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Building a functioning dam(n) for the river of horrors

Building a functioning dam(n) for the river of horrors

As we enter a US election year I have decided to reduce my exposure to online dialogue substantially. I don’t live in the US, I don’t vote there and if something is important I am sure The Americans* will tell me about it. The fact is, it is impossible to not know what is happening in the world today and there is a constant barrage of horrors to choose from. Yes, there is also goodness in the world but when ‘enragement is engagement’ the horrors are always top of the feed.

I have completely stopped going to my private Instagram account because it is non-stop horrors. Horrors I have no control over. Horrors I am not educated or have enough power to do anything about. I could spend most of my day educating myself about global politics and still never scratch the surface of knowledge about everything. It’s all too much.

I also don’t want to be ignorant of the events of the world. I do hit a news site for the biggest headlines and read the paper (yes, a physical national newspaper like an old person) once a week so I know what’s going on and I think that is about as much as I can handle. I am overwhelmed every time I hit a social media site and the feeds feel like a battlefield.

To me, it felt increasingly like everyone was just screaming into their own echo chambers. I think when everyone is terminally online, posting memes feels like activism. I, myself am guilty of this and only have recently been really taking a long, hard look at what feels good vs. what does good. I spent years setting the dopamine gun to STUN and quite frankly, it’s basically changed nothing except that my iPhone reminds me on Sunday mornings that I spend more time on it than I do with my kids each day.

One of the reasons why I don’t have comments turned on here is because I am horrifically addicted to feedback (and I love making new friends). Although many people assume that I don’t WANT feedback – oh I do – negative and positive! I want to mainline the comment sections of every website I go to, proving once and for all that my opinion is the best opinion (you can take the girl out of debating…). But realistically I have spent so many years doing this: on IRC & BBSs/usenet since 1994, to livejournal in 1999-2007, to all of the Meta properties until today (I have thankfully avoided tiktok so far…)**. I can’t even remember a fraction of those discussions and I don’t think I have changed the world in the slightest. If fighting on the internet with strangers had a longevity prize, I’d probably be up there with my 30 years of service (as an aside, the gift for 30 years of marriage is jewellery containing pearls: the internet would snicker at that relentlessly.). But when I look back on my life I don’t want that to my defining characteristic; my tombstone would probably say something dumb such as: THERE WAS AN ATTEMPT, TUCKER HAS LEFT THE CHAT or 404 LIFE NOT FOUND.

The reality is though that I just don’t have enough social media clout to make a difference. I used to work in social media and the first thing I did when I retired was shut twitter down. I loathe twitter. I don’t use my real name on facebook, I am cautious on Instagram and even on my posts I try to respect the privacy of my husband, children and our lives in general. Sure, I am not so dumb as to think that people couldn’t find me if they really wanted to – I am not in the witness protection program after all – but I try and keep some modicum of privacy. I also don’t think I am interesting enough to find, either. I admire my friends who have chosen different paths and create these hugely popular networks that have served them well – they have political clout! When they speak, people actually listen. But for the rest of us, all of the memes and hot takes and snarky political commentary is all shit for flowers: no one gives a rat’s arse what we think. In the grand attempt to turn the internet into one giant Speaker’s Corner, there are no more corners in which to hide from the constant barrage of opinions.

I just think that we need to actually reevaluate the way we engage with the systems of the world. I feel like we’ve gotten stuck in a feedback loop from the last decade which was all about “raising awareness.” You just shared post online and TA DA! You felt like you did your part and you didn’t even need to leave your house. But did making people aware of issues bring us anything more than pink vacuums at a markup? Probably not. In many cases as well, raising awareness does more harm than good. It made me wonder: am I posting because I think it will change things, or am I just posturing?

Don’t misunderstand me: this is not a treatise about bowing out of political life. Not at all. I just think that we should be cognizant on what we can change and what actions are effective at enacting change.

