Command Your Own Drones to Financial Success.

What public relations genius!

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, made huge media headlines by suggesting the future of light package delivery may be completed by drones as opposed to the normal, albeit boring methods of delivery we all know now.

amazon drone Um hi!

I wondered.

What the heck is a drone?

funny drone

I know – seems obvious. But is it?

An unmanned aerial vehicle:  The flight is controlled either by computer or remote control of a pilot from a remote location.  Some can fly as high as 50 thousand feet and go supersonic.

Wow.

Got me thinking…

Financial success is automated activity from 50,000 feet above your wallet. Cutting out that extra latte is not going to make you wealthy; placing as many good money habits as possible on auto-pilot is the key to financial stability.

Here are some ideas on how to command your own financial drones to success:

1). Budget on auto-pilot.  When you budget on a daily basis it’s tough to feel the positive. It feels like dieting. Or dating. Or root canal. Keeping track of expenses manually is admirable. However, it’s inevitable you’ll give up because you’re human. You have a busy life. Even if you’re proficient at manual tracking, you won’t be able to effectively interpret your long-term spending habits. Analyzing longer-term spending trends (at a higher altitude) will expose where you need to make real improvement.

Budgeting is boring; many won’t continue for long. Take your analysis to a higher level and place on auto-pilot through www.mint.com. Mint allows you to accomplish three things: See where your money goes, make budgets to stay on track, and set financial goals for the future. Mint connects to your bank accounts and updates automatically. It’s free and safe as Mint utilizes bank-level encrypted security.

Easy-to-read graphs allow you to track spending, income, net worth and account balances over time.  After a couple of months of activity, sit with an objective financial partner. Together, create a game plan to cut the expenses that will make an impact to your bottom line.

Go ahead. Enjoy your fancy coffee. For now.  Mint will track your addiction!

2). Pay yourself first.

Don’t roll your eyes.

eye roll

You’ve heard this one before, right?

The best financial rule (and I’m critical of most financial rules of thumb) is easy to follow and from a higher altitude, or the long-term, will result in a substantial positive impact to your bottom line. Before expenses are paid, before you treat yourself to a movie, it’s important to save money for emergencies and for your future – FIRST.

How?

3). Set savings on auto-flight:  Pay yourself by initiating instructions to move three percent or more into a company retirement account every pay period.  Ask your HR department how to accomplish this simple task. Do the same by establishing instructions to automatically transfer a specific dollar amount, say $25 bucks a month from your checking account into savings.

4). Go stealth on a savings target: Every three months, increase the dollars directed from checking to savings by $10. Select an amount that works for you.  Think under-the radar increases.  Barely noticeable; yet over years, this tiny habit will result in big change (and dollars). You will look forward to saving money because you’ll realize how painless it is!

Forget buying more stuff you don’t need by drone delivery.

Now’s the time to establish your own small army of financial drones.

And fly your own path to financial success.

dont drone me

A Lil’ Plot of Planning – 5 Lessons For A Successful (Less Painful) Financial Road Map.

I wonder why financial planners don’t focus the majority of time on planning.

I’ve read the stats: Less than 40% of financial planners actually undertake the task of planning with clients.

Why?

Because it’s BORING.

There. I said it.

boring-marketing-content

Even those who seek financial planning and have a passion to document every facet of their lives relent to the mundane nature of the process. They start out excited and ostensibly find financial planning to be as riveting as multiple appointments with the dentist. A couple of clients equated the experience with sitting in the chair for a cleaning (at least it’s not root canal).

Ouch.

Boy, I felt terrific.

That was four years ago. I realized – Rich, you’re approaching this ALL WRONG. 

I needed to analyze: Step outside myself, my career choice. Ask tough, objective questions.

However, before making financial planning a worthwhile emotional experience I needed to face facts.

I asked a large sample what their first impression of financial planning was (is). Here’s the top three thoughts from those I interviewed:

First, financial planning feels overwhelming. Just the sound of it turns people off. It has financial in it. There’s planning in it. Right out of the gate I’m screwed.

Second, you’re just trying to sell me something. Personally, I know this is a valid concern. For many large financial services firms it’s is a “plan and switch.” My former employer was guilty of this and so are many others. It’s one of the main reasons I went independent.

An acquaintance of mine (not a certified financial planner) mentioned at his firm they create and then immediately shred plans for people they don’t talk to just to satisfy middle management’s need to show their office “produces financial plans.” It’s all about the check marks.

