What of it all really matters? All and none, everyday.

Welcome to Little Matters.
The surprises that spring up everyday often leave us fearful, frustrated and flummoxed. Hopefully, these observations and ramblings occasionally make you smile, laugh, cry, get a little angry or just think.

Assume I know nothing of which I write and we'll both be better served.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Car Buying - the best of times, the worst of times

A trip to the dentist, a colonoscopy, or a car dealer walletectomy? These can be unpleasant ordeals, but every once and a while, the food hole needs to be cleaned and examined, the drain pipe needs to get checked, and the four-wheeled carcas in the driveway needs to get replaced. No one enjoys feeling exposed and defenseless, gripping the armrests of the dental chair, your head tilted back, your mouth opened wide; or on your side, naked, with your knees up to your chest, hoping for an extra milligram of Propofol. For many, the discomfort of dental work and the anxiety associated with prepping for the bio-roto-rooter pale in comparison to the agony of stepping onto a car dealer’s lot. Let's face it, few sensations are as universally displeasing as the feeling that someone has taken advantage of you. I can’t help with your dental distress or phospho-soda percolation, but the car deal is another story.

I love buying cars—researching the possibilities, narrowing down the choices, selecting the right model, and making the deal. Although I’ve bought and sold hundreds of cars, new car purchases are easier to discuss than used, so today we’ll stick with the shiny, perfect chariots, with window stickers and warranties and the satisfying (but potentially lethal) smells of fresh leather and plastics.

Don’t let the airbag recalls and ignition switch defects fool you, cars are built better today than ever before. Much better. They’re more dependable, more efficient, faster, and safer. So rest assured, even after ten years and 150,000 miles, there’s a good chance your next car’s airbags will still pop and save you when you crash. And you’ll get decent mileage right up to the airbag-popping event.

Want a good deal on a new car? Be honest; knowledgable; ready to commit; and, shop three days before the end of a month.

First thing, don’t lie. It makes you look silly and unprepared, and may invite the dealer to not take you seriously. The sales rep already knows if you can go to a different dealer and pay $1,000 less, just like your dentist knows if you floss regularly and your proctologist knows if you prepped as promised—stinky stuff being the obvious contra-indicator to all three. Until the late 50s, cars didn’t have window stickers (Monroney labels) and nearly every model had dozens of individual options, so a consumer couldn’t easily compare prices from dealer to dealer, even on the same model. Dealers could, and did, charge whatever price they wanted. Those days are long gone. Most cars today come in only a few trim levels, with just a handful of individual options, so you can compare exactly equipped vehicles, with exactly the same suggested retail price, from dealers all over your state or the entire country. But keep in mind, just like you know the suggested retail price, the sales rep knows the true cost. There is no reason to lie.

Research. Spend an hour or two on the internet before you step on a dealer’s lot. Dozens of internet sites and price guides reveal dealer invoice, providing good starting points, but don’t rely too much on these published figures. Regional add-on advertising charges and holdback rebates are not reflected in the guides, so the dealer may pay more or less than what the guides indicate. On common models, with heavy regional or national inventories (measured in days), manufacturers quietly provide cash incentives to dealers, so those models can sometimes be purchased under invoice (still allowing the consumer to receive rebates or discounted financing offers). On the other hand, high demand for limited-availability models can drive the price above the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

Rather than focus on a published invoice figure that may not reflect the true dealer cost, just search broadly for how much dealers are asking. Look in your weekend paper and on eBay.com, autotrader.com, cars.com, and other auto buying sites. If an out-of-town dealer is advertising what you’re looking for at a discounted price, call to confirm availability and the details of the offer, then let your closest dealer match the discount on a similarly equipped vehicle. If they won't match it, make the deal on the phone with the first dealer and go for a ride.

Be ready to commit. A sales rep only gets paid if you buy. Spending two hours talking about a car and showing you a car doesn’t pay the mortgage. Just say, “I’ve seen every ad from Seattle to Atlanta. I’m ready to buy, but you have to sweeten the deal a little more than those other guys.” How can you expect to get a deal better than the best advertised prices you’ve seen? Unit based cash incentives directly to dealers.

