Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Poor Poet's Stock Picker

"Without guidance, people fall, but with many counselors, there is deliverance." Proverbs 11:14.

My husband told me that he was surprised I wasn't a Republican, because I worked so hard for every penny I earned, between my day job, writing workshops, tutoring, and various and sundry other side creative professions I might take on.

And, in a way, I thought it might not hurt to think like a Republican after all, i.e. start investing in the stock market. But it was still important to act as a good Democrat would, i.e. invest in socially and environmentally responsible companies.

First of all, I thought of Mr. Money Bags of Monopoly fame. He invested in real estate, railroads, electric companies and waterworks. So I invested in railroads (hauls more and uses less fuel doing it than airlines and trucking companies), the electric industry (not using coal power, but solar power) and waterworks (water utilities that do good things like filter and distribute potable water). Real estate? I bought my own home instead of rented. But stock-wise I chose a cement company that received an environmental consciousness award and a builder that received a governmental contract to help rebuild New Orleans.

Along the way I listened to audiobooks about Warren Buffett's philosophies, watched Jim Cramer's Mad Money tv program, created dummy portfolios which I tracked on Yahoo Finance and Zacks.com, and read e-mails and articles from The Motley Fool.

Some of Warren Buffett's guidelines include:
-- Choose a company that is the leader in its field, or better yet, has a corner on the market (i.e. Apple Computer's iPods) Jim Cramer would concur.
-- Don't invest in companies that sell on price or discounts. Avoid airlines and auto manufacturers. Today's headlines will also reveal this.
-- Choose a company with a hefty Return on Equity. Something like 17 percent or better sounds good.
-- Choose a company that doesn't have a lot of debt and has a sizeable cash flow (I can't say any of the railroads are here, though).
-- Here's the easiest one. Use your eyes. Look at the company's chart over the last year, three years, five years. If it's on a steady upward slope, you're onto something (check out Hansen Naturals or Franklin Electric) on Yahoo Finance.

And my tip of the day: listen to the advice of many counselors, including yourself once you get the hang of it. It beats picking a stock based on the advice of just your Uncle Harry. ◦

Monday, January 30, 2006

Poor Poet's Budget

There are times when your watch stops and your world stops, too, because the need to buy a new battery could throw off your whole budget. This cruel world can nickel and dime you to near death. While you may have staved off the need to pinch actual pennies, there are times, however, when you might be lucky to rub two quarters together. Not to fear. It is time to transform your finances, however meagre, into a financial future crafted by your own poetry-writing hands.

No truer words were spoken when someone said you need to have money to make money. Nothing plus nothing leaves nothing. So start with a little something. If you can manage to scrounge $1,000 together (and it may not be easy), don't put it in a savings account or let it drift as a line item in your checkbook. Invest it in the stock market. Avoiding risk is for the wealthy. They need to protect the millions they spent so much time accumulating. The late poet, artist and friend Carlos Cortez once said, "No one fell out of a basement window." Meaning, if you don't have anything, you don't have anything to lose. But you do need a little something to win. More about this in a later blog about stock picking.

Meanwhile, as you build some investment-worthy cash flow, find ways to live richly without spending much money. Hover in art museums, libraries, parks, zoos, lakefronts, conservatories and churches in which others have spent millions to build and maintain. They are there for you to enjoy. Take walks, fish, swim, collect leaves, watch birds, enjoy your kids and pray for wisdom.

Keep your eye peeled for the special used car gem from the little old lady from Pasedena. I drive a 15-year-old European turbo beauty which I purchased three years ago from its original owner. She had put only around 50K miles on it and maintained it regularly. It was spotless when I bought it and it remains one of the best cars I've ever owned. But then again, I've never owned a new car.

After my husband and I lived for years paying landlords, we finally scraped together the 3 percent needed as a down payment on a house in a working class neighborhood. Family members on both sides were incredulous as to why we moved where we did. Not much later, we were both laid off from our respective jobs and the housing values in our new neighborhood began to dip downward. We, too, began to question why we had taken the plunge and stopped renting. But we didn't question for long. We both found new jobs and persevered. Fifteen years later, in addition to a few repairs and updates and a lot of love, our house is nearly paid for. A few doors down from us, a house just completed by an area builder is selling for six-and-a-half times what we paid for ours. This would have never happened had we still been renting. When it comes to real estate, buy whatever you can afford.

My husband is a poet as well. We are often seated at our own computer laptops, writing, of course. But a nice cheap date is to cook dinner at home, then cuddle side-by-side in front of one computer, surfing the web and sipping a glass of wine. We challenge each other by taking turns finding goofy websites, such as mullet.com. ◦

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Poor Poet's Luxe Wardrobe

Living the life of a poor poet allows neither the time, money nor ambition to stroke the draperies of the high fashion catwalks. While poem rewrites might be in abundance, it's dress once in the morning for work and it darn well better work well into the evening whether you end up at a poetry reading in a darkened basement corner or find yourself perched on the second floor of a brightly lit bookstore sipping an expresso at the picture window.

