Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Time and Money, Part 1

For years, one of my off-and-on areas of interest has been "Time Management." I've been using a DayTimer for over 20 years, and I have read pretty voraciously on the topic of how to make the most of limited time. I'm getting on that kick again as the new school year looms, and just wanted to share a couple of thoughts "out loud."

One of the more common formulations in TM books is that we all have only 24 hours (or 86,400 seconds) per day credited to our account, and they all evaporate at the end of that period. Nobody has "more" time, nor less. You can't bank it for later (although, arguably, you can "invest" time in activities like planning that then pay back "with interest" later on in the day or week). Therefore, time, like money should be carefully budgeted.

It seems to me that this is a pretty good formulation for most grown-up people with "regular" jobs. Barring a couple of weeks' vacation, Joe Normal may spend 7-8 hours sleeping, 8+ hours working, and therefore have only 8-ish hours remaining for everything else from a shower, a shave, three meals, two commutes and all other discretionary activities put together. Of course, weekends have their own rhythym, with chores and church, etc. However, I'm not normal (insert sarcastic comment here).

I think that in the category of time, much like money, the trick to a budget is neither how much you make (and in the case of money, that's fixed anyway), nor how much you spend, but rather how much difference there is between the two. Spend it all, you're broke. But a big chunk "left over" makes you rich. In money terms, you can be broke making six figures, and rich making very little. As a teacher, the summer is a period when my time "income" stays the same 168 hours a week as everybody else, but the "bills" are very low, as I don't have to spend my usual 8 (really more like 10-11) hours at work every day. I'm quite wealthy in time-terms during June, July and August. Want to take a nap? Cool. Want to read a novel by the pool? Great. Want to paint the back hallway? Let's sleep till 8 AM and paint around 9, after a leisurely breakfast.

But all that changes, and rapidly, when school starts back up. In money terms, it's like suddenly taking on a new jumbo mortgage. Suddenly there's a 50+ hour work-week and a twice-daily commute, in addition to the other necessities of life. And even some of those necesities are multiplied. I know I'm not engendering much sympathy here, but in the summer, I only shave about twice a week. That goes to six days from late August through May.

Anyway, I am starting to hear the footseps of the school year closing in on me again, which has led me back to thinking about time and how to make the most of it. Over the next few days, I intend to post a few thoughts about time and quality of life.

Friday, July 18, 2008


It just dawned on me that there is hardly anything new in the world of movies. Yesterday it rained while the boys and I were home alone, so I decided to make a quick run to the local video store and get something to watch. We settled on National Treasure II. The other movies I considered were Superman Returns (which would be the 5th Supes movie going back to 1977), or Rocky Balboa (the 6th Rocky movie). Then I started thinking--almost every movie I've seen this summer has been a sequel: Indiana Jones IV, Narnia II, even the "original" Iron Man was an adaptation of a 1963 comic book. And today we are going to catch the "new" Batman, which is the 6th movie since '89, not counting the 1966 version, which spun off from the TV show, which was based on the 1940s comic. Also in theaters now or soon--Hellboy II, a remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Mummy III (and the first Mummy was itself a remake, and the first Hellboy was based on a 1980s comic).

Yes, by the way--I do recognize that every single film I have mentioned is some sort of hero/action/adventure movie. It's entirely possible that there is great original work being done in the category of documentaries or chick flicks.* I just don't care.

*footnote: my wife is looking forward to Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants II. So even that horrible genre is not safe!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What to Do About Energy

You can't turn on any newscast (or for that matter, engage in almost any conversation) these days without hearing about gas prices. Maybe I'm just a dumb yahoo, but it seems like what to do is a combination of common-sense ideas.

For starters, we can stop acting like this is all because of some evil plot or conspiracy. It's the simple consequences of the law of supply-and-demand. More people worldwide (like a billion Chinese) want oil. And production has not increased at anywhere near the rate of consumption. Therefore we get higher prices. There are only two choices--produce more, and consume less. That's AND, not OR. Every plan out there is simply a way of packaging that idea.

Secondly, we can stop moaning about why we haven't done anything years ago. At $1 or $2 a gallon, there was no incentive to do much of anything. It would be like going to the doctor (and paying all the corresponding costs) before you have symptoms. I've been having the exact same issues with my metabolism--it's always been a wise idea to eat right, etc. But so long as I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain weight, why not? But things change. And when they change, we have to react appropriately.

