Writing in 2016

I made very little progress on fiction this year, which is okay.

In years past I was kind of defensive about my lack of fictional productivity—I think because I’d bought into the idea that a fiction writer writes fiction, and if I’m not writing, maybe I’m not a fiction writer anymore. But my experience is that making myself write something that I don’t want to write is no fun, nor is it particularly productive.

So of late I’ve just gone with it. On days that I feel like writing fiction I take a stab at something—I’ve started two new stories and worked on several old ones over the course of the year, in addition to working a little on the novel. Essentially none of that work has borne fruit in the sense of producing a finished story, but none of it was wasted either, in the sense that I did it because I wanted to, and only kept at it as long as I was enjoying it.

I don’t know whether I wrote more or less because I gave myself permission to write only when I wanted to, but I definitely enjoyed it more.

I did a bit more writing for Wise Bread this year, all concentrated toward the end of the year. Posts that appeared in 2016 were:

I’m pretty pleased with all of those. The first one did quite well in terms of reads, getting a pretty good response to my tweet “It bugs me when people mock millennials for not following the game plan that worked for the boomers.”

As a bonus, none of them is a listicle.

I wrote a typical amount here on this blog, averaging perhaps a post a week.

A big reason I didn’t do more writing this year is the amount of time I spent doing other things. I spent a little more time this year than in recent years with the local Esperantists. Jackie lured me into joining her on some of the volunteer stewardship work days she’s doing as part of becoming a Master Naturalist. The biggest was movement—that will get its own “Movement in 2016” post.

As a side note here, because although it’s not writing it is a creative endeavor, I bought myself a drawing tablet for the computer. (I got a medium Wacom Intuos tablet.) I’ve produce my first painting with it, and a second is almost done. I’m thinking I’ll share paintings here on the blog from time to time, but I wanted to get these 2016 review posts done first.

Disneyland!

I don’t normally suggest a soundtrack for posts, but for this one I recommend that you listen to Da Vinci’s Notebook singing “Kingdom in the Sky.” Open that link in another tab and let it play while you read.

For almost ten years now I’ve been writing about personal finance and frugality for the website Wise Bread. A few months ago, the founders emailed the senior writers to say that to celebrate their 10-year anniversary they were inviting all of us who started in the first year, together with our families, to Disneyland.

What a great gift! Jackie and I flew out last week, spent two nights in the Disneyland hotel, and spent two days in the theme parks.

Even better than the theme parks was the chance to meet the admins, some of the other writers, and the Wise Bread staff! These are people I’ve been working with for 10 years, but had never met except through their posts and email messages.

Nice swag bags were delivered to our room—snacks, Disney name tags and lanyard wallets, big Disney insulated cups, and heavy-weight hoodies with both the Disney and Wise Bread logos. Mine also had a Mophie powerpack! (There’s a local-to-my-hometown connection between Mophie and Kalamazoo which this an especially welcome gift, totally aside from the fact that my old Motorola powerpack had given up the ghost just before this trip, which meant that I really needed one.)

We also got a pair of 2-day hopper passes for visiting the theme parks!

img_20161203_073927848_31246881652_o
Some of the gifts from the Wise Bread admins

The evening we got there was the staff/editor/writer dinner at the Catal restaurant in downtown Disney. Jackie and I ended up sitting down at the end of the table with the editors Janet and Lars and their spouses, and enjoyed much fascinating conversation all through dinner. (Also a nice—if rather young—pinot noir that Lars somehow managed to end up paying for despite everyone else’s best efforts.)

Around the middle of the evening, Lynn (one of the founders) called me to join her closer to the middle of the table so she could make a little speech thanking all us writers for joining Wise Bread and sticking with it all these years, and giving us each a “gift appropriate for a writer” which turned out to be the Mont Blanc pen in the photo above. What a generous and appropriate gift!

