Monday, October 20, 2008

How I Learned The Fine Art of Finance: Musty Dusty History, Part 1

The funny thing is, the whole reason I decided upon a profession was so I could write.

I wanted to be a writer since around the age of a year and a half. Not that I could write yet. Or read. But I sure could talk, and loved stories, and especially loved stories about real life. My mother was a writer, so I learned what it meant. My parents would never push any of us to be something we didn't want to be; but it was clear way early that it would probably be either writing or science for me.

I'd heard all about starving artists well before I grasped the difference between hunger and starvation. And didn't want to be a starving artist, either. I especially didn't want to be a *hack,* to write what was needed for income, to keep a roof over my head and food on the table. Strangely enough, I have no issue at all with other writers doing that. None whatsoever. It's just that I didn't want to do it myself. Also why you've never seen an ad on this blog.

That has a great deal to do with a particularly stubborn form - and not entirely accurate definition - of independence. Not to mention, a great excuse for not dealing with writer's block.

Money, you see, was never particularly interesting to me, in and of itself. Beautiful things, which are often valuable things, intrigued me; but I didn't need to own them in order to be happy. Wealth and the material things it can buy were not of much real value, in my estimation. Only freedom was. Everywhere I looked I saw people who had money and could never be free: they were owned by their possessions, bound and chained for life.

I hadn't yet learned that one can be financially independent and still be free; and, that a financial cushion can mean the difference between independence and dependence, should a person become disabled at the age of 32.

Neither did I want to go to college. At. All. Oh Lord, I was bored to tears with school. When I graduated from high school it was a year early, at barely 17. It would have been a year and a half early, but for the lack of a quarter credit of gym. Good grief! Physical education. Which I didn't even take anyway, because of the arthritis.

The Powers That Be in my high school weren't quite sure what to do with me. Phys Ed was required for graduation. They finally decided that if Phys Ed was not to be accomplished in the gym or on the field, they must teach me about it as if it were an actual educational class.

So they told me to write papers about sports, as a sort of independent study. The choice of subject was mine. That part was fun. By the time my high school years were blessedly over with, I'd written class papers on chariot racing, cockfighting, logrolling, and, if memory serves, the Mesoamerican Ballgame.

We all have certain inborn talents of limited value. Me, I was gifted with the ability to raise one eyebrow at a time. I seem to recollect getting the one-raised-eyebrow Look over a few of those gym papers when I turned them in to the gym teacher.

Some of my fellow students, when I finally did go to college, were the first in their family to do so. In my own family, one doesn't not go to college. My poor beleaguered mother, not more than a year or so back, bemoaned a book I'd read as a teenager, one that extolled the virtues of succeeding without college. Mom said she could have shot the author. How to explain that I have absolutely no recollection of reading that book? Like too many situations we face in our lives, I'd made up my mind, then found the written resources to justify a desire or decision after the fact.

And just what sort of profession could one enter, as a not formally educated female back in the day, and make enough money to survive? Why - real estate! Haven't you seen all those self-help books and TV shows? Around the age of fifteen, the profession that fit all my requirements, freeing me to write, was settled upon.

One small hitch: In the State of Illinois, one couldn't get a real estate salesman's license until the age of 21. Since my future first husband had little interest in earning a living, and I'd left home when I was 17, I had to work at jobs that would sustain us both before I could go into real estate. And since independence meant so much to me - freedom, respect, self-determination - I'd already been working part time since I was old enough to lie about my age and get a job, at fifteen.

This post is supposed to explain my credentials in the field of finance. Admittedly, Mesoamerican Ballgame high school papers don't have much to do with that. But I assert, quite seriously, that certain other non-finance, real-life educational experiences do.