Think of yourself as the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The ordinary profit or loss on your deal is not relevant if your transaction is the one that lets the dealer reach a threshold for a significant bonus directly from a manufacturer. By example, on top of all other bonuses and incentives, a manufacturer might tell a dealer that if they sell and deliver 200 units in a single month, they’ll get a $50,000 bonus. If your dealer is close to that 200 unit threshold, they really, really want to sell you a car, even if doing so results in a loss on your particular deal. The feeling is akin to counting cards at blackjack and realizing that the odds have just turned in your favor.

This brings us to the last tip. Wear good sneakers and be ready to leave. The dealer needs to sell the particular car that’s sitting there. You don’t need to buy it. You can take your money and move on. Despite the dealer’s overwhelming advantage of experience, the power of the deal is with your money. So, shop a few days before the end of the month, hammer as best you can, and either get your deal or go home. Don’t be surprised if your phone rings a day or two later. If it doesn’t, the dealer still needs to sell that car, and you still have your money. There's always next month.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Vested Interest

Norbert "swims" up to me while I’m distracted by a low-flying Border Patrol helicopter. If I'd have seen him coming, I might have meandered to the stairs or shown my youth by lifting myself out along the pool’s edge, but it’s too late. I have no place to go. He’s out in the sun almost every day, but his skin is ultra-white, almost clear. With a German accent, he asks, ”Are you going to the meeting today?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You should go.”
“Do many residents attend?”
Norbert laughs. “The early afternoon meetings are timed for maximum attendance—between naps and before afternoon cocktails.”
“It seems there aren’t many people down here yet.”
“This meeting is about money. The out-of-towners will all call-in. You should go. You have a vested interest.”

A vested interest? I haven’t thought about that. We’d bought our Florida condo months earlier because prices were depressed and the unit presented a decent, fixer-upper kind of value, but primarily because my co-deeder had just gone through a serious health scare—one of those wakeup announcements from the cosmos that we will not live forever. I suddenly realize that unlike the cost of discretionary improvements made to any house we’ve ever owned, we are now subject to the majority decision of a bunch of strangers. 

I think, at 1:10, I’m early for the 1:30 meeting, but a dozen of my real estate partners are already seated. Norbert is ahead of me, next to Joe, a nearly deaf senior wearing a U.S. Navy hat. The board chairman, an incredibly patient man named Ed, is trying to get control of the callers on the speakerphone, but there are several independent conversations going on simultaneously, and one woman who just keeps asking, “Hello?” An older woman in a housecoat sits next to me. I second guess my decision to attend.

In all fairness, older, younger, senior and youth are all relative terms. To give some perspective, in his sixties Ed is the closest to me in age. Norbert is Ed’s father-in-law. Housecoat is eighty-five. Navy Joe is in his nineties. I’m “young," in my early fifties.

The speakerphone and the room quiet after Ed calls the meeting to order. Navy Joe asks, “Why are we here?”
Ed holds up the itinerary, a copy of which is on Joe’s lap. “We’re voting on hurricane windows in the public areas. We’ve discussed it for two months.” 
A grumpy, scratchy-voiced man in the back of the room complains, “Someone’s in my parking space.”
Norbert’s head rocks back. “You have three spaces, Rich, and one car.”
“It’s still my space.”
“It’s important that your unused space stays unused?”
“It’s my space.”

“I’m not paying anything,” Housecoat declares. “I can’t afford this.”
Speakerphone asks, “Hello?” 
Norbert turns around, smiles at me, and says, “I told you these are a waste of time.”
I raise my palms. “Norbert, you told me to come, that I had a vested interest.”
Navy Joe shakes his head. “I didn’t get my paper.”

