Friday, June 28, 2013

Bear Trap with Caveat, Don't Kill Bears

My last post laid out what I pretentiously refer to as the theory of  how I eat the bear.  Now I shall attempt to explain how I lure the bear into my trap without getting mauled, and then...

I would never kill a bear and you shouldn't, either.

I have an Excel spreadsheet.  My favorite stocks--the only stocks I deal with--are listed there in alphabetical -ish order.

If you're new to all of this, the first thing you would do before setting your spreadsheet up is to come up with a list of stocks.  Don't worry about wedges or up-and-down stocks, we're just brainstorming here.

One of the stocks I like best is MAT--Mattel.  Josh suggested it, (he's like one of those sticks that points to where water is) because Imaginex toys are awesome.  So I click-researched MAT, and lo!, it's a wedge stock.  It quickly became the MVPs of my portfolio.  I was sad when I was forced to sell it at 11%.  Don't worry!  I bought it again when the Feds stopped nursing the economy and everyone freaked out.

I ate that bear.

Point is, good stuff comes from good companies.  Your own interests as a consumer is a reasonable guide.  It's a good idea to pick companies with which you're familiar and whose products or services you use.  That way, you're in touch with what's going on with that company from the perspective of a consumer.

On the other hand, I bought Apple long before I had an i phone that never lets me unload my photos or take  more because I have 3000 of them.  I just thought the company was cool.  I loved the ads.  I did the click-research, I liked what I saw, and they weren't doing anything egregious.  I bought at $245.  Did very well with that pick.

 The other way to add to your list is to click-research mutual funds, as I mentioned in my previous post.  You can click-research how mutual funds perform.  You may discover that they're knee-deep in pork bellies, Enron, and beagle-testers, but they probably list one or two companies that you can stomach.  Then you can click-research those and maybe add them to or cull them from your list.

So, when you do click-research, what do you look for?

We've talked about the environmental and accounting ratings.

We've talked a little bit about the charts.  Did you know there's a lot of voodoo surrounding those charts?  I went to a seminar once...

Now, I'm all for astrology.  It's a fine basis for forming relationships and generalizing about personality disorders, but what does a symmetrical triangle augur?  Or a diamond bottom, or a bottom triangle, or a double top, or a muffin top...?

Okay, there is no muffin top, but there is a diamond bottom.

Yeah.  I know!  What do they think we eat for breakfast, hay?

I'll stick to my up and down stocks and wedge stocks, thanks anyway.  I know what they mean.  If it's been going up and down for a year, it will probably continue to go up and down.  If it has been steadily increasing in value for years, that trend will probably continue as well.

Up and down stocks can be profitable, but the approach is completely different.  You must buy when it's down, and sell when it's up.  You have to look at it every day, maybe twice, maybe thrice, so you don't miss your opportunity.  I've done this with several stocks over the years with maybe 60% success and 40% regret.  (Hello, MMJ-Medical Marijuana, I'm talking about you!)

But eventually, I got tired of checking my portfolio two or more times a day, so I avoid those stocks.

A Note about setting up Alerts
You can set up alerts on-line that will text or email you when a stock reaches the price that you set, like an alarm clock.  Wake me when Apple hits 445.  Wake me when Google drops to 799.

The alert works, kinda.  They're always a little bit late.  By the time I get into my portfolio 20 seconds later,  the price has already exceeded or dropped below my wake-up price by a significant margin.

Did I hit snooze?  No, I did not.  Who hit snooze?  Someone did.  It wasn't me.

Adjust your alerts accordingly, allowing for notification to be late.

Sometimes you're better off staying awake, but the alert function is helpful when you really only want to be made aware of your portfolio in the event of a dramatic change that you'll want to act on immediately while snorkeling.

How to use the charts

Look at a three-month chart of the stock you want to buy.  What is the median price-point of the stock?  That would be an acceptable place to start buying.  You may not get that price if the stock is on the ascent, but chances are that it will become available at or below that price fairly soon.

You could set up an alert, or you could just keep an eye on it.

If a three-month chart shows that share prices are going nowhere but up, and you know that this company is solid and about to come out with the first hybrid mini-van that can go from 0 - 60 in less than five minutes, start buying, even if it's high.

Start buying.  Don't finish buying.

If you see yourself spending $10,000 on this stock, buy $3,000 or $5,000, if that wedge is smooth as glass.

Annual Highs and Lows
Consider the stock's highest and lowest price points of the last 52 weeks (that's not on the chart but it's near the chart).

How does today's price compare?   Is it in the middle?  Is it the highest price of the year?  Is it the lowest?  WHY?

Consider the dates next to those  price points; even if the company product isn't seasonal, the market at large is.  Where are you on that chart?  In June?  Or November?  Look at five years.  See a pattern to each year?  No?  Never mind, then.

Buy a little at a time, have a cap in mind
No matter what, unless you know better, which you might, buy a little at a time.  Buy 30% of what you plan to spend in total on this stock--and DO have a cap in mind.  This sets up a win-win situation.  If it goes up tomorrow, you'll make money.  If it goes down tomorrow, you can buy more shares at a lower price.

Time is a tool, like a light saber, or a potato peeler...
Use time to your advantage.  How much time often depends on the nature of the stock itself.

Get to know your stocks over time, build on your list gradually

It's a good idea to start with a few stocks or, if you have a lot of money to allocate, a dozen.  Get to know them.  Once you buy them, your ears will prick up when you hear them mentioned on the news, in conversations, on the ticker tape...You'll become aware of them without even trying.