Third, the results made me feel more bad than good. So, if you save $3,000 a month for the next 20 years you may have a successful 25 years in retirement. Great. Frankly, it’s best to hope for an early death.

I remember reading a twitter post from a nationally recognized debt management expert regarding how “easy” it was for a middle class household to save $1,000 a month.

Really? On which planet? No wonder planners don’t want to plan and people dislike it!

crazy guy

 What’s with this 1,000 page planning questionnaire???

This is the reality of the planning experience for many. I dare you to deny it.

When I moved to Texas 14 years ago, I soon realized how important it was for Texans to “own land.” A place to call their own. Can’t explain. It’s beyond the American Dream of owning a house. Texans respect their plot of land. Cherish it. Regardless of size. Their plot is their own. It doesn’t need to be expansive. Just theirs.

Got me thinking again as Texans always teach me lessons. How can I use this mindset to help others create a less painful financial road map and perhaps enjoy the process? OK, tolerate the process.

How can you be more successful and empowered by financial planning? It does help to know where you are and the probabilities of where you could wind up. No, really!!!

1). Examine your own foundation first. Before you even think about investigating the services of a certified financial planner (and I would stick to a certified financial planner professional), face the facts about the basic elements of the piers and beams or slabs that support your financial structure.

If you’re a poor saver, rack up debt, borrow money and don’t pay it back, frankly I can’t help you much. Sure, I can give you some constructive principles, ideas to improve, but unless you are willing to make the efforts to get your foundation in order, there’s nothing I can do.

Don’t waste your time with a financial planner like me. Frankly, the entire experience will make us both feel bad. Oh, and no: I don’t know what the next Apple stock is going to be to make you 1,000% on your money. Taking more risk on investments is not a smart way to fix a foundation.

2). How solid is your structure? I observe how Texans leave weathered, dilapidated barns on their property. Not sure why. The weather conditions are unpredictable here. I guess it’s a losing battle. Let nature take its course.

It takes much time and attention to make sure structures remain strong in the face of oppressive heat and brutal, abrupt changes to weather conditions. For you, making sure to have plenty of cash to weather financial emergencies or withdrawals, is crucial.

With the poor current state of employment, I suggest 6-9 months of living expenses in a savings or money market account.

Texas barn

Even retirees can benefit from a cash reserve when taking distributions. That’s what I advise. I’m glad empirical analysis proves my method, correct.

Read on:

The Benefits of a Cash Reserve Strategy in Retirement Distribution Planning.

From the study:

The empirical findings of this study are clear. In a taxable environment with transaction costs and lower investment returns than seen historically, liquidity improves plan survival rates relative to a strategy with no cash reserve. The reduction in taxes, transaction costs, and the detrimental impact of volatility on wealth more than offset the opportunity cost of lower returns due to allocating more wealth at retirement to cash.

3). Inspect your financial planner. Inspections, appraisals are important elements of purchasing, selling real estate in Texas. Thoroughly inspect your planner before the planning process.

For example – Ask the right questions. Like – How do you get paid for this plan? If the plan is free – Run. You want a person who charges a fee per plan or hour. A “free” plan is far from free and most likely, will not be a priority for the planner unless you make a life insurance purchase or go into a managed money product. Investment planning is as important, not MORE important than the other elements of your financial life.

Inspect to make sure your certified financial planner is in good standing – http://www.cfp.net.

4). Get organized first. Build a fence around the paper. Sounds simple enough, yes? How organized are your financial documents? – Tax returns, brokerage statements, deeds, estate plans. And what about all those passwords for financial websites? Are they documented and stored in a place for heirs to access? Organization is control.

It’s a good exercise to touch, read, file your paperwork. A great first step to easier planning. Perhaps your financial planner can help? I provide hefty, heavy-duty binders with tabs so clients may get organized before planning can begin.

5). Think small. In Luling,Texas there’s a place called Tiny Texas Houses. Brad Kittel a master builder, creator of livable art from salvageable materials, has made small sexy and functional.

brad_kittel-4-2011-300x168 Hi Brad!

Why must you complete a financial plan the size of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time at 4,211 pages for it to be taken seriously?

Go modular. Small. One personal financial benchmark at a time. Then move on to the next financial concern/goal. A good financial planner will help you savor the process one element at a time and create a checklist to keep you moving forward.

