Bottoming Out

As I approach 40, I’m very much aware of my physical decline. But what I didn’t expect was the Internet’s warnings that my overall happiness will apparently be taking a dive soon too. Self-reported subjective measurements make for a lousy scientific statement, so it’s more one of those correlation-only type observations. As to the actual reasoning, that’s up for debate. Common theories include:

  • Innocence lost with the realization that your achievement peak has passed and life didn’t turn out that good (insert Pink Floyd song here).
  • 40 isn’t quite the point where maximum earning potential is reached, and workload appears imbalanced with quality of life.
  • Some form of the above as a midlife crisis.

The full graph indicates happiness begins to decline at 18, bottoms out in the 40s, and steadily increases starting at 50. Something like this (this was drawn freehand, so disregard the scaling issues):

So I decided to compare this timeline with my own life, and see if this is an applicable expectation, using life events as reference:

  • 0-7: Limited frame of reference/too young to care. I remember school being okay until we moved.
  • 8-11: New school. Kids were jerks. Wasn’t allowed to leave the house. Low happiness.
  • 11-12: Junior high started and I really enjoyed the first year.
  • 13-15: Struggled with grades. Wasn’t good at extracurriculars. Bad friends. No luck with girls. Low happiness.
  • 15-17: Moved across the country. Few friends. Bad grades. No girls. Overbearing parents prevented any kind of social life. No car in a town of rich kids. Bad clothes. Bad hair. No happiness.
  • 17-19: Started college. Greater freedom. Discovered interests. Found friends. Increased happiness.
  • 19-21: Own apartment. Girlfriends. Finished college. Even more happiness.
  • 21-31: Bad grad school experience. Tired of apartments. Horrible jobs and limited opportunities. Wife, car and daughter kept some stability, but overall a period of lower happiness.
  • 31-39: Better jobs. More money. Bought a house. Reasonably happy.
  • 39-present: Even better jobs and more money. Good life prospects. Happy.

If I try to graph the above, I end up with something like this:

And if I superimpose the two:

It would appear that I’m at the complete opposite level of happiness than where I should be.

Hopefully this means I’m early to the old age happiness party, rather than late to the middle age unhappiness one. Or maybe my life has been atypical in general. Who knows? But what I do know is that right now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

–Simon

Overcoming

I’ll begin with an oft-repeated nugget of bullshit wisdom: “Money doesn’t buy happiness.”

And I’ll say that’s true, except no money also can’t buy happiness. The phrase isn’t that money can’t buy happiness, but that it doesn’t necessarily. So I think that a better version would be: “Money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness, but it’s a prerequisite.”


I began tracking my annual income in relation to yearly inflation and the American median per capita income a few years back, using my historical W-2s. Alas I didn’t save them all, and employer data retention limits their own historical records, but I can go back as far as 2011, and prior to that I can infer some pretty measly wages. So, after a 16+ year career (when I began working full time), this is what I discovered:

The Median

First off, the median per capita is, by definition, the income that most people have. It is therefore the income at which point you can survive with proper budgeting, since most people do so. It is also not something that happens with entry level jobs, and requires years of experience and some promotions to achieve. In my case, it was 7 years of working full time to achieve this median.

Inflation

Failure to increase wages will return a net loss as inflation chips away at real income value, so if your annual raises do not outpace inflation, you will lose actual worth. This drags out the process.

Transition

For the next 4-5 years following this introductory period, the promotions with job changes were decent but not enough to significantly alter my station. I’ll call this the transition stage: the point at which sufficient skills are acquired to warrant higher pay, but the opportunity has to present itself. It was the most competitive period of my career.

Overcoming

The following 5-6 years have since seen me significant compensation growth, I think because at this point I have acquired a very broad skillset but with pointed areas of expertise, which are in demand. Individually I broke into the 20%er bracket during this timeframe, which was the point at which I began to notice my purchasing power had significantly changed in relation to my younger self and the world around me.

Conclusion

In the spirit of this site’s ethos, these are my observations and interpretations of being an elder Millennial, by age:

  • 0-21: No job in this age range will return a livable wage due to lack of knowledge, experience, education, and an employment system that greatly restricts job availability.
  • 21-28: Any job in this age range will be limited in both responsibilities and salary.
  • 28-33: A job in this age range will begin to see greater salary returns, probably due to experience gained while in the prior age range.
  • 33+: A job in this age range can encompass a wide range of pay scales and opportunities.