That first part-time job was scooping ice cream at a Bressler's in one of the world's first malls. It was dead, that mall, though it isn't any more. Nobody knew quite what to do with a mall back then. My pay was $1.25/hour, which was under the minimum wage. The legal justification? *Food service* work meant we were supposed to get tips. The only one I ever got was a quarter tip from a nice older lady, who saw I'd sprained my wrist working so hard scooping ice cream, and felt sorry for me. This was my first real-life lesson in the intersections of government regulation, business needs, and the bullshit that can glue them together, often by skimming nickels and dimes from those who have the least supply of them to begin with.

From age fifteen until I was disabled out, I worked my ass off, and did so as cheerfully as possible, even though I hated most of my pre-college jobs. I had more than my share of teenage angst and anger, both; but I worked them off, instead of slacking them off. Watching people work today, I just don't get it sometimes. Certainly, I do see people who work like I did. But I seem to see too many who don't, and how can they bear it? What's worse than being too busy at work is not being busy enough. It's boring. I hate to be bored, and rarely am, because I work at not being bored.

As a part-timer I clerked at a Walgreen's, and also tried to be a salesgirl at a clothing store. That type of sales job seemed sort of...hateful, disrespectful, in my book. If a person wants to buy something, let them. If they don't, leave them alone. Who needs a *salesperson* to try to sway customers to buy when they don't want to? Why impinge upon their self-determination, if I were so fiercely protective of my own? I was not comfortable in that line of work.

My first full-time job was at a bank. It was a small neighborhood brick building/white columned bank, the principal bank of a North Chicago suburb that later became quite well-heeled. The president and the CEO were real estate developers. One was named Bert, the other named Ernie. Since these were two favorite characters in that new show called Sesame Street, we employees found no end of amusement there. ('ay, Bert! *giggle snort!*)

This was my first experience with banking, with real estate, with accounting, and with ten-key operation. I ran the proof machine, *full-time* at 35 hours per week so they didn't have to give benefits. My pay was $400/month. I had some interesting times there. I could never quite understand how the two guys running the bank could also run so many of their development loans through that same bank, legally; wasn't it a conflict of interest? Nobody could quite explain it to me...

At the time, I usually wore four-to-six-inch platform shoes. One favorite pair had an open-toed leather sandal top, and soles made of horizontally alternating shades of brown wood - dark, light, dark. Stripes.

Worn with knee socks.

That's because when I wore those shoes barelegged, management had a prurient fit about the lack of pantyhose upon my tanned but naked legs. All my skirts were below the knee, so surely management's imagination was the real culprit there! Or perhaps it was my Lou Reed black toenail polish. Understand, things were very different back then. Nobody had, or wore, or even knew about the existence of black nail polish. Just me.

To remedy this scary state of affairs, management decided they must institute a Dress Code for all employees. All my fault. Even in our dungeon basement bookkeeping rooms where customers never tread, women were not allowed to wear pants. Not that those legs could be bare, though! Knee socks or panty hose, take your pick. I hated the very thought of wearing knee socks with skirts, good heavens; but panty hose were worse. Besides, knee socks seemed like a fine ludicruous comment on the Dress Code, so knee socks it was.

One fine morning I was outside kicking my $25 car to get it started to go to work. The starter had a loose wire, so I'd stand at the driver's side fender, kick it, run back into the driver's seat to see if it would start, repeat...My next-door neighbor came by to see why I was kicking the car in my striped sole six inch platform shoes with knee socks. I explained that I had to get my car going to get to work, but didn't really want to work there any more (kick! rurrrh rurrrh rurrrh), because they'd just offered the coveted $600/month job of posting mortgage payments to another bookkeeper who I'd cross-trained, (kick! rurrrh rurrrh rurrrh), but she couldn't even run proof much less do that stupid mortgage posting machine everyone was so afraid of, but hey, she was middle-aged and I was not yet eighteen, (KICK! rurrrh rurrrh rurrrh) so obviously that made her more *qualified* and they offered her the job instead of me. So if they didn't respect my stellar work performance I preferred to take it elsewhere...

and since I was kicking that car whilst living back at the parents' house in an already very well-heeled suburb, the next door neighbor was a Vice President at the World's Largest Market Research Firm. Meaning, he had clout. And he suggested I apply for a job over there.