As for alternative sources of energy, yes, let's get on that. Wind, solar, nuclear... all great ideas. And some of them, like nuclear power, look a whole lot more attractive when gas is 4 bucks than they did at $2.50. However, cars and planes are still going to run on petroleum products, for a long while. And even when hydrogen or ethanol or whatever else is ubiquitous, there will likely always be some gas-powered engines out there, whether lawnmowers or classic cars or something. So something needs to be done about gasoline. It just floors me that some folks say we shouldn't drill for more oil because "it will take years to see the effects," but they somehow think that transforming our entire petroleum-based economy can happen overnight.

On the demand side, something is already being done through market forces. You want to drive a 12 mpg Excursion or a big RV? Your funeral. But most of the rest of us are already cutting back. Sales of smaller cars are up, miles driven are down. So that's part of it. But the other part is to produce more domestic oil. President Bush just lifted the executive ban on offshore drilling this week. The legislative version of that ban will expire in about 11 weeks. I doubt that it will be politically wise to be one of the votes in favor of extending the ban. Sure, it will take time for new oil to arrive on the market. And in the meantime, prices will likely continue to rise. But the part of the price that is in futures speculation should drop as the future looks better. And prices will rise slower, giving us more time to work toward alternatives, if we can increase production. The Shale Oil out west is supposedly more plentiful than the crude under Saudi Arabia. There was a time when it was economically unwise to extract that oil when cheaper stuff could be had on the import market. But at $140 a barrel, suddenly that source looks a lot better.

Now, there may be some choices we don't want to make, and for good reason. I know some folks are morally opposed to drilling in ANWR (I'm not, but I respect their opinion). I personally wouldn't drill in many places, like the Grand Canyon. But I say that with full knowledge that that choice comes at a price. I think any politician who wants to not drill for whatever reason (like the environment, for example) should admit that they prefer expensive gas to that choice. If they can convince enough people to vote for that, fine. But it's crummy to keep on lamenting oil prices and not doing anything about it.

So, simply put--start drilling ASAP. Keep doing all in our power to get out of the oil trap long-term. And stop whining!

What's the hot topic?

I teach modern US history, 1865 to the present. But I do it in a pretty cool way. We go backwards. After an initial unit on basic civics, I begin with the current day and go backwards about a decade at a time (the units get both broader and less deep as we go). Although I update my lessons every year, it's pretty much guaranteed that my 1920's lessons are not going to change that much. However, the most recent stuff needs to be almost totally overhauled every year. I remember when the 2000 election and 9/11 necessitated an almost complete rewrite of the "conventional wisdom." More recently, a couple of years ago the Supreme Court and judicial filibusters were the hot topic. Last year it was the surge in Iraq, with a nod toward the early primary season (it seems a long time ago that John Edwards or Rudy Giuliani seemed key figures in a history class). Obviously, this year the general election will merit attention. But it's really interesting to me how some stuff that everybody knew was going to be important even a year ago can flip in a heartbeat. I would have bet a good sum last year that the 2008 election would be a referendum on Iraq. But not only has the success of the surge taken some of the urgency out of the topic (and the candidates have edged closer and closer together in their positions), but nobody foresaw $4 gasoline. The only thing I know for sure is that I have no idea what will be THE big issue come November!

Friday, July 11, 2008

An "I Told You So" on Taxes

There's an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that links up with my previous posts on taxes. The IRS will soon release data (which I'll likely link to if I see it) that shows that in the last year, the top 1% of taxpayers paid over 40% of all federal income taxes (they earn about 18% of the money). The top 50% of taxpayers shoulder 97% of the total burden, leaving only 3% of total revenue paid by the other half. This is the highest percentage of the total take paid by the top 1% in modern times, and maybe ever. By comparison, when top rates were double what they are now (in 1970, when the top rate was 70% instead of today's 35%), they only accounted for about 17% of revenue. By extension, this means that more of the total burden had to be paid by somebody else. This, of course, sheds a little light on the notion that the rich are not paying their "fair share."

