The Five-Figure Bicycle—Who Am I To Judge

Sound like the Pope don’t I?

Yesterday, Rachel Bachman began her WSJ article “The Rise of the Five-Figure Bicycle” with a bang. “Last year,” she wrote, “Ted Perry dipped into his 401(k) to buy a $20,000 bicycle.”

The mind whirls. My first thought. As a public service, let’s plaster TP’s mug on a series of financial illiteracy posters titled “How Not to Manage Your Money for the Long Haul”. Obvious question one, why so damn much? Obvious question two, why, when Perry is 51 years old, use money designated for retirement? Not as obvious question three, why tap money that incurs a 10% federal tax penalty? Even less obvious question four, why advertise such a mind-boggling purchase to the world?

I would be too embarrassed, but maybe, like everything in life, a Perry-like purchase would make more sense in the larger context of one’s private life. With that in mind, let’s play “What if?” Imagine, if you will, the following possibilities:

• The Fed is artificially stimulating the market. Stocks are overpriced. Bonds = serious inflation risk. Cash = semi-serious inflation risk.

• A bicycle lover (BL) repeatedly finishes second to one of his* archenemies on mountain top finishes.

• Our BL receives a MacArthur Genius Grant of $625,000 for creating a comprehensive health care delivery model that addresses the medical and social service needs of high-risk patients in impoverished communities.

• While simultaneously receiving a life-threatening cancer diagnosis from his own doctor.

• Our BL never married or had children and his/her siblings and nephews and nieces are all well-to-do.

• Our BL is leaving all of his/her other assets to a long list of cash-strapped health care non-profits.

It’s conceivable, if all those stars aligned, a Perry-like purchase could make sense. The take-away? Pre-judge at your own risk.

* Had to use the male pronoun because women have way more financial sense.

Simple Green—The Key to Financial Well Being

Everyone knows that when it comes to personal finances, a long commute is a killer. Maybe literally. Health officials are increasingly aware of how stressful driving is, especially on congested roads. Financially, gas, insurance, and maintenance shrink paychecks. And worst of all, cars depreciate in value about 10%/year.

The smart people among us live near their work so they can walk, bike, or easily and quickly take public transpo. I’m not among the smart. I have a medium-long commute on an increasingly congested highway. Even worse, now that I’m returning to work full-time, I want to upgrade my commuter car, a 2006 Honda Civic with 107k miles.

I don’t need a new car, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting one. One with all wheel drive for Pacific Northwest rain and snow, rain sensing wipers, xenon lights because my winter/night vision ain’t what it used to be, a primo sound system even though I usually listen to National Public Radio, and one that is a perfectly quiet cocoon. Bonus if it makes my wife look at me the way she used to back before Al Gore invented the internet. Oh, and I’d like it to get 45+mpg and depreciate more slowly than most other cars.

Rough segue. Youngest daughter returned home from her summer camp counseling job last night. She parked my commuter car under trees for the last few weeks. Consequently, it was the most dirty it’s ever been. I attacked it last night like Richard Sherman on Michael Crabtree.

For literally the last 20 years, the Byrnes family cleaner of choice was “Basic H” an earth friendly Shaklee product that is not well known. And by “earth friendly” I mean it didn’t clean worth sh*t. But I didn’t know that until we just ran out and had difficulty (hallelujah) finding just a gallon of it. We had to signal Simple Green in from the bench, by which I mean a corner of the garage where it had been sitting for a decade plus. Talk about being ready to play. I mixed some up and decided to clean my cycling cleats. OMG a year long scuff magically disappeared.

Armed with my diluted bottle of SG I attacked the interior of the Civic like Richard Sherman on Larry Fitzgerald. At the end of the evening, dripping with sweat, damn if I didn’t have a new car. Today, when driving to Costco to fill up, I thought, this car ain’t bad. It can’t depreciate much more, I don’t have to pay for comp or collision, it’s as reliable as Felix Hernandez, and it gets 45mpg. I can’t make any promises about tomorrow, but for today at least, soy contento.

I’m excited about what my Simple Green future holds for me. Look out doors, baseboards, appliances. No more scuffling through life. More seriously, a Japanese headmaster was once asked why the children were required to clean the school. He said, “Cleaning creates a kind and gentle spirit.” That is poetry.