As a child, I toured the Universal Pictures lot in Los Angeles with my parents. Our group eventually moved from the sound stages to the worktables of Edith Head, the great film costume designer. We learned that Ms. Head, an Academy Award winner known for her elaborate period costume designs rich in colors and textures, would personally wear simple clothes in three colors -- black, white and camel. At the time, I thought, "What a killjoy. The woman's left nothing for herself after all her brainstorming for others."

Today, I've changed my mind about both her and her attitude. I think she was the wisest dresser and an example to us all. I look at old photographs of her and she never looks out of style, never looks dated. Her elegant simplicity is perennial.

That's because taste, fit and line are what count. Your body is the strong foundation. The black, white and camel pieces are the elegant plaster walls, hardwood floors and cushy leather sofa of any look that can be dressed up or down. Last of all, accessories are the pieces that make the look your own as do lamps, bookshelves and paintings in your home.

The key is to replace your main clothing pieces every few years or so to keep your look current. Are you wearing high waisted, pleated pants with tapered legs? You've waited too long. A lowrider, boot cut is back, but not like the hip-hugger bellbottoms of the late 60s. That's really waiting too long. Though skinny pants of another breed seems to be coming back in. Nothing actually comes back into style completely, although vintage can be fun if you know what you're doing.

Here's the short list: A few pairs of pants, in black, brown, camel and a pair of jeans is sufficient. Always wear a belt if your pants have belt-loops. A feminine skirt in black or brown. A crisp white blouse, a perfect black t-shirt, a camel sweater are staples. Want to really save money? Never buy prints, only solids. Prints get dated as fast as lightning and are harder to mix-and-match. Solids never go out of style, although colors do. The hot pink and teal of yesterday may look awkward today, but as Edith Head emphasized, black, white and camel are classics. Ditto your shoes, although I frown on white shoes. Trying to attract flying saucers?

Before you get bored with your staple wardrobe, hit the costume jewelry display and sock counter and get wild and au courant with whatever strikes your fancy. You have the neutral pallete of black, white (perhaps brown) and camel as a backdrop for your madness. You don't have to spend much money, but update your accessories annually to give your classic look the cutting edge. Sometimes scarves are in and I love when they are, because they can be tied to dramatically alter an daytime outfit or create a posh evening look. And oh yes, scarves can and should be in the latest prints.

Anyone can start with these simple, clean-lined, inexpensive pieces, but it takes a poet to use one's imagination. A poor poet knows how to wear the most basic L.L. Bean button-down oxford shirt and make it look sexy. ◦

Friday, January 20, 2006

Dream and Steam

We all have those special times of day or favorite locales that help inspire our writings. I am a highly visual person and get distracted by what I see. I am always craning my neck to look at different pieces of architecture, I live in a city full of architectural history. I even got so distracted that I crashed my car once, with my front end landing on someone's lawn in Oak Park.

When I'm conceptualizing, as well, it's good if I don't fender-bender my ideas or writings with distractions.

What I need more than a walk or ride down a city street to clear my head is a steam room.

Whether I visit the local Korean steam and hot tub, or visit the neighborhod gym, there a steambath invites me to lie its misty clean slate before my eyes, ready for my musings.

Today, for example, I was struggling to revise the "arc" of one of the main character's in a children's musical I'm working on. My collaborator phoned me the other night to point out that what my character actually got at the end of the play isn't necessarily what she had asked for when the curtain rose.

I wasn't sure when I would be in the mood to settle down and mull that one over. I hit the gym. And after every workout,I usually end up for a 15-minute visit to the steambath.

In a steambath, there isn't very much to do, or look at or even listen to besides the hiss of the vapors that turn on and off every few minutes. The steam's heat kept my blood moving which only seemed to fuel my thughts and open the path I was struggling to venture down. I wrote in white chalk on the white slate before me. It was invisible to either one of my brown eyes, but surely visible to my mind's eye. I made mental notes and not only came up with a series of events to revise the character's arc, but her changes brought a new motion and clarification to a couple of other characters' arcs.

That mysterious monastery shrouded in fog, that Chinese hut in the mountain clouds, that steambath where enlightment or an enlightened notion or two might swirl and and bring answers to your questions or insight to your dilemmas. The steambath. What better place to dream with your eyes open. ◦

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Poor Poet's Luxe Lifestyle

Choosing the life of a poet and writer didn't generate tons of money, particularly in my early, studio apartment, years. What I didn't possess in cash resources I tried to make up for with a little creativity and a touch of style. If things were going to be simple, they might as well be simply elegant.

Strictly enforced eating rules: No matter what I drank, be it water, then-affordable cotes du rhone or gatorade, I drank from a wine glass. And no matter what I ate, I used chopsticks, be it healthy Chinese stir-fry, over-salted ramen noodles or a broiled steak. I also cooked with chopsticks since I had no cooking utensils, mixing spoons, serving forks or ladles.