Ed dutifully works through the interruptions, explains the bids, and moves to have the residents vote on which bid to accept. 
Speakerphone asks, “Hello?”
“What will this cost me?” Housecoat asks. Before anyone answers, she two-hand waves Ed. “I’m not paying. I can’t afford this.”
Norbert laughs. “But you can afford a cook.”
Housecoat protests. “I don’t have a cook. What are you talking about?”
Navy Joe shakes his head again. “I didn’t get my paper.”
“Yes you did, Joe,” Norbert says, then stirs the pot with Housecoat. “Juanita.”
“Juanita’s my aide.”
“You don’t need an aide. All she does for you is cook.” Norbert winks at me.
Speakerphone asks, “Hello?”
Ed buries his face in his hands. “Can anyone identify who keeps asking, ‘hello,’ on the phone?”
Housecoat says, “That’s Miriam. She votes no on the windows, too.”
Saint Ed explains, “We voted last meeting to replace the windows. That vote was already held and approved. We’re just voting on which bid to ac—
“I didn’t get my paper.”
“Joe, you got your paper,” Norbert says. “You read it and then gave it to me. I've even read your paper.”
Housecoat yells to the phone, “Miriam, did we ever vote on windows?”
Norbert looks at me. “I told you these are a waste of time.”
I smile, nod to Ed, and head for the door. A man stops me at the back of the room. "Are you parked in my space?" As I step into the hall, Navy Joe declares, “I did not get my paper.” Housecoat says, “I’m not paying.”

It’s two years and three condo board presidents later. I haven’t attended many meetings, but I’m glad the replacement windows are finally in. After all, we have a vested interest.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Just Like That

My co-deeder and I walk along the Croton Aqueduct Trail in Sleepy Hollow, New York, a primitive, low-stress exercise which we can enjoy together. We go through cycles where she insists walking is good for us and she prods me off the couch, to sometime later, when she’s sick of it. By then the exercise is part of my routine so I nag her to join me on sweat-filled marches until I get sick of them, too. We quit for a while, then she starts the cycle all over again. We’re good for each other that way. 

Like most couples, as we walk we discuss the days recently completed, the days ahead, family and work; and heavier stuff, too, world affairs, our long term plans, life’s challenges and failures. As we reach the top of a hill on the Rockefeller Estate, where the view of the Hudson goes for thirty miles, I ask her, “Taking family out of it, if you could go back to any age and start over, how far back would you go?” After we agree, that all the wisdom she’s gained over the years stays with her, but no specific knowledge, she immediately answers, “All the way back to being a new born.” Her reasoning is that, with a do-over life, she’d try hard to figure out what she really wants then do her best to reach that goal, rather than letting life dictate her path. Her answer and reasoning don’t surprise me, but I’m taken aback by the speed of her response. 

Of course, as is always the case in our random deep-thoughts questioning, she turns the table and asks me the same question, with the same “take family out of it” condition. I sit for quite a while, choosing and then eliminating various eras of my life. Obtaining my degree four years after high school instead of twelve, seems a good choice, but I’d have to go farther back, because I really wasn’t ready for college. High school perhaps? But by two weeks into my freshman year, I’d already felt behind. I start to think early grammar school is probably my best choice, maybe second grade, but I remember struggling, even then, to learn basic tasks like shoe-tying and reading. I suddenly realize that by seven years old I'd already lacked the confidence and self-esteem to live a life differently than how I’ve lived it. I see that lack of confidence has been my greatest problem as long as I can remember. 

I grew up an uncoordinated, dorky looking kid. Going back in time couldn’t change my awkward appearance, but less scholastic struggle and greater knowledge would have made me more confident. I tell her, “Two of three, so I could grab every book I could find and read, or make someone else read to me.”

My co-deeder takes in my rambling response, smiles, and says, “So why not do that now? From this moment forward, have more confidence.” 
“Just like that? Have more confidence?”
She takes her time, looks up the river, and shrugs. “Yeah, just like that.”
“And you? Are you going to blaze a new path instead of living the one you’ve stumbled into?”
She shrugs again. “Yeah.”

And just like that, I am confident that my new writing career will progress; she'll decide what she wants and alter her path accordingly; and, we’ll move to a place where we want to be. We’re good for each other that way.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Guy Named Burt

Falling asleep has always been an issue, but once the day's errors finish replaying, and the anxiety for tomorrow is shoved back, and my pillow is scrunched just right, and the blankets are properly squared, and the box fan is on, and the hideous green lights on the cable box are covered, and I stop spinning and stirring, I sleep pretty soundly. Or at least I used to.

