Monday, November 03, 2008

Don't jump

From a family member:

A protester's sign in front of the New York Stock Exchange: "Jump you fuckers!" with the comment "I try not to forward things, but I just had to send this. Points for creativity and brevity of message."

My response:

Zero points for forgetting that your sister worked across the street from the New York Stock Exchange for seventeen years.

It's fun to demonize someone else, isn't it? But the majority of people who work in financial services in New York are just regular folks, trying to cover their bills. Think folks like Doug and Carrie in The King of Queens--that's what most people who work in financial services are like. Then there is a layer of professionals very like fact I was one of them.

The financial industry expands and contracts much more than other industries. I haven't seen the job loss numbers in a few weeks, but I seem to recall losses of over 170,000 jobs in the last survey I saw. That's not just in banks, investment banks and insurance companies--it also affects cab drivers, coffee shops, hair salons.

I can tell you from personal experience in 1998 when I was laid off the first time that it is a double hit when these waves of job reductions occur. Not only do you not have your old paycheck, but there are very few jobs to compete for. And the bills keep coming. Not surprisingly, there were a few people who jumped. One woman I knew jumped under a subway car.

I know you didn't intend to offend me, and you didn't. But I do find these flip responses annoying. There is plenty of blame to go around for this crisis, and plenty of pain as well.

Was there greed on Wall Street? Yes. But if you rounded up the people who were driven solely by greed, I believe you would be able to fit them in the average small town high school gymnasium. Add the ones who simply did not understand the complexities of the financial instruments they were selling, and then you need a much bigger venue.

But that is the nature of the financial industry. Do you think that the people who sell variable annuities with guaranteed income streams really completely understand the embedded risks? Very few do. We have to rely on regulators to bullet-proof the products that are sold, and regulation tends to focus on the general public, not on the supposedly sophisticated investors that bought mortgage backed securities. Regulators failed us in the years since mortgage requirements were relaxed. And individuals who took out mortgages that they couldn't afford deserve blame as well. Plenty of blame to go around.

Personally, I have lost about 40% of my retirement savings if you measure it today. But I have great confidence in the US financial system to rebound. I was on Wall Street (literally, in an office overlooking the New York Stock Exchange) in 1987 when the market crashed.

And I was there on 9/11/01. We really thought the world was ending then. This crisis does not feel anywhere near as bad as that--we were unsure whether the markets or the city itself would survive the attack. An attorney I worked with briefly appeared on the front page of the New York Post head down on his way out of an upper floor window of the World Trade Center. Another jumper.

From one of our recent newsletters, here are a few other downturns for your consideration:

October 1973: Arab Oil Embargo launced a financial crisis, time to market improvement was 12 months
October 1974: Franklin National bank collapse (bankruptcy), time to market improvement was 2 months
May 1984: Continental Illinois bankruptcy, time to market improvement was 2 months
May 1986: Drexel Burnham Lambert bankruptcy, time to market improvement was 2 months
October 1987: US market crash (financial crisis), time to market improvement was 2 months
February 1995: Barings Bank bankruptcy, time to market improvement was 0 months
September 2001: 9/11 attacks (political crisis) time to market improvement was 12 months

There is no guarantee, of course, that we will see a near term recovery in the markets, but my experience of past downturns gives me a lot of confidence in the future.

And I hope that nobody jumps over loss of a job or part of an IRA.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sunshine at my back

Recovery of a window in my dining room has had more impact than I ever could have expected. The light is different throughout the entire ground floor, all four rooms in this simple and traditional Vermont farmhouse.

As I sit in my new most favorite place, I can see out windows in all four directions. First, I imagine eyes in the back of my head, looking across the porch to the dawn. To my left are two majestic maple trees and a wide expanse of pasture, the old dairy barn in the foreground. Ahead, I glimpse the crabapple, which seems to bloom only one year in three, periodic victim to harsh Vermont winters. Beyond the crabapple, the forsythia, even more sensitive, and beyond that, the valley stretches down to the village. To my right, perhaps the most fraught, a single small window looks to the maple grove and the northern wind. Vermont farmers knew how to build, windows few and small to the north, many and expansive to the south.