If you start out with too many stocks, this new awareness will become a source of chaos and confusion--unless, like me, your mind is a steel trap, a sponge, a black hole of detail absorption to infinity.

What was I saying?  Oh, yeah.  Steel trap.  Not very humane.

Back to the chart.  

First column:  Your stock picks.  Alpha order.

Highlight in whatever color you like, the cell (not the font) of the stocks that you currently own.  When you sell them, remove the highlight.  This way, you can tell in a glance what you have and what you don't have among the stocks you trade in.

Second column: The date you bought or sold shares.  I don't care how many shares.  No box for that.

Third column:  When you buy a share, put the price in parenthesis.  When you sell a share, don't use parenthesis.

Feeble graphic:

stock   date  (price)  date   (price)  date  price  date  (price)  date  (price) date  price
stock   date  (price)    date    (price)    date  (price)   date  price   date   price   date  (price) date   price ...

This gives you most of the information you need at a glance to make a decision to sell or buy shares.

  1. It's a list of the stocks you've researched and like.
  2. It tells you when you last bought or sold shares.
  3. It tells you what you sold shares for and when.  (Ideally, when you buy the stock again, you'll buy it a lower price than what you sold it for.)
  4. Referring to it before you sell can prevent you from a good-faith in trading infraction on a super-short sale, like if you haven't yet paid for the shares that you're selling
  5. You can see the history of the stock's fluctuations.
  6. It mirrors your trading behavior.  (AAAAAAH!)
Your crazy trading behavior
Point six addresses the problem of people's tendency (not mine, but people's) to trade emotionally, instead of cognitively.  The spreadsheet--don't neglect to update it--is like a bathroom scale.  If you're an emotional trader, it shows, on the spreadsheet.

I've made plenty of trades from my cell phone in the dog park, only to go home to my Excel spreadsheet and discover that I'd sold stock on a Monday that I'd bought the previous Friday, which is some kind of good-faith violation that gets reported to the IRS.  Or maybe I bought it on Friday because the price was low, but then on Monday I couldn't handle the anxiety and I sold it.  (Time!  Time.)

Live and learn.

Fear.  Listen to it.  Maybe act on it.
No police officer would tell you to ignore the fear that informs you that all is not well. When you feel that fear, look at your spreadsheet.  Look at the news about the market and that company.  

A good palliative is to sell half of your shares instead of all of them.  That way, guess what!, if the price goes down, you've lost less; if the price goes up, you've lost even less, maybe even made some money.  

Having an all-stock portfolio is considered high-risk.  But my experience has been that my risk-averse, win-win, keep money on hand with which to eat the bear approach to managing my investments has weathered a few storms and served me well.  

I am continuing to learn, but I am confident that I can manage my own investments, and I enjoy doing it most of the time.  I probably now spend about 20 minutes a day on it, not counting this blog.  I used to spend a lot more time on it, and I had lots of hares and I enjoyed the excitement of that up-and-down game.  But, it got to be a drain on my time, so lately my portfolio stables tortoises, mostly, with a few hare-torts (like AAPL, that she-devil of an Easter bunny), just to keep me on my toes.   

I'm very happily not paying someone else to tell me I can't in a language I don't savvy.

Here is a list of the stocks that I follow.  Not all of them are presently in good standing; some of them are in the dog house.  Be sure to do your own click-research before buying anything.  


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Eat the Bear

My uncle, Marty, emailed to say that he was interested in knowing my theory and methods for managing my  investments.  It may have been kind of a dare, I'm not sure on that point.  There may be a few other members of my family who are also curious to know whether I am all preface and no manuscript or what...

So, here we go... You be the judge.

I set up a win-win situation. 

The reason why Warren Buffet can buy low and sell high is because he always has money in reserve.  His money isn't all tied up in the market.  He has quite a lot of it. 

You and I are not Warren Buffet, so we can't buy low and sell high in the same way.  We have to discipline ourselves to adopt a method that allows us to almost always have money in reserve.  That way, when the market is low, we have cash with which to buy low.  That sets up a win-win situation.

When the market is high, stocks rise.  But I can't afford to be greedy.  I'm not Warren Buffet. When a stock makes a good return, I have to sell it.  

In a bullish market, I sell a stock if it's made more than 10%.   

In a bearish market, I sell the same stock when I've made between six and eight percent.  

Sure, there will be times when I sell the stock at 11% and a few days later it goes up a few percentage points more.  Maybe I didn't make as much money as I could have.

But what point, regrets?   I've made a good return.  Chances are, if I hadn't sold that stock when I did, it could have hit the skids and I'd have lost that opportunity.  A bird in the hand, as they say...

Bad luck is the currency with which I buy good luck.

This echoes the point that I wanted to make in the preceding paragraph, which was that in order to set up a win-win situation, I have to accept that perhaps I will not make as much money as I possibly could in every single case.  I have to accept some bad luck to get  good luck.  

When the price of a good stock goes down, I might buy a little more of it.  If I can afford to buy $10,000 more, I'll buy $3,000 more.  That way, if the stock goes up the next day, I'm making money.  If the stock goes down, I can buy another $3,000 worth of shares at an even lower price.  Win-win.  Accept the bad luck (maybe I wouldn't make as much money as I would have if I had bought $10k worth at the lower price on a single day) to get the good luck (setting up a win-win situation).  

