“That’s not true!” All three of us whined it out, like kids do, turning the last word into an ooh that expressed our deepest frustrations.
“Okay, I’ll tell you something now,” he went on, “and this I swear is God’s own truth.”
We all looked each other in the eye, a slight bit of disgust still crossing our hopeful faces. We always had the faces of hope, as all children do.
“You see that, you see that Vanagon?” He pointed out our window, his latest Dream Machine parked ready at the curb. “Well, that VW is a family vehicle, and I’ll tell you why.” It’s important to note here that Mom frequently criticized our father for his predilection of lusting after vehicles she never deemed appropriate for a family car.
“This is the way it works. First of all, it’s got front-wheel drive. The front wheels are the most important wheels, because they drive, they brake, and they steer.” I started listening more intently, because if there was one thing, one thing in the whole world, that Dad actually knew anything about it was how cars work. He could fix almost anything.
“Front wheel drive means the two front wheels always have power. Always. They’re like the parents in a family. Even if your parents are the biggest screw-ups in the world, they still control where you go, who you’re with, what direction you’re gonna be heading.” I was well aware of the power of parental units. I wasn’t learning a thing yet.
“But it’s got what the Germans called syncro, and that’s a viscous coupling, you see.” He was working his hands back and forth—his hands—his hands that were always stained black especially under the nails. “Now, syncro, German syncro, that ain’t like no synchro swimming.” Dad always made fun of the synchro swimmers, their makeup and routines and that. “German syncro only allows the tiniest bit of slippage for the front wheels,” now he held his fingers a couple millimeters apart like we didn’t know what tiny was, “any more than that and it starts transferring power to the rear wheels, so you can keep going through some mud or snow maybe, something that makes the front wheels slip up. But then you got your back wheels to help.” He was working both hands now, in a kind of churning motion.
“Now, here’s the thing. It’s just like a family. Because the front wheels, that’s like the parents, and the back wheels are the kids, you see? And sometimes when the parents might mess it up, when things get dicey, then that’s when the kids they might have to kick it into gear and help out. The kids are like the rear wheels on the VW, they don’t always get to have a say, but sometimes, well, sometimes the family really needs them. When the going gets tough that’s when you got to be ready to help out.”
My brother and sister and I knew this could be true, instinctively we knew it had to be true, because with parents like ours the screw-ups happened every so often on a regular basis, and we did, we did kick it into gear, because there were times when if we didn’t man up, we wouldn’t be eating.
But, not today. Today everything was fine. We had a normal supper, and normal baths and bedtime, and normal everything. Even though we all had the feeling that in the morning Dad might be gone again.
I later learned to have a lot of respect for synchro-swimmers and even for Esther Williams herself, the athletic actress who started it all. For three years running she was the biggest box-office draw on the planet, but that’s not gonna fit in here.
Thinking I’d just go ahead and do it do it tonight.
You go on and on and on thinking thinking thinking but when you get the diagnosis what’s the point but then I remembered I’d said I’d watch her I wanted to watch her and what the hell’s the difference you do it tonight you do it tomorrow night you do it the next night.
She’s a pretty cool girl you see her you think what is she but you notice her eyes she’s got intelligent eyes the kind of eyes that look at you and really see you and yeah she’s a pretty good girl.
And she doesn’t mind waiting she’ll just hang watching everybody she hangs at the market a lot of course at the market you see everybody’s coming and going coming and going I wonder what the average purchase at the market is I’m thinking maybe three four items no more than five right?
Unless you want a bag they’ll give you a bag maybe five six items they’ll give you a bag but you get a lot of bags who needs another bag.
Found my shoes threw’em on and I’m out I’m going I’m going to get her going down to the market it’s only a block but it’s a solid block if it’s nice out no big deal but if it’s windy seems like a long block like the longest block in the city and the whole way you’re thinking what am I going to get oh yeah the coffee don’t forget the coffee and you’d better get some soup you’re outta soup should get more eggs almost outta eggs.
You turn that corner you’re hoping to see her and then there she is hanging at the market “Hey Good Girl hey Good Girl how-ya-doin how-ya-doin huh?”
Gotta make a fuss and you gotta get her something usually just a slim jim or half of my slim jim if I get a slim jim she gets half I know they’re not good for her hell they’re not good for me either but I still get me one so what the hell.
I’m in the market it’s not busy I see the owner the vietnamese guy people think he’s chinese people are stupid vietnamese hate the chinese why would he be chinese why would they think that.
