Friday, February 27, 2009

Late Winter Flowers

I love living where it's possible to have flowers blooming in the yard all year. I'm especially fond of flowers that bloom before March 21, the first day of Spring. These late winter flowers may not be as pretty as flowers that bloom other times of the year. The fact that they bloom when little else will is what endears them to me.

Hellebores (H. orientalis) are the first to bloom in my garden. I started out with three plants a number of years ago. These rather expensive perennials volunteer like crazy, and have become downright weedy by popping up all over the yard. I now have a large grouping of them with flowers in cream, pink, and nearly maroon. The first blooms appear in December or early January, and continue well into March. The evergreen foliage is attractive all year and nothing (deer or rabbits) eats it.

Nothing says spring like daffodils. We have hundreds of maybe five different varieties--mostly yellow with yellow trumpets and white with yellow trumpets--scattered throughout the wooded side of the garden. They look better every year. Dividing and replanting overgrown clumps has become an annual chore. Nothing eats daffodils either. Sooner or later, we're going to have to start finding new homes for the offspring.

A long path through the wooded side of the yard is edged on one side with grape hyacinths backed by about 60 pink hyacinths and flats of white viola and deep red dianthus. I like grape hyacinths because they multiply like crazy, and the foliage appears in the fall for late season and winter interest. I love the smell of hyacinths, and around here the bulbs will continue to bloom for several years after planting. The hyacinths and grape hyacinths have just started to bloom.

I planted 100 deep purple crocus the first day I moved into the house. They steadily increased for a number of years, but now the chipmunks and squirrels are eating them. So we've been adding crocus that are white and white with purple stripes. They're all blooming throughout the wooded side of the garden. Back in Kentucky, crocus always bloomed before daffodils but here in Athens, it's the other way around. Go figure.

I love what are often referred to as "minor bulbs". Most of my favorites grow and bloom when practically everything else is dormant. Once they're done, they go dormant. That makes it easy to find a spot for them in even the most crowded garden. I have maybe 30 different varieties scattered throughout the garden to bloom at different times of the year. Right now hundreds of dwarf iris in shades of purple are in full bloom, with blue scilla just starting to pop up.

It's the time of year when I most enjoy walking through the garden. Every day there's something new to see--a new variety sprouting or something new starting to bloom. This will continue from now to May or June. And as always, this year's garden promises to be the best ever--barring drought and with the cooperation of local wild life.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Early Retirement Still A Possibility

Unlike many around me, I'm feeling good about my 403(b) plan and my prospects for eventual retirement. Yes, like everyone else, the value of my retirement holdings has declined--significantly--in the last year or so. If I was thinking about retiring inside of the next ten years, I would be worried.

But I'm not retiring in the next ten years unless I win the lottery or something equally unlikely happens. Depending on how well my investments perform between now and the day I retire, I'm looking at somewhere between 12 and 17 more years. If I cut back on frivolous spending (perish the thought!) and increase contributions to my retirement account, I could maybe retire in ten years if I really, really wanted to.

I could also die tomorrow. For the record, nothing would piss me off more than to scrimp and save for retirement for years only to die before I retire. Since I'm not sure if anger would still be an available option, I've opted to avoid sacrificing for the future beyond what is absolutely necessary. There are no promises or guarantees. It's a gamble any way you go.

I do contribute the maximum that my employer will match to my 403(b) every month. Besides that, I have an IRA that I rolled over from a previous employer, and I contribute to a Roth IRA every month. Along with the proceeds of my investments, I'll get Social Security, and a very small pension for time I put in with an employer years ago. I should have enough to be comfortable--at least, that's what my financial planner tells me. And yes, I pay someone to manage my retirement portfolio. It's way too important to leave in the hands of a rank amateur, like me, for example.

I admit, it hurts to see the balance in my retirement accounts dropping month after month, quarter after quarter. While the value of my holdings has declined, I haven't been hit as hard as a lot of people thanks to a very smart planner. I take consolation in knowing that my monthly contributions are buying stocks, mutual funds, and other investments at bargain-basement prices.

Thanks to dollar cost averaging (the pay-off of regular monthly contributions), my monthly contribution buys less when investments are expensive and more when they are cheap. As a result, I now own many more shares than I could have afforded to buy at last years' prices.

