Saturday, July 16, 2011

Checkbox on the Bucket List

Ripping along a twisty rural road in a ridiculously overpowered and underbalanced sports car, I dipped just a bit too deep into the gas pedal coming out of the apex of a good hard curve. Damn near pirouetting the car at 70mph, my eyes popped wide, my jaw fell open, and I think I barked a sort-of laugh of heedless joy.

Driving the 1989 Porsche 911 Turbo felt exactly how I imagined it would, and how I hoped it would. Which is considerable as I've been carrying that hope for over a quarter century.

My son called it "Dad Heaven." He wasn't not far wrong: my day was spent switching off among three gleaming Porsche 911s of various vintages, tearing up the countryside to reach private tours of two magnificent classic automotive collections.

At a fundraising auction for my daughter's school, I and 5 other middle-aged little boys bid high for the chance to spend the day scaring stroller-pushing moms and dumping fossil fuel carbon into the atmosphere in pursuit of the ephemeral realization of a fantasy we didn't know we shared. One ill-considered gentleman provided the cars (can you imagine the optimism?) while another brought race-driving experience, classic auto expertise, and-- prudently, I thought-- his own vehicle. The 6 of us toted cameras, comfortable driving shoes, sunglasses. And a lot of expectations.

First up for me was the 1978 911SC, #800 off the line in a production run of around 58,000 I was told. All I know is that this 33-year old car showed only 17,000 miles on the original odometer. The leather interior gleamed warmly, uncracked, and soft to the touch. The tiny interior was close, dated in design, yet every control fell right to my fingertips. The floor mounted shifter was a surprisingly long throw-- 1st to 2nd was pretty much knee to hip-- and the clutch pedal was both very stiff and long of travel, so the deftness I lacked would have to be earned. Unassisted steering, something by which I had not been abused in many years, forced me to haul the wheel two-handed from lock to lock in order to escape the parking lot.

But once on the road, this car warmed me right up. The steering turned out to be go-kart tight, communicating everything going on between the tires and the asphalt. Once I figured out the clutch, the whole package seamlessly blended into a giddy montage of nimble cornering and torquey power on tap. The flat 6 screamed happily as I raced up through the gears. The snug bucket seat held me fast, secure and comfy as I tossed the car vigorously into turns. Going fast felt like going fast. The SC was peppy and light on its feet, like a retired hoofer whose inner vitality and skill are apparent only when the music starts and the dance floor beckons. It felt old-school: simple, pure, even slightly underpowered, but surely not old.

Next up was the Turbo, and it had me smiling like an idiot just sliding into the seat. At 14 years old I had brochures of exactly this car on my bedroom walls-- all black, with a 2-tone leather interior and the huge "whale tail" fin on its rump. One of my first summer jobs was as a Porsche dealership lot attendant, just so I could wash cars like this in the shimmering July heat. This car was legendary even then for its danger: an unusual combination of rear engine weight and huge turbo boost, which came big and fast and very late in the power band, frequently hurled inexperienced drivers into a sideways spin. More than a handful of new buyers spent their first night of Porsche ownership in the hospital after putting the car on its side in a ditch, or splitting it open on a tree trunk.

Yet it felt immediately like home to me. I'd played this moment over in my head as a teen so many times that I was comfortable from the start. After my initial, overconfident but predictable experiment with the power surge, I settled right in. Power out of a turn in second gear (wait till it's almost straight please), upshift to third as the revs climb toward 6000. Dial it up to 50 in third, 60, 65, then ease off the gas, clutch in, heel the brake a touch, gently shift back to second, use the toe for a bit of gas, keep the nose just off the yellow line, gradual clutch release before the revs come down, clutch catches the engine easily to slow the hurdling beast, haul it through the turn, then dip light into the gas again coming out of the corner. Repeat.

It was like sex and I had to bite my tongue to keep from actually moaning as my body fell into the thrum of the vibrating vehicle. Everything fit, everything was in tune and in sync. I swooned. The car and I were one.

