What? Me Worry?

Source: Mad Magazine

Let’s talk serendipity, shall we?

I am amazed at the moment at how some obstacles are smoothed out simply by doing nothing. It’s the ultimate reward for procrastinators or those caught in what we in polite society refer to as “circumstances.” Naturally, it doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, I see it as a strike against all those authority figures from my childhood. Take that, you previous brow beaters.

It’s also not the smartest approach to problem-solving either, of course. We can look no further than governmental bodies for what happens when things are swept under the rug. Be it carcinogenic water pipes in Flint or inadequate care at VA hospitals, problems fester until the public at large eventually shouts a full-throated roar of protest.

Occasionally, though, some of us mere mortals privately strike a little gold in the avoidance department. Take your humble blogger, for instance. I’ve managed to pull off a couple of feats lately and done absolutely nothing in making them happen. I’d say it’s karma or even fate, but then I’d be going all crunchy granola on you with that higher vibrational claptrap. So we’ll just chalk it all up to really dumb luck and leave it at that.

What originally lured us to live in Florida, or as Gorgeous might put it on a challenging day, “the false pretenses under which I was brought here,” was based on an understanding I thought I had with my ex-wife about a condo property that we still jointly own. The agreement — such as it was — lasted for a few weeks until my ex decided that it wasn’t in her best interest. So she subsequently changed her mind. At the risk of coloring myself a chauvinist, I’ll just leave it that it was her prerogative to do that. Words were quickly exchanged and then we collectively moved on in search of our separate Kumbayas.

In spite of that initial disappointment, my own internal compass was resolute. I believed, and continue to believe, that moving to the Sunshine State was the best decision. I love palm trees, beaches, and a place where election results are shrouded in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not invisibility cloak. And, okay, Florida not having a personal income taxes may play a small role here too. I do have my greedy side.

“Taxes? Never!
Source: Openclipart.org

Without boring you on the details (a sly way of saying that I’m still intimidated by my ex’s attorney), I have been waiting forever to have my name removed from the above property, and also a second one. It’s been both a waiting game and also a test of wills between the mortgage company and the tendency of my ex to make quick, sweeping decisions about her life. Time was on my side if I remained patient.

Sure enough, in January she decided that she’d had enough of year-round humidity and hurricane watches. With the snap of a finger she made plans to move back to California. Both condo properties were immediately put on the market, and now within three months there are solid buyers for both. Closing is scheduled for next week and a date has been set aside for me to go in to separately to sign the documents. In the language of my tribe, I’m kvelling.

The role I played in bringing this about? Zilch, nada.

I have had my share of sleepless nights thinking about it all, but I kept my mouth shut after our earlier row for fear of engendering any bad feelings or purposeful delays out of spite.

My new mantra for surviving life issues is a simple rhetorical device: “what would Donald Trump do?” I then do the opposite. Nevertheless, it is a shock to actually see a successful resolution come about. Which is more than he can say lately.

Source: Memegenerator.net1

The second area in which I’ve found some good fortune is with my part-time job. In January along with my W-2 for taxes, my boss extended her sincere thanks to me for coming aboard last year. She said she was pleased about how it all had worked out, and she hoped I was enjoying the job. She also said she looked forward to working with me over the next year.

<GULP>

Immediately I felt a pang of guilt. Missing from her message was any mention of the fact that I would be leaving by late spring or early summer because of our move north to St. Augustine later this year. I only see her occasionally because she manages several libraries, and I am but one of many staff members in her employment. I didn’t necessarily expect her to remember, but this seemed like such a lousy time to remind her.

A “hey, right back at ya, and oh by the way, don’t forget I’m leaving you!” response seemed a little course. I instead wrote a thoughtful reply saying how much I appreciated her hiring me, and that I hope I can use her as a reference when I begin looking for another part-time job sometime after we move.

Later that evening I received a very short response: “I now have some accounts in Jacksonville for which I’ll later need someone to service. Just one or two days a week. Care to talk about this?

I did indeed. The total sum of time I had thought about finding a job for after we move came to zero. Getting our ducks in a row with finding a real estate agent, obtaining pre-approval for a mortgage, and arranging for our down payment to be safely sequestered seemed like more of a priority these past few months than anything else.

But after several phone conversations and emails with my boss, it appears I also now had a ready job waiting for me on that other end. I will be servicing law firms and helping to maintain their lawbook collections. It’s a little bit of the cart before the horse, but who am I to question it? All I know is that I absolutely wasn’t looking for it.

Last week I traveled up there to get oriented with the accounts. My boss will be going away for five weeks, and I will be covering while she is away. The timing couldn’t be better because April was always the time in which we were planning to start looking at new homes anyway. Gorgeous will amuse herself in downtown Jacksonville while I work each time, and then at day’s end we’ll drive to St. Augustine for an overnight before spending the following day with our real estate agent. With a little luck, we might even find a place before the boss returns from her trip.

Things never quite work out this easy for me, so I am waiting for the proverbial Other Shoe to drop. At the same time, though, I’m also trying not to think about the following things:

  1. A Mega Millions winning lotto ticket.
  2. Airline tickets and hotel accommodations to see Phil Collins in London this coming summer.
  3. News that my ex-wife has re-married (re: end of alimony).

Not necessarily in that order, of course. I’ll keep you posted.

Until next time…

 

¹ This wonderful meme graphic from Memegenerator was uploaded by a Russian user. After a bit of consideration (preceded by the firing up of my malware software), I’ve decided not to provide the link for your own computer or phone/tablet’s safety. As Mr. Stills once sang, “paranoia strikes deep…

Rethinking My 401(K) Strategy

Source: Labornotes.org

Source: Labornotes.org

Don’t you just love blog posts with snappy titles such as the one above?  Nothing, I repeat nothing, gets hormones raging and testosterone pumping than retirement finances.  It’s enough to send you… well, for a really long nap.  May I offer you a pillow and some chamomile tea?  Some more Mantovani perhaps?

