Sunday, June 28, 2009

How to save $7,000 without doing a thing

Anyone who has moved a houseful of things from one place to another understands this: The ability of humans to accumulate stuff is incredible.

In 2003, I was ending my job as chief financial officer for a public company that divested its four primary businesses by selling them to four other companies in three countries. Mary and I looked at the run up in housing prices from 1998 to 2003, considered the doubling of housing inventory in 2003 compared with 2002, and decided that selling our house was a good play.

Shortly before we closed on the sale of our house in August 2003, we flew a couple of our kids up to Cape Cod and rented a huge U-Haul truck for a one way trip to Texas. We filled the truck to the point that we had to muscle the last items into it so the door could be lowered. Even after that, we held a giant, free yard sale to get rid of other unnecessary stuff. After the yard sale, we took four pickup truck loads of remaining items to the dump.

During the time between receiving an offer on the house in June and selling the house in August, we considered a number of possible career moves, from looking for another corporate “C” level position to purchasing a franchise business. We finally settled on opening a CPA practice.

With that decision in hand, we looked for a rental house that would lower our monthly expenses while we started and grew the practice. The rental house was way smaller than the house we sold, so we rented a half-garage sized storage room for the things we just couldn’t part with.

My expectations at the time were that 1) the housing market would take a hit because the run up in prices was unsustainable, 2) it would take about five years for the CPA practice to grow sufficiently to support us, and 3) the timing of 1 and 2 above would put us in a good position to buy a house on better terms than existed in 2003.

Now, with 20/20 hindsight, it turns out that the housing market “hit” was more of a “knockout punch” and the terms available for today’s real estate purchasers, particularly with respect to mortgage interest rates and tax incentives, are much better than I had expected.

Back to the “too much stuff” thing. Mary was on the phone with one of the kids and had mentioned that we were going to recover our stuff from the rental storage place and move it to the house we bought this month. He asked his mom what stuff was in the storage room to be recovered. Knowing that the washer and dryer would be disposed of, she listed the deck furniture, a futon bed, and a number of other odds and ends she recalled being in there.

He then made a very astute observation. The rent for the storage room, at $100/month, had accumulated to about $7,000 over the nearly six-year period from August 2003 to June 2009. Wouldn’t it have been much cheaper, he proffered, for us to have bought all new stuff six years later as opposed to paying for the old stuff to collect dust?

Suggestion for all kids: Keep these embarrassing observations to yourself.

We are now in the process of determining which 90% of the store room items will be discarded. For the time being, they’re taking up space in the basement, but I’m quick to point out that we’re saving $100/month.

On the other hand, if we don’t touch any of it for the next six years, we’ll save the $7,000 that we wasted over the last six years and we'll be back to breakeven.

Monday, June 22, 2009

My last tank of gas?

When my dad approached seventy, I noticed his sense of mortality was taking hold. My parents attended more funerals of their friends and a number of personalities who meant a lot to them started dying, including:

Liberace – Mom loved his flamboyancy. Dad never appreciated piano players who couldn’t advance the timing on a 1966 Pontiac.

Ray Bolger, Scarecrow – I remember the anticipation of the Wizard of Oz’ annual airing. There were no DVDs, DVRs, VCRs, Video on Demand or iTunes; just three over-the-air channels. If you missed it, you waited a year for another chance. Mom made sure that we didn’t miss it. Dad didn’t think much of people dressing up in costumes and skipping around on a soundstage. Not a real job.

Andy Warhol – I don’t think either of my parents knew anything about this guy, but they loved his soup.

Danny Kaye, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse – Musicals weren’t high on my dad’s must-see list, although if any of these guys had choreographed the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders’ routines, he would have been appreciative.

Lorne Greene – We never missed Bonanza. Ben Cartwright was a strong and wise man—just like my dad. Ben was a true patriot from the Great American West. I don’t think my dad knew he was from Canada.

Dan Rowan – Mom laughed and laughed at Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Most of the time, Dad snored and snored, though it was hard to ignore Goldy Hawn’s skimpy outfits. But when the same show was reworked into a hillbilly format, Hee Haw, Dad was front and center, enjoying every minute of it.

Dealing with your own mortality is an interesting thing. You start realizing that your possessions are going to be around when you’re not. I remember when my parents bought a Toyota Cressida. Dad declared that it was the last car he would ever buy. That’s an attention-grabbing thought.