“Hey Mr. Pham how ya doin’ today?”
“Hey, Alex, how you doing today?”
“I’m okay I’m just okay.”
“You need something? I get you something.”
“No just the coffee and the eggs today and I was thinking you said you might go away you were thinking of going remember I said I could watch her.” I was pointing to the door pointing to her at the door.
“No, not today Alex. Not going. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe we’ll go tomorrow. You watch her?”
“Yeah sure I can watch her I can watch her anytime I can watch her tomorrow or Friday or whenever.”
“Okay Alex you come by tomorrow or Friday. Might need you tomorrow.”
“Yeah tomorrow tomorrow’s good tomorrow’s always good I think I’ll get some soup then.”
I paid and grabbed the slim jim they’re always at the counter you just grab’em at the counter and I’m holding the eggs in my elbow and I get to the door and I’m holding the eggs in my elbow to use two hands and rip off part of the slim jim and of course an egg slips slips right outta the carton I don’t know how but it was lucky it was just one and also kinda lucky I was already out the door and the egg slips out and of course cracks open and she got her treat that way so I just had the whole slim jim myself watching her clean up that egg.
Then I patted her head real nice and rubbed those ears she’s got those nice soft ears I guess every dog’s got nice soft ears she liked the egg I think she liked the egg better than a slim jim plus it’s better for her a raw egg’s gotta be better than a slim jim.
“Mr. Pham, she just had an egg. I gave her an egg, just a raw egg. Hope that’s okay.”
“Okay, Alex. See you tomorrow Alex.”
“Okay, see ya tomorrow.”
I just headed straight home and I was thinking I’d make the soup and maybe put an egg in it.
I shook my head at her. “The thing about Santa Monica Pier is its location.” I’d been trying to get her to take the drive for a while now.
“You mean . . . in Santa Monica? I think I knew that, thanks.”
If looks could kill I’d have been dead years ago. I’d have been Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Run over, kicked off cliffs, impaled on picket fences, drowned in wet cement.
She knew we’d have to take the freeway, and she doesn’t like freeway driving. It’d be over an hour on the freeway. ”We’ll throw some things in the car, take a few minutes is all. On the drive you can tell me about senior year, your plans and opportunities and everything.”
She never said yes—it’s just not a word she likes too much. Best you usually get is her head tilt. So the actual drive was about what you’d expect. Didn’t hear anything about senior year. She had the headphones in but her eyes were open,and she even glanced up from her phone a few times.
Found a spot on the street, next to that big green park with the trees, and you could just see that retro arch with the name on it. There were two guys pulled in next, turned out to be French. They’d seen her, and they started chatting her up right away. I walked ahead. Heard her laugh, glanced back. She’d pulled out one earbud but kept the other one in. That’s how I knew she liked them.
They’d driven the whole way, from Chicago. American road trip, baby! They’d hired a Mustang, a convertible, taken turns at the wheel and had all the Rt. 66 stuff to look at. Two thousand miles, and she’s at the end.
They walked her all the way to the end of the boardwalk, where that little aquarium is, and by the time they were leaving it was almost getting dark. I’d been hoping to stand on the pier and at least look at the ocean with her, but it was hard to compete with Marcel, the one who spoke better English.
“Why can’t we do a cool drive like that, instead of just—the lame stuff we always do?”
Because I only get two weekends a month. Instead, I said, “I thought you didn’t like road trips. You hate the freeway.” We were back in the car now.
“You are so lame. I don’t hate road trips. Only boring ones.”
“Why’d the French guys drive all the way to Santa Monica? From Chicago.”
“It’s an adventure, Dad. They planned it for a whole year, did cool stuff along the way . . .” Sometimes she just trails off. “Met a bunch of fun people . . .”
“Like you.” She didn’t want to look at me, but I knew she was listening. “Can I see your selfie?” Sometimes she won’t show me, but this time she held her phone out at arm’s length, and I could actually see it. We were at a light. She’s standing between the two French guys, ocean behind, beaming that smile like the happiest girl in the world. She’d already sent it to Marcel, and he’d answered back, COOL.
“So, Marcel, huh?”
“Uh huh. But they’re not from Paris. They said they’d only been there once. I guess— it’s expensive? They’re from somewhere else. If I was in France I’d go to Paris. Every weekend.”
“How would you get there?”
“Drive. They have cars in France, Dad.”
“But you don’t like freeways. Might have to drive on the freeway.”
