ended, and as predicted by many, a whole host of them sold their shares and flooded the market and the share price has tanked to less than $20.

What is weird about this is that it was a predicted event - if you bothered to read the press and not the rah-rah cheerleading.  No one can say they did not see this coming.  So why did people buy the stock?  Because people are idiots - look around you.

A friend of mine logged onto Facebook and I saw her "feed" which included a comment that Suzie Q went to the outlet mall and shopped at something or other store.  This is where Facebook is trying to go, to get you to act as an advertisement for the places you shop and the products you buy.  It is creepy to the nth degree.

On the TeeVee at the same friend's house, a new report (repeated six times, so I did not miss it) about a Facebook camera/scanner that will be mounted at the entrance of various businesses to track your every movement and then publicize where you went and what you bought.

"Uncle Fred went to the XXX Adult theater and bought a dildo!   342 of his friends LIKE this!!"

Um, creepy weird invasion of privacy.  And people will sign up for this?  Well, they won't, but they have the option of "opting out" of it.

Of course, the ultimate "opting out" of Facebook is to simply close the account, which I think I will do, once I migrate my photos to Picasa.  There is an app to do this automatically, although you lose the captions and it does require Chrome, which sucks.

Oh, our mighty corporate overlords!  How can we serve them better?  By voting for Romney, of course!


Friday, August 17, 2012

Trailer Park Mentality


Some folks will spend more money fixing up a trailer than they would spend on a modest home.


Traveling by RV is interesting, and it can be quite economical, if done on a budget.  However, some folks take a good thing and take it too far.  They park RVs permanently in a RV park as a "cheap vacation home" and pay hundreds of dollars a month in lot rent, and hundreds more trying to make an inexpensive trailer into a quasi-house.

It starts out with a few lawn decorations - pink flamingos are popular.  Then Christmas lights are added.  Perhaps a deck is then built next to the trailer, since the occupants get tired of sitting in the mud.   Then plantings go in - flowers, shrubs, even small trees.  Or tropical plants (in northern climes) and then watering systems to keep them all growing.

Then, like most older RVs, they start to leak, so the owners build a roof over the RV, often in a Pole-Barn fashion.  And since this is all permanently constructed on an RV space in an RV park, they are now obligated to continue paying lot rent, lest they lose their "investment".

In some instances, a second RV is added as a guest room.  Then the cars start to multiply.  And of course, you need a golf cart, to drive around the campground in.  Pretty soon, it starts to look pretty trashy - a pile of crap that is rusting, damaged, sun-bleached, and run down, and of course, mildewed.

And the cost?  Overall, it runs into the thousands, actually the tens of thousands of dollars.  Enough money to actually pay for a small vacation cabin on a private lot in the mountains.  And such a vacation cabin would end up being worth something, in the long run.  A trailer "ensconced" on a lot in an RV park, on the other hand, is worth zero in terms of resale value.

So why do people do this?  We see it at every private RV park we've stayed at, which is why we stay in State Parks, National Parks, National forests, or Army Corps of Engineer sites.  These latter locations are campgrounds, for camping in, not building half-assed vacation shanties.

So, why do people do this?  Why do they engage in economic behavior that makes no sense at all, costs them more money in the long run, and provides them with a run-down shanty to live in when on vacation?

It would make more sense to rent a vacation cabin, or even to buy one, if you plan on vacationing at the same place every year. 

But it is the cash-flow mentality at work here.  People think in terms of money-per-month and not overall costs.  So dumping a $5000 trailer on a $450-a-month RV site seems "cheaper" than borrowing $150,000  to buy a rustic cabin in the woods.  The monthly cost of the latter could be the same, and the overall cost could be zero - if the cabin and land appreciate in value.   Even renting a cabin would be cheaper and less hassle.

But those transactions sound more expensive, as they involve larger amounts of money up front, even if the same is spent overall.  Over a period of several years, an RV'er who lives in a trailer and builds a deck, adds a roof, installs a water feature, adds sculptures and plantings, ends up spending as much as, if not more, than the fellow who makes payments on his log lodge.

