Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Thinker

Searching for daylight

Moving to a new state brings a lot of changes. When you do it for pleasure like we did they should be mostly good. In April we moved from Northern Virginia to Western Massachusetts. Life is definitely slower here, but what’s not slower is the traffic. It generally moves. There are a few predictable choke points. It’s mildly annoying when it happens, but is not one hundredth as annoying as traffic in and around Washington D.C. The good: we now live in a city with a small town feel but with a vibrant downtown and liberal values. Republicans don’t generally even try to run for office around here. Bernie Sanders posters are everywhere.

But invariably there are certain things you miss, some that you did not quite expect. I thought I would miss the ethnic diversity of the Washington area but it’s quite diverse around here too. D.C. is very much a happening sort of city (as evidenced by its traffic) with a general level of affluence not seen around here. Unquestionably D.C. has a much better arts scene, although there is a surprising amount in this area.

One I did not expect to miss was daylight. Moving to Massachusetts meant moving 3.5 degrees north in latitude and 4.7 degrees east in longitude. You wouldn’t think it would make that much a difference in the amount of daylight, but it does. It’s not even Thanksgiving but by 5 p.m. it is already pitch dark here. In fact, the sun is already close to the horizon around 3 p.m. Sunset is this afternoon at 4:24 p.m. The sun rose here at 6:49 a.m. Our earliest sunset starts December 7 at 4:18 p.m. with our latest sunrise arriving December 31 at 7:19 a.m. As you might expect the shortest day is at the start of winter, when we get 9:06 of daylight.

These sorts of short days were not unknown to me. For the first fifteen years of my life I lived in upstate New York at about the same latitude. So I knew what I was getting into by moving north again. After 37 years of living in the mid Atlantic I was used to going home from work when there was still daylight out. The sun may have been setting, but you could still see. For comparison the sun sets in Washington D.C. today at 4:50 p.m. and rose at 6:58 a.m. So it has 9:51 of daylight, whereas we have 9:35.

Strangely enough, it makes quite a difference. The shortest day in Washington D.C is 9:26. (If these sorts of statistics interest you, you might like this site.) In short, in moving I lost twenty minutes of daylight in the winter and because we are further east the sun sets sooner. As a result I am starting to think of daylight as a precious commodity.

The good part is that since we are retired it doesn’t matter as much. If I were still working and living here I’d likely be driving to work in the dark and returning in the dark as well too. I now rise between 7:30 and 8 AM when daylight is just establishing itself. A typical day as a retiree involves a little work, a few chores and daily exercise. Exercise consumes at least an hour and I prefer to do it outside while it is still daylight. As a practical matter this means I have to start exercise no later than 2 p.m. because by 3:30 p.m. it’s already getting dark, with the sun hanging low in the sky. On overcast days like today the streetlights are on around 4 p.m. as clouds drain what little daylight there is. It also means that daylight is slow to emerge. This effectively shortens my period for enjoying the outdoors to about six hours a day.

Part of this problem is manmade. We arbitrarily divide the world into time zones, generally each an hour apart. Washington D.C. is toward the middle of the Eastern Time Zone, so the time of day feels natural year round. Here, an our or so west of Boston, we are not too far from the eastern edge of the time zone boundary. Effectively, I could enjoy more daylight if I would get up sooner.

Oddly enough, I am feeling this pull. I’ve never been a naturally early riser but now I am thinking I should get up around 7 a.m. so I can enjoy the daylight while it lasts. Sunny days are nice but they feel rushed through. With the sun not too far from the horizon all day the sun tends to stream in through the southern windows, making rooms blinding at times. My office faces south. On sunny days late in the year it is too much. I draw my translucent blinds, allowing light in but keeping the sun from shining directly in my face.

Without the bright city lights we were used too, night here feels deeper, darker and a bit foreboding. Streetlights are few. We live in a community where there is usually one bear sighting a year here, generally at the top of our hill. We were the lucky recipients this year when two teenage bears looking several hundred pounds each ambled through our tiny backyard, then across the street right in front of some men running construction equipment. Bears in the light can also be around in the dark of course. These bears are pretty massive. I’m quite sure a sufficiently motivated bear could break into our house through a window. The plentiful darkness raises these fears in my mind.

I don’t feel like I have a case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I don’t feel depressed by the longer nights. In a way these shorter days and longer and darker nights are neat. When the skies are clear the skies are amazing! We are fortunate to be away from the city enough to appreciate real dark. No wonder solstice was such a big deal to our ancestors. It’s this that probably makes the daylight feel more precious to me, and which makes me want to get up with the sun and busily engage the world while I can.

The Thinker

Open season on a fixed income

It’s open season time and you know what that means. For most of us it means not bothering to take the time to see if there is a better medical, dental or vision plan out there. And by “us” I definitely mean “me”, at least until this year. Although I retired in 2014, I was working for most of it so it was easy to go on autopilot in 2015.

This year though I am fully retired and living on perhaps seventy percent of my previous income. This year although our expenses have gone up, for some reason my fully indexed cost of living pension won’t be, a factor somehow of falling gas prices. I’m not alone. Lots of pensioners and social security recipients feel like they have been cheated. The problem is that the official cost of living index is bogus. While I might spend a couple of hundred dollars less in gasoline this year than I did last year, food prices have gone up and eating is not optional. If prices are holding steady, the word hasn’t gone out to my city. The real estate assessment was $15.80 per thousand dollars of assessed value this year. In 2016 it jumps to $16.16. Moreover I just bought a new house for about $486,000 but it’s been assessed at $500,000. This means we need to pay $401 more just in property taxes yet with no increase in income.

So value is becoming more important. We’ve been on Blue Cross for more than a decade, but Blue Cross too is tightening the screws. With no changes we would pay over $650 a year more in premiums. Copays have been increased as well, up $5 each for primary care and specialists. We (my wife in particular) see lots of doctors. It’s not hard to rack up a hundred visits between the two of us per year. We could easily spend another $1000 a year on health costs next year for no increase in services. We would have to do this with no cost of living raise.

Thus I felt I no longer had the luxury of inertia. As I started to examine my options, I quickly realized why I had punted all these years. It’s because while choice is good in theory when it comes to health insurance it is mind-numbingly exasperating and time consuming. It’s something of a crap shoot as to which plan offers you the best value, since you have no way of knowing how much care you will actually need. About all you can do is use past years as a benchmark, and that means analyzing all your health expenditures. (Note: if you are a federal employee, federal annuitant or survivor of either, Checkbook has a useful guide that costs less than $10 that can help a lot.)

