My Amazing Cat: In Remembrance

July 31st, 2015 by Potato

My cat died today, 18 and a half years old — almost 18 years to the day since we got her. I moved out at 23, when my kid sister was 12, so in many senses I was closer to that cat than my own sister (certainly in terms of time spent within a few feet of each other). Forgive me if I’m a bit of a mess for the next few days.

I’ve often said she’s the best, most amazing cat in the world — you all think that of your cats but you’re wrong because it was my cat (well, now one of you might be right). However, it’s always been hard to explain why she was the best cat, so I suppose I will just throw pictures and mini-stories at you (keep scrolling), and otherwise just remind myself that I don’t need to convince anyone else that she was not just awesome and sweet and loving but the best cat ever.

What’s really amazed me the past few years is how good she is with Blueberry (and vice-versa).

After she stopped pouting in the basement, kitty was fascinated by baby Blueberry and breastfeeding.

Even before she could properly focus, toddler Blueberry was very gentle with kitty and they were great friends.

A fairly recent photo of toddler Blueberry and kitty giving nose kisses.

Together in the sunshine. This is in front of the same window where kitty and I spent our last day together.

She liked to hide behind my big 19-inch CRT, probably because it was made of warm. When I got an LCD she started sleeping on the case of the computer itself -- to the point where the network name of my current computer is CatBed.

Sweet sleepy kitty on the couch. Up on the back of the couch was a great place for her to deploy her soft little paws to rest on your head so you knew she loved you.

She liked to lounge upside-down like this on the floor. Only I may give her tummy-rubs though -- all others will get teeth. That's the kind of special relationship we had.

She really liked sleeping in my laundry. And really hated it if she jumped into the hamper and it was empty.

She loved ribbons. Fun to play with, delicious to eat.

One of the earliest photos I could find, of her lounging on the stairs at my parents' place. A few near-misses of getting stepped on and nearly killing her humans and she learned to find better places to lounge... mostly.

Xmas tree set-up in London (incidentally, this was the first xmas Wayfare and I had together after getting married). Kitty was there with me for most of my life's big events.

A last meal shared with my very dear friend -- even when she didn't want cat food, it's hard to resist the allure of licking the cheese sauce off my leftover mac 'n cheese. I like to think that her weight loss at the end was her slow-motion way of becoming a Force spirit like Obi-Wan.

The Origin Story

We got her years ago, on PEI. At the time I didn’t want to get a cat because I had had dogs until shortly before my sister was born, and my dad promised I could get a dog as soon as he stopped smoking (aside: he would not quit for ~7 more years, when he went cold turkey after a cancer diagnosis). I never saw her at the combination vet clinic/pet store where they got her, but supposedly she was super-friendly with all the people coming in to the store, and was nearly 5 months old (she roamed the store, she wasn’t in a cage). There wasn’t much of a market for pure-bred Himalayan cats on the Island, so the store owner said she was going to adopt her herself if no one got her by 6 mo. My mom and sister fell in love and raced back to the cottage to try to convince the rest of us that we needed a cat. My dad had a conference call, and my sister kept trying to ask him to get the cat. He kicked my mom and sister out of the cottage for making too much noise while he was on the call. My sister made pleading faces and hands at him through the window. Still on the conference call, he scrawled across a piece of paper “FUCK OFF, get the cat.” And so they hopped in the van and went right back to adopt her.

Taking her from the pet shop to our place seemed to break her brain: she couldn’t handle more than two people in a room and was constantly under a bed or the couch. I liked to stay up late into the night reading (some things never change), so I was often the only person up when the nocturnal cat came out to explore. We became best buddies. She immediately started sleeping under my bed, hiding from the others during the day, then snuggling with me in the recliner at night while I read. It took a few weeks, but soon enough she was sleeping on top of the bed with me.

Back in Toronto she started sleeping not just on my bed, but up on my pillow. She used to lick and groom the top of my head before we’d go to sleep. As my hair started falling out she seemed to have a realization that it was not a thing to do any more (I like to humanize it by thinking she mistakenly blamed herself for the hair loss), and instead slept beside me for bit, until a few bad nights of getting nearly rolled on and twitched out of place drove her to the foot of the bed. She also loved the basement. It was full of boxes and dust and places to hide, and being a teenager and the oldest child, I had claimed the basement as my own lair, so once again we became the two souls out on our own, and I started to think of her not as the cat that my mom and sister brought home on an impulse, but as my cat.


She hated driving. Supposedly she yowled the whole way back from the pet store in the first place. When our month-long vacation on PEI was over, we had to get back to Toronto in the van, and she yowled until about Moncton before settling back with me on the very back row of seats in the van.