It seems cheaper to build a make-shift cabin out of an old RV, a little bit at a time, but each pink flamingo adds to the overall cost until the comparable cost is the same.

But a second question is this:  Why do people obsessively decorate these ensconced RV's to the point of tackiness?  We are talking signs, fountains, sculptures, tableaux, flags, awnings, plantings, etc. that cover every inch of the campsite and make it look like a junkyard, particularly as it all degrades and mildews over time.

Oh, and lets not forget lawn lights, particularly the solar variety.

The answer is of course, twofold: The big-box store and the credit card.  Throw in a little boredom, and you have a perfect storm.  The camper goes off to his weekend retreat in the woods and realizes quickly that he is bored out of his mind, particularly when he is sober.  So, he and the missus drive into town to the local friendly Lowe's or Home Depot, and are enthralled by an end-cap display of a water-spitting frog or a solar powered lawn sign.  And pretty soon, they've loaded up their car with crap made in China and are spending their afternoon unpacking and setting up it all.

And the credit card is dinged by another $99, $199, or even $299, for a yard-full of crappy junk.  And pretty soon, the camper cannot even be seen from the road, it is so covered with stuff.  It is unappealing and ugly, and eventually, the owners stops coming, but keeps paying $450 a month for lot rent, as they don't have the energy or heart to tear it all down and make it go away.

How do you avoid this trap?  It is simple.  Never park an RV as a permanent "house" particularly in an RV park.  You are not "saving money" this way, you are just creating an expensive eyesore that will burn a hole in your wallet and make you unhappy in the long run.

A better approach, if you really want a vacation cabin, is to look for a spot of land and build a cabin or at least put a park model cabin on it.

But resist the urge to add pink flamingos..... at all costs.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Blue Ridge Parkway


Camping on the Blue Ridge Parkway is life in the slow lane.  If you like peace and quiet, this is it.

This is our eighth trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and after eight trips, I still feel like I am just figuring it out.

When you talk to most folks, they say, ”I tried driving that once, but it took so damn long to get anywhere, that I just gave up and got back on I-81!”

And, sad to say, the first time I was on the Blue Ridge, I felt the same way.  It took forever to get anywhere, and the pace was so slow.   If you stopped at any of the overlooks or points of interest, well, you wouldn’t get anywhere at all!

But of course, that is the point.  To drive the Blue Ride Parkway and really enjoy it, you have to spend at least a week or so – more if you want to include Skyline Drive.  And driving more than 50 miles a day would be ambitious, to say the least.  500 miles?  Never.

But that is the nature of the beast – you come here to see things, not to travel.  Travel becomes secondary to the experience.  And unfortunately, most folks don’t get this – as I didn’t, at first.

Traveling with our small RV makes this a more enjoyable trip.  There are a number of campgrounds, built, apparently, in the 1930’s, and sized for a Ford Model A.  As such, they work well for smaller campers, who don’t need “full hookup” or indeed, any hookup at all.

If you want to watch television, stay at home.

Every morning we wake up and hike – usually only a few miles – or go kayaking, if there is a lake nearby.  The pace is slow.  And by noon or so, we are ready to head down the road – at the leisurely pace of 35 mph or so.  We have a one or two-hour drive at this pace.  We stop for lunch at a picnic area, make lunch, and go on another hike.

Most folks would rather barrel down I-81 at 80 mph and shovel a McBurger down their gullet while their car is refueling, as they want to "get there" faster.  And many of these people don't have jobs or limited vacation time - they just want to get back to their routine of watching television and bitching about the President.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is not really a roadway, I realized, but a linear park, connecting by a road.  And that right there is the fundamental difference between how some people enjoy it and others are frustrated by it.  Those who stop often and enjoy the scenery have a good time.  Those who rush through, find it a waste of time.