When I gave the bank my two weeks' notice, they said the other lady had turned down that mortgage posting job and it was mine if I wanted it, I could go far in banking if I wished, they even had a lady vice president already! (in Human Resources), they'd even send me to Banking School, hey there was a future for me there, please don't go...Srythnxbai.

So I took my ten-key talents yonder, and became the one-person Cable TV reporting department at the World's Largest Market Research Firm, most famous for its TV ratings. Another interesting job. Even though I was just another glorified *figure clerk,* part of my duties was to read CATV and Videography and Broadcasting magazines. One day I tried to tell my boss, VP Media Research, that cable TV would be really big one day. Oh, he laughed and laughed at my naivete! No no no, that would require legalizing advertising on cable TV, and everyone knows the Big Three broadcasters would never allow that! heh heh heh!

After crunching numbers day in and day out, I got so good I was tied for Fastest Speed with a woman who'd added up huge columns of numbers every work day for eight years. Before desktop and PC days, this was a shockingly important skill. Sometimes, under great time pressure, delegations of people from other departments would come and solemnly beg my boss to let me or her add their numbers up in a huge accurate hurry. I used a computer too sometimes, very rarely, just to send out final report numbers. This required a security escort and a telephone in a cradle. Once we had a big bomb threat, a serious one, and the entire headquarters staff all piled out of the building into the enormous parking lot. Sweating and milling around on the asphalt were scores of identical-looking young men in suits, carrying huge spools of computer tapes to save the world's market research data from mad bombers.

I was beginning to see I liked numbers.

You've only known me as a disabled blogger; but I had lots of jobs in my life, even in the short time until my 21st birthday, finally old enough to get that real estate license. Perhaps another time I'll regale you with more job tales of yore. For now, suffice it to say I was working at a certain Post Office with a certain old friend when I took the Illinois Real Estate Salesman's License course.

By then I was married and had bills to pay. I didn't quit the PO until I made my first real estate sale. The news that the sale was closing came to me in a highly unusual way, on that job: over the phone, on the midnight shift, sitting on the supervisor's desk happily swinging my legs back and forth, chatting about my *emergency* on the Official No-Employee phone.

So I quit the post office. That was in 1979. Four months later the bottom fell out of the real estate market.

I got my first education in formal finance, you see, on the job as a Chicago real estate sales agent. At the time, we had to learn finance because it was the only way to sell a bank on giving someone a mortgage.

I'll leave that story for *Musty Dusty, Part 2.*

Friday, October 17, 2008

All Patched Up and Ready to Go

The stuff on the hand is Lidoderm patches, not Fentanyl. That's a $25 patch job you're looking at on that hand, there. I have 4 Lidoderm patches left, meaning 2 more "wraps". But I know I'll be okay. One way or another, I think I can keep that hand working, as Walter looks into voice software.

The Fentanyl is safely pasted elsewhere, with 2" silk tape wrapped entirely around my upper arm, holding it securely on as usual. Dr. E says the maximum benefit is first reached around 17 hours after it's applied. I slapped that sucker on there around 5PM Friday. By midday Saturday, I'll be back where I'm supposed to be, pain control-wise.

One day I'll go off on a rant about why we should never feel shame for treating pain. Oh, and a fine graphic detailed disquisition on the myriad kinds of pain I feel, like that broken bone ends rubbing together one; and what living with constant pain has done to my life...But for now? A small reminder of why pain treatment must be conducted with care. Having gone five days late with the Fentanyl was an experience that could have been terrible. Fortunately, it wasn't.

To decrease properly from any opiate use, slow is the key. Going "cold turkey" like that is physically dangerous as well as painful. As part of the Pain Management Agreement protocols I have with my Florida pain doc, the doctor must agree not to leave the patient suddenly unmedicated. The problem that arose here was simply being out of town unexpectedly. I'd packed two months' worth of new prescriptions. When they ran out and we still weren't home, I had to find a local pain doc. My Florida doctor can't mail a new Fentanyl prescription across state lines, it's either illegal or against regs or some such. I knew I'd need a Missouri doc. Okay.