He bought a set of tires for his pickup and told me that they’re probably the last set of tires he would buy. After suffering a couple of strokes, I could see that Dad was seriously contemplating his demise.

I did my best to break him out of this morbid thought pattern. He’d fill up the truck and I’d say, “Dad, that’s not your last tank of gas, is it?” He’d laugh and then I’m sure he would ponder whether it was, in fact, his last tank of gas.

Mary and I bought a house last week and spent Friday and the weekend moving all of our stuff to the new place. My son, Jeff, and his friend, Jake, flew up from Texas to provide the muscle for our move. Thank goodness for all of their help, along with Jerry, Bill, Cindy and others who pitched in.

This morning, I’m beat up, bruised, and so stiff I can hardly make my way downstairs. My knees are locked, my toes are pointing in odd directions, and I can’t turn my neck more than 30 degrees without letting out a screech.

Having relocated about twenty times in my life, I declare that this is it. This is the last house I’m ever going to buy. The last move I’m ever going to make.

I’m not quite ready to buy my last car, last set of tires, and last tank of gas, but I’m starting to understand how my dad developed Mortality Awareness Syndrome.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Who wants digital TV? (I do! I do!)

Too many people weren’t ready for the switch from analog to digital TV on February 17th, so Congress pushed the drop dead date out to today, June 12, 2009. I’ve read that, even after the reprieve, people living in 2 to 12 million households are still about to watch snow instead of their favorite mind numbing reality show. The fact that the estimates range from 2 to 12 million tells you that nobody has any clue how big a problem it is.

How could anyone still be unaware of the change to digital television? After all, the government is spending about $1.5 billion to advertise the switch, print coupons for conversion gadgets, and staff-up to answer 2 to 12 million phone calls this weekend. You can hardly watch TV for an hour without seeing a public service announcement about the coming of DTV. Click here to watch my favorite outreach video.

My guess is that the unprepared folks are the same ones who get surprised by everything else—snow storms, solar eclipses, garbage collection day—so they’ll be surprised by this, too. (No surprise.) And they’ll complain that nobody told them that this was happening, which is the reason the FCC hired thousands of DTV transition assistants via a number of private companies throughout the country.

One of these companies is TeleTech Government Solutions based in Englewood, Colorado. TeleTech hired 4,000 “temporary associates” (jargon meaning employees without benefits—or “ewbies”) to assist people in nine states deal with their procrastination disorder. The fact that three of these states are Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia makes me think that they’ve got their plates full. But not to worry... TeleTech is the same company that hired thousands of people to assist Katrina victims in the aftermath of that disaster, and we all know how well that went.

That brings me to this thought: Why exactly is the FCC spending my hard earned money to hand hold these irresponsible couch potatoes? Is this digital conversion really on the same level as Hurricane Katrina? Why can’t they just figure it out for themselves?

I did.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Keith Carradine: Cornball or turn-around genius?

Like everyone, I was reading and watching the accounts of David Carradine’s death in Bangkok last week. Son of John Carradine, actor in a slew of western and horror films*, David’s most famous role was that of Kwai Chang Caine in the TV series Kung Fu, although younger folks will better remember him in the Quentin Tarantino Kill Bill movies.

David Carradine

Kung Fu (1972 to 1975) debuted when I was a freshman in high school and ended when I graduated, so it is weaved into a number of my teenage memories. But more than my memories of David Carradine’s portrayal of the Shaolin monk, news of David’s death dredged up my recollection of a week-long stint with Keith Carradine in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Keith is another of John Carradine’s five sons, half-brother to David and, like the rest of his family, knew what he wanted to do from an early age. His first notable role was in a Robert Altman movie called McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971 and he soon joined his brother on the set of Kung Fu, playing Kwai Chang Caine as a teenager.

Besides acting, Keith had musical ambitions and a pretty good singing voice. In 1975, he played a folk singer in the movie Nashville, performing his original song “I’m Easy” (not to be confused with Lionel Richie’s hit song “Easy”). For this, he was awarded an Oscar for best original song. Not bad for a 26-year-old.