Gorgeous insists that no matter what my topic is, I need to tag every published post with the words sex, infidelity, cats, booze, and chocolate to nail the big readership statistics. She says I need to “sex it up” a bit.

Perhaps.  But I just can’t fathom stooping to such lengths for a mere bump in blog popularity.

Your humble blogger.  Just another day lounging at home...

Your humble blogger’s backside. Sex and money sell, Baby.

But as the tired old line goes, “now that I have your attention…”  I do have news.  In spite of my oft-digression to the mundanities of life, this blog still purports to be focused on the topic of early retirement.  To the six faithful readers who for some reason follow without fail, I promise that imbecility will return in full flower with the very next posting.

The big news is that I am absolutely filthy, stinking rich!  Sort of anyway.  We all judge affluence through different sets of standards, of course.  So you’ll just have to accept that by my own standards, I am well-heeled and loaded.  In fact, I actually have been rich since the day I retired.  But because of recent circumstances, specifically my short attention span, I only now just re-discovered this wonderful fact.

I am revealing said affluentness in the same manner that Donald Trump regularly shares the details of his own substantial fortune: by simply declaring myself to be rich.  The difference is that while I am merely mentioning it in passing, The Donald is far more gauche because he actually goes into detail about the size of his massive wealth.  I will therefore not disclose the size of mine. This comes from a lifetime of conditioning myself to avoid comparisons to other men.  Self-preservation has taught me to just acknowledge that the other fella is always manifestly bigger.  Changing the conversation to a more civilized and polite discourse is usually a better idea.

So today, I wish to tell you about my bulging 401(k) balance.

Since retiring, most of my efforts have gone towards sparring with my former employer over the dollar amount of my annuity.  My nemesis, the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM), has managed to confound both me and my former H.R. officer, the ever diligent “Blue Eyes.”  For reasons only known to them, OPM has never fully explained the incomprehensible calculation that allegedly explains the amount of money that my ex-wife is receiving from my pension.  They recently responded to a second follow-up query I made, but their answer left us even more confused than before.  For now I’ve decided that it’s best to simply let the matter rest.  I do lay out the possibility of filing an appeal with OPM’s new Beijing branch office at a later date.

Source: http://www.nndb.com/people/440/000022374/

Louis Rukeyser. Source: nndb.com

Because of this months-long distraction, I nearly forgot about a second limb of the allegedly erstwhile three-legged stool of retirement: my 401(k).  A recent statement I received shows that its value rose sharply in the year since I retired.  While I am still nowhere near Mr. Trump’s estimated and self-expressed worth, I do have an amount that I know would have greatly impressed my father.  Dad used to watch Louis Rukeyser’s “Wall Street Week” on public television each Friday night without fail.  Sadly though, he was never able to apply very much of what he learned to his own life.  When he became too old to manage his finances any longer, I remember being shocked at how the man who could suavely parrot economic news from TV and newspaper reports, was himself a bit of a monetary disaster. It thus became a bell-ringing moment for me that I needed get serious about my own savings.

In spite of being married at the time to a woman whose fidelity to the American economy was so strong that she made sure to stimulate it at every opportunity, I still managed to sock away as much as I could with every pay period.  The federal government’s 401(k)-style program for employees is called the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).   In good years and bad, I made sure to contribute no less than 10% of my pay, often more.  I was also fortunate to receive an employer match on the first 5% of what I contributed at each pay period.  No matter what kind of financial calamity that took place in my real-life world (home repairs, parental assisted living care costs, hurricane damage to Florida investment condos, etc.), I faithfully contributed to the TSP for all pay periods without thinking twice about it.

As my marriage began to crumble under the weight of my ex-wife’s gambling addiction, we found ourselves liquidating nearly everything that we owned in order to retire debts. Individual stocks of blue chip companies that I had originally purchased primarily for investment education needed to be sold to pay the divorce lawyers.  By the time our divorce was final, I was for the most part left only with the 401(k) as my sole source of savings.  As sad and devastating as a marriage ending is for everyone involved, I felt luckier than most that I was at least coming out of it with some financial viability.  Or as I asked Gorgeous a few years later in a less polished way, “So, like, I’m still a catch, yeah?” 

I took advantage of early retirement one year before my official date of eligibility.  Although working just a few years more would have made more sense, I knew that between my annuity, what I would eventually get from Social Security, and the amount Gorgeous makes from her clients, that we would be fine so long as we moved to an area with a lower cost of living.  We have done this.

The 401(k) funds sit untouched. They hopefully will survive occasional fits of market volatility and will grow enough for when we start to draw from them in later years– when the hair is grayer and the wrinkles become more pronounced than they are at present.

My hope is to not begin making any withdrawals from these funds until age 65 at the very earliest.  But as we all know, life can throw curve balls when we least expect it with health issues, environmental factors, and financial challenges.  So while my plan is to safeguard the nest egg at all costs, I do acknowledge that sometimes even the best laid plans need to be altered.  In any event, retirement funds are not allowed to be withdrawn without penalty until age 59 1/2, and I have a small handful of years yet for when I reach that age.

I had always planned on keeping these 401(k) funds in my former employer’s plan forever (there are no requirements to remove it after retirement).  But in addition to the recent hacks on federal government computers, other disturbing events have also taken place which impact federal retirees.  This time the perpetrators are not our Chinese adversaries but rather our own United States Congress.  Congress it seems can’t seem to keep its hands off the TSP funds (see here and here).¹  As a result, I am now strongly considering rolling over my funds out and into a private IRA with one of the major mutual fund companies. Because of the generally low fees associated with index funds, I believe I can match the low-cost management of the TSP and not have to worry about whether a member of Congress has a new idea by “borrowing” from my own personal piggy bank.

I will make my decision probably by the end of August.  If you see me leaving a broker’s office with my silk blazer and an ascot around my neck, you’ll know the deed has been done. In the meantime, please stop gawking at both my money and my tushy.  It’s not polite to stare.