Planning isn’t entertaining.

It can be rewarding.

As planners we need to face the fact: We’re not popular but we are necessary.

How can we find ways to make it all more enjoyable?

I’m too old to go into dentistry.

How about you?

dentist This looks fun!

World War C (Campy): Zombieland Rules to Survive By.

I just read about Max Brooks, the writer of “World War Z” and son of Mel Brooks and Anne B. The fascination with zombies never ceases. It’s been with me since 1973. Every now and then I can feel a  rotting biter close by.

I never miss an opportunity to see the living dead: Return of them, Day of, Dawn, Shaun, a couple of “Night” remakes and ostensibly, the comedic genius of Zombieland.

As I’ve been watching Zombieland lately, I realize how incredibly clever this movie remains, although like Max Brooks and other “zombie zealots” I do not dig nor do I want to believe in, the fast zombies. The ones who can run faster than me scare me the most. Zombieland is four years old and the wit is timeless.

Years ago, I created several rules of my own to survive a zombie holocaust. Little did
I know we all would find credible guidelines in action on the big screen. I should have
turned my love for those decaying creatures into something lucrative a long time ago but no,

I wanted to work with money.

That’s such zombie thinking! This zombie biz brings in like $6 billion a year. Not too shabby for rotting, maggot-infested moving corpses.

Anyway..

The character Columbus in Zombieland was always prepared. He was a meticulous planner.

A young man I respect. A geek for bleak times. A man-boy I’d be honored to travel alongside on blighted, zombie-infested highways. Why? Because not only was Columbus (nicknamed after his hometown, Columbus, Ohio), smart. He was funny. He was a fatalist with a passion to get laid, he had an irritable bowel (been there). He always accepted the dark, yet underneath was a flame of once was. A desire to live. A desire to see a hot brunette naked. Sigh.

columbus shit

Columbus was so human in zombie-infested world. 

So in honor of you, Columbus and the opening of the movie “World War Z” I present the money rules of Zombieland (which are also worthwhile to consider while some of us prepare with alacrity for the zombie invasion. Apocalypse overused lately):

Rule #1 Cardio: The new breed of zombies doesn’t saunter (thank director Zack Snyder who brought back speed from the dead with his respectable remake of Dawn of the Dead). They run. Fast. You must stay in tip-top shape to survive in Zombieland. If you’re overweight in Zombieland, well, you’re done. Just done. 

fat zombieland

Take note of the humor of Zombieland as soon-to-be chubby victim is chased by zombie stripper with dollars secured in panties! Brilliant. So brilliant. Love you guys. 

Saving money takes incredible endurance. Your ability to save is going to take some sweat (and blood, possibly tears). To compensate for lower future investment returns, your  savings discipline will need to be robust for another decade. And as long as you’re attempting to be steps ahead of the “running” dead, aerobic exercise is just plain good for you.

Based on credible studies you’ll need to command a pot of money in excess of $250,000 in today’s dollars to fund healthcare costs in retirement.And we’re not even talking how much you’ll need if you spend three years drooling all over yourself in a swanky assisted care facility.

Why not work harder now to combat high healthcare expenses later? Preventative action through exercise and a clean diet will pay off regardless of whether a zombie rising occurs or not. So..

Remember:

cardio

Rule #2 Double Tap: In Zombieland, this is the “insurance” rule; one shot usually isn’t enough to kill a zombie. Be on the safe side and insure the dead is dead by taking a second shot. Contact your insurance company and double-check coverage especially home and auto to make certain you’re covered in case of disaster. Check out the insurance hub at http://www.bankrate.com. Information about homeowners and auto insurance can be found at http://www.iii.org, the Insurance Information Institute.

Investigate an umbrella insurance policy which is an extra layer of protection against lawsuits resulting from damage to someone else’s property or injuries in case of accident. It can also protect you from false claims such as libel and slander. For roughly $400 annually, the coverage is downright cheap and worth a look. Think of it as extra bullets. And in Zombieland, you can never have enough bullets.

Rule #3 Beware of Bathrooms: Ok – a tough one you think, however this is really an overarching statement about being stuck in an awkward position at the worst possible time. You don’t want to be caught on the bowl when the living dead target you!

Don’t get caught with your pants down when emergencies arise. Make sure to maintain
six months of living expenses in a savings or money market account. Just as I always wear a belt so it’s tougher to get the pants down, I recommend six months as a bare minimum to be safe.