(A photo of that moment was posted to instagram—I tweeted it—but it seems to have vanished. My tweet no longer even has the link to where the photo used to be. What’s up with that? If it resurfaces, I’ll post it here.)

The next morning was breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen—a breakfast buffet with Disney characters posing for photos and parading through the dining rooms. We sat at the same table as Will, who had some very kind things to say about me to Jackie.

Jackie in Goofy's Kitchen, with Minnie.
Jackie in Goofy’s Kitchen, with Minnie.

We spent the rest of the morning at the Disneyland theme park (having done the California Adventure theme park the previous afternoon).

Me with the Cheshire Cat in Disneyland.
Me in my Wise Bread/Disney hoodie with the Cheshire Cat in Disneyland. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

After various rides and attractions and lunch (and a good bit of walking—important to Jackie and me), we decided that we were about theme-parked out, and decided to spend the warm part of the afternoon walking in the gardens outside the hotel and sitting by the pool. Jackie wrote some postcards.

We took a bunch of pictures, some of which are good enough to share. I gathered those in a Flickr album I called #wisebread10thdisney after the hashtag the admins wanted us to use for our Instagram posts. (Or you can go to that hashtag at Instagram and see everybody else’s photos along with those of mine that ended up on Instagram.)

However, I got one particularly good shot of Jackie and me that I wanted to share:

Selfie with Jackie and bamboo.
Selfie with Jackie and bamboo

How much fun were Jackie and I having at Disneyland? This much fun.

Thanks to the admins at Wise Bread! Hey, shall we do our 20th anniversary celebration at EPCOT?

Original opulence via simple living

Just from her title I was pretty sure that Christa Whiteman’s post Living simply: reclaiming sanity + authenticity would be right in my sweet spot, and I was not surprised to find more than a little overlap with what I’ve been saying for years at Wise Bread. I’ve talked about living a life of “luxury and splendor,” but recovering our “original opulence” sounds good too.

Christa suggests three starting places: food, movement, and stuff—adding that the proper course to take is a spiral, coming around to the same points over and over. She is right—where you start means little—and yet, her course is so completely different from my own I thought it might be worth pondering those differences to see if they told me something useful about what I’ve been doing, and about how I’ve been writing about it.

As anyone who has read my work at Wise Bread knows, I’m all about the power of frugality as a tool for living a life of full of exactly what you most want: Basically, I started with the “stuff” piece. I probably have a hundred articles on various aspects of figuring out the difference between needs and wants, covering your actual needs, identifying and focusing on those few wants that matter most deeply to you, and dealing with others who care how you satisfy your wants.

I wrote quite a bit about food, too—about how to eat at the intersection of cheap and healthy. I’ve just now reread a few of those posts and I’m pretty pleased with them, even if I’d write them differently now.

Christa’s third piece is about movement, and that is where my writing at Wise Bread falls short. In fact, I’ve really got exactly one post that’s right on topic. The editors gave it the unfortunate title of Get a Great Workout for Free With 11 Simple Moves, but it’s straight-up natural movement advocacy. Before that, I had some good stuff on how walking and bicycling for transportation were frugal and healthy, but it had a pretty limited perspective.

I think I need to write some more pieces on both food and movement for Wise Bread. I can certainly write a new Wise Bread post on how to eat paleo on the cheap. (Not that I eat a paleo diet, but there’s a lot of overlap between what’s expensive in my diet and what’s expensive in the paleo diet.) Maybe I can also write some more movement pieces. What should be the focus, I wonder. The frugality of natural movement for exercise? The frugality of staying healthy? Or the luxury and splendor of being a fully capable human? I guess I’ve done that first one. Hmm.

Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.
Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.

Why we moved

After our old apartment complex changed hands, our neighbors spent the whole summer worrying aloud that the new management company would raise the rent.

We declined to join in. I expected the rent to go up, but we had been getting such a good deal for so long, I figured that the rent could go up by 20%, maybe even 30%, and still be competitive.

