Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Benny and His Friends in Trees

I recently took a bunch of boys to Corona Heights after school.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

I Think I Need a Chainsaw

Working on my neglected project.
For anyone who's wondering, no, I haven't abandoned my financial memoir. I'm still plugging away at it, hoping to finish it by the end of summer.

It's called "Too Small To Succeed," and it covers the year our Ann Arbor house was on the market (March 2007-2008). That was also the year the Great Recession began (December 2007), plus the housing crisis, the subprime mortgage collapse, massive credit card defaults, and yes -- the year Ron and I moved to San Francisco. It is primarily a financial memoir, following how Ron and I made every financial mistake in the book and still managed to dig ourselves out of trouble. (And stay out of trouble -- so far.)

The memoir has been in hiatus, but now that I have a studio to write in, it's easier to keep the momentum going. One of my role models is Robert Caro, who writes enormous, meticulously researched books from his small office in New York City. His writing process is discussed here. In true Caro fashion, I bought my own big corkboard for my office wall and started filling it with index cards and printed charts.

As I return to this project, I have to admit: It's a mess. A big, overgrown, 50,000-word mess overrun with weeds and rotted undergrowth and nasty little critters. A big help has been the writing software program Scrivener, which I impulsively bought years ago and promptly ignored, writing my chapters in Microsoft Word. Scrivener reminded me of that horrid software I used in 2007-08 to produce the Business Times' Real Estate Deals of the Year. I can't remember the name of the software, (Yay! That means I've healed from the trauma, right?) but it was accounting software -- it wasn't designed to track multiple real estate deals and nominations. It had confusing fields and tiny type and the text always printed out with strings of strange characters, like the software was swearing along with me.

But Scrivener is different, I finally admit. It helped me break up this book into four parts:
Ann Arbor
Past Recessions
San Francisco
The Great Recession

 Each part begins with an intro, laying out what's happening. The book has a prologue (describing the morning we left our house to fly to S.F.) and an epilogue (describing what happened after we sold the house).

I doubt I'll keep this structure in the final draft, but this rickety scaffold at least gives me the confidence to keep going.

As I dig deeper into my messy memoir, I've been feeling a little deja vu. 2007 is starting to sound a lot like 2015, at least enough to make me nervous. I'll expand on this later, but for now, I'll end with a Stat of the Day:

April 2007: 
"The Fed’s news that Americans’ collective credit card balances rose almost ten percent in April to $900 billion."
-- from the memoir, NPR's "Marketplace"

April 13, 2015: 
"The Federal Reserve Bank of New York notes that credit card debt increased by $17 billion last year, to $700 billion. The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, put total revolving debt at $887.9 billion in January.

TransUnion puts the national average in the middle at $5,234 per person, which is still less than the pre-recession high of $6,276 in 2008. That debt has crept steadily upward, though, even as the percentage of U.S. households with credit cards carrying revolving debt has decreased from 44% in 2009 to just 34% today, according to the National Foundation For Credit Counseling."

-- from financial web site Main St.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Slackers make millions and other thoughts

You ever hear of It's a San Francisco dot-com with 100 employees. Founded in 2013, this bunch made a group messaging app that helps employees chat with each other about work stuff. Sounds neat, huh? How much do you think that's worth? What would you say if I told you that this baby company with the hip, casual moniker is worth $ 2 billion?

Yeah, that's right. $2 billion. That's worth more than the Detroit Tigers, valued at a shade over $1 billion. They raised $120 million a few months ago, and their website has a Help Wanted page a yard long. And there are a whole bunch of young, billion-dollar companies with cute names like Stripe and Cloudera expanding like mad in San Francisco, looking for pricey offices and more high-tech employees.

The city is full to bursting with tech firms, and San Francisco has the highest apartment rents in the country. A one-bedroom apartment in our neighborhood would cost $1,000 more a month than we currently pay for our two-bedroom. Yay, rent control!

You dirty birds

After years of searching, my newspaper moved into new offices in November — three floors below in the same building. Our new digs have taken our insurance-actuary vibe to a whole new level, as you can see here.

Appalling, really. To my mind, newsrooms should look like this:

Still, The Powers That Be feel we've spent the last four months tarnishing this gleaming space with all our newspapers and boxes and other questionable clutter. So we're having a cleaning day this Friday. Our office manager is worried that slobby newspaper people don't like to clean and don't know how to do it, so she sent this email:

The office cleaning has been rescheduled for Friday; Pizza/salad will be provided-granted you cleaned something. 
Things to clean:
-under your desk
-desk drawers
-around your desk
-top your desk 
If you have boxes/bags/unused “office equipment” please take this time to get rid of those things. Lets do our best to keep this office looking CLEAN and organized.

I don't usually work Fridays, but I'm going in to help put out a special publication called Outstanding Directors, where we honor people who join lots of boards. I'll have to make sure I throw out a few papers so I can get my pizza.

Drunk with power

Speaking of boards, I'm gratefully nearing the end of my tenure on the board of the after-school program at Benny's school. When I first joined the board, it was a pretty low-key commitment, requiring attendance at a monthly meeting in the library. The program director would review what was going on, we all nodded and said it sounded good, maybe asked a few questions, and that was it.

That all changed this school year as we transitioned from an advisory board to a governing board. Suddenly all the members started jumping on every tiny thing, necessitating long email strings debating the sign-out process or various snack options. Board business nearly ground to a halt as members asked for additional information on every decision.

It took us two months and numerous Doodle polls to pick a regular day to meet. The best day, of course, was Wednesday, which is the day my paper goes to press and I couldn't guarantee my attendance. Other members immediately started drawing up rotating meeting schedules involving complicated algorithms that made sure we never met on a day containing the letter R during a full moon. Or something.

Finally I had to send an email begging them to pick a day inconvenient for me. I'm not trying to demonstrate low self-esteem here or anything, but obviously my contributions are not worth creating a chaotic schedule with alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays and occasional Mondays. My crazy board is worth a post all by itself, but must wait until another day. That's not a Wednesday.