Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Gather Ye Assets While Ye May

I have worked where I work for 25 years now. This milestone has caused me to look over my shoulder, so to speak, and wonder where the heck the time has gone. I know that it has been 25 years because I have a plaque which attests to this fact. I am an official member of the Quarter Century Club. They gave me a burrito breakfast to seal the deal and I chose a single diamond necklace as my “gift” for all my years of dedicated service. I could have chosen a camera, video recorder, luggage… the list goes on and on. But I chose the diamond because when I am dead, I want my ancestors to know that the fable about the tortoise and the hare is brilliant and I am a living example. And so I say: to all you future descendants, here’s the diamond to prove it…”

I suppose we all either boil down to being hares or tortoises. As it turns out, I am a tortoise. This comes as a bit of shock to me, (and it may to you, too) as I have always considered myself to be a bunny-like kind of gal. I loved the scene in Legally Blonde where she shows up at the party in her pink satin bunny suit. I also love this same scene in Bridgett Jones. This would be me. Curling my hair, donning fishnets to display my inner bunny (she is in there somewhere competing with my inner 50’s housewife.) I am prone to hop to attention and I think of myself more as a cute female Disney rabbit, kind of like Thumper’s girl friend bunny, than as a Disney turtle. Plus, I have always been drawn to angora. In fact, I still own a pale lavender angora sweater I bought in 1981 from a darling boutique in Portland, Oregon.

So, discovering that I am actually a tortoise was somewhat unnerving. But the truth of the matter is, like that great Aesop story, I have been plodding along, one foot in front of the other for 25 years now and it is only recently that I have discovered how eminently sensible this has turned out to be.

While other women that I have encountered along the way have sprinted ahead of me to become “VP’s” or Private Bankers or Executive Directors for trendy non-profits, leaving for greener pastures, or just grazing from job to job, I have poked along in my position, hesitant to give up my sure thing, my good deal, occasionally taking tests for a little extra money here or a bigger bonus there. I have heaved big sighs and quietly hung on to my health insurance. (I know that this is a main theme for this blog, but I promise to explain this obsession someday. It’s all wound up in my Jane Austen fixation and commitment to personal responsibility.) I have also saved incrementally in boring monthly payroll deductions for retirement. I continue to drearily engage in dollar cost averaging and dutifully increase my 401-K contribution by at least 1 percent after I receive my raise each year.

Nope. No fancy titles for me. I just know every in and out of the wacky brokerage world. Big Yawn. I can, however, effectively wiggle my way through the eye of the needle know as “LEGAL”. Or, at least anticipate what they will say before they say it and save at least two weeks of wrangling and agony. It doesn’t make great cocktail party blather, I mean, no one would probably care to hear about how FAST I managed to divide Dr. Whozit”s mother’s estate before the end of the year, (like, really fast, like, December 29th, when the cutoff was December 10th or something) or the clever way I found the lost money of someone’s addlepated Aunt Esther hidden in a bizarre account at a Bank America in California. Nor do they give a hoot about just how high I was able to finagle the bid of XYZ shares for Mr. Soandso’s Employee Stock Option. It was like a high wire act. It was impressive. I felt like I was playing intergalactic mind games with the unseen trader standing somewhere on the trading floor of the NYSE. All I could see on the screen was the ask blinking up and becoming my bid each time… BWA HA HA!

At one point, it felt like all my careful saving and dutiful attention to security was a bunch of nothing, but I recently came across my 401-k statement from 1991 and OH-MY-GOD, what they say about slow and steady is the dog-gone truth! This is the day that it dawned on me, I AM A TORTOISE.

When I started, the Dow Jones stood at about 860. From there it has only gone up. But things can be pretty if-ey in the world of brokerage firms. It’s a tough business no matter how you slice it. Brokers come and brokers go. Mostly, they go. Twenty five years ago, when I was hired as an assistant to stock brokers, I was only on the job for one week before I realized stock brokers made great money. At the time it seemed like a winning strategy. You earned commission if your client bought a stock and also if your client sold a stock. Even if they lost money!! WOW! Who thought of that? It’s brilliant! But the more I watched, the more I realized how hard it was. First you had to find the people WITH the stocks. To gather assets, that is. That is what they call it, asset gathering.

For years, I pictured all the lovely, white males I work with dressed in blue gingham dresses, and red hooded capes, wearing a wig of blonde ringlets. I imagined them skipping through a dark, green forest of stocks, bonds and cash equivalents, a wicker basket slung over their arm, gathering assets. Mostly, they would run into lions and tigers and bears, but all it took was the occasional bull guarding a pot of gold to set them up for life. The caveat: finding the gold is tough. Really, really tough. I knew right away, 25 years ago, I wasn’t up to it.