I wouldn't buy more than $10,000 of the stock in total over time just because the stock's value was going steadily down.  That's risky behavior.

I am opportunistic, but I am not reckless.  I stop buying when I have, over time, $10k invested.  And then, I have to wait.  If the price never comes up again, at least I didn't sink $13 k into it.  The conservative move is to cap off the investment at $10 .

On the 10 k model, above, having $10 k into one stock would suggest that I had at least a dozen or more stocks in my portfolio, with a cap of $10 k or so on each, and at least $30 k in reserve, so when the market goes south, I can eat the bear. 


Financial advisers have suggested that I ought to have all of my money invested in a portfolio that includes bonds, mutual funds, equities, etc.  They let me play with a pie chart.  If, with their help, I divide up the pie properly, I will  sleep well at night.   

I think the pie chart is their way of giving people the illusion of control.

We're all like, Oh!, I'll take a little piece of that, and a little piece of this!

And they're all like, Great!  That's a great-looking pie, kid!  Now we'll put that pie on the window sill to cool, and let's hope that the wolf doesn't get a whiff of it.

Screw the pie.  

Have a balance of Dow stocks and Nasdaq stocks.  

1. I try not to have too much money in any one stock.

2. I distribute money more or less evenly in my stock portfolio.

3.  I put less money in up-and-down stocks and more money in blue-chip and wedge stocks, those institutions of commerce that have proven staying power, whose share value steadily increases over time from time immemorial.  (Examples:  GE*, PG, JNJ, TM, TGT, DIS, EBAY, AMZN, CSCO, MAT.)  

Know Thy Self, Know Thy Stocks

How do I choose what stocks to invest in?

I look up a profitable mutual fund on Fidelity or E trade and find what their top holdings are in stocks/equities.  This is really easy to do; the websites are easy for any reasonable person to navigate.
Seeing what the successful mutual fund is invested in, I can then look up those stocks individually.  It's like looking over the shoulder of the smart kid in class.  

So I've got a list of the smart kid's stocks.  I research each stock.  By "research," I mean, I click the "research" button.  Up pops all the info I need.  

Profit Perspective

What have the returns on that stock been over the past three months?  Year?  Two years?  Three years?  Maybe it's up and down, like Apple' maybe it's more of a wedge stock, like Google.  What's the highest price it's been this year?  The lowest?  Is there a seasonal pattern evident?

Examples of up-and-down stocks for surfers who want to spend more time managing their money and riding the waves:  PAY, AAPL, FB, AL.  (Think hare.  Sell while it's running.)

The wedge-stocks listed above, (GE*, PG, etc.), are perennials.  The require pruning and weeding, but generally grow every year.  (Think tortoise.  Sell when he's made you 11%.  It might take a while.)

Values Perspective

The reason why I put an asterisk next to GE* is because I don't like their values.

Many of us wouldn't dream of not voting at the polls.  But we throw away our money vote.

Maybe you're invested in Enron.  Maybe you're invested in Walmart.  Maybe you're invested in some financial institution that you despise.

If you've got your money in mutual funds, chances are excellent that you're voting at the polls one way, and voting with your money another.

It's obvious what some of these companies are doing, but if you have pet issues or liberal politics, you'll want to take at least a cursory look at each company before buying shares.  Consider this:  Your money helps make the CEOs and majority shareholders of those companies very wealthy.  Think Dick Cheney.

You don't have to read the company prospectus.  You probably wouldn't be able to find the relevant information in there, anyway.  No offense--it's just that it's in tiny, tiny, tiny print that no one over 40 without deep-space magnification could possibly read.

If you go onto Fidelity, (I reference Fidelity not because they're paying me or because I work for them but because it's what I use), and you research a particular stock, (by which I mean, "click on research"), you will be able to see very clearly how that company is rated in terms of being environmentally responsible.  Green is good.  Yellow is ambiguous.  Red is bad.  GE is red.  Walmart, despite what you may heard, is still red.  

You might consider how you feel about prescription drug companies.  Or companies that produce a product that society does not need.  Like Coke.  And cigarettes.  And pork bellies.  The list is endless.

Beagle Exploitation...
Does the company test it's product on unsuspecting beagles?  Some do!  I don't know what you'd click on to find out, but you could Google it.  Or ask Amy Franks.

Point is, it's never been easier to get this information. 

I have to go do paid work now, so I'll have to continue this later.

Meanwhile, no pie for you!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Getting Right to the Point

I've been thinking a lot about this.  This is the post in which I get to the point about this managing-your-own-investments crusade that I'm apparently on.

This turns out to be a surprisingly humbling enterprise, but here goes...

One more preliminary bit of business, because I'm sure you're wondering, How does my portfolio perform?  Okay, I'll tell you.

My 401k's 1-year return has been +14.38 percent to date.

I  inherited an IRA when my father passed away.  I tend to focus more time and energy on that account--maybe because it has more money in it, or maybe because it was my father's money and so I feel a greater weight of responsibility for managing it well.

Interestingly, for all my excessive ministrations, the inherited IRA account's one-year return has been +8.26%.  Not as good as the 401k, but still not too bad.

I'm not saying you'll get rich. I'm saying, you can do just fine managing your money yourself.