The ironic thing is that depending on the timing and magnitude of the eventual turnaround, it might be more possible for me to retire in ten years than it would have been without the recession. And that, folks, makes me anything but...

The Crotchety Old Man

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Economics and the Stimulus

Economic theory is extremely complicated. I know just enough to be dangerous and am glad that I'm not the one having to decide how to deal with the current economic crisis. That said, I think the Republicans got it wrong. Deregulation and lower taxes might work just fine in theory. In practice deregulation has created a land of opportunity for the ethically-challenged, with lower taxes just increasing their profit margins.

Economic theories are built on numerous assumptions. These assumptions are needed so that equations can be derived and whatnot. It's all very complicated but the bottom line is that real people screw everything up. Let's look at just a few economic assumptions.

1) Consumers maximize utility. In English, this means that people make the choices that generate the greatest satisfaction. Except we all know that isn't always the case. People generally do choose the option that they think will turn out best, based on the information they have at the time. That doesn't always work, which is why we say hindsight is twenty-twenty.

2) Perfect information. Economic theories assume that consumers know everything there is to know--that they have perfect information. This idea evolved long before we entered the information age. Now overload is just as much of a problem as too little information. Misinformation abounds. Ignorance is rampant. Fraudulent and deceptive practices thrive in a market where consumers simply don't know any better.

3) Regulation interferes with the ability of market forces to correct problems. The bad guys get weeded out because consumers wise up and take their business elsewhere. Or they change their ways and consumers are happy again. Except we all know it doesn't always work that way. If it did, rent-to-own, payday loans and car title loans wouldn't exist. If consumers had perfect information, they would never enter into these and other bad agreements.

Even the smartest economists are mostly guessing when they attempt to explain or predict economic activity. Yes, they are educated guesses. But in the end, still just guesses. The world economy is complex with countless forces acting on it. Some you can measure, most you can't--so you either assume them away or ignore them. You can use economic theory to argue any side of every issue. It's just a matter of weighing this data a little heavier than that data, and excluding everything else.

It's impossible to know exactly what it's going to take to get out of this crisis. If we knew, we wouldn't be in the crisis in the first place. We could invest billions for research to find out, but by the time we figured it all out it would be way too late. Some aspects of the stimulus plan will work better than others, but we won't know which ones until after the fact. It's guesswork--educated guesswork with conflicting views about what will make a difference and what won't.

I'm not going to worry about it. I feel much better about our prospects now that President Obama is in charge. If the Republicans don't like it, well, they had their chance. Now it's time for Cheney, Gingrich, Rove, Boehner, McConnell, Limbaugh and the other crusty old white men to just shut the hell up and get out of the way.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Big Families as a Status Symbol

I'm part of a huge family. Grannie always said she just had a knack for making babies. A big family made sense back in the 1920s and 30s. Infant mortality rates were high, and particularly among farm families, another pair of hands to help with chores was an asset.

In the 60s and 70s, birth control made it easier to control family size. Large families were less common, but not all that unusual. Rather than another set of hands, another baby was more often seen as another mouth to feed. Larger families became more of a liability when you had to buy rather than grow your food. Population growth became more of an issue for many, and smaller families became the norm.

Large families are back in vogue and appear to be something of a status symbol. I see big families all over the place--shopping malls, grocery stores, and community events. They roll out of the Esplanade in matching outfits as Mom & Dad unfold a stroller that's bigger than some RVs.

The media is all over a gianormous family. There's John & Kate Plus 8--their eight kids (sextuplets and twins). Then we have the Duggars who proudly proclaim 18 and counting. That's right--18 biological kids that dutifully line up for interviews on news and talks shows. And now we have Welfarjolina with her 14 kids in just two litters. You wait--as soon as those little pups can talk they'll be all over television.

For the life of me I can't understand how anyone would think it's OK to have more than 3 or 4 kids in this day and time. Frankly, that's being generous. The Chinese policy that limits couples to one child makes much more sense in this day and age. Does seem, however, that the policy is starting to create an entirely different set of problems. Oh well. At least they get it, and they tried.