A word of caution, though.  If you like to drive slowly, good for you.  But it is not your job to control other people.  If someone is behind you, pull off at one of the many “balconies” on the roadway and let them go by.  There is nothing more frustrating that a long line of cars with some idiot at the lead who jams on his brakes at every leaf he sees.

Similarly, if you are going to stop, pull off the road.  People actually stop in the road, particularly on Skyline Drive, which on the weekends is populated with know-nothing government yuppies from the DC area.  They stop to look at a Deer (big deal, I have seven in my front yard) or, on one occasion, because they treed a bear (bad, bad idea).

It is a leisurely pace, yes, but it is not a ride at Walt Disney World, nor is it a golf-cart path, where you can just stop where you want to.  The rules of the road still apply, and common courtesy is still a good idea.

And if you see a deer by the side of the road, yes, slow down.  But keep going.  Stopping and taking pictures is a really bad idea – and a good way to get rear-ended.

It takes almost two days to get used to the pace.  Many folks give up after the first day and cross over to the Interstate to "make time".  Some folks - many folks, enjoy driving as an activity.  But it is very bad for you - very sedentary, while simultaneously raising your blood pressure.  A sure-fire recipe for a blood clot and a stroke.

At the other end, you may find it takes several days to get used to "reality" again - strip malls, fast-food stores, and the great mass of humanity, such as at the commercial campground we are in right now.   Most people here would not enjoy the Blue Ridge Parkway as there is no water slide or other "amusement" for the children, and it would "take too long" to drive a 30-foot trailer down the road.  The idea of walking as an activity is lost of most Americans.

And sadly, the campgrounds on the Blue Ridge are in poor repair and very lightly used, particularly during the week.  Even the "campground hosts" flee during the week, as they cannot get their cell phones to work, nor internet access.

But sometimes, getting away from it all is exactly the point.  I look forward to going back again - and again - and spending more time, each time.  I want to take more of those hikes - there are thousands of them.  And see more of it.  After eight trips, I think we have barely scratched the surface.

And then there is the Natchez Trace...


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Spelunking the Brain



The human brain is incredibly complex.  Yet few of us think about how our own minds work - and often work against us.

I did not start this blog to ridicule or run down others.  Maybe that is the impression I convey, but that was not the intention.  Rather, I am trying to do what I call "Spelunking the brain" - my own brain, in this instance.

Spelunking, if you do not already know, is a term that is used by cave explorers and refers to the process of investigating a cave by rappelling down to its depths to investigate its most dark recesses and crevices.

And that, in some respects, is what I am trying to do with this blog - spelunking my own brain, so to speak, to understand my own economic decisions - or lack thereof - in my own life.

Nearly every economic practice that I have criticized here, is some practice I have committed myself, to my own detriment.

The point is - and there is a point - is that repeating the same poor economic choices over and over again does not validate poor choices as good ones, but rather only anesthetizes us to the fact we have made poor choices.

The serial new-car buyer or leaser never stops to think about overall costs, but rather bootstraps each decision as validating the next.

And in the same way we all tend to re-validate poor financial planning as being actually smart thinking.  "Hey, I'm getting frequent flyer miles!" we think, not "Gee, I'm getting ass-fucked by a 25% interest rate on a balance than never seems to disappear!"

It is comforting to think the former, rather than the latter.

Perhaps it was the recent recession, or that combined with hitting age 50 and realizing that life is finite and in fact, winding down (and was, in fact, always winding down, from the get-go) that made me think about these things more and more.

Today, my personal freedom means more to me than monthly payments or the latest electronic subscription services, so many Gigabytes per month for so much of my money, like blood dripping from a broken vein.

No, I would rather own myself, than sell myself, piece by piece, to media companies and finance agencies.

And that is what I have discovered, after exploring these more deep and dark recesses of the brain.

You may, of course, think otherwise.

Be An Individual – Like Everyone Else!

Can you be an individual while wearing a uniform?

There is an ad on the TeeVee these days – well it is on the Internet, anyway, and I think I saw it on the television at the bar the other day, which was showing the Olympics, which were as boring as watching paint dry.