Three months of emergency savings as a rule, is a financial zombie that must be shot in the head. There still remains a good chance that your new job will pay less than the one you lost, so an adequate buffer is mandatory.

Rule #4 Seatbelts: Taking creative routes, stopping short, driving fast? It’s all normal in Zombieland and occasionally in Financialworld too. When it comes to investing, your
emotions are driven by fear and greed. They’ll take you on a breathtaking ride more often than you think.

Successful investors learn to manage their emotions. In disciplined doses you must be strong and sell into greed and buy into fear. The seatbelts of rules and disciplines will keep you secured.

As Zombieland’s Chairman Ben Bernanke roils every asset market, you just don’t feel safe. Gold is a shit storm, bonds are down, stocks are down. Cash appears to be the only automatic weapon with endless bullets available.

During these times in markets you feel like you’re standing in a parking lot. Naked. Coated in BBQ sauce. Holding a sign above your head that spells out “EAT ME.” Oh, and you’re screaming at a hoard of zombies to come and get it.

Sit with your financial pro now. Or find one who can help you outline specific portfolio buy and sell guidelines and master the greatest enemy of investment returns – YOUR BRAIN. And zombies LOVE BRAINS!

zombies eat brains

Rule #5 Travel Light: Zombies seemingly pop up anywhere-they’re eerily stealth. In Zombieland you don’t want to be lugging all kinds of junk when you need to be nimble at all times.

When it comes to money be sensitive to investment, credit and insurance expenses. Make certain to read the fine print and realize all choices have expenses. The key to success is to know what you’re getting for the hard-earned money you spend or invest.

For example, term life insurance is a lot cheaper than variable life; maintaining or using a credit card is convenient however realize you’ll pay on average 16% interest for the luxury. Fair and lighter fees mean more money in your pocket over the long term.

Rule #6 Don’t (DO) Be a Hero: Columbus eventually realized that sometimes you need to be a hero in Zombieland. Be sensitive enough to know yourself and realize when you must admit a mistake, change a rule and move on. It’s never too late to change a bad behavior.

According to several academic behavioral finance studies, most investors will hold on to
losing investments way too long and sell winners too quickly. Men especially have a difficult time admitting mistakes and changing strategies. Being close-minded to new ideas or holding on to losing investments until they “return from the dead,” is a sure fire path to bloody future returns.

Rule #7 Limber Up: Before working through an unchartered or questionable area it’s best to warm up. In Zombieland a pulled muscle can slow you down and before you know it you’re on the menu!

People I meet and many I talk with are seeking some form of investment to get them rich quick. It all sounds exciting but getting rich quick is a sexy fairy tale destined to pull the money muscle right out from under you. There is no excuse for homework and discipline. If you dig deep enough into get-rich quick schemes they’re surprisingly easy to unravel.

Rule #8 When in Doubt Know your Way Out: Perhaps one of Columbus’ best. You must have an exit strategy when entering a building in Zombieland. Precious time can be wasted by surprises or attempting to unblock an exit.

Know your rules of exit before you own any investment. Individuals should check their
investments at least semi-annually as they ebb, flow and change and occasionally not for the better.

It’s important to also make certain your beneficiaries are updated on company retirement plans, IRAs and life insurance policies to make certain those you don’t desire to receive the assets, are removed. You wouldn’t believe how common it is for ex-spouses to be unintentional recipients of assets you meant for others. And this shit is ironclad. Once you die, the wrong people will receive your money.

Rule #9 The Buddy System: It’s crucial for a friend to have your back to clear an area or help you out of a sticky undead situation. There’s nothing wrong with having another set of eyes to help you review your financial situation as long as the person is qualified, objective and has your best interest in mind. Heck, as long as the person you confide in has your back it’s worth gaining an opinion, right?

Oh, and if you do hire a professional it’s important to understand how they receive payment and divulge any conflicts of interest up front. Ask the critical question: “How do you get paid?” You want specifics.

Rule #10 Check the Back Seat: Heck, it’s necessary to do this whether the living or dead are hiding back there! Your financial situation must be able to withstand unwelcomed surprises.

A disability can devastate a financial plan, even if it’s short term in nature. Do not overlook the need for disability insurance coverage; don’t be tempted to play the odds. Most companies will provide short and long-term disability coverage as part of a benefits package. Consult your current insurance professional and secure coverage as
soon as possible.