Based strictly on the value of one’s time, many people say it doesn’t make economic sense for them to spend two hours cleaning their car. But what if they’re using SG and that causes them to postpone a new car purchase? And how do you quantify a kind and gentle spirit?

Addendum.

The 5 Most Important Things You’ll Read All Week

1) Have you noticed? Increasingly, bloggers are inserting numbers into post titles to increase readership and improve search engine rankings. “5” has replaced “3” for most popular number. “17” is trendy too. I don’t know why numbers increase readership and improve search engine rankings. I find it disingenuous at best and insulting at worst. As if all anyone can process anymore is a list. My one-time use of it here is sarcasm. I should start a movement. . . force a number into your title and we’ll refuse to read what follows. Who is in?

2) Imagine a world in which everyone reads and discusses books with people different than them. My favorite story from last week.

3) The Seattle Mariners are the best team in baseball when it comes to this.

4) Is this a trend. . . dad’s helping grown daughters who aren’t necessarily interested in their help? I’ve never offered unsolicited advice to my daughters. . . that’s an additional serving of sarcasm. One of my daughters’ friends laughed at her dad for sending her an article on “How to save and invest money”. Another “couldn’t believe” her dad mailed her bicycle to her at college, then assembled it during a visit. The “extremely large” bike box was difficult and embarrassing to pick up at the mail room. The two wheeler was used one or two times during the school year. This isn’t limited to dad’s and daughters. Parents often presume their young adult children want to save money, invest wisely, prepare healthy meals, bicycle, etc., etc. Maybe I should start a movement where parents let their young adult children know they’re interested in sharing different “lessons learned” if and when they’re interested. And then we’ll sit back and wait for our young adult children to ask us for help.

5) I’m filing this under “Sometimes I Amaze Myself”. I’ve done it again, I’ve come up with a brilliant idea. This one will enable me to extend my triathlon career for many more years. Based upon my swimming, cycling, and running training log, I have a very good feel for how fast I can swim 1500 or 1900 meters, how fast I can ride 40k or 56 miles, and how fast I can run 10k or 13.1 miles. That means all I have to do is guess how bad my transitions would likely be, and presto, I can spend a few minutes on-line on Mondays to see what place I would’ve finished had I actually shown up at that weekend’s races. This way I save tons of coin and race every weekend without swimming through seaweed or increasing my exposure to the sun. I “won” my age group at a few recent races.

 

When Monopolies Take Over

Businesses grow as a result of superior customer service. As a result, they sometimes come to completely dominate their market, then the quality of their customer service deteriorates. Often markedly.

A congressional committee—I don’t know which one would be most appropriate—should give this audio tape a listen. I’d title it something like “What our post-free-market consumer experience will be like”.

Give it a listen, then forward it to your political reps. I know, naive of me to think Congress might do something.

The caller’s preternatural calm is mind boggling. My favorite line, “Are you punking us?”

Thanks to Ryan Block and Veronica Belmont for lifting the curtain, I’m sorry to say, on my internet provider.

Frugality’s Point of Diminishing Returns

Frugal people like me sometimes take bargain hunting too far. We need to be smarter about frugality’s point of diminishing returns.

Writing in the New York Times, Henry Petroski states the obvious—U.S. airports, harbors and highway systems are often poorly designed, built, maintained, and funded.

He adds:

. . . infrastructure can also refer to things on a much smaller scale, like private homes . . . . Thinking about the construction, aging and care of this domestic infrastructure can provide insight into how we as a nation might better respond to our mounting public works problems.

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.

When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.

I can see the same decline in quality when I try to do work on our house. When it was built, two-by-fours were actually only an eighth of an inch short of those nominal dimensions. Today, a two-by-four is a full half-inch shy. This sort of thing frustrates carpenters and do-it-yourselfers alike, making old construction more difficult to fix and encouraging tearing down and starting over with inferior newer materials and less skilled labor. What a waste of time, effort and money — and, more important, superior infrastructure.

Why the marked decline in the quality of home building? Petroski argues it’s because “expert craftsmen—carpenters, roofers, painters—who work with precision and pride, are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills.”