The ad is interesting in that was set a lot of normative cues, key among them that you can create your own identity as a series of brand-name choices.  You can be a unique being, merely based on your consumption, not your creativity.  So what you buy says who you are, not what you create or do - or think.  And in a society where very few people do anything of importance, this is an easy message to sell.

The ad was for Doctor Pepper, which is a sickly-sweet drink made even more sickly-sweet by the introduction of High Fructose Corn Syrup.  Drinking just one of these a day is about 10% of your daily caloric intake, and all of it in carbohydrates.   It is just plain bad for you – poison – like all soft drinks.  So, like with cigarettes, they have to “sell” you on the idea of drinking this crap, when you could just drink plain old water for free, and be far better off.

In the opening sequence, a fresh-faced young man tears off his shirt to reveal a purple t-shirt underneath, reminiscent of the “Be a Pepper!” campaign of the 1970’s.  Only, ironically, it says instead, “I’m an ONE OF A KIND!”

During the rest of the ad, everyone sings and dances and tears off their clothes (suggestive right there) to reveal similar t-shirts with similar slogans.  Since the sound was turned down, I can’t tell you what they said or sang.

But by the end of the ad, the whole street scene is given over to identically dressed people, all singing and dancing in unison, with the “I am ONE OF A KIND!” guy in the foreground.

What struck me as odd was that the tag line for the star of the ad was about being an individual, while everyone wore the same corporate uniform, sort of like the Wehrmacht, or at least the Brown Shirts.  And they all danced in unison, too, almost like goose-stepping.

The conflicting message was about individuality.  And it struck me that this “rugged individualism” message that is so prevalent in America, and is often used by advertisers to snooker us into making poor economic choices.

I mentioned cigarettes earlier, and they are probably the granddaddy of this whole concept.  “Come to where the flavor is, MARLBORO COUNTRY!” we were told, and the image was of the lone cowboy, riding the range in the manner of John Wayne - the iconic rugged individualist, scorning convention and striking out on his own.

Of course, that is sort of a myth itself, isn’t it?  Have you ever noticed that all cowboys pretty much dress alike?  I mean it is almost like a uniform itself – the Stetson hat, the vest, the six-shooters and gun belts, the chaps and boots, and of course, spurs.  No one rode the range in, say, a three-piece suit and a bowler.  Well, maybe a couple did.

This struck me again while driving the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It is a popular destination for motorcyclists, as you can ride a motorcycle here without too much danger of being hit by a car (bicycles? Another story).  And motorcyclists, particularly of the Harley variety, are sold on the image of the “rugged individualist” as well – the lone biker, riding the highway in search of adventure.

But, oddly enough, they tend to travel in groups, and also dress alike, in terms of hair styles, clothing styles, tattoos, and the like.  As individualists, they are remarkably conformist.

But this dichotomy in intent versus behavior is nothing new of course – and begins early in life.  Teenagers glare at you and say, “what are you staring at?  I am just trying to express myself as an individual!”   But of course, they look like every other teenager out there – down to the piercing, tattoos, and weirdly colored hair.

They are not so much identifying themselves as true individuals, but as part of a larger social group.  They are distinguishing themselves from YOU, but cloning themselves to be more like their social peers.

Being truly unique or different, on the other hand, is sure to cause you no end of grief, at least in terms of interaction with other people. 

For example, I used to have a motorcycle, a Russian-made BMW clone that Stalin had ordered built before the war.  They still make them.  It even had a sidecar.  I bought it for $4000, drove it for a few years and had fun with it, and sold it for $4500.

It was fun and unique, but the reaction from people was interesting.  People who were not motorcyclists thought it was retro and interesting, which it was.  Motorcyclists, on the other hand, were very negative about it.  It threatened them – it was not something in their vocabulary.  The Harley folks were outright hostile.  The BMW and Japanese bike people were disdainful.  No one were merely neutral.

