Weekend Warm-Ups

    September 20, 2019 - The Affair, Are you Rich? & The Future of Work

    • The fifth and final season of The Affair began airing on Showtime a few weeks ago. And like the four preceding seasons, it wastes no time sucking its characters deeply into emotional quagmires entirely of their own making. If you are unfamiliar with the show, its follows the fallout from an extramarital affair between Noah (played by Dominic West), a New York City public school teacher and budding novelist, and Alison (played by Ruth Wilson), a waitress in Montauk who is trying to piece her life back together in the wake of a tragedy. There have been too many plot twists and turns to recap properly here, but what I will say is that this show has always swung for the fences when it comes to character development – there is nothing uncomplicated about Noah, Alison, or any other character – making the show at times grim and at others thrilling and unpredictable. It’s a fun romp if you don’t mind watching other people’s lives implode in front of your eyes. What’s more, each episode is told from different perspectives, providing the viewer with multiple vantage points and biases.

    • Are you rich? It’s a question you may have asked at one point or another about yourself or someone you know. Many people might sneer at such a question, preferring instead to say that they are, “comfortable”, “affluent” or “lucky”. Still others might scoff at the word “rich” entirely, viewing it as gauche and preferring to define themselves less by the size of their bank account and more by the amount of “wealth” (e.g. strong friendships, loving family members, unique experiences, etc.) in their lives. Whatever your stance, I think you’ll agree that while money may not be everything, it does matter. And who among us doesn’t partake in a little navel-gazing from time to time regarding his/her financial state of affairs? To this end, there was an interesting quiz in The New York Times which might help you get a better sense of where you stand financially among your peers. While the quiz is certainly imperfect – take a look at the comments section for some flaws in its methodology – it is a nice reminder that when most of us contemplate our financial well-being, we typically do so by drawing comparisons with our immediate world: our friends, our neighbors, and our colleagues. As the article points out, these perceptions lead us to believe that we are poorer than we actually are. You’re probably doing much better financially than you realize.

    • “Wear multiple hats”, “do less with more”, “run a leaner organization”. These phrases, as eye-roll inducing as they may be, will sound familiar to anyone who has had additional work responsibilities unexpectedly foisted upon them. Whether your company decided to give you a bump in pay commensurate with the increased demands placed upon your time or not, there now seems to be real currency in the workforce paid to qualities such as “comfort with ambiguity”, “openness to new experience”, and “fluid intelligence”. Previously prized workplace attributes, such as experience and specialization, are falling out of vogue. This, at least for me, was the main takeaway from an article in The Atlantic concerning the future state of work. Gone are the days of needing enough grit to spend 10,000 hours mastering a new skill. The modern workplace, with its rapidly changing rules and roles, is evolving much too quickly. You’ll be left behind with an outdated skillset if you commit too tenaciously to doing one thing well. But, as the article asks, where does that leave the everyday worker? Are people really equipped, both mentally and physically, for new lines of work every decade? Can we constantly go back to apprentice mode without getting burned out? These are heady questions which may define the nature of work for years to come. Whether you like it or not, becoming a lifelong learner may no longer be your choice to make.

    September 6, 2019 - Pateson, Succession & Saving for College

    • Paterson might be the most critically-acclaimed move you’ve never heard of. I counted no fewer than 22 nominations for this film, including nods from the Cannes Film Festival and London Film Critics’ Circle for best film and best actor, respectively. This Jim Jarmusch film was so beloved by cinephilia that even the dog in the film, Marvin, won an award. But does this mean you should watch it? To provide context, the film follows Paterson (played by Adam Driver), a hard-working bus driver living in Paterson, New Jersey, through one week of his life. Paterson (whose first name is not given) is also a devoted poet, dedicating the entirety of his lunch break each day to scribbling away in his notebook. When not at work, he spends time with his eccentric wife, Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani), supporting her as she leaps from one whimsical ambition to the next. Paterson doesn’t own a phone, television, or computer, and drinks exactly one beer each evening at a local bar. If that sounds boring, you are most likely correct. Not a lot happens, which is exactly what makes the film, at least for some viewers, so compelling. Paterson lives his life with duty, passion, and integrity. Although Paterson’s existence is mundane, the film illustrates – and some would say celebrates – the small joys and tragedies he, like many of us, encounters on a daily basis. This is a very real, beautifully shot film. Just be warned that you may doze off while watching it (ask my wife!).