Since I spent a day just analyzing health insurance options, it’s a good thing I am retired. I doubt I would have this sort of leisure if I were still working. I had to sift through the details of all the various plans and see if I could find some magic combination that is not overly expensive, rated reasonably well and with most of our doctors “in network”. I had to analyze premiums, deductibles, copays, limitations on types of services, and which of our doctors were on each plan. I’m still not entirely clear which plan offers the best value, but it’s pretty clear it’s no longer Blue Cross.

I can also change my dental insurance and add vision insurance during open season. I already have a long term care policy, but no insurer would insure my wife so when that time comes we’ll have to depend on savings. Which opens up another can of worms that retirees have to grapple with. If you have some major and unplanned costs, where do you get the money?

Since we recently settled on a house a lot of our reserves have gone to pay lawyers and other busybodies. We’re hardly without savings but if I had to put my hands on $75,000 or so in cash it would be a challenge. A 401-K or IRA is not like a faucet that you turn on and off at whim. You generally get just a one chance a year change to adjust the spigot – during open season.

We supplement my pension with a modest monthly withdrawal from my 401K. On the advice of my financial adviser, I’m limiting withdrawals to 3% of the portfolio. This will in theory keep our nest egg secure, not growing in value (over inflation) but not losing value either. I can up the withdrawals to say 4% and slowly build up cash reserves at the expense of paying more income taxes and a smaller portfolio. I can hope no major expenses like this happen. I can get another home equity loan and use that when needed, but that money certainly won’t be free. The other alternative is to get another job, something I’d prefer to avoid since leisure is the whole point of retirement.

Since when you are retired you can’t easily change your income and expenses are hard to control sober retirees have to look forward a lot. Our new house is nice but like every other house it will move toward decay. We’ll eventually need money to replace the air conditioner, roof and buy cars when the old ones expire. This didn’t used to be a problem. I had enough income where I could pay for most of these expenses out of pocket or from our savings account. Now I have to anticipate them.

Unable to think of a better strategy, I looked at what these expenses cost us before. I made some realistic estimate of when these expenses would hit and what they might cost then with inflation. So I’m setting aside some of our income to draw from for these expenses in the future. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a start. It’s also sobering. I’ve created a car replacement fund assuming we’ll buy two cars for $25,000 each in today’s dollars, one in 2019 and one in 2023. To reach the goal I must place $481 of our income monthly into an escrow account. Similarly for all these future house expenses, I’ve created a capital fund. If my numbers are accurate, $343 a month set aside for these expenses should cover them.

All this is well and good but it leaves less money to actually enjoy your retirement particularly when your expenses go up when the government says they haven’t. Which is why I’m reluctantly becoming value-driven in retirement. Every expense needs a second look, including our health care costs. So I need to shop around.

As for health insurance, since I am an ex-federal employee I’ll probably bid adieu to trusty but expensive Blue Cross and say hello to the National Association of Letter Carrier’s plan instead. Lower premiums, lower deductibles, similar services and a reasonably good choice of doctors will probably go a long way to keeping these expenses unchanged in 2016. We’ll see. If not I’ll be crunching the numbers again in a year at the next open season.

Health insurance in the United States is needlessly complex. If there must be competition then the government should require that all plans offer the same services so we could shop around more easily. Or perhaps we could do what every other first world country does: create a national health care system. Then instead of figuring out how much health you can afford you could simply get the care you need instead. Sign me up for that!

The Thinker

Lost but re-found

The hills of upstate New York are now barren of leaves. Yet speeding down I-88 between Albany and Binghamton last Friday, I was enjoying the scenery: the many grey hills spotted with evergreens still made for an interesting and photogenic landscape. There was so much of it to enjoy in the nearly two hour drive between cities, made even nicer by the light traffic on this largely neglected interstate. An occasional shower spattered my windshield and grey clouds largely took over by the time I arrived in Binghamton but at least it was unseasonably mild. The grey clouds actually made the place feel like home, which in fact it was for me from 1963 through 1972. Starting in November and usually lasting until spring, Binghamton is generally a dark and dreary place, a combination of diminishing daylight and clouds that form over Lake Erie and thicken in the prevailing westerly winds.

This November visit was actually an improvement over my last visit in August, then for a family reunion at a nearby state park. At least it was not stifling and a bed at a four star hotel in Johnson City awaited me instead of an un-air-conditioned cabin. The overnight trip between Massachusetts (home) and Binghamton was now doable so not that big a deal: under four hours by car with the pastoral mountainous drives on I-90 and I-88 a bonus. The occasion of this return was somewhat somber. My childhood friend Tom’s father of the same name had passed. I decided to drive to the funeral and pay my respects, something that would have been out of the question before. But then I was at least seven hours away by car and I had a job. Being closer and retired, it was doable. It would give me a chance to see Tom but also to see his family again, some forty-three years in my past. (My wife hung back due to a painful slipped disk.)

His dad, a former engineer who worked at the now largely vanquished IBM Endicott made it to 87, and finally passed on November 1, a victim of congestive heart failure. I hadn’t seen much of his father when I was young. Shortly after arriving at the Allen Memorial Home in nearby Endicott and seeing so many pictures of him on poster board, my memories of Tom’s dad flooded back. He was Irish, he was passionate, he usually had a big smile on his face and he was very, very Catholic. He and his wife raised nine children including my friend Tom, and not very well by some accounts. He worked days and his wife (a nurse) worked nights. This didn’t leave much time for a relationship or for parenting. They eventually divorced, which should have estranged him from the Catholic Church. At least the priests at St. Patrick’s Church in Binghamton were forgiving. Three priests and a deacon in vestments were at his funeral mass, and the deacon spoke warmly about Tom, their time together, and their shared passion for sports.

At the funeral home I saw few signs of mourning from my friend’s family. In some ways their mood felt joyous. For me this journey became something of a time warp. I had been back to Binghamton five times over the forty plus years, but I hadn’t really connected with anyone I knew from my years there. At least I had the opportunity with Tom’s family, which included three generations now. Tom was now the oldest male in the family. His older sister has had that privilege for a couple of decades; their mom passed away from cancer in the 1990s.

In fact, Tom’s extended family looked great: thin for the most part, including Tom who had dropped forty pounds. Tom Sr.’s death was long anticipated, so most had moved through the grieving process while he was declining. Tom I knew, but it was impossible to name these grown up faces after so many years. Those who were old enough usually remembered me, and shared a memory. I remembered the youngest child now in her forties in diapers in their living room. Tom’s house had a color TV and she was watching Sesame Street on it when the show was still new. I was jealous of Tom’s family because my parents thought color TVs too expensive, so we were relegated to black and white.