Sooooo, anything before turning 30 is a wash. It’s the period of life that requires working hard for low pay while building skills and experience needed to compete for the higher-paying jobs. This pretty closely checks out with published salary by age reports, although I can’t personally confirm the next stages. Supposedly salary caps out in the 45-54 age range, so hopefully I have that to look forward to.

I admit, it’d be kind of depressing as a young person, and appears constant across developed nations. The postwar Baby Boomer period was anomalous, with its influx of unskilled high pay industrial jobs, followed by unsustainable financial policies to unsuccessfully maintain that growth. But a generation that lacked financial burden also proved to lack compassion and character, so there’s an upside to the struggle, for those who make it that long. (Also, money.)

–Simon

Six and a Half Guilders per Jew

One of my old memories I can’t seem to shake is of a movie I saw in history class in junior high. Although calling it a “movie” is a stretch, as is using the term “history”. It wasn’t so much a movie as it was a serialized fictional historical docuseries based on Anne Frank’s final days in hiding. And the class wasn’t history per se, as lower American education doesn’t like to present historical facts nearly as much as providing an Americanized historical narrative, i.e. “Social Studies”. And I think this memory resurfaced because for one, it was an unsolved problem that my mind had filed away for future rumination; and two, that the current Israeli-Hamas conflict rekindled my ire for the aforementioned narrative.

The narrative goes something like this: the Jews, long an unfairly hated and persecuted people, became the ultimate victims of Nazi Germany’s “final solution”, wherein they were systematically murdered. America, either ignorant or unbelieving of the genocide, forced the world with Britain’s help to face the truth. Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes at Nuremberg and executed, and the Jews were granted their own nation state of Israel, enforced by western powers.

To question this narrative is to risk accusations of antisemitism.

The problem with this story is that it ends. What’s not taught in American schools is the aftermath: Israeli militarization, persecution of the Palestinians, Israeli-backed political assassinations, Israeli cyber attacks (Stuxnet). Or their ancient history of of violence: Zealots, Sicarii.

To mention this is to risk accusations of antisemitism.

The aftermath revealed more than anything that yes, the Jews are people. But they’re not an overly altruistic people. They’re just people, who now have the upper hand. And people who have the upper hand rarely compromise or forget old grievances. As an American who lived through the entirety of the 20-year Afghanistan War, I see this all too well with my own people.

Did the Americans feel bad for the Jews after World War II and use their influence to finally grant them their own safe harbor, or see an opportunity to exploit Allied sentiment and gain an unconditional friend and forward base with which to secure interests in the Middle East?

And did the Israelis in turn exploit their western backing to rekindle a grievance with old enemies? Did this increased hostility force a backlash and spark the Israeli-Hamas conflict? Some students and faculty at Harvard thought so.

And they were quickly accused of antisemitism.

I’ll leave these thoughts without my own conclusions.

Because I don’t want to be accused of antisemitism.


The movie followed the “adventure” of a neo-Nazi who for some reason visits the Holocaust museum in D.C. alone. I’m not sure who let a skinhead with swastika tattoos into such an exhibit, but whatever. Inside, the exhibitions burst into the surrealistic ether, swirling about Mr. Skinhead, which I presume is meant to indicate a religious experience, further enhanced by a Morgan Freeman-esque character who then appears to explain the error of Skinhead’s ways by sending him to live a simulation as a Jew in hiding with the Franks.

Things don’t work out for him. There’s a “surprising” personality clash and he leaves, gets arrested by the Gestapo, and betrays the Franks who then get arrested. Skinhead feels remorse, thus delivering the heavy-handed message.

The Gestapo captain then tells Skinhead that they normally pay 6.5 guilders per Jew, but where he’s going, he won’t need it; then proceeds to level a Luger at Skinhead’s skinhead before a cutaway. There doesn’t appear to be a historical consensus on who informed on the Frank family, so I guess time-travel isn’t ruled out.