Why I opened my eyes in the middle of the night I can't say, a sound maybe, or just a feeling. But in the darkness, as my vision cleared, and silhouettes of dressers and tied curtains and a stack of clean clothes on the chair, all started to make sense, I saw his face. I heard his rhythmic breathing. He remained still, staring at me, only a foot away. My breathing slowed. No, my breathing had completely stopped. I was frozen, forced to tell myself to breathe. Minutes passed. Could he see that my eyes were open? Was he waiting for the right moment to attack? I couldn't believe the dog was asleep, on my bed, letting this happen.

I'd grown up with dogs always being a part of the family. Schatzi was small, fast, and furry, and not much of a guard dog, but she'd have at least barked at the sound of an intruder. She died before I turned seven. Liebchen was probably the largest of them all, eighty-five pounds maybe. Lucky for her and us that she was so big, because although her size kept undesirables away, she was absolutely harmless. Then came Schoene, part german shepherd, part greyhound or whippet, and mostly batshit crazy. She slept with one eye open, once broke a living room window to escape, and went over our four foot fence so many times that we had to chain her to a run in our own backyard. The uninvited never would have stepped on the property, much less into the house or my bedroom. Hell, Schoene even bit me once. The only time she wasn't in full-attack mode, was right after I got married, when I showed up at my parents' with a new puppy, Gretchen. The poor old girl jumped against me, saw the creature I had in my arms, walked in the living room, plopped to the floor, and sighed. Gretchen wisely gave her space, then gradually became my dog in the truest sense, joining me wherever a dog was socially permitted. She didn't have Schoene's ferocity, but she was sizeable, smart, and loyal. Gretchen certainly would have put herself between me and any threat.

So while he stared, sizing me up, wondering if he could finish the deed before I could fend him off, Rolo slept at our feet, oblivious to the danger, or unconcerned because I was the only one in peril. She was four years old at the time, probably not even six weeks when we first brought her home, but Rolo was never my dog. She was my co-deeder's, from the instant we rescued her from some dipshit's cold, dilapidated coop, through her agility training and competitions, to every meal and every walk. I was, at best, a mere temporary substitute until Rolo's true companion returned. I knew my place, and that was okay, but could she really sleep through my assault?

He came closer, studying me, his face only a few inches from my own. His breathing, still rhythmic, became louder, faster. He closed in on my neck, making me wonder if he was going straight for my jugular. I wrestled with the decision, defend myself or continue to fake sleep? I felt him along my cheekbone, barely touching me, and then he nibbled my chin with his little razor teeth, so gently that he wouldn't have punctured a Kleenex. Then he did it again, and again.

My co-deeder rolled over. "What the hell are you doing to that kitten?"

"Me? I haven't moved. What the hell is this kitten doing? I think it's tasting me. I've been watching him for fifteen minutes. The whole time he's been staring at me, wondering, 'Can I kill the old guy before he wakes up?'"

"Yeah, well, I think you're safe. He's two pounds."

"He's chewing on my face, right now."

"Those are just kisses, but I gotta tell you, I've never heard a cat purr that loudly."

"I've never heard a cat purr at all. I'm a dog guy. I hate cats."

"Well you've got a problem, then."


"Because that little guy, the guy named Burt, he just picked you."

Monday, August 3, 2015

Beer Muscles? - Try Steel Muscles

Why do I walk around town instead of drive? For exercise? To be social? Too cheap for gas and insurance? No. I walk because I'm insane.

We all know some mild mannered guy who, somewhere around his thirteenth beer, becomes, well, an asshole. If he could see the future or remember the past, he would always stop drinking a bit earlier, say around twelve or, to avoid a too-close-to-call counting error, maybe at ten even, where having ten digits affords a natural abacus. Unfortunately, the same thirteenth beer that clouds his judgment also activates the auto-erase feature of his memory. He can neither predict his impending spiral into the abyss nor accurately recall his douchebaggery. Though I've come across a few of these barley pounders, to the best of my knowledge and even considering the auto-erase possibility, I have never been afflicted by beer muscles. Unfortunately, I suffer from similarly idiotic, irresponsible and latent muscles . . . steel muscles.