One Little Personal Anecdote Before I Explain My Investment Management Methods 
(which methods will not make for interesting reading in any event)

When my dad's IRA account came to me, it was being managed by a friend of my dad's who worked in a branch of a very large and recognizable financial institution.  Out of loyalty to my dad's friend, I won't name names.  Let's call her Ma'am.

While my dad was alive, we had dinner at Ma'am's house once.  Super nice house by the ocean, and she was very gracious.  After my dad died, I appreciated that personal connection she had to my father.  Ma'am was from my dad's generation.  They both enjoyed sailing.  I found this comforting.

After my dad died suddenly, I was in no shape to scrutinize my portfolio for quite some time.  But once I started to analyze it, I became a fairly nightmarish client--you know, the interfering type who calls way too frequently and asks too many questions.

Ma'am, this very nice family friend, was very patient with me and generous with her time.  However, listening to her talk about portfolios and funds was the auditory equivalent of receiving a printed statement from her financial institution--which statements were printed in 8-point type, single spaced.  Picture one of those on-line you-agree-to text box contracts reduced to 35% and printed horizontally on both sides of a sheet of legal paper.  

If one of these multi-page statements were tossed down a flight of stairs, you would never be able to put them back into the correct sequence again.  Nor would you bother trying.

My point was that, try as I might, I could not understand Ma'am.  She might as well have been speaking Sumerian.  Along with all of this blah, blah, blah; I'd get a pile glossy file folders crammed full of inscrutable material to look over.  

New as this all was to me, I had already had the experience of managing my own 401k through the Fidelity website.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, Fidelity somehow manages to communicate about the same world  in a way that my lowly "reasonable person" level of investment savvy can understand. 

Now, sure, this was still during the recession--20010 and 2011.  As Ma'am kept reminding me, no one was doing well then, and once Syria inevitably gained its freedom, it would become rabidly thirsty for Starbucks-- then my international mutual fund in the Middle East would set me up!

Scratching my head, I compared how my own naive stock picks were doing in my 401k, as compared to the professionals' esoteric panoply of funds in my dad's IRA. 

I had Amazon.  It was up about 67%.  Ebay. Up 33%.  Apple.  Up, I dunno, 120% or more.  

I didn't know how long Dad's portfolio had been in place, but I knew that he had been trying to gradually wrest control of his accounts from Ma'am before died.  He just didn't quite have the heart to take it away from his friend.  And then he died.  And I got Ma'am.

Long story short, after two years of watching that portfolio hemorrhage pitifully, I finally concluded that I was comfortable with their margin of error and it was time for me to take over.  I would almost certainly not do worse than Ma'am, and maybe I could even staunch the bleeding.

For weeks, I postponed taking that account away from Ma'am.  It was like breaking up with someone you'd been living with for two years.  We had a commitment, didn't we?  An understanding?   I dreaded doing it. 

I called Fidelity first.  They were all like, "Oh, hey! We can take care of transferring those accounts for you, no problem."  

Apparently, you can leave one financial institution for another without leaving so much as a note.  

I did email Ma'am out of respect for her friendship with my father.  I tried to frame it in a way that would not sound accusatory.  I simply wanted to consolidate my accounts, etc., (and manage them myself).  

She called my cell.  She implied that I was going to take all the cash and blow it on ice cream.  Because I was a fat and ungrateful little beast (implied).  

I never looked back.  Not once.  I've been handling this money now for two years.  That's not long, I know, but I'm doing okay.

So!, if you're interested, and because I've been leading up to this jump-off point for three posts, I'll share the boring details of my investments theory and practice.

In the next post.  It's 12:50 am.  Good grief!  

Good night.  

Friday, June 21, 2013

What's Interesting About This?

I'm going to write about money again.  I don't want to bore you, though. 

Also, I don't want you to think that I'm posing as a financial genius or expert, because we all know that's not true. But, obviously, I think I have something of value to say. 

So let me just get it right out there.  CAVEAT

I'm going talk about what I have learned, and I am not going to talk about what I don't know--which is a lot.  (For example, I don't know much at all about bonds, except that they're low-risk and low-returns.  I don't have a great understanding of dividends, but I think they don't contribute as significantly to my bottom line as returns on stocks; and I've read that dividends aren't necessarily great indicators of how well a company is doing, but I could be wrong about that.  Now you know as much as I do about dividends, and probably a lot more.) 

That was boring.  What's interesting?

A fantastic read for non-business types like ourselves is The Biography of Steve Jobs, which is also a history of Silicon Valley and of computers, of Hewlett Packard and IBM, of Microsoft and Apple, of Pixar and Disney...etc. 

Despite that, it's fantastically interesting.

By the end, when Bill Gates visits a dying Steve Jobs for the last time, it's like France and England meeting in a field at the end of the War of the Roses.  (What?  You hate history, too?)

They're all like, "Well, cousin, we've had a good run of it, haven't we?  How's my sister?"  "Fine, fine.  How's my mother?"  "Feeling her age, these days.  She just turned twenty-seven the other day."  "Oh, yeah.  We're none of us getting any younger." 

It dawns on you: they're not just the Titans of Capitalism that they are.   In some archetypal sense, they are brothers.  Cut from the same cloth.  Different, rivals, but more alike than almost anyone else on the planet.

What else is interesting?

The stock market--The Dow, Nasdaq, whatever--it's kind of like society's collective mood.  I wanted to say subconscious, but it's kind of conscious.  Maybe not.  It's collective, at least. 

