Doors you Open. Doors you Close – Four Ways to Know the Dangers.

Originally posted on Random Thoughts of a Money Muse:

At 4:45am. Every day. Even Sundays. She smelled like cherries. Sourced from somewhere. Her hair. Her skin. Her moving silhouette near a window, a small lamp reflecting on a sheer, white nightgown. I can see from the doorway. I can feel her spirit.

Not real cherries. Well, they were from nature. Once. Before the sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride polluted them. Transformed them into a syrupy, cherry-like Frankenstein concoction called Maraschino. That was the scent I detected. It hung heavy in the hall. In the mornings. Every morning. Seventh floor of a majestic, tall apartment complex.Ocean Parkway. Brooklyn. 1975.

Maraschino Sexy

I exited the elevator below her. Always. Floor 6. Nerves. Excitement. Fright. Anticipation – Mrs. Antolini’s donut breakfast. Strategically tucked. In a corner. Where the welcome mat joined the bottom of the front door. A brown paper bag. Inside a glazed beauty – carefully (lovingly) wrapped in wax paper. Precious…

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Why You Must Embrace The Darkness In The Window.


He walks the parameter. His gait is firm, deliberate. Boots firm along the detritus that rises away from where earth meets rolled steel.

Dry underneath.

No blood mud.

At night the Georgia sky acts as a boundless amplifier.

The vocals of the dead embrace the clear. They strangle and replace the sounds of nature and absorb into the black pitch of forest decay.

Guttural moans shower from the pine tops in bloodletting cascades.

The steel girders around the complex of Alexandria might as well be toothpick. The walls, tissue.

He stops. He doesn’t believe in the wall. Yet thankful it’s there. For now it stakes a boundary between the then and now.

Life and death stagger along the same carpet of forest pine needles.

Quiet. Then a rising. The world is ripping itself apart in harmonized human, once human voices. A death train on the tracks. Only in brief moments does the drone of cicadas and crickets provide white noise to drown out the necropolis in the darkness.

The anguish of rotted cords are like a smooth-running turbine oiled in coagulation. It replaces the warm sounds of autumn with an off-tuned death prattle. 

He’s slipping. He knows. He hears the good. Listens to the evil.

Sooner or later the mind cannot separate fact from fiction. The barricade between them is a membrane pulled like taffy between sanity and insanity.

“I understand. The light and dark, the safe and the danger, can no longer be separated. The deep lines between them are gone.”

Rick places his ear against cold metal and listens to hell on the other side. He places his hand against steel. The wall vibrates a low hum against his palm. It