    • Season 2 of Succession began airing on HBO a few weeks ago, and I recommend you check it out. Not only does it provide a voyeuristic view into the lifestyle of the 21st century’s uber-gilded class, but it lets you imagine what it would be like to have so much power that you could tell someone off whenever you want, without having to worry about suffering any consequences, as the show’s main characters seem to do in nearly every scene. To recap, the show follows members of the Roy clan (a seeming stand-in for the Murdochs), owners of an international media conglomerate, as they jockey for position to succeed the family’s aging patriarch, Logan (played brilliantly by Brian Cox), who is, to put it mildly, not even close to ready to give up control. The back-stabbing amongst family and friends knows no bounds, with frequent, unexpected plot twists that keep you engaged throughout.

    • And finally, a blog I wrote some time ago discussing the ins and outs of 529 college savings plans. With the first week of college already over at most institutions, the piece seems timely. And if you are like me, one of your financial goals might be figuring out how best to save for your child(ren)’s (or niece’s or nephew’s) tertiary education in the most efficient manner possible. The blog offers just such advice, while also providing pointers on how best to utilize a grandparent-owned 529 plan if you are in the enviable position of being able to rely on your parents for help in footing your child’s college bill.

    August 23, 2019 - Juliet Naked, Deeper Friendships & Doing Absolutely Nothing

    • If you are like most folks, you’ve probably wasted a good chunk of time at some point in your life on a long-term relationship that, in hindsight, wasn’t working. Whether the relationship was toxic, bland, or simply a relief from loneliness, you may have asked yourself once it was over why you squandered so much time with that person and how your life could have been different if you hadn’t. If this rings true, then check out the film Juliet, Naked. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name, it follows Annie (played by Rose Byrne), a thirtysomething museum curator living in a nondescript seaside town in England, as she disentangles herself from a 15-year relationship with Duncan (played by Chris O’Dowd). Duncan is an undistinguished college professor who spends every free moment obsessing over the life of an obscure singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe (played by Ethan Hawke) who is, in Duncan’s estimation, one of the greatest musicians of all-time. Through an unexpected turn of events, Annie and Tucker meet and what follows is a very engaging - and often hilarious - story of what happens when someone wakes up to the realization that things aren’t working and decides to make a change.

    • “Friendships don’t just happen. They don’t drop from the sky.” So begins an interesting article in The Atlantic about how friends can develop deeper, more meaningful relationships. Like many of my peers, I find myself in peak busyness mode as I hurtle into my late thirties. Marriage, children, work, family commitments…there’s a lot going on and my friendships oftentimes fall by the wayside. If you find yourself in a similar position, the piece offers a couple takeaways that you might find useful. First, deeper relationships are formed when you see someone in multiple contexts. If you have a colleague at work whose company you enjoy, try and interact with that individual outside of the office in order to connect over something other than work. Whether it is grabbing a drink or bringing him/her over to your house to meet your family, it is important to, “take the risk to express to someone that you’d like to do something with them outside of situations where you are required to spend time together.” Secondly, and probably more importantly, self-disclosure is important if you want to develop strong relationships. Even if your life is amazing, odds are there is something gnawing at you. Addressing it through conversation with a friend is a great way to form a stronger connection.

    • With volatility in the stock market rearing its ugly head the last couple of weeks, now is a good time to remind oneself that money invested in stocks is for the long-term. And by long-term, I mean decades. Money that you need soon, whether it be for the purchase of a home or to pay for education, should not be exposed to stocks. If you do feel a strong urge to make a change to money you have invested for the long-term, please consider that the best course of action, more often than not, is to do absolutely nothing. How do I know this? As a recent article in the New York Times points out, most people are their own worst enemies when it comes to investing and have, counterintuitively, actually made themselves poorer by putting money in the stock market. The statistics demonstrating this point are fleshed out in the piece, but the real reason comes down to the following: humans are awful predictors of the future, particularly when it comes to anticipating rough times for the stock market. Trying to outsmart the markets is a losing strategy. Better to have a little humility, recognize that you don’t know what will happen, and stay invested in the market through good times and bad.

