FINANCIAL SECURITY

I recently read the biography of a gentleman who, although he was a professional musician, a bass player in the Denver Symphony, worked for a number of years to make ends meet as a skycap at the Denver airport in the late 40s, before the orchestra had a year-round season, as was true of most American orchestras.

One day he stumbled upon an idea: He and his fellow skycaps could form a kind of investment club in order to get a financial foothold. “We set up a corporation,” he says, “the whole legal thing with lawyers, and got it set up right.”

The plan was for each member to put five dollars a week into the fund and at the end of the year the money would be invested in stock market mutual funds. There were forty men, and at five dollars a week, that $800 a month would yield a sizable chunk to invest by year’s end.

But the men grew nervous and started pulling their money out saying, “I need money I can spend, and now.” They didn’t understand what this small investment could mean in terms of growing their money. So they all took out their money except the gentleman himself who, in a few years, had accumulated nearly ten thousand dollars. The men accused him of cheating them. But he admonished them, “You cheated yourselves.”

In the early 1950s, my father, whose employer did not have a pension plan, was advised by a knowledgeable friend to invest in mutual funds, which although they had been around for a while, weathering the Depression and World War II, were still considered pretty exotic in the 50s.

My father not only heeded the gentleman’s advice putting a portion of his income into mutual funds, he also attempted to convince others to do the same. It wasn’t an easy sell because people were skeptical. They would rather keep their money in passbook savings accounts or in a shoebox under the bed.

At the same time my father enrolled me into a mutual fund placing some of my earnings from playing the piano in church and babysitting into the fund each month. When I was twenty-one the down payment on my first grand piano came from my mutual funds earnings. And without the money my parents had squirreled away into mutual funds, rather than live out their lives in relative comfort, they would have had to rely largely on Social Security. I shudder to think of how different their life would have been.

Mutual funds are safe investments because, rather than putting one’s eggs into a single basket, as is the case with individual stocks, the money is invested in a variety of funds. Most of us are familiar with them by now because company retirement plans such as 401 K’s and Roth IRAs are based on money invested in mutual funds.

Microsoft recently published an online list titled “Four Ways to Earn Money Without Lifting a Finger.” At the top of this list are mutual funds: “Investing can multiply your money for decades if you play your cards right. You have probably heard of compounding interest, when your money makes money and then that money makes money. This is what happens when you set aside money in something like a 401(k) account and leave it there until retirement. Once you put the money in, you don't have to do anything, and you're still making money. All you have to do is review your statements every so often to make sure your investments are meeting your needs and goals.”

Another of their suggestions is real estate. That might work for some but it sounds like work to me.

The easiest way to save money is to pay yourself first. If you’re doubtful you can spare enough to invest in a mutual fund, put five or ten dollars a week into a targeted savings account. You won’t miss it, and the way time flies it won’t be long until you have enough to open a mutual fund account, which might not require as much as you think. A mutual fund can be opened with as little as $500, or less if you meet certain requirements such as having a set amount automatically taken from your bank account each month. And explore no load funds so that you don’t have to fork over a chunk of your money to an intermediary – a broker or financial planner.

For a wage earner just starting out, putting aside a small amount each month can grow in ways that will surprise and delight down the road. And for those of you with expanding families, wouldn’t opening a mutual fund for that new grandchild be a fantastic way to put the child on the road to financial security?

Your earnings from mutual funds and other conservative investments might not move you from the ninety-nine per cent to the one per cent, but when it’s time to put four new tires on your car or get your winter-ravaged driveway repaired you should be able to do so without having to take out a loan.

Posted on Sunday, April 12, 2015 at 10:26AM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment

BINGE WATCHING

Thanks to TiVo and other digital recording devices, video streaming, and other new media, a phenomenon is taking place among America’s televiewers that couldn’t have happened before TiVo came into being, in 1999 – binge watching. Never before have we been able to watch every episode of our favorite show in one sitting – if we’re so inclined and our gluteus maximus doesn’t protest too loudly.

And with multiple cable channels stacked on top of the Big Three networks of our youth, there’s an endless supply of quality series on which to binge. For some it’s Netflix’s “House of Cards” or “Orange Is the New Black.” For others AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” and “Sons of Anarchy” from FX. And the list goes on.

My husband and I didn’t watch original non-network shows such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” because we got so tired of hearing about them we decided just to ignore them.  Annoying contrarians that we are, we didn’t wish to participate in the Monday morning water cooler rehash.

Our first foray into multiple-episode watching were several seasons of “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We hadn’t been regular watchers of “Seinfeld, where Louis-Dreyfus initially gained fame, so it wasn’t until we had a couple of seasons of “Christine” under our belt that we came to appreciate what a comic genius the lady is, sort of a Lucy brought up to date.