Whatever family trauma there was forty some years earlier seemed wholly gone. Tom’s family proved to be a lively, civilized and grounded bunch, all instantly likeable. In some ways I felt more comfortable with them than I do with my own siblings. Tom’s family may have had issues, but they were a passionate bunch. My house was more saccharine and my mother played the role of dutiful Stepford wife. No wonder I liked hanging out with Tom. His house felt real. But there was more. Tom was and remains an intensely creative person full of energy and passion. It must have been due to all that Irish blood. As I worked my way down the receiving line I felt a lot of genuine warmth flecked with humor and remembrances.

Tom is one of nine children; I am one of eight. My family scattered like the wind across the nation. Six of Tom’s siblings stayed in the Binghamton area and extended their family’s roots there. Most had dodged and parried with life pretty well in spite of a challenging childhood, but others had dealt with larger problems. An older sister spent decades fighting addictions but she told me she had been clean and sober for twenty-five years.

The sun was close to setting when I arrived, but I drove by our old house and enjoyed the fall colors still hanging on a tree on our old front lawn. The house has been extended into the backyard. Its original six bedrooms are now probably more like ten bedrooms. In fact, the house is now owned by the State of New York and it houses developmentally disabled adults.

While Tom hung with family that evening, I did a driving tour of the area (“The Triple Cities”) in the dark, following paths I knew so well from childhood, but also from exploring the area again on Google Maps. I had fond memories of my father taking us to Binghamton Airport, so I drove there in the dark along Farm to Market Road. I drove down Vestal Parkway, climbed Taft Avenue in Endicott and wandered the back streets behind our old house in the darkness. I watched the stars appear periodically from behind the clouds, so much clearer here where the city lights are more muted. The Binghamton area had often felt sad in past visits, but this time it felt fully on the mend. Dinner came from the food court at the Johnson City Wegmans. Leaving my car in the parking lot of my hotel, I noted a fox’s bright eyes looking back at me in the dark from the nearby woods.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church turned out to be an ornate church by Catholic standards with impressive stained glass windows and altarpieces that imitated Gothic spires. By any measure, Tom’s dad went out well. A huge organ in the back of the church and a cantor on the altar provided deeply spiritual music mixed with Irish melodies during the funeral mass. It’s a large church and was more than half full; clearly Tom’s father was a man beloved in the church and in the community. Tom’s family did a wonderful job of arranging a memorable and emotional service.

In the lobby after the service Tom pulled me over. He reintroduced me to a friend I knew even longer than him, Peter, who I first met in first grade and often played with after school. Age 58, Pete hadn’t changed that much but related a brush with mortality: he a heart attack a few years back. At the reception after the mass we ate food, laughed, traded memories and snapped pictures. There were no tears to note but plenty of laughter. People reconnected, and that included me. For the first time in more than forty years I felt reconnected with the area I always considered home. There were still friends here; we had just lost touch.

I was back home for supper, doing a reverse commute. The hills along I-88 and I-90 were still pretty, though barren, but the temperature had plummeted. It was cold but I felt strangely glowing. It came from the deep embers of a long ago connection thought lost but now recovered somehow.

The Thinker

Reassembling our lives

The goalposts kept moving. Finally yesterday, three weeks after the date when our house was supposed to be completed, we actually staggered across the finish line. The finish line in this case was settlement. We were fortunate to be able to move into our house on September 24, which was good because after September 30 we otherwise had been either homeless or squatters. So it goes in the nerve-wracking business of buying a new house where completion dates are purely aspirational. Settlement dates came and went but eventually the necessary signatures were collected to add our property to a master deed, which meant we could actually settle.

9:30 a.m. yesterday found us in our attorney’s office where all the documents were ready. The odd thing about this settlement was that the seller was not present. In fact, the seller’s attorney didn’t show up either. He sent his paralegal who presumably had authority to sign their documents, but he would not show up until later that afternoon. And so we spent nearly as much time chatting with our attorney and his paralegal as we did signing papers. It was the first time we had actually met him and most likely the last as well.

There were the usual bizarre forms to sign. In one we signed our names three ways, with middle initial, with middle name spelled and with middle name absent I guess so they could have some assurance our signatures on the other papers were legitimate … but how do they know this one wasn’t fake? In another we agreed that if there were a clerical error we would not sue anyone. We signed one paper claiming a homeowner’s exemption. In Massachusetts the first $500,000 of your residence can be safe from creditors, but only if you take the time to sign the right document. Whatever. By 11 a.m. we were out of there with the usual cramped fingers from signing documents. Using pen and ink is so old fashioned — hadn’t anyone ever heard of electronic signatures? Also old fashioned were the stack of checks that would go to various parties, many for overpriced legal documents of dubious significance. Ever hear of bank-to-bank transfers fellas?

Monday we finally liberated our stuff from our storage unit. No more torrential rains that left a mini mudslide in our new backyard to allow the mover to postpone delivery. No more unexpected engine and brake problems to further delay things. My wife was fed up enough to find another mover instead. This mover delivered a very full twenty foot truck full of our stuff leaving us with a new house we mostly owned (except for a $30,000 mortgage from the credit union) and at least three times the boxes from the move from our apartment.

Which leaves us at the end of our long relocation journey, except for putting away all the stuff in these boxes. The piles of boxes are quite intimidating. But at least all our stuff has arrived. So far there has been little damage of note. So kudos to JK Moving. Expensive china emerged from our boxes with no breakage. Putting items away though assumes you know where you want it to go, and that’s not always intuitive. For our new house is not the same as our old house. It has more space in general but less space in certain areas. So everything has to be puzzled through. Our strategy is tentatively place items in certain places. When all the boxes are unpacked and are on the curb for recycling then we’ll probably have to go through everything again and figure out where we really want to store them.

The other hard part is remembering where you put stuff. I waste about an hour a day opening drawers thinking I placed an item in it, but not finding it there. This requires opening other drawers and if you are lucky finding the item after a couple of attempts. The kitchen at least is now wholly unpacked and I am remembering where certain common items like silverware are located. It’s all the other stuff, like the waffle maker or the measuring cups that are hard to find.

A new house takes some getting used to. Not only are rooms in different places but like a new car it has a new house smell to it. Our wood floors still smells of recently applied polyurethane. Our unfinished basement has a weird odor that I can’t quite place. It may be the insulation hanging in the ceiling or it may be the foam insulation along the perimeter and in the crevices. Speaking of insulation, the house is so weather tight and energy efficient that the designers were aware it would lead to indoor air pollution. So there is a special ventilation stack to ensure this doesn’t happen with blowers that come on periodically. Other noises take some getting used to, such as the icemaker in the refrigerator. It’s a house so solidly constructed that at least for the moment it does not creak or groan. When fans and the icemaker are not making noise, the house is eerily silent.