Then we saw the proposed lease from the complex’s new owner, and went straight from “wait and see” to “let’s find a new place to live.”

You see, the new lease (I almost put the word in scare quotes) was an internet-style agreement. You’ve seen them—you’ve probably clicked through to agree to hundreds of them by now. They’re the ones with these two characteristics:

  1. There’s a long list of “terms and conditions” that they can change at any time.
  2. They doesn’t promise that the service they’re providing actually works.

For a broad range of internet stuff—especially stuff that’s free, like an email address or a web tool—a contract of that sort is perfectly reasonable. If someone is kindly letting you use some service for free, it’s fine if they decline to stand behind it, and understandable if they ask you to agree that the service is offered as-is and shouldn’t be relied upon for anything important.

For real-world stuff—especially real-world stuff you’re paying for—signing such an agreement is a terrible idea. Any adult with experience in the real world would know better.

Sadly, young folks don’t have much real-world experience. Worse, the current generation of young folks—having clicked through hundreds or thousands of such contracts—see them as normal.

I bring this up now because the new management company’s so-called lease was my first instance of such a contract for a real world thing.

An Internet-Style Apartment Lease

They raised the rent of course; this was not a surprise—and would even have been okay. But the proposed lease was an internet-style agreement. That was a deal breaker for us.

They Can Change the Terms and Conditions

A lot of internet-style contracts allow the other party to change the terms and conditions at any time, just by updating a document on some website.

This is fine for certain kinds of things, such as an internet service. Specifically, it’s acceptable for any service where you engage in individual transactions. Maybe it’s a video service where you pay $x to stream a video one time. Maybe it’s a service that will print your photo on a t-shirt or a coffee mug for $y. If they change their terms in some way that makes the service no longer attractive, you can just quit ordering.

It’s even true of a service with a subscription format, as long as you can cancel the service at any time. An example might be a service where you get to listen to unlimited music for $z a month. If they change the terms so that it costs too much, or they put limits on the music (or they lose access to the music you most want to listen to), you can just cancel.

Where it becomes completely unacceptable is when it’s a longer-term contract you can’t just cancel, such as a lease.

The contract the management company wanted us to sign said that they could change any of the terms at any time. If we didn’t like it, we’d have 30 days to move out.

That’s not a lease at all! The whole essence of a lease is that I know that I have an apartment I can live in for a year, and I know what I’d have to pay.

This is more like month-to-month renting, where I have to be ready to move out at any time. Except that it’s worse than month-to-month renting, because I’m committed for the full duration of the lease.

In fact, it’s even worse than that—the plain terms of the contract would allow the apartment company to change the duration of the lease as well: They could have come back the day after we signed and said, “We’ve tripled the rent. Oh, and we’ve also changed it from a 1-year lease to a 99-year lease: You have to pay for the rest of your life.”

I doubt if a court would tolerate such a thing, but I’m not going to sign a lease with unacceptable terms and hope that the court will take my side.

They Make No Promises

The other thing that’s common in internet-style contracts is that the party offering the service doesn’t promise anything.

That’s perfectly reasonable for a free service. If a company offers to let me use their cool thing for free, I’m fine with clicking through an agreement that says that they don’t promise that the thing even works and don’t promise to fix it if it breaks.

You know where it’s really not reasonable? In an apartment lease.

The whole point of an apartment lease is that you give them some money every month in exchange for a habitable place to live. They promise to keep it habitable if stuff breaks (you promise to pay for anything you break), and when the term is up, you return the apartment in the same condition you got it, except for normal wear and tear.

The contract the new management company wanted me to sign specifically said that they didn’t promise the apartment would be habitable. They also specifically didn’t promise that it would have any appliances, nor that they’d fix them if they broke.

They would have been within the terms of the lease to show up one day and take down the doors and windows, pull out the fridge and stove, shut off the heat and water, and drain the pipes. (It would probably have been illegal, but it wouldn’t have violated the lease.)