What have you done with your retirement funds?  Please share.  Your story, I mean.  Not your money!

¹  Correction:  After publishing this post, it was pointed out to me by an alert reader that the Washington Post article of March 13, 2015 specifies that it is a Treasury Department action to raid the TSP G Fund for debt ceiling relief and not Congress.  I stand corrected and am grateful for the notification.  

Retirement Pitfalls

Source: NARFE

Source: NARFE

Until I received my latest copy of NARFE Magazine¹, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t fully considered all of my post-retirement options. I’ve thought about employment, non-employment, travel, reading, writing, and lots of television viewing.  But one thing I never considered was prison.  Prison does offer an opportunity for great writing.  Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Wilde, Nelson Mandela, and Jack Abbott all wrote while incarcerated, and those are certainly august names to whom one might want to try and emulate and attach their name similarly.  The person who submitted the question to the magazine (shown at the top of this post), earns my admiration for at least considering a unique approach to an impending retirement.  Or, as a friend of mine dryly observed when I shared it with him, this person might actually be charged with a crime and is looking for free advice.  Oh, such cynicism.  I choose to believe it’s simply another route to take after a long and distinguished career.

I really can’t blame the questioner for being concerned about his pension, though.  There are indeed more than a few pickpockets out there who can legally raid your nest egg. Aside from the prison warden, the government remains the most formidable adversary between my money and me.  For instance, starting next January I will be limited to earning no more than $15,720 from any employment that I might find.  If I go over that amount, a secondary pension supplement I receive will be reduced by $1 for every $2 earned over the earnings limit.  I tell my wife that this alone is a sufficient reason for me not to dip my toes in the employment waters again, and that I should stand up for certain principles about taxation and fair play.  The only way to prevent the government from taking such money, is not to even attempt to earn it!  She looks at me, shakes her head warily, and then announces that she has to go back to work.  So much for principled stands.

Another retirement area in which one needs to be watchful is with life insurance.  A few years before retiring, I had the benefit of a financial planner who looked over my overall financial situation.  The one area he focused on was the group term life insurance plan into which I had enrolled early in my career.  Besides the beneficiary change after my second marriage, I never looked at it or paid any attention to its annual costs.  The planner, however, explained to me that because insurers generally assume that a pool of people in any group plan is not the healthiest, they therefore charge higher rates for everyone in that pool.  The longer I stayed in the group plan, the higher the rates would appreciably rise as I age.  I was encouraged to instead find an individual life insurance plan for myself on the open market.  I followed that advice, was required to take a medical exam, and now have a term policy that is locked into a set monthly amount until I am age 70.  At that point, a new rate will need to be negotiated, or I will most likely just end the policy.  But the savings I achieved from switching are more than half of what I would have continued to pay had I stayed in the group plan.

I recently read an article about Florida senator and prospective presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who apparently cashed-out approximately $70,000 from his retirement funds for personal expenses.  This caught my eye for two reasons.  First, after all the scrutiny under which John McCain, Mitt Romney, and now Hillary Clinton have been subjected to about their own substantial wealth and holdings, Senator Rubio is in the extreme opposite position of perhaps answering charges that he might be living beyond his means. Secondly, he has put himself into circumstances where he will have to pay a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty in addition to paying an income tax on the amount withdrawn from his savings.  If those funds encountered any profits, he will also have to pay appropriate capital gains taxes too.  This might not a good harbinger for the good senator’s ambition, but that judgment will ultimately be decided upon by voters.

In considering Senator Rubio’s actions, though, it does remind me about the one warning in which both workers and retirees are relentlessly told prior to and during retirement: always refrain from touching any tax-deferred savings before you are eligible to do so.  Like vultures spotting red meat, the IRS and many state taxing authorities are more than happy to jump in with their very sharp teeth to gobble up their portion once someone makes that unfortunate decision.

One of my own specific pitfalls — or a snake in my grass, if you will — is the amount that I was required to pay in alimony to my ex-wife.  Alimony is something that needs to be included and considered in any list of projected expenses prior to retirement.   Though my ex probably continues to disagree with this contention, there was no concrete explanation in our divorce decree that provided the precise amount of monthly alimony to be paid after my retirement.  The divorce decree had clear stipulation over the retirement annuity and my 401(k) balance, but the alimony details were ambiguous.  Had I not suddenly taken advantage of an early retirement offer, I should have taken the time to flesh this matter out at an earlier date.  At the time of our divorce, the vagueness in the decree’s handling of alimony I thought worked to my advantage.  I was wrong.  It did work out in the end thanks to a skilled attorney, but my recommendation to others is to have alimony and all other divorce-related matters fully decided long before you swap the suit and tie for cargo shorts and sandals.

I hope for his own well-being that the person who wrote the above magazine query decides to forgo prison as a retirement choice.  There are so many things he’ll miss such as Stephen Colbert’s new talk show, the finale of Downton Abbey, the next James Bond movie, or an iPhone 7.  In spite of his chance to meet a diverse cross-section of society, one can also do that while standing in line for lottery at the 7-11 too.  There’s something to be said for looking over your latest annuity statement on the couch with a cup of coffee.

¹ NARFE is the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.  In addition to their very informative monthly magazine, they also advocate and lobby Congress on behalf of federal workers.   

Can I Get an ‘Amen Please?

Source: wellsphere.com

Source: wellsphere.com

So good things can happen in divorce after all.  One very tough lesson both in my career and certainly so far in retirement has been that absolutely nothing happens when you hope it will.   Whether it’s been a raise, a promotion, a new job, or an early retirement offer, I have consistently had to experience an episodic delay for that elusive goal at the finish line. Each. Thing. Just. Takes. So. Long.¹

Amazingly, your humble blogger finally caught a break this weekend.  Like tumbling blocks, my earlier post regarding my ex-wife’s portion of my retirement annuity knocked over related matters into additional activity.  Instead of it simply being a one-off action, we decided to take the bull by the horns (just for clarification, I’m speaking metaphorically of my retirement annuity and not any individual person), and just see if we can perhaps speed things to a final negotiation over her alimony payment.  Prior to this, it had been agreed that we would wait till this coming December to start those talks.