"Okay, my turn," My right ear barely registered the sound as though it was from a distance. I woke from my trance. My passenger was 10 inches from me, impatiently drumming his fingers on one knee, jealously eyeing the steering wheel and the driver-centered tachometer as though I had actually borrowed his lover.

I didn't want to drive the last car, a stunning metallic red 2008 Carrera S. It was so modern, so plush. Bose symphony sound, satellite navigation screen, 12-way power seats. I knew it would be like driving any new luxury car, but with Porsche capabilities: 160 miles per hour, corner on rails, stop on a dime ...

I was wrong. It was quite a bit better than that. It was ... effortless brilliance. Mozart and air conditioning, supple black leather and adjustable lumbar seat bolsters. I took a green light 90-degree turn at 40mph, the car didn't even blink. I left a Mustang behind at the next light like it was standing still. Before I even thought to change lanes and move ahead of the pickup truck in front of me, I was passing the semi in front of him. Glanced at my speedo and saw ... 85!? Slow down.

With the '78 SC and the '89 Turbo, driving well required work, and practice practice practice. Attention must be paid not to pop the clutch or jab the brakes or select the wrong gear ... or oversteer and send the heavy back end around to the front. Not so in the 2008 Carrera. This car did all the heavy lifting for me. I just pointed it, snick-snicked into gear and WENT. Whereas the '89 Turbo became almost overwhelming with its force-fed 278 horsepower, this normally-aspirated descendant possessed 325hp but behaved itself. It was affable, imperturbable. Limited-slip differential technology, wider & stickier tires, computer-assisted throttle controls added up to a safer, and better, sports car. Even a novice could look like a champ in this car.

Which, for me, is its downfall. I don't want affable in a sports car. If it comes so easily then maybe it isn't really worth having. I need to work, I want to earn it. I want skill demanded of me equal to the skill of the vehicle. I'm looking for a learning curve that makes driving it at least something of a challenge. Then-- when I finesse a surefooted freeway slalom, when I dive into that next country road bend and roar out of it with my back bumper in the back, where it belongs, when I convincingly dust sports cars 20 years younger and more powerful from a stoplight, and when I grin the awestruck grin that bubbles from my ecstatic gut-- then I'm satisfied.

Drifting to Fifty  |  Random unrelated nugget of the week
Learn a sport that you can play even as you age: skiing, golf, swimming, tennis. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to remain active the rest of your life.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

True Tooth Tales

My 11-year old son got his two front teeth knocked out in a Little League All-Star game today. Freak thing, really: he swung hard on a good pitch, connected with the ball-- but instead belting it out past the infield, he creamed it straight down, where it bounced hard on a rubberized home plate and came straight back up into his mouth. He felt the teeth let go, covering his mouth with his left hand and dropping the bat and whirling to find his mom and me in the stands all in one motion. Scary moment.

But it wasn't the first of its kind. As a matter of fact, this is fourth time he's been cranked in the mouth. The first, in early 2009, was his own fault. Spinning himself dizzy in the school cafeteria, he literally fell on his face. Both adult front teeth, smashed out on the concrete floor. The next was the random flying elbow of a classmate a year later; the one after that when his chin fell out of his hand as he dropped onto a glossy laminate desktop. Each time, the same: a perfect jagged hole, as though he took a bullet to his smile.

We put it all back, of course. His dentist, who drove 50 miles from her vacation home on the 4th of July weekend to assist us and who is amazing in her commitment and her patience, re-glued his face together. Again. I'm told there is even Little League insurance for players, something I wish I knew when the same kid got his thumb crushed by a fastball in April. (I know, perhaps he should take up less brutal, less injurious sport. Lacrosse, maybe. Or rugby.)

But at the dentist the conversation took an obvious turn, to the issue of mouthguards. The dentist wrote my son a note to the Little League umpires which would allow him back into the series. But she also asserted her expectation, with our blessing, that he wear a mouthguard for the remainder of the season. She also expressed her hope that the same be demanded of the rest of the team. And as long as she was wishing on a star, she asked that the policy be extended league-wide.