I could sit in this spot for years, analyzing portfolios and answering correspondence. Puppies at my feet. A pot of tea at the ready. Taking breaks to run to the raspberry patch or the vegetable garden. Perhaps I’ll get a chicken or a few.

The downside of my new profession is that I must, must, must make calls to people I know little or not at all. If the payoff is sitting with the sun at my back and German Shepherds on my feet, I’ll hit that bid all day long.

Monday, August 18, 2008

German Shepherds on my feet

As I spend more time working from home, my contentment in this house grows. I find myself tweaking furniture placement, finishing up construction projects, opening the curtains wider to better enjoy the views. To the east and south, the Nebraskas lie beyond wide vistas of pasture, forest and valley. Out back, old Mr. Trombley’s prized maple grove still stands. The trees are enormous and very old. Nobody taps them now, and every now and then one falls. Except for half a dozen, they stand on my neighbor’s land, and none is near enough to threaten my cozy nest. There is only one window to the back, not a very large one, the winds of winter coming from that direction, but I can see the maple grove from here.

My dining room, where I now sit and type, is all new since yesterday, the culmination of a project to remove a clumsily placed closet and put in its place my large breakfront cabinet, formerly in front of a window. There are now three windows in this room, and the entry way is more graceful. From the porch, you have a welcoming view right into the dining room, or at least it is welcoming to those already acquainted with my two German Shepherds. And from the dining room, you can see out to the porch, orange and gold nasturtiums perched all around the rail. Sunrise happens through this window, and before today I had never seen it save from the porch.

I’m working through what it means to work from home. Do I have my office-office and my home-office in the same space? Will I really allow clients into my home? Do I try to create an upstairs space that is psychically extra-personal? How do I feel about cluttering the dining room with laptop and files? All of these are good and intriguing questions. In the winter, this room with its three windows, two interior doors and one exterior door may be chilly, but right now I sit with the dawn at my back, views to the outdoors on every side, and toasty German Shepherds on my feet.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

August morning

On Sunday, my friend shook his head sadly. He travels throughout the region, and already he was seeing leaves—just a few—changing on the trees at elevation. Surely, I rejoined, it must be only stressed trees. We were only a few days into August. And we scarcely feel we have had a summer, so much rain have we had this year.

Ten inches one week. The farmers despair of their hay. Children are whining, and so are adults. We are missing the opportunity to soak our bones in intense summer sunshine, to pack away remembrance of warmth during the proverbial two weeks of Vermont summer. We specially need warmth now, as we face winter with unprecedented fuel prices.

Today as I walked to my car, I could no longer deny the signs. Not one colored leaf, but many. True, I don’t see them in the branches yet, but all over the front lawn lies confetti of red and gold. August 7. Usually, we get another week or even two before a certain chill turns the air, and we know. Winter is on the way.

Life will speed up now. There are kids to get ready for school, insulation to wrap around pipes, wood to stack, vegetables to freeze. Once we see those first leaves and feel that first chill, it’s time to get busy.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Counting blessings

Much to my surprise, the evening news played “Happy Birthday.” After a moment’s surprise that my quiet celebration had national coverage, I realized that Barack Obama shares my birthday.

In accordance with long-standing tradition, I took the day off. I believe my birthday should be a holiday. After many years of more success than error, I am careful what I choose to do with the day. The most memorable birthdays are the least planned, but the most carefully engaged. My birthday is a day when I am likely to get in the car, head for the bottom of the driveway and only then decide which way to turn. Sometimes I get promises for my birthday; I still owe myself a kayaking lesson from last year. And one day I will collect.

Today we started with a good, long swim in the Little River. The dogs splashed, swam and attempted to herd several Golden Retrievers and one prim, immaculate little pit bull girl. It was raining, sure, but after rain every single day in July—ten inches last week—we couldn’t wait any longer for swimming. Last year we went swimming twice a day.

