“What Does Your Father Do?”

Over at Slate, John Swansburg has written a thought-provoking essay about the American myth of the “self-made man,” how we’re fixated on this idea that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps like some of our favorite rich people once did, despite the fact that no one has bootstraps anymore or even would be able to pick bootstraps out of a line up with girdles and spats.

In the intro, he delves into how his own father got started in business:

Mostly, though, my father made his money in real estate. Specifically, he bought and sold buildings he affectionately refers to as “pigs”: big, ugly industrial spaces. Buildings with saw-tooth roofs and wrinkle-tin sides. Buildings that housed sheet metal shops, produce-industry middle-men, discount-furniture-store distribution hubs. In his late 20s and early 30s, the years before he bought the Hilltop, he built a small empire in the hardscrabble ring around Boston: in Charlestown, Everett, the precincts of Cambridge that Harvard and MIT students studiously avoid, and in Chelsea, where his first roofing shop had been. I once asked my father how he knew when a pig was a good investment, since aesthetics, and even location, seemed not to factor into his calculus. “When I’m looking at a building,” he said, “I drive up to it. If my balls tingle, I buy it. Otherwise, I don’t.”

Origin stories! So cool. My dad wanted to be an English professor but it was war time. So as not to get drafted to go fight in Vietnam, he ducked into law school at the advice of a prof, and ended up a lawyer, and that was it for the rest of his life. These things so often happen by chance. Except in America we don’t believe in chance. We believe in Hard Work:

What Will You Do With Your Extra $200?

It’s that time of year again! When certain people who make six-figure salaries realize that they are getting to keep more of their salary for the rest of the year because they’ve maxed out the amount they are expected to pay into Social Security. In the case of my friend who acquainted me with this phenomenon, and who was super excited about it, it’s an extra $200 per pay period, but YMMV.

From the SSA website:

When you have wages or self-employment income that is covered by Social Security, you pay Social Security taxes each year up to a maximum amount that is set by law. That amount has changed frequently over the years. For 2013, the maximum amount of taxable earnings was $113,700. In 2014, the maximum amount of taxable earnings is $117,000.

Clear? No? How about now:

Paula Deen is Back, Y’all!

One of my favorite longform internet-type writers, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, has a profile of the new-and-improved Paula Deen business empire, built on ashes and martyrdom and Southern charm:

a new company had been announced— Paula Deen Ventures—which had been bankrolled to the tune of a reported $75 to $100 million by an investor named Jahm Najafi. His website says he “seeks to make strategic investments in undervalued assets,” but really, homeboy loves a fire sale: he was the last known owner of Book of the Month Club and BMG Music Service — you remember, 12 tapes for a penny — and in 2011 considered buying Borders, which had dwindled to 405 all-but-dead stores. He specializes in businesses that still have some juice in them; he doesn’t care how much because he buys them so cheap and a profit is a profit. (You can only imagine how quickly calls made to the Najafi headquarters were not returned for this story. Paula Deen’s publicists also denied my many interview requests on the boat and after; they did not respond to our many fact-checking queries.)

And there is still profit to be squeezed from the Paula Deen brand. Deen’s products — through collaborations with Meyer Corporation, among others—had seen a reported 35 percent sales increase in the first two quarters of this year; subscriptions to her magazine reportedly grew by 40 percent. (For perspective, in those two quarters, paid subscriptions for magazines in general faltered 1.8 percent and single-copy newsstand sales fell a significant 11.9 percent from a year before.)

There are many fascinating facts embedded in this essay. For one, it can cost $75,000 per episode to make a cooking show. How is that ever profitable or worth it? For another, Glenn Beck sells discounted NRA subscriptions. Mostly though it’s an interesting story about a self-made woman who publicly self-destructed and is now trying to self-make again, in part by drawing on the sympathy of folks like her with a soft spot for butter. An American tale, indeed.

Who Are Our Favorite Rich People?

George Clooney wasn’t the only wealthy dude to get married this weekend. According to the Vows section, a Vanderbilt just tied the knot.

Meghan Marie Knutson, a daughter of Debra L. Knutson and Terry K. Knutson of Burnsville, Minn., was married Saturday to Travis Murray Vanderbilt, a son of Alison Platten Vanderbilt and Alfred G. Vanderbilt III of Norwalk, Conn. Jordan B. Hansen, a friend of the couple and a Universal Life minister, officiated …  The groom is a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

He seems like a nice guy, too, despite having been raised in Connecticut.