I once worked for a woman. She was bold as brass. I heard her telling all her little old lady clients in no uncertain terms, “NO! ALMA! You absolutely can NOT buy a beach house!!! I am going to buy that hospital bond instead. If you want your grandchildren to swim, put a pool in your backyard!”

I would have said to Alma, “OH, GOODY! Can I help you decorate the beach house?” No, I was never meant to be an asset gatherer.

So, I stayed put. Just being a top notch assistant. Knowing the business as well as they did, able to be the best damn Girl Friday anyone could ever ask for; but nothing to brag about. No names to drop. No fifteen minutes of anything but, “Oh, look! The market is up 100!”

Recently, one of those rabbit women who passed me by 15 years ago title-wise commented that she wished she had been more like me; just a good, capable assistant with a wad in her 401-K and solid steady job. Sure, she’s been an Asst VP and a VP and Executive Director… but she is also currently on straight commission in that dark forest of stocks, bonds and cash equivalents, with no pots of gold in sight.

Slow and steady might not be flashy or impressive. But it pays the bills and wins the race. Plus, I think even Walt Disney girl turtles have lovely, long, curly eyelashes and are pretty darn cute.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

To Utopia and Back Again…

The problem with Utopia is the impossibility of it ever becoming a permanent state. Luckily, I am privileged enough to be a sometimes traveler to the mystical world, the delicious idea known as Utopia.

We (hubby and I) just returned from a four day stay at my family cottage in Northern Wisconsin. The North Woods. Up North. Way Up. We went to learn the ropes, so to speak, on how to close up for the winter the fragile little house known to all in my family as The Cottage.

With the help of my family, including an Uncle, Aunt, Cousins (1st, 2nd and 4th,) husbands of cousins and children of husbands of cousins, we managed to suck every last dead bug out of the place. This was the King Tut Tomb of dead bugs. Our “to do” list was longer than the amount of time we had to accomplish everything, but as Gen. Douglas MacArthur said on March 11, 1942: “I shall return!”

How, you may ask, does this “working vacation” translate into Utopia? For starters, the information vacuum. In other words, there is no information, except that which can be gleaned from conversation sitting around a dinner table. Ah! The lost art of long, family dinners or the quiet discussion between two people who have been married 25+ years as they sit in two ancient rockers facing the fire, as opposed to listening to the talking heads facing a T.V. It is easy to list the characteristics of this particular Utopia; the woods, the clear cold mornings and evenings, the mist on the lake in the morning. No roaring boats; sublime, simply sublime.

Except for the late night crackle of distant radio stations, you can’t find much information. In fact, we kind of felt like we were in the Twilight Zone, since the clearest station we could locate on the dial only seemed to be playing old Phillip Marlow Mystery Radio Programs from the 40’s. This seemed to be a distant Canadian radio station and for the hour or two we were able to rock in front of the fire and listen, I felt like a time traveler. I could easily imagine that the same show could have been heard over the airwaves by a relative or unknown tourist staying at the cottage when it served as a resort all those many years ago. It was comforting, like receiving a postcard from the cosmos.

The good, hard physical work served as anthropological research of sorts into the past. It is no wonder (according to my Uncle) my great, greats (grandfathers, uncles, ancestors, ancients, etc.) were able to pour pure bacon fat over their pancakes each morning. Chopping wood, scrubbing floors, and sweeping the roof will burn up inordinate amounts of such ingested fuel. No, we didn’t pour bacon fat on OUR pancakes, nor do I suggest that this is a taste temptation I would recommend to anyone except the dog. I guess we have evolved somewhat, but still… you can understand why they were able to consume such… such… or, maybe not. Okay, let’s move on from bacon fat.

It is hard to leave Utopia. For a millisecond, your brain starts to churn with fantastic plans on how you can stay forever. You think how being a waitress in a homey cafĂ© and writing in between shifts sounds kind of fun. Or, how about applying to become the church secretary at the darling Episcopal Church? Think about the fun you would have designing the bulletin each week! It would be far less stressful than sweating bullets as you rapidly enter short puts on the SPX. And then reality kicks in, the gas starts to sputter in the cottage’s wall heater and the truths of modern day survival start to intrude. Things like: the job you have worked at for a quarter of a century to provide health insurance for your family, the college loans lurking like a lump of dough stuck in your throat, the house, the bills, the animals…