Now, don't get me wrong. I'd love it if our entire federal budget could be met by only Bill Gates paying ALL the taxes, and him still being left with enough leftover money to have planes and boats and the cool mansion with all the gadgets. (We'll leave aside for the moment whether that would be in any way just.) But like I wrote earlier, what we would like has to be tempered by economic sense. If a tax increase would, perversely, result in more of the tax burden being paid by those with less income, then it's by definition not progressive. (And the reverse is also true--as I said earlier, if a tax CUT doesn't stimulate the economy, then it's economically unsound no matter how much supply-siders like it.)

I know some people like the idea of a flat tax or the Fairtax, which would be a national sales tax. Both of those would allegedly be "fairer." But under these plans, the burden would shift away from the "rich" paying as much as they currently do (in a flat system, the top 1% would pay about 18% of the taxes; in a sales tax, the guy who spends 90%+ of his income pays a higher effective tax rate than the millionaire who banks most of it). Again, this may be "fair," but it would result in a tax hike for some 99% of taxpayers. (BTW--I do know that the Fairtax involves a "prebate" that mitigates the tax damage at the lowest levels, but it still would screw most of what we call the middle class. If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry about it).

My prescription: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. That means making the 2003 tax cuts permanent (which only makes sense--if rates "reset" to 2002 levels in a couple of years, that's a de facto rate increase). And there may be some other tax code simplification, loophole closing, or even incentives that we may want to do incrementally for reasons other than straight economics (for example, the deduction for mortgage interest isn't in the code to raise revenue, it's there to encourage home-ownership, which is seen as helping with social stability). There's not much to dislike about the general structure of our current system.

But what about balancing the budget? Here's a neat thought... we could try... wait for it.... cutting spending! Again, this ain't rocket science. If your budget is not in balance and you are an individual, a family, or a business, you can either (a) spend less; (b) earn more; or (c) borrow the difference. We've been doing (c) for way too long, and I've already detailed why I think that (b) is pretty unlikely, at least at dramatic levels. That only leaves one option.

Of course, it's never going to happen. Politicians don't operate on math. They operate on emotion. And nothing is so emotionally satisfying as being told that you can have everything and somebody else is going to pay for it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hey Mike, I Read About Crossfit!

This post should likely have been a comment reply in my post on "Fitness Resolutions," but I thought it was interesting enough to get its own spot. I'll bet that over half of "my" readers already know Mike Polutta. If you don't, he's a good friend, and my all-time favorite worship leader. He's also about 5-6 years older than me and in GREAT shape. When we do the theme of "Judges" for PBC next year, he's my pick to play Samson in the skits. As an aside, Mike had a huge "widowmaker" heart attack a while back (for absolutely NO reason medical science could figure out). He had it while in the middle of a run. Had he not been in the amazing shape he's in, he probably would have just croaked. Instead, my buddy walked back the rest of his route, showered, called his wife, and only then (at her urging) called 911. So the dude is, well, a DUDE.

Every time lately I have bemoaned the shape I'm getting into (or out of, as the case may be), Mike has told me that I need to join him as a devotee of a workout plan called "Crossfit." He even sent me this PDF file with lots of cool stuff about the program in it. It's really fascinating, and some of you may like to read it, too (hence the link). BUT... I'm not really interested.

Here's why--like the old break-up line goes, "it's not you, it's me." Even though I may buy into some, even most, of the premises of the program, I just don't care that much about developing all those multiple standards of fitness. I run. I run because I LIKE to run, and because I really enjoy my coaching gig, which the running dovetails nicely with. I don't "work out." There was a time several years ago when I got serious for a while about lifting weights and getting big and strong. I got strong, but it simply wasn't in my make-up to get big. I may be willing to do half an hour of upper-body work a couple of times a week for the sake of general fitness, but it's a chore, a necessary evil that I'll do to accomplish my only two REAL fitness goals: (1) run at a level that doesn't embarass me; (2) not get fat. It used to be that I could do both of those on almost no effort, and now they both require more than they used to (which bums me out a bit). But Crossfit seems like more work than I'd enjoy doing.

This is the second time in the last month that a good friend has approached me about something like this because of my interest in fitness and athletics. Another friend is a serious proponent of Shaklee vitamins and nutritional supplements. He has used them for years, and was a sub-elite runner in his 30s and a national champion water-skier in his 40s and 50s. He credits at least part of that success to his nutrition regimen, and he shared it with me. My feeling was very similar to the Crossfit stuff... I agree that there's something there, and if I were more serious (maybe if I were 10-20 years younger and still racing a lot), I might be more interested. But instead of committing to a full supplementation plan, I just started taking a generic multivitamin and drinking more water.

In both cases, I'm a little embarassed. Both of these guys only shared their programs with me because they thought (at least at some level), "Larry's the type of athlete who would dig this." I hate to admit that I'm really not. But I still love to hear about the stuff, and to have it in my "bag of tricks" to mention to the "real" athletes I work with.

Footnote: It's only been 5 days and I'm already back down to 141 lbs. It's not like I can go back to sitting on my butt and pigging out after 3 more pounds, but it's nice to know that a week or two's indiscretions can still be remedied with a week or two of solid discipline.

Why No Politics?

In case you're wondering, there's no particular reason that I haven't done any commentary on political issues lately. It's just that I haven't cared all that much. As I have indicated before, I'm rather bummed out by the choices in this upcoming presidential race--although I agree more with McCain than Obama on the "big" issues (big to me, at least), on a host of smaller ones I'm unimpressed. Nothing new there. I could catalog all the recent switcheroos by Obama as he shifts from pander-to-the-leftmost primary mode to pacify-the-middle general election mode, but there are plenty of sites which do that full time, and I'm not interested in being an Obama-basher. I've let it be known already that I stopped buying the "he's different" schtick a while back, so this is really nothing new. Of course, if there's some story about either candidate that I find interesting enough, it may send me off into a post, but right now, nothing has changed. On a similar note, gas prices continue to rise, but I've covered that before. Don't get me wrong, I doubt very seriously that I'll be able to keep quiet, blog-wise, until election day (and I'm not even really trying that hard). But for now, there's just nothing worthy of comment.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What I'm "Reading"

It's time to clean off the bedside table again. The stack of books is getting to the point that there's no room for the alarm clock. I can't say I'm really seriously "reading" all of these; however, all of them are, at least, on the radar for the summer. Here's what's been on my mind:

  1. No Debt, No Sweat, by Steve Diggs. Essentially a lesser-known Dave Ramsey. He's related to our minister, and did a seminar on Christian finances at church last year. I knocked this one out poolside over a couple of days.
  2. Financial Peace Revisited, by Dave Ramsey. The Diggs book led me back to Dave. Summer is a time when it's easy to get lazy (not having to go to work tends to have that effect on me). So I have to work hard to stay motivated in lots of areas, finance included. There's nothing in Dave's book I haven't heard (or said) a hundred times before, but it's motivating. (On a similar note, Dave will be speaking in Charleston on August 23rd--I'm pretty likely to be there).
  3. The One Year Bible, by the Holy Spirit. After 6 complete read-throughs in various versions (7 if you exclude the major prophets, which kicked my butt last year), I'm starting to run out of steam on this daily discipline. I'm thinking of setting the One-Year version aside for the rest of the year and doing something new. What's on my mind right now is to use the "daily office" of readings prescribed in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but to do the reading in either my trusty Thompson Chain-Reference Study Bible or perhaps the Leadership Study Bible edited by John Maxwell.
  4. John Adams, by David McCullough. This has been my standard poolside read this summer. Usually I stick to more 20th-century biographies, but I'm enjoying it. Like most McCulloughs, though, it's going slowly. I doubt I'll knock the whole thing out before summer ends.
  5. Walt Disney, An American Original, by Bob Thomas. My friend Ken lent this to me during our vacation. I'm just a sucker for biographies of great leaders. I keep hoping something will rub off one day.
  6. The Carolina Way, by Dean Smith. It's funny--when Ken recommended the Disney book to me, I suggested this book to him. As he's just beginning a new job as rector of a church, building a team and setting the proper culture will be key for him. Like me, he's a coach (tennis, in his case). This book is actually a "business" book that seeks to apply Dean Smith's leadership lessons to non-coaching situations. Since my situation IS coaching, it's an even better fit for me. Anyway, when I return the Disney book to Ken in a couple of weeks, I'll be passing this one on. So I decided to skim through it again before it was out of sight and mind.

