Archive for the 'Money' Category

On getting fired, and other life lessons

May 11, 2009

imagesThe Wall Street Journal today referenced a mental_floss column by Ethan Rex on successful celebrities who survived, even flourished, after being fired, including, of all people, Jerry Seinfeld:

Remember the ABC sitcom Benson? Seinfeld undoubtedly does. Early in his career he had a small recurring role as a mail boy on three episodes of the show from 1980-81. One day he showed up at work for a read-through, but he couldn’t find a script with his name on it. After Seinfeld asked what was going on, an assistant director told him he’d been fired from the show, but nobody had remembered to tell the young comedian. A humiliated Seinfeld trudged out and decided he was through with sitcoms unless he could get more control over the creative process. As you might have heard, he was pretty successful once that eventually happened.

Other famous firees included Michael Bloomberg, Rainn Wilson, Howard Stern (You think?!) and Robert Redford.

I was fired once. From my first real job. At age 16. We lived near my dad’s pharmacy on a busy state road, and there was a A & W Root Beer Drive In across the street. I thought the carhops — all girls — looked cute running back and forth from the tiny building to the cars with frosty mugs and little baskets of french fries, so when I turned 16, I applied, citing my close proximity to the drive-in as a hiring plus. I got the job. I was thrilled.

Major life lesson: In this little cosmos, the cooks and the night manager — all guys — ruled. And one of the first rules was that all “new girls” got hazed. They made my life there a living hell, barking at me, mixing up my orders, bad-mouthing me to the rest of the staff, and, worst of all, stealing money from me, which is what got me fired after a mere two weeks. It was devastating. I had been a golden girl up until then, good with people, successful with most everything I tried. And here I was, out in the job market, the real world, and I was a miserable failure. The owner couldn’t just let me go, he had to spend nearly a half an hour detailing all my inadequacies and questioning whether I would ever make it as an employee anywhere. (Ironically, the drive-in went bust not too many years later. I wasn’t sorry.)

After enduring his lecture, it was a long walk home. I cried my little teen-aged eyes out. I was convinced at the time that it was all my fault, and it was humiliating having to tell my family and friends that “it just didn’t work out.” It took several months for me to put it all together in my head, and then I got ANGRY. And I’m still a little angry about it. (To his credit, one of the more menacing cooks later told a friend that he felt really bad about what had happened and hoped that I didn’t hate him. I don’t think their hazing had gotten anyone fired before.)

It took me two years to work up the nerve to apply for another job. But I was good at that job, and I’ve been good at every other job I’ve held since then. Most of the men — and women — I have worked with have been steady, genuine people, and I’ve tried to be transparent and sincere. But I’ve always had my radar up, trying to nose out the hazers, the undercutters, the behind-your-back smirkers. When I’ve discovered whatever rock they’ve been hiding underneath, I’ve  confronted them (admittedly with mixed results), made some personal adjustments (like removing myself from their team) or gotten out.

So, like Seinfeld, maybe my getting fired was ultimately a good thing. But I don’t think I could ever convince that good-hearted but devastated little 16-year-old of that probability.

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Global recession

March 19, 2009

This photo essay from the Boston Globe, courtesy of the always-interesting Nancy Nall, cries out louder than most news stories I’ve read about the recession and its global impact. I was particularly pained by the empty Rocky Mountain News offices and a technicolor wasteland of newspaper vending machines. Having spent a lot of my life in newsrooms, which are rarely quiet or empty, those were particularly poignant for me. (It would appear I’m already deadened to the sight of entire families living out of hotel rooms…)

Are we really just a few up days on the Dow from reversing the downturn? If we are, will we have learned anything?

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The New Economy: Warehousing lives

February 6, 2009

images1Of all the words and images that have been used to describe the economic downturn, this video on the LATimes Website has touched me the most: A woman, long abandoned by her husband, and her three children are living on the street, storing their belongings in what passes in my neighborhood as garbage cans housed by the hundreds in an area warehouse.

In 2002, the warehouse was born of tension on the streets, when merchants became concerned about homeless people leaving bedrolls and shopping carts in front of their businesses.

Krystle Marage and her children, along with a lot of other every-day people, visit the warehouse daily to retrieve and exchange what they need to go on living. So many come daily to sort through their remaining belongings that the warehouse is considering putting in a dressing room so children can get ready for school and folks can gear up for the daily job hunt. It occurred to me that, in this scenario, their belongings are more secure than they are.

Many are new to homelessness. Some are educated professionals — a few still carry briefcases — and one, a few weeks back, was so confident that he was but a temporary visitor that he arrived clutching a pair of unused golf cleats. Long after it became city policy that skid row is no place for children, a jarring number of the newcomers are mothers and their children.