But beginning last Thursday evening, when I first queried my ex’s attorney about negotiating earlier, and well into late last evening when we traded e-mails that looked as if an agreement might turn out to be futile, we nonetheless all woke up this morning with compromise in our hearts.  Or maybe we were just sick and tired of each other.  Either way, I have achieved a final accord with my ex that completes our alimony struggle.  We agree on one set amount from now through December, and then starting in January we have a new, final amount that lasts forever or until she gets married.

I now repeat my earlier request to the single, eligible bachelors out there who have an income and a pulse: please contact me if you are looking for an available, single woman.

I remarked to a friend earlier today that I feel as if my retirement is truly beginning now. Since I retired from my career last August, the uncertainty about my annuity and my ex’s portion of it, plus the final alimony amount, has been hanging over me.  Any action I take, whether it’s been one of those occasional toe-dips in looking for a part-time job, or perhaps just posting a Facebook picture of myself relaxing on the beach, has had an edge of incompleteness to it because everything is still somehow connected to my not having those details finalized.   Now it is indeed final, and things seem to be more grounded in my mind.

This milestone also has an impact on my blogging life.  With the negotiations finally behind me, I am not so concerned about my ex discovering this blog.  I’d still prefer that she not, but I can live with it if she does.  Starting with my very next posting, I can “unmask” myself a bit and write a little more detail about my life and career.  I will, however, take the very sage advice of fellow bloggers Heather B. Costa, Kate Loveton, and Kong’s Conservative Komments and keep most of my identity private except to friends who already know me and are regular readers.  But for now, feel free to call me Marty.  I’ll even still answer to Snakes.

Gorgeous and I will celebrate this evening with a cocktail and dinner at a nearby ocean side tavern.  If you’re there too, drinks are on me.

¹   My thanks to “A” for teaching me that crazy syntax.  

A Glass to Hold

Source: Marquette Magazine (Marquette.edu)

Source: Marquette Magazine (Marquette.edu)

Idioms and proverbs are crowding up my thought processes today.  I currently have a bird in the hand, and it is staring contemptuously at a half-empty glass sitting near me.  The glass and the bird are competing for my attention.  The bird keeps telling me that I mustn’t cry over spilled milk, and further adds that I have to be patient because all good things come to those who wait.  The glass ls having none of this, though.  It mocks the bird for deigning to talk about spilled liquids. The glass relentlessly reminds me to stop beating around the bush, and that actions speak louder than words.  I am listening to both and am wary of their conflicting messages.  I might just go join the worthy “two-in-the-bush” and hide for a bit.

For nearly three months, I have been badgering my former employer’s central personnel office to process my ex-wife’s portion of my retirement annuity.  It has unfortunately been stuck in a bureaucratic limbo.  While my own paperwork was expeditiously completed right after the start of the year, my ex’s has been languishing without any action or word on its status. Phone calls and emails have been made by both of us (hers always at my urging), and each time I’ve been somewhat able to unravel another layer of the puzzle.  But it’s been a slow, frustrating process.

The delay has been costly to me.  Within weeks of retiring last August, I received two large lump-sum payments.  One was connected to unused vacation and sick time, and the other a buyout bonus that sweetened management’s offer for me to retire early.   These payments were my savings cushion until the second part of my annuity begins next January– a special “supplemental” that mirrors what Social Security will begin to offer at age 62.  However, until my ex is to begin receiving her direct annuity payments, I am required by the terms of our divorce decree to pay the full alimony amount due to her.  As I’ve done since our initial separation agreement, and then also until our divorce eventually became final, I faithfully met all my obligations.  Nonetheless, each full payment made since my retirement has resulted in that “cushion” lowering considerably.   Metaphorically speaking, where only a few months ago I was sitting on an Edwardian Chippendale sipping Courvoisier, I have lately been slouching on a flat beanbag munching on a Nutri-Grain bar.

Our agreement is one that at first she accepted, later rejected, and then again agreed to in totality with the assent of her attorney.  She agrees that once she begins to receive her court-ordered portion of my annuity, I may pay a reduced alimony for the remainder of this calendar year.  Today’s news finally brings this temporary agreement to fruition.

The wait for it to happen took longer than I had anticipated.  But for the kind assistance of a man in the central personnel office last week, I would never have discovered that in fact her paperwork has been sitting on someone’s desk untouched since the very end of December.  The man, now my BFF, offered to engage with the woman on whose desk the paperwork sits and ask her to please process it.  This is a nice way of suggesting that she get off her duff and do her job.

Today to my utter surprise and delight, I called back again to inquire and received good news.  I learned that the paperwork has been processed and a check is — figuratively and literally — in the mail.  The check incidentally is retroactive to my first annuity payment in September.  So the former Mrs. is getting a nice little chunk of change.  For me this means that starting immediately, and for the remainder of this year, I will get some relief with a significant reduction in alimony.  I can already feel the cushion beginning to form again. Anyone need a slightly used beanbag chair?

There is one last negotiation ahead of us, and this involves the final and permanent alimony amount that my ex will receive.  This will happen sometime in December.  These talks will be trickier.  I have learned from my past mistakes, and I will not attempt any direct communication with my ex-wife on this specific matter.  At my request, her lawyer will play a prominent role this time around.  I know that the only way I can get a concrete agreement is with the active participation of that attorney, ironically, someone for whom I have great admiration and respect.  While the good attorney’s interests will of course be solely on my ex-wife’s behalf, my past interactions with her have been always positive. I may not get precisely the deal I am hoping for, but I am confident that the negotiations will be fair.

I recently weighed the merits of my situation with a friend, and I used the common idiom of asking rhetorically if my circumstances are such that my glass is half-empty or full?  My friend cleverly observed that the construction is neither — I should instead be thankful that I have a glass to hold, period. (Hi, E).  No truer words could possibly be spoken.  I remain all too aware of people who have far less than myself, and I also think about those who are stuck in continued, hand-to-hand combat with a former spouse.  I am thankfully not even remotely close to such situations.