When I moved to London, which was about a 2-hour drive away, she would cry for about the first hour and a half of the trip. Every time. The first time I took her out with me it was a terrible snowstorm, and I think it took nearly four hours to do the drive. On that one I swear she figured out how to modify her meows to call to me (and later Wayfare) by name. “Meeep, meeep, meeeowww, jeeeeow, jeeooon, jeeeooon, jeeeooon… [Way-fr; way-fr]…” After I stopped taking her back and forth every weekend she seemed to settle down about driving (a bit).

Even after she stopped crying the entire trip, we’d still get subjected to the protest pee when we tried to drive with her, where she’d pee in her travel crate as soon as it was placed in the car. We got that treatment on her very last long-distance trip, our return drive from the cottage two weeks ago.

Kitty and Blueberry

One thing that never ceased to amaze me is how this shy, skittish cat became fast friends with a toddler. I know Blueberry is awesome and very good and gentle with the cat, but she’s still a toddler and kind of unpredictable. Blueberry would “read” bedtime stories to the kitty while she napped on the couch, and was constantly bringing her toys and interesting things to sniff. Kitty would follow Blueberry around for a surprisingly large part of the day (given how much elderly cats sleep), and often came in to sit and listen to me read bedtime stories to Blueberry. They’d “ooga-mooga” (rub noses) together, and roll on the floor in the sunbeams together. Blueberry was excellent at giving kitty just one or two treats, and kitty was always super-excited to hear her politely ask “Daddy, can I give the kitty a treat please?” and start crinkling the bag.


She was super, super fluffy (Himalayan). But underneath all that fur she was always a small, dainty cat. She was a grazer who always left lots behind in her food bowl, just naturally skinny. All that fur was constantly flying off, and for a long time my wardrobe tended towards grey to hide the omnipresent cat hair.

Wayfare is incredibly allergic to cats, but had almost no problems with my kitty as long as she didn’t take a nap on Wayfare’s face. Many other people I’ve known with allergies didn’t even know I had a cat until they saw her, because their allergies weren’t triggered. I never thought I had cat allergies, but now I wonder if that’s just because of how awesome she was, as I find I get itchy eyes every now and then when I go visit my sister’s cat. It’s too soon to seriously consider whether we will get another cat, but I wonder if Wayfare’s allergies (and possibly Blueberry’s allergies, who also reacts to my sister’s cat but never to my kitty, even when smooshing her face into her side) will preclude us from getting another in the future.

Fur like that needs brushing, and for many years she would willingly come up on my lap and let me brush her. Normally she wasn’t allowed on my desk, but I’d let her up if she let me brush her for a bit. Starting a year or two before Blueberry was born, we were having more and more trouble getting her to accept regular brushing — she’d bite at the brush, or stop coming up on my lap entirely. So we got into a regular habit of cutting out big knots of hair as it bunched up instead. As she got older and less flexible, we had to really thin out the hair on her back near her tail because she couldn’t keep up with her grooming, and wouldn’t let us brush her. The past few months she wasn’t brushed at all: with the weight loss and dehydration we were just too afraid of hurting her or stressing her out, so she was just a big ball of mats across her sides and tummy — though miraculously the fur on top was still pristine and gorgeous (even the vet commented on it).

Goodbye My Dear Friend

I stayed home from work and spent the day with her today, doing a bit of work on the laptop in the living room while she snoozed in a sunbeam from the front window. I’d pet her, and cry, and she’d purr for a few seconds and go back to sleep. At lunch I had mac ‘n cheese, and she woke up to lick some cheese sauce off my noodles, just like old times. I tried offering her food and treats, and while she took 3 treats she only touched food twice, and even then only got a few teaspoons in.

A half hour before it was time to go to the vet she woke up, had a bowel movement, and visited her food bowl. Just like a cat to make the decision hard on you at the last minute. I figured if she was indeed doing a bit better with a few more good days in her, the vet visit could just be a chance for some more subcutaneous fluids and a checkup. We started the vet visit with a health check to kind of assess where we were at in terms of quality of life remaining and make sure that this was a helpful move. She was down to 3.5 lbs, her kidneys had atrophied, she was anemic, and above all, she just lay down on the examination table and didn’t try to get away. I offered her more treats and she wouldn’t lift her head up to take them. Those last two were the deciding factors for me. She died peacefully while I pet her.

The house feels so empty. Which is weird, because I’m up working on my computer, and for the past few weeks she would have been down on the windowsill at the opposite end of the house, not able to manage the stairs to come up here and visit me. There’s no way I could hear or otherwise sense her from here if she were here, but somehow I can just feel the emptiness (the rest of the family left for the weekend in part so Blueberry wouldn’t have to deal with kitty’s death and daddy being a mess). In some ways I’ve slid into the loss gradually — for instance, she used to always steal the footrest under my desk for a bed, but her limited mobility has meant that she hasn’t been there for weeks, so checking before I put my feet up was already a thing I was getting over. I’m not sure I’ll be eating mac ‘n cheese or laying in the sun in the living room for quite a while though.

She was a loving, gentle cat, and she was loved by all who knew her. I miss her terribly.

My Poor Kitty

July 31st, 2015 by Potato

Warning: this post is about sad stuff while I’m grieving, and writing it may just be more for me than you. Feel free to skip this one. Comments have been disabled.

My cat is downright ancient by feline standards, pushing eighteen and a half. Like many older cats, she has kidney failure, and we’ve known for a while now that her days are numbered. The past few weeks she’s had a rather poor trajectory, and it’s clear the end is going to come very soon.

So I’m left with a very hard decision on timing. She barely ate anything yesterday, and refused food this morning, along with other troubling signs like urinating on her cat bed and only having two tiny bowel movements this week.

With my dogs, there was absolutely no question about euthanasia — either as the right move or on the timing. They were in distress, and their health declined hour by hour, rather than day by day. Their deaths came quickly and suddenly, rather than at the end of a chronic illness, and euthanasia was an unquestionable mercy.

With my kitty it’s a much harder decision. She is on a path to basically starve to death, and that is not how I want her to go — I’m comfortable with a decision on euthanasia as an endpoint. But the timing is so hard.

She’s not in distress, she’s not yowling in pain… she’s just lying here in the sunshine, snoozing. But she hasn’t eaten more than a few mL of food in the past few days, and her energy is so low her awake time is measured in minutes, and if she does try to get up and walk she stumbles and falls. Her tummy groans, and she looks nauseous when she does eat, or falls asleep mid-chew. However, she could go on like that for another few days.

It’s hard to say for sure that an injection today is a more compassionate thing to do than one tomorrow, or waiting for some other end at home over the next few days.

I think it’s time. I’ve made our final appointment with the vet. But it’s hard to say goodbye to a dear friend and companion, and I wish I was more sure about this than “I think it’s the right move and the right time.” But waffling on the fine timing is not going to change the fact that I do have to say goodbye to my sweet fluffy baby sometime very soon.

Goodbye, old friend.

Canadian Personal Finance Book Guide

July 26th, 2015 by Potato

As much as I love blogs, if you’re coming to a topic for the first time and need a orientation and structure it’s hard to beat a good book. However, there are so many out there covering so many aspects of personal finance that it’s hard to know where to begin — especially as a Canadian, where suggestions from across the border can be hard to translate into practice here.

I’ve put together a reading guide to help people decide what Canadian personal finance books to read, which is a question I find myself answering a lot. I think something general and easy to read is a good place to start for nearly anyone. In fact, I recommend a few books designed to be general introductions — despite re-treading over some common ground, each brings a bit of a different view and adds information. That helps set the stage for the other books to follow, whether you need more help conquering debt and a budget, want to start investing, or just learning more about how to be a smarter consumer. A reading guide like this can also help put things in context: it’s hard to jump right in to investing and how to manage your retirement nest egg if you haven’t yet given any thought to the notion of saving for the future.

Personal finance reading guide -- click for PDF.

The reading pathway is a PDF infographic type document — click the image above or this link to download it.

I did reach out to a few others for their opinions on what to include for people starting out, but I’ve read a lot on the topic and used my judgement to create the pathway: the final curation, summaries, and opinions are all my own.

Disclaimers: I am the author of The Value of Simple, one of the entries in the pathway. I also embedded links to each book for convenience, and did use my Amazon affiliate code in those links. This did not affect my choice of books for the pathway.

Please feel free to share/mirror the PDF — the attribution is built in.

On Checklists

July 19th, 2015 by Potato

Several beta readers suggested that I close out The Value of Simple with a checklist. It sounds like a great idea, and I took several runs at the problem. However, if you’ve read the book then you’ll know that it does not end with a checklist. The issue is that making a good checklist is hard, and a checklist doesn’t really fit the problem at hand.

A checklist should not be an algorithm in disguise. I could have ended with a flowchart or bulleted list to summarize the steps in planning, investing, and managing it all for the long term, or a checklist to cover all those steps. It could have been a nested checklist (and I had a few decent drafts of those), with big check-boxes like “make a plan” under which would be a separate checklist with items like “do you want to leave an inheritance/legacy” and “do you have a plan B?” or “Investing” with “have you filled your TFSA first?” and “are you diversified?” However, that was getting just too big and complicated, had too many questions as opposed to action items or steps, and in some ways could basically be replaced with the single sentence “in lieu of a checklist, run down the table of contents and place your tick marks.”

Checklists are best for helping to prevent stupid errors, especially where you might forget something, or do some steps out-of-order. So it’s quite difficult to fit them to the overall plan-invest-manage process: it’s too big, and spread over too much time. It’s also a lot of decision-making and assessing your own feelings, rather than mechanical steps to take. For many of the things people may forget, the written plan and calendar reminders I suggested should work better than a checklist.