Along with the fear and the fatigue of living on the streets, I think the utter indignity of having so little to claim as your own is what haunts me about these stories. Most people have had something in their lives before this, if not a home, then at least an apartment and the appearance of a normal life, with work, recreation and a network of friends and family. Now, so little. After a time, would the realities of surviving overcome the sense of loss and indignation, or just feed it?

I keep making my charitable donations in money and in kind, giving my unused stuff not to the larger, more expensive thrift shop but to the one that has lower prices and weekly specials, looking forward to the local Boy Scout food drives. But it all seems so lame.

Why are we so obsessed with limiting executive pay to $500K when a few hundred dollars and a job would transform these peoples’ lives? I really like reading the NYTimes Neediest Cases series, where public and private agencies do just that, transforming individual lives with relatively small acts of charity.

Congress and the President need to look beyond Wall Street to the Mean Streets to really comprehend and deal with the misery that is defining America right now.

Project Runway 6: Is it in — or out?

February 2, 2009

imagesOkay, true confessions: I am a Project Runway junkie. No apologies, even though I’m probably WAY outside its target demographic. Although I didn’t discover this little Bravo Channel gem until its fourth season, I’ve been a loyal convert, and I managed to keep up my enthusiasm even though last season was about as blah as Leanne’s color palette. The Spouse even watched it with me, and he’s better at picking who’s “out” than I am.

I particularly like seeing how the designers overcome the weekly challenges and manage to create fashion out of spit and baling wire, but I secretly revel in all the snarky moments. (There’s a shallow, lip-curling DIVA locked somewhere inside me who really would like to cut loose sometimes…)

It now appears, if I can trust The LATimes, that Season 6 will likely not be appearing on TVs near me or you anytime soon, due to that famous legal battle between the fabulous Weinstein Brothers (who own the series and want to move it to Lifetime) and Bravo (which is owned by NBC), which isn’t letting go of this cash cow without a fight. (Oh, and they want to move it from NYC to LA, which I think is a mistake, but perhaps I underestimate the Angeleno fashion scene.)

While taping of the series appears to be continuing and may have even concluded, we may just have to wait until the lawyers get paid before we get to see it:

In September, a New York state Supreme Court judge issued a preliminary injunction to keep Lifetime from airing or promoting “Runway.” Lifetime then filed its own complaint in October, trying to get the case moved to federal court. A federal judge rejected that move in December, sending the matter back to the state Supreme Court. No trial date had been set as of press time.

This standoff somehow reminds me of the great “New Coke” debacle back in the ’80s, when Coca-Cola, jumpy over the inroads Pepsi was making into its market, announced it would scrap its 100-year-old recipe in favor of a new taste. Oh, BIG mistake, the kind that gets turned into a business-school abstract on what-not-to-do. Sales plummeted, critics crowed, and Old-Coke fans rose up in indignation. (I remember because I was one of them.)

I recall attending a professional association event around that time where a Coke regional VP addressed the situation, and he summed it up thusly: Before the New Coke fiasco, Coca-Cola believed that it owned Coke. WRONG. Coke belongs to the people who love it and buy it. Coca-Cola just gets to collect all the money. If the formula works, people, don’t fu-ss with it.

Wake up, Weinsteins, or your golden goose may go the way of New Coke. Project Runway’s legion of fans could run out of patience, particularly if another show turns up that will slake their thirst. (I personally couldn’t get into Rachel Zoe or Stylista, but I’m certainly open to other possibilities.)

In the meantime, news of any Christian Siriano sightings would be FIERCE-ly welcomed.

Have cardboard, seeking viaduct

January 30, 2009

This poor woman could SO be me, or any number of my friends. How do you go from a $70,000 job to charity status? Fairly quickly and easily, apparently. This woman is clearly not stupid or lazy. She’s just had a run of bad luck in a particularly dangerous time, and despite the goodness of some charitable agencies, her future is still uncertain. She’s also lacking in social and emotional resources, which I think are as important as cash and credit.

I read that article this morning after musing all the previous day on the record number of lay-offs that were announced. The newscasters and news sites all concentrated on the numbers, but I kept imagining the actual human faces behind those figures: Thousands of human beings carrying  the sum total of their careers in a sack or a cardboard box, loading them into cars that aren’t yet paid for, driving to mortgaged homes filled with spouses, children, parents and pets who are depending on them, trying to figure out what to do next.

Remember that old line that most of us are just a few lost paychecks from being out on the street or under a viaduct? I think we’re going to find out just how many paychecks it takes.