What threw me off was the unusual way Missouri uses a *primary* doctor. In Florida, that term means our insurance gatekeeper. But in Missouri, one can't just call up a pain doc for an appointment. Not allowed. First you must see a "primary," who then may or may not refer you to a pain doctor. It has nothing to do with insurance, it's state law (or regs or whatever).

Or, the primaries may take it upon themselves to simply write you the prescription on their own. This time? After some phone calling, faxing of release permissions, verifying my long-time status as a perfectly - perfectly - compliant and lawful pain patient, displaying printouts of the Rx records spit out of the Sam's and Walmart's computers - that's what my new local primary doctor did.

Following one's pain patient protocols is excruciatingly important. I have never *run out* of any pain med prescription before I was supposed to, or called to say they'd been lost or stolen or accidentally spilled down the sink. I show up to my appointments as scheduled. I drink no alcohol. I submit to random urine tests as requested; I have absolutely nothing to hide. I don't boost my prescriptions with marijuana here and there, even though I believe it should be legal to do so.

I've interviewed with one prospective pain doctor who was a sadistic weirdo, and I declined to use his services. Once, a temporary pharmacist at my usual Walgreen's called a surgeon to clarify why I presented a (perfectly legitimate and protocol) new Rx for post-surgical pain meds. That was embarrassing. The pharmacist soon admitted to me that he did it as harassment for his personal amusement. He showed no remorse - in fact, he was still laughing - and his little amusement cost Walgreen's five figures in sales per year from my prescriptions alone. They lost Walter's business as well.

I have never, ever had any doctor or any other pharmacist question or dispute my pain meds use. Ever. I behave so carefully because it's safest for us all. And having a perfect long term history is what gave the new primary the comfort level he needed to write me my new local prescriptions.

The funny thing about it was the doctor's reaction upon seeing the Rx printouts I picked up at Walmart. Apparently he had no idea this could be done. He was really amazed. I hadn't wanted to swamp the poor man with papers, but I was paging through them, circling the Fentanyl refill histories so he could see how nice and steady I am. And he couldn't get over the fact that one can walk into the pharmacy with proper ID, say --Please print out my prescription history from January 2003 to the present-- wait a few minutes, and walk out the store with all 47 warm pages in hand.

heh! This is why doctors should always hire CPA's to do their taxes.

Anyway, the timing mess-up was nobody's fault but mine. Luckily, I had a good supply of oral opiates and the knowledge to use them correctly. Not to mention, a very intelligent, tolerant, watchful, honest, and loving partner to hold my hand through the process. Thursday was pretty rough - I'll spare you the gory details, I've had enough of this subject for now - but Thursday was soon over, and I'm safe again.

And back in business.

Well...after a niiice nap, that is.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Back to the Future

When I became disabled and lost my livelihood, my career, I went through a two year long process of assimilating and adjusting to my new circumstances. For quite a while I kept trying to work, taking occasional high-paying temp jobs in my profession. But my health was bad enough that eventually, either the hiring company or the client would begin to balk at having me around. I scared them.

And after every temp job was over I'd end up sick in bed, often with a serious bronchial infection, and usually for as long as the assignment I'd just finished. Work for three weeks, be sick in bed for three. Work for two months, be sick in bed for two months...

When I met Walter in 1993 I was still temping. I spent three weeks in New York on an MBS portfolio due diligence team, and came home and told him about some bad things that had happened with one of the men on the job. Between that, and the fact that we were getting married and I've have health insurance at last, I decided it was time to face the facts. That became my last temp job.

I simply couldn't work any more. It was not even possible to do typing or something at home, in my semi-controlled air. I couldn't take certain due diligence work home, because we often had to work with original notes and mortgages. They must be guarded as we work, then locked up in the big bank vaults at night.