Two days later at best a quarter of our boxes are unpacked. There are so many things to reassemble, such as a china cabinet and various bookcases. Furniture is tried in various locations then gets moved somewhere else, in hopes of an optimal configuration. It’s hard to know what fits best until it’s all in place and you use it for a little while. Pictures and artwork need to be placed, but where exactly? Clocks need to be hung, floor lamps need to be screwed into a stack, carpet runners need to be placed and plastic and metal shelves have to be reassembled. At some point the house starts to feel like a home. It didn’t feel much like a home to me until Monday afternoon. That’s when the large pier behind our bed arrived and was reassembled. It’s amazing it all arrived undamaged. Suddenly my bedroom looked familiar again. No longer using the guest room furniture, things were right back where they used to be, just facing west instead of east. Our bedroom at least felt like home.

The complete home feeling will probably have to wait until some time after everything is put away and all the photos and artwork are again on our walls. For our house is missing something vital: a cat or two to take possession of the place. Until I see paw prints on the windowsill, I am changing the litter box twice a week and am vacuuming cat dander off the sofas, it won’t quite feel like a home. Cats don’t like change so there’s no point in getting a cat until everything is put away. I expect a new feline or two to arrive in our lives in November.

Meanwhile there is plenty more unpacking and rearranging to do, and more weeks of feeling lost in my own home until things settle in.

The Thinker

Shiny and new, but feeling ephemeral

Muscles hurting? Check. Sweating much of the day while I frantically move things from one place to another? Check. Feeling overwhelmed with this business of moving in general? Check. Feel like I am in real estate hell? Check, check, check.

But here we are in our new house on a prominent hill in Florence, Massachusetts with about a third of our stuff in it. The rest of it remains in a storage unit until a mover can get to it. While we are in the house, we still don’t own it due to some frustrating real estate settlement issues. I’ll have more on that in a bit. But the builder was nice enough to let us in, as they have done with other owners in the past when things were not 100% done and these snafus happened. We had to sign a “hold harmless” agreement and if we don’t settle by October 7 (it was originally October 1) we start paying rent of $100 a day.

We can be annoyed with our builder for his extended delays, something not unusual in the home construction business. But we can’t complain that they did a poor job constructing our house. The house is solidly constructed and the standards for its construction were very high throughout the whole process. We know because we had five months to watch the process. Our house sits in a 55+ community. It comes with a full but empty basement and a huge loft bigger than our old apartment. Also up there is a large adjacent storage room. The main level has a kitchen and living room of course, but we also have a sunroom in the back. The main level has two bedrooms, two baths and extra wide doors. It is highly energy efficient. We have gas heat when we need it and a gas stove too. The master bathroom includes a shower and a soaker tub, as well as two vanities. It anticipates a time when we might be aging in place and need to navigate in wheelchairs. The wood floors were not prefinished. They were installed untreated and stained three times with the stain of our choice, and lacquered twice. We have a two-car garage with the interior actually finished and painted. We have a deck made with plastic wood that will still look pristine when we are dead. We even have a sprinkler system built in that we can’t control, part of one that belongs to the whole complex. It comes on whenever the system figures our turf (landscaped in earlier this week) should be watered. The house definitely smells new and everything is pristine, clean and shiny. Of course there are some lingering issues and mistakes. They will be addressed in time.

I can’t complain about our movers. There wasn’t much in our apartment, but they emptied our apartment and placed its contents in our house in about two hours. I can’t complain about the boxes everywhere and the sheer work in putting stuff away, although I’d like to. There is much more of this to go. It will take a couple of months for our house to resemble the way we want it arranged. I should be thrilled with the new house experience and all this space but I am too exhausted to appreciate it at the moment. It’s going to take a while (and a couple of new cats) before our home really feels like one.

But I certainly can complain about our crazy settlement process, full of highs and lows much worse than any roller coaster ride you can imagine. What’s infuriating is that I did everything I could to mitigate problems and it wasn’t enough.

Settlement was supposed to be Thursday morning. We had been “preliminarily approved” the credit union told us, but the settlement papers had not arrived on Wednesday and calls to the credit union only resulted in being sent to voicemail. I had heard our house needed a final appraisal, but had not heard if it had happened. The appraiser was late filing his report and in fact it didn’t arrive until Friday, the day after settlement, and it was the preliminary appraisal. Late Friday the credit union found a problem in the appraisal that had to be corrected. Settlement was effectively delayed to some indeterminate time in the future.

Also Friday night came a major shock. The title insurance company our credit union is using requires our title to be free of exceptions and they were adamant about this. As we are technically a condominium, there must be exceptions, none of which affect the use of the property. All the other units have these exceptions and to leave them out would constitute gross malpractice by our attorney, subjecting him to legal jeopardy. If this cannot be resolved our whole mortgage may be in jeopardy. I tried to reach the credit union Friday night but while they were answering the phone, no one who could actually do anything about it was available and I was sent to – you guessed it – voicemail. So we’re living in suspended animation until Monday.

Our builder is not faultless either. Settlement did not happen principally because documents did not arrive from the builder’s attorney. He and his assistant are Jewish so of course they went off to celebrate Yom Kippur even though our settlement date was known more than a week ago. They simply let it slip and didn’t tell anyone including the builder who was clueless. The only good part of this was that the screw up allowed me to convince the builder to let us occupy our home. This was good because we had given notice on our lease and the movers were already scheduled to move us the next day.

We are feeling our way through this mess, none of it our fault. The worst-case solution seems to be to cancel the mortgage application. The mortgage amount is only $30,000. I can probably cobble cash and a personal loan to make up the difference. But of course that will take time too, and reduce our savings buffer. I’m guessing it won’t come to this.

So we wander a house customized to our specifications and wondering if it will really be ours, or if it’s all an illusion. Meanwhile we have to put stuff away and hang things on the wall and buy lots of stuff to make it livable.

And I ache. I spend much of my day in motion, lifting, stretching and moving. My calves are as hard as a rock. My shoulder muscles throb. What’s discouraging is that I was already physically fit and it still hurts. It’s too much all at once, and my aging body pushing sixty is complaining. My wife meanwhile spends much of her day in extreme pain due to chiropractic work that left the muscles attaching to her sacroiliac joint throbbing, with Percocets not quite taking care of the problem. I pick up a lot of her slack, of course. Stuff has to get done, and quickly. She needs rest, but moving households means she must move anyhow and that included cleaning up our apartment yesterday. We ache and snipe at each other.

