Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Findings - For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It -

Score one for religion?

Findings - For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It -

“Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” he said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”

Although a number of different studies are cited, including one on people who are 'spiritual' but not 'religious', there is no study on 'spiritual' plus meditation versus religion.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Keeping the holidays under control

Okay, it's a little lat for this, at least for this year, but I was part of a recorded group conversation that my friend and radio host, Nina Price, did on how to enjoy the holidays. You can read the summary here:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

See? I'm normal!

At least about understanding my cats...

AP Poll: 67 percent of pet owners say they understand their pets

My question is, if we can understand our pets, why aren't we copping to reading each other's minds?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

TPMCafe | Talking Points Memo | Credit Card Payments and Psychological "Anchoring"

The credit card companies get you coming and going:

TPMCafe | Talking Points Memo | Credit Card Payments and Psychological "Anchoring"

Op-Ed Columnist - The Great Unraveling -

When I was 11 years old (I was in 8th grade at the time), I saw very clearly that the US was going to become more socialist and that Russia and China were going to become more capitalist. I was so clear about it that I insisted that I go to a high school where I could learn Russian or Chinese. (This was NOT part of my family conversation -- my parents were very surprised by my request, though when I explained it, they seemed to understand.)

My parents found me a boarding school where I could learn Russian. Funny thing, the first year I took Russian was the year that the Russian grain harvests failed disastrously, and the US first sold wheat to the USSR. I remember boarding a Russian ship, which was loading wheat into its hold from a grain elevator at the port of Albany (NY), as a field trip.

Anyway, here it is, about 40 years later, and it turns out I was right. Obviously Russia went more capitalist in the Gorbachev era, China is doing it now -- and we are nationalizing our banks. (And maybe the auto companies?) Here's Tom Friedman making the point:

Op-Ed Columnist - The Great Unraveling -

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hollis' Adventures in SubPrimeLand (or, Through the Looking-Glass)

I own, as an investment, a 2 bedroom, 1 bath condominium in Citrus Heights, which abuts Sacramento. I bought it right after 9/11, when no one else was buying, and so I got a great deal (about 2/3 of what it was worth on a cash flow basis), and it cash flows, at least when it's rented, which is the vast majority of the time.

It's nothing fancy, an 800sf front ground floor unit in one of those McKeon four-plexes that sprung up all over CA in the 70's. (McKeon was the builder who figured out how to do condominia.) The neighborhood is nothing fancy, either, a neighborhood of small working class families, the elderly and the disabled, mostly owner-occupied units, but some rentals, too.

My unit is cute, in a cottage-y sort of way, looking out on a front lawn, and it only has one wall in common with any other units. The drawback to it, however, is that the windows of both bedrooms, one at the right of the unit, and one at the left, each look out on the front entrance to a side unit in the building. This means that your neighbor's ingress and egress habits may affect your sleep. This is the genesis of my adventures in SubPrimeLand.

The neighbors in the unit to the right of mine are the neighbors from hell (NFH). The single mom and her son were Section 8 tenants (more on that later). The mom, a white woman in her early 30’s, was on disability for brain damage due to a car accident 10 or so years ago. But somehow, she managed to do all sorts of jobs for her landlord, cleaning and painting vacant apartments to get them on the market -- for cash, of course. Her mother was living with her, along with a series of unsavory boyfriends, at least one of whom went to prison as a drug dealer. (Of course, none of these 'guests' were allowed by the Section 8 rules.) She managed to store so much stuff in her half of our shared garage that my tenants complained of being unable to use their half. When I personally moved some of the stuff, after repeated requests fell on deaf ears, she called the cops on me! Her vicious dog attacked her (better her than anyone else) and tore her arm up so badly that she spent the night in the hospital, with hundreds of stitches, and the cops had to shoot the dog. Of course, she immediately got a new dog.

The owner was a good friend of mine. He maintained the unit, but never fixed it up, so it had ratty carpet, worn linoleum and old appliances. But it was good enough for Section 8. My pleas to him to get rid of the NFH fell on deaf ears – the Section 8 money kept coming, and he used her to do those other apartment clean outs. But he did have a good rapport with her, and could manage her somewhat.

He sold the unit in the spring of ’07 (smart man!) to another investor. He told me who it was, and I called her to warn her about the tenant, and to see if we could work together, checking on each other’s units if we were in the neighborhood (she lives in San Jose), etc. I never did hear from her, though.

