Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Let us be thankful (lest we weep)

The $1200 wood bill has been trumped by heating oil at $5 a gallon and propane upwards of $4. If I burned the same amount of fuel as last year but at this year’s prices, the total cost to heat my house would be $4,000, double last year’s bill. Ouch.

Fortunately, I have the ability to burn either wood or oil in my furnace, so will switch the percentage to as much wood as I can manage. The limiting factor is that I can only burn wood when I am home to run up and down the stairs and put logs on the fire. So if I plan to burn wood four to five days a week and all evenings, I think I can cut my bill to $3,000. Still painful, but better.

As you may imagine, the “prebuy” is the hot new topic wherever Vermonters congregate. As in “Didja get your prebuy yet?” Translation: “Have you heard from the oil (or gas) company what their price will be for the coming heating season?” There’s a level of obsession with the coming winter that we don’t usually see until the first crisp turn of the air in mid-August.

The prebuys are just now out. The fuel oil companies have been having trouble coming up with plans they can live with. Mine is offering $5 a gallon if you buy now, with a couple of adjustments for good credit and paying by check. How else would you pay? Oh, maybe credit card? That would be dire.

Alternatively, you can pay $4.80 for the oil and 40 cents for a cap for a total of $5.20. Then you can pay by the month. And if the price goes down, you pay the lower price. Worth it? I’m not sure. And there is a time value of money calculation I need to do as well. From a psychological point of view, I would rather pay once and not worry further. But I am fortunate to be able to do so.

These small fuel oil companies are really hurting. They buy oil at a price and sell it at a markup, but they can get hammered if prices go against them. Even the little guys are pretty adept at hedging, but these markets are making everyone queasy. Further, as prices go up, so do the odds that they will not get paid, and you can’t really repossess oil from a home tank. Aside from the human and political angles, there is sludge at the bottom of most tanks. So they deliver smaller amounts and sometimes insist on getting paid before delivery. More, smaller deliveries mean higher costs for their trucks and drivers.

The politicians and the non-profits are ramping up for a tough winter. Unless the weather is unusually warm, they are expecting to need to open up gymnasiums and armories as temporary shelters for people who simply cannot heat their homes. Winter in Vermont is beautiful but can be deadly.

The only happy campers these days are the wood guys. Their costs have gone up to some degree, but nothing like the rise in prices. Me, I’m grateful to be able to soften the price rise by shifting to more wood. It’s a rare opportunity, not to be repeated until I retire and can stay home most days happily feeding the wood furnace. But that’s more than a decade away, and who knows what energy future we will face by then?

Note: Just so you know. I will not be accepting political or merely cynical comments on this or any of my posts. You certainly have the right to hold whatever opinions you hold. But this blog is not the place for them.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Burn, burn, burn

Today I contracted for my wood. Two cords of dry at $250 a cord, four cords of green at $175. By the time I burn the two dry, the green should be ready.

The Vermonter who came to talk about cutting up fallen trees in my neighbor’s maple grove gave me lessons in wood economics. A house the size of mine could use 8-10 cords in a winter if I burned only wood, he says. I can believe it. Last year I burned 2 cords only on weekends. And this winter, I expect to be home more during the week.

He quoted me the above price, but wasn’t all that anxious to sell. He can stockpile till November then likely get $375 a cord over in Stowe where people have more money. I called someone I had heard had a better price, but they were at $225 for green with an eight-week waiting period. They aren’t even selling their dry wood yet. Not till November.

So altogether, I have now committed $1200 for wood. Tomorrow I call to find out what the prices are for fuel oil (I have an almost full tank to start, thank heaven) and for propane (I only burn a little, to knock off the chill in the living room). This year the chill may stay unknocked.

My friends and neighbors say the pre-buy programs are, well, quite unattractive. That’s the Vermont way of saying we are terrified. Usually we don’t start obsessing about fuel costs until the second or third week of August. I count myself fortunate that I have the option to burn wood as well as oil in my furnace. And that I have two dogs to pile on the covers on winter nights. Not all my neighbors are so lucky.

In a day or two, the first load of wood will appear on the side lawn. And I will proceed to shove it through a window into the cellar and stack it. Conventional wisdom is that wood warms you twice, once when you split it and again when you burn it. My Vermont neighbors reckon that this calculation comes up short; it’s more like seven times they say. Cut, split, stack, load, unload, stack, and finally burn.

The wood guy suggested that he deliver two cords at a time, a few days apart, “to give me time to get it in and stacked.” He was dead serious. He had no idea that last year it took me weeks to get two cords into the cellar.

Guess I will have to do better if I aspire to be a wood-burning Vermonter. Aerobics and weight training, all at once. Wish me luck. Better yet, come on over.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Running on instinct

I’m one of those people who rise to a crisis. In the normal course of life, I am analytical to a fare-the-well, weighing costs and benefits, expected value and range of possible outcomes. But in a crisis, I act quickly and decisively. I slice through waves of emotion, mine and other people’s, and I do what needs to be done. Then I fall apart later.