And then adds:

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

One commenter vehemently disagreed:

“‘This is not the fault of homeowners’. Wrong wrong wrong! I work for homeowners remodeling their homes in San Francisco and environs, and their relentless pursuit of the lowest cost is costing them dearly in the long run. Many do not want to hear that I am licensed, insured & bonded; that I have only full-time long-term employees on whom I pay all required taxes and insurances, and who are respected with medical & retirement benefits; that I pay to have my hazardous waste disposed of legally (rather than pouring it down the toilet); that their toddlers will be in college before they will need my services again; in fact that their toddlers will not be intellectually impaired by improper disturbance of lead-based paint. No, many prefer the fantasy that Yelp is wise, that the China price is obtainable, that my price is merely my opening bid. We here have just built a multi-billion dollar bridge that took a quarter-century, went to the lowest bidder who subbed out major components to China, which is already showing alarming signs of premature senility, and which may not even meet it most elementary function of surviving the next Big One. Some bargain! No, we homeowners, we taxpayers, you & I, us cheapskates, we are at fault.”

In this blame game debate I side with San Francisco. My relentless pursuit of the lowest costs helps create the razor thin profit margins that give rise to all kinds of corner cutting. Us cheapskates are at fault.

This is true with respect to home building and our national infrastructure. Petroski returns to our faltering infrastructure:

We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

. . . we do not have to be homeowners or highway engineers to know that good materials are better than poor and a job done well from the outset will outlast one done shabbily.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.

Again, Petroski places the blame on “suppliers and contractors” and is silent about my tendency to do everything possible to reduce my tax liability.

Meanwhile, some fellow citizens shout that they are “Taxed enough already!” and mindlessly argue that “the government is so wasteful and incompetent, it must be starved.” Any notion of public goods is lost on them. As is the quality of life of our children’s children.

My politics are different than theirs, but I’m susceptible to the same mindless, short-sighted frugality. Until I adopt a more nuanced, enlightened form of frugality, I’m partly to blame for our deteriorating homes, airports, highways, and harbors.

Life (Right) After College

Hurray, the eldest is a college graduate. And I’m happy to report that apart from wearing shorts to the commencement ceremony*, and getting caught mostly naked (I had my watch on) in a co-ed dormitory bathroom**, I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I’m proud of her. A religion major, she wrote an excellent senior thesis on how Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community changed after the Watt’s riots. After reading it, her grandfather crowned her the “best writer in the family”***. Also, her college experience started out pretty rough, but she persevered, and in the end, flourished. She swam, co-hosted a groovy radio show, learned to write, and gained lots of confidence, meaning dinner conversations are more contentious now. Which is good. And she made lots of close friends.

That last point seems to be the all important one. Her friends and her seemed way more focused on close interpersonal relationships than my college classmates and I ever were. Maybe that’s explained by gender or because I went to a large public university, but I suspect there’s a lot more to it. Psychologists who study happiness recommend all of us do more to build community in our lives, but one significant trade-off may be less certainty about what to do after graduating.

Most of my daughter’s classmates’ plans were nebulous, meaning going home to work for the summer while trying to figure out the medium-long term. The Good Wife, my older sister, and my brother in-law and I and thought and talked about this throughout the weekend. My sister insisted that her friends and her all had permanent full-time jobs lined up right after crossing the stage. She said there was a stigma attached to returning home.

Here’s the problem, my sissy and I, like all fifty and sixty-somethings, fall into predictable traps when trying to make sense of our Millenial offspring.

Predictable trap one, our memory fails us; consequently, we accentuate our successes and downplay our challenges. Simply put, we forget about our parents’ continuing help, our struggles, and classmates who didn’t have jobs, who did return home, whose paths to independent adulthood were circuitous at best. When comparing ourselves with others, we almost always cut ourselves more slack. That’s why we routinely get angry at other drivers, but forget our own sudden lane changes or thoughtless maneuvers.

Predictable trap two, our selective perception contributes to an unhelpful, collective impatience with new graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do. We want our twenty-two year olds to be independent tomorrow morning even though, in all likelihood, the transition to complete independent adulthood will still be running it’s course during the next World Cup. Our impatience results in strained relations and dissension.

Predictable trap three, we routinely resist change. It’s difficult to understate the effect of social media on this generation of college grads, the pace of economic change, and the consequences of our more liberal parenting. Baby boomers label Millenials slackers for lacking gumption. That knee-jerk criticism is a predictable result of these mental traps. If social scientists ever quantify a generational gumption deficit, Boomers like me will have to take responsibility for it.