Yeah I know. Couples have a right to have as many children as they want. Shoot. You don't even have to be a couple. Single parenthood is all the rage now. If a single mom wants to have 14 kids, who am I to object? Besides, it's immoral to have an abortion. Many believe it's immoral to practice any form of birth control, too. Those same people don't see anything the least bit immoral about a big family like the Duggars. I blame the new math.

We care more about dogs and cats. Thanks to Sarah McLachlan, most people would adopt pets from shelters rather than pet stores or puppy farms, and have those animals spayed or neutered. We're much less concerned about the plight of foster kids that grow up in group homes or bounce around from foster family to foster family without every really finding a home. Maybe the difference is the picture of an actual animal in a shelter that Sarah sends when you donate.

I say let everyone have two biological kids, then off to the spay/neuter clinic with your gonads. If you want more than two kids, you're going to have to adopt them. Hardly seems fair to bring more kids into the world when there are many perfectly good kids out there waiting for homes. Just ask Sally Struthers--and she'll send you a picture, too.

Monday, February 16, 2009

An Early Spring

On February 2, our local groundhog saw his shadow--a sure sign that we're in for six more weeks of winter weather. Since the dreaded shadow was spotted, the high here in Athens has hovered around 65, give or take ten degrees. Could the groundhog be wrong or is six more weeks of winter weather ahead?

Growing up in Kentucky you could pretty much count on at least six more weeks of winter weather no matter what the groundhog saw. Even so, when the groundhog did not see his shadow, I held on to the belief that spring was just around the corner and planned accordingly. I don't recall that spring ever came in six weeks or less, but I never stopped believing that it could.

The possibility of more cold weather in the next month or so is not enough to deter my belief in an early spring. It sure looks like spring around here. Daffodils are blooming all over town. My star and loebner magnolias are blooming, and the buds on my camellias are starting to open, too. These are some of my favorite flowers, probably just because they are among the first to bloom in my yard every year.

It's really not in my nature to believe the groundhog could be wrong. Yeah, I realize the little varmint gets it wrong at least as much as he gets it right. Don't bother me with facts! I'll grab on to just about anything that will let me believe that spring is just weeks away.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Aunt Mary

Aunt Mary, from all reports, was the prettiest of the five girls that, along with three brothers, made up Momma's family. When I was growing up, Momma depended on Mary more than any of her other siblings, for everything. So much so that I don't know how we would have functioned without her.

Momma didn't get her driver's license until after Dad retired. Until then, we depended on Dad or the kindness of strangers to get where we needed to go. It was generally the strangers that came through first, typically in the form of one of my aunts or uncles. More often than not, it was Aunt Mary that showed up in her VW bus to take us wherever we needed to go. For years she took Momma to the grocery store every week.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Don had daughters the same age as me and my (younger) sister, along with a son older than us and another younger than us. We were in scouts together, went to the same church, and played on the same sports teams. We even went to the same schools--along with Uncle Deezer's three boys. Sounds quaint, but none of us were particularly thrilled about it.

If you are a regular reader, then you know that Dad worked overnight every third night, and Momma refused to stay by herself. We stayed at Aunt Mary's house a lot. Momma and Aunt Mary would stay up late chain-smoking cigarettes and playing games at the kitchen table. If a third or fourth was available, they played pinochle. More often than not, they played dice games--either Scribbage or Yahtzee.

I usually slept just off the kitchen and would hear the sound of dice being shaken in a cup and dumped on the Formica tabletop for hours on end. After each roll of the dice came the exclamation. "Shit--what am I going to do with that?" "Dammit I don't need any 3's!" "Where in the hell are all the vowels?"

Aunt Mary loved Bingo more than just about anything but Bridge and cigarettes. She smoked King Sano cigarettes and lead us all to believe they were healthy. She was a regular at the VFW Bingo night. She rarely went alone, and never came home empty-handed.

Aunt Mary was in poor health for most of my childhood, and died way before her time. The funeral was the first time most of us ever saw her with her hair done, make-up on, and teeth in. Everyone commented about how good she looked--not something one usually hears at a funeral. During visitation various friends and family members slipped playing cards, a bingo dauber, and a few bingo cards into the casket with her.

If there is an afterlife, Aunt Mary is in the middle of a cigarette and either Bingo or a good game of Bridge with Toodles, Peggy, and Betty. I just hope the good Lord turns a deaf ear to all the swearing and cussing!
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