Thursday, October 08, 2009

Just relax

You have a job (almost). The weather is perfect. In this enforced break in the action, can’t you really take a break? Relax.

Easier said than done. After two years of pushing hard to figure out the financial world as it shattered and reformed itself into unrecognizable shapes, after a year of attempting not only a new business but a new way of relating to the world of commerce, I seem to be hooked on anxiety.

Last week, I went to a movie for the first time in….well, in years. I’ve been on the treadmill every other day. Two or three, sometimes four dog walks a day. Bubble baths and reading in front of the fire. A couple of days ago, my shoulders lost their accustomed tension. I could breathe. I notice that even when I play solitaire, I play more slowly, no longer driven to top red with black with red, to strive for an outcome.

Back in the era when I had regular vacations, I went to Deer Isle for three weeks for pottery camp. What a wonderful break that was! All that was on my schedule was sitting at the kickwheel, making pots, occasionally glancing up to see whales spouting out beyond the firs on a rocky shore. Other people to share projects and meals, all cooked for us, and nightly meteor showers for our delight. And still, it took me a good two weeks to unwind. The third week was restoration.

It’s been a long time since I had a real vacation. I have had adventures and expeditions sandwiched in between work trips and, more recently, shorter breaks to enjoy a day trip to Canada or New Hampshire, or just to contemplate Vermont. There is a lot to contemplate in Vermont!

So when last week I was informed that I should expect a job offer in a week or so, to be followed by a couple weeks (or so) for background checks, my brain informed me that this was a good time for a break. It is always possible that this job offer could evaporate, but if it does, I’ll only have lost a few anxious weeks of job hunting. And I will be better for the break, of that I am sure.

Now if only I can continue to slow down my brain, tune up my muscles, and open up to a new life.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Limbo spa

Well, this is a strange turn of events. I think I have a new job, but there are hurdles. Steps to go through. It is working for the Federal government, so everything has to go to Washington for approval. I didn’t know that Washington even knew about me, much less cared, but it appears that they (whoever they are) do.

In this intervening time, I’m declaring a spa month. Lots of walks with dogs, some serious exercise every day, good food, green tea. The kids are excited, and so am I. How often do we get a chance to relax and rejuvenate while looking forward to a new life? This back-to-school time has always seemed to me like a new beginning.

It couldn’t be a more beautiful time to take a break. Foliage is peaking: great washes of color light up the horizon. All across Vermont, people are picking apples, carving pumpkins and reveling in beautiful, crisp days. Even a rainy day like yesterday appeals, as the bright colors shine through the mist.

I have some goals for this period, but one of them is to work hard at not being so goal-directed. Yesterday I drove down to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival, almost. It seemed that as I got closer to the festival, it rained harder and harder. And I was getting tired, so when only a few miles from my goal I made a wrong turn, I surrendered and came home.

Actually, I stopped at the mall, another rare experience. For the first time in many months, I was able to buy something frivolous in the fabric store and something necessary (pantyhose and a new calendar) without worry. It is nice to contemplate a regular paycheck. I’m unlikely to go too crazy, but I did consider buying spring bulbs, a luxury that I have not been able to afford for some time. I still might do that, but not until the Federal Government makes up its Washingtonian mind whether to bring me into the fold.

Meanwhile, let’s just relax! I have to go now. There seems to be a pressing need for the morning walk to the pond.

Monday, September 21, 2009


There are giant bugs pounding on my window!

No wait. Not bugs at all. They are hummingbirds, seven or eight of them.

Someone who knows birds tells me that it is migration time. Sure enough, when I look, there are songbirds of every shape and color...everywhere. They particularly like the crabapple tree outside my picture window.

Not giant bugs, tiny birds on their way to South America. How cool is that?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Denial is a lovely thing. It allows us to hide behind our perceptions of the world, our ideas of who we are and how we fit. Or think we do. But sometimes the puzzle pieces come together with blinding speed, moving so fast that we cannot even parse their trajectory. It’s as if we were there….and now we are another place altogether. Here. Reality has shifted.

People think I am brave. I am the one who packed a seventeen-foot truck and left Brooklyn to move to Vermont. No job, a rented apartment. Stepping off into the void. Brave, right? Maybe not.

I am the one who quit a job without having another job. I was hoping to build a practice as a financial advisor, because I love the work, loved the clients even more. On purpose, could I have picked a worse year to try this? Launching into a new business venture, it is important to be appropriately capitalized. But how does one capitalize for a hundred year event? One doesn’t. I didn’t.

There is a woman I know slightly who is far braver than I. She has the bad gene for breast cancer and cervical cancer, and this fall, she will undergo surgery to remove both breasts and her uterus. She approaches it as a matter-of-fact choice. She wants to live to see her children grow up and to play with her grandchildren.