A nice lunch, a glass of wine, a nap, and a trip to the raspberry patch took up most of the afternoon. A few household chores. I may be almost to the end of the laundry backlog. A thought of cutting some grass in the afternoon, but the mower refused, and I took it as a sign. A good book. A short walk down to see Cassie’s best friend. Most of all, a staunch refusal to think about messy details of life and work. Today is not a day for worry but a day to savor all my blessings.

Dinner over, I stepped out to consider the pile of wood that still needs to be thrown into the cellar. The work is soothing, even meditative, but I am careful not to overdo. I threw a few logs down cellar, then stood still for a moment, enjoying the rainbow over Mount Elmore.

Across from my house are two spots rainbows are almost certain to occur after a bit of rain and the sidewise slant of Vermont light. Sometimes the two are connected by one gigantic bow, often double, even triple rows of color. They are stunning, gorgeous, predictable, yet wholly a gift, just perfect for a watchful birthday girl counting her blessings.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Stacking wood

The decision to purchase more wood is easy. Finding a seller is easy. Then starts the hard work of getting the wood in.

Over the last two years, mostly last year as my confidence in the wood furnace improved, I burned almost two cords of wood, primarily on weekends. Circumstances have altered, and I now expect to be working locally two to three days a week, so I can burn more wood. Certainly economics would suggest more wood and less oil. So I ordered six cords.

Mind you, it took me months to get the last wood into the cellar. The delivered pile was just slightly downhill from the wood chute, requiring an intimate relationship with the wheel barrow. Load, move, drop into cellar, move, stack.

This year’s deliveries are a little closer, and the outside work is easier. Still, it’s drop, move, stack. Then do it again. And again. Great exercise—aerobics and weight lifting all in one. And the work is highly, highly meditative. Just what I need as long as I’m careful not to overstrain my fifty-ish un-athletic back and knees.

My professional changes are much the same. It’s easy to make the decision to go from a marketing role to a sales and business advisory role. It’s easy to make lists of people to call, and I have a strong enough network of past relationships that many people will do me the courtesy of seeing me. Just like it’s easy to order the wood. The challenge will be to see if I can keep doing the daily lifting.

By the time winter closes in, I should have some idea if I can stay the course. Sure hope my wood is in by then.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Let us be thankful (lest we weep)

The $1200 wood bill has been trumped by heating oil at $5 a gallon and propane upwards of $4. If I burned the same amount of fuel as last year but at this year’s prices, the total cost to heat my house would be $4,000, double last year’s bill. Ouch.

Fortunately, I have the ability to burn either wood or oil in my furnace, so will switch the percentage to as much wood as I can manage. The limiting factor is that I can only burn wood when I am home to run up and down the stairs and put logs on the fire. So if I plan to burn wood four to five days a week and all evenings, I think I can cut my bill to $3,000. Still painful, but better.

As you may imagine, the “prebuy” is the hot new topic wherever Vermonters congregate. As in “Didja get your prebuy yet?” Translation: “Have you heard from the oil (or gas) company what their price will be for the coming heating season?” There’s a level of obsession with the coming winter that we don’t usually see until the first crisp turn of the air in mid-August.

The prebuys are just now out. The fuel oil companies have been having trouble coming up with plans they can live with. Mine is offering $5 a gallon if you buy now, with a couple of adjustments for good credit and paying by check. How else would you pay? Oh, maybe credit card? That would be dire.

Alternatively, you can pay $4.80 for the oil and 40 cents for a cap for a total of $5.20. Then you can pay by the month. And if the price goes down, you pay the lower price. Worth it? I’m not sure. And there is a time value of money calculation I need to do as well. From a psychological point of view, I would rather pay once and not worry further. But I am fortunate to be able to do so.

These small fuel oil companies are really hurting. They buy oil at a price and sell it at a markup, but they can get hammered if prices go against them. Even the little guys are pretty adept at hedging, but these markets are making everyone queasy. Further, as prices go up, so do the odds that they will not get paid, and you can’t really repossess oil from a home tank. Aside from the human and political angles, there is sludge at the bottom of most tanks. So they deliver smaller amounts and sometimes insist on getting paid before delivery. More, smaller deliveries mean higher costs for their trucks and drivers.

The politicians and the non-profits are ramping up for a tough winter. Unless the weather is unusually warm, they are expecting to need to open up gymnasiums and armories as temporary shelters for people who simply cannot heat their homes. Winter in Vermont is beautiful but can be deadly.

The only happy campers these days are the wood guys. Their costs have gone up to some degree, but nothing like the rise in prices. Me, I’m grateful to be able to soften the price rise by shifting to more wood. It’s a rare opportunity, not to be repeated until I retire and can stay home most days happily feeding the wood furnace. But that’s more than a decade away, and who knows what energy future we will face by then?

Note: Just so you know. I will not be accepting political or merely cynical comments on this or any of my posts. You certainly have the right to hold whatever opinions you hold. But this blog is not the place for them.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Burn, burn, burn

Today I contracted for my wood. Two cords of dry at $250 a cord, four cords of green at $175. By the time I burn the two dry, the green should be ready.

The Vermonter who came to talk about cutting up fallen trees in my neighbor’s maple grove gave me lessons in wood economics. A house the size of mine could use 8-10 cords in a winter if I burned only wood, he says. I can believe it. Last year I burned 2 cords only on weekends. And this winter, I expect to be home more during the week.

He quoted me the above price, but wasn’t all that anxious to sell. He can stockpile till November then likely get $375 a cord over in Stowe where people have more money. I called someone I had heard had a better price, but they were at $225 for green with an eight-week waiting period. They aren’t even selling their dry wood yet. Not till November.

So altogether, I have now committed $1200 for wood. Tomorrow I call to find out what the prices are for fuel oil (I have an almost full tank to start, thank heaven) and for propane (I only burn a little, to knock off the chill in the living room). This year the chill may stay unknocked.

My friends and neighbors say the pre-buy programs are, well, quite unattractive. That’s the Vermont way of saying we are terrified. Usually we don’t start obsessing about fuel costs until the second or third week of August. I count myself fortunate that I have the option to burn wood as well as oil in my furnace. And that I have two dogs to pile on the covers on winter nights. Not all my neighbors are so lucky.

In a day or two, the first load of wood will appear on the side lawn. And I will proceed to shove it through a window into the cellar and stack it. Conventional wisdom is that wood warms you twice, once when you split it and again when you burn it. My Vermont neighbors reckon that this calculation comes up short; it’s more like seven times they say. Cut, split, stack, load, unload, stack, and finally burn.

The wood guy suggested that he deliver two cords at a time, a few days apart, “to give me time to get it in and stacked.” He was dead serious. He had no idea that last year it took me weeks to get two cords into the cellar.

Guess I will have to do better if I aspire to be a wood-burning Vermonter. Aerobics and weight training, all at once. Wish me luck. Better yet, come on over.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Running on instinct

I’m one of those people who rise to a crisis. In the normal course of life, I am analytical to a fare-the-well, weighing costs and benefits, expected value and range of possible outcomes. But in a crisis, I act quickly and decisively. I slice through waves of emotion, mine and other people’s, and I do what needs to be done. Then I fall apart later.

It seems like a good system to me. But mental health professionals characterize this behavior as dissociation, which at the extreme results in multiple personalities or other maladaptive mechanisms. I accept that this shadow is out there, but these days, I am grateful to feel I have a channel to that inner instinct that guides my daily decisions.

The current crisis is not even mine, at least not mostly. My boss—let’s call him Jay—and my old dog were both diagnosed with cancer. At first, I joked with my boss that he had the same symptoms as Toby, but that ceased to be funny. Toby is no longer with us, and my boss is facing a grueling course of chemotherapy.

Jay has non-Hodgkins lymphoma, mantle cell type. As he says, it’s a “nasty little bugger.” He learns more about his prognosis one day next week, but he and his family and his colleagues have come to accept that the treatment is going to be a big challenge, even as we firmly believe that this big, strong, dynamic 55-year-old man will come through and regain his health. We can’t imagine any other outcome.

On the practical level, my world has changed. Outwardly, I will be doing many of the same day to day actions that I did when I was marketing Jay’s services. With him out of pocket for at least six months, we figure, it makes sense for me to change focus. I will continue networking my little heart out, but on my own behalf rather than Jay’s. I will talk to people about retirement plans, investment strategies, long term care and disability insurance. Until I can gather up some new clients, I will have an income gap to bridge—thank goodness, I am one of those conservative people who actually has several months expenses in the bank.

When Jay is healthy again, we can work out how we can work together in the future. When I joined Jay’s wealth management firm a year and a half ago, I was adamant that I wanted a role where I did not have to be involved in sales. Didn’t like selling, couldn’t do it. My outlook has changed. It turns out that the heart of wealth management for small business, individuals and families is talking to human beings about what they want to do with their lives and how their money enters into those decisions. And I do want to be on the front line of those conversations. Even if I have to recognize that I am in a sales role.

I am certainly qualified. I have over twenty years experience in financial services, and I have resources to fill in any gaps. Also, it has turned out that I am an effective and enthusiastic networker. I enjoy hearing about people’s hopes and dreams and helping figure out ways to achieve them. And I have a long list of contacts that I think I can convince to let me practice my value proposition. I had been thinking for some months about hanging out a shingle, which would allow me to work closer to home at least a couple of days a week.

But I wouldn’t have had it happen this way for anything in the world. Here’s a comfort for me: Jay sees it as a major positive that I am taking on this new role. He retains some continuity in the office, and he also genuinely believes that I will be wildly successful. How nice is that to hear?

Am I terrified? You betcha. I’m an introvert, for heaven’s sake! And I’m going into sales? Correction. I have been in a sales and marketing role for the last five years, one with Jay and four in economic development. Calling on businesses, listening to people, trying to find solutions. Still, it is different to have my income depend on whether I can find the people who need solutions and find solutions that they will embrace.

How can I go forward? I am running on instinct. I feel in my bones that this is the right road to follow as opposed to, say, going after another corporate job. There is little analysis behind this decision, beyond a quick check of my bank balance, and for me to proceed without analysis is rare. It is mysterious, even a little creepy, how strongly I feel this is the right path.

This spooky certainty has overcome my native conservative cast before. Many of my big life decisions have been made this way, and I have emerged with relatively few regrets. What would life be if we couldn’t remake ourselves from time to time?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Closing and opening

We closed another chapter this week with the loss of my good friend Toby. He was twelve. He had been diagnosed with cancer and was just beginning to be in pain. It is truly a blessing that we can spare our animal friends the bitter end of life. And it is a solace to me that I was able to stay with him and calm him through the end. I was never able to do that for Max--I loved Max so much. But Toby loved me so much that I could not leave him alone. We all miss him terribly.

We also have a new chapter opening with vigor. Meet Stone. Also called Stony. He is another puppy from my friends at Stonybrook Farm

Stony had several weeks with Toby, who taught him some basic manners.

I struggled for a long time naming this baby, who is a full brother (same mother, same father, different year) to 3-year-old Cassandra. Cassie is perfectly named.

When I first moved to Vermont, I was vocal about all the kinds of things that I thought I knew that people in Vermont did not. At last, someone sat me down and said, "You may be right. You probably are. But in Vermont, nobody will believe you. Here, you are Cassandra." Doomed to be always correct in her prognostications, doubly doomed never to be believed, that was Cassandra. What a perfect name for a talky, preachy German Shepherd!

It will be interesting to see how looks when he grows up. At this stage of his life, he looks exactly like she did at this age. And here's the beautiful girl now, rounding out the family photos.

I liked the idea of naming a German Shepherd for a prophet. And I like names that have layers of meaning. But in the end, Stony of Stonybrook Farm seemed like a good name. Formally, he is Stone--I can see him growing up to be a serious jazz pianist. And if we think of stones as runes, perhaps his name has a prophetic cast as well.

I am sorry I missed your comments. I failed to supply an e-mail address where I could be notifed of new comments, but I have corrected that error now. I certainly never meant to be so completely defended in my Vermont hideaway that I was unreachable.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Unfortunately, I have had to enable comment moderation on this blog.

Some little twit of a graduate student inappropriately used comments to solicit participation in her most unwelcome survey project.

I can't imagine the lapse of taste that this woman has displayed--it's on a par with telemarketers calling in the middle of dinner and refusing to go away--but I feel I must put up the defenses in a way I have not had to do in the past. Honestly, I cannot begin to express how annoyed I am with her.

My apologies to my readers.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

New Words

Orographic. As in “This will be a highly orographic storm.” Meaning the storm will creep over the tops of the mountains, then whomp down on the other side with a vengeance. Meaning that you may leave Burlington on a clear, almost springlike night, only to find cars off the road halfway home. Only to slow to a crawl two-thirds of the way home on icy roads disappearing under white-out blasts, that mercifully last only seconds. Whatever you do, don’t hit the brakes!

Emesis. The act of pouring hydrogen peroxide (an emetic) down the gullets of two dogs who stole a bottle of ibuprofen. When they still won’t throw up, you take them to the vet, where they will spend a full twenty-four hours recovering from an emetic that works, getting intravenous fluids, and having blood work tested to be sure their kidneys are not affected.

For those of you who care about such things, ibuprofen is really bad for dogs. The vet tech lost a dog to ibuprofen. What makes it even more dangerous is the dogs look fine for three or four days...until their kidneys shut down. I don't know that my dogs ate any, although I do know that they licked off the sweet red coating from a few pills. Attached as I am to my dogs, I am not inclined to take the chance of waiting to see if ill effects develop. I can't even think about what the vet bill will be. Don't know, don't care.

From emesis to orographic makes for a long day.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


I’m stuck at home with a cold, and cabin fever has taken hold.

My dogs haven’t been out to play in days. They can barely run out for a quick pee or poop before it is clear even to them that indoors is a better deal. Temperatures scarcely exceed the zero mark, and wind chills….brrrr.

Fortunately, I have lots of wood in the basement, and I have had a good fire going all day. When the temperature dives like this, the wood heat option is the very best. It’s a dry heat that soaks through to the house’s bones, and even to mine. I happily run up and down the basement stairs, adding more logs every couple of hours.

Maybe that flu shot did me some good. I am definitely on the mend in day two, while my colleague is down for the rest of the week. I could feel myself coming back to life this morning as I actually welcomed the opportunity to get back on the treadmill and sweat some of the germs out. A few rounds of laundry and I am almost as good as new.

Cassie has been going to daycare one day a week for the last few months. It helps her run out some of her excess energy, and better yet, she takes it out on playmates other than aged Toby. He went a time or two, but although he loved the play, it took him days to recover. Now his treat is to have Cassie go, to have a day of snoozing undisturbed.

Cassie and I will both be back on the road tomorrow morning, just in time to hurry home for another snowstorm tomorrow night. This is now officially the snowiest February on record for the city of Burlington. Kind of encouraging. If I can make it through this winter commuting, then maybe it’s not so impossible to live here and work there.

We’ll see. It’s still a long way to spring.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What to write about?

I seem to be singularly uninspired to write these days. The puppy is still as charming as ever, the old dog as deep a comfort. My morning and evening drives have a little more light to recommend them. I continue to be obsessed with knitting socks. It’s a quiet life, but a good life.

We’ve had a lot of snow this year, all good news for the resorts and the local economy. My wood supply has been more than adequate to back up the oil furnace, and I have enjoyed burning wood on cold days.

I’m considering painting the dining room. I’m studying to take the Series 7 exam again. And I just realized that if it is the middle of February, I really should be thinking about what seed to plant come spring.

Spring! Yesterday, we got just a whiff of it. It rained all night and all day, turning driveways into practice areas for the Olympic luge team, or so said one of our clients. My driveway is short, so I just slither down the hill. Getting up is another story, but gunning it and pointing the nose of the car into the garage works so far.

Still, it is only mid-February, and there is a lot of mud to endure before we emerge into spring.