One report says one thing and we all start worrying and speculating and selling off shares.  Or, it's Friday and Steve Bernanke is wearing a green tie, so everyone rejoices and the market goes up.

It's a big giant mood ring.  Apparently, we're all cyclothymic, and sometimes much further up on the bipolar spectrum. 

During last fall's fiscal cliff brouhaha, the market went up or down depending on whether John Boehner was implying that the Republicans might be close to some kind of compromise.  Usually, he would offer a thin slice of hope on Thursday. 

They do not want us going into the weekend feeling downcast about our investments.  I suspect they pull a rabbit out of their hats on Friday so we can go into the weekend feeling solvent, ready to rejuvenate the economy. 

If the market is down on a Friday, something real could be happening.  It could be an Act of God, beyond the scope of human manipulation.

On Monday, the market typically slouches or slumps, as we do.

What else is interesting?

There is a Taoist aspect to investment management.  (Remember, we're not talking about LOTS of money, we're talking about 401ks and IRA's and that sort of thing.) 

What is Taoist about it?  

As in the martial arts, you have to assume a posture in which your knees are slightly bent for greater agility.  Agility serves you well as an investor. 

You have to be in the moment. 

You have to know when to make your move. 

You can buy a lot of a stock when it's down, believing that the company, like Best Buy in 2012, will rise, phoenix-like from the ashes.  Do you have faith in that company?  Do you have faith in your own judgment?  Do you have faith in your crystal ball? 

Best Buy did rise in 2013. Its obit was published prematurely. (I sold too soon!) 

What about J.C. Penney, huh?  Hmm?  Similar situation. 

Interesting story.  Best Buy was tanking.  French CEO was brought in.  Stock value did not reflect enormous confidence in his ability to turn things around.  But apparently, he did.  Stocks are up now and forming a wedge of positive regard. 

J.C. Penney was circling the drain.  They brought in the fellow behind the Apple stores to bring the look of J.C. Penney up to date, make it hip and cool, etc.  Stocks rose on confidence in his ability to turn things around.  He failed.  Apple never did any market research, so neither did he.  And that, as they say, is Greek tragedy.

In addition to your politics and your ethics and your values, your portfolio should reflect your personality.  That's interesting!

Before you create a portfolio, consider:  How much anxiety can you stand?  How much time do you want to spend waiting for that big wave to come in?  How much risk are you willing and able to assume, financially? 

You can choose to surf the waves, picking stocks that go up and down, paying attention and buying and selling accordingly. 

Or, you can fill your larder with those lovely big wedge stocks, like JNJ and PG.  Over the years, the value of those shares steadily increases, such that a graph chart of a three-year period looks like a big wedge, with the high end on the right. 

You can just walk away and leave those stocks alone for a good long time.  They'll be fine. 

So, to recap: Sometimes you have to wait a long time.  But you have to know when to make your move.   Unless you prefer to set yourself up with those big, reliable tortoises who will run the race without your constant supervision. 

That's Taoism.  Know thyself.  (Is that Confucius?  Nope. Wikipedia calls it a "Delphic maxim".  Oh, well.)

Before I sign off, remember two things: It's just my opinion.  And, no, I really don't want to manage your money.  That's not where I'm going with this.  I'm advocating that you can manage your own money.  You can do it!  Booyah!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Do You Know Where Your Money Is?

Okay, okay, I will write about money.  Specifically, managing your investments... 

I started managing my own 401k back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, in the mid-1990s.  All I knew about investing was what we all know, that old Warren Buffet chestnut: Buy low, sell high. 

I have spent the intervening years trying to figure out exactly what he meant by that.  Turns out, he meant exactly what he said. 

It's easier to say than do. 

People have a lot of qualms about following that advice.

Here is a list of common qualms:

1. There is some formula that demonstrates that buying and selling and buying and selling the same stock is not, over time, as profitable as just holding onto that same stock over a ten-year period.
  • Perhaps.  But if you got out of the market before the dot-com bubble collapsed, you dodged a bullet.   And if  you sold Amazon last week when it was high, you could have bought it the very next day when it was lower, and by this week you would be making a profit on it again.  I'm just sayin'.
2. I have a financial expert who manages my investments.
  • Have you seen the Fidelity or E*TRADE websites lately?  They're super user-friendly.  They give you the tools you need to make informed decisions about your money.  More on that anon.
  • Furthermore, these articles keep popping up everywhere about those big investment firms (J.P. Morgan and Wells Fargo, to name two) who have been caught with their giant corporate hands in the proverbial cookie jar.  And whose proverbial cookie jar might that be?  It might be yours.
  • I have a lot more to say about that, but I'm trying to pace myself.
3.  I don't want to spend my time managing money.
  • But you spend so time making that money...! 
  • Managing your own investments is surprisingly fun.
4.  I don't want to be a "day trader."  Ew!
  • True, you don't want to spend twelve hours a day staring into your computer (as if you don't do that already), obsessively watching the numbers go up and down, trolling for opportunities, reading annual reports, Dorito crumbs filling the crannies of your key board which is sticky from the Mt. Dew that you spilled in the wee hours of the morning.... 
  • There is a middle path. 
5.  I don't know why, but I believe that taking responsibility for my investments is the road to rapacious, miserly greed; that I will morph into a capitalist pig full of contempt and self-loathing; and then I won't be able to occupy Wall Street because I'll be one of THEM.
  • Okay... Do you know where your money is?  If you have mutual funds (and most people feel most comfortable having well-diversified mutual funds), then you are most likely invested in companies like GE and other energy companies that get very low marks for being environmentally responsible.  Most of those big energy companies pretty much ravage the environment.  They get a "red" ranking on Fidelity for environmental responsibility.  That means they don't give a crap. 
  • You're probably also invested (via your mutual funds) in financial institutions that you loathe, like Bank of America and all of those big nasty mortgage profiteers who foreclosed on people's houses, etc. 
  • I make it a point to avoid mutual funds for those reasons. I do not want my money contributing to the ravaging of the environment or the pillaging of villages, etc.