You don’t fit into the club unless you are part of the gang – and do and say as everyone else does. 

Think about it.  In the movie Wild One, which made Marlon Brando's career, were the hoodlum outlaw motorcyclists really being different or individual, or where they just copying each others' behavior?  Far from being rugged individualists, they were rather just conforming to a new social norm within their own group.

Today, the motorcycle industry has co-opted this image and used it to sell a "lifestyle" to millions.

So you have to expect such hostility and outright ostracism, if you truly want to be an individual or "be yourself"  – or just do what you want to do in life, instead of what society thinks is a swell idea (which often than not, and often involves you spending money and working hard).

People are threatened by change.  They are nervous without their normative cues to guide them.  When you don’t conform to the societal norm, they will shout you down – and not because you are wrong, but because they are worried that you might possibly be right.  And if you are right, then what have they been doing all their lives?  Wasting time and money?

Probably.  And that scares the crap out of them.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

UPGRADES!

Today, we are sold things in terms of Upgrades.  But 30 years ago, this word hardly existed.

About 20 years ago, I recall attending a wedding of one of my Cousins.  My smart-alecky older brother (the pinko communist hippie scum) had a tape recorder with him, and was recording messages from various guests.

He played the recording back later on, smirking at the things other people said.  He was like that, always standing off to one side and sitting in judgment of others, as if their base instincts were somehow beneath him.

One of our other Cousins had just married, and his new wife, slightly drunk in an effort to cope with the simultaneous onslaught of 100 in-laws, was going on about how she and her husband had just bought an end-unit townhome with “all the upgrades!”

It had upgraded carpeting!  Upgraded kitchen!  And the upgrade sun nook, of course!  My brother found this all very funny, as the term “upgrade” was not bandied about back then (in the mid 1980’s) as much as it is today.  Like the word “Disrespect” it seems to have weaseled its way into the lexicon.

Back in 1970, for example, the term “upgrade” might have currency only with an over-the-road trucker, who would view such an event with trepidation and much downshifting.  And upgrade was, back then, a steep hill.

Today, the term is commonplace.  You go on vacation and you upgrade your flight to business class – or first.  And when you land, you upgrade your rental car from a compact to a midsize.  And your hotel room?  Upgraded to a suite, of course.

We are sold upgrades in every way in every day of our lives.  Would you like to upgrade that to a Supersize meal?  Of course you would.  And you don’t want a “short” latte at Starbucks.  No, you upgrade to a tall, with a caramel shot or whatever it is they eat there.  You upgrade your computer, your car, your cable TV service, and of course, your cell phone, when your plan permits it.

Or, if you buy a car, particularly a new car, they pressure you to “upgrade” to the next trim level.  You want an iPod interface?  That only comes with the SE or LE upgrade, which includes the V-6 and automatic transmission.  No one wants the “Sally Stripper” of course!

Many people chase upgrades all their lives and don’t think about how they came to be or why they are chasing them.  All they want to know is, what is the secret to obtaining an upgrade?

Tell us, Bob!  Tell us the SECRET to the FREE UPGRADE!

You really want to know?   Really?  OK, here it is:

Spend more money.

You see, that is what “Upgrades” are all about – an attempt by the marketing department to get you to spend more than you intended.

Back in the day, they did not have upgrades.   If you wanted to fly First Class or stay in a Suite as opposed to a room, you paid extra.  But a funny thing happened.  People didn’t want to pay extra, which meant a lot of first class seats and hotel rooms were going unsold.

How to sell these to people who couldn’t afford them?   Offer them as “upgrades” – that’s how.  They still end up PAYING more than they would have, but they feel they are getting a “bargain” and thus lunge at the deal like a Pavlovian dog.

And of course, one way to “sell” the upgrade is by the false price comparison.  For example, you are staying at the Ratisson Motel, which has 100 regular rooms and 25 super-suites.  The marketing people find that most folks will spend $75 to stay in the rooms, but balk at paying $125 for a “suite” which is just a slightly larger room with a $75 dorm fridge and a $25 microwave.