Since then we’ve gotten aboard the “Seinfeld” bandwagon. A few months ago a friend suggested that we watch an episode she found especially amusing. It was so hilarious that we have since watched a majority of the 180 episodes, usually two at a time, which may not qualify as genuine binge watching, but we know that two more recorded episodes will be waiting for us the next evening. 

The closest we’ve come to bona fide binge watching is a gritty, French police drama you’ve probably never heard of called “Spiral.”  Recommended by a French friend, “Spiral” is a periodically gory police/courthouse drama, not so different from “Law and Order” or other domestic whodunits. But perhaps, because it’s all transpiring in French (with subtitles), it exudes a frisson of Gallic sophistication that tempers the gore. Plus, the police captain is a plucky young woman who is, of course, smarter than all the men and a voluptuous red-headed prosecutor whose attributes keep my husband alert. We have streamed forty-two episodes (Netflix), five seasons, and are eagerly awaiting a sixth season.

Another winner from across the pond is the Danish series “Borgen,” on DVD. The leading character is a forty-ish mother of two who has been elected Prime Minister of Denmark. Her effort to satisfy her constituents and grapple with her detractors, while trying to keep her husband and children from feeling abandoned, is a challenge. Highly praised by viewers for its acting, writing, settings and realism, this is one foreign entry whose subtitles are excellent. You can actually read them without squinting or using binoculars.

A few years back while flipping through Netflix for something interesting to watch I stumbled upon a five-star show we’d never even heard of, “Doc Martin,” which a year or so later made its way onto WQED’s Saturday even Britcom block. We enjoyed several seasons in the fictional village of Portwenn observing the curmudgeonly doctor, who had developed hemophobia, fear of blood, abandoned his big-city surgical practice, and come to Portwenn to treat, with a complete lack of grace, the townfolk who were caught off guard by his chilliness. He even hates dogs.

And although watching weekly episodes of PBS’s “As Time Goes By” doesn’t qualify as binge watching, by now we’ve watched every episode so often that we’ve watched Lionel and Jean grow old over and over and over again.

It’s too soon to start binge watching “Mad Men,” or “Downton Abbey,” but it’s easy to imagine, a few years down the road, when those actors have long gone on to other pursuits, plenty of us will be popping corn and plopping down for hours at a time, immersed in the goings-on with Lord Grantham and his mischievous charges at Highclere Castle or Don Draper and the smoking, boozing admongers at Sterling Cooper.

Posted on Thursday, March 19, 2015 at 8:26PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment

NON-FICTION...OR NEARLY

Belonging to a book club is a splendid way to increase one’s reading, meet new people – and, if we’re not careful, add inches to the waistline.  I hosted our community’s monthly gathering recently. Reading the book was the easy part. Deciding what to serve was the challenge.

Some interesting books have graced our annual lists, but in my opinion a few might just as easily have been passed over. Because most of the women are wives and mothers, a majority of the books are what I would describe as domestic novels, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn being a good example. It wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but the fact that it has been made into a major motion picture proves that it hit its target with readers. And at least one from the 2015 list, Big Little Lies, has been optioned for a TV movie starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. 

In between book club assignments, I sandwich in books, often non-fiction, that probably wouldn't make the book club cut because of length, subject matter, or because there just isn’t time to read everything.

Most of us who are old enough remember where we were when John F. Kennedy was shot and what we were doing at 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001. And we might remember where we were when thirty-three Chilean miners who had been trapped underground from August 5th to October 13th, 2010 were rescued, one by one, on live television, to worldwide rejoicing.

  • In Deep Down Dark (2014) Héctor Tobar describes in gripping detail the ordeal of thirty-three men trapped three miles underground for sixty-nine days in the Copiapó copper-gold mine northern Chile with little food, little water and even less hope. He recounts not only their terrifying ordeal, the helplessness of their loved ones, but the herculean efforts waged to rescue them. Mammoth drilling equipment was brought from around the world, including a Schramm rotary drill from West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The miracle that not one miner was lost demonstrates the power of the men's solidarity and attests to the fact that we don't know what physical and mental privates we can bear until we are tested.                                    

  • For those of you who are fascinated by things culinary and also like a good yarn, you will enjoy The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry (2007) by Kathleen Flinn. Although Flinn is a journalist who has written for a long list of publications, her true love is cooking. In The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry, she describes the rigors of earning her diploma from the world famous Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.

This true story earned her the 2012 award for Best Book in the Non-Fiction Autobiography/Memoir category from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. The beauty of Flinn’s writing is its accessibility and the way she is able to weave her real life into the story of her journey from adequate cook to master chef.  And there is a sprinkling of delectable-sounding recipes that sound doable, even by me.                                        

  • Although as a classical musician I’ve helped provide much music for ballet, I’ve never had a depth of understanding of the art. But that changed somewhat when I read Misty Copeland’s Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (2014). Recently profiled on CBS “Sunday Morning,” Misty Copeland is a principal soloist with the American Ballet Theater, which has been designated by Congress as America’s National Ballet company just as the Bolshoi is Russia’s ballet company.