Random Thoughts:

I write a lot. I keep a red Moleskine notebook with me all times. Yesterday, I wrote,spilled out the answers to these five questions. Happy to share them with you. Because at the end of the world, you want to make sure you have your shit in order emotionally. No regrets.

Here we go. But before we do that..One more Zombieland photo:

zombie clown

God I hate clowns. Zombie clowns? I can’t even go there.

1). Who would you say “I love you” to first in case zombies rained down on your neighborhood? My girl Haley. So why wait?  If you love someone tell them. Today. Now. Wake them up. They’ll be pissed off but do it. A zombie drop is scheduled in your vicinity, within the hour.

2) What would you take with you in case you needed to leave in a hurry? I keep with me an old letter. Almost 20 years old. It was written about my dying dad. From his doctor at the time. It explained how amazed this doc was at my dad’s mental ability to fight the cancer eating him alive at the time. “I never had a patient fight for life like this. I am in awe of him.” I’m thinking I would need to read this frayed note. Many times.

3). If you had to pick a female to be stuck with during the World War Z, who would it be? Hands down – Maria Molina from Fox News. I’m not even going to discuss or argue with you over this. It is what it is.

maria molina three

Sigh.

4). What are you grateful for in the present? Like it’s one year into Zombieland, you’re behind a barricade. What are you missing? I’m missing the smell of cinnamon, conversation with several close friends, anything written by James Altucher, a triple-cheeseburger from Red Robin. Live in the now. Step back and consider the texture, smell, presence of what/who you appreciate. I think I’ll have a milkshake today.

5). What would be your last words in the case (it’s inevitable) you become a buffet item at a zombie Golden Corral? I was thinking something funny like “I hope you die from all the fat you’re eating,” or just an “oh shit!” I need to work on this one. What would be your last words if you knew you were going to die today? The words you use will shape the reasons you’re still alive.

You’re not dead.

You’re not zombie chow.

Act every day like the dead are coming and you’ll live more than ever before.

zombie lady

The Bullies Around (Inside) You – How to Defeat Them.

“The biggest bully I ever faced was underneath my own skin.” Johnny Cash.

Paulie Greco appeared. In the schoolyard. I saw him. Rising like a demon above cracked concrete. I couldn’t focus on anything else after that. For hours. Through the massive, thick Brooklyn public school windows behind heavy-gauge steel grating, I could still see him. I couldn’t stop seeing him. Waiting. I couldn’t stop feeling the ice, the fear coursing through veins I didn’t even realize I had inside my body, my head. Until they started throbbing. 2:15pm. He’d been out there. Since noon. High noon.

I remember shaking uncontrollably at my desk the closer the small, black super-ticky clock hand inched moved towards 3. My heart beat heavy in both ears. I wondered how I was going to lose blood, teeth. My spleen. I heard somewhere you could live without a spleen. That oddly seemed to calm me. Would I be able to walk? Please god not the face was all I could think. Thinking positively – Perhaps a good pummeling would work off some of the belly fat I carried around thanks to Drake’s cakes, Yodels to be specific.

yodels

Oh Yodels – the unnatural perfect food.

I didn’t do anything to him. In fact, I stayed far from him. I was always aware of his space so I could purposely avoid it.  He hated me because I was fat, I wore green corduroy pants in the summer (thanks mom), I was diverting the attention of a puerto-rican beauty in spandex pants who didn’t give him the time of day – she liked my brains over his brawn. I was friends with his girlfriend (the damn cute girls always liked to be friends with me because I was, non-threatening, funny troll-like figure). I had bigger pimples, maybe. For one reason, many reasons, every reason, this guy hated my guts.

All I knew?  I was dead soon. No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks. Rest In Peace. In a dirt-blood pile. Smashed behind a city school. 

butch

America’s favorite bully then in rerun form – Butch from The Little Rascals.

There he was – leaning against a shaky schoolyard fence. Greasy dark hair. Black leather jacket with chains (as I think about it, looked stupid in June). He’d deftly bounce off the chain link, then shuffle – from one foot to the other. Right. Left. Right. Left. Rocking. Like a psycho planning a pounce on chubby prey. I’m sure he noticed me through the smudgy glass and steel-cage monster panes of glass. I know, at the least, he smelled me. My fear. I think it made him rock faster.