We all have our favorite rich people: the honorable and now dear departed Mitford sisters, for example (#TeamDecca), or Ebenezer Scrooge, because that’s the best name ever, nobody names ‘em like Dickens. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt – Union hero, transportation magnate, and the 2nd or 3rd wealthiest American ever, bless his whiskered heart – is one of mine. His financial backing allowed Victoria Woodhull, first lady of American awesomeness, to set up shop with her sister Tennie on Wall Street. Behind them, on the office wall, they hung one picture of Jesus and another of “Com.”

Victoria may have been sleeping with him. Tennie certainly was. But Com also respected both sisters a great deal. He was a savvy businessman; he didn’t part with money except where he expected to see profit, and indeed the sisters made about $700,000. Not bad for the first American women stockbrokers. 

Human Rights Lawyer, 36, is Keeping Her Name

One of the more buzzed about news stories this weekend recounted that a renowned business-woman had made an unusual matrimonial choice:

With stories such as “10 Pretty Woman business lessons”, US website The Business Woman clearly isn’t shy about courting traffic. But it hit the jackpot with its headline on the George Clooney-Amal Alamuddin wedding on Sunday, which took an angle that clearly chimed with many readers. It put Alamuddin at the front of the story, reporting that the “dual-qualified English barrister and New York litigation attorney who has long been a high-profile figure in international refugee and human rights law has gone against the trend for professional women in her field and married … an actor”. After six paragraphs singing her praises, it finally revealed that the actor’s name was George Clooney – “probably a nice man, but seems to be a bit clingy, as since she met him it’s hard to find a photo or footage of Amal without him hanging around in the background”.

Tom & Lorenzo, the “fabulously opinionated” fashion and culture bloggers, concur in this general assessment, and beg of us, the general public, “Let’s all come together and agree to treat her like the accomplished woman she is and not a vessel for George Clooney’s potential baby, yes?” And if she decides not to have a baby, like so many other women, let’s not give her grief about that either, okay? George Clooney is 53; he has had plenty of time to pass on his genes if it was important to him.

DOL Leading the Charge on Paid Leave

At last, at last, the US Department of Labor (and Delivery? ba-dum-ching) has started a push on the subject of paid leave:

The most important family value of all is time together. With the changing nature of our 21st-century workforce, it’s getting harder and harder to balance the demands of the family you love and the job you need. Change has yet to come to Washington, but momentum is growing in the states: So far, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey have passed paid leave laws. It’s time to update workplace policies that are stuck in the past and give more Americans paid family leave – to take care of sick loved ones and newborn children. It’s time for us to #LeadOnLeave.

You have to chuckle at the idea of us “leading on leave” at this point, when we have lagged so far behind for so long. But I understand the hashtag as a framing device: Americans don’t want to do anything unless we can be bravely at the vanguard, waving the sword way out front as others fall in line behind, so, okay, sure, let’s “#LeadOnLeave.” Anything to help us stop pouting on the ground with our arms crossed.

What are these new state laws? Here’s some info about the situation in Rhode Island for example (“an employee can have up to four weeks of paid time off from work without fear of losing their job to care for a seriously ill family member or to bond with a new child through birth, adoption or foster care”). Gee, that sounds idyllic. Maybe we’ll move to Provincetown Providence after all. 

How People Do Money: The High Holidays

Perhaps the less Jewish-y people have noticed that the more Jewish-y people are saying “Happy new year”? That’s because it is once again Rosh Hashanah, a lunar calendar holiday that usually falls in September and coincides nicely with the beginning of school. Happy birthday, world! Time to hit the books.

This is a pleasant holiday: we get to miss class, eat apples and honey, and challah with raisins, and various kinds of cake. I had a donut this morning when I got back from services and it felt almost, like, spiritual. We don’t have to hear horror stories about people trying to kill us. Services go on forever and ever, it’s true, but pretty much guaranteed, when you doze off, someone blows the shofar and you jolt upright again. As a teenager, when I got bored, I’d sneak off to the synagogue library and reread Exodus or Marjorie Morningstar. One time my family drove home without me because no one thought to check the stacks.