And by the way: Misty Copeland happens to be African American, and although her ascent to stardom contains many stereotypical elements of childhood deprivation, her rise was especially challenging as she and her four siblings, each by a different father, were raised by a beautiful but unstable mother who would pick up and drag the family to a new town at the drop of a hat.

That Misty was able to pursue her dream and reach the pinnacle of classical dance – despite the turmoil swirling around her – in a world where ballerinas are supposed to be fair of hair and fair of skin, is nothing short of miraculous.                             

  • Otto and Elise Hampel, a working class couple in Berlin, were not much interested in politics until Elise learned that her brother had fallen to the Nazis in France. It was then that she and her husband began committing acts of civil disobedience. Every Man Dies Alone (1947), by Hans Fallada, is a fictionalized account of their story based on their Gestapo files.

When a friend mentioned she was reading a book that involved Nazis, my reaction was that I’m just about “up to here” with tales of Nazi cruelty. But there was something in her description that impelled me to read the Kindle sample and eventually the entire book.

Not translated into English until 2009, Every Man Dies Alone, which the author wrote in twenty-three days, became a surprise best seller in the UK and the US and was described by the famed writer, chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi as “a phenomenon,” and "the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis."

It is a fascinating and sobering read.

Posted on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 at 8:01AM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | Comments2 Comments | References1 Reference

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

By the time you read this the 2015 Super Bowl will be history and it's possible you might have forgotten who the Pittsburgh Steelers are.

Unlikely as it would have seemed mid season, we were deluded again into thinking that a miracle could occur. And it nearly did. Who would have thought at the conclusion of the November 30th loss to the New Orleans Saints, after a season of hits and misses, illnesses, injuries and, oddest of all, a desertion*, that the team would pull off something most unlikely, win four games in a row – the last of the season’s games?

By the end of December the excitement was palpable in Yinzertahn and beyond. Could we possibly be contenders? If these guys had the stuff to make it happen, could we win our seventh Super Bowl in 2015?

It was during that period that Ben Roethlisberger was on his way to becoming deified via his record-setting yardage and taking with him into the pantheon the sensational receivers Le’Veon Bell and season MVP Antonio Brown. But alas, Ben buckled.

It’s a beautiful thing to see a city, in the midst of winter, in the wake of holiday mayhem, have something left to cheer about, to brighten their days with anticipation.  Pittsburgh takes its sports seriously and none more seriously than Steelers fans who raid the family finances to follow the team all over the country. There is a sea of black and gold from coast to coast.

I have written before about how resistant I had always been to getting involved with football, probably because the entire sporting culture, in my mother’s opinion, was cringeworthy. I took her cue and shared her repugnance.

But my husband enjoys it and, loving spouse that I am, I decided to try to learn something about the game, although the formations and plays might as well be written out for me in Sanskrit. To me it just looks like a bunch of guys running around with not much purpose other than to knock each other down. That’s my level of sophistication although, to be truthful, I feel kind of hip discussing the previous weekend’s game with anyone who’ll listen, although they’re probably thinking to themselves, “She seems to think she knows what she’s talking about.”

Knowledgeable or not, I will never understand how those human bodies can hit the ground and each other with such force and not become permanently disabled. I know how it felt when I took a little tumble in Marshall’s parking lot a few months ago.

Thoughtful people probably shouldn’t approve of football for all its injuries and scandals, and for the way it graduates young men from colleges where they learn little besides game plays because, as old Shakespeare wrote, “the play’s the thing.” Football isn’t “Hamlet,” but you get my drift.

The day after the post-season loss I took myself to the Giant Eagle and wondered how early the stock-boys had to arrive to dismantle the display of franchise paraphernalia and find something to put in its place.

Sad day, but you know what? I commented on the game to the slightly challenged kid restocking the produce bins. He and I agreed that the loss didn’t affect our lives one bit. He said, “I ain’t losin’ any money over it.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

But what about the businesses that will be stung by the Steelers’ flaming out, how do they prepare for that possibility? To my surprise I learned that the local purveyors of Steeler paraphernalia don’t miss a beat. Their business might be a little slower the day after such a loss, but they tell me that people buy Terrible Towels and everything else associated therewith all year long. What’s on these retailers minds now is Valentine’s Day.

And to prevent warehouses filled with losing teams’ sweatshirts, T-shirts and other gear from being resold on the American market, the teams, through an agreement with the philanthropic organization World Vision, send the merchandise to Third World countries. And of course, since we love to complain about everything, there are those who feel that these donations are depriving the Third World merchants from making a living.