Let’s be kind and gentle with each other this weekend, okay?

Boomer is NOT a four-letter word

January 26, 2009

imagesAccording to Michael Winerip in the NYTimes, those of us born between 1946 and 1964 should be walking around with paper bags over our heads. I mean, I can hardly bring myself to use the “B” word, because, according to the Times,  “the term has become synonymous with greedy, spoiled, divorced, remarried mega-shopper.”

Since the 1960s, when many of us were teenagers, Madison Avenue along with the news media have been polling, interviewing, analyzing, poking and sniffing us, and that continues to this moment, even as nearly 10,000 boomers turn 60 every day…

And why should it not be so, since we’re such a bulge in the American demographical python? What could be more American that catering to the largest segment of the population? Entire industries and personal fortunes have been made by accurately predicting what I and my cohorts would do next. And now that those industries are shrinking and those personal portfolios are disappearing, it’s OUR fault?

“Boomer” has gotten such a bum rap that even our new president, who is a clear-cut boomer demographically (the boom years ran through 1964), has sought to link himself to a younger generation with a postboomer mentality, one that types with its thumbs to communicate and is not tainted by the cultural wars of the 1960s.

I had an uncomfortable sense during the campaign that, although I can thumb text pretty well and have an arsenal of technogadgets, I really wasn’t who BHO was wooing. Now I know. Winerip points out that, while “his biggest boost from the youngest voters — 66 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds supported Mr. Obama, according to national exit polls —… when it came time for him to pick a Cabinet, 10 of his 14 designees so far have been boomers and three are older.” HA! (At least we’re good for something…)

I might have taken all this fingerpointing seriously ten years ago, when I was more of a sponge for all the blame in the world, but no more, so BACK OFF. I have behaved responsibly. I pay taxes. I contribute to my local community. I vote. My sons are educated, contributing members of society. (“Congratulations,” I told each of them when they turned 18. “You can now be tried as an adult, and I am not responsible for your debts. Don’t forget it.”)

We live in a house that is appropriate to our income, and we pay our mortgage and our other bills on time. We keep our yard cleaned up. We recycle. We donate to the Salvation Army, the United Way, our church, the local food bank and our area thrift stores. I tell my neighbors if their kids are misbehaving, and expected them to do the same. We help(ed) take care of our aging parents. I have never knowingly cheated someone to make a buck. The dog got his shots, and he and his poop stayed in our yard. We have an offsetting thermostat in the hourse. We live in a state that enforces vehicle emissions standards, and our cars pass. No animals — or humans — were harmed in the making of this blogpost.

Instead of crying and wringing our liver-spotted, veiny, arthritic hands over our vanishing retirement portfolios, The Spouse and I are going on and glad to be going to work. We’ll figure it out, and we aren’t expecting anyone to come in and rescue us with any sort of bailout that will be have to be paid by a generation yet unborn.

I could go on, but I won’t. And I also won’t take the blame for our current woes. As Winerip points out, we are certainly not more or less selfish than other generations — how can we be “helicopter parents” and “the sandwich generation,” trying to meet the needs of both our offspring and our progenitors, and still be labeled self-absorbed? Do we need to be reminded how narcissistic Generation X and Y can be, thanks to all our well-meaning parental ministrations? We tried to empower them, and yet many of them became entitled. And now they’re leading the way in pointing the finger (read that any way you like) at us. We can’t win for losing, as my father used to say.

While I will do what I need to do and should do to help set things right, don’t for a minute think you can lay the blame at my feet and smugly walk away. After all, as Winerip points out, Bernie Madoff, who was born in 1938, is not our fault.

On Money: Mommyblogger meltdown

October 10, 2008

The Daily Beast, Tina Brown’s new excursion into tabloid online journalism, has an absolutely heart-wrenching collection of posts from women who have been slammed by the economic crisis. The last one, from a midlifer who calls herself The Accidental Housewife, really got to me:

The generations who survived the Great Depression were tough. They were resilient; they did not expect the government to bail them out of the hell that fell upon them…They boarded up their farms and loaded up their jalopies and headed out to find work. They did not stand around wringing their hands crying about what they didn’t have anymore they went out and worked. They were doers and savers and they made it.
My step-grandmother used to reuse her foil. She would smooth it out, wipe it off, fold it up and use it again and again until it eventually fell apart. My best friend’s grandmother would make a single chicken last through a week’s worth of meals. Each meal being different but made from that single chicken. They were resourceful. More important they MADE IT….
I am ashamed of my fellow baby boomers. I am ashamed that we have turned into such an entitled generation. I am ashamed that we have to have someone else make our morning coffee and we are too good or too busy to prepare our own dinner. That we feel entitled to drive vehicles that use more fuel in one week than a whole village in a third world country uses in a year.
So what do you say fellow boomers? Can we do it? Can we tighten our belts, knuckle down and use that knowledge that our forefathers and mothers gave us? Can we cook our own meals, repair our own roofs, make ourselves pay our own bills and not rely on the government to bail us out? I think we can. We just have to want to do it.