So the rooms remain unsold at $125.  BUT…..   If you tell people the “suites” are ordinarily $250 a night and then offer the rooms as an “upgrade” for $50 more than a regular room, you will sell out every suite in the place.

Suddenly, thanks to faux price comparisons, a bad deal looks like an attractive one.  And the folk staying in the suite, instead of spending $25 on breakfast, spends $25 on groceries at the local store, and microwaves their treats, convinced they are doing so much better than the plebeian “regular” guests.

And that is what the “upgrade” comes down to – status-seeking.  Just as my Pinko Commie brother enjoyed lording over the people at the wedding, convinced (or at least acting as if) he was better then they were (because he was not subject to their baser instincts) the upgrader loves to lord over those less-fortunate, or those too stupid to “buy up” to cabin-class, suite-status, or a one-car-grade-level upgrade.

AND WE ALL DO IT.  I won’t sit here and, like my Brother, pretend that I am better than you or anyone else.  We all seek status.  And when you drive a 2012 Piece-O-Chit LE, you look down your nose as those who could only afford the “SE” or God Forbid, the “Base” model.  You are, of course, better than they are – you bought the upgrade!

Today, the word “upgrade” is buried in our lexicon.  In 1989, at the wedding we attended, the word seemed odd and strange.  But since then, the marketing gurus have done a good job of selling us on the concept.

Get a frequent flyer miles card, and get free upgrades!  There is a $25 processing fee, of course, and you may have to buy additional blocks of miles.  But it’s FREE, right?

Or, maybe not.  Maybe they are extracting a few extra dollars from your wallet to sell you something that costs them nothing – an empty airliner seat on a plane that is leaving in ten minutes.  And you bite – we all bite – on this tasty tidbit or morsel, convinced we are being smart and have somehow outwitted the airline – whose airfare computer was programmed by people with advanced degrees in Number Theory, whose daily conversation would alone make your head hurt.

No, you did not outwit anyone or anything.  You were lead, like cattle, down the chute to the abattoir, to face the captured-bolt gun, which punctures your cranium, and hopefully kills you instantly and painlessly.  If not, to be hung by your heels and bled out with a quick knife-thrust to the jugular.

That is the nature of Upgrades.  It is baiting behavior of the first order.

And what of my Cousin and his wife and their upgraded end-unit town home?  They divorced a few years later.  Perhaps she was hoping to get an upgrade.  Or perhaps he was, I am not sure.  Whatever the case, I am not sure it is worth chasing after “upgrades” in your life.

Chances are, they are just bait to get you to spend more money, over time.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Mart

The Mart in Atlanta.  The largest shopping mall you are not allowed into.

We are in Brevard, North Carolina, which is sort of a tourist town.  Strike that, it IS a tourist town.  You can tell a tourist town by a number of factors.  One is that it has a lot of people from out-of-State visiting there, and two, there are a number of locals grousing about “all those tourists” even as they earn their living from the tourist trade, directly or indirectly.

And of course the smiling local Real Estate Agent, with her perfect hair, will sell you a vacation home here – or a permanent one, so you can become a “local” (vesting period, two weeks) and then grouse about all the “tourists” as well.

These sorts of towns require some sort of festival of sorts, and here it is the “White Squirrel Festival” based on the prevalence of white squirrels in the local arboreal population.  Apparently this is considered quite unusual, although I remember at Syracuse University we had these black squirrels on the quad, that were small and had shiny black fur, and very thin tails.  Come to think of it, they could have been rats.  I am not sure.

So, everything has a white squirrel theme, and we are all very amused by it, or at least supposed to be.  We’ve decided to play along.

Another thing a tourist town needs is an “anchor”.  Just as a cheesy shopping mall from the 1970’s needed an “anchor” store, such as a Sears or Dey Brothers (department store), these tourist towns need some sort of anchoring event or institution to start the whole ball of wax going.  And here it is the Brevard Music Center, which is pretty well-known and worthwhile coming to see.  There are performances of opera, classical music, plays, the like, by both professional and student performers.