I could work at home if my health was tolerable, but with no warning I'll get swept up in a terrible spiral of allergic episodes, or 18-hour sleeping fatigues, or another infection. I always prided myself on being a dependable worker, finishing my work on time even under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But I was no longer dependable: not because of any change in my character, but because my health could not be depended upon.

So I stopped trying to work. Walter encouraged me to re-file my Social Security claim, which was successful. The lawyer told us I'd lost about $24,000 in benefits because of my *work attempts,* subsequent illnesses notwithstanding. Thus my reward for trying so hard to Do the Right Thing.

Then, in every sense, I turned my back on my profession and walked away.

I had to. I miss it terribly. To this day I still dream, sometimes, about my old portfolios as I sleep. I wonder how certain workouts came to pass, ones we'd resolved and ones we hadn't yet when I left. In my field I was doing work I was born to do, I felt it from head to toe and out to my fingertips, and so did everyone around me. To lose it was like having a limb torn away from my body.

To protect myself emotionally, to try to keep on course toward my future, toward living my new life, I stopped following banking and real estate news. Today, I have more ignorance of such current events than the average person on the street.

Ah, but sometimes...sometimes, hearing about a bank in trouble, or the discovery of some fraudulent real estate development, my interest would stir despite myself. I'd lift my head up and sniff the air like an old fire horse retired and turned out to pasture, who still ambles up to the gate when it hears the fire bell ring and smells smoke on the air. Desert Cat brings this out in me.

And here and there, I still tell old war stories, or explain some of the workings of banking or commercial property operations or mortgages if someone wants to know.

Especially when Walter asks. Trained as a lawyer, highly experienced in business back in the old country - including in real estate developments - and with one of the most well-rounded educations of anyone I've ever met, Walter has a great background for this subject. When he reads the newspaper and asks me pertinent questions, sure I like to answer him.

With the recent extraordinary events in the world of finance and economics, those questions are complicated ones indeed. And both of us can tell that he's got a very clear grasp of what's going on. Nuts and bolts and big picture too. He says it's because of the time we spent talking about them over our 15 years together.

Still, there are gaps. These are complex matters. Walter's asked me, gently, to reconsider my position, and take the time to follow all that's going on. To talk to him about it, to explain certain aspects having to do with finance. His own great love is the field of politics. To our mutual disappointment, that's not a field I have any interest in discussing, even with Walter. But these days, finance and politics have meshed in a historically significant way. A union, if you will, of two fields that took prime status in our personal backgrounds.

So I agreed.

I really have no idea where this will take me in the end. In order to refresh my own understanding, I'll take a blog walk through some of the basics of finance. I'm pretty sure I'll get irritatingly pedantic on you from time to time. I'll have to start with a brief resume too, because of this: *Yeah, right, what makes you think you know?* Commenters do tend to say that.

For quite a while - in between the usual flower pix and boo-boo updates - there will probably be nothing but musty dusty history discussed here. I'm in a unique position for using the past to help explain the present and future. That past may end up being far more interesting to me than to you, with the events of today burning huge and urgent questions into our everyday lives. I sense the urgency, believe me. I just don't do "fast" much any more.

But I bet you'll forgive me in the end. Oh, I just KNOW you will.

Because this stuff is fun, fun, fun. Scary? Infuriating? Intimidating? Boring sometimes? Yeah, all of that.

And FUN!

I like fun.

This kind of fun? I hope you'll like it too.

A Little Walk in the Park

Actually, a little drive through the countryside.

It's very pretty out here. We're technically in the Ozarks, although not in any mountains. Still, the roads can be hilly.

I went driving last Sunday, and had a fine time swooping up and down and around the curves on the little country highways and farm roads I came across. Luckily, such fine terrain is close by our hotel here.