In my city, the turn out to vote for mayor and city council was 43.79%

In my province, the turnout for the last election was 43.53%

In Canada, the turnout for the last election was 62.2%

But this is all wrong, realistically. The government that has the most to do with our lives as citizens is our municipal government. They are responsible for every day things such as school boards, waste/recycling collection and road maintenance. We interact with our municipal public servants more than any other government representatives in the country***. This is followed by the province who is in charge of things such as healthcare, social welfare and highways. Then the federal government is responsible for the big things such as national defence, law, immigration and taxation. Of course, there is a wide amount of overlap between all levels of government but it’s shocking to me that people vote the least in elections that control more aspects of their daily lives.

But even then, many people I know don’t know that their elected representative’s main job is to represent you, the citizen, to their legislature.

I can’t remember any Civics lessons from school and most of what I have learned about the political process has come from working for the federal government and then extrapolating that to all levels of governance. But to come back to my original point: your MPs, MPPs, the Mayor of your city and the councillors probably don’t follow you on social media. The heads of departments or people who sit on committees don’t know you and they don’t know your opinions on issues: you need to tell them.

It is not enough to post memes and clapback to online trolls. It isn’t enough to comment on news articles and spread awareness for causes unless you have a HUGE following that ends up making your opinion trend. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up! I decided that this year would be the year of doing what DOES good instead of what FEELS good. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of things that I have decided to do this year:

Stop posting about politics online: controversial, I know. I don’t want to constantly be under the watchful stare of the terminally online. I also don’t want to be terminally online. No one who is important**** reads my locked down posts so it’s really an echo chamber for the most part.

Stay informed: your representatives usually have mailing lists and websites. Go there first for info. I have now gotten into the habit of pointing people towards the incredibly detailed newsletter our city councillor puts out weekly when people get hysterical about the “lack of communication.” I remember one woman had an apartment building going up behind her house. The councillor actually took a team to FLYER the affected neighbours, posted repeated online about it on social media, and put it in the newsletter for a month. This woman was absolutely hysterical that “no one had told” her. But what more can politicians do? I feel like people expect an engraved invitation but let’s be honest: it’s up to us to stay informed as well.

Write elected officials: I have been writing emails to my officials and giving them my name and address and my opinion on things. Recently, our community was slated to have transitional housing occupy an old LTC that had been decommissioned. Of course, this cued a bunch of online fighting but hardly anyone went to the meeting or emailed the contact with their opinion. I wrote many, many people about how great it was that our community could use this building to house people…in a housing crisis.

Contact elected officials and ask them: email or call with questions or concerns on how they’ve voted and why. If they don’t get enough feedback from citizens, it could be difficult to gauge their temperatures on issues. I make sure they know how I feel.

Donate: CHANGE THE WORLD WITH THIS ONE TRICK! Honestly, we doubled some of our donations this year just because inflation and housing is just brutal for anyone who isn’t middle class or higher. My cousin is getting married this summer and she has asked people to make donations to the woman’s shelter where she is the ED. She is a middle-aged woman who doesn’t need gifts and who already owns a house. I think this is a brilliant solution!

Volunteer: this doesn’t even need to be a formal volunteer position. We help our elderly neighbour navigate technology. I see people offering to run errands for sick neighbours & shoveling walkways for the elderly all of the time in my neighbourhood group. The community association is constantly looking for people to help with events and other activities.

Sign up to work at a polling station during an election: I have done this before. It is an extremely long, gruelling day where you don’t get a break. You will meet kind people, but you will also get people who call you a fascist for asking for ID. It is really good insight into the process, and I did learn a lot.

Protest: there are so many ways to protest from boycotts to physically going to a rally. I feel like shopping in your community and buying products from artisans instead of dropshippers on amazon are forms of protest as well. To sound cliché: we do vote with our dollars. I know none of us are perfect and some people just don’t have as many options but we need to support our communities if we want to keep them.

People often believe a dam is designed to completely stop water from moving. But often it is just good water management for the purpose of generating electricity, preventing floods and providing communities with water. I don’t want to eliminate news and political engagement but I just want to make it manageable for me and targeted in ways that make it a net benefit, not just a feel-good moment where I click share, wipe my hands, and move on with my day.