Suddenly, your mind whirling like the baton of a 50’s beauty queen, it hits you. You don’t need to figure out a way to stay in Utopia, because you are already there! Like Dorothy in Kansas, you have had the key to Utopia the entire time! This mini Utopia, this cottage in the woods, you realize, is merely a small sliver of the giant pie that is your Utopian American Life. Utopia is all around you! It is the job God threw in your path, complete with health insurance as well as proof that trickle down economics works, at least for you. Or, the healthy child you have raised, complete with good grades and the smarts to tough it out at a college reputed to have a tougher homework load than Harvard. College loans? Pffhtgt… nothing! A mere trifle! A substitute for a shiny car, a good choice and again possible only because of the job you have held on to for 25 years. Then there’s the husband you can't so without, who keeps all the edges neat and tidy, glue man, sticky boy, call him what you want, he is integral to holding the whole ball of wax together.

Of course, there is also your mom, the little bird, who has loved every word that ever came out of your mouth or off your pen forever. And finally, your beautiful girls, older sis, Uncle and Aunt, Cousins (1st, 2nd, 4th) and the husbands of your cousins and the children of the husbands of your cousins but most especially your little sister who ranks up there with the saints… In other words, UTOPIA.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

What Would I Pay For All I want?

I just spent the day driving my mom half way to Augusta, Ga. I always meet my bestest sister in the middle of nowhere, South Carolina. Once there, (the middle of NOWERE) we make the hand off: that is she gets mom and I drive back home again, alone. Mom hasn’t been back to Augusta in a while and the visit will be good for her spirits.

It’s funny, but every time I do this, I always feel a little blue. Sort of like I have just seen my kid off to summer camp or the first day of kindergarten. It’s so true, we trade places with our parents......

I switched on NPR for company and listened to American Weekend. I love NPR except for the bias. They do the best job of human interest stories and if they could just leave out the political jabs, it truly would be a National Public Radio. Today, however, I just let it all roll over me. For some reason, I was feeling big spirited and overwhelmingly American. I listened to a marvelous story about the original indigenous meanings behind place names. Words like Connecticut and Illinois and Chicago and I felt fortunate to be a part of this vast expanse we call America. (Strange and slightly prophetic, Chicago essentially means big stinky place, was it karma that pre-ordained the stock yards?)

Anyway, during the next story they were discussing Radio Head’s decision to allow the download of their newest CD. Apparently, this past week, Radio Head made the decision to leave it up to their fans to pay whatever they think their music is worth. This gives new meaning to having a free market society.

But this eventually segued into the following question: What would a favorite song be worth to you in treasure, in dollars and cents? What, the hosts pondered, would you be willing to pay for your favorite song? What if it meant the difference between hearing the song or never hearing it again?

The host named Desiree made the startlingly beautiful statement that essentially, songs are only as good as the memories they are wrapped in. How true that is! The segment focused on the really moving stories of various listeners, each telling a story about the value they attach to their favorite song. American Weekend posited: how much you would pay for your favorite song, what is that memory worth to you? Would you be willing to purchase it, like a rare painting?

For me, it has to be All I Want by Joni Mitchell on her Blue Album. I inherited my Blue Album from my brother. He was killed when he was eighteen and I ended up with his albums. I remember his girlfriend telling me he would have wanted it that way. At the time, it felt solemn and deliberate; like the reading of a will in a Dickens novel. He had been listening to Joni Mitchell for about a year before he died and somehow the bequest felt spiritual to me in a way I have never felt since. Inheriting a person’s record album is sort of like retaining the key to their soul.

I submerged myself in this album for months after he died. I can still sing every song in order, side one and then side two. I am almost fifty years old and the songs still manage to shape my emotional landscape. When I am down, I still wish I had a river I could skate away on and if I love you, you are in my blood like holy wine, tastes so bitter and so sweet…In fact, I could drink a case of you…

Blue and All I want connect me to my brother like a strand of spider silk across eternity.

My first download from itunes was All I Want. It seemed inconceivable to me to start with anything else. It only cost 99 cents. But I am sure I would pay more if it came down to it. I suppose you could say I have already spent at least $18 on this song. When I couldn’t play the album anymore, I bought the CD. I made certian my daughter knew about Joni Mitchell and Blue. It is a touchstone; a shard of light breaking from underneath the door of my psyche.