There are no end of handsomely falling-down farm buildings and old silos, all dilapidated, returning to the earth from whence they came...

and theatrically blasted trees and shrubs, evidence of bad storms, awful winters, tornadoes, what have you...

signs of local economic activity...

and a sky telling me it's time to head home.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Still Holed Up in Missouri, NOT All Maudlin About Bane

Well. Not much, anyway. Nope. Not me.

No, actually I've been silenced by my hand.

When we went to Sam's yesterday, picking up 17 prescriptions for me and 5 for Walter (the rest are due for refill in two weeks), a certain young, pretty, sweet, smart pharmacy tech spotted me. I was sitting on a Sam's scooter, my foot propped up in the basket as usual.

And she scurried up from the far end of the counter and said, --OH!! Are you the one who stutters in sign language now?--

And I broke into a huge grin, because her memory impressed the hell out of me. Told her so, too. She started giggling and said she told her boyfriend all about me. --Yeah, there's this lady who came in, and she said she got a dropped tendon in her finger so she couldn't sign right in ASL any more, so now she stutters in sign language and I NEVER heard of such a thing in my whole life, and it was actually really funny and we were laughing and laughing!!!-- I was still grinning at her as she ran away again to catch a phone call. I like shooting the breeze with folks at the store.

I didn't have the heart to tell her I stutter with both hands now. Probably that wouldn't seem funny any more. Ah, well...Such is life, eh?

Rheumatoid arthritis is the culprit that got all my health problems going. IMO, anyway. I got it when I was eight years old. My current RA doc still calls this *JRA,* for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Maybe one day I'll remember to ask him why it's still JRA now that I'm 50.

The pix show the brand new flare in my left hand. Walter took some pix for me of both hands together, to compare them. But the thing is, my first two fingers on the right hand already had some RA swelling from a previous flare.

It tends to hit bilaterally, that way; but for some reason, my bilateral flares are often staggered in time. I can't remember when the right hand went, but I think it was several months ago. It stayed a bit swollen ever since.

Not as bad as the left, though, huh? Overnight, my hands have turned into an old woman's hands.

So the thing is, I can't type very well any more. Even if I can work the pain control down to *don't need to scream while typing* level, the stiffness makes the hand not work right. My fingers and thumb simply won't go where I tell them to. Even with all the mechanical techniques and pain meds at my disposal, I still can't get the left hand to function much.

The RA flare is all over my body really, making me sick and slow and generally full of stiffness and pain, which doesn't help matters.

To get the overall pain level down, here's my usual daily routine: elevation, massages, heat, liniment, Vitamin C, MSM, malic acid, Relafen (an anti-inflammatory), Minocycline (an antibiotic with anti-inflammatory properties), guaifenesin, Prednisone, Doxepin, Actonel, Fentanyl patches, Lyrica, Zanaflex, and oxycodone - did I mention I take a lot of non-recreational meds?

Anyway, when the usual suspects helped, but not enough to get that left hand actually typing again, I finally covered it up with two Lidocaine patches. They cost around $400 per box of 30, and aren't covered by my current insurance, so I hoard my dwindling supply like a crazy hurricane lady. But!!! I just found out the pharma company FINALLY put the patches on their Patient Assistance Program. Maybe I can actually refill my prescription! They do help some.

So I throw everything in my arsenal at it, then simply wait for it all to come together with a little reduction in the flare. That's when I can type. I'll try to seize those moments and use them well.

This arthritis flare-up will subside at some point. How much? And when? Nobody knows. In the meantime, I'll ask Walter to look into some voice recognition software. I'll keep working out whatever I can do to keep my life the way I like it.

But this does throw a monkey wrench into it. In a big way. My life has changed again.

Now: Having explained - and thereby, also having a fine excuse to complain - and filled you in on what's happening, I'd like to get back to my irregularly scheduled programming.

Not to mention, my irregularly scheduled observance of not letting life's disappointments intrude too much on my fun.

And there are events swirling around us these days that hold a peculiar, intense, particular interest for me.

Fun. Ah, yes. You may now see a level of morgue humor from me like you never knew existed.

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