So join me, dear readers, as I tentatively raise my martini glass today in celebration of another retirement and divorce milestone.  I long ago learned that incremental moments eventually take you to the bigger plateau that awaits, and so I will savor this small one.

unnamed

Cupid’s Ironic Aim

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Gorgeous’ Valentines Day Offerings

I am fastening my seat belt for what might be a disappointing Valentine’s Day.  As I type this early on Saturday morning (Valentine’s Day), my wife is in the bedroom sleeping very hard.  I could say that a very loud sound is emanating from the room, but she is adamant that she does not snore. Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local, so I want to categorically declare that absolutely no snoring is going on in my home right now.  There is, however, a very loud murmur coming from what I assume might be the wine cooler, which sits in our bedroom (what, yours isn’t?).  I must attend to that pesky device later.

Beginning yesterday, erev Valentine’s Day, we both starting coming down with some kind of a virus.  Mine fortunately turned out to be only a 24 hour one, but I do fear that Gorgeous might have something more severe.  All of yesterday afternoon and evening she complained of chills, a headache, and aches all over her body.  It is flu season and all, and the symptoms don’t sound very promising.  But being the trained son of a Jewish mother that I am, I made two runs to the deli for matzoh ball soup, purchased the ridiculously expensive homeopathic Zicam, and if you, Dear Reader, will ignore the “medicinal pour” last evening of Crown Royal Black, we both consumed therapeutic hot liquids all day till it was coming out of, well, never mind.  Suffice to say that we followed all the rules for fighting a cold that doctors on TV and in the magazines say you should.  Although it’s all in the hands of the gods now, we still might sacrifice a virgin cocoa plant later just to keep hope alive.

For most of my early single years, I would holler out my decree to anyone who would listen that Valentine’s Day was nothing more than a ploy to increase sales for flowers, candy, and greetings cards.  Only Sweetest Day was worse in terms of sheer commercial transparency.  I had many fellow travelers who agreed with me on this.  Such was our passion against the alleged holiday that we all met on its very evening to commiserate over beers of our fellowship and solidarity.  Well, almost all of us.  Sometimes at the last-minute one or two would come up with a lame excuse and not join us — the rat bastards. Nonetheless, our devotion was strong and united.

My rancor for the holiday eased a bit as I got older, settled down, and eventually met someone who actually liked me. It was time to transition from being a stick-in-the-mud to at least try to partake with the whole candy and roses thing.  My first wife was huge about birthdays, and I was expected to rise to the occasion for them.  On Valentine’s Day she probably had unmet expectations each year, but I tried my best to get into the spirit as well as I could.

When my marriage ended, Valentine’s Day turned into mostly a reminder that I was alone and no longer with anyone. I stayed home and refrained from even going to my favorite watering hole because it would be packed with non-regulars, all out celebrating and sitting on my bar stool.  Harrumph.

But with a new marriage to someone wonderful, I have officially transitioned over to the Red Side.  I no longer am ambivalent about this one day of the year and its meaning.  I am pleased and proud to shower my lovely wife with the same affection that I do on all the other 364 other days of the year.  Except on this day I also stimulate the economy a bit. Our plans for today were to have had a picnic breakfast on the beach followed by a folk concert later this evening.

Sadly, Valentine’s Day is much like New Year’s Eve for a professional psychic.  Gorgeous, if she’s able to, will no doubt get many calls today from lovelorn clients wishing to know about the intentions of a favored beau, when that handsome man who visits the office every afternoon and flirts will finally ask for a date, and the always difficult “is my husband/wife cheating on me?”  On New Year’s Eve it had been our plan to start our evening at 4:00 or 5:00pm, but she kept getting calls clear up to 11:45 until I finally put my foot down and demanded that she stop.  Sometimes I feel as I’m married to a family physician with people calling at all hours — except thankfully she actually gets paid for these calls.

Ironically, I ended up marrying a very practical woman who sees Valentine’s Day as a sweet day but nothing more than that.  I was under orders not to buy roses today because they’re too expensive (I bought her tulips instead).  She also felt that we should have dinner at home before the concert because every restaurant in town will be over-charging for their special dinners.  Cupid apparently had a sardonic arrow aimed at me.

I don’t know what kind of Valentine’s Day I’ll end up having today.  Instead of a Hallmark Holiday it may turn into a NyQuil Nirvana.  But another way of showing your love is to take care of someone, and if there’s a true meaning for Valentine’s Day that probably expresses it the best.  In the end it’s not about the cards, the flowers, or the candy it’s about the feelings you have for each other.

Zinc lozenge anyone?

Endearments, Expressions, and Sanctions

Our cup not yet runneth over.  Note the IOU of a recent infraction for which there was no single in the purse or wallet.

Our “OMG” cup not yet runneth over in a picture snapped shortly after its initial creation. Note the IOU, which thankfully has since been paid.

When you marry for the second time, you slowly come to realize that you and your spouse each have different frames of reference.  Prior to this marriage there was a previous one where words and phrases were used differently.  Things were said and joked about in that relationship, and from those moments a different “marital lexicon” of sorts was created.  After that marriage ended, I mentally cleaned the attic of speaking habits, expressions, and most definitely endearments.  This is a healthy process because it starts everything fresh and anew.

But unlike Soviet-era history textbooks, your brain is not a loose-leaf volume in which pages are tossed and the past is completely erased.  Just about anything can trigger a rhetorical memory.  For instance, I still can’t drive by a Dairy Queen without hearing my ex squeal in her faux excited voice, “Oooh, Dairy Queen!”  I really don’t want to hear it again because, as said in my best 1970’s high school burnout-speak, “it’s bogue to think about again, Man.