Comes the Spring of ’08, and my last tenant moved out for personal reasons. It was 2 middle-aged sisters, tough old birds, one of whom managed rentals for a living, and so they could deal with the NFH okay. These ladies told me that the NFH had received a 30 day notice to quit, and would be leaving a couple of days after them.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

My new tenants are quite nice and very reliable. They are a mother, who is a retired public health nurse, and her adult daughter, who is back in college full time after a divorce. After a couple of months, they began to complain about the behavior of the now teenaged son next door (remember, the TFH was a single mom) and his friends. The kids were smoking on my tenants’ front steps, making noise at all hours of the day and night. To make matters worse, the mom had moved out of the unit, and into the fourth unit of the fourplex, the one at the back, over the garage, with her new boyfriend (having broken up his former relationship), leaving her son alone in the side unit.

I told them to call the cops, which they did – repeatedly. But nothing happened.

When my tenants told me that the mom and her boyfriend had been evicted from the back unit, departing for parts unknown, leaving the son in the side unit, I called my attorney to tell him. He said, tell the cops that there is an unsupervised minor in there, and they’ll do something. So I did, and I called Child Protective Services, too, for good measure. The police did do a welfare check, finding that the minor had a 21 year old male with him! Not a good sign. And with an adult in there, the police could do nothing. This brought the TFH back, to harrass my tenants.

Meanwhile, I’d been calling and emailing the owner, to no avail. She wouldn’t answer my calls or my emails. I do know she got the emails, though, because they didn’t bounce.

Now my tenants were threatening to break their lease. I can’t afford to have my unit vacant. And now, I’ve created so much animosity with the TFH that I’m afraid that if it’s vacant for even a day, my unit will be vandalized.

So I’m desperate. Why is no one doing anything?

Here’s why:

• The TFH has not been evicted, despite its Section 8 status being revoked, so that no rent was coming in. Why wouldn’t you evict a tenant for non-payment of rent?
• Here’s why: The owners don’t care because the unit is in foreclosure. A notice of default was filed in the spring of 2008. It only takes 90 days to foreclose, so that should have happened a long time ago. Why didn’t the trustee’s sale happen?
• Here’s why: The lender is in bankruptcy! The loan is for somewhere between 2 and 4 times what the property is worth, and they probably don’t want to acknowledge that.
• (And BTW, the Home Owners’ Association has begun the process of foreclosure for non-payment of HOA dues. I’m guessing no one’s paying the property taxes, either.)

Everyone is either unwilling or legally unable to do anything. I’ve got the flu, but it seems like I’m the only one who cares.

So I haul my flu-ridden butt out of bed on the coldest evening of the year to drive down to San Jose (about an hour each way) to try to find the owner. My husband, Kosta, doesn’t want me to go alone for safety reasons, and I have to agree. Luckily, he's driving — but he's coming down with the flu, too.

We arrive at a solid home in a solid, middle class neighborhood, a neighborhood of 3 and 4 bedroom single family homes, built in the 60’s. The sort of neighborhood where everyone cuts their grass and most put up Christmas lights. The owner’s home fits in perfectly – well-maintained, lots of Christmas lights and other decorations. From the front door, you can see through lace cafĂ© curtains into a tiled kitchen that looks like it was remodeled in the 80’s. In the family room, I can see a Rottweiler puppy asleep on a pile of blankets.

A 16 or 17 year old boy answered the door. When I introduce myself and ask him for his mom, he says, “She’s not here.”

“When will she be back?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“Will she be back this evening?”

“I don’t know.”

We go around like this for a while, me trying to get something out of him, him evading. Wow! He must really be used to bill collectors… too bad, he seems like a nice kid, very polite. Finally, I tell him I was just going to wait outside till his mom got home.

So my husband and I stand at the foot of the short driveway, being careful to stand on public property in case he calls the cops. We debate what to do. Kosta wants to go get dinner, and I say, if we do that, you know she’ll come home while we’re gone, and we’ll miss our one chance to get to her before she shuts the garage door. But what if she's already inside, and he was lying? What good would waiting do then? Would it be better to leave, and come back at 5AM, and wait for her to leave to go to work? Yes, it would mean another trip, but we’d be sure to find her, and more warmly dressed, to boot.