She captured much of my current angst. We as a generation have not been as careful as our parents. We’ve serially refinanced our homes and underfunded our retirements to pay for our lifestyles, and the payments are now due. Many boomers are spoiled and selfish and entitled, and some of us have passed those “values” on to our children. And we are all now in deep, deep kimchi.

But I am encouraged by some of the adjustments and accommodations and belt-tightening that I’m seeing around me: less driving, more brown-bag lunches, even a little more kindness and solicitude among my colleagues and neighbors. We are a well-educated generation with a lot of tools at our disposal. And one of those tools is the online communities we have built, which hold the promise of advising, supporting, sustaining and cheering us on (and up) during this bleak time.

Chins up, peeps. We’ll get through this.

On Money: The new reality

October 2, 2008

I found an oddly charming story in the NYTimes today about New Yorkers trying to balance their need to attend Rosh Hashana services and their need to constantly consult their cellphones and handhelds:

Escaping the worries of a chaotic world is often difficult in New York — a single ringing iPhone can spoil the quietest moments of a concert at Lincoln Center; a vibrating BlackBerry can deliver a message upsetting enough to make someone climb over a row of people and leave a Broadway show to go back to the office.

But this week, perhaps more than most, it was hard to check one’s worries at the door, hard to concentrate on what it means to mark a religious holiday during a financial crisis.

(For those of you goyim like me, Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year, a time for introspection and resolutions, an opportunity to admit the mistakes of the past year and plan for a better next year. As with Shabbat, no work is permitted, hence the conflict with the cellphones and IM. Nu?)

At the Park Avenue Synagogue, Senior Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove “had counseled the congregation not to be upset by the financial problems of the last few weeks,” said the Times. He then gave them what I think is the best advice I’ve heard yet:

Let go of your white-knuckled grip on reality, and let a new reality present itself,” he told the congregation.

How many times in my little life have I tried to keep a stranglehold on a reality that no longer existed? A boyfriend who had long since moved on. A opportunity that was never seized, and then disappeared. An investment — in time as well as in money — that had evaporated. A lifestage that had inevitably ended. There isn’t any point in going back to the ideal, because it doesn’t exist anymore.

To me the new reality appears to be that my shrunken retirement portfolio may take a long time to rebound, credit will be harder to come by, jobs will be harder to find (something that will affect my sons more than me, but that makes it even more worrisome), inflation will continue to rise faster than the annual raises at my job — and my share of the tax burden created by this greed and remedied by the new bailout legislation remains to be tabulated.

But maybe — just maybe — because of all this, I will quit feeling like I have to keep up with everyone else. During the past five to ten years, I have driven all over our quaint little valley and repeatedly wondered, “Who is buying all these great big expensive homes? Who are these people in Jaguars and Bentleys and tricked-out Beamers and Mercedes? Where are they getting their money?” We’re a two-income household, but all this conspicuous consumption by my neighbors made me sometimes feel poor. Why didn’t I get a ticket to the party?

Now I know. And in this new reality, I’m seeing a lot of signs of the times, and they all say “For Sale.”

Update: Madame X at My Open Wallet also has some good advice for troubled times. (I particularly agree with her last one.)

Bailout 2.0: What else is in there?

October 1, 2008

After the much-publicized “failure” by the U.S. House of Representatives, who said a great big “NO” to signing the biggest blank check in the nation’s history, the U.S. Senate is currently pig-wrasslin’ the bailout bill, with the usual results.

According to David Rogers at Politico:

With each permutation, the bill has steadily grown in size. Treasury’s initial plan was about three pages long. The House version, which failed, stretched to 110. The Senate substitute now runs over 450 pages. And tucked away in the tax provisions is a landmark health care provision demanding that insurance companies provide coverage for mental health treatment—such as hospitalization—on parity with physical illnesses.

The cost of this little health care addition to the bill: $3.8 billion over five years. (Mere pocket change!)

Hel-lo? I’m all for getting health coverage to those who need it, but I think this smells. What else are they tucking away in the folds and creases of this particular bit of legislation? Aren’t earmarks and pork barrel spending and half-baked legislation the very reasons why the American economy in this particularly pretty pickle?