    September 13, 2019 - Normal People, Tepper Isn't Going Out & Recessions

    • On my wife’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Normal People. At only 28 years of age, Ms. Rooney has been hailed as the, “first great millennial novelist” and been marketed as “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”. But these descriptions don’t do this novel justice. The book is essentially a romantic tragicomedy, following the relationship between its two main characters, Marianne and Connell, as it evolves from a secretive high-school romance in rural, western Ireland to an on-again, off-again romantic/platonic affair at Trinity College in Dublin. What makes the novel interesting, at least for me, is Rooney’s first-person narration of the inner-workings of each of Marianne’s and Connell’s thoughts as they seek to understand the other, themselves as part of a couple, and themselves as individuals. Rooney does an amazing job relating deeply complicated ideas through sparse, elegant prose. She conveys how easily minor gestures and off-hand comments in a relationship can be misconstrued and over (or under) interpreted, leading to regretful decisions, missed opportunities, and, ultimately, heartbreak. The novel’s writing is superb, and it’s a rare author who is able to pack so much meaning into so few words. Anyone who has ever been in a complicated relationship – or even just simply felt really confused by the actions of a love interest at one point in time - will appreciate this work.

    • If Normal People sounds a bit too heavy and you’d like something lighter, I’d recommend Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin. The novel’s protagonist, Murray Tepper, is a soon-to-be retired mail order businessman (the book takes place in the early aughts), who by all appearances is a normal New Yorker. And by “normal”, I mean he has his quirks, one of which is that he likes to read the newspaper while sitting behind the wheel of his parked car. In spite of the fact that Murray’s car is always parked legally on the street, his habit of reading in it draws the ire of circling drivers who, seeing him sitting in his car, assume he is getting out. When he does not, tempers flare, spawning a variety of hilarious encounters among friends, strangers, and, even, the mayor. In Tepper, some New Yorkers find a hero, others a villain. Regardless of what side you’re on, I think you’ll agree that any novel which can take as boring a subject matter as parking and create an interesting, fun narrative out of it deserves praise.

    • And, finally, a word on recessions. It seems as though folks have been worried about the next recession since the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009. And those fears, at least from my vantage point, appear to have heightened significantly of late. This is understandable, given what recessions presage: people losing their jobs, businesses slowing or shutting down, and families hurt by financial strain. Despite all of this, please remember that the stock market can’t predict the future. It can certainly feel like stocks are going to crater every time they fall a little. But most stock market drops don’t lead to an actually crash. The takeaway? Try not to invest under the assumption that the next recession is just around the corner, as this will likely position your money too conservatively and not allow it to have the opportunity to achieve a higher rate of return. Rather, make sure your portfolio is diversified enough so that it can withstand a wide range of economic and market environments. This is the best way to plan for the next recession. And if you are not sure how to do this, please reach out.

    August 30, 2019 - Grace Church, Dead to Me & 47%

    • Grace Church School in Brooklyn Heights is the subject of an interesting piece published on The Cut this week. The school is known as the “oldest preschool in Brooklyn” and was, in the words of one parent, “this sweet neighborhood school with this kind of loosey-goosey atmosphere” that became a fixture of the community, educating generations of Brooklyn Heights children in what was deemed a familial, loving environment. But in 2015, after a three-year-old walked several blocks unaccompanied to her home and surprised her parents, the school’s laissez-faire approach was deemed to be less a strength and more of a liability. What then transpired – the retirement of the school’s beloved Director, the transformation of the school by her replacement, and the clash said transformation caused between two distinct sets of parents (i.e. the new guard of celebrities/stylists/fashion designers vs. the old guard of bankers/lawyers/doctors) – is a jarring, and utterly entertaining, look at the high-stakes competition of early childhood education in New York City. As the author points out in the piece, “money can shield people from a lot of things, but no amount stops parents from worrying about their children.”

    • “Right on top of that, Rose”. It’s one of my favorite lines from any movie. And if you didn’t immediately know that it was from the movie Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, your awareness of cult-status films is in serious need of fine-tuning, particularly if you were coming of age in the early 90s. I couldn’t help think of this quote when my wife and I started watching Dead to Me, which also stars Christina Applegate. This time, however, instead of portraying a recent high-school graduate pretending to be a twentysomething to earn money to support her younger siblings, Ms. Applegate plays a mother of two young boys grieving the sudden loss of her husband to a deadly hit-and-run. And while that brief, gloomy description of the show will probably not have you rushing to watch it, trust me when I tell you that it has a lot to offer. This is particularly true with regard to the way the show deftly weaves together subjects to which everyone can relate, such as forgiveness, friendship, and loss.