*These are my Americans, get your own
**I am ancient and from the Beforetimes
***Yes, I live in the capital and see more federal public servants than not but let’s be reasonable
****You are important to me! Just, not, like, the world at large.

Did the 4% rule work if a Canadian retired in 2000?

Did the 4% rule work if a Canadian retired in 2000?

I love this article from the Globe and Mail (sorry kids! Sub only!But please sub to at least one Canadian paper and one magazine a year to support homegrown content /soapbox) but here is what I think the most important takeaway is:

The bursting of the internet bubble provided a real-time test of Mr. Bergen’s “4 per cent rule,” which brings me to the hypothetical Canadian investor who started their retirement at the end of August, 2000. They began with a $1,000,000 portfolio. Half was invested for growth in the S&P/TSX Composite Index while the other half was invested for income in the S&P Canada Aggregate Bond Index.

The investor took $3,333.33 out of the portfolio to live on at the end of each month (a 4-per-cent initial annual withdrawal rate) with the payments being stepped up each month to adjust for inflation. (The figures herein are based on monthly data with reinvested distributions, but they do not include fund fees, taxes or other trading costs. The portfolios were rebalanced monthly.)

(Yeah, the 5% seems to be missing)

This is absolutely great news — unless you were that 6% guy. Ouch!

Check out the crabs in the bucket

Check out the crabs in the bucket

A couple of years ago a man in Toronto with a professional job bought a house. Of course, this story plays out across the country every day: many people buy and sell houses all of the time. But Sean Cooper not only bought a house but he also had the nerve to rent out his top floor and live in the basement, work three jobs and ride a bicycle everywhere in order to pay off his mortgage in three years. Naturally, the internet’s reaction was swift: how dare he.

I subsequently read Sean Cooper’s book about his experience …and discovered nothing of note. Basically his plan was simple: be young, single, child free, able-bodied, know how to live frugally, have a high paying career, be able to give up what makes life worth living and have enough energy to work multiple jobs. It’s hardly rocket surgery. Obviously, not everyone is able to tick off all of these boxes on the “pay off house quickly” list. Few of us – if we’re honest – are able to do more than a couple of things that he did, let alone all of them. But outliers make for great copy so he soon found himself clenching onto his 15 minutes of fame in his paid-off house.

An (ex) friend of mine wrote a particularly scathing commentary about the article denouncing him. In fact, many people did including this particularly vitriolic piece in Slate. When I asked my friend why he cared what other people did, his response was that if everyone did this than capitalism would expect us all to do this! I didn’t think that was true but I let it go. What I find hilarious is that in retrospect, when all this was going down we were in one of the largest Bull Markets in history. For most people, life had never been better: interest rates were low, equities high and compared to today real estate was way more affordable. In fact, reading that Slate article as we claw our way out of a global pandemic feels almost quaint.

Here is the rub though: I think that Slate article is bang on. Individual actions not structural inequalities drive our morality when it comes to money and it shouldn’t. Yes, absolutely I would love to see some real change, some real support for people who are struggling. But let’s also be realistic: only people who are like Sean Cooper in every way have the ability to do what Sean Cooper did. But only them. Being angry at Sean Cooper for his accomplishments is like being angry at David Beckham for being better than you at football.

The real issue is that we are extrapolating his very constricted set of circumstances and trying to apply them widely. Clearly, a single parent of two children in an expensive city with a minimum wage job is not going to be able to pull this off and no one is saying that this is what they should aspire to. Similarly, I – as a middle-aged disabled woman – will never be a famous footballer. That’s why it got any press at all: he accomplished something only available to a select few people. Cooper was featured because he deviated from the norm and deviation from the norm gets eyeballs on your news pieces which in turn generates advert dollars. That’s all. But even if we can’t apply every single idea into our lives there is still a lot of value to see people doing things differently. We can extrapolate a few ideas instead. Maybe someone reading that article will realize that they rarely use their car and that they can give it up and instead buy themselves the model railroad they’ve always wanted. Who knows?