Because we went to the same public schools together starting in junior high, Gorgeous loves it when I regress verbally back to my 15-year-old self.  Doing so, of course, helps create a whole new lexicon for this marriage.  This is good and healthy, though it may be a good idea to keep it for home-use only.

Sometimes private expressions and sayings require interpretation.  As an example, Gorgeous for some reason uses a euphemism for taking a shower.  She calls it changing.  “I’m going to change now.”   We used to finish dinner, perhaps go for a walk, and then agree to watch a TV show.  She would say, “Okay, but I’m going to change first.”  I said okay, would sit on the couch to turn on the TV, and I expected to see her return momentarily.  Suddenly I would hear the shower going in the bathroom.  That’s certainly not just changing to me, that’s also taking a shower.   Twenty or so minutes later she would arrive in the living room freshly clean and ready to watch a TV show.  She changed.

The other area in which spouses rhetorically strut their stuff is in the act of displaying umbrage, outrage, or annoyance.  I have a friend who employs a rejoinder aimed at her husband of “Really?” followed by his first name.  Any infraction of his own making will be addressed with a hearty, “Really?” by his wife.

Gorgeous has her own unique response for annoyance.  I earn the all-purpose “Oh, my God” for my alleged transgressions.  In my opinion, Oh, my God has more heft than “Really?” because it can be used in multiple instances that convey different feelings. There’s the “Oh-my-God!!!!” cry of total and utter disbelief, or the “Oh,… my God” slower paced vocalization that denotes a more refined disgust.  As situational incredulity goes, the OMG convention is quite robust. In fact, it can even be hummed with a cadence that conveys its meaning and timbre quite clearly.  I know this because I’ve heard it hummed a few times.

It should also come to no surprise then that once a phrase is uttered enough by one party, it’s bound to be repeated by the other.  Trademark infringement is not a recognized sanction in marital relations, however.  After my hearing “OMG” enough times, it wasn’t long before I began to use it also.

Keep in mind that this is still a blog of retirement.  With both of us around each other all day since our arrival in Florida, the OMG opportunities began to multiply.  Our OMGs were beginning to get their own OMGs.  Something needed to be done to restore oratorical sanity if we were going to be around each other as much as we are.

Enter the OMG Cup.

It was your humble blogger’s idea to create a kangaroo court where we could enforce the phrase’s over-usage.  Gorgeous initially resisted the court’s authority.  But over time — especially since she has witnessed enough infractions levied against yours truly already — she has accepted its jurisdiction in what has become de-facto law in our home.  With the proviso that an infraction must be a result of an utterance made from one spouse to another, as opposed to, say, a reaction when watching the TV news, a fine of $1 shall be paid to the cup as a penalty to the party who uttered the phrase.

The cup has lots of dollars in it at the moment.  In fact, both of us have used it to break the occasional five or ten dollar bill.  We haven’t counted it, and I think we’ll hold off on that to keep it a mystery.  We also have no timeframe or plans for how we’ll spend it.  I am thinking of a nice meal or drinks at some ocean side restaurant, but that is still to be determined.  In the meantime, the cup is keeping us on our toes and OMG usage is way down.

What are your private pet phrases or over-used expressions?  If you’re brave, share with us your endearments.  But be forewarned, I have a very intelligent readership and we can spot the fakes.

Stubbornly Unemployed

January is the month that I said I would start looking for part-time work.  I wouldn’t call my efforts robust by any stretch of the imagination, but I have at least applied for a handful of job openings.  I write this right now with an ambivalent, cum Eva Peron attitude that murmurs low with a melodic verse of I kept my promise.  I am ambivalent because I don’t actually want to get a job — yet anyway.  But I look and I apply when I see something that looks semi-interesting.

I did see a position in my former field for which I dutifully e-mailed my resume.  I got a two-sentence e-mail response within ten minutes of my hitting the SEND button on my own e-mail, which might be the quickest kiss-off that I’ve ever received.  The unnamed person from the generic address responded that he/she has reservations about my suitability for a position that is three towns over from mine (about a 45 minute drive).  I can’t blame him/her.  I had the same concerns.

There was also the office support position at a local funeral home that included a 401(k) benefit for part-time work.  It was only 20 hours a week, spreadsheet and data-entry experience required, and the ability to work with a range of personalities strongly recommended.  I’m assuming that they meant with families of funeral clients for the latter requirement.  Being a devotee of the show “Six Feet Under, my imagination was running wild.  Sadly, I never heard back from them.  Full Disclosure: I’m pretty sure I only applied for it because I thought it might have provided really good blog fodder.

In all, I think I’ve applied for perhaps five jobs in all.  Aside from the kiss-off, none of them resulted in anything.  No phone calls, no interviews.

I am still adverse to getting on Linked-in or any other such social networking job site. Perhaps I should, and maybe I even will later, but at the moment that seems such a … serious move to me.  I fancy myself channeling Albert Brooks when he explained to the hotel desk clerk in “Lost in America” how he and his wife had “dropped out of society, and we just don’t DO reservations anymore.”  I still love the clerk’s response: “Well, we do”.

One very important lesson that I’ve learned is that while Craigslist is a wonderful resource for local jobs, there are an amazing number of scammers on it.  So many of them are after personal information such as drivers license and social security numbers and also the usual banking and credit card information.  It baffles me that people would actually provide that.  I’m learning to spot these fraudulent ads with some degree of expertise now, but I must admit that I did send my resume to a couple of these unsavory types before I became hip to their jive.  I am hopeful that there will be no repercussions from that.

My “favorite” Craigslist job ad was for an office assistant.  It was vaguely written but mentioned that the work took place in a local office.  I responded with a short e-mail and a few choice words of interest.  The next day I got an incredibly long email explaining how the work would actually all take place in very own my home.  How convenient!  It also explained that occasional packages would arrive at my home, but I would be simply accepting them and later driving them, unopened, to the “home office” after I had verified their receipt with this fellow via phone or e-mail during the day.  Also, because I would be handling company credit cards, he needed my social security number to verify my own credit history.

Uh-huh.