At least we have utilities. DirecTV came yesterday and gave us a satellite dish. Comcast won’t give us Internet until next week but I was surprised to find a strong Comcast Wifi signal in the neighborhood. That’s a great relief. At least I have a tool to manage all this mess. My Internet phone won’t work with the Wifi. Otherwise everything else seems to work.

It will all settle down soon, but I fear there is more chaos ahead.

The Thinker

Of houses and men

During the spring we watched our house — supposedly under construction — largely sit there for two months. It was a frame with windows and wrapped in Tyvek but that was about it. Yesterday our house was a beehive of activity as contractors tried to finish it at last, presumably to meet a September 15 deadline. They are unlikely to meet this deadline either, but it’s not from lack of trying during this final effort. Trucks working on our house were blocking traffic in and out of our development. We had to park down the street and amble up to our house. The din of construction equipment had doubtless woken up the whole neighborhood by the time we arrived around 8:30 am. The first layer of asphalt had just been laid on our driveway and was steaming in the morning sun.


We walked slowly on some planks to get onto our porch rather than step in the mud that will eventually become our lawn. Inside dozens of workmen were running around on every level. The smart ones were wearing hearing protection because it sounded like a rock concert in there, principally due to the placement of the staircase to our basement. A carpenter was creating a space for the stairs to sit with his miter saw. The electricians were busy wiring up the kitchen lights, but needed to consult with us on the placement of hallway lights, which was why we were there so early. Upstairs they were nailing down carpet tack in our loft and storage room. The painting at least was done with the main walls colored a nice light peach color, just like in our last house. The kitchen looked nearly done with all the cabinets and the countertop in place, but with the appliances still missing. Our newly stained and polished hardwood floors thankfully were still covered in plastic, since workmen didn’t have time to remove the mud from the soles of their shoes.

We returned later in the day to find the foreman there. The carpet was being installed in the loft, while in the master bedroom the padding was being stapled into the floorboard. A second coat of asphalt was going down on the driveway while the truck carrying it totally blocked traffic. The hallway lights were in place, but the ones in the bathroom remained to be done. We discussed where they should be seated and noted that our toilets had arrived, just had not been connected.

In the midst of all this chaos, the appliances arrived. With the asphalt still settling they had to be lifted over the mud, dollied into the house and then positioned into place. It was organized chaos, but at least the windows and doors were open, letting in fresh cool air. The foreman had a group of guys working on windows. They were already in place but the plastic was still on the panes and the screens needed to go in place. We discussed concerns about a duct that was blocked and a vanity that didn’t quite fit on its cabinet. It’s on backorder, along with a missing light at the top of the stairs.

Even with all this work there was still plenty more to do. The air conditioner needed to go in and a lot of electrical mysteries needed to be solved. Plugs that should have current did not. Outside, there was still no landscaping beyond a general grading, but at least the deck was completed with railings and some steps. Would this all be completed by September 15, our latest completion date?

It was not likely but it didn’t matter that much because we had finally nailed down a settlement date: September 24. This effectively postponed the delivery date and would put our actual occupation date some two months after when it was originally promised. Promises in the home construction business don’t mean a whole lot, so it’s best to have contingency plans. Nonetheless, we were getting antsy. We had given notice that we would be vacating our apartment at the end of the month. Without a settlement date until yesterday we could not book a mover. The mover’s schedule was already largely full, but he was free on the afternoon of the 24th to move the stuff out of our apartment. I was able to get the settlement time moved to the morning so that would work. Moving the voluminous stuff out of our storage unit will have to wait until near the end of the month when our mover is free.

After a week trying to get a hold of our loan processor, and even leaving a note with her supervisor to call us, she finally deigned to call us back. She ordered the belated appraisal of the property at once, but the appraiser could not actually stop by for nine days. Due to her incompetence, if the house had been ready by the 15th we would not have been able to settle. It’s still unclear if we will be able to settle on the 24th because our loan is apparently competing for her attention amongst many others and her boss keeps sending her to mandatory training. New documents were demanded because the loan processor had changed and apparently they couldn’t be bothered to save the records we sent them in February. This meant more scrambling to assemble papers, some entirely new.

It seems both home construction and loan processing aren’t very amenable to deadlines. It helps to know this is normal, so it must have been normal for me to fret and wonder if we would be sleeping in a hotel October 1 with the contents of our apartment in another storage unit. When sufficiently pressed by exasperated homeowners like us things though generally do move toward the finish line at last. I have figured out that it will be generally up to me to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, as it is up to whoever cares the most to shriek the loudest to bring it all together. I am going hoarse.

Still, in a few weeks it will be over. A 14-month relocation odyssey will be over. It will be replete with innumerable pitfalls along the way that only sustained focus fixed. Barring any last minute deal breakers, two weeks from now we should be living in our new house with all the hassles of this relocation appearing blessedly in our rear view mirror.

The Thinker

Retirement’s first year

Certain people get paid breaks during their careers. They are called sabbaticals. It’s basically an extended period of paid downtime, usually at least six months, to get away from a 9-5 job and recharge. It’s a privilege apparently given to a vanishingly few of us: ministers, scientists and professors for the most part. The rest of us don’t merit the privilege. The sabbatical depends on the idea that a change of scenery and intellectual focus will feed a creative mind and it will result in renewed energy and perhaps new ideas upon your return.

I could have used a few sabbaticals in my career. I think I would have been more effective in the workplace. Of course I didn’t get any of them. Some of us though have the privilege to retire well and in decent health at a reasonably young age. I opted for retirement a year ago. August 1, 2014 was my last day as a full time salaried employee. I retired at age 57 principally because I could. My federal pension was generous as I was under the old retirement system and I was highly graded in the government. In addition I had enough saved for retirement that it appeared I could reasonably expect to match my standard of living. It helped to have almost all my debts paid off too.

Still, retiring was a bit of a nervy thing to do. It ends badly for a lot of people. Often they discover they don’t really have enough money to have the sort of retirement they envisioned. Or they find themselves terminally bored, missing the contact they used to have at the office. I miss having the daily office experience, although at the time it was a mixed experience. I keep in touch with a few old colleagues, mostly on Facebook. However, most of them have vanished as a continuing presence in my life. I also miss having an office, just some place outside the house to escape to for much of the day. Of course I love my wife, but I wasn’t sure if I would like her as much when we were in each other’s faces so often.

So far I feel like I haven’t properly retired. For one thing, I haven’t stopped working. I don’t work full time, but I am doing some consulting that amounts to about twenty hours a week on average. It just depends on what inquiries come in through my professional website. This was by design. In spite of the pension and the retirement savings, I wasn’t confident that we could maintain our standard of living. Continuing to earn some money eased my financial anxiety. It also forced me to keep engaged in the work world, just in a different way than I used to.