At which point I began to have second thoughts on the whole thing. Required? For everyone? It just makes me wonder when is enough. How many rules? How much sacrifice for safety? How much do we give for the "common good"?

This debate has been raging forever, in various forms. Boys are required to wear a cup in many sports. Shin guards for all soccer players. Helmets for football, lacrosse, ice hockey and field hockey. Helmets for cyclists and motorcyclists. Life jackets on boats. Seat belts in cars and on airplanes. No cigarette or cigar smoking in public places. The list is long, and seems only to be getting longer.

I'm an American. I believe in that which America purports to stand for: freedom. Personal freedom-- of religion, of expression, of belief. And to a large degree, of action. If I want to attempt the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park as my first ever rock climbing attempt, I need a permit but I am welcome to try. Should I choose to row a boat to Hawaii, I can be accused of irrationality or stupidity, but it's my choice. If I wish to start an online "dating" site for married people hoping to have an affair, you can call me immoral or societally destructive, and you can certainly choose not to solicit my business. But it is my right to do so. For now.

Where is the line? At what point should my prerogative be taken away? The obvious and oft-repeated answer is, when my actions endanger or are destructive to others, or to the nation, then I should be stopped. And I largely agree with that. We don't want thousands of brain-damaged former motorcyclists with insufficient insurance eating up our tax dollars for their hospital care.

I can see the distinction between forcing a 9-year old football player to wear a helmet-- he hasn't the experience to possess good judgment-- and forcing a middle-aged salesman to buckle up as his flight from Durham to St. Louis barrels down the runway. The gentleman should know better. Clearly we have a responsibility to take care of the children.

But to what degree? Surely there is a difference between protecting the child's brain and protecting his teeth. What's the next step? Shall we require wrist guards on skateboarders and inline skaters? All red meat cooked to medium, or well-done? Condoms for all sexual activity not intended for conception? Where is that line, exactly? And while I'm at it, what shall the penalties be?

We are chasing that old saw of utilitarianism, doing the most good for the most people. Which conceptually I understand. It's logical, it's reasonable and it sounds great. But what are we losing along the way?

Drifting to Fifty  |  Random unrelated nugget of the week:
Spend a couple extra bucks on a silicon spatula for cooking and baking to replace your rubber and plastic ones. You will never go back.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Sometimes you win ...

My phone is ringing. 

"Good morning, sir. This is Lawrence Pickering, Building Inspector for Del Mar County. I'm terribly sorry to bother you, sir, I know this must be a hard time for you. I just need to know when you'll be able to board up and secure your building on 30th Avenue. You are aware, sir, I'm sure, that it is your legal and moral obligation to do so for the safety of the community."

"I'm sorry, I must be confused," I told him. Surely there was a mix-up. Typical county mismanagement. "Why do I need to board it up?" I'm not really listening.

"Sir, the fire burned out the front door, back door, and pretty much the entire rear of the building. The property is unsecured and is a hazard to the neighborhood."

Now he's got my attention. "What fire?" 

---

I got into investment real estate a few years ago: a few houses flipped at break-even, a few houses bought, renovated & rented, minority share ownership of several small apartment buildings, a couple of small commercial properties, some other projects. In a relatively short period of time I've dealt with cockroaches, flooding, called loans, embezzling contractors, evictions, sewage leaks, crime, market declines, crooked partners, tenant drugs, police on the scene, and even a foreclosure or two.

But this week brought my first fire. The real thing, not some scorched kitchen paneling hassle. No one hurt or injured, luckily. But two or three fire trucks, sirens, smoke and flames, hoses blasting water into the sky, whirling red lights, people yelling and cursing. From what I understand, it was intense.