“But, Paris!” It was a one-word explanation.
“Right. But you know what? The guys could have gone to Paris. And instead they flew to Chicago and took the freeway to Santa Monica. And I just bet,” now I was trying not to smile because I knew I’d lose her, “I bet right now they’re wishing they could get to Santa Monica every weekend. Meet cool American girls.”
“You are so bogus.” Ear buds in.
Birthday’s coming up again. Screwed that up last year. Fat gift card to a sweet-shop. Just as she went low-carb. With her Mom. If I got her a Paris Metro map her mother’d kill me. “Why—do you—encourage her?”
Frame it up real nice, at that DIY place. For her dorm room.
I’ll be reading a piece this evening Mar. 23 at the Visual Arts Center in Punta Gorda on Florida’s Gulf Coast south of Sarasota. Piece: Me I Love the City. (The VAC sponsors a poetry night in connection with their biennial National Art Exhibition.)
Continuing on to further travails of Investing, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made turns out to be: eating lunch.
I recently read a pretty good investment article (see link below) about how much money it’ll actually cost if you eat lunch out every day. The author’s tab for $14.50 (at Panera) is only the beginning. Because it turns out that by the time you figure in taxes and lost investment growth caused by not putting that $14.50 into your retirement account the total runs to . . . over $1,200,000 in lost savings!
Of course, I didn’t know this during my career and stupidly ate lunch–day after day.
I didn’t exactly waste money on my lunches- some days I ate a PBJ especially early in my career when we didn’t have much money. I usually brown-bagged a sandwich from home, but sometimes I purchased something from the cafeteria. Rarely did I go out for lunch.
However I also wasn’t throwing the maximum into my retirement savings either.
The article’s main idea is similar to the better-known concept usually called the Latte Factor–named for the coffee drink which wastes enough money to allow most struggling wage-slaves to retire like millionaires if only they rein in their spending and direct the savings into their Roth.
The main idea is sound: spend less on stuff that you don’t really need.
Getting back to investment mistakes, I’ve made my fair share of the classic ones: not starting sooner–not putting enough in each pay period–not choosing the best individual fund choices of the many offered. But I’ve also avoided a few of the bonehead plays such as pulling the money out prematurely or buying into a banana plantation in the tropics. Retired, I figured I’d have sufficient time to either do a better job managing things, or get myself into more trouble. So I started watching one of the business channels on cable in an effort to learn more.
At first I wanted to understand more of the investment lingo, especially those acronyms like IPO, S&P, and ASAP. The business channel of course is geared to people in . . . business, instead of retired folk, so they frequently interview CEOs and CFOs, and I kept waiting for a CGO because it seemed like they were going in alphabetical order, but No. Through watching multiple shows on a near daily basis over several years I did learn a few key investment insights: everybody else knows more than you do, BUT the more you know the less it helps.
Ignorance isn’t exactly bliss, but it does save you time. I could watch endless iterations of the “business cycle” without figuring out which companies are actually worth plunging into. Did I catch NETFLIX before its valuation multiplied tenfold? No. Did I snatch up APPLE shares when they were practically handing them out on street corners? Not really. Did I open my own day trading account and turn hundreds into thousands and thousands into millions? Never got started on that one.
My investment strategy can be summed up as: Daily Investing That Happens Easily- Really! I use the acronym DITHER! You just watch a lot of investing stuff on TV. Even though the business channel reports stock prices in real time, and they really like that bell at the New York Stock Exchange, I soon realized that I was behind the times. To be really up-to-date you also have to watch investment stuff on the Internet. I adapted DITHER! so it could be easily incorporated onto my smart phone.
Now that I realize how many important decisions that affect our daily lives are made by the giant multinationals such as Disney (to open or not open? should we release that movie that no one liked this year or next year? what do we show on ESPN now that sports no longer exist?) and Coca-Cola (now that people are willing to pay for water, can we get them to buy air?)– does it really make any difference whether you actually finish a sentence that started way back at the beginning of the paragraph?
Let’s get back to Ava Gardner. She became a famous actress in 1946 in a film version of a Hemingway short story titled THE KILLERS. She was the beautiful femme fatale (film lingo for a female bad guy). A femme fatale lures you in and then turns on you when you least expect it.
That means I have no idea what I’m doing, as far as investing is concerned anyway–probably as far as a lot of things are concerned. But this is about mistakes in investing.