Predictable trap four, we overgeneralize from our lived experience and project our accomplishments onto others. Because we overcame “x” and accomplished “y”, others should be able to as well. As a result, we lack empathy for others, including recent college grads. For example, a close friend always struggled in school because of dyslexia. He overcame it with tremendous grit and now he’s often angry at others for “making excuses” for their relative lack of success. He writes off others without factoring in extenuating circumstances such as poverty, institutional racism, or neighborhood violence, because he didn’t experience those things.

I wish that by describing these traps, I was immune from them. In actuality, I can describe them because I’m so susceptible to them. As just one example, I’m as impatient as they come. Can I make it to the next World Cup? Truth be told, I’ve written this to myself. If you find something that helps you on your journey, all the better.

Postscript: Do NOT read this.

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* Someone has to establish the sartorial floor. And I probably should come clean that I did do one thing that greatly embarrassed, or at least “weirded out” both daughters. Cycling season = shaved legs. Way better for sunscreen and massage, way worser for father-daughter relationships.

** Fortunately, while getting into the shower, I was caught by my roommate, the Good Wife. “What was I supposed to do,” I protested, “undress standing in the tiny shower behind the curtain?!” To which she emphatically said, “YES!” New rule co-ed college dormitories, if you want me to undress in private, provide a door and a small bench before the shower curtain, like in Watson Hall, otherwise, be on guard for the Full Monty. Also, why the urinal RIGHT NEXT TO the door?

*** first signs of cognitive slippage

Teaching and Learning New Skills

What’s the best way to teach? It depends. The most effective methods vary depending upon whether one’s aim is the transmission of knowledge, or the application of knowledge, or the development of skills or particular ways of thinking and acting.

More succinctly, is the focus on knowledge, skills, or dispositions? Too many teachers emphasize the transmission of knowledge at the expense of its application and the development of skills and dispositions.

Recently I’ve learned two new skills—how to make a green tea latte and how to change a flat bicycle tire without tire irons. The way I’ve learned these skills has me thinking about how teachers need to adapt to 21st century realities.

I despise all things coffee, which as a Pacific Northwesterner, puts me in a precarious position. I shudder to think of the consequences if I am outed. I used to “pass” by drinking tea, but the truth of the matter is I was never “all in” with tea. Then, one day, before a flight, I was walking through the Seattle airport when a Starbucks employee handed me a small sample cup of their green tea latte. Love at first taste. I began to drink them usually when I scored a gift card, but an addiction began forming, and I began dropping $4 of my own money for occasional warm, sugary, liquid fixes.

Then I got inspired by my neighbors’ and brothers’ declarations of independence from pricey coffee in shops. Their badass expresso machines and money saving morning rituals were the height of cool. So I resolved to stick it to Howard Schultz too and turned to the great 21st teacher of skills—YouTube. I watched four or five different tutorials on how to make “the same green tea latte that you get at Starbucks”.

Now I should make my own instructional vid because after a few months of tinkering, I have it dialed in. Of course, green tea latte making is a subjective and creative art. Mine are made the right way—stronger, hotter, and slightly less sugary than the mass produced default.

And since my sissy will wonder, no, I’m not buying any of the green tea health hype. Any alleged benefits of the green tea matcha powder are no doubt offset by the teaspoon of sugar, cow’s milk, and pure vanilla extract.

Simply put, I like the ritual and love the taste. And while this is weird to write, so probs even stranger to read, I feel different after finishing mine each morning—calmer and more centered. Also cool, I save at least 75% of what the inferior mass produced drink costs and the time and expenses of a roundtrip car trip to the local Starbucks.

Skill two. Recently, while mixing things up on a team training ride, the tube in my front tire exploded. It was harder than normal to change because I had just replaced my tires. New tires sit much more snuggly on the rim, usually necessitating tire irons. I had one, but should have added another to my seat pack after switching out the tires. Sitting in gravel on the shoulder of the road, I stared hopelessly at my rim. Then I remembered a YouTube vid I had recently watched in which a professional cyclist showed how you can pull the skewer out of the hub and use the quick release as a tire iron. Brilliant. I was up and running in a few minutes.

When teaching skills, school teachers and parents and coaches need to show students how to ties shoes, write persuasively, throw a javelin, make a green tea latte, or change a flat bicycle tire. It’s not enough to tell them. YouTube videos aren’t the only way to model skills, but they may be one of the best.

[What's a helpful skill you've learned via YouTube?]