3pm was here. I couldn’t feel my legs, not sure how I rose from the desk…Numb.

I walked slow. To the bulls-eye. Not sure of my fate.

Random Thoughts:

1). External bullies never go away. Throughout your entire life they’ll re-appear. Even those who were once close friends can turn. Corporate masters like to bully too. Because they can. Shareholders, Boards of Directors encourage it (mostly by demanding greater results). Bullies hate the truth, however. They diminish in power once they know you’re not afraid and you possess the strength of the truth. But you’ll need to shiver in the ice water, feel the cold of loss, first. Today, many companies can pay less in wages, avoid raises, ask more out of you, work you out of a position for others less skilled, because they have the power. As the economy slowly improves, their ability to bully and scare will diminish. Be patient. Stay true to your cause. You shall prevail in finding greater more lucrative ventures.

2). Get to know your inner bullies. The bullies who push against you from within. They do stick around you until death. You know them. You’ve faced them. The ones who constantly, mentally pummel you. Telling you you’re going to fail, fall, falter. The ones who nag at you. Encourage you to flee. It’ll take some strong self-analysis to understand your interbullies as I call them, but if you remain aware, you’ll face your internal Paulies head on. You may stumble short term; oh, they’ll rock you, shuffle you up, but you will win, eventually. It’s inevitable. The more you fight them, the greater understanding you’ll have of their crude methods to shake you. Your mind begins to grow smarter than your interbullies. It’ll take time but it will happen. Don’t give up. You’ll surprise them when you least expect it.

3). Don’t be bullied to be stupid with money. There’s a lot out there to taunt you to overspend or misuse credit. Stand your ground. Stick to a budget. The less you spend the more empowered you will become. The more secure you will become in your future. A bully should possess a negative net worth. Not you.

4). Discover your reinforcements. Seek and then never forget what/who supports you. Understand the need to train for battle. Friends (some you never knew you had), exercise, a good diet, sleep, deep breaths,  meditation, reading, heartfelt discussion, all need to be employed as you fight the bullies around you. It’s ok to wallow in Yodels a bit (if you can find them); too many will weaken your body and spirit. Know when to shut down the devil’s food (which is a devil’s food).

I couldn’t feel anything. The larger Paulie grew in my line of sight, the more steadfast my pace. I wanted to flee in the other direction. I kept walking. Straight. Closer.

I recall closing my eyes briefly. I wasn’t going to run. I didn’t do anything wrong. If I got beat so be it. With all the adrenaline running through me I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have felt a thing. So it appeared to be an opportune time for a thrashing. I just wanted one good shot. One good kick. One surprise that would shake him.

I stopped near the rocking bully. He stopped rocking. About seven feet from him. I tried to move in but couldn’t. Frozen. He moved towards me.

He spoke. Rough Brooklyn. Mostly hoodlum. Mumbled.

“You talk to my girlfriend?”

“Yea,” I said. What was I going to say? “She’s in my homeroom class.”

“I know people. I’m related to gangsters. You understand that?”

I knew that.

“I know people too. I hang out at Torragrossa’s Funeral Home. I watch them embalm dead people after school. You think my mother could get a discount if you kill me?”

I continued before he could say another word:

“You’ll need to realize I won’t die so easy though. If I can take you with me, I will,” I said. No reason why. Anger perhaps. All I know is I meant it at the time.

I had nothing to lose.

At that moment his girlfriend, my friend, ran up (reinforcements) and screamed at him not to touch me or it was over between them. He backed off.

A few weeks later I found out that he was a bit scared of me after that incident. It wasn’t his girlfriend’s threats. It was the fact that I watched the embalming process. It was a bit of information he wasn’t expecting. It was a surprise. A shock.

Bullies hate surprises. Shocks. The truth.

torregrossa

And apparently the embalming process.

Who knew?

 

A Folded Cardboard Holiday. Four Ways to Stay Alive at Christmas.

I dislike Christmas. Not in a funny, green “Grinchy,” way either.

grumpy christmas

The holiday has clearly lost some of its sparkle for me, especially now, as cherished people I believed would be around for longer than a memory, decided to bail quickly from my inner wonderland. Clean gone. Like the three wise men who get misdirected by Apple Maps to the birthplace of Cee Lo Green instead of the second coming of you-know-who.

