Thursday, March 27, 2014

Other People's Property

I've often imagined I'd hate being a landlord or owning a vacation home. I know myself well.

I'm in the middle of insulating my parents' attic. It's not like a spacious TV attic full of cherry antiques, it's a big, dark, low, dusty area made of trusses, each with a big wooden W in the middle. Wires run the length of the house. The yoga classes, where we build strength through striking odd poses, have paid off for this project. So has my sinus infection from a few years back. While I was lying in bed last night coughing up a lung from the dust I inhaled while putting down insulation, I remembered someone telling me that congestion is worse at night because the mucus settles in your throat when you lie down. With that in mind, I propped myself up on pillows and returned to normal.

Last Saturday, I ran errands while my nephew hauled the insulation up to the attic and fixed the fan and screens. He hasn't been back. A bunch of contractors came to the house to write up estimates for a sprinkler system; my parents can't water the lawn anymore since they're both in wheelchairs. (Note to self: fix your house up now and get lots of enjoyment out of it. You'll have to do it someday anyway, and you don't have any children to do it for you.)

My parents and I selected a contractor (i.e., went with the low bidder). I offered to landscape part of the yard that's on a slope and would be hard to hook up to the system. I'm thinking Russian sage, yellow achillea, tansy, and low-growing sedum. I can put down a 3-sprinkler hose and ask a neighbor to water the area a few times a week this year; it shouldn't need watered after that except in a drought. The money my father got from selling some collectibles and other assets should more than cover the sprinkler; I can landscape the slope mostly with volunteers from my yard. Unfortunately, my sister, who sold the items, probably won't be back since our father bawled her out for selling something he wanted to keep and demanding she return it NOW, in a blizzard.

My mother discovered there was a lien on the car when she tried to get a replacement title for it. It turns out the lien is just a matter of paperwork--we can get the title and possibly sell it to one of my coworkers whose car, and husband's car, were both stolen. She got her car back, but his was totaled by the thief.

Readers may remember the three and a half hours my mother and I spent setting up a new account at the credit union. I think her old bank, where we haven't yet closed the accounts, knows something is up. Someone from there called the other day, sweetly asking how all of us were, and asking to talk to me. They can forget it. Their bank has charged my parents almost $150 in fees over the past six months, allowed someone to open a credit card in my father's name, and wasn't helpful in getting it resolved. Why do people put up with such high costs and poor service? It's called switching costs: it takes some combination of time, money and effort make certain kinds of changes, like changing software (learning a new system and exporting your data), going to the metric system, speaking Esperanto, or changing banks. Mom and I have already paid most of the switching costs; it's just a matter of closing the old account once we're sure the deposits will all go in the new account.

In addition to this, it's busy season where I work. I hope to have all this work done around the same time at the end of April (I'm in audit, not tax). And then I'd like to go to somebody else's home for a vacation.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Denver's Food Deserts: A Tour

A fellow commentor (Exceptionally Brash) looked up food deserts in her city, and it piqued my curiosity about food deserts in my hometown of Denver. The gray areas are "urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food."


The cartographers of the project evidently didn't think about taking the bus to the grocery store or that people who move to places without public transportation nearby know that they're going to need a car. Nor do they consider that some supermarkets deliver groceries.

See the L-shaped desert in the lower left corner? I see the vertical part of it every day from a bus that runs from early morning until past midnight. The area is mostly retail and industrial, along with a major highway, a river, an animal shelter, and a golf course--perfect places for a grocery store, right? Nevertheless, there are two supermarkets, several convenience stores, a bunch of modest-looking restaurants and a WalMart that sells groceries along the route just outside the "desert." There are a couple more supermarkets along the way if you're willing to go a few blocks east.

The horizontal bit looks like it's Mississippi Avenue. Google shows three supermarkets at the left end of the "desert" that shoppers can get to on the 11 bus. There's a Whole Foods just past the right end.

There's a major bus route through the middle of the little square food desert in the middle of the map. Jump on the 15, and you'll get to King Soopers and Safeway in a few minutes.

My best friend, a health and fitness enthusiast, used to live near the big food desert at the top of the map. I can't remember her ever complaining (and she likes to complain) about getting groceries, except for the long lines. Evidently, a lot of people managed to get there. Much of the food desert is along two interstates surrounded by industrial parks, an event complex, and a dog food factory. Even so, it's a large area with some neighborhoods and a golf course. But when I went to Mapquest and picked a spot in the middle (Colorado & Martin Luther King), and got directions to the nearest supermarket, it was less than three miles' drive, or a five-minute ride on the #2 bus. From the events complex, it was less than 10 minutes' drive to a Target or Walmart. That's not exactly a desert trip you need to pack provisions for.

My best friend and I once went to the desert in the middle left when she was hit with a craving for tamales. On North Federal, you can't turn around without seeing tamales for sale. We even passed a muffler shop that sold tamales. The restaurant we chose (from among many) was across the street from a butcher shop.

From the butcher shop, you can head east on 6th Avenue for a few miles, turn right, and go to a farmers' market (with actual farmers) that sells raw milk, pastured meat and eggs, fruit, vegetables, and so on. On certain Saturdays, you can buy some birds at the nearby chicken swap and have your own fresh eggs.