How much is your favorite song worth? What memory does it enshrine? Think about it and be transported back to that moment…

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

My Grandma Was A CEO

This post might get me in trouble. But the way I see it, 3000 years from now, when they are resurrecting hard drives and dissecting our culture, blog posts like this one will throw them off a bit. This blog post will be like the Stele of Mer neptah, the Egyptian tablet that happens to contain the only mention of Israel in the entire history of Egypt. It’s not enough to prove anything that was supposed to have happened in the Old Testament, but it’s a bone that keeps the home fires burning. So here goes…

One of my favorite things to do when we drop our sweet daughter, little buzz, off at school in Massachusetts is to people watch. This tourist part of our trip has a Safari like feel to it. It is such a gorgeous location and I watch with fascination the aging hippies ambling down the streets of Amherst with the same enjoyment I suppose one must feel when watching a gazelle heading down to a pond for a drink on the Serengeti Plane.

Another favorite activity of mine is to collect all the local magazines and entertainment guides. I can’t wait to read the articles about what a nasty, horrid little woman Laura Bush is or the ones about how they will have to shut down the local swimming pool for lack of funds unless they gee, raise taxes instead. Most especially, I love the ads.

The very best ads are in the publication called Women’s Times. Yep. It’s just for women. You know, it features articles titled “The Power of Us” which is about “fifteen women coming together, sharing their diverse experiences and goals.” Or “Speaking like a CEO” where we learn, “A leader is the one who can communicate, motivate and inspire others to do the work of an organization.”

Okay. I get it. They are learning how to be my grandmother. Oh? What’s that you say? This is something that only the recently empowered feminists of the past 40 years or so have learned? I don’t think so…

I have figured out the secret of this publication, Women’s Times. It is a bi polar periodical. Yes, I said bi polar. Why? Well after all the empowering stuff like Fashioning Your Image, Resilient Women, Bless Your Stress, we get down to the nitty gritty. We learn that all is not right in the world of Women’s Times.

The Professional Development Directory reveals that in order to Bless Your Stress, you have to employ a Life Coach. At first, I was confused. A Life Coach? Doesn’t a coach design the plays? Yell from the sidelines? Okay, let’s take Fashioning Your Image as an example of how this must work:

“Not the GREEN, Choose the blue, Go with red, POWER to YOU!!!”

Apparently, in 12 sessions your coach will identify your “most pressing goals, (cleaner closets, time for yoga) Create sound strategies (California closets, Yoga while they are being installed by a male former CEO) but most importantly, “construct an active plan to stretch you from your current reality to your desired outcome.” WHAT?!? Okay, what happened to speaking like a CEO? Sounds to me like the Life Coach is communicating what needs to be done here. I thought the goal was to communicate like a leader, not to be lead. I mean, what good is life if you aren’t motivating the rest of the world 24 / 7?

The ads reveal all the answers to life's little bugaboos. If the Life Coach doesn’t work, there are dozens of psychotherapists you can call to discuss career and job decisions, aging, parenting, and naturally, divorce.

Or, you can NETWORK with a group of gals who seek “economic equity, healthcare and equal rights for all women through political advocacy and education.” WHERE THE HECK IS THE CEO LADY? Can’t they get her to talk to these people who are denying this stuff to these ladies up in Massachusetts? I thought Massachusetts was progressive? We have all that stuff down here in North Carolina. What is going on up there?

Say you don’t want a coach (maybe you aren’t economically empowered enough to pay for the 12 sessions,) but you still want to accomplish all this stuff on your own. Well, you can look in the calendar section and find plenty of activities that will achieve the desired results. You can attend a lecture on Family Guilt OR you can go to the Feminist Philosophy Conference.

There is also the ubiquitous Feng Sui designer, acupuncture lady, yoga, yoga, yoga and yoga. When in doubt, do yoga. I personally was drawn to “Writing Through the Chakras” and thank god, once you are finished with that divorce there is a lecture on “Coming Out After Marriage… Oh! and childbirth doulas, postpartum doulas, massage doulas, and naturally, midwives.

How have women made it this far? Without coaches, I mean? I, personally, do not have a coach. I have some family guilt, but I am working through it by knitting extra long sweaters. My feminist philosophy is “Be kind and smell good.”

God forbid if I ever talk like a CEO, they speak jabberwocky. I know, I work for a large Corporation and have to watch all the training videos. I also have economic equality, (I swung a great deal with the team I am on, after taking all the prerequisite tests and whatnot) I have always had great healthcare (I know I know, don’t get on me about healthcare, but part of the reason I work is to have healthcare, if I can do it, so can a lot of other people, do you think I WANT to do option transactions all day?) And guess what, I have achieved political advocacy through education, it is called R-E-A-D-I-N-G; lots and lots of reading.

I am a one woman show. TOOT! That’s me, blowing my horn!!!

So now, when they dust off my hard drive and find my blog in 5007, I will confound all the research that said women in 2007 were wimps who couldn’t do anything on their own except whine!!!



Words to Live By

" desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil - widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."

Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) Middlemarch

People who visit