So what’s 6.5 guilders worth? A brief history lesson of the German guilder reveals that its usage was discontinued late 19th century, so I figured this to be creative license. Then I remembered Anne Frank wasn’t living in Germany. She was in the Neatherlands. Turns out the Dutch were still using their own version of the guilder, which still has an active currency code of ANG. So 6.5ANG = 3.63USD. Anne Frank was arrested in 1944, so a little handy inflation calculator tells me that Anne Frank was sold out for $62.56 in today’s money, or $375.36 for the whole family of 6. A nice little sum I suppose?

Closure at last, though I can’t find any reliable account that this was the actual going rate.


And no – there isn’t a conclusion to this post. Just a rambling train of thought based on contemporary events.

–Simon

Don’t Be a Goddamn Coward! – Pretzel Edition

I purchased food-grade poison. Technically, alcohol is just this. And also a toxin. Semantics are fun.

But in this case I refer to lye. Sodium hydroxide. I buy this every few years for clearing drains, heavy-duty cleaning, and disposing of bodies (there’s only so much room in my crawlspace).

Chemically speaking, lye denatures collagen, among other things. It also creates a highly exothermic reaction, especially when mixed with boiling water. It’s remarkably effective at liquefying human…stuff. It’s also the active ingredient in commercial drain cleaners. And purchased in its raw form, is cheap. An 8 pound bulk order would set me back about $30, though I had to find a distributor through some shady websites. This last time though, the prices were beyond silly. I know – “supply chains”, “labor shortages”, and “no one wants to work anymore”. But after some more digging, I found a new supplier for a reasonable price: Walmart Online. Go figure.

And it was only after it arrived that I discovered it was food-grade. This is in contrast to the usual technical-grade product I would normally get. The difference being, the latter has impurities that make it unfit for human consumption, which in the past translated to cheaper. But with this not the case anymore, I ended up with food-grade. Again, amusing in that it’s a poison.

But it’s not a poison in the sense that it disrupts metabolic functions. It’s a poison in that in sufficient concentrations it dissolves organic tissue. But properly diluted, its corrosive properties are minimized, and ideally suited to make flour dough brown and soft.

Which is why it’s traditionally been a key ingredient in pretzels. So no time like the present to experiment! After a couple attempts and reviewing numerous recipes, this is the combination I have determined ideal:

Recipe


Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.

Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet.


Slurry

  • 1.2 cups water, heated to ~115 degrees F.
  • 2 oz melted butter (Note: use quality butter here. I noticed certain budget brands (ahem, Costco) have diluted theirs. This resulted in my first attempted pretzels cracking from the increased internal steam pressure from the added water content. Unfortunately our American food labeling rules allow for some lying wiggle room estimation, so even the calorie count isn’t fool-proof. Pay extra and buy name brand. Go European – 82% butterfat content to be safe.)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar.
  • 2.5 teaspoons yeast (I use active dry as my go-to, and this worked fine).

Let yeast proof in the slurry while prepping the dry ingredients.


Dry

  • 2 teaspoons salt.
  • 22 oz (by weight) all purpose flour (most recipes specify this over bread flour, I think to avoid chewy pretzels).

Combine all ingredients and knead for ~10 minutes. Use your best judgment here. If you can’t figure this part out, then learn some more basic bread-making first.


The Poison

  • 4 cups cold water
  • 2 tablespoons lye

Proof

  • Proof the dough in a covered bowl for at least an hour. Again, this is a judgment call. See prior comment about gaining bread-making experience first.

Separate dough into 6 portions. I like this size. It’s like those big fluffy fair pretzels, except they’ll be softer because we’re using actual lye and not sissy boiled baking soda.

Shape dough. I went with the traditional string cross shape thing.

Dip dough for 10-15 seconds in lye solution. I used nitrile gloves for the added control. Also using gloves allows for some tactile sensory input. The dough will get noticeably gooey real quick. Place on parchment and repeat for each pretzel.

Sprinkle with salt. The salt will stick nicely to the treated dough. I prefer sea salt, but kosher will work. Personal preference here.

Bake for 14 minutes. This is oddly specific but does appear to hit the perfect spot.


My first attempt. See those cracks? Fuck you, Costco.

And there you have it. It’s somewhat laborious, but they beat out any pretzel I’ve ever purchased. I’m sure street vendors don’t use lye, and no form of chemical stabilizer magic can beat that fresh-from-the-oven texture. So don’t be a goddamn coward, and use some lye!

–Simon