Thursday, December 31, 2009

Taking Stock

This post is about two men named John and the Stock Market.

At breakfast John G. commented that the DOW went down yesterday by $1.39. We all laughed, Lately the market has gone up over 100 points every day.

Then we had some serious talk about the market. After the sharp drop last March, the price of stocks has gone up and up. It’s crazy. I said, “Like a game of musical chairs, brokers keep moving from one stock to another expecting the price to go up on each place they land.”

John G. said, “I remember when you used to invest in a stock, keep it, and reinvest the dividends. I knew a man who did that year after year. When he retired, he started collecting the dividends. He had more money than when he was working.”

Today no one invests in stocks. They trade. Buying and selling, buying and selling. Brokers make millions.

I remember another trader. I met John D. 24 years ago. I went with him to the dealer to get his new Oldsmobile, bought with profits from stock trades. He told me he watched just one stock, which fluctuated in price between $26 and $32.

John and I had been dating a few months when he told me, “I bought a block of stock at $26. When it reaches $32, I’ll sell and take you on a Caribbean cruise.”

Week by week John gave me reports. “It’s now selling at $28.” “It’s gone up to 30 1/4” “Now 31 1/2" It won’t be long now.”

Then it started to go down. “It’s at 29. Don’t worry, it will go up again.”

Down it went: to $25, to $21, to $19, all the way down to $16.

John and I were married for two years before in October 1989 the stock finally reached $31. He did not risk any further. He sold. In November we booked a Caribbean cruise to leave Miami on New Year’s Eve.

Two weeks later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctor said, “You must have a mastectomy. As soon as possible.”

“Not before I have my cruise!” I told him.

John and I celebrated New Year’s 1990 dancing on a ship bound for Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Martin’s, Barbados, and Martinique. It was a great beginning for the year, followed by a radical mastectomy, six months of chemo, and six weeks of daily radiation.

Now I have no one to dance with on New Year's Eve. I go to dialysis three times a week; I won’t be going on any more cruises. Hey! Next month will be 20 years since my mastectomy. I am still here. . . . . and because I am no longer traveling, I have money to invest in the stock market.

Life is a seesaw. The stock market is still going up. I won’t be surprised when it goes down.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sour Deal

My letter to Irene Rosenfield, CEO of Kraft Foods:

Dear Ms. Rosenfield:

Your crafty deal to acquire Cadbury chocolates sounds like a sour deal for little stockholders like me.

To acquire all the outstanding shares of Cadbury you propose to issue 370 million shares of Kraft common stock and plus pay Cadbury 4.3 billion British pounds (about 10.5 billion dollars?).

How many candy bars will you have to sell to make a profit on this deal?

With the number of increased shares, the value of common shares in Kraft will go down. You and your board will give yourselves thousands of shares of stock to make up for the loss. Besides, these days the price of stock seems to have no relation to true value.

You will have to cut dividends. Who cares? With your enormous salary, you don’t have to count on dividends to supplement your income.

I only own 300 shares of Kraft, which I bought with money from the sale of my house. I don’t have your enormous salary. I depend on dividends from the stock I own to pay my rent.

You are a typical C.E.O. Your wheeling and dealing makes you richer and richer. Everything you do is legal. The ethical situation is different. You and all the other multi-millionaire CEOs are embezzlers. I wish you could be prosecuted for defrauding your stockholders. Your punishment should be to forfeit your ill-gotten wealth and go to live in a trailer park with no income but Social Security – like so many honest, hard-working men and women.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Middle-Aged Bride

The English call it “boxing day.” In Catholic countries it is St. Stephen’s Day. For me it is the anniversary of the day I was married to John Durkalski in 1987.

I met John in the fall of 1986. I was 57 years old; John was 68, a little man wearing glasses, going bald, with a pot belly and bow legs. He was wonderful.

John was the kindest, most considerate, most loving man. My son David, who became his step-son, described him as “The finest man I ever knew.” John was a care-giver. His sister told me, “He carried Vera (his first wife, who died of cancer) on a pillow.” I said, “He married me because I was the woman he met who most needed taking care of.”

When I met John, I was staying with my daughter Martha and her husband Don. The newlyweds were not thrilled to have a mother-in-law as a semi-permanent house guest, and I was miserable having to live with them. I had no place else to go except the homeless shelter. I was suing my children’s father for support. I had no money.

John was thrifty. The son of an illiterate Polish immigrant, he grew up poor during the Great Depression. He turned out lights. He also was generous. We had been dating only a few months on Valentine’s Day when he gave me an enormous heart-shaped box of chocolates. Martha was impressed. “Don gave me a one-pound box, and it is not even heart-shaped.”

John was funny. He could see the ridiculous side of any situation and would make a witty remark to defuse any difficulty. He was in a slight accident with a car driven by an off-duty policeman, and he got the officer to pay for the damage to John’s car.

My lawsuit was settled on November 19. John and I married on December 26.

On Christmas Day my three children and Don came to dinner at John’s condo in Darien, Illinois. After they went home John put the “My Fair Lady” album on the stereo, and we danced all around the living and dining rooms to “I’m getting married in the morning.”

The next morning at 11 a.m. we did just that. Before an alter decorated with dozens of poinsettias in St. Andrew’s Church, Downers Grove, Illinois, we pledged our love in the presence of my three children, John’s four sons, in-laws, and his six small grandchildren. After the Episcopal wedding we had a private luncheon at a local restaurant. When John asked for the check, his son Paul said, “Dad, it has been taken care of.”

Afterwards John’s family went to the elegant Glenn Ellen home of John’s son Peter, where his wife Delores served champagne and a wedding cake topped with the same little bride and groom figurines which had been on the cake when she and Pete were married.

The next day was Sunday. After church Connie Butler arranged another wedding cake and punch for my friends at St. Andrews to congratulate us middle-aged newlyweds. Then in the afternoon more Downers Grove and Woodridge friends came to a party with more wedding cake and punch at Martha and Don’s house in Lisle. (We covered several Chicago suburbs in our three-day wedding partying.)

John and I could have danced all night. And we did. A week later on New Year’s Eve at the Woodridge Country Club.

John and I kept on dancing. Four years later we danced at the New Year’s Eve Party at the senior center in Albuquerque. John had survived as “a miracle man” in October with a 10-hour surgery after his aorta burst. He was on oxygen, he didn’t feel good, but when the band played “It had to be you,” to please me he got up, and we danced together. I had no idea that three weeks later he would die in the back yard of our Albuquerque home.

I don’t feel sad when I think of John. I remember that happy day, December 26, 1987, the New Year’s dance in 1991, and all the happy days with John.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Life is full of surprises, even when a gal is 80 years old.

Six old people sat around the breakfast table, men and women ranging in age from 68 to 89, enjoying bacon and eggs in the comfort of our Texas retirement home while 50 cars smashed in the blizzard in Oklahoma, Daisy’s grandson on the way to Pennsylvania was stranded in Little Rock, and snow isolated my friend in New York. None of us could remember a white Christmas in Dallas.

Wednesday was a balmy 74 degrees. Temperatures fell on Thursday. It was cold and rainy by 11:30 when Jackie took me to Christmas Eve dialysis. Even during holidays, dialysis is required three days a week. When I stepped outside afterwords, I was hit in the face by icy wind. I was grateful when Jackie, not I, drove home on the wet streets.

The night became bitter cold, wet and windy. Family parties were canceled. Friends who were to pick up a handicapped oldster for church on Christmas Eve called to say they could not come. Those able to drive themselves decided not to venture out on slick streets.

On the way home from dialysis, Jackie stopped at Cici’s and picked up a three-foot-high stack of boxes containing pizzas. The residents at our retirement home gathered in the dining room for a pizza party. Some of us missed being with children and grandchildren, but we had the companionship of each other. That was enough to make a Merry Christmas.

I woke up Christmas morning listening to Bach on the radio and looked out my bedroom windows. Snow! Dusting the railings on my balcony and, down below, covering the roofs of the houses behind my building. When I put on my quilted winter jacket and stepped out of my apartment to go to breakfast, it was like a Christmas card with snow on the hedges and grass of the courtyard. Snow in Texas!

I am 80 years old, and for the first time ever we had a White Christmas in Texas! Somehow that sight brought smiles to every old face in the dining room as we called to each other (most of us are going deaf), "Merry Christmas."

The snow was not enough to make driving hazardous. Not nearly as dangerous as the rain and wind the day before. The sun came out, and the snow melted by noon. Still, we had a White Christmas – sort of.

Wonders never cease.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

I am frantic. A bipolar woman, manic and threatening to dump into depression. Too much to do, and too little time.

Christmas eve tomorrow, and a dozen cards still to be addressed. If I get letters written and tucked into their envelopes, I have no more stamps.

I love getting Christmas cards with letters inside. Especially since I can no longer travel, I look forward to hearing from friends, especially those who live far away and those I’ve known for many years. It is nice to know we are still alive.

The least I can do is respond.

Should I get in the car and drive to the neighborhood post office? The line of people waiting to mail packages overseas always snakes around the counter and keeps me waiting for 30 minutes.

I’ll wait, juggling my purse from shoulder to shoulder and thinking about all the things I should be doing. I posted only one blog since the first of the month. For a lady who is living in a retirement community and does not cook, wash dishes, or clean house, why am I so busy?

Who cares?

It is time to say, “STOP!”

I’ll sit in the recliner with Charlie on my lap and practice deep breathing. If I can’t find anything to watch on television, I’ll turn on the radio to WRR and listen to Christmas music.

I’ll rejoice as the choir proclaims, “Hark the herald angels sing.” I am on the side of the angel who sang, “Peace and good will towards mankind.” That angel was talking about all men (and women), including Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. Let’s add the Buddhists. They are good people, too.

I am not a church-goer any more. I don’t agree with people who say, “You are a sinner. Become a Christian or go to Hell!” I would rather be a follower of the Jesus who welcomed the thief and the woman caught in adultery and who told the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Tomorrow I will invite to join me anyone who, like me, does not have family here. We’ll make sandwiches and eat cookies (store-bought; I don’t bake). We’ll drink hot cider and toast each other with “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” Whatever. Either way is fine with me.

In 2010 I’ll mail letters and cards to my friends and say, “I still love you, even if it is not Christmas.”

And to you, whoever you are, I wish you a happy holiday. Let's all pray that 2010 brings us closer to peace and good will towards all men.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

George Celebrates 90

On his 90th birthday George pulled himself up out of his chair and danced with his daughter. A two-year-old, wearing a long frilly dress and Mary Jane patent shoes, danced along with her grandmother and great-grandfather.

George’s daughter Kate invited all the residents at Montclair to join the family – three sons, two daughters, plus numerous grandchildren, in-laws, cousins – at a big, noisy celebration in the dining hall of our retirement community. Champagne, little sandwiches and cookies, colorful table decorations, lots of balloons, and happy people made for a great party.

A Frank Sinatra impersonator sang the songs that evoked memories in all of us. “Fly Me to the Moon”, “Strangers in the Night”, “Set ‘em Up, Joe”, “When I was 21, it was a very good year.” So many more. Sinatra was born the same day as George in 1919; he’s been gone for more than 20 years.

At a lull in the party, after the cake had been served and George blew out the two candles on “9" and “0", I went and sat beside him for a few minutes. I said, “I remember my 80th birthday. I felt surprised. Am I really 80?”

George smiled with a twinkle in his eyes. He said, “Yes! It all happened so fast. It seems like yesterday that I was 20.”

Yesterday, when he was a teenager during the Depression. Yesterday, when he was a young man serving in the Army in World War II.

Yesterday, when he was a producer in the early days of television in New York. Later he was an advertising man making television commercials and raising a family with his wife in Cleveland and Little Rock. Now his daughters have brought him to live among the old folks in Texas. He is an old man, hard-of-hearing and walking with a cane – but still dancing, even letting go of his partner to give her a whirl.

And I am an old lady who doesn’t have anyone to dance with. But I have memories! Bob, Jim, Aaron, all good dancers. Manny could do the Texas Two-Step to anything. John loved to dance and could keep time to the music as he moved his feet back and forth. Wally thought he could dance but was torture to try to follow – maybe that should have been a hint as to his character.

The years passed so fast. Now I wonder what life will be like for my grandson 60 years from now when he is 90. Will he look back on 2009 as a year of the New Depression, unemployment in Illinois and dissension in Washington? Or will he remember 2009 as a glorious time to be young and dancing?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Remember Pearl Harbor

On Monday John pulled up a chair to join the four of us lingering over coffee after breakfast. “Do you know what day this is?”

December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, the anniversary of the Japanese attack which destroyed the U.S. fleet moored at the docks in the harbor at Honolulu, Hawaii. John and I were the only ones at the table who remembered where we were that day. Alma was only six years old and had vague memories of newspaper boys shouting “Extra! Extra!” The other two had not been born.

I have vivid memories of sitting in the back seat of the family car as we drove to the farm and listening to a man on the car radio talking about “Pearl Harbor,” a place I never heard of. The next day I sat at my desk in a science classroom at Daggett Junior High and listened to President Franklin Roosevelt’s velvet voice on the different radio, saying that the world would always remember that “day of infamy.”

Do most Americans know what “infamy” means?

Most people today know of World War II only from movies. Tom Hanks leading his little squad to save Private Ryan. The war in the Pacific? Hmm, maybe they heard something about it. The Japanese? They make Toyotas, those well-built little cars whose competition destroyed our auto industry. Well, it is Detroit’s fault for not doing a better job. That’s the free enterprise system. And Obama is a socialist for trying to save American industry. Right? Japan is our prime ally in the Far East.

Times change. People forget.

In New Mexico I knew several men who survived the Bataan Death March and imprisonment in Japan. The Japanese were brutal to American prisoners. Many died. Some were executed; others tortured and beaten to death. All were starved. The ones I knew were poor Hispanics and Indians who were accustomed to deprivation before the war.

Surprisingly, the former prisoners I knew harbored little resentment toward the Japanese. Their attitude seemed to be, “That was just the way the Japanese were in those days.”

The survivors were simply thankful that they were able to come home. Unlike some Vietnam veterans who were rewarded with seats in Congress, my New Mexico friends did not expect any special treatment because of their suffering. After their long ordeals, they came home to resume their former lives. Many had died; the survivors felt grateful for ordinary jobs, homes, and families.

They are my heroes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Piano Music in East Texas

My first job after I graduated from college was as society editor of the Kilgore News-Herald. I had my degree in journalism and thought I was a smart cookie, ready for the New York Times. Instead I was describing bridesmaid’s dresses and reporting on children’s birthday parties in this little East Texas town.

A local music teacher brought in “stories” about a little club she sponsored for her piano students. I dutifully printed the names of each child who attended the meetings.

One day, as she handed over the slip of paper with latest news of this little club, she said, “Kilgore is the most musical town in East Texas. You would never guess the musical authority who told me that Kilgore is definitely the most musical town in East Texas.”

“Please tell me.”
“He’s really an authority when it comes to all things musical.”

I thought, Perhaps the music critic of the Dallas Morning News.

After much persuasion, she told me the name of her distinguished “authority.” He was the organist at Kilgore’s First Presbyterian Church. “You know he lives in Longview.”

Longview is another East Texas town, about 12 miles from Kingore.

Another time she told me that her son was sure to become a world-famous pianist. I knew the kid, 14 years old and already over 6 feet tall, with a mop of blond curly hair which stood straight up from his freckled forehead.

I thought, Probably will become a piano teacher here in Kilgore, just like his mother.

I was polite. Smugly, I said, “Yes, Mrs. Cliburn, if you say so, I am sure he will be world-famous.”

Last week I went to DFW airport to pick up my son David, flying in from California for Thanksgiving. As I sped along LBJ freeway, blessed with little traffic on the holiday, my car radio serenaded me with Tchaikovsky, a recording by that world-famous pianist, Van Cliburn.

I reminded myself of that incident in Kingore. Not the first time, nor the last, when I was not as smart as I thought I was.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Memories of Chopin

Texas is experiencing unusually cold weather. Yesterday it snowed! I woke up this morning hearing the radio playing the lilting music of Chopin’s Grand Valse Brilliant, bringing back memories of other cold winter mornings, when I awoke each morning to the same piano melody, the theme music for Norman Ross’s early morning radio program in Chicago.

That was 58 years ago. Wally and I were newly married, living in our first “home.” a two-room apartment in the basement of a “three-flat” building. We furnished this dismal hole with a table, chairs, and a small chest scavenged from his parents, as was the old iron bed, which we painted bright red. We were young and in love, and I felt totally happy waking up under the warm covers in that old red bed listening to Chopin.

Music can evoke all sorts of emotions and memories. I always loved Chopin. One of the few records I bought as a teenagers – I did not have money to buy more than a few – was a two-record set of Jose Iturbe playing Chopin waltzes. Years later for a birthday Wally gave me a “long-playing” record of the same thing – there were lilacs on the album cover.

I used to play records while I dusted and waxed the furniture. Sometimes it was Beethoven or Brahms. David was three years old when I asked him what music he wanted to listen to. My toddler said, “Play the pretty music.” He meant Chopin.

David came from California to spend Thanksgiving with me. He is 44 years old. It is hard to evoke the time when he was a little boy, even harder to recapture the feelings I had as a young bride in that Chicago basement.

It was an exciting time. I had an interesting job at the Billboard, where I took dictation for letters to circus performers and called record companies about their new releases. (“How much is that doggie in the window?”) Wally was studying history at Roosevelt University. After work I met him and his colleagues for supper and good conversation before going to my own classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Weekends we went to the movies – there were four theaters within a few blocks of our apartment. Or we climbed the five stories to the “peanut gallery” where we paid $2 to hear a pops concert by the Chicago Symphony. Or we sat in a neighborhood bar listening to jazz combos. Or, once, Wally took me to a strip club, where I watched a young girl peel off layers of clothes to reveal an absolutely flat chest.

Yes, Chicago was exciting. And cold. I don’t miss living there. It is nice to think I had the happy experience of being young and in love. But now I am old and living in Texas, where it will soon be warm again.

I still enjoy listening to Chopin in the morning.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Cost of Health Care

Today I found a letter on my door saying rent on my apartment would increase 8% on January 1. This was a shock. When I signed the lease, I was told rent would go up no more than 5% a year.

I went to the office and confronted the director of our retirement community. She said she had no choice. Expenses have gone up dramatically. The excellent staff who cater to our every need have not had a raise in two years. With homeowners defaulting, the city is raising taxes on commercial property. “Utilities are sky high.”

But the biggest expense is providing health insurance for employees. Next year the premiums are going up by 22%.

Now there is a lot of talk in Washington about how much it would cost to provide “government run health care” for everyone. How about the cost of private health insurance? Our country provides the best health care in the World – for the rich. But middle-class Americans no longer can afford the skyrocketing cost of health insurance. They don’t take their kids to the doctor until they are critically ill.

If you want to know how a government-run health program might affect this country, look at Medicare. It is a government health program, and it works. Personally, I would rather give my money to the government in taxes to provide health care for all, rather than pay insurance companies whose overpaid executives fly around in private jets from their mansions in Connecticut to their $6,000.000 winter homes in Palm Beach.

The U.S. now spends 19% of our CNP on health care. European countries provide health care for all their citizens for 6% of their CNP. In many ways “socialized medicine” is better. Not only is everyone covered, but with good primary care, people do not put off going to the doctor until they are critically ill, which means less costly treatments in the long run.

Don’t believe those nasty tv commercials that ask you to write the senators to oppose government-run health care. They lie.