When I wasn’t consulting my wife and I were busy remaking our lives. As regular readers know, the last year has been busy in spite of the fact that we are retired. That’s because we chose to relocate, and that decision started a whole chain of events. It meant selling our house in Virginia and moving to western Massachusetts. We sold the house in April and now we live in temporary lodgings in Easthampton, Massachusetts while our house in nearby Florence lumbers toward completion. It won’t be until we are in our new house and things are properly put away that this transition will finally be complete.

From last August through last March most of my time was doing basic fix up to our old house so it would sell. This meant what seemed like endless trips to the local Lowes, plastering, painting and minor construction jobs. Simultaneously we had to find a new place in Massachusetts. A neighborhood had to be selected, a house price agreed to and contracts had to be signed. It was all very tedious and often nerve wracking, but it worked out quite well. I went by our new house today and inspected the newly installed drywall, which is all screwed into place but awaits a lot of joint compound. We hope to move in during the middle of September.

As nerve wracking and expensive as the whole process was, it was still better than my old job. It had pretty much burned me out after ten years. The cast of masters I reported to had changed as well, and not for the better, giving me more incentive to get out. It did not take long after retiring to find that I slept better and was much less stressed in general. I discovered I have a natural sleep pattern after all (bedtime is around 11:30 and eight to eight and a half hours of sleep a night is what I need). I rarely got that when employed, except on the weekends. The crazy demands of my job and the frequently hellish commutes made it mostly impossible. I spent much of my professional life sleep deprived.

I rarely find myself bored in retirement, but I do find myself doing more of what I prefer to do and less of what I don’t like to do. I found that I like information technology too much to give it up. I try to stay current on the latest trends and to expand my knowledge, even though I am unlikely to need to know a lot of what I am learning. I used to feel guilty about surfing the web at work. It’s obviously not a problem anymore. I surf with abandon. Should I get bored I have Netflix streaming as a distraction. I also subscribe to a music streaming service. Together they provide a lot of entertainment.

Now that I’ve moved I find that I exercise more. I’ve taken up biking again and have enjoyed the many bike trails in our new neighborhood. I often walk in the evenings, generally for a few miles. I also enjoy learning about my new community. Finding new doctors, meeting new neighbors and connecting with a new religious community have proven to be growth experiences. Before the move I stayed connected to my community too. Right until the end I kept volunteering at my local Unitarian church. I also taught a class at a local community college. I am trying to teach here as well, but so far there have been no nibbles.

It does at times feel surreal to have relocated four hundred miles away. I had been living in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area for more than thirty-five years. I do miss some things from that area. In some ways I stay connected. I still read The Washington Post; I just do it online. At the same time I enjoy reading the local newspaper around here, pedestrian though it is compared to the Post. In the Daily Hampshire Gazette a big news story can be a moose found ambling through a suburban neighborhood. Routine content includes school lunch menus. I read the details of local town meetings where items like buying a new fire truck must get an up or down vote from the citizenry. They practice real democracy here in New England. It would not occur to The Post to publish this sort of “news”. It would be beneath them.

When you live in and around Washington D.C. you are deeply consumed by the minutia of national and international affairs. Who you know is important but what’s most important is what you do, which amounts to what power do you have over the government, which ideally involves control of policy or regulation. One of the first questions you are asked when you meet someone new is “What do you do?” In my last job I had a reasonably prestigious position. While that vanished with retirement, I find I simply don’t miss the authority or the problems I used to wrestle with. It’s someone else’s problem now. I’ve moved on.

I’ll try to come back to this topic in a year. I expect that my next year of retirement will be more settled and I’ll have a truer perspective of what it means and feels like to be retired. So far I have found that if you are reasonably confident that your financial house is in order and you are pretty good as distracting yourself with fun things to do, it is something to look forward to and not to dread.

The Thinker

Life in suspended animation

There’s siding on our house now. The plumbing is mostly in place, but no water is running and nothing like a sink is connected to the plumbing yet. A skeletal electrical system runs through the house, but also is not connected to any actual electricity. The floor of the garage is now concrete instead of sand. A gas fireplace is in its spot in our future living room. The gas line now comes up to the house but that’s as far as it goes. Two shower inserts are also in place. The rooms in the upstairs are sealed off from the attic. Most of the ducting is in place. But that’s pretty much all that the developers have done to our house over the last three months. No drywall is up. No insulation installed. Sawdust and debris litter the floors. Construction crews can’t be bothered to sweep or pick up stuff. Old soda bottles sit in the corners of our rooms to be.

It helps to be patient while we cool our heels eight miles away in a tiny and uncomfortable apartment in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The house was supposed to be done in about two weeks. The new estimated completion date is September 15. While we wait in an apartment with one window air conditioner and a few fans trying to keep us cool, our developers are busy working mostly on other houses. It’s pretty clear that we are not that important to them. Weeks go by sometimes without anything happening to our house. Sometimes there is a day or two burst of activity and then people and trucks disappear until some ambiguous future time when more return.

I’m not sure how this house construction business is supposed to go, but I doubt it’s supposed to go like this. The developer has his excuses, of course. It was an exceptionally cold and snowy winter and yet they were able to pour a foundation in February. In March when we visited a frame was up, along with a roof. By the time we arrived three months ago, Tyvek was covering the outside and the windows were in. Then weeks went by and absolutely nothing happened. They can’t say it was because there was still snow on the ground.

The real reason for these delays seems to be twofold. The developer has another project twenty miles south of us. There they can concentrate forces and work on many units at once. Whereas we are a single unit in a development that is already three quarters complete and with only forty houses altogether. So it’s more efficient and profitable to do those houses and keep us in suspended animation. In addition, their subcontractors are busy doing work elsewhere. I guess the housing sector is doing quite well. My guess is that they use low bidder contractors to eke out more profit on their projects, and they do the stuff that pays better first, so what slips must be our schedule.

Our new neighbors already know us by name. We attend their clubs, dinners and wine tasting events. Apparently our experience is common in this development, as most of their delivery schedules slipped too. So we are stuck in a tiny apartment in Easthampton with 80% of our stuff in storage. All we can do is cool our heels because getting angry doesn’t change the dynamics.

I guess this is the price you pay when a having a house built. The upside is that you can have the house built your way. The kitchen will be just the way my wife wants it because she designed it. The walls will have the uniform color of the walls in our last house: peach. And everything will be new and unlikely to need repair or replacement for many years. We just got to hang in there about two more months.