There are aspects where I could see checklists being handy, basically for isolated parts of your investing process. For example, when buying or selling an ETF there are lots of little things to remember, like setting a limit order, the good ’til date, factoring in the commission, rounding down for the number of units, recording the transaction, making sure that the purchase fits your long-term plan, etc. — smaller, more focused checklists for these tasks might work really well, and I’ve already had some ideas on the back burner that I’ll try to turn into drafts for you to look at.

Why didn’t I pound them out first and include a half dozen in the book? Largely because I’m going to need to test them out on a few people, and try to identify where the common errors may be — and whether a checklist actually helps or makes things worse. What errors do you think people would need a checklist to avoid and in which areas?

2014 Active Investing Update: Execution Risk

July 6th, 2015 by Potato

2014 was a busy, busy year. I wrote and released a book, in addition to all the other stuff going on in my life like being a dad, holding down a full-time job, taking on freelance/coaching clients, etc.1 So I did not have much time left for active investing, and that was one factor in putting in a rather shoddy under-performance of 8.6% vs my benchmark of a 50/50 mix of the Canadian and S&P500 e-series funds which pulled in almost double: 16.7%. Indeed, looking back through my notes from the year, active investing was almost entirely jettisoned from my life when the time crunch got bad. I spent almost as much time doing the bookkeeping and getting ready for tax season for my active portfolio in April as I did on researching new ideas or carefully following the ones I owned through the entire rest of the year. I did not listen to a single conference call all year. For over half of 2014 the time I invested on the active portfolio was precisely zero.

So this gets down to execution risk, another great reason to love simple index investing methods. Even if I did have a workable strategy to beat the index, and the smarts and emotional fortitude to follow through, there are still lots of ways to muck it all up (like not really doing it at all and leaving things on autopilot). That’s an added risk to active investing that we don’t talk about much, and a difficult one to accept: it’s all too easy to say something like “oh, if I had spent more time on it, I would have done better.” But the fact is that I didn’t, and I put myself into a situation where I could under-perform (and also granting that I may have underperformed no matter how much time I put in) by choosing to invest actively. It wasn’t a down year — I still made decent money, which may make it all the easier to fool myself if I wasn’t comparing to a benchmark.

I was overweight oil-related stocks, which hurt this year, but Canexus is a big stand-out mistake. It was a large part of my portfolio (a big part of out-performance in past years), and I just sat on it while it fell 55% in 2014 (and continued to decline in 2015). It’s stunning just how much value was destroyed by their attempt to build an oil-by-rail transloading terminal: over $350M invested, and it sold this year for $75M. Looking back (with the benefit of knowing that there were more declines to come), I should have seen the writing on the wall closer to mid-2014 that this supposed side project was threatening the stable, cash-generating chemicals business that I liked in the first place. That would have been a loss for the year, but not a loss on the position — instead I completely ignored what was happening and lost a lot of money by the time I woke up to how bad things had gotten this year.

I’ve been cutting down the number of positions I hold in the active portfolio and putting more and more towards the passive portfolio, but have not yet gone fully passive — at this rate it will take me several years to wind down to that point. Especially given that I wrote a book on how passive investing works and is so easy to do I should probably just liquidate the active portfolio and go fully passive. As I was putting this post together, Regal (RLC) received a take-over offer, which helps offset some of the other idiot moves I’ve made. The proceeds from selling that have been rolled into the passive portfolio. I also took that opportunity to do a big re-balance: I’ve had a mix of TD e-series and ETFs for a while now, in part because the e-series are easier to buy on autopilot, or in small pieces as the market dips (an idiosyncratic move purely for psychological comfort). I’ve now liquidated the e-series and rolled everything into just four ETFs — and I’ll note for new readers that my passive portfolio is in my TFSA and RRSP so there were no tax consequences to this roll-over, but doing the same thing in a non-registered account would have made me realize (and pay tax on) any capital gains the e-series funds had accumulated. It’s likely I will once again build up some e-series through the next year or two and do another shuffle to roll them into ETFs, or I might finally get into the habit of buying an ETF every few months for the passive portfolio.

This is two years in a row now of under-performance. My cumulative out-performance (“alpha”) is still positive, and by enough still that it raises an interesting conundrum, related to the previous posts on freelancing: in 2014 and the first half of 2015, I’ve ignored managing my active portfolio for the sure thing of freelance work (and the not-so-sure thing of the book). However, if I was able to maintain the 5-year average of out-performance from the years where I was working at it (which conveniently ignores this, my second-worst year relatively speaking), my time would actually be better spent doing investing research than editing/writing/coaching work. Of course, if I were to “risk adjust” that, then I’m back to taking the sure thing of working for a living and indexing my investments.

1. For that matter 2015 has been pretty hectic too, which is why this update on performance is coming 6 months after the fact.
Link to 2013’s update.