As soon as I arrived home from work every day, I slipped into a Japanese kimono-style robe for the remainder of the evening, if I were staying home. If it were cold, the robe went over my sweater and skirt. I sewed my own "sofa" using a Butterick pattern, heavy canvas and bags of foam rubber purchased from the corner wholesaler.

My cheap little FM clock radio spewed soothing waves of classical music, my shelves were hefty with classics and poetry books from the library, and the walls held either inexpensive posters or original art created by friends willing to give me a sizable discount. I bathed by candlelight.

I needed no car. Work was accessible by elevated train, friends were within walking distance and family was a bus ride away. The beach was two blocks over. I attended and/or performed in poetry readings two or three times a week. I wrote sheaves of poems and consumed underground comic books as trash reading. Another trashy habit was smoking, but which has since been crushed out of my life, for good!

Thus was life in one room plus. Rents were smaller then, and my paycheck was even tinier. But those years were among the richest I can remember. ◦

Monday, January 16, 2006

Among the top five healthy ways

Technorati Profile

According to Julie Deardorff at the Chicago Tribune (Sunday, January 8, 2006), keeping a journal if number five among her "10 Ways to Improve Your Health in 2006." This excellent habit even beat out stopping smoking and practicing yoga.

Her comments on journaling includes, "Do the write thing. Save thousands of dollars in therapy by keeping a journal."She also cites medical doctor and proponent of alternative medicine, Deepak Chopra, who calls journaling, "one of the most important tools we have to transform our lives."

"Don't know where to start?" asks Deardorff. "Write what you eat every day (It could help you lose weight.) Write what you do. Write what you feel. Eventually, journaling will become a natural habit, a conversation with yourself." ◦

Monday, January 09, 2006

Response to Letter Writing

One of my coworkers, Carlee, read my January 7 blog on "Birthday Letters to Your Children." Carlee wrote, "I really can relate to your most recent post on writing letters to your children. One of the things I most treasure is a letter my father wrote me when I went off to my freshman year at college. It was the only one he ever wrote me in which he told me how much he loved and missed me." Since that time, Carlee's father has passed away, but his letter still remains among her prized personal possessions.

In addition, Carlee said, "I like the blog a lot and will add it to the list of ones I check out regularly." ◦

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Birthday Letters to Your Children

On today's new "Real Simple" television show on PBS, a woman spoke about the letters she received from her father at each one of her birthdays. He wrote her the first letter the day his wife delivered his daughter at the hospital. Arriving home alone, he sat down at his desk to write the type of letter that would become an annual tradition. Every year, his letters held more detail as he told his daughter what he believed in, what he valued, how he felt about what she did that year and how much he loved her.

She loved her dad and his letters. She thought things would stay the same forever, but after she reached her 14th birthday, her dad died. The woman couldn't look at the letters for years, it was too painful. But on her 21st birthday, she pulled out the box filled with them and read them one by one. She even tried writing a letter back to her father to tell him how she was doing and what his letters, all she had left of him along with her fond memories of times together, meant to her. However, she left his last letter unopened and plans to reread when her first child is born. Perhaps she will begin the tradition again with her new son or daughter.

We never know how long we may be around. Tell your children how much you love them in letters and they will always treasure them. ◦

Monday, January 02, 2006

More Fill in the Blanks

Today picks up where yesterday left off with more fill-in-the-blanks journal entries for your personal year in review. See my January 1st post. Many thanks to Mary Schmich of The Chicago Tribine for her enlightening column...

I regret buying...
I will never regret buying...
even though with that money I could have bought...
I...way too much
I didn't...enough
...drove me crazy
Was...crazier than last year? Or was it me?
The most relaxing place I went to was...
I feel so...when I write it down.
Why did I go to...
The best thing I did for someone else was...
The best thing I did for me was...
The one thing I'd like to do again, but do it better, is... ◦

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Personal Year in Review

Mary Schmich at The Chicago Tribune ran a recent column (Wed. Dec. 28, 2005) about looking forward to the new year ahead by looking back and filling in the blanks concerning the last 12 months. This way, according to Schmich, "you'll realize some things about your 2005 [or any given year] you had only half registered before."

She said you'd be astonished by how much happened or changed. And how much didn't or hasn't. New year's resolutions from last year? You may laugh or sigh to notice how you life may remain its usual jumble of contradictions.

Writing might be organized. Who said life has to be?

Personal Year in Review (Fill in the blanks)
Last year, I gained...
I lost...
I stopped...
I started...
I was hugely satisfied by...
And frustrated by...
I am so embarassed that i...
Once again, I...
Once again, I did not...
The biggest physical difference between me last December and me this January is...
The biggest psychological difference...
I loved spending time...
Why did I spend even two minutes...
I should have spent more time...

And that's about the half of it. The rest of the list appears in tomorrow's blog.

Happy New Year y'all. Eat something healthy and different this week like steamed kale, which can then be sauted in a little grapeseed oil with chopped garlic and onions, and finally sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and a little sea salt. ◦