So, good food, mini-break from school right out of the gate, and you get to hear someone blowing a ram’s horn like it’s 2500 years ago: what’s the problem? Money. Especially for us X-ennials / members of Generation Catalano, the issue becomes, how or what do you pay for High Holiday tickets. Because yes, it costs to go to services: it has to, so that synagogues can keep the lights on. Even factoring in that dough, rabbis still have to make a traditional “appeal” during the high holidays where they petition for more from the people who crowd the pews once a year.

Even understanding that, though, it can feel weird, because mixing money with spirituality seems so strange. Can’t, you know, God provide?

Coffee vs Diet Coke vs a Pure, Uncaffeinated Life

How much do you spend on coffee a day? Is it worth it? Slate (via Inc) says hell no:

that euphoric short-term state that you enter after drinking coffee is what nonhabitual caffeine consumers are experiencing all of the time. The difference is that for coffee drinkers, the feeling doesn’t last. “Coming off caffeine reduces your cognitive performance and has a negative impact on your mood. The only way to get back to normal is to drink caffeine, and when you do drink it, you feel like it’s taking you to new heights,” Bradberry explained. “In reality, the caffeine is just taking your performance back to normal for a short period.”

It’s bad for your sleep cycles, your productivity, and your wallet. Sorry, lovers of Joe.

I can be smug about this since I’ve never drunk coffee. It’s strong and bitter and I do not get it at all, unless you muffle it in so many layers of milk and sugar that it doesn’t taste anything like coffee, at which point it’s 5,000 calories and $500 and turns your irises into pinwheels.

On the other hand, I get my daily caffeine fix from Diet Coke, which doesn’t even have the defense of being a naturally occurring, organic upper. It’s water and chemicals and fizz and God help me, I love it, even though it is probably wreaking havoc on my gut flora. Who am I to judge? Let he who is without beverage sin cast the first stone.

illo by Charrow, possibly the most serious coffee person I know. 

Good Enough Homes & Destinations: What You Get For $325K

The Gray Lady is playing around with a budget of $2,000,000 this week, and her first find is a California wine country “contemporary” (read: “sci-fi wackadoodle”) estate. Here are some of my favorite details:

+ The contemporary is divided into two tower-like wings, separated by a concrete courtyard. The first wing was built in 1993; the second in 2008, at which point the original wing was extensively renovated. Both are clad with stucco and corrugated metal  and have walls of glass overlooking woods. [editor's note: cozy!]

+ An upstairs loft with floor-to-ceiling windows is used as a reading nook. There is also a temperature-controlled wine room with shelves for 600 bottles, concrete floors and sliding glass doors to the outside.

+ Also on the property is a tower with a hot tub and skylights, designed for stargazing.

+ The space can be enclosed with rolling garage-style doors. The property has a 250-vine sauvignon blanc vineyard and a greenhouse.

There aren’t enough exclamation points in the world. So, okay, that’s what you can get for $2 mil: your own vineyard and an opportunity to use last week’s vocab word. Here, in this week’s Good Enough Homes & Destinations, we’ll explore what you get for a more modest $325,000.

Cooking: Secretly The Worst?

Everyone knows that secrets to living frugally include 1) cooking as much as possible, and 2) more cooking. But cooking, man! It’s time consuming, exhausting, stressful, and then, even after all that effort, unreliable.

When I finally went to bed after hours of cooking and cleaning up, having achieved absolutely nothing — having impressed no one, including myself, with the food I made — I said to my boyfriend, “Cooking is really stupid.” He said that he agreed. I said that I was never cooking again. He said he thought that was a great idea. I said, “I have to make homemade tomato sauce with C on Saturday. And I have to make some more galettes because the last ones sucked.”

“That sounds like a lot of cooking,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “I’m going to make the galettes and the sauce and then, I am never cooking again.”

Is cooking really that much of a money-saver, asks Get Rich Slowly? The answer is yes, mostly (and the site offers some hacks). But that still doesn’t answer the question of whether for you, individual reader, it’s worth it.

Follow the Money (to Find a Genius)

According to these very cool maps provided, for the first time, by the MacArthur Foundation, charting all of their fellows from 1981 to 2013, Genius is quite mobile, more so than the rest of the population. To start with, Genius isn’t necessarily born where the money is:

But it travels there: