Saturday, December 11, 2010

The power of making a list

I was not one for making list.  Lists were for people who could not remember what they wanted.  I was different.  I could remember and take action.  Sure, there were the occasional second trips to the grocery store because I forgot to pick something up.  "To do" list and task list were for other people. 

Every book (or blog) I've read about goals stressed writing them down.  I thought I was the exception.  I thought thinking about my goals and tacking action was more than enough.  There was no need to write it down.

I was wrong.

I was not really making progress on my goals.  Heck, I did not really have goals – I had vague notions about what I wanted to accomplish – nothing really specific.  I was tired of looking back at the end of the year and being no closer to my vague unwritten goals than the year before.  This year in January, I decided to write my goals down on paper.  I planned my day based on my written goals.  I reviewed my goals and checked them off.  As they were accomplished, I wrote new goals.  The progress made this year is tremendous.  It really is as simple as every else states it - write your goals down. 

As the year draws to a close, I am developing my goals for 2011 and my plans to accomplish them.

Friday, November 26, 2010

"the rest of your life"

The doctor used the phrase, "the rest of your life."  I listened and reflected.  Fine by me was my reaction.  However other people (co-workers and family) heard the news and over reacted.  Does it really matter?  My doctor informed me that I will be on anticoagulants for the rest of my life.  The expectations are that I will live a long time.  I do not see a problem with taking a pill.  The inconvenience is minimal.  The pill is readily available.  I do not suffer any side-affects.  All in all - no problem.  When I tell others, there is always a reaction.  Some place a hand on my shoulder.  Some ask if I am ok.  They react as if my life is more complicated because I need to pop a pill daily.  They react as if my life is now more fragile.  While I appreciate the concern, I do not understand. 

I were glasses (or contacts) and have since age 11.  If I want to see (and I do) I will require corrective eye wear "for the rest of my life".  No reaction.  No hand on my shoulder.  No one ask if I am ok.  No one reacts as if my life is more complicated because I need wear glasses.

Generally, I do appreciate the fragility of life.  I am glad I live in a time and place where a drug I need is available and low cost.  I do not see taking it as a burden, but a blessing.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Secret Family Recipe

He handed me a sheet of paper as I entered.  I took a glance - this was it!  This was the Sweet Potato Pie recipe!  Pop's Sweet Potato Pies are legendary.  As a child, I took them for granted - it was just the pie my father baked.  Others raved.  When he baked them for family or church functions, they quickly disappeared.  As an adult, I really appreciate the pies.  Recently, he baked 18 pies.  It was a multiple day effort.  The pies were gone in moments at a church function.  This was the recipe I held in my hands.  Pop had never shared it - not even with his children.  Having it was like a license to print money.  I folded the paper and put it away.

We were gathered at my father's house for Thanksgiving.  After a wonderful meal, out came a few pies.  My siblings ask when Pop would share the recipe.  I was silent.  Pop was not.  "I just gave Chris a copy.  Do you want one too?" Pop asked.  My siblings all replied yes enthusiastically.  My license to print money was diminished, but it was ok.  Pop, went to his computer and printed a couple copies.  We all looked at the recipe.  Ah, the secret was sweetened condensed milk.  Oh, I thought I tasted a hint of ginger.  Then my sister asked the question "how many pies does the recipe make?"

Pop replied "That recipe makes four pies."  Wait.  Pop is very precise in his use of language.  "That recipe” This implies that there are others.  This implies that this is not "thee" recipe.  I asked.  Pop, with a twinkle in his eye, repeated his answer.  I asked a different question: "is this the recipe you used for these pies?"  Pop replied "pretty close.  Every recipe is just a starting point."

Pop is right.  He gave me a starting point.  I'm curious enough to try it and make adjustments.  My adjustments will make it my recipe.  And when the time is right, I will share it (mostly) with my daughters - giving them a starting point.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chasing 315

The quest began shortly after I entered the Powerhouse Gym in Highland Park almost 30 years ago.  It was the summer between high school and college.  A few friends were going to gym to stay ready for football when they went away to college.  They were all playing college ball someplace – I never played or had interest in football.  I just wanted to get into shape.  As I entered the gym, I was impressed by the massive amounts of weight lifted by massive men.  I was new to working out with weights and self conscious.  I was not a 95 pound weakling – I was a 200 pound weakling.

One exercise people like to use as a measure of strength is the bench press.  The folk I worked out with were lifting more than 225 pounds - 2 large 45 pound plates on each side of a 45 pound bar.  The strongest of the group was lifting 315 - 3 large 45 pound plates on each side of a 45 pound bar.  When it was my turn, they dropped the weight to 135 (one 45 pound plate on each side).  I gasped, squirmed and struggled. It was too heavy and I was embarrassed.  They assured me - everyone starts out with a low weight.  They lowered it to 95 pounds.  I struggled less and lifted the weight.

That was when I set a goal of lifting 315.  I worked hard that summer.  By the fall, I was benching 135.  The folk I worked out with emphasized form over amount of weight.  I was still embarrassed - but I kept working on it.  I decided to buy a lifetime membership (initial fee of $290.00 and a $50.00 renewal).

When the folk I worked out with went away to college, I kept going and worked out with a new group.  I made progress.  Over time, I improved and became more confident.  I realized that it is not important where you start - just that you start.

After a few years of hard work, I accomplished it - I was able to bench 315.  Now what?  I changed my goal to lift it with ease. Accomplished.  Now what?  I did not have a fitness goal - only a single exercise.  I lost focus and purpose in my workouts.  Without focus at the gym, I slacked off.  I stopped going for long  stretches of time.  The longer I was away, the easier it was to stay away.

I needed a proper goal. I needed a general fitness goal to go along with various specific goals. Setting a goal of benching 315 was limiting – it said nothing about health or fitness.  It was not part of an overall fitness goal.  Without a health and fitness goal, I gained weight – a lot of weight.  I topped out at 330.  While working toward my goal of benching 315, my over 6 foot frame stayed about 235.

The start of this year, I set a general fitness goal to go along with various specific strength goals.  Based on a TED talk by Derek Sivers, I’m going to keep these goals private.  They are written down and I hold myself accountable.  After I achieve them, I'll share them.

You can check out the TED Talk by Derek Sivers here:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Simple Thing

I replaced a light bulb recently and smiled because of my wife. Shortly after getting married, I needed to replace a bulb and did what I've done for years - I reached up, took the old bulb out and put the new bulb in. I thought nothing of it. My new wife stood with her mouth agape in amazement. She had never seen anyone "just reach up" and change a light bulb. She quickly got on the telephone and called her family and little friends to tell them what she had seen. I smiled and laughed. Later we went by my folks home and the story was told. I've known my family my whole life. They were not impressed. My wife intoned "he just reached up". Silence. They were just not impressed by something I'd been doing for 20 years.

Eleven years into marriage, I still just reach up - and smile as I recall the first time my wife saw me change a light bulb. Eleven years into the marriage, it takes a bit more to impress my wife - and I still try to impress her.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Finding a cash position for my portfolio

How many of you have a budget?

When I moved out on my own, I lived check to check and most assets were donations from family.  Every check was earmarked for the long list of items needed to live independently.  I shopped for furniture
by asking friends and family: the parent's old couch; a table from one  friend and a chair from another.  None of it matched, but the price was right - free.  Slowly over time, I built up savings and assets.
Now, when I shop for furniture, I start at a store.  Now, I save money from each check.

This growth and maturity and planning is the same for a portfolio.

I started investing in stocks about 12 years ago.  My first purchase, after careful research, was Adobe (ADBE).  I used a free trade at a discount broker and spent $100.00 to buy two shares.  Those two shares cost $95.00.

I used the four guiding principles (as I understood them) of BetterInvesting:
1.      Invest a set amount regularly
2.      Reinvest earnings dividends and profits - be fully invested.
3.      Invest in quality growth stocks and equity mutual funds
4.      Diversify your investments

Cash is not mentioned.  My understanding was I needed to be fully invested at all times.  As I ran the numbers, investing $100 a month into the market would result in lots of transaction fees which would
eat into my returns.  I decided to set a threshold of $500 to keep the  fees lower.  Waiting five months to make a purchase seemed really hard.  Stocks were going up and I was not fully invested in the
market.  I was in a hurry to build a portfolio.  I thought cash on the sidelines was a wasted opportunity.  I thought cash on the sidelines meant not being fully invested.

Running a home takes financial planning and a budget.  Everyone get this concept.  Using a budget allows you to take advantage of sales on the things you need and want.  Using a budget allows you to plan for future spending.  The same holds true for a portfolio.

There was a great series of articles on (subscription required, free 30 day trial).  An article from June 2010 mentioned the amount of cash being a floating function of the expected returns of the portfolio.  Whenthe expected returns are high (stocks are on sale), cash should be low; when expected returns are low (stocks are high in value), cash should be high.

It was an a-ha moment.  Of course!  It only makes sense that the  amount of cash varies with expectations of the portfolio.  And a formula makes it even better.  The amount of cash ranges from 0%
(everything is on sale) to 25% (nothing is on sale).

As of 10/17, the median projected annual return (PAR) for all stocks followed by MANIFEST is 8.5%.  This results in an ideal cash position of 0.25 (1.25 X 0.085) = 0.14375 or 14.375%.  My current cash position is 10%.  This does not mean I need to sell stock to bring cash up to 14%  - but it does mean I am keeping my monthly deposits in cash.

Friday, October 8, 2010

seven minutes of terror

The big game (Michigan vs. Michigan State) happens tomorrow.  All around me people are voicing their opinion on who will win and why.  I am ambivalent.  My wife is grateful that she is not a sports widow.

Despite my lack of interest in sports, I remain somewhat conversant about sports.  The reason is work.  With the number people talking about sports, I pick up a few thing by osmosis.  Additionally, I used to force myself to know about sports.  It was for my job.

Years ago, I worked at a small adult contemporary radio station in Port Huron.  It was my first job in radio.  It was thrilling.  The first day on the job, my boss showed me the way thing worked.  He was impressed with how I did the math in my head.  The station ID played automatically at the top of the hour and you never want the ID to play during the middle of a song.  Additionally, there was the ABC news feed that happened right after the station ID.  I added up the minutes and seconds in my head and planned the last 20 minutes of the hour.  My boss felt confident in my abilities and decided to leave.  As he was leaving, he mentioned "oh, start gathering stories from the wire for the 6:00pm sports report".  I stammered "Sports report?"  He said "Yeah, we do seven minutes of sports - mostly highlights.  If you want to write it,  go ahead.  Or just grab it off the wire"

I smiled and said not a problem.  Inside I was in a state of panic.  I grabbed a few stories from the wire and scanned stories for unfamiliar (hard to pronounce) names.  I was safe - this time.

On my way home from the station I picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated and filled out the card for a subscription.  I also started devouring the sports section in the two daily papers.  I started listening to sports talk radio.  I wanted to make sure I would not embarrass myself by mispronouncing a name or not understanding how the information was conveyed.  Over the next few weeks, I increased my sports knowledge, but I was still anxious.

During this time, The Red Wings were winning - a lot.  The roster terrified me.  I practiced the names over and over.  I was determined to not be embarrassed.  All my hard work paid off - until the day I opened the mic and announced "Wed Wing Win".  All the hard work done to avoid embarrassment was undone.  The phone lines lit up with amused callers.  The pressure I placed on myself also disappeared that day.  Without the fear of embarrassment and pressure, the amount of fun increased exponentially.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Behold the power of karaoke

Our local library held a family function recently - and the family went. The girls (ages 5 and 8) were eager to go – they love reading. And events like this usually feature junk food. As we entered, I heard a child singing and music. They had kid karaoke. This version features songs familiar to kids – Disney stuff and some pop music. I enjoy karaoke. I asked the oldest daughter if she wanted to sing. A quick, flat “no” was the response. The youngest quickly piped up “I do.”

The 5 year old saw a few of her friends and decided to run and play. The next time I looked up, she was talking to the people running the kid karaoke. My youngest is still learning to read - she's just 5. She cannot look through the catalog of songs and pick out an artist. After she finished talking to the folk running the karaoke, she came over and told me the song she selected to sing: "Best of Both Worlds" - the theme song for Hannah Montana.

After telling me, she told her friends and their parents. Then the waiting began. The 5 year old sat and waited. She was patient. Eventfully, my oldest came over and heard that her little sister was going to sing. The oldest likes being shy, however, Hannah Montana is her favorite show; and she's not going to let her little sister show her up. Well, the youngest wanted to sing alone. When the oldest prevailed upon me, the youngest relented.

The total wait time was about an hour. The 5 year old sat and waited. And waited. She was never bored. When it was her turn, she ran to the stage. The 8 year old casually sauntered - she was cool. The oldest thought being able to read the lyrics would be an advantage. The youngest just knows the song. Each daughter had a mic. The cool 8 year old – no gestures; no facial expressions; just singing. And the 5 year old performer jumped around, sang loudly and was very animated.

I'm proud of them both.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Education: Choices and Sacrifices

There was a segment on the NPR program Tell Me More (09/21/10) that struck a chord with me. The segment was about parents going back to school to complete a degree. I completed both my bachelor's and master's after becoming a husband and father. The essential element for me completing both degrees was the support of family.

As a child, I saw my parents make the economic choice to complete their education. I call it an economic choice because that's how it was explained to me. My father, a teacher, looked at the union rules and understood that earning a Master's would increase his paycheck - so he earned his Master's. My parents ran the numbers and figured that if my mother completed her degree in education it would have a positive impact on the family finances. It did. Then my mother completed her Master's to increase her paycheck. There was a clear understanding and explanation of the economic importance of completing an education.

My parents encouraged me to complete my degree while I was single and childless. I did not listen. My educational path was in many ways the opposite of theirs. Instead of focusing on the economic benefits of a degree, I focused on subjects I was curious about. I changed majors: architecture; computer science; and finally communication studies. I completed my bachelor's 20 years after I started it and in a different field than my career. Along the way, I got married and became a father. I didn't full understand or appreciate my parents' sacrifice until I became a parent and discussed those same sacrifices with my wife and children. As a parent, I appreciate even more the sacrifices my parents made and the lessons imparted about education. Now, I encourage my children in their educational pursuits. I let them know they can achieve their dreams on their time table – as long as they never give up.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Healthy irony

This year, I made a resolution to lose weight and get in better shape. I joined a gym in January. It’s a mile from the house and I started going three days a week. I went after the kids were in bed asleep; I went when I felt great; I went when I would rather be a couch potato. All the hard work is paying off. I’m smaller than when I got married.

I also went to the doctor for my occasional physical. When they say annual, they really mean every other year. Blood pressure 120 over 80, heart rate 71; cholesterol 100 (I need to raise the good cholesterol). They suggest exercise and more leafy green vegetables to raise it. Additionally, my doctor recommended an increase in the amount of exercise. 250 minutes a week to lose weight; after reaching the goal weight, just 150 minutes a week. I increased my workouts to five days a week.

I felt great, and committed to a 5K. The time for my first 5k is not important - I finished. Stating it as “my first” indicates my desire to do more of them. All is well right? Wrong. I woke up on Father’s day in incredible pain. This time, it was in my leg. I could barely walk. It was 3:00am and my wife was still asleep, so I wrote her a note “change in plans for Father’s day – take me to the ER please.” When my wife awoke, she read the note and took me to the ER. Yep, a blood clot. I am on anticoagulants. As the folk in the ER are gathering my history, they hear computer geek and ask “do you get any physical activity – and picking up the remote for the TV does not count?” I tell them I just ran a 5K. I tell them I work out five days a week. They look skeptical. They check my numbers: Blood pressure 120 over 80, heart rate 78; They scratch their heads. Now that I am back on anticoagulants, I have to limit my intake of leafy green vegetables – the same leafy green vegetables that would help raise my good cholesterol.

In January I walked with ease. Sure, I was 330 pounds, but there were no mobility problems. Now, I am 265 pounds (30 pounds to go to hit my goal). I walk with a limp. It takes me longer to get where I am going. Oh the irony of being “healthier”.