Food for thought.  To be continued...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Be Wary of Wishes that Make Everyone Queasy

We live in town, (technically, a village), right off Main Street, five minutes' walk from the Kwik- Trip, Josh's school, the library, the town pool, the post office, the cafĂ©, and a growing assortment of restaurants. 

I can ride my bike to get my eyes examined, my hair cut, my prescription filled, and my groceries.

I can walk to my boot-camp class at 5:25 in the morning and get there at 5:30 (a.m.). 

We love our neighbors. 

Ours is an American Folk-style house with arts-and-crafts detail and a yard.  I no longer mistake the perennials for weeds and yank them out by their roots.  It's a shame that poppies look so pointy and suspicious before they've blossomed; otherwise, we'd have a lot more of them.

We have so many memories in this house, Josh can't remember not living here.

But subconsciously he remembers that, like the poppies, he was yanked out by the roots from his home in Massachusetts when he was three.

If Josh had been six when we moved, would it have made a difference to his recollection? 

Doesn't it seem that particularly wrenching life transitions have a way of erasing memory?

For example, ask me to name any of my teachers from eighth grade.

I can't name a single one.

All I remember is that I was not happy, I often forgot to bring my math book to school, and my biology teacher asked me if I was on drugs.  (I wasn't.  I should have been.)

All other details have been filed way, way back in the attic of my memory where I will never bother to retrieve them. 

Failed relationships induce amnesia, too, especially if they end badly, as many do.  I think there are people walking around who have edited whole epochs out of their memories--either because they didn't like who they were with, or they didn't like who they were then, (and now they think they are someone else--and maybe they are). 

I digress.  The point was, I am keenly aware of how memory, like a spider web, is both sturdy and delicate.  I don't want to tear apart Josh's happy memories by making him move to a farm.

I can't help it!  I think I want a farm!

I also wonder, if I had a farm, would it be as I imagined it?  Would it be...nice?

I'm very conflicted.

I don't want a working farm.  I want a hobby farm.  I don't want chickens (no!), or bees (ow!), or to grow my own food (no, no, no!).  I am not Ralph Waldo Emerson or Aldo Leopold Center.  I just want to have my horse near me, to be closer to nature, and to a have a quiet retreat from everything.

And what about those awful dogs, you ask.  What hope for peace and quiet could you possibly have while you own those horrible dogs?

That's a point.

I adore the pastoral beauty of Wisconsin!  Out on my bike or in the car or on my horse or at the dog park, I see gorgeous barns, sprawling fields, gnarled oak trees, and I yearn for a little place right there in the middle of it. 

I want to be there, to live there, and have giant windows from every room, to look out over all the sunsets and all the seasons of my life. 

I want to hear my horses whinnying and neighing.  (We'd have to get a second horse to keep my horse company; they're herd animals.) 

I want to feed my horse myself.  I hardly ever get to feed her because she lives (very happily) at a barn with other horses and they all get fed together as part of the arrangement.  All I have to do is groom and ride her.

I want more from my horse relationship. 

On the other hand, Belle, the horse, has no desire for a deeper relationship with me. 

It's not personal.  She's horse-identified and unsentimental about my species.  Some horses are partial to us, they like to be fawned over and pampered.  Belle's skin twitches when I pat her as though a horse-fly had landed on her rump.

So, to recap:  The farm would not be in Josh's best interest. And the farm would not be in Belle's particular interest.    

There are two other matters that bear mentioning: 

1) Josh is an only child. A farm is more remote than a house in town, (yet still close to town and other houses, in the case of the two that I've seen recently).

2) I am not getting younger.  I might even be getting older.  Now I am strong and healthy-ish, but, chronologically, not judging by the length of my telomeres, I am middle-aged (assuming I live to be 94). 

Two significant considerations, yes, but I think they cancel each other out.

I am not Buddhist or Hindu, so I can't postpone this decision to another life. 

I am Presbyterian, in the broad, all-rivers-lead-to-the-same-ocean sense of the word, so I believe that only God knows who is going to get a farm and who is not.

Phil's into the farm.  He wants outbuildings and land.  He's got a kiln for his pottery-ing shoved into a corner of our basement, and his wood-working machinery and go-cart-making apparatus all squeezed into a three-bay garage.

I'm into the farm. 

Aren't I? 

Or would I miss the camaraderie of the neighborhood and the barn?  (We're herd animals, you know.) 

As I pull into the driveway toward Jen's barn, I wonder, Who's here?  Is the farrier here, standing up and stretching after filing down a horse's up-turned foot?  If Hobbes the border collie runs up to greet me, our mutual friend Jen is somewhere nearby.  If there's a yellow Subaru wagon, Mary is there and we'll have a nice conversation as I make my way to the tack room. 