Who falls for this stuff????   Sadly, I suspect many poor innocents who are desperate for a job. I feel for them, and I do hope that law enforcement is trolling these sites occasionally.

Fortunately, I am not in a position where I need to get a job.  Between my small first-year annuity, and the income that Gorgeous makes, we are managing fine.  Extra cash would always be helpful, though, especially if we want to be able to go on the occasional travel junket to Nassau, Orlando, or the Midwest or California to see family.  So, I think about this sometimes in the dead of the night when I wake up.  I hate those 2:30am thoughts, don’t you?

Lingering somewhere in my temporal lobes is also the desire to not fully mention too much of my thoughts on this subject to my ex-wife.  She has been transparently curious as to both my plans for future employment and also any financial successes that Gorgeous may have had in recent weeks.  My ex, bless her, has very little governor or restraint for the manner in which she will ask personal questions.  Some of this has to do with the fact that we are friendly with her, live in the same city, and also see her on a semi-semi-regular basis.  But I am nonetheless keen to her not-so sly ways of intelligence-gathering for later use (i.e. our negotiations later this year for the alimony revision).  So I am always mindful of exactly how I phrase my answers to her questions.  Still, there is also no greater cheerleader of Gorgeous’ abilities than my ex, and she has been responsible for a fair number of new clients to her in the last year.  Oh, the tangled web…

Recently, some additional former co-workers of mine retired at the very end of last year.  I have had some very nice e-mail exchanges of congratulations with them.  The interaction has been happy, and I’ve written them of my own satisfaction these many months since I left our former employer.  As I correspond with them, I’m sensitive to the fact that I haven’t really left that mental zone of my own job just yet.  The frontal lobe thoughts, I suppose.

It has been five months since I retired.  It really only seems like yesterday, which probably explains why I’m not itching to find something else to do yet, even on a part-time basis. Stay tuned to this channel.  And please don’t talk to my ex.

Albert Brooks checking in a Vegas hotel in "Lost in America."  Source: YouTube.

Albert Brooks checking in at a Vegas hotel in “Lost in America.” Source: YouTube.

The Folded-Up Paper in My Wallet

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Another blogger recently posted a very eloquent piece on self-fulfillment that is quite moving.  She writes about a list that she created over two years ago but forgot about until just recently when she discovered it again.  Her list details personal needs and goals that she hoped to achieve during what was then a low moment in her life. That she has been able to realize all of that she hoped to achieve since that time is quite heartening to read.

Her post reminds me of a very different list of my own that has been folded up in my wallet for over four years.  In my own case, I know that it’s been there but I’ve avoided looking at it.  Last spring I bought a new wallet and duly transferred all of the contents from the old into the new without as much of a glance.  Until now I haven’t been much in the mood to revisit its meaning to me.  But my fellow blogger’s post lit a spark, as good writing will do.

I created my list during the long separation period of my previous marriage.  I remember writing it during a boring conference call while sitting in my office at work.

I was in the middle of a serial dating period during this time.  I met nearly all of my prospective Juliets online, and each one in their own unique way was wholly unfit for me. The evening before I wrote the list, I had received a kiss-off email of epic proportions from my most recent disaster.  Karma has a way of balancing the score because I had been on a stretch where I had been the breaker-upper.  So I had this one coming.  However, this particular woman didn’t just toss out the usual trite platitudes about incompatibility.  She decided to be specific and tell me exactly which character traits of mine were ones that she found troublesome.  I can only imagine what she’d have uncovered if we had gotten to a fourth date.

So feeling lonely and sorry for myself, I sat in my office and decided to write out the qualities I desired for the perfect woman I had yet to meet.  I scribbled them down, put it in my wallet, and continued to feel sorry for myself the rest of the day.  That evening I remember going to my watering hole and showing it to a fellow mid-life crisis bachelor who I had gotten to know well at this bar.  A player, this guy both impressed and appalled me each time I watched him in action with women.  Where I used very subtle self-deprecation and humor, this guy used lines that I wouldn’t have dared attempted.  He and I had nothing in common except gin and girl watching, but it was enough for friendly bar stool banter.

“Damn straight!,” he remarked after looking over my list.  “You gotta go for the best otherwise you’ll hate yourself later.”

I suspected even at the time that he may have known a thing or two about self-hate, but it still felt good to get some validation from a guy in a nearby foxhole.  He laughed, I laughed, and I put the list back in my wallet.  This wasn’t a night for well martinis; I made sure to have rail.

The following week I went to see a therapist whom I had been seeing regularly for about a year.  “Ms. Witty” had gotten me through the difficult early days before I told my ex that I wanted to end the marriage, then through my moving out of our house, and finally well into the period where I was living on my own.  Looking back on it, there was no way I could have navigated any of those waters without her help.

One of the reasons Witty was so good was that she used humor as a means to get across her thoughts.  She also didn’t spare from utilizing sarcasm if the situation called for it.  One of her regular admonitions to me — that I continually broke with such regularity that she even found it to be hilarious– was that I totally refrain from getting into any serous relationship until I was completely healed from the wounds of my 20+ year marriage.  “Date, sure, no problem,” She used to say.  “But just don’t get serious with anyone — you’re not ready yet!”  Yet, I consistently failed to listen and would end up in situations that only fueled the sarcasm and laughter from her even more.   It wasn’t tough-love, it was more like mocking-love.

At this particular appointment, somehow the subject came around to my writing the list of qualities that I was looking for in a woman.  I began to read through the list, stopping for the occasional snorting sound emanating from Witty.  “Okay, sorry, no, please, continue.” And then there would be more snorting followed by her eventual laughter.  It got so I was starting to laugh pretty hard myself, though I’m better when I play the perfect straight man. We laughed and laughed as we analyzed each one.  Sure, sexy is a good quality; who doesn’t want sexy?  Things then got a little off the rail, though, when we combined sexy with being able to cook.  The laughter continued.