But getting back to Main Street, you see the other de rigeur aspect of the tourist town – the shopping district.  These are the sort of areas that men generally avoid and women love.  And the local activities guide lists “shopping” as an “activity”.

Now, you know already without even me saying, what they sell in these stores – cute stuff, potpourri, scented candles, pocketbooks, jewelry, and of course, the t-shirt that says you’ve been there.   And it goes without saying, that each boutique and shop makes generous use of MAN-AWAY™ Spray (see my posting on that subject).

And you might very well wonder where they get all this crap.  After all, it all seems alike, right?  Do they get it out of a catalog, or what?

Well, you are right, it is all alike, no matter which tourist town you are in, because the owners of these little shops all get their stuff from the same source.

And I’ll let you in on the secret, as I have been to the Mecca, not once, but three times so far.  The shopping Allah would be pleased.
I am talking about the Mart, of course.  Or more specifically, “America’s Mart” which is located in downtown Atlanta.  The original was in Chicago, and I am sure there are others around the country. 

It is huge.  Imagine about six or seven large downtown office buildings interconnected with flying bridges and underground walkways.  This is not some fly-by-night convention, but a permanent installation.  Most wholesalers have permanent showrooms here.  Others rent space for the semiannual wholesale shopping orgies, often simply known as “The Mart.”

If you want to sell jewelry, scented candles, or Christmas ornaments, this is the place to go to meet the people who wholesale them.  You can place your bulk order and even cash-and-carry some items.  Purses, leather goods, watches, furniture, stained glass, sculptures, pottery – you-name-it, they have it.

And once you’ve been to the Mart, well, you can’t go into a gift shop within a 300-mile radius and not see the same merchandise.  And you give the shopkeeper that knowing smile, as you know that those kicky bracelets by the cash register are marked-up 150% from wholesale.

Can just anyone go to the Mart?  No, of course, you have to be in “the trade”.  But that doesn’t stop some folks from sneaking in.  Some ladies we met had badges (you have to have a badge to get in, of course, and there is a hefty entrance fee!) and on their badge is their name and the name of the company they work for.  Maybe I am jaded, but I doubt that “American HVAC Contractors” is buying jewelry for resale.   Rather, these ladies are using their husband’s business as a cover for a little wholesale shopping spree.

They have tried to cut down on this a bit, by limiting the “cash and carry” trade.  At the end of the Mart, many wholesalers sell off their display inventory to the trade, which was always a chance for retailers to pick up some merchandise to take back, and perhaps a little bling for themselves.  But the sneakers who came in under cover were using this as an opportunity for a little personal shopping at wholesale prices.

So, unfortunately, the cash-and-carry business is limited to the “temporaries” for the most part, and not the permanent showrooms.

But you can’t blame those die-hard shoppers for wanting a good deal, right?  And this illustrates how retailing – particularly gift shops – rely on impulse purchases.   They buy stuff for cheap, mark it up a factor of 2 or 3 and hope that you wander into their shop (in the tourist destination) and say, “Gee, I just have to have this!

And that illustrates why shopping is so hazardous to your pocketbook.  Buying things without carefully thinking over the purchase and comparing prices is, to say the least, reckless.  And unfortunately, the “must have” item at the boutique is likely to be found at another boutique down the road, in the same tourist town or at another one very much like it.
Thanks to the Internet, of course, you might be able to find the same item online.  And who knows?  By the time you get home and think about it, you may decide you don’t really need another piece of tchotchke cluttering up your living room.

Brevard is a nice place, I guess.  But as a tourist town, it does take itself a little too seriously (there are more whackjobs here than in Ithaca, NY, and that is saying a lot).  And we realized that we really don’t want to live in a tourist town, even if we sort of already do (albeit on a much smaller scale).

And no, by dint of having lived there for a few years, I don’t consider myself to be a “local”.