Be wary of wishes that make everyone queasy with sea change.

There is a farm not far from here.  American Folk house on four acres and three box stalls in the barn.  

It's the not the first farm I've looked at this spring.  It probably won't be the last.  

I'm in touch with a realtor.  I just have to get in touch with my feelings.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Things Could Be Worse

We dropped Adam off at the airport this morning.  He is no longer our exchange student, but, as he would point out, that does not mean that he is dead.

And no, we did not stop off at the Dane County Shelter on the way home from the airport and pick up kittens.  I'm trying to train myself out of that knee-jerk rebound exchange-student-leaves-get-a-kitten behavior to which I am prone.

Still, I can't help thinking that a couple of kittens and a ball of yarn would jolly things up around here.  Maybe  my allergies wouldn't be so bad if we had kittens.  Maybe this flare up of sciatica would cool off.  If we had kittens.

Seventeen-year-olds aren't meant to stay forever, are they?  They're meant to graduate and go off to college or the Czech Republic.  You can't keep them forever.

They're not kittens.

But this is what you hope for, when you bring an exchange student into your home.  You hope that seeing them off will be a sad occasion.   The better the year, the worse the parting.  Like what Josh said about teachers.

Josh has been cursed with having had wonderful teachers ever since preschool.  If anything, they just get better every year.  It has gotten to the point where he dreads summer vacation.

In March, I reminded him that his vacation was only two weeks off.  We were going to Disney Land for spring break.

Josh looked like he was going to burst into tears.

It wasn't until we sorted out the calendar and he realized that he would have ten  more weeks of school after spring break that he began to cheer up.

This grim situation with the excellent teachers ineluctably led Josh to the dreaded last day of school, when Josh threw up his hands, Job like, sobbing,

"Why, oh WHY can't I have bad teachers?!?!"

It's hard for a mom to wish that on her child, bad teachers.  But maybe next year's teacher could be just a little tiny bit worse.  (Not very much worse--it's hard enough to get Josh to school consistently five to ten minutes late every morning.)

Our family will, in the next couple of years, get another exchange student.  I wouldn't mind if the next one were a little bit worse.

It would be okay if I had, as everyone expects I ought to have, (but I don't), mixed feelings about our next exchange student's departure.

I could be like, Yeah, I'll miss him or her, but at least now that funky odor has left the house.

Or, Yeah, I'll miss him or her, but at least now that area on the floor around the toilet is dry.

Or, Yeah, I'll miss him or her, but at least now the pets' wounds will have time to heal.

One or two palliative feelings of relief and good-riddance would be welcome.

Text message JUST NOW from Prague:


Mission accomplished.  Exchange student returned to parents alive.

Let's hope the next one is a little bit worse.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Smoke Screen Tent for A Generation, or, Why Not the Screen Tent?

I thought the screen tent was a great idea. Adam, whose farewell party it was, thought otherwise.

Adam is 17 and I am 47. I am Gen-X and he is--I don't know what he is. Maybe he's Post-Millennial. Maybe he's Gen-A, if we're starting over again with the alphabet, (and if he's not, he should be, for reasons that will soon become clear), and is ten years a generation?

We had set up a volleyball net and a three-lane slip 'n slide. The slip 'n slide was my idea. The three-lane slip 'n slide was my 9-yr old son Josh's idea. The half dozen squirt guns in a bucket of water was my idea. Both of these were very good ideas.

The screen tent, with three comfy chairs inside and a cooler full of cold beverages was bug-free, shady, and had a view of the whole yard, including the volleyball game.

No one showed the slightest interest in it--as Adam, our Czech exchange student, knew that they wouldn't.

Needless to say, the picnic blanket that I had placed in the shade of our large pine tree and furnished with two oversized lounging pillows was not a good idea, either.

Less surprisingly, the blanket and beanbag chair that I had assembled in the play structure's tree-level platform (covered, charmingly, with a canvas roof), private, elevated, and shady though it all was, (and with a view of all of the action), tanked.

This will surprise some of you: No music was wanted, either.

Adam fended off my repeated overtures to set up portable stereo components in the garage. Finally, I took it upon myself to set it up for him. I didn't plug my own phone into it; I announced to the teenagers who had gathered early that any of them could plug in their own phone and turn it to their own favorite Pandora station. Not one of them stepped up. For the entire late afternoon and until midnight, when the party disbanded, their was no music.

So, to recap, there was no music. There was no splintering off into smaller groups or couples for conversation, exchanging confidences, discrete character assassinations or otherwise critical commentary, smoking, or make-out sessions in the tent, on the picnic blanket, or in the play structure.

In fact, to underscore what I'm getting at, Adam and I practically quarreled over the configuration of the tables.

There were three tables: Two rectangles, and one circle. He placed the two rectangle tables end to end, one long harvest table. Then he actually attached the circle table onto the end of the whole thing.

"Everyone wants to be together," he said.

"That's nice." But did the tables have to be actually attached? Couldn't they be arranged in a cluster, really close to one another? 

Gingerly, (I thought I was saying it gingerly), I pointed out that we could attach more chairs to the tables if we separated the tables.

Adam agreed that we could separate the tables--either because he wanted to have more chairs available, or because he could see from my expression (so gingerly) that his original arrangement was making me kind of nuts.   To me, it looked weird, especially with the round table stuck on the end. I felt hemmed in just looking at it.