5AM seemed like the surest plan, but I have to try one more time at the door, just in case he was lying, and Mom is home. What if he doesn’t answer the door? Well, there's nothing to lose.

He answers the door, and this time, offers to get his Dad. This, it turns out, is a major stroke of luck!

It turns out that although Mom is the owner of the unit, it was really Dad’s idea – Mom never wanted to buy it in the first place. In fact, Mom is pissed at Dad, because it’s ruining her credit.

Dad, it turns out, is in the real estate business – sales, mortgage lending, and property management. In 2005 and 2006, he brought home $700k each, and bought property all over the country, fairly indiscriminately, figuring the good times would continue to roll, property would continue to appreciate, and he’d be able to service all the negative cash flow out of his earnings.

We all know how that turned out. 2 of Dad’s 3 businesses are down 95% since 2006. (Care to guess which 2?) The property values have plummeted, as well, so now he is under water, with negative cash flow and no way to service he debt on his greatly diminished income. What’s more, when business went south, the first people he let go were the accounting department, so his records are a mess and he can’t find anything. Eventually, he let everyone go, so he is the only person there, trying to unwind the mess, to salvage the properties where the lenders will do the loan modifications, so that he has some cash coming in, and let the rest go.

He actually doesn’t think he still owns the unit! He thinks it has been foreclosed upon. I tell him that we think they are selling drugs out of the unit. As a real estate broker, he knows that once he knows, he’s responsible to do something. When I say to him that now he's on notice, I actually see him wince – and so does my husband.

So we leave it that I'll send him all the information I have, all the contacts, who to call to do the eviction, the cops cell phones, everything, and he’ll keep me in the loop. I’m not sure that’s good enough, but it’s all I can do for now.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Free call on how to avoid holiday stress

This Friday. Dec. 12, at 4PM PST, I'm going to be part of a free teleclass, "How people Who Seem to Always Have th Holidays Under Control Deal with Holiday Stress".
I'll be sharing how I managed an elegant, festive, sit down, 5 course Thanksgiving dinner for 18 (my dining room table seats 6, period) -- and had fun doing it! 4 other women, including the mother of a large family, a personal organizer and the founders of a wellness center and education/training facility will be sharing their insights and ideas about how to manage the multiple priorites, extra activities, community needs, emotional effects of the season -- and enjoy the holidays yourself!

Each of us has a unique perspective on the holidays:

- Sue is the mother of a large family, a professional, and an active community volunteer who always manages to do many things well and simultaneously. Sue is a wealth of many kinds of information, wisdom and practical solutions. She's raised four children, has eight grandchildren and has been a foster parent to many more from various backgrounds and cultures.

- Chris and Julie are co-founders of NewLogic Solutions in San Jose, CA, a wellness center and education and training facility. Julie is a Breakthrough Expert, Creator of Energy Grid Healing™ and Certified Trainer who enjoys helping professional women over 40 achieve their impossible. Chris is a registered nurse who has been trained in both Western and Eastern medicine and has been educating individuals for over 25 years on ways to listen to their bodies and reduce stress. Chris and Julie are a wealth of insights on many topics relating to clearing and healing. Find out more at their website,

- Debbie is a personal organizer who designs customized filing systems for her clients' business and personal needs. She helps them get back into control. She can also help people feel more in control of the holidays and she'll share some secrets about how.

I'd love it if you would attend the call. You can do so by clicking here to register. We want to be sure that we have enough phone ports available for everyone who wants to hear what we have to say.

Please note that the call is at 4 pm Pacific time despite what the registration website say.

Monday, December 08, 2008

How to have stress-free holidays

I had a festive, elegant, sit-down, 5 course dinner for 18. Oh, plus 2 dogs, one of whom showed up out of the blue. Luckily my cats were quite gracious.

My dining room table seats 6. Period. Therefore, this involved

- putting the living room furniture (or most of it) in the dining area
- putting the dining room table, the kitchen table and a patio table in the living room
- taking the kitchen door off its hinges to move the kitchen table into the living room, and of course replacing it
- getting some plates, glasses & sliver from my mother, who lives 45 minutes away — because who has service for 18?
- setting up 3 buffets, along with the 3 eating tables
- sewing chair covers onto the patio chairs that I have to use to seat that many
- putting up seasonal decorations
- and of course, the cooking, all in a 2 butt kitchen (the functional part is a galley, about 12 feet long) and the cleaning

And not only did everyone have a great time, but that also included me!