 So it goes, I guess. The building was empty anyway, or it was supposed to have been. 4 two-story units, one compact cheaply
constructed building with a parking lot for a front yard, in the sort of neighborhood you would never bring your kids to. My business partner and I picked it up at a foreclosure auction, the sort of thing you see on TV with a trustee/barker and everyone gathered around with sheafs of paper-- just a tiny bit of information about each property on the block. Even if you've visited the building you want to buy, chances are you weren't able to get inside or inspect it, so it's a gamble anyway. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you crap out. We knew it was a bad bet the moment we laid eyes on it-- which, in this case, was too late.

From the start, we had issues with the property. We had broken appliances, burst pipes, roof leaks, unsealed toilets. We had lock problems and electrical problems and doors that won't close and floors that rotted out. Then there were the tenants. They couldn't keep their garbage in the bins, they couldn't keep the party noise at legal levels (at least 8 police reports), they threw dirty diapers at each other (I am not making this up) and they couldn't be reached by phone. Our maintenance costs and our time spent were both more than double what we had budgeted. On top of that, since our 2007 purchase we had at least 9 different tenants rotate through the 4 units-- and not one of them was ever able to keep up with the rent as written in the lease. We would come down to collect (it was literally too much to ask that they put a check in the mail) and get a lousy week's worth of their month in cash, sometimes even as little as $20-- and then only if we posted 3-day Pay-or-Vacate notices to threaten them. It was crazy. Our monthly mortgage payment became unsupportable fast.

By the start of 2010 the real estate market crash had wiped at least 30% off our building's mortgaged value, based on neighborhood comparables, and we were cash-flow negative as well. We spent a couple of months firing calls and letters at our lender asking them to modify our loan-- ideally to recognize the valuation change and decrease our principal balance, or at least temporarily lower the payments to help us through. But, not so terribly shockingly, they ignored us.

So in April 2010 we stopped paying the mortgage. "Strategic default" is the term the Fortune 1000 use for it: basically, when a big company realizes it's bought or leased property which it doesn't want but which contractually it can't get out of, it stops paying for it, gives back the keys, takes a loss on its books and moves on. Perfectly legal. (Though apparently it's immoral when individuals do it. So I'm told. )

We hired a specialist real estate agent to try to short-sell it (a "short sale" is the sale of a property for less than the amount owed on it. The bank takes the hit and the buyer is out his down payment as well) No bites. The agent lowered the price a couple times, and we got an offer in February 2011 ... which fell through once the buyer got a look inside. I do not for one second blame him-- had I seen the inside beforehand I wouldn't have bought it either.

A month after that we learned that the last of our tenants had been driven out by neighborhood drug dealers who demanded they either become new customers, refer new customers, or take a hike. It didn't matter much-- we had expected the bank to take it long before and had warned the tenants to get out. We even stopped paying some utilities to encourage them to go (they just brought electric power over by extension cord from a neighbor).

By April 2011 we had four officially empty units and at least 2 squatter "families." We released our agent, fired the short sale/default/foreclosure attorneys, and begged the bank to take the building back.  Nothing. It sat.

Last weekend, a fire. Apparently someone dropped a cigarette-- or crack pipe light?-- into the couch in Unit 3. (Unit 3 of course had been empty, no power no water, since January, Why was there a couch in there at all? Never mind a person?) The fire took out the entire unit, both floors, staircase, kitchen ... and most of the second floor rear walls of the other 3 units as well.

There is neither significant financial loss nor gain for us in all this. We have only the nuisance of it, dealing with fire inspectors and building inspectors and the sheriff's department and endless insurance hoops to jump through. Not to mention the embarrassment, the brain-burning frustration, of an investment gone so horribly sideways.

My investment partner thinks the whole story is so outrageous and unlikely and tragi-comic that we should get a reality show. I think I'd rather have an aspirin and go to bed.


Drifting to Fifty  |  Random unrelated nugget of the week:
Stretch for a few minutes three times a week-- especially your legs and your back. The older you get, the less likely you'll be to injure yourself and the better you'll feel as a result.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Systems breakdown

Today I am angry.