A couple of weeks ago, I watched Marie Kondo get raked against the coals for daring to say that she isn’t as tidy anymore now that she has three kids. No duh. Of course, the internet jumped all over this. The same thing happened when her book (and subsequent Netflix show) came out. My facebook lit up like a Christmas tree at the fact that she only had fifteen books. “JUST FIFTEEN!” people lamented, “That’s bullshit! I could never live like that!” But she never claimed that everyone needed to have a maximum of fifteen books. She stated that fifteen books was the right amount of books FOR HER. If rooms full of books “spark joy” for you, then her perspective was: you do you. The catch was that you needed to actually watch the shows and/or read the book to know that she wasn’t insistent on just 15 books. Instead people succumbed to internet outrage and social media soundbites. But her recent decision that tidying was a lower priority for her now that she had three children set the trolls ablaze. “AHA! was the collective response to the news, “clearly it was all bullshit!”. Really though, her choice not to prioritize tidying over time with her small children in no way means her system doesn’t work. It just means that right now spending time with her kids “sparks joy” more than a tidy house does.

Finally, this week I was unsurprised to watch the trolls come out in full force when I read the comments about this Vancouver couple. While some of the comments are cruel, some of them are just nonsense. “Well she isn’t retired now, is she?” Well maybe she doesn’t want to retire yet. “There is no way they can retire on 800k.” Had they used the BTSX strategy, a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation pegs the dividends at over $40000/pa. “They won’t be able to travel on that kind of income.” Geographic Arbitrage is cheaper than living in Vancouver full time, for sure.

Unfortunately, a lot of online interaction leads itself to Crab Bucket mentality: because I can’t have it, I’m going to drag you down. Like the metaphorical crab who sees another crab escaping & stops them, people in similar circumstances who won’t do the work end up in comment sections dragging the people in the article down. Their goal is to shame people who do things differently and hope that other people agree with them. Groupthink is incredibly powerful and the message is, “if I can’t have it, you shouldn’t either!” We love watching successful people get dragged in what the Australians/New Zealanders call Tall Poppy Syndrome.

People are completely missing the point of all three of these examples. They’re just ideas, tools and goals that these individuals used to give themselves options. Maybe their lifestyle isn’t for everyone but SURELY they have to have some insight that we can potentially apply to our own lives? Also, we make the assumption that we are the audience for every article when clearly we are not. These articles have value because there are people out there who don’t know that they can pay off the mortgage early, or that there are better ways of folding t-shirts or that a high savings rate is achievable for mid-income folks with a few short cuts. But smart people realize that there are nuggets of wisdom everywhere so they take what they can from a resource and leave the rest. I see this a lot in popular personal books (PF) that are written for an audience outside of the author’s country. Inevitably there is always a review that says, “ONE STAR: this doesn’t apply to me because I don’t live in that country. You need to write one about my country.” But I’ve read personal finance books from all over the world and inevitably I take some gems out of all them. Most PF books are US-based but I just swap the terms for Canadian versions, IRA to RRSP for example. I don’t need to be spoon fed every single detail about my particular situation, I can just apply the larger idea to my own life by adjusting it.

The reality is that no matter how often you get angry that your house isn’t tidy enough, or it’s not getting paid off as quickly as you’d like, or you feel stuck in your life with your finances awry, no number of negative comments you post will change that. Sure, you may get a little shot of dopamine when someone agrees with you or you can get jacked up on the arguments with the people who don’t agree with you but it adds zero value to your life. You would be better off taking notes or figuring out who else is achieving the goals you’d like to achieve and reading their books or blogs.

I didn’t pay off my house in 3 years, it’s an absolute tidiness disaster with two kids and two dogs and I certainly don’t have close to $700000 in investments. I am still grateful for these people who’ve given us a window into their lives. The value in reading these stories is not making a carbon copy and applying it to your life, its value comes from seeing that maybe you could try and do things differently and that it could be life-changing. When you have applied some of these tips and tricks the value becomes one of seeing that you aren’t alone – other people are doing it to!

So I encourage everyone to get out of the metaphorical crab bucket. Glean the wisdom that may be helpful to your life and focus on how you can make your situation better. It’s much better time spent.