    • Since publication in 2013, an academic paper stating that 47% of jobs will be automated by the mid-2030s has been widely cited by doom-mongers as evidence of a pending jobs apocalypse. The paper, which the authors admit received much more attention than ever anticipated, struck a collective nerve among workers anxious about their livelihoods in an increasingly automated world. As it turns out, and as a recent Economist article explaining the authors’ true intent clarifies, the paper was meant for a purely academic audience. As such, its findings were, “caveated, theoretical and highly unlikely” and were never meant to provide a firm prediction on the future state of work. Robots actually taking over jobs will depend on many other things, such as cost, regulatory concerns, political pressure and social resistance. The piece is a nice reminder of how well fear sells, particularly if stoked by misunderstanding and cherry-picked statistics. Bear that in mind next time you come across any ominous-sounding headline about how your job will soon be automated. It is also worth remembering when you happen to see a doom and gloom article regarding the stock market’s imminent collapse or the certainty of an economic recession. Extreme positions on any topic are best viewed dimly.

    August 16, 2019 - Complaining Better, Resolving Student Debt & Divorce

    • Whining, moaning, kvetching…whatever term is used to describe complaining, we all grouse from time to time about something. And although complaining is commonplace, most of the time our complaints are not voiced for fear of how they may be misconstrued by loved ones, friends, or co-workers. It can be far less fraught to silently resent (or judge) than to complain and risk putting someone on the defensive. But if you have run out of patience and feel that you have no other choice but to voice your displeasure, there was a good article in The Atlantic on how best to do so. In essence, as the article goes on to explain in greater detail, think of your complaint as a sandwich, which is to say that it is a series of three statements constructed to make people more receptive to how you would like them to change their ways. The first statement (“slice of bread”) should be positive in nature and is meant to make the listener less defensive when the actual complaint (“meat of the sandwich”) is provided. This is then followed up by another positive statement (“the second slice of bread”) to lighten the sting of the actually complaint. Of importance is to not make generalizations about someone’s basic nature when complaining. Rather, stick to a specific incident that occurred, focus on how that made you feel, and – under no circumstances – yell or be sarcastic. Unfortunately, complaints, no matter how gracefully delivered or well-thought-out, may still be ignored. In that case, as the author points out, “getting a complaint to finally land [may] require a very special type of person: a lawyer.”
       
    • It seems that hardly a day passes without an article or discussion concerning the negative impact student loans have had on lives of U.S. college graduates. While the visions offered by politicians differ in how college affordability should be tackled, there seems to be little disagreement that student debt has reached crisis proportions: an estimated 44 million borrowers collectively owe 1.5 trillion dollars. That’s why a recent article in The Wall Street Journal feels timely, specifically because it reports on what happened in Kalamazoo, Michigan when anonymous donors in 2005 began funding a program to provide free college tuition for local students, thereby not only eliminating what many consider to be higher education’s biggest obstacle – financial need – but also providing a Rust Belt community in the midst of rapid decline with an educated workforce capable of attracting employers. Without providing too much of a spoiler, the results of the program were mixed, giving little to no indication that simply paying a student’s college tuition will result in higher rates of graduation. Race, socioeconomic status, as well as a host of other issues, played major roles in whether or not a student was able to earn a college degree six years after their high school graduation.  This article serves as a nice reminder that there are no silver bullets when it comes to resolving our nation’s most pressing issues.
       
    • And, finally, a show recommendation. Divorce just began airing its third season on HBO. Its creator, Sharon Horgan (of Catastrophe fame), has said of divorce (the institution, not the show) that, “if it was easy to split up, a lot more people would do it.” And, to me, that quote encapsulates what the show is about. Centered on a drawn-out divorce between a middle-aged couple starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church, one can’t help but think that they would have been much better off staying together than suffering through the time-consuming, and oftentimes heart-wrenching, ordeals that await them at every turn while they navigate their separation. That being said, the dialogue is witty and the issues being confronted are complex and relatable. I wouldn’t say this is a must-see show, but you could do far worse if you can’t find anything else that interests you.