Here’s what I know that makes this possible:

* Plan ahead
  • I get the stuff from Mom a couple of weeks early, when I happen to be near her house,
  • shopping is Saturday before Thanksgiving
  • usually, I start moving furniture and cooking Sunday before Thanksgiving (this year on Monday, though I screwed up the guest count and had to do it all over again on Wednesday, after the tables were set)
  • do a little cooking and/or moving every day, with the bulk on Wednesday afternoon
* Stay organized
  • I work to a written plan, and can therefore delegate
  • I have a box that has all the linens
  • I have those Teflon furniture moving pads, and I know where they are, too
* Get help!
  • the kitchen door was courtesy of my brother-in-law, who is in construction
  • while I do the bulk of the cooking, a sister-in-law helps on Wednesday, each woman brings a dish we agree upon in advance, and Kosta monitors the turkey
* Keep notes

I keep notes each year on what worked and what didn’t, and because I know where those notes are, along with all the recipes, which are kept with the notes, the event gets better each year.

THIS is the reason for ritual — you repeat what works, and discard what doesn’t. Plus when at least some of the guests know what to expect (like gong around the table, saying what we are thankful for before the meal), everyone will relax.

Remember, no one notices, or cares, that anything is perfect — or even that the house is clean. They care that the food is decent, and the company fun. No one will ever look at your floor.

Is emotional contagion leading worsening the economic problems?

There is a kind of emotional contagion afoot. James H. Fowler, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, recently co-wrote a study looking at how happiness can be spread among friends. The opposite is true as well.

“There are studies on bank runs, and it shows that people who know others who have taken their money out of the bank are much more likely to do it as well,” he said. “We always overshoot the upside and, because of the same contagious effects, we overshoot the downside. Everything is fine, and then all of the sudden we are looking for water and supplies to ride out the coming storm.”

from today's NY Times

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Why ritual?

When I was a kid, ritual was something boring that happened in a church or synagogue, that had nothing to do with me -- and no point that I could see.

When I was first an active real estate broker, I had the good fortune to have a buyer client who needed to get out of a purchase contract on a perfectly good condominium (and I do mean perfect -- the contractor's inspection, for once, found exactly nothing wrong). I thought to call a feng shui expert (this was before almost anyone had heard of feng shui), and the expert got her out of the contract because the location of the condo was bad, and incurable.

A while later, when she bought a townhouse nearby, he inspected again, and then did a house blessing ritual immediately upon closing. That was eye opening! We stood in the tiny garden, and said different prayers over a vase she'd bought to put in the entry hall. I psychically saw different colors stream into the vase with the different prayers! When I checked with the expert later, the colors did, in fact, match the colors associated with the 'deities' for each prayer! So that's what ritual objects were meant to be -- objects that carried spiritual energy! And the point of that ritual was to bring those energies into the house.

This year's Thanksgiving, an elegant, sit down dinner for 18, taught me even more about ritual: what it is, and why it is. Every year, after Thanksgiving, I write notes about what worked and what didn't, along with ideas about how to make things go more smoothly. I take photos of the set up, too -- table placement for however many there are that year, place setting, etc. I keep all the once-a-year recipes with those notes, too. So each year, Thanksgiving gets easier for me, and more fun for my family and friends. I've learned that we should go around the tables, each saying what we're thankful for before we pass out the soup. I've learned that kids make great soup plate runners, serving diners while I ladle soup in the kitchen, that turkey cooks surprisingly fast at 500 degrees, and that a bus bucket in the kitchen keeps clean up much more organized.

OMG, that's a ritual! Rituals are just ways of doing things that work, so you do them the same way, over and over. Not only are they effective, but they also help people know what to expect, which makes everyone comfortable. I think the problem with the church/synagogue rituals to which I was exposed as a kid was that they had in some way outlived their usefulness -- or that the true spirituality behind the form had been lost over time.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Vital Signs - Regimens - For the Best Pick-Me-Up, Lie Down -

I've taken an afternoon nap most afternoons since I came down with what is now called CFIDS 25+ years ago. I can actually feel my brain fade (though it's not as often theses days) -- and nothing but a nap ever seemed to help. Turns out I'm not alone:

Vital Signs - Regimens - For the Best Pick-Me-Up, Lie Down -