Ready to capitalize on his burgeoning musical career, Keith Carradine’s agent set up a tour for the summer of 1976, mostly at smaller venues in college towns. Our band’s agent, Don Cange, got a call from Keith’s management company looking for a small, out of the way place, where Keith and his band could polish their act before hitting the road.

Don had the perfect spot: Tegmeyer’s Steakhouse and Dinner Theater in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Located several miles east of town on Highway 70, the road to White Sands Missile Range, “out of the way” was an understatement. Other than New Mexico State University, where five of the eight members of our band, Saturday Revue, attended school, there wasn’t much going on in that sleepy little town.

So Keith Carradine was on his way to our corner of the world and our band was hired to play the dance sets between his shows. We showed up around noon to set up for the gig and met Keith and his band, all very nice guys who definitely carried themselves in a Southern California kind of way, dude.

The only band member I remember by name was Don Grusin, who played keyboards and is still, along with his brother Dave, a major player in the West Coast music scene. Keith’s bass player was very talented and offered some musical advice to us, such as having our trumpeter land on the ninth at the end of our break song, the theme to the Flintstones. (The things you remember…)

Before the first night’s performance, all of the tickets were sold for the whole week (Tuesday through Saturday). The three Tegmeyer brothers were amazed by this. None of them had ever heard of Keith Carradine or seen the movie, though they certainly weren’t complaining.

We were pretty excited about opening night. After all, we were eight kids between 18 and 20 years old, about to open for a real star. Our first set was a mellow collection of tunes, designed to assist the patrons enjoy and digest their t-bones and New York strips.

Then came the big debut of Keith Carradine, aka Tom Frank, scraggly womanizer in the hit movie, Nashville. Big applause, followed by four or five forgettable songs that barely hung together, in spite of the obvious talent of the individual band members. Keith’s rap between the songs was awkward and nervous.

I was standing in the foyer with a couple of the Tegmeyer brothers, peering into the room. I’ll never forget what one of them said to me. After commenting about the full house and Keith’s obvious appeal to be able to attract such a crowd, he gave his heartfelt, critic’s one-line summary: “This guy is a cornball.”

The set was saved with Keith’s performance of “Easy,” but the negative aspects of the performance were not lost on Keith and his manager. They were acutely aware of how bad the night went and set out to resolve the problem in a time-tested, traditional way. They fired the drummer.

The next day, while waiting for a new drummer to show up from L.A., they scoured the town in search of some local fodder to improve Keith’s rapport with the audience. They rehearsed that afternoon with the new band member and made a number of improvements in their set lineup and flow of the show.

I have to say that I was duly impressed with the one-day makeover. That evening’s performance was unrecognizable (in a good way) compared with opening night and the reaction of the audience was a complete 180. I realized that I was observing true professionals turn around a bad situation—a life lesson that has always stayed with me.

With everyone a little more relaxed, Keith invited us over to the Holiday Inn for a swim the next afternoon. We got there with towels, trunks and flip flops, ready to swim with the stars. Climbing the iron and cement stairs to the second floor, we saw that their room door was open. There was Keith at the table, pouring over a script, or contract, or something with a beautiful lady we had not yet met.

One of the band members was sitting in the corner of the room smoking pot. My first reaction was that this is a small town with police officers who wear cowboy hats. The casualness of this guy toking his reefer with the door wide open was another hint of how different California was from New Mexico and Texas. Don’t get me wrong. We were musicians, a synonym for potheads (especially back then), so we’d seen marijuana cigarettes before and possibly inadvertently inhaled once or twice, but not in such a brazen and open way.

I wish I could recount what happened after that, but I draw a blank.

Anyway, the shows went well for the rest of the week, Keith Carradine redeeming himself as a consummate performer and heading off on his concert tour prepared to wow audiences (especially the women) across the country. For us, we had a brush with some famous people and learned a lot about crisis management.

Keith Carradine

* * * * *

[* A “slew” is probably an understatement, as John Carradine appeared in over 300 movies and television programs. In 1939 alone, the year that brought us such classics as Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind, John Carradine had roles in Jesse James, Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, Stagecoach, The Three Musketeers, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Captain Fury, Five Came Back, Frontier Marshall, and Drums Along the Mohawk. Busy guy. In 1972, he played Dr. Vanard in Psycho A Go-Go. Even Hollywood stars have to put food on the table once in awhile.]

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt