Monday, March 31, 2014

Infrastructure - A Rant

I hate winter, but this winter was particularly loathsome, and commuting issues were a large part of that unpleasantness.  There is one morning in particular that stands out.

There had been nearly two days of continuous snowstorms. My morning commute was a mess.  The trains to Manhattan were running on a Saturday schedule with the MTA assuming that people weren't going to work that day (even as the sun was making an effort to peak through the clouds at 7AM).  Commuters were squashed into the trains like the proverbial sardines.  All seats were taken long before I boarded.  Riders stood in the doorways and up and down the aisles.  After we passed the Fordham stop, the train came to a dead standstill, eventually losing power.  After 10 minutes the train began feeling too hot and the air was feeling harder and harder to breathe.  My back was killing me from standing still.

This was the state of Metro North trains all winter long.  For weeks I was dealing with delays due to everything from snow on the tracks (not their fault of course) to signal problems to electrical issues.  It seems that for weeks on end there wasn't a morning train that wasn't delayed.

The Metro North railroad is a microcosm of the state of the infrastructure in this country.  Our railroad technology and service is decades behind that of other countries.  Our roads are buckling and bridges are crumbling.  It's amazing how much we all take our transportation systems for granted.  We probably don't realize how much our lives will grind to a halt if something fails.  Then when something does fail, we rant and rave and scream and blame the cities, and the systems, and the workers and anyone else we can blame.  We refuse to blame ourselves.

Why are we to blame?  It's because everyone wants perfect service, but no one wants to pay for it. The systems are paid for with tax dollars and no one wants to pay taxes, nor do we want anyone else to pay taxes.

It's funny how Americans like to look at the mid 20th century as an ideal time in history.  After all it was a time of relative peace and prosperity across the board.  During this time infrastructure grew by leaps and bounds.  For example, the interstate highway system was a major project of the Eisenhower administration.

No one wants to remember that at this point in history, the wealthiest members of our society were paying the top tax rates.  Despite their high taxes, they somehow stayed wealthy.  They were investing in the United States.  They made money and they were able to give it back to their country to grow the system that everyone would use and everyone would benefit from.

In the past thirty years this system has been turned on its head.  Too many people at the top decided they wanted a bigger piece of the pie no matter what it cost the rest of the country.  They fixed the government and the laws to makes sure the only beneficiaries of their investments were themselves.  The rest of the country didn't matter.  If the roads and bridges crumbled, they would just fly everywhere in private jets.  They are not paying taxes, and the middle class and those below can't afford to give anymore.  Our infrastructure and education are suffering because so much is being taken from us already.

Unfortunately, too many of the rest of us are focusing our anger on the wrong groups.  Americans can't stomach hearing that taxes are the only way to fix this country.  It doesn't matter who is paying them.  If someone in the government merely utters the word "taxes", he or she will lose a million votes.  The problem is if no one is paying taxes, nothing will ever be fixed.

The underlying issue here is that Americans are being sold a false story by organizations like Fox News and The Tea Party.  These organizations are run by multi-billionaires who truly have no interest in having us pay lower taxes.  They just want to keep the biggest piece of the pie for themselves.

There are the lies we are being sold by the Tea Party and Fox News (along with Newsmax, World Net Daily, The Blaze, etc.).

1.  If we don't tax the people at the very top, they will have more money to invest in employing more people and pay them higher salaries.

2.  The taxes we pay are all being funneled to poor people who refuse to work and are abusing their SNAP, Medicaid, TANF, and disability benefits at your expense.

Point number one has never proven to be true.  Any economist worth his salary will tell you that lowering taxes doesn't create jobs. Demand creates jobs.  Unfettered greed has never historically been proven to create prosperity (or at least a decent living) across the board.  The Gilded Age only created wealth for a few.

As for Point number two, it makes three incorrect assumptions.  The first is that the government is spending huge amounts of revenue on social safety nets.  That is only about 12% of the federal budgets.  The second is that everyone receiving government assistance is unwilling to work.  Putting aside the massive cuts in jobs as those undertaxed billionaires are moving jobs overseas every day leaving large chunks of Americans jobless, many recipients of government benefits are employed - often at multiple jobs.  Their employers are denying them healthcare or a living wage, so they need to rely on the government to feed themselves and their children (who can't work for a living).  They need to rely on government for healthcare.  The idea that if you work hard you will never want for anything is pretty dead in today's world. 

There is also a third point and that is the belief that recipients of benefits are engaged in widespread fraud and abuse of the system.  Certainly there are some cases of this.  People who do this are criminals, not your typical struggling family.  Most people living on SNAP and TANF benefits will assure you that they are not living high on the hog. Stories abound about what poverty really looks like. 

But I digress.  This post is about infrastrucutre, not about safety nets, however, it's impossible to talk about taxes without some groups screaming that they don't want their taxes going to the undeserving.

What about you?  Are you deserving?  Do you think you deserve safe roads and reliable public transportation?  I know plenty of people disagree with me on every point I make here.  I am not here to convert anyone about social safety nets.  I am here to ask what the solution should be.  If the rich, who use the infrastructure as much as anyone else shouldn't pay more taxes and invest in the country they claim to love, if the middle class who also uses the infrastructure shouldn't pay taxes, how exactly should we pay for it? 

Raising taxes won't create jobs?  If we invested money into the infrastructure, wouldn't that create jobs? Wouldn't we need men and women to be on the work crews?  Wouldn't we need to hire skilled engineers to design the projects?  If those workers had good-paying jobs and benefits, wouldn't they be pumping those tax dollars back into the economy (eventually create more jobs)?  Raising taxes will only benefit the "takers"?  Again, everyone across all sectors of the economy relies on our infrastructure.  It seems to me that everyone will benefit.

What would it take for the rich to begin investing in America again?  Maybe David Koch's limo needs to fall off a collapsed bridge. Maybe a train full of News Corp employees on the way to cover a Tea Party rally has to derail.  I really hate to think it would take a massive tragedy before we decide that something needs to be done. 

So you love America?  Put your money where your mouth is and start investing in its future.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Home Sweet Home?

When I think of my little condo apartment on Mamaroneck Avenue, I know that however imperfect it is, the place is my home.  The story of our condo is the story of Kevin's and my life together.  We bought the place when we were engaged.  We moved there in July of 2001 - two months before our wedding. Most of our life together has been in those four rooms (when not at Oxbow Stables).

When we first bought it, neither of us had ever owned a home before.  It was exciting just to be a homeowner.  The apartment seemed to have everything we needed.  It has two full bathrooms and a spare room for office space.  It is a short walk to the train station.  It is located in the middle of town so stores and restaurants are easily accessible.  Our balcony overlooks the river giving us excellent nature views.  In the winter we even get a glimpse of the harbor from our bedroom.  

I'm not sure how long we thought we would stay there when we moved in.  As I said, we were happy just to be homeowners.  We talked about having a house someday, but that seemed to be part of a bigger dream of not just moving into a new house, but also of moving our lives elsewhere.  We talked about having a house in the country, but nothing too extreme.  Maybe we would just go two hours north to Orange County so we would be closer to the horses.  Then we talked of doing something very extreme and moving to Chincoteague.  During our tenth anniversary vacation to a horse farm in Italy, Kevin even wistfully mused on what it might take for us to buy an Italian horse farm of our own.  We dreamed simply of getting out of the New York metro area once and for all.  We wanted a change of lifestyle.  

No change of lifestyle ever seemed imminent, so we stayed.  We did what we needed to do to make our little place into the best home it could be.  We tore out the cheap kitchen and put in beautiful custom wood cabinets, granite countertops, and new tile on the floors and walls.  We put hardwood floors in the living room and master bedroom.  We upgraded the tiles and shower in the master bathroom.  We had California Closets design a functional office space for the spare room and upgrade our master bedroom closet.  If we were going to stay in this apartment, then it had to be the best apartment it could be.

But I'm restless now.  I feel as if after all of this I'm ready to move on.  I always felt that it was agreed that the condo was never meant to be permanent.  Now after thirteen years I see my friends and family settled into real standalone houses and I ache for something more.  Is it time to move on?  Should we?  What are our reasons for leaving and what makes them more advantageous than staying?