The problem with Christmas is it stirs ancient thoughts and the mental bias of anchoring. I dare you to gaze at a tree ornament you’ve unpacked this year, every year over the last ten and not recall “the moment.”  A vivid memory of  how you felt when you received it, who gave it to you, where you bought it. The weather that day you hung it from your fake Christmas tree. The eye color, hair color, smell, of the person who bought the cheap holiday trinket for you; now the damn thing has a life of its own, it possesses a wealth of memories you would sooner forget.

And for most of the year you do. Until..

You resurrect the decoration from the plastic tomb stored in the garage. From a container marked “CHRISTMAS CRAP.” Then you “go back,” or anchor to “the moment,” again and usually it isn’t good. But you can’t throw this plastic memory bank away, so you sullenly hang it from a tree branch this year. Again. Relive the pain.

Stab me with candy cane every year, it’s ok. I can take it. This year after exhuming a memory, I lost track of time and space. It was silly when I realized I had been sitting on the dusty floor of my garage for an hour and a half. Lost in space, lost in time, lost in “the moment.”

santa slay Awww

Even cardboard can push the past into the present. The other day at a friend’s house, a collector of vintage kitsch, a flood of memories washed over me. There in the corner, looking as new as the ancient day it was originally folded out was a Christmas adornment I haven’t seen or remembered in years. Yet, when I noticed it, I went back in time immediately. I went speeding through time, a return to 1972 when I first received my very own cardboard and electric (what a lethal combo)

cardboard fireplaceFireplace!!!!!

It was a lousy Christmas that year. My mother after a binge of booze and pills came home from God-knows-where, focused on the fake Christmas tree I just finished decorating, picked it up from the middle like some form of petite, brunette elf weightlifter and flung it out the third-floor living room window.

I think there were like 6,000,000 lights secured around this thing. In fact, there were so many light sets attached that when the plastic pine cliff diver advanced from the window, one of the light strings got caught on the way down causing the tree to temporarily swing about 10 feet from the ground like some type of evil holiday pendulum.

Then two days later, on December 27, a favorite cousin visited. A savior of sorts. He brought the fireplace along with small, wrapped gifts I never expected. On December 27, I had Christmas revisited thanks to Michael. We unfolded the fireplace, secured the lightbulb behind the fake flame. It might as well had been the real thing. The warmth was the same. A cousin saved my holiday. I never forgot.

Random Thoughts:

1). Tell People you Love them. Now. Today. Even when they don’t feel the same. Even if they walk away. Even if they don’t respond.Today is the day to tell them exactly what they mean to you and you’ll be there for them because your heart and soul can’t change. It won’t change. Don’t compromise.

2). Christmas is not a day, or a holiday, it’s a mindset. The harsh glow of bad memories are ok even if they pierce you like extra-pointed ends of holly. The rotten ones are tough yet you must look behind them and work hard find the lessons that move you forward. Embrace what was and analyze how it made you the person you are today.

3). In times of despair, who will save your holiday? Be open to the signs. Be open to those you’ve been closed to before. You never know the lessons they’ll teach you, the memories they’ll create for you when you unpack the ornaments next Christmas.

4). Now is the time to tie up loose ends. With people. With money. Step back. Sever or foster ties with those who create energy, and cut away the ones who take it away. On occasion, you’ll be the one who’s cut and never truly understand why. There’s a humility, a frailty to being cut. It feels hopeless. Like a Christmas tree cast from upper floors. Then, out of nowhere – hope emerges.

At the end of the year, it’s a good idea to double-check the beneficiaries on your retirement accounts and life insurance policies. It’s also an opportune time to decide how you’re going to increase your contributions to retirement plans or work to pay off credit card debt in the new year.

My middle name is Michael. I demanded my mother have it changed after that Christmas. She obliged out of guilt. It was a way to always keep a special cousin in my heart.

After losing contact with my favorite cousin years ago, I found out last year that Michael died in 2008. Alone. From AIDS. In a motel room in upstate New York. He was dead for a week before they found him.

I wasn’t there. I never knew.

I missed my chance to tell him how much I loved him. How much he saved me that day. I sent a thought to him, as I stared at a friend’s cardboard fireplace. I asked Michael to forgive me. I thanked him for what he did for me.

Don’t miss your chance.

Today’s the day..

Your day to unfold love, gratefulness, blessings.

A day to find your fireplace. Your hearth.

Do it.