Meanwhile, there is all this free time. Much of it is spent sliding past each other in the hallway. In our tiny kitchen, it’s best for only one person to be standing at a time. Sound from the television can’t help but leak into my little study, because it is only a few feet away. So I keep the headphones on and hope to drown out the drone of my wife’s eclectic taste in TV shows. She watches stuff I would never watch in a million years, like pretty much anything on truTV, an absolute nadir of television “entertainment”.

Outside the kitchen window, the next-door neighbors offer something that is best considered entertainment. The guy works on his car endlessly, and has been tinkering with loud bass speakers in them since we got here. He does stupid and dangerous stuff. The other day I observed him trying to prime a small motorcyle engine by pouring gasoline into its carburetor then turning on the ignition switch. Some of the gasoline spilled onto the concrete and caught fire. Mental note: call the Easthampton Fire Department next time I observe this behavior. They shuffle off to work early. Around four a.m. they are outside our window conversing, car engines revving loudly. Once around two a.m. the husband and wife were on their back porch arguing loudly, presumably so they aren’t arguing in front of their kid. The neighbor above us got sick of it before us, opened his window and yelled at them to shut the fuck up.

At least I have time to thoroughly examine Easthampton. At one time I wanted to live here. Now that I am here: well, not so much. Florence (when we actually take up residence) will be a much better choice for us. In general roads are bad in western Massachusetts, but in Easthampton they are bad even by the standards of this part of the state. Only a major road will get an occasional resurfacing. Some of these other thoroughfares like Parsons Street and Ferry Street are full of potholes that have been filled in numerous times, making driving down the street teeth rattling. There are also lots of potholes the city can’t be bothered to fill in, and blocks where traffic cones block the axle-crushing ones. Months later they are still not filled in. I guess the residents like to keep property taxes down. In part to handle all the bumpy roads, I had my struts replaced.

Still, there is Mount Tom nearby. It’s not too hard to ascend the mountain in part because it’s not too high. The views of the Pioneer Valley up there are worth the climb. I’ve done it many times on my bike, with the best part the brisk ride downhill. There is plenty of time for biking in general, mostly to and from Florence where our house is. My excuse for biking there is to get the mail, but it’s also good exercise and gives me an opportunity to verify that little is being done on our house.

And there is my consulting, which amounts to about twenty hours a week. It ebbs and flows but keeps me connected to my profession. I take plenty of walks around the nearby Lower Mill Pond and amble through Easthampton’s modest downtown. Easthampton is a faint shadow of the showier and more successful nearby city of Northampton. The curious thing is that despite all the ruin porn, it’s definitely on the upswing. Businesses are moving back into some of it, principally to the old buildings along Pleasant Street. Others of these old brick buildings are scheduled for redevelopment. What you can’t find here in Easthampton is a really good restaurant, or a salad bar except in the Big E, its sole supermarket (and it’s a tiny but nice one). Except for downtown, most of the sidewalks and curbs are crumbling or have crumbled. If real prosperity is to happen here again, they might start by fixing these, but no one seems to want to pay for it.

Surely though we will move into our house one of these days and bid adieu to Easthampton. We have learned it’s best not to get our expectations up. So I expect a lot more bumping into my wife in this tiny little apartment in the months ahead.

The Thinker

Searching for the exit

Dad is lying on his bed, half human and half ghost. He is not as pale as he was during his last bout with pneumonia, but he certainly looks ghost-like. His companion machine with its steady pulse is squirting oxygen into his nostrils with each breath. Dad is wearing pants in bed, a linen shirt and a felt shirt on top of that, despite the open door to the balcony letting in the warm moist Mid-Atlantic summer air outside. It doesn’t take much to make you cold when your body fat is gone. My father, who once towered six feet tall, was now diminished, and now weighs about 140 pounds.

He is lying flat because it is hurts less to lie, but also because standing takes work, which means using oxygen. Standing also requires muscles to move and right now it hurts to move his muscles. It probably hurts because he is not eating much, so to stay alive his body is looking for energy elsewhere and is busy converting the protein in his muscles into energy. All his muscles hurt, he tells me. Dad has the appetite of a bird, except that I suspect a bird eats more. A spoon or two of food makes him feel full, and then he wants to lie down. NPR news fills his bedroom while he lies, but mostly he is not listening. He sleeps a lot: all night and most of the day.

Frankly, there is little incentive for him to get out of bed. When he does he hurts and even with oxygen going into his nose it’s easy to feel winded. His left lung is still there but essentially it is non-functional as it is full of fibrous tissue. His stomach hurts a lot, particularly when standing. The good news is he can still stand. Dad can sort of take care of himself. In reality though he has lost a lot of his agility, so he needs someone to help him into clothes and out of clothes. He gets through the night by keeping a urinal next to his bed. Dad is not so much living as he is existing. His wife (my stepmother) provides companionship and helps in the nursing duties, that is until I arrived.

My father is scared but cannot seem to admit it, and depressed, which is something he will grudgingly admit. The Lexapro may help with the depression, but he just started taking it and it takes a few weeks to have an effect. The psychiatrist cannot see him until mid July. Dad needs lots of things, but mostly he needs to eat a whole lot more. It’s not clear if his stomach can process it.

What Dad needs even more is family and that’s why I made the four hundred mile journey to see him and spend four nights with him. I was there out of love and concern, but also because I am retired, so I can spare the time. He needs someone to listen with compassion. He needs someone who understands his whole person. I can do that, as he did the same with me many times growing up. I can hold his hand. I can make gentle suggestions. But mostly I listen. It’s pretty clear that Dad wants to leave his mortal coil. His way of doing so strikes me as passive aggressive: eat very little and spend much of his time in bed.

While he can walk, he walks haltingly. And he cannot walk too far and he walks somewhat unsteadily. When he gets out of his apartment he needs to be in a wheelchair, and generally that means Marie is pushing him. But at least for four nights it can be me. His oxygen bottle is slung from the back of the wheelchair. There is not much to look forward to in his condition, but there is at least dinner in the dining room of his retirement community, where almost everyone knows him by name. He looks diminished but when asked how he is doing he says “okay”.

It’s in the evening when something resembling life reemerges. He is energized around people and can maintain a conversation and at least for a while forget his pain. He eats little of what is on his plate, but takes sustenance from participating in the conversation around him. Returning home, with me there he will sit on the living room sofa and engage in conversation, but most of the time he hurts too much and wants to return to bed.

Getting him ready for bed is a time consuming and tedious process, which involves disrobing him, re-robing him, and cleaning him in between these states. It means assisting him with flossing and brushing and when not his shower day washing his chest, back and face. It means laying out clothes on chairs, shuffling shoes around and getting his urinal ready for night, all while tethered to a fifty-foot oxygen line. For me it means seeing his 88-year-old body so gaunt, with bones practically protruding from his skin and waiting to assist when he stands and sits. It means buttoning and unbuttoning shirts, helping him on with boxer shorts and pajamas. It means getting him a glass of water to use when brushing his teeth. It’s a ritual that varies little every night.