Eventually the laughter stopped, and Witty as always would bring it all home just before our session was about to end.  This time, however, she did so in practically a whisper.  I was told that all of these things I’ve written are fine as basic desires.  But they don’t make a relationship. They’re just ingredients that help form a healthy relationship.

She asked me what was missing from my list.  I stared back and had no answer.  Still whispering she said, “Trustworthiness.  And it should be at the very top.”

I’ve kept this list in my wallet to remind myself of how shallow I was when I wrote it.  But it also tells me how far I’ve come since that period of my life.  The list reminds me that there are incredibly important qualities that need to be offered to those with whom you are close, and that those same qualities need to be returned in kind.  Without trustworthiness there can be no foundation for a relationship.

Incidentally, my lovely wife nails each and every one of those “qualities” from my shallow list.   I’m a very lucky man.

Stocks and Stares

Source: StockCerts.com

Source: StockCerts.com

A friend of my wife’s recently wanted my thoughts on a stock that she is holding.  She bought a couple hundred shares of a fast-moving penny stock that has returned an incomprehensible 62% for the last six weeks.  Why she wanted my opinion I’m not sure. I assume Gorgeous must have mentioned in passing that I enjoy reading about the stock market, and that I take an active interest in the performance of my 401(k).  While in fact true, those are hardly qualities that make me worthy of dispensing advice.  I hastily dashed off an email to the woman suggesting that she sell immediately and put the proceeds into an index fund.  About an hour later, I received a short reply thanking me.  I suspect she had hoped for something sexy and exciting rather than a boring ‘ol mutual fund.  If she only knew how much I was once like her.

I first started investing during the high-flying nineties when seemingly every other Tom, Dick, and Harry also discovered it.  Suddenly regular, every day people were buying stocks because there were commercials showing tow truck drivers who owned islands from the profits of their investments.  It was all just so easy.

One of my first forays was to buy a technology stock just as Silicon Valley start-ups became all the rage.  At the time, I was working alongside our IT staff so that we could roll out a database that my department had developed, and I had a front row seat to see the tools they were using.  I became excited about one particular networking software that allowed Windows 3.1 to connect to our application.  In my best Walter Mitty moment, I fancied myself to be Peter Lynch discovering a diamond in the rough for his Magellan Fund.

The stock eventually tanked when Microsoft later issued the much heralded Window 95.   To those who knew anything about networking software, it came to no surprise when ’95 contained its own version of the same functionality as my company’s software.  The axiom back then for all technology companies was that partnering with Microsoft was like sealing a deal with the devil.  You were signing your own death sentence.  Since there was no reason for anyone to buy that software anymore, the company disappeared in due course. I was left with a worthless stock but also a wonderful, important lesson about investing.  I had been familiar with all kinds of networking terminology, but that made me neither a network engineer nor a tech stock analyst.

I learned that it was important to completely understand a company and its products or services before I invested.    Warren Buffett has consistently said that he only buys that which he truly understands.  He’s also correctly said that average investors such as myself are much smarter to put their money in mutual funds rather than stocks because only a select few people truly know what’s happening in a particular company.  It’s better to let the pros pick for you.

So I followed the Oracle of Omaha’s advice and I began smart investing.  Roth IRAs were just being introduced, and I started one up for myself and my then wife with two well-known mutual fund companies.  I made sure that we were contributing regularly to incorporate the amazing virtues of dollar cost averaging.  But I also thought it would still be helpful to own some stocks as a learning experience.  With the help of a really great book called “America’s Finest Companies” by money manager Bill Staton, I started a tiny portfolio of individual stocks in which I dutifully reinvested dividends and made new purchases as much as possible.¹  They were my reason to start reading the financial news each day because I had actual companies to follow.  From there I would also read about the overall economic coverage both nationally and internationally.  I was getting a very good education, and it was heartening as the years progressed to see each of my stocks grow through good years and bad ones.

Then I got divorced.  My divorce lawyer and accountant strongly recommended that the best way forward was to liquidate the tiny portfolio because all of the securities were held by us as joint tenants.  It broke my heart to sell them.  I had always considered them to be beautiful plants in a make-believe garden I had created to grow long and strong.  I enjoyed pulling out the folders where I kept all the company statements for each stock and staring at them with a great amount of pride.  I made a vow that I would someday recreate the tiny portfolio.

I still have my Roth mutual fund, fortunately.  I believe my ex liquidated hers, probably because she needed the money, but I also suspect done in a moment of private revenge. The investments were always my idea, my passion.  I think she viewed each dollar saved as not being available to spend on yet another vacation.

A second marriage in mid-life allows for all kinds of new beginnings, and that includes financial ones.  Gorgeous has never had the chance to invest, and she’s very keen to do so. She presently has multiple dental bills to retire, but starting later this year we will open a Roth account for her.  For the first time since my divorce, I have finally begun reading the financial pages again to follow the market.  I’ve been delighting in explaining the differences to her between an IRA vs. traditional investments, capital gains, tax-deferments, etc.  Even in your mid-fifties one can begin investing– you’re really never too old.  In fact, in order to keep ahead of inflation one absolutely has to do so.  There are always ominous events that have an impact on our savings — war, terrorism, recession, Wall Street subterfuge, etc.  But going forward, I plan on sticking to the same cautious saving that has been successful for me up to now: investing in good, solid, and absolutely boring securities and then leaving them alone.   Warren would approve, and that’s good enough for me.

I hope my wife’s friend took my advice and will no longer invest in momentum stocks.  But some people like the excitement of the thrill and chase.  I suspect she might be of that ilk. I wish her well.  In my own way, I find the one-dollar-at-a-time approach to be fun, exciting, and rewarding too.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy a careless gamble on an every day basis, though. Tomorrow’s Mega Millions drawing has a jackpot of $270 million.  This boy needs to publish this post and get out to the convenience store, stat.   I want to own an island also.

Source: YouTube

Source: YouTube

¹  Those stocks were:  MCD, NWL, RPM, FRT, CCL, and the former GMP (Green Mountain Power).