Here’s how it all will trickle down in 2009, says Rogers, if the Senate’s bill passes:

The biggest single piece in the package is an extension of protections for millions of middle class families who would otherwise find themselves exposed to the higher levy under the alternative minimum tax. This alone accounts for about three quarters of the cost or $78.8 billion in 2009. Almost $14 billion more can be attributed to a variety of tax break extensions important to business, including the R&E credit worth about $8.4 billion in 2009.

The rural school aid is smaller —about $3.3 billion over the next five years— but has great importance for many Western communities and could be important then in the House.

Excuse me? How did we get from mortgage bailouts to “rural school aid”? And why aren’t our esteemed senators finding more ways to offset the costs to us middle-class taxpayers? Are they listening?

Clearly, I don’t understand anything, particularly when it comes to politics. According to the NYTimes, these very pieces of legislation that make me uncomfortable are what will drag House Republications back to the table:

In the end, Senate leaders decided to overcome some of the ideological and political resistance to the measure by adding provisions that make it hard for many lawmakers to vote against…

Brendan Daly, communications director for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Democrats anticipated that the addition of the tax breaks, a long-sought measure expanding mental health insurance and lesser-known elements like aid for rural schools would get the bill passed.

There were initial indications from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who had opposed the bill Monday that they were now giving it a second look and were willing to change their views.

And it is going to hurt:

[T]he new items also increase the burden on future taxpayers. The $151 billion in tax breaks, which offer incentives for the use of renewable energy and relieve 24 million households from an estimated $65 billion alternative-minimum tax scheduled to take effect this year, are offset by only $44 billion in tax increases and spending cuts elsewhere.

Moreover, the increase in federal deposit insurance will not be financed, as the insurance program now is, by assessing a higher fee on the banks that benefit. Instead, banks will get an open-ended line of credit directly to the Treasury Department — meaning, taxpayers — that must be repaid by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation but not until at least 2010, when the temporary expansion ends.

Wow. An “open-ended” line of credit to the very banks that brought us to the brink of disaster, all cheerfully financed by us. I can’t wait to see the fancy wrapping paper and bows they’ll use to wrap up this pile of pig manure.

On Money: Why there might still be a tomorrow

September 30, 2008

Despite today’s screaming banner headlines in the NYTimes and the Wall Street Journal, the “bailout bust” may not be the end of the world as we know it:

According to the venerable and highly visible Lou Dobbs (at cnn.com) —

Economist after economist, with whom I’ve spoken, CEOs, they acknowledge that there are far better ways to deal with the issues confronting our financial system than this bailout. And it’s absolutely obscenely irresponsible of House Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, Treasury Secretary [Henry] Paulson, President Bush, Sen. Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate; for these people to be clucking about like hysterical — so hysterically. It really must stop…

[The Republican and Democratic leadership] don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re trying to ram this thing down the people’s throats and Congress. And those House Republicans and House Democrats who voted against this bailout deserve a great, great expression of thanks from the American people. Absolutely.

And, at the end of trading today, the Dow had regained nearly two-thirds of yesterday’s historic losses. So go figure. Somebody with money out there seems to think there’s something to invest in, even if it’s only Warren Buffett.

Sigh… What to do, what to do. From the vantage point out here in Dusty Corner, it doesn’t look like there’s a single “safe” place to put your money (including under the mattress). Some friends and fellow blogsters are obsessively consulting their portfolios, figuring out down to the decimal point just how much they’ve lost over the last few days, but that seems pretty masochistic to me. (But then, I refuse to weigh myself every day, too. Why should a mere number determine how I’m going to feel about myself?)

Anybody remember the old Garry Moore Show, which existed if for no other reason than to give the world Jonathan Winters and Carol Burnett? I remember as a kid watching a “Wonderful Year” segment featuring a then-unknown actress-singer singing a bluesy “Happy Days Are Here Again” while using her diamond earrings to pay for champagne. The year they were celebrating? Sometime around 1929. The singer? Barbra Streisand.

I kind of feel that way, but there’s a precedent for that. A few years ago, I got a really scary medical diagnosis, a largely untreatable condition that could turn fatal. (Too hard to explain. Some other time.)

I remember the doctor — who had the personality of a piece of cardboard — patting me on the shoulder on the way out of his office. I walked to and got in my car, called The Spouse and blubbered the results to him, and then had a good cry. And then — I dried my tears, put on my seatbelt and GOT ON WITH MY LIFE. Short of taking to my bed for the duration, which sounded boring, there was nothing else to be done. And, so far, I’m fine.

So break out the champagne. I still have a few diamonds left. My life remains whole and good. This too shall pass.

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