Whatever the case, here we are, huddled in the frigid belly of winter, having survived Deflategate, picked a team to root for, and experienced the grand spectacle that is the Super Bowl. But our team wasn’t playing. That’s for next year.

There’s always next year.

*In case your memory is shorter than mine, on November 17th Steelers running back LeGarrette Blount decided he wasn’t being sufficiently used by the Steelers, and he walked off in the middle of the game. He was dumped by the Steelers – and three days later picked up by the New England Patriots, from where he had come. The punishment didn’t exactly fit the crime, and with good reason. In the 45-7 playoff blowout between New England and Indianapolis he set a Patriots’ postseason record with 30 carries and ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns. Any regrets in Steelerville? 

Posted on Sunday, February 1, 2015 at 11:34PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment

A VISIT TO THE EYE DOCTOR

A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with Dry Eye Syndrome. I am one of thirty percent of adult Americans who suffer from some degree of dry eye. Maybe you’re one of them.

The first indication that something might be amiss was that my eyes would burn when we were watching television in the evening. When I described this symptom to the doctor he told me that I have Dry Eye Syndrome. I hadn’t known that dry eye is an actual condition brought about when the eyes are not producing enough tears. There are glands in the eyelids that if not working properly prevent the tear-making process from working as it should.

The first thing the doctor did was to put punctal plugs into the corner ducts of my eyes so that what tears were produced wouldn’t drain out as quickly. That might sound like an excruciating procedure, but I guarantee you, I felt next to nothing. Unfortunately, those little suckers didn’t stay in my eyes for long. Not sure if it was because of something I did, such as rubbing my eyes, or if it’s a predictable occurrence.

I was then sent home to begin a long and tortuous – not torturous – regimen that included lots of eye drops, six to eight glasses of water a day, four fish oil capsules, hot compresses, and the use of Restasis twice a day.

Restasis is an extremely expensive medication in part because the manufacturer, Allergan, has to ante up buckets of money for those TV commercials, the one featuring a female doctor with stunningly blue eyes, and also because Restasis is the only medication of its kind. Without insurance my prescription would cost over a thousand dollars. Even with help from my trusty insurance company I pay a scary $126.

The first time I tried Restasis it didn’t seem to be doing anything. So I didn’t refill the prescription. The doctor mentioned it again, telling me that it takes “a while” to work. So I agreed to try it again.

But the next visit to the doctor didn’t show much improvement. Was it because I was pursuing the regimen half-heartedly? Perhaps so and I resolved to follow it to the letter, except for the eight glasses of water a day, which you and I both know is not easy  to do, especially if you’re planning to leave the house.

I reported to the doctor that the microwavable eye pads weren’t staying hot the desired fifteen minutes, so he suggested I use a sock filled with rice. What a novel idea. It works although I’ve probably overheated my eyeballs on occasion.

The reason I’m telling you all of this is because, in the face of such a rigorous course of treatment I felt that I still didn’t really understand why I was doing all these things. So I downloaded one of many available books, Dry Eye Remedy, by Robert Latkany, which explains in detail what dry eye is and what the treatments accomplish. I learned what causes dry eye, what type of person is most susceptible, and perhaps most enlightening, what Restasis is supposed to do and why it’s so bloody expensive.

When I went back to the doctor I wanted him to know that I had a better understanding of why I have to drink the water, take the fish oil, use the hot compresses and use the Restasis.

When I told him I had read a book about dry eye, he asked, incredulously, “There’s a book about dry eye? Who would read a book about dry eye?”

“I would.”

 “It couldn’t be a best seller.”

 “Maybe not, but there are at least four books about dry eye, so there must be quite a few people interested in learning more about it.”

 “Maybe I should write one,” which I interpreted as meaning that anything he might write on the topic would be superior. Maybe so. 

Is it strange for me to read a book about dry eye? I don’t think so, but the doctor found it highly amusing. I suggested that he could entertain his wife at the dinner table by telling her about this eccentric patient who read a book about dry eye. 

Maybe I’m naïve, but it seems to me that a doctor would appreciate a patient trying to learn more about his or her condition. But mine must have felt that my reading suggested that I could learn more about dry eye than I did from him. That’s true. I did. For one thing, his revolving door practice is so busy that he doesn’t have half an hour to explain the intricacies of their condition to each patient.

I’m convinced that dry eye is caused by factors that are difficult to eliminate from one’s life including antihistamines, which include not only allergy and cold medications but also heartburn medications such as Zantac and Tagamet, alcoholic beverages, especially wine, and dry air. I’m usually an optimist but I sense that to some degree of dry eye will be with me forever. But as long as I can see, if a little dryness is the worst I have to put up with, I’ll consider myself lucky.

Posted on Monday, January 19, 2015 at 7:40AM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | Comments2 Comments
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