In many ways I envy her clarity. I have neither chick nor child, so I didn’t know what to look forward to when I gave up my last job, still don’t. But I know when I don’t have a choice. When staying feels wrong, it is time to go, and there is no real choice. It’s not a matter of bravery, just a matter of keeping faith with whoever or whatever you hold dear. Time to move on to the next chapter.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Moral dimensions of financial crisis

Last week I met a man who was enraged. Like so many of us, he had lost about forty percent of the value of his investment portfolio, and he was at a loss to figure out where to put his anger. Yet he sensed that the other side of his anger and grief, there was a different perspective. He was anxious to get there, to be free of his distress. He wanted to move on.

Most of us weren’t dealing with confessed fraudsters like Bernie Madoff. So should we be angry at our advisors? Maybe. Certainly, Bernie Madoff and his like should be put in prison, regulation should be re-written and actually enforced, and the pay structure at financial institutions should be brought in line with performance over some reasonable time frame.

But I think there is a bigger issue here. I think most of us are really angry at ourselves. At least for a short time, we believed in bubbles. We believed that real estate prices would go up and up. We believed that the inflated price our neighbor received selling last year would drive the price of our own homes next year.

We believed that credit would always be easy to get. We believed that huge financial institutions could not, would not fail. And, most dangerous of all, we believed that the crazy things that happened in some markets (sub-prime, alt-A, CDOs) would not affect us as long as we were not directly participating in those markets. We were wrong.

I think this means that if we want to get past our anger, we need to stop looking outward and start looking at our own lives. Fundamentally, this is a moral crisis. We had money, we thought, and now we have less of it. Things like this happen, as the disclosures on our brokerage accounts and retirement funds say: You can lose money. If your financial advisor told you otherwise, then your advisor may belong in jail with Bernie.

We were wrong. We lost money. And now we need to forgive ourselves for it.

If anger at our advisors represents the first layer of the onion, and anger at ourselves is the second, then the next layer of the onion is fear that we may run out of money. Thirty-somethings are a lot more likely to be able to shrug off big losses than sixty-somethings, who have less time to catch up. Those of us who are older are facing the necessity to retire later than we planned, work part-time in retirement, travel less than we had dreamed, or make other adjustments along two themes: planning and stewardship.

I’m a planner by nature, creating alternatives for a variety of contingencies, so this is second nature to me. I chose my house partly because it has a first floor bedroom and bath, although I trust I am a good thirty years from needing to live on one floor with a caretaker upstairs.

If I lose more money before the time I need to start drawing on my retirement plans, I can sell my house and live somewhere more modest. That’s a contingency plan, and it is also a nod to stewardship, by which I mean not taking more than I need.

Right now, I live on two acres, I drive a car that gets 36 miles to the gallon, and I limit my trips to my Burlington office to two per week. I compost. I garden. Could I do more? Yes. I could live in a smaller house, even shared space. I don’t want to do that because I am a very private person, and I love having large dogs. But if I had to give up privacy and dogs, I could do it.

Not everyone is as fortunate. Many people in these times have cut their use of resources, their own and those of the wider world, to the bone. So they need more from the rest of us. That means our charitable contributions, our taxes, the prices of goods and services are going up. Which brings me to the next layer of the onion: anger at other people who now need help so desperately, our anger that drives a wedge between humans.

And our anger was supposed to be about money? No, it is about unfairness, taking more than belongs to us, stewardship of our own and others’ resources, forgiveness of others who need our help more than ever, and perhaps most of all, forgiveness of ourselves. Once we get past the moral dimensions of this crisis, we can focus on rebuilding financial plans.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Living on the Far Side

One day last week as I drove up the hill where I live, I looked to the left and counted thirteen in my neighbor’s front yard, then another fourteen to the right in the open fields.
A few days without snow cover, and there is grass to eat, but the deer seem to have to range far to find enough. They are out at dawn and at dusk, as we might expect, but also in broad mid-day. The deer are hungry.

Constrained to the house more than usual, my dogs watch out the windows and let me know when more deer appear. I have become vigilant, doing a complete scan all around the house before anyone goes out even for a quick pee or to run the ten yards or so to the fenced dog run. Still, a couple of times when I thought there were no deer, we stepped outside to see a whirl of white tails. Thank goodness, my dogs come when they are called, at least if I speak quickly before they are in full pursuit.

The deer seem to be getting stronger, but they don’t move away quickly even when human or car approaches. They stand and stare, as if to say, “Please, let us eat this nice grass. There is nothing for us in the woods.” It’s a little spooky, a little like living in a Far Side cartoon. It makes me feel as if I should rush from car to house and lock the door, lest I hear the sound of hooves on the front porch and see antlers framed in the front windows.

Meanwhile, the back window—one of only two on that north-facing side of the house—has broken. No trees nearby, no falling snow or ice. I have to wonder if a bird flew into it with enough force to crack the glass. And from the front windows, I just saw a flash of black and white fur. Skunks back in the barn. Nature is on the move. It must be spring.