The main reason for leaving is that the quality of life in our building has decreased since we moved in.  For years we had a dog living above us that howled constantly.  When the dog died and the owner moved, the new neighbors installed hardwood floors and did a bad job so we hear them stomping above us. My next-door-neighbor has a cat that he never bothered to neuter until recently and for months we had to deal with the stench of him spraying in the hallways and seeping into our apartment.  There was an incident where a neighbor's CO alarm went off when he was on vacation and I had to deal with the incessant beeping until he came home five days later.  Walking through the hallways I always have to deal with a variety of less-than-pleasant smells from the stench of fish cooking to pot smoke.  Worst of all is the blight on the neighborhood known as Molly Spillane's - a trashy bar disguised as a family restaurant.  The bar noises echo throughout the neighborhood.  Drunks wander the streets.  The sidewalk in front is clogged with cigarette smoke all night.  Worst of all I have to compete with the patrons for parking even though I pay a hefty annual fee for a municipal parking permit.

The other reason for leaving is that we simply are outgrowing the space.  No matter how many clever storage units we install, we fill them up and our stuff spills everywhere.  I love order and tidiness (although I admit to being lazy and not actually tidying up very often) but it is impossible in our place.  There is no place for everything.  There is no room for our books, our electronics, or our growing art collections.  Obviously it doesn't have to be that way.  We can bite the bullet and get rid of things.  We can rent a storage locker so we can at least move excess possessions out of the house.  Size should not be the determining factor in why we might move, should it?  Material possessions should not be a priority.

The last question to ponder is money.  Can we afford a house when we live in one of the most expensive areas of the country?  I sometimes think we underestimate what we can afford.  We have friends who probably don't make Kevin's salary and have kids to boot and still manage to have a real house.  What are they doing so differently from us?  But then again, Kevin and I might not have kids*, but we have an expensive hobby (horses), we love to travel, and Kevin loves his watches and duck decoys.

All of this could change next year. We should be in a position to pay off our mortgage.  Then we would be able to sell our condo purely for profit and that would make a generous down payment on something bigger and better.  Knowing that day could come soon, I have found myself on real estate websites, looking for a place that would be suitable for us.  It has become a bit of an obsession for me.

What would my idea house look like?  What would it contain?  I have a very long set of criteria.
  • Three bedrooms, or two and decent den/study.
  • Two full bathrooms (completely non-negotiable)
  • Close to the train station for an easy commute
  • A big kitchen that is decently upgraded and has lots of counter space
  • A dining room that can seat 10
  • Hardwood floors
  • A front porch
  • Attractive inside and out
  • A basement that I could convert to a decent workout room**
  • A fireplace
  • Needs a minimum of work (Kevin and I aren't handy people so we don't need to fuss with contractors and dipping into our home equity line of credit right after making a major home purchase)
  • A yard big enough for some flowerbeds and a vegetable garden and maybe a nice stone patio, but not more property than we would have time to maintain.
Some of these are negotiable and some aren't, but part of the research we are doing is trying to figure out what we are and are not willing to live with.

Location is the other piece of the puzzle.  Moving to the country and closer to the horses is not going to happen any time soon.  We are going to be stuck in our jobs for a while and we need the accessibility to the city.  For the most part we like living in Mamaroneck, but lately I'm kind of over this town.  I don't like the way it is becoming less mom-and-pop and more commercial in terms of the businesses coming in.  I can't stand the mayor Norm Rosenbarf Rosenblum.  We certainly would consider the neighboring towns (Harrison, Larchmont, Rye) although I don't know what the advantages and disadvantages of each would be.

I have lived on the Sound Shore side of Westchester my entire life, but I am beginning to think we should cross to the other side of the county and consider the river towns (Tarrytown, Irvington, Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Sleepy Hollow, Croton, Ossining).  Being on the Hudson side of the county would mean we would be closer to the Tappan Zee Bridge, making our commute to New Jersey for the horses a bit faster on the weekends. These towns have the same accessibility to New York City.  Granted, staying anywhere in Westchester means that if we get away from Mamaroneck and Rosenbarf Rosenblum, we would still be dealing with county executive Rob Bastardino Astorino.

Last night we began our research officially.  We went and looked at this house.  The house is gorgeous.  It is beautifully remodeled to the point where it looks like a brand new house.  It has all the space we need and a small, but workable yard.  It doesn't have a fireplace, but I can live with that.  Kevin wasn't crazy about the neighborhood because he felt the houses are too close together, but after being in the house in the evening, we see the neighborhood is nice and calm and quiet and the neighbors invisible.  When we were in it, we could really envision what we wanted to do with it.

It's far too early to consider buying it, but it was tempting.  Still we really do have to wait another year to make buying something like this a reality.

Our other option is to pay off our mortgage and stay right where we are.  Our living expenses would be low (although we would be walloped at tax time).  We could simply throw our extra stuff in a storage locker and use our remaining discretionary cash to travel the world and pamper the horses even more.  It wouldn't be such a bad life.  This has been our home for 13 years and we know how to be comfortable here.

For now, I'll keep doing my research.  We have to see what is out there, what we like, what we don't like but can live with, what we can't live without, and what we can afford.  A lot can happen in a year.

Remember, home may be where the heart is, but it's pretty useless if your lungs, liver, digestive tract, and brain aren't there too.

*For the record, I was never keen on having kids.  The fact that we stayed in the apartment helped keep me from changing my mind since the apartment isn't big enough for a third person.

**I'm talking about getting things like a squat cage, a pullup bar, a bench and some barbells and possibly a treadmill.  We already have a decent set of dumbbells and some videos.  The initial investment would be pricey, but it would save on a gym membership in the long run.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

To Fix Or Not To Fix

This blog probably needs more fluffy and lighthearted posts.  I'm already working on another one about the more pressing issues in my life and in the world.  Here is something to help counteract that.

Right now I am in the midst of the very difficult, dramatically life-altering* dilemma of deciding whether or not I want to join Stitch Fix.  Have any of my readers tried it?

*Not really, but you know I have to inject a little drama into everything

For those of you who don’t know what it is, Stitch Fix is an online personal shopping service.  You fill out a fairly detailed online profile.  They ask you questions about your size, your preferred style, your regular clothing needs (such as work, dressy, or casual clothes), and your print and color preferences. Then they ask you how much money you are typically willing to spend on different types of clothing.  Using that information a stylist picks out 5 pieces of clothing for you  (which can also include jewelry or accessories) and mails them to you each month, or for whatever time period you specify.  There is a $20 styling fee for each box.  You can buy all 5 pieces, or you can send them all back.  If you buy anything the $20 is credited back to you.  If you buy everything, there is a 25% discount.  If you don't send it back in a certain period of time, you pay for it all anyway (they pay for all shipping costs).

The more you shop with Stitch Fix, the more customized it becomes.  After you receive your box, you can give feedback to the stylists about what you like or don’t like about the clothes you receive.  That helps the stylist make even better choices in the future.  Plus you can request certain pieces.  If you need jeans, they can send you jeans.  If you need a dress for a wedding, you can request a dressy dress.

Why would I sign up for something like this?  Well, it does have many advantages.

I do enjoy clothes shopping.  I don’t make a sport out of it, and I don’t consider it a hobby, but I love walking around my favorite stores, checking out which styles I like, and finding clothing I really love.  I feel a happy sense of satisfaction when I make the perfect purchase and hang it in my closet.

Even though I like shopping, I rarely ever have time to really do the kind of hardcore browsing I did in the past.  I don’t have a free afternoon to stroll through the mall anymore.  What was once a leisurely activity is now often a quick run through one or two stores on my lunch hour or else on a rare free evening (it’s a happy situation that I work so close to 5th and Madison Avenues where I have a wide variety of stores to browse)  I really like the idea of having someone pick out clothes for me and then having them arrive conveniently at my doorstep.

Another issue with shopping is that I tend to experience Murphy’s Law whenever I’m online or in a store.  If I’m broke and just browsing, I find a hundred items I would like to buy.  If I have a pocketful of cash and am ready to augment my wardrobe, it is almost guaranteed that I won’t find much that I like.  Sometimes I will end up buying clothes that I’m not even that crazy about because I feel as if I should be buying something if I made the special trip to the store (especially if I make a long trip the outlet malls or other distant shopping venues).  Stitch Fix would eliminate some of that uncertainty.  I’m likely to find something I want and it won’t waste my time.

I have set up an account and filled out the profile.  I haven’t pulled the trigger on actually ordering a box yet.  There are some compelling reasons not to buy a box as well.