When I was young I read a good book about mathematical things in life. (I’m going to use the powers of the Internet to try to figure out what that book was, but I don’t want to interrupt my train of thought–okay, my caboose of thought–to look it up right now, but I intend to get back to it and then you’ll see how it relates.)
I was probably in about seventh grade, and I still remember several points made by the author– elephants cannot jump at all whereas fleas can propel themselves many times their own height (the Jordan of fleas would measure his vertical jump not in inches but in multiples of his own body size)– a chess board is the key to investing, because its sixty-four squares were used in a famous ancient parable to teach that doubling really makes numbers get BIG– and if you don’t use graphs correctly you can really mess with people. I think that last one was probably from a different book.
Here’s the chessboard story as I remember it. The wise number-cruncher was being rewarded by his king (a ruler of immense wealth), so the king promised him anything he desired as a reward. Just name it. (I think the excellent service consisted of inventing the game of chess which the king was enjoying immensely). The humble number-cruncher said his reward was merely to be of service, but the king insisted that he pick something even if it was something humble and symbolic, so he requested a single grain of rice be placed on the first square of the board. The next day the king saw the reward and objected that this was too meager a reward. So then he requested that the second square receive two grains. The king quickly proclaimed that his reward would be to have each square covered with double the rice of the previous day’s square until the entire board was covered in rice grains.
Mathematically, of course, this was equivalent to 2 to the Power 64 with the last square buried under 2^63 grains and the other squares all added up to make a total of 2^64 grains of rice. It turns out, my seventh-grade brain learned, that this is a LOT of rice. More rice than the kingdom could supply. More rice than the entire earth could supply. More rice than has ever grown in the history of earth.You get the idea: be careful when stuff starts growing by doubling.
In this book the story of the chessboard served as the introduction to the concept of exponential growth. I learned that elephants cannot jump because the mass of any creature grows as the CUBE of its size whereas the strength and power of the creature grows as the SQUARE of its size, due to the cross-section of muscle being the determining factor in strength. So a creature 100 times bigger might be 10,000 times stronger (100 x 100 = 10,000) but the weight of that creature would then be 1,000,000 times heavier (100 x 100 x 100 = 1,000,000).
I still remember these examples fifty years later. And I think about them when I think about investing. Because the idea of investing is to grow your money, right? How long does it take to double your money if you invest it in various ways?
If you invest in the stock market the long-term growth has averaged out to over 10% per year if you average over long periods of time. In the shorter term all hell breaks loose, but long-term the average is over 10% growth. Now, I know that 10% growth produces a doubling in about seven years time. So when I retired I knew that I would have to wait a long time but eventually my retirement account would start doubling. Since I retired at age 56 I could anticipate maybe . . . (being optimistic here) . . . doubling five times! Okay that would take 35 years which would make me 56+35= 91 years old. Would I still be able to do mental math at age 91? Not sure, but then Clint Eastwood is still making movies and he’s turning 90 this year!
I planned to be the Clint Eastwood of retirement. Not in the sense of beating people up, or fathering children with multiple partners, but just in staying mentally and physically alert enough to know how much money I have from all the doubling. And care.
So, say someone like me started retirement with $100,00 and then let it double every seven years:
Age 56 $100,000
Age 63 $200,000
Age 70 $400,00
Age 77 $800,000
Age 84 $1,600,000
Age 91 $3,200,000
What would someone 91 years old do with three million dollars? I didn’t know, but I decided to try to let my money grow, as long as I didn’t need to tap into it early of course. And, yes, I did realize that inflation might eat away at the value of that Three Million such that it was then barely enough to buy a condo.
I actually hold my investment in the form of an annuity account with a life insurance company, and my only decisions amounted to selecting funds of differing names and then letting the “investment professionals” make the day-to-day decisions about how many shares of Coca-Cola or Netflix to purchase, sell or hold.
I’m going to pause and come back in the next post– how’s it actually going? Am I on track to be Clint Eastwood? Or am I actually more of a Mickey Rooney? Rooney was born ten years earlier than Eastwood (DOB Sept. 23, 1920), and he lived to 93, passing away April 6, 2014– but Mickey Rooney was famously always broke despite Hollywood earnings (and later Broadway earnings) going back to his early childhood and continuing into his eighties. As a teen in the late Thirties, Rooney was the biggest box office draw in the world, but he never invested effectively.
On the other hand, he was Ava Gardner’s first husband.
Below: Ava posing in character for a publicity shot for THE KILLERS (1946). She’s 23 here and already divorced from Rooney.
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