If we applied the "food desert" standards to driving commutes, Denver would have a "workplace desert." Not many people live within a couple of miles of work--the average driving commute here takes 27 minutes. And of course, it's typical to go to work more often than to the grocery store. Yet this isn't a problem needing a government solution--people old enough to have a job are expected to find a way to get to work. The same standard should apply to people old enough to buy their own groceries.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Hollandaise Sauce: It Finally Worked!

A piece of toast, creamed spinach, a poached egg, and what have you got? Egg on spinach. But take a big spoonful of hollandaise and mask that egg and you have oeufs poch├ęs florentine. -Julia Child

After a number of failed attempts over the years to make hollandaise sauce, I finally looked up Julia Child on Youtube and copied her method. Result: instead of bits of cooked egg, the eggs, butter and lemon juice turned into smooth, creamy, delicious hollandaise sauce.

If you want Eggs Florentine or Eggs Benedict, there's an excellent low carb, grain-free bread recipe in The Fat Fast Cookbook by Dana Carpender. Toast a piece of bread (I broil mine for three minutes on each side 4" from the flame), serve with creamed spinach, smoked salmon, ham or bacon (I broil the bacon along with the bread), and you have a breakfast worthy of a gourmet.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Other People's Money

They say it isn't easy getting old. Neither is being the child of someone who is.

Back in November, someone walked into a branch of US Bank, where my parents have an account, and opened a credit card in my father's name. After dealing with some confused and unhelpful employees, we got the credit card canceled. Last week, a better US Bank employee cancelled and reversed several charges made by a well-known scam company, and the other day, Mom got another call from Lifelock saying that someone was taking money from her US Bank account.

Enough. As much trouble as it was, on Saturday I took Mom to my credit union, where they're buggo on security, to open a new checking account. I knew it would be a hassle to change all the bill pay info and direct deposits, but just getting there and opening an account was a lot of trouble. Good thing I decided to start at 9 AM.

I put Mom's wheelchair in the trunk of her car. It wouldn't start. I moved the wheelchair to my car, drove Mom's scooter where she could transfer herself to it, helped her into my car and put the scooter in the garage.

"I need my purse," Mom said.

"Give me your keys and I'll get it."

"My keys are in my purse."

After some impatient remarks, I drove home to get my set of keys to the house. After getting Mom's purse, we headed for the foothills. It was snowing and foggy, but not terrible for driving. Even so, it had been hard to talk my mom into going out on a day like that.

After we got to the credit union, an agent told us that since the existing account was in Dad's name, we'd need him present or have a power of attorney to open a checking account. US Bank, this wasn't. We came here for more security, but this was another hurdle. Dad couldn't come since he's in a nursing home, but luckily I had the power of attorney on a thumb drive in my purse. Unfortunately, the credit union didn't allow any thumb drives on their computers. The agent said there was a FedEx/Kinkos around, which she knew how to get to, but not well enough to give me directions. (She couldn't even find the credit union on the map.) We looked up the location on the computer, and after a few tries (the internet connection was spotty), I saw how to get there.

Since the credit union is in a city where I don't know my way around, it took me 30 minutes of wandering and backtracking on slick roads to find the place. I got the papers printed and got back to the credit union in ten minutes.

A different agent set up the checking account, verifying IDs and signatures, and Mom and I rambled on down the road. It was half past twelve.

I took some of Mom's laundry home to wash since my parents' water heater was broken--again. Later I brought back the laundry and some Atkins frozen dinners (hat tip to Galina), ordered some hot wings and watched Breaking Bad, the show Mom is addicted to, and went home exhausted.

The note from the plumber who went to my parents' house a few weeks ago mentioned a dirty screen on the water heater. A Youtube video produced by people who make screen cleaners showed how to fix it. Their tight spot vacuum brush would have been great, but I made do with a long duster, turned up the temperature (it was set low), and heard the burner fire up.

Next, mom and I gathered the bills, with some dispute over how to organize them, and paid most of them. Since there's a large balance on one of the credit cards, Mom and I called American Express to get a credit card with a 0% introductory rate on transferred balances. For security purposes, they had to talk directly to her. Since she's hard of hearing, we both had to have an ear to the phone.

"What's your email address?" the agent asked.

I told Mom, and she repeated part of it to the agent. I told her the last part.

"Is that E-N"?

"No, it's I-N. T-E-L--"

"No, it's T-L-E."

"T-L-E."

"Is the last part G-O?"

"Yes."

"No, it's C-O."

"So, Colorado--"

"No."

This went on for five minutes. After we got the email address straightened out, the agent read all the fine print, none of which Mom could hear at all between her hearing problems, fuzzy phone connection, and the agent's Alabama accent. You're probably thinking this would have been easier to apply for online. We tried that. Due to clerical errors, both applications (that was the error) were cancelled. Nevertheless, Mom was approved for the card, and the balance was transferred. It reminded me of Joel Greenblatt's description of reading financial statements in the search for good investments: shovel, throw, shovel, throw. That's how you get to buried treasure, right? It took half an hour, but the new card will save my parents about $2,000 in interest. And tomorrow I'm going to send in a motor vehicle record search request to the state to find out who has a lien on my parents' car. Someday soon, I hope I'll have time to see my father.