On my feet, I'm a decent guy. I'll hold the door for the next person to pass, let the guy behind me in the grocery line ahead when he only has a few things, help move a friend, and shovel snow from a neighbor's walk. But I hereby confess, with significant embarrassment, that when I get behind the wheel of a car I am in competition with every car ahead of me, every car that may approach me from behind, every stale light that may turn red before I get there, every car that cuts me off or boxes me out, everyone and everything. I get irritated at slow moving vehicles in the left lane, with people who don't "go" as soon as a light turns green, with pedestrians trying to cross against a light, and with everyone and everything that slows me from my destination, no matter where or what it is. On a long drive, I calculate and recalculate my estimated time of arrival with the accuracy necessary for a rocket launch. If I've "lost time" I'll make it up. If I've "made time" I'll move up the scheduled launch. I once received a speeding ticket on the way to a funeral - true story.

I have gone so far as to mentally project Jesus and Moses as the drivers of the cars ahead and behind me (but I swear, if Charlton Heston takes too long to finish his pass, hanging out on my quarter, in my blindspot, I'll use my chariot to part the sea of vehicles before us). I've imagined that each pedestrian in my way is Ghandi, and that Mother Theresa is behind the wheel of the eighteen wheeler cruising along ahead of me in the passing lane, going seven under the speed limit as though she and I have no place we'd rather be. These images work for a while (I mean minutes, not months), but eventually I always come back to the reality that none of these spiritual figures ever had to drive. Does patience come easily while wandering a desert for forty years, or does walking across a desert teach patience?

Some say that self-recognition of insanity is half the battle. They might be correct, but it's definitely the small half. At least now as I walk along a busy street and observe motorists' tempers flaring, and hear the horns and the yelling, I don't engage in the chaos. I just keep walking. Those people are crazy.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Family, Health, Religon and Baseball - in no particular order

So an old friend gives me a call. Well, she's really only middle-aged, but we've known each other for a long time. We've enjoyed the kind of friendship that allows significant gaps in contact, yet provides immediate connection. In response to my "Hello," she takes off at maximum rant. Recognizing that my son has gone through youth, travel and high school baseball at a pace just a couple of years ahead of her eldest son, she figures I can play soundboard with a reasonable degree of understanding and, as always, provide advice with a certain brutality. With some justification, she complains how her son is being underutilized by his high school coach, if not ruined. The coach apparently prides himself on his confidence crushing power over high schoolers, as opposed to the sometimes more fruitful approach of developing individual talent, teaching teamwork and encouraging maximum effort. When she tried talking to the coach, she was instructed that he'll only talk to parents after the season is over. I try to connect with a story of my son's most agressive coach, who once indicated at a parents' meeting that in a perfect world he would coach only orphans, but she barely takes a breath.

After twenty minutes of listening to the escalating and ever so precise details of her concerns, I stop her cold and tell her, "Your son is a good kid, a great student and a strong athelete. A few MLB scouts have taken some interest and he's scoped out regularly by NCAA Division I recruiters. With or without baseball, he's going to attend a top ranked college, and have a great future. In the grand scheme, the quality and input of his high school coach really doesn't matter."

At first I take her silence as a sign that she has redirected her frustration toward me, but then she starts to cry. We've been friends for decades and, though I have always suspected abundant tenderness beneath that hardened, sarcastic Irish skin, I have never once seen or heard her cry. I ask her, "What's really going on?"
She cries a while longer and then struggles to tell me that one of her younger sons has a brain tumor, which is growing, and needs to be removed. Despite her knowledge that I'm not all that religious, she asks me to pray for him. I tell her I will, and I will. A minute later our conversation is over.

Ask someone who doesn't have thirty seven cats running around his or her apartment, What matters most to you? and you'll likely get one of three responses, God, family (and friends) or health. I suppose some people might say work, but that strikes me as sad. I suspect that Steve Jobs, undoubtedly one of the greatest industrialists of all time, likely would have given up all of his commercial success for another year of good health.

My friend and I spent a half hour talking about what really matters, twenty-seven minutes about baseball, two minutes about brain tumors, a minute about God, and all of it about family and friends. On that particular day, it all mattered.