And it did look better, we both agreed, with the two rectangular tables parallel to one another and the round table near by but not touching.

All of the teenagers gathered around one long table and either sat or stood or hovered nearby. Practically speaking, Adam was right.

It would have been better if the long tables were connected. Because this generation, HIS generation, whatever it's called, is remarkably connected.

They don't want music, apparently, because they want to be able to hear each other.

They don't need little cozy romantic outposts with cold beverages in small coolers handy because they don't splinter off into little cabals, like my generation did.

And they don't smoke.

My fondest memories from parties as a teenager and a twenty-something was of those moments with one or two--maybe three--other people out on a porch, away from the loud music and the madding crowd. There, we smoked cigarettes (and sometimes pot)and yes, absolutely, we shared confidences and traded gossip and social commentary. In effect, there on the porch (usually it was a porch, but if someone had set up a screen tent, we would definitely have used it), we texted, if to text is the exchange of confidences, gossip social observations between two people. Inside, the room was over-warm. The music was loud, and conversation was difficult and superficial.

I should point out that I was raised in a suburb on the East Coast.

Maybe it was who I was and who I hung out with in high school and then college and after, but we weren't much for volleyball. I never saw a slip 'n slide except on tv, never used one until I'd bought one for my own son. (They're wicked fun.) When I did play volleyball, it was with people one generation senior to me, the baby boomers who were more extroverted, sporty, and fun-loving than the Gen-Xers, who, admittedly, somehow developed a reputation for being a dour, critical, marginalized assortment of misfits on the margins of society, preferably on a porch or in a screen tent with a small cooler nearby and an ash tray.

Sometime after me, in the nineties, was it the Y Generation that had those parties where they listened to techno and did some sort of meth together that made them very affectionate but which later made them incredibly depressed? I totally missed that.

Each generation is remarkably different, that's all I'm saying.  I couldn't believe I was so wrong about the screen tent.

Maybe with each generation there are subgroups that are so different from each other as to be mutually baffling. I suspect this is the case, especially as I observe that the kids in my back yard last night took part in no illicit consumption whatsoever. Adam would have preferred, I think, to eschew even carbonated drinks, but I prevailed on that point as well. So now, wouldn't you know it, why don't I listen to Adam, we have a huge cooler full of cans of Diet Coke. The Sprite, by way of contrast, was consumed in a New York minute. Go figure!

I know that drugs are consumed by teenagers still (an awkward adverb, "still", but far preferable to "nowadays"). I have heard that the drug of choice is (and this shocks me, because it's such a gargantuan leap away from Diet Coke) heroin. Heroin! Isn't that so Sid-and-Nancy-retro-deviant?! I mean, well, sure THEY would have appreciated the screen tent.

Such a splinter group, that tent-appreciating subgroup, splintered off from an otherwise super-...

No, I don't want to say wholesome. That implies a bovine innocence that utterly fails to capture the qualities that I observe in Adam and his friends.

How to encapsulate those qualities? I could say confidence, but that suggests hubris. I don't mean hubris.

I could say mature, but that sounds dowdy, and I don't mean dowdy.

They are not perfect, these kids, but they amaze me. They perform in front of audiences. And they don't suck at it (ergo, not hubris). Adam plays piano. Lydia sings. They have both performed countless times.

Heck, Adam left his home, friends, and family and traveled a distance no less than what Christopher Columbus or Magellan covered, to live for ten months with the first family to pick him, AND HE WAS NOT ALLOWED TO REFUSE US. (A stipulation of the program contract.)

These kids are athletic, competitive, smart, optimistic, and determined. At 17, they are more generally evolved than I was at 30. In the course of time, I have accumulated more experience, but it seems that I've only recently, perhaps through the experience of parenthood, perhaps through the experience of parenting Adam, arrived at the evolutionary place where Adam and Lydia seem to be in the bloom of their youth.

If I had raised Adam, I'd take some credit for this. But I'm not. Kudos to their parents.

I realize, reading this over, that the above paragraphs do not explain the conjoined tables or the spurned screen tent. Perhaps there's no explaining it. There probably is an explanation, actually, but I've grown ADD-bored with the question.

The parents raising my 9-year old's generation struggle to balance screen time with reading time, with outdoor time, with Lego time.

We wonder whether Mine craft really is a creative or constructive use of time. Did my son test higher in geometry and algebra because of Mine craft? Or did he test lower in reading comprehension because of Mine craft?

 If two kids are playing Mine craft on a split screen but in the same world and in the same room, are they still playing together? Or are they playing next to each other?

And if the disembodied voice of Jack,(11), next door, comes over our speakers through our television, and he is shouting out to Josh and they are playing Mine craft on split screens but in the same world and from different houses, what does this mean? (The disembodied voice of the neighbor's kid floating into the kitchen freaks my husband out no end.)

My son's curriculum is becoming increasingly reliant on Chrome books and the Internet; its content is, Mine craft-like, becoming more of a split screen, in which kids have their own section in the same world, i.e., individualized, but with the same hierarchy of learning goals.

Once again, I digress. I am wondering aloud what Josh's generation will be like. Their childhood is already so different from Adam and Lydia's. This was about a tent.

We pulled up stakes, folded it up, and put it away. It was the first time, I realized this morning, that we had ever used it--though really, we didn't, and so we still haven't. What is a screen tent for? Is there a place for a screen tent in society? I mean, the one that doesn't include heroin?