So, that's what this nerd is up to. Looks like the Adams, the Disney, and the Dean Smith are staying (at least until the Disney and Smith go to visit Ken). The two finance books and the One Year Bible are going back on the shelf, and (for now) the Leadership Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are being added. This really doesn't help the size of the stack at all, but at least I'm making a little change.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

DayTimer Disaster

I'm having a crisis that perhaps only my sister (a fellow DayTimer nut) can understand. I've lost my DayTimer. I am pretty sure it was in my pocket when I left the house to go to the movies with the boys, and it's nowhere to be found now. I've called the theater--they scoured the place, with no luck. So I'm bummed big-time. Not only have I lost my calendar and to-do list (which is bad enough), but the wallet containing the refill was my FIRST-ever DayTimer, the one I bought in 1989. Even if I get another one just like it (black pigskin, small brass plate in the corner with my initials), it'll take 20 years for it to be as soft, and it'll never be quite the same. The only 2 slight pieces of good news is that I'm currently not terribly booked up, seeing as how it's summer, and also that it's pretty close to the mid-point of the year, so I should be able to buy a July start refill as a replacement.

Fitness Resolutions

As indicated earlier, the Disney week was basically a fitness disaster. When coupled with the injry at camp, it means that I basically haven't run well for a solid month. (Yes, there was a week in there where I ran every day, but only 2 miles at a time... that's just pitiful.) I came back from the parks and got on the scale to find that I topped out at 149 lbs. That's 11 over my racing weight and the biggest I've ever been in my life. Obviously, there are probably millions of truly overweight guys who would trade straight-up for 5'10" and under 150 lbs. But everything, as they say, is relative. So I'm actually going to have to be proactive about my weight for the first time ever. In addition to being serious about my running, I'm also resolving to watch what I eat (NOT diet, exactly, but just not be stupid), to drink a couple of liters of water a day, and to take a multivitamin. The water is difficult. Trying not to "graze" like I've done my whole life is more so. But we've been back 3 days and I'm already down 6 of those 11 pounds. The trick is, it looks like if I take my foot off the gas, the default position is now a slower metabolism. Thank goodness I have a wife who also takes this stuff seriously and can help me with the food end.

On another note, there are only 4 weeks until the beginning of cross-country practice. Missing most of June really put me behind for that. I'm running 20 minutes at a time this week (2.5 miles), going to 3-milers next week, and hope to be up to 5 or more runs of 4 miles each by the first day of practice. At that rate I won't really be able to run with the team (they'll probably start at 6-7 miles a day and build up from there), and as they will probably progress at a faster rate than I do, I may never catch up. But at least having the practices as a set time and place to run (and maybe running the first part of some workouts with the group) can perhaps give me a little boost from August through October. All I really want to be able to do is comfortably run half an hour three or four times a week with a longer run of an hour on the weekend. Whether that means I'll be able to race is not even on the radar at this point.

Disney Post-Mortem

We are back from the week with the 6-foot rodent. It was great. This is the "Year of a Million Dreams" at Disney, so they are giving away cool prizes all over the place. We won several--everything from mouse-ears for the kids to fast-passes that allowed us to jump the line for cool rides to a private audience with Cinderella. If ever we go back to WDW, we'll probably just do the Magic Kingdom and possibly the Disney Hollywood (formerly MGM) Studio parks. But seeing as we had never been to MGM or Animal Kingdom and that the kids had never been to Epcot, it was quite cool to do the whole enchilada. One of the things I enjoyed most was riding all the thrill rides with my boys--Jacob went from being skittish about rollercoasters to deciding that Space Mountain was the best ride in the world (he also rode the Aerosmith Rockin' Roller Coaster with its 5-G launch and 3 loops four times). I also enjoyed the day we spent just hanging out at the pool and reading. My friend Ken lent me a biography of Walt Disney--it's fascinating. I find great leaders and creative people very inspiring.

On the negative side, spending 6 of 7 days in theme parks doesn't lend itself very well to staying in shape. I did sneak in one run on our "off" day, but there was no time for fitness. More on that later.

It was also nice to get back and realize that we had stayed under-budget for the trip. That was tougher since gas was $4 a gallon and it took 2 tanks each way, plus a couple to fuel the back-and-forth to the parks.