America's public schools used to be among the best in the world. Families from all over the planet with the means and access would send their children to the US for their education, especially for high school, college, and graduate studies. No more. Today, in study after study, US students rank below average by the 4th grade in math and science. By middle school, the problems magnify and their performance worsens. By high school, US students are so far back they're no longer even in the race. Some reports show US high schoolers ranking 35th out of 41 developed and industrialized nations. American kids have one of the shortest school years on the planet, by days or instruction hours. US teachers-- good and bad alike-- get tenure and can't be fired, no matter their performance. Uninspired and disinterested, US high schoolers are dropping out at rates over 30%. The entire system needs to be reinvented.

Whatever your thoughts regarding the Obama administration's health care reform package, our entire system is (still) broken. According to the Commonwealth Fund report realsed last week, Americans spend nearly twice what residents of six other countries-- Britain, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand-- spend. As a percentage of GDP, Americans also spend more than any other nation: 50% more than Germany and double that of Japan. Yet our life expectancy is lower and our infant mortality rate higher than any of these countries. Health insurance rates in the US are still rising faster than inflation, but coverage is falling. Many self-employed and small business owners cannot afford coverage at all, even with comfortable incomes-- and that's for themselves and their families. Never mind that they offer insurance for their employees.

The US economy is in the tank and won't improve soon. Banking reform is a crock and TARP was a failure. The monstrous global banking titans, which were too big to fail, are still exactly that: not one was broken up. No executive has gone to jail for his or her role in creating or worsening the crisis. Worse, many of these companies gave their top execs huge raises and bonuses for 2010. In fact, whereas a hundred years ago the salary ratio for a CEO relative to his average employee was 6:1; in 2010 it was over 300:1. The funds doled out by the government following the debt and financial crisis of 2007-2008 were used to shore up banks' cash deposits, lowering their risk but doing nothing to jumpstart a sagging economic and business environment but set stricter qualifications and offer few new loans. It's a cash & credit gridlock. Something like 30% of American homeowners now owe more on their homes than the properties are worth. And several new studies show these people are now trapped in jobs they hate as a result. Home sales are stuck, foreclosures at all-time highs and showing no signs of abatement. Companies can't hire because consumers aren't buying and consumers aren't buying because companies can't hire.

American political campaigns have long been dictated and driven by big-spending corporations, but always behind cover and through complicated backchannels. Now, with 2010's Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, those companies are free to spend however they like, unfettered and legally. So election winners will increasingly be those who are heavily indebted to businesses for their wins, not to the citizens they purport to represent.

Our interstate highway system is equally dysfunctional. Since the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007, over 2700 other interstate bridges have been deemed structurally deficient. Nearly every city through which these once super-highways wind is now totally clogged twice a day at rush hour, as the network struggles with up to 7 times the daily traffic load it was designed to handle. The revenue structure intended to maintain the 48,000 miles of interstate-- a federal gas tax-- is slipping further behind each year as it's based on a backward-moving multiple. The roads continue to crumble, traffic steadily increases, and Congress fights over who's going to get the next $200 million "bridge to nowhere."

America is running out of oil to fuel our cars, our furnaces, our ships. We rip open vast swaths of our unspoiled, undeveloped land looking for coal to fire our factories and our power plants. We fill the sky with carbon dioxide and methane gas. We pillage the fish, pollute the waters with "fracking" chemicals, melt the ice caps and the glaciers, flood the lowlands and kill or displace thousands of people. We are turning our pristine planet into a wasteland of gray-skied empty seas and barren farms and gutted forests and concrete.

What the hell is happening? When I was a kid, it was drilled into head how lucky I was to be born in the US. As an American, I was entitled to the best education system, best health care, best opportunities available anywhere. I was a member of the richest, strongest, most developed, most progressive, most democratic, most aspired-to private club on earth. America was my birthright.

Boy have we fallen. And I feel helpless.


Drifting to Fifty  |  Random unrelated nugget of the week:
For each of us there is something we've been thinking of doing for years. Stop putting it off. Chances are, if you wanted it this long, you'll love it and wish you had started before now.