It seems like a good system to me. But mental health professionals characterize this behavior as dissociation, which at the extreme results in multiple personalities or other maladaptive mechanisms. I accept that this shadow is out there, but these days, I am grateful to feel I have a channel to that inner instinct that guides my daily decisions.

The current crisis is not even mine, at least not mostly. My boss—let’s call him Jay—and my old dog were both diagnosed with cancer. At first, I joked with my boss that he had the same symptoms as Toby, but that ceased to be funny. Toby is no longer with us, and my boss is facing a grueling course of chemotherapy.

Jay has non-Hodgkins lymphoma, mantle cell type. As he says, it’s a “nasty little bugger.” He learns more about his prognosis one day next week, but he and his family and his colleagues have come to accept that the treatment is going to be a big challenge, even as we firmly believe that this big, strong, dynamic 55-year-old man will come through and regain his health. We can’t imagine any other outcome.

On the practical level, my world has changed. Outwardly, I will be doing many of the same day to day actions that I did when I was marketing Jay’s services. With him out of pocket for at least six months, we figure, it makes sense for me to change focus. I will continue networking my little heart out, but on my own behalf rather than Jay’s. I will talk to people about retirement plans, investment strategies, long term care and disability insurance. Until I can gather up some new clients, I will have an income gap to bridge—thank goodness, I am one of those conservative people who actually has several months expenses in the bank.

When Jay is healthy again, we can work out how we can work together in the future. When I joined Jay’s wealth management firm a year and a half ago, I was adamant that I wanted a role where I did not have to be involved in sales. Didn’t like selling, couldn’t do it. My outlook has changed. It turns out that the heart of wealth management for small business, individuals and families is talking to human beings about what they want to do with their lives and how their money enters into those decisions. And I do want to be on the front line of those conversations. Even if I have to recognize that I am in a sales role.

I am certainly qualified. I have over twenty years experience in financial services, and I have resources to fill in any gaps. Also, it has turned out that I am an effective and enthusiastic networker. I enjoy hearing about people’s hopes and dreams and helping figure out ways to achieve them. And I have a long list of contacts that I think I can convince to let me practice my value proposition. I had been thinking for some months about hanging out a shingle, which would allow me to work closer to home at least a couple of days a week.

But I wouldn’t have had it happen this way for anything in the world. Here’s a comfort for me: Jay sees it as a major positive that I am taking on this new role. He retains some continuity in the office, and he also genuinely believes that I will be wildly successful. How nice is that to hear?

Am I terrified? You betcha. I’m an introvert, for heaven’s sake! And I’m going into sales? Correction. I have been in a sales and marketing role for the last five years, one with Jay and four in economic development. Calling on businesses, listening to people, trying to find solutions. Still, it is different to have my income depend on whether I can find the people who need solutions and find solutions that they will embrace.

How can I go forward? I am running on instinct. I feel in my bones that this is the right road to follow as opposed to, say, going after another corporate job. There is little analysis behind this decision, beyond a quick check of my bank balance, and for me to proceed without analysis is rare. It is mysterious, even a little creepy, how strongly I feel this is the right path.

This spooky certainty has overcome my native conservative cast before. Many of my big life decisions have been made this way, and I have emerged with relatively few regrets. What would life be if we couldn’t remake ourselves from time to time?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Closing and opening

We closed another chapter this week with the loss of my good friend Toby. He was twelve. He had been diagnosed with cancer and was just beginning to be in pain. It is truly a blessing that we can spare our animal friends the bitter end of life. And it is a solace to me that I was able to stay with him and calm him through the end. I was never able to do that for Max--I loved Max so much. But Toby loved me so much that I could not leave him alone. We all miss him terribly.

We also have a new chapter opening with vigor. Meet Stone. Also called Stony. He is another puppy from my friends at Stonybrook Farm

Stony had several weeks with Toby, who taught him some basic manners.

I struggled for a long time naming this baby, who is a full brother (same mother, same father, different year) to 3-year-old Cassandra. Cassie is perfectly named.

When I first moved to Vermont, I was vocal about all the kinds of things that I thought I knew that people in Vermont did not. At last, someone sat me down and said, "You may be right. You probably are. But in Vermont, nobody will believe you. Here, you are Cassandra." Doomed to be always correct in her prognostications, doubly doomed never to be believed, that was Cassandra. What a perfect name for a talky, preachy German Shepherd!

It will be interesting to see how looks when he grows up. At this stage of his life, he looks exactly like she did at this age. And here's the beautiful girl now, rounding out the family photos.

I liked the idea of naming a German Shepherd for a prophet. And I like names that have layers of meaning. But in the end, Stony of Stonybrook Farm seemed like a good name. Formally, he is Stone--I can see him growing up to be a serious jazz pianist. And if we think of stones as runes, perhaps his name has a prophetic cast as well.

I am sorry I missed your comments. I failed to supply an e-mail address where I could be notifed of new comments, but I have corrected that error now. I certainly never meant to be so completely defended in my Vermont hideaway that I was unreachable.