I saw this coming some time ago, and have written about it before. (Specifically, in a post called Reject Variable Terms and Conditions that I wrote for Wise Bread back in 2009.) I didn’t expect that I’d start seeing them in apartment leases this soon, though.

No sane person would sign such a contract—unless they’d been trained by click-through internet contacts that such terms were normal.

An internet-style contract is fine for an internet service. It’s even fine for a real-world service that’s not critical to your life or your business, as long as you can cancel it at any time.

It is not fine for anything you depend on. And it’s never fine for a contract that they can change but that you can’t cancel.

We looked around for a new place to live, and found one easily—one with a real lease.

Other Issues

Most of the above is an edited version of an article I originally wrote for Wise Bread, but that the editors didn’t want. For the Wise Bread article, I was focusing on internet-style agreements and why they’re bad for real-world stuff. The rest of this post is just a short description of the other reasons we decided to move. There were two of them.

First, they were going to start charging separately for utilities that had been included in the rent. This is something that I’d be fine with in theory—we probably use less heat and water than average. Except that heat and water were not metered per apartment. Without actual per-apartment numbers, the plan was for the complex to charge us made-up numbers. (They had hired company to make up the numbers for them, supposedly by allocating the complex’s actual costs to apartments by size. But there was no transparency, so I stand by my characterization of the charges as being made-up numbers.)

Second, they were also going to start charging extra every month because we have a cat. (We had already paid an extra pet deposit to cover any damage the cat caused, including a non-refundable part to pay for a more extensive cleaning.)

All told—higher rent, made-up utilities cost, cat rent—the increase would have been several hundred dollars—something like a 50% increase to our monthly housing cost.

We might even have paid that, to avoid the hassles of a move. But we weren’t going to sign an internet-style not-really-a-lease agreement.

Great writers versus great posts

I do most of my on-line reading via a feed reader. For years I used Google Reader, without even really worrying about the risks. After Google ruined it, I experimented with several alternatives. I’m happy enough with a couple of the options, so I’m not so unhappy with how things have turned out (with Google having announced that it is canceling Reader). But the surge in interest has prompted me to think about how reading feeds is different from reading things via social media. Social media helps you find great posts. Feed readers are for when you’ve found a great writer.

I notice this whenever someone shares one of my pages (either here or on Wise Bread). I’ll get a surge of traffic to one post. Some of those people will read another post, or even a few. Only a few seem to become regular readers of my work—and fewer now than before.

Back in the old days—let’s say, five or six years ago—there was more of the latter, and I think it was because more people used feed readers. It was wonderful to find a great post, but it was much better to find a great writer. Then you could add their feed to your feed reader and read everything they wrote.

I still do that. Every time I find a great post via Facebook or Twitter (or whatever), I look at other stuff the guy has written, with an eye toward adding the feed to my feed reader.

I’m puzzled that more people don’t seem to do the same. Finding a great writer is way better than finding a great post.

The wonderful Spurlock Museum

Plaster copy of Venus de Milo.
Plaster copy of Venus de Milo.

A hundred-odd years ago, a lot of towns and cities had their own museum. In those days, international travel was beyond the reach of ordinary people, and museums saw it as part of their mission to bring the great artistic and cultural works of the world to a place where ordinary people could see them. To support that, a whole industry existed making molds of the great works of European sculpture, and then casting plaster replicas of those works to be displayed in museums.

After all, the Venus de Milo can only be in one museum, but should only people who can get to the Louvre be able to see it?

A few decades later, fashions changed. Air travel and other changes made it possible for ordinary people to get to Europe after all, so they could see the great works of European art and culture. Rather suddenly, it no longer seemed like a great service to show people copies of the greatest works of art and culture.  Museums decided that they should show people originals—even if they could only afford 3rd rate originals.

julius caeser
Plaster copy of bust of Julius Caeser

Thanks entirely to great good fortune, at the time that this shift was at its peak, a budget crunch at the University of Illinois had virtually shut down the museums that are now known as the Spurlock Museum. They had so little money, they were unable to hire a director, meaning that there was no one in authority to throw out the plaster copies of the great works and replace them with 3rd rate originals.