My presence means a lot but it is hard to quantify. On Friday I noticed him eating a little more and felt a bit cheered. I tried to be nonjudgmental as he tells me how he feels. I encourage siblings via email to call him and cheer him up. On Friday after dinner he goes to his desk and sifts through papers for a little while. This small act is actually a hopeful sign.

Fathers Day means company and phone calls, dinner provided by my sister and cookies provided by my nephew. It means love and companionship and, being my family, a discussion of contemporary politics in the living room where my conservative stepmother offers me reasons why she hates President Obama. My father mostly listens passively until I critique Fox News when he offers me a handshake. My Dad makes a point of being apolitical in front of the children, but occasionally a liberal viewpoint will leak out.

By Monday when I leave he is eating more. I encourage him to keep doing so. To start he needs enough calories not to lose any more weight, but his traditional passion foods like chocolate do little to engage him. I leave him with my stepmother who won’t coddle him and wonder if he will improve or regress again after I am gone. I can’t stay with him forever. I have a wife back in Massachusetts with chronic issues that also needs support.

There is always hope for a recovery, but realistically the best we can hope for is that he does not slide further. His pulmonary fibrosis won’t go away. He will be tethered to an oxygen container for the rest of his life. If things get much worse it will be more than my stepmother can handle. Nursing assistance will be needed and perhaps a nursing home. It’s not hard to predict that if he gets into a nursing home that he won’t live too long. He needs a social life to survive and there is none of that there.

Meanwhile, I hope that he will retain enough muscle mass not to fall, and I hope that some infection does not quickly fell him. He is doing far better (at least so far) than my mother did in her decline. Dying however slowly and incrementally is still an ugly process. Love and companionship help, but it’s not quite enough. He slips a bit further away from me with every passing day. It leaves me sad and melancholy.

Dying is not fair, but it must happen. There seem infinite paths for dying and my Dad seems to be choosing his way through it somewhat. All I can do is try to make things better, which may be giving Dad a sponge bath, holding his hand when he is low and letting him know how much I love him.

The Thinker

Ghostwriter (or the art of tricking Google)

All my life I wanted to be a paid writer. Being a writer sounded quite glamorous. You are paid to create and if you were good enough or wrote for just the right mass audience you could be wealthy like Stephen King.

Life didn’t work out that way for me. It’s probably for the best because most writers are starving writers, which means they do it as a hobby and not for much real income. They have other jobs that pay the rent. Moreover most writing is not glamorous, even when it pays well. Most writers dream of writing popular fiction. What most writers actually do is write articles for magazines or trade journals, or the local newspaper. They adhere to editorial guidelines. Their writing is not very creative. It’s about putting a number of facts and quotations on paper or online in a way that may be interesting enough for the reader to make it to the end of the article. These days even publishers don’t care if readers read the entire article or not. They are looking to serve ads. They care about whether your article attracts a lot of ad views. Whether it gets read is not that important, unless they are going for some sort of award.

So if you can find a writing job it is likely to pay poorly and be demoralizing to you and your self-esteem. And if you do manage to get a book published, it’s likely to sell a hundred to a thousand copies, with extras ending up in a discount book bin or just shredded for pulp for the next book. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing does not provide close to a living wage. Most editors will refuse to acknowledge your brilliance.

Recently though I did get paid to write. I was paid to ghostwrite. So in a sense I have become a published writer, although I think the content is going strictly online. Essentially, I’m being paid to influence Google’s search engine. Yes, I am writing for a set of algorithms! I’ve become something of a slave to the computer!

Google of course is the king of search engines. Getting high or higher on its search index is important. For many businesses it’s the difference between life or death. The only question is: how to get ranked higher than your competitors? Google is not telling, although it does give some hints. Needless to say there are plenty of companies out there that claim they can get your company ranked higher.

Most of these outfits are selling snake oil. There are lots of obvious things that can be done which don’t hurt, such as having URLs with meaningful information about your article, providing a sitemap.xml file and removing bad links. In the trade this is called “search engine optimization” or SEO. Everyone with the means to do so is already doing SEO. What you really want is for your company to appear in the top page of Google’s listing, ideally at or near the top for a given search phrase. These are links that people will click on.

One of my clients has made a business of SEO. I’ll call him Dick (not his real name). He’s hired me for odd jobs maintaining his forum, generally because he’s too busy making real money to mess with it. Dick has a reputation in the SEO world of getting results. That’s why Dick sought me out to be a ghostwriter.

Dick’s success has come through building a company’s online reputation. He figured out that Google ranks higher those sites that publish honest articles. I have no idea how Google assigns an honesty rating to an article, but somehow it’s got a built in bullshit detector in its algorithms. If it doesn’t look like bullshit, it’s ranked higher. If it looks authoritative, it’s ranked even higher. If you publish lots of articles that look honest and impartial, over time it will raise the ranking of your company in Google’s search index. This is a long-term strategy and it’s a costly one as well.

So I was hired to write some technical articles in this client’s particular domain. It turns out I have pretty good credentials. First, I do information technology for a living, so I have practical and current experience along with a masters degree in software systems engineering. Second, I write fairly well. Third, I am mostly retired. And fourth, I can write an impartial article. My years in government have actually helped. Government employees develop finely honed bullshit detectors, because we are constantly dealing with vendors trying to get their products and services into our enterprise.

Dick is also kind enough to provide a few sample articles for my topic. I use these as well as my thirty years in the business to crank out these articles. Generally they are no more than 800 words and follow a format. I charge by the hour. Since most of these are survey articles, I don’t have to really do any research. I just start writing. It takes me about three hours to write an article. I bill at $30/hour (my retiree rate). So far I’ve done two articles and earned $180 ghostwriting. There will probably be more, as the client is satisfied with my work.

I have no idea where these articles will be placed, but Dick tries to get them in online publications of authoritative sites. I could probably find them online if I looked. Dick does edit what I send him, so it may appear somewhat altered. But at least I am a published writer. Some people may find my articles interesting, but the only “person” of real interest is Google’s search engine. We are basically trying to fake it out. Dick’s client is essentially renting my experience for potential future customers and an improved reputation.

I’ll probably never know how this will all pan out. Some part of me thinks I am being dishonest. I am writing honest articles, but I am doing it on behalf of a company that doesn’t have the in-house skills or the time to do it. They are essentially renting my reputation, such as it is, to add to their reputation.

But hey, at least I am a published writer now! My pseudonym? Call me Anonymous.


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