I have been looking at some reviews of Stitch Fix online.  There are women who devote entire blogs to their Stitch Fix boxes.  It sometimes seems the choices are really hit or miss.  It’s rare I see someone say she loves or needs everything in the shipment.  The worst part is that if you don’t like anything they send, you are out $20.  Some women have reviewed their shipments and said they didn’t like anything in the box, but still felt obliged to keep something because they didn’t want to waste the styling fee.

Shopping online is risky, especially when it comes to quality and size.  I do shop online most of the time because of the time constraints mentioned above.  Every time I shop in a new online store, I take the risk that clothes won’t fit well or be a very high quality.  I can reduce this risk by shopping at the same websites consistently.  I learn the way sizing works over time.  Stitch Fix has an in-house brand, but also sends a variety of other brands.   I will have no idea how well clothes will fit.  I have a very difficult figure to fit because I’m both short and rather voluptuous with very wide thighs, big boobs, and a thick belly.  I would hate to receive a box full of cute clothes and end up sending it all back because nothing fits.

The final issue to consider is money.  Is this in my budget?  The older I get, the more I find that cheap clothing doesn’t flatter me.  If I want to look good, I need to spend.  I need quality.  Can I afford a monthly shipment of decent quality clothing?  Also, just because I’m interested in what Stitch Fix has to offer, I still will want to shop other venues.  My current Pin Board for clothing is filled with stuff from some of my favorite websites.  What if I buy a box from Stitch Fix and still want that cute dress from ModCloth? 

My current plan of action is to take no action.  I have some items on my wish list for spring that come from other sources.  I will look into buying those first.  Maybe once the seasons change I will consider a box from Stitch Fix.   I might get one for my birthday in July.  For now, I’m just hoping I won’t need the winter clothes that I already own for much longer. (Crossing my fingers for a change in weather soon.)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

An Article of Clothing That Needs To Come Back Into Fashion

Ladies, I think it's time we start returning the muff to our winter wardrobes.

(Please stop snickering and remove your mind from the gutter.  I'm talking about the warm, portable sleeve you carry around to keep your hands warm on cold days.)

Of the many things I hate about winter, having cold hands and feet tops the list.  Cold extremities aren't just uncomfortable.  They're painful and potentially dangerous. 

have never found a functional pair of gloves that keeps my hands warm on frigid days.  If the gloves or mittens are thick and insulated enough, then they are useless for performing any fine motor skills.  If you have a muff, you hang it from your neck or wrist and comfortably nest your hands together in warm plush.  If you need your hands, you just slide them out.  The whole idea seems so easy, so practical, and so warm, I can't understand how muffs ever went out of style.

I have always loved muffs ever since I was a kid.  I don't know what it is about them.  I guess their Dickensian flare seemed so classy.  Muffs just conjured images of elegantly dressed women in horse-drawn sleighs heading to Christmas parties that look like the opening scene of The Nutcracker.

When I was a kid my grandmother's friend made me a muff.  I loved it, but never used it much.  Just because I liked it didn't mean I could dare wear it to school.  I went to school with a bunch of mean, cruel, horrible evil children who would have found a reason to make fun of my mittens.  I didn't dare face the wrath that would be directed at me for wearing a muff to school.  

In this frigid winter, where having cold hands is a daily and inescapable discomfort, I wish I still had that muff.  Sure the people I work with are likely to make snarky comments and think I'm weird.  I'm just older and wiser now and past the point of caring what people think.

You can find muffs for sale.  They seem to mostly cater to brides and wedding parties who are aiming for some kind of Victorian theme.  Brides don't spend much time outside in the winter.  If it's cold enough to need a muff, you aren't having an outdoor wedding and are going inside as soon as the photos are finished.  Why should the brides have all of the fun while the rest of us have cold hands?

I have also seen some muffs that are very utilitarian looking.  They have pockets to store additional hand warmers along with a plain sleeve.  I suppose if I wanted a muff, but didn't want to look ostentatious about it, I could go that route.  

Regardless of what's out there, it's all online.  You have to go to specialty websites or Amazon to find a muff.  You can't just walk into a clothing store and buy one. Once you do buy one, you might have to endure some funny looks.

So if you're with me, raise your cold hand.  Cold women of the world, let's unite and demand that muffs become universally available and universally accepted.  Our hands will be so warm that the men will want to join us too.