At museums all over the country, an incredible number of these excellent copies—quite literally museum quality—were simply thrown away. But not those belonging to the Spurlock Museum.

Among other things, we have a fairly complete set of replicas of the Elgin Marbles, made from molds taken before an ill-fated attempt at cleaning did serious damage to the originals. Scholars come from all over the world to study our copies.

elgin marbles
Plaster copy of frieze blocks from the Parthenon

I was going to the Spurlock Museum today, to attend a meditation class by Mary Wolters (an excellent workshop, by the way), and decided to catch an earlier bus so I’d have half an hour to look around the collection. I’d several times wished I had a picture of one or another items from their collection to use to illustrate a Wise Bread post, and I figured this would be a good chance to get a few photos.

Having taken a few, I thought I’d share some here.

spurlock scupture

If you’re local, don’t miss the wonderful Spurlock Museum.

Interviewed on Navigating Your Money

Mike Tierney of the Navigating Your Money podcast interviewed me last week and has already put the show up. Listen to me natter on about frugal living here:

Episode #19: Live Like You Have More, On Less

I haven’t actually listened to it. I find the idea of doing so fills me with dread. (I’ve heard other people say similar things, but am a little surprised to find myself so strongly affected.)

Wise Bread’s Will Chen has assured me that I sound reasonably articulate:

I especially like the part where you explained that a budget is not a limit but rather a tool for showing you what you CAN have. The part about sharing tools is also a really awesome part. You did great, but the host is also really good. He clearly has read through your material and gets your philosophy.

So there you have it. If you’re interested in what I’ve been saying, but you want to hear it in my voice rather than reading it on the screen, here’s your chance.

My shameful integer posts—and my shameless ones

You know what integer posts are—the ones where the title starts with an integer. I scorn them when I’m reading, so I tend not to write them. I’ve ended up writing a few, though. Seriously—sometimes they just pop out.

I knew I’d written three, but looking back over my list of Wise Bread posts, I see that I’ve actually written six, a fact that I’m somewhat ashamed of:

These last two are sliders. For one thing, the integer is spelled out, not written as a digit. For another, the posts are organized as a logical sequence, rather than as a lame list. I don’t know if they count or not, but the title begins with an integer, so I’m including them.

This next list, though, don’t count. They’re posts that quite legitimately include a number in the title because it’s part of what the post is about:

Those I’m not ashamed of at all. I mean, 401(k) isn’t even an integer!

Oh, and I almost missed this shameful integer post, because I’d hidden the integer in the middle:

And what about this one?

Shameful? Or shameless?

Sadly, integer posts do seem to work, if by “work” you mean “get more reads.” Perhaps the title of this post should have been “7 Shameful Integer Posts”! Hmm?

Soldierette mention

My Wise Bread post Have Style, not a Lifestyle picked up a mention on the blog Soldierette as one of 5 Unmissable Personal Style Tips.

I spent a few minutes poking around the site. There’s a lot to like there. The fitness stuff in particular caught my eye. (I’m always trying to balance staying motivated enough to get my exercise with avoiding injuring myself by training too much or too hard. I find fitness-related writing helps with both aspects of that.)

I’ll be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World tomorrow

I’m going to be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World (America’s #1 Travel Radio Show) tomorrow (Saturday, May 19th). I’ll be on at 11:43 Eastern time for five minutes.

If you want to hear me talk, you can:

They want me to talk about my Why I Hate Points Wise Bread post.

I’ve been interviewed before, but usually either by a reporter who’s gathering info for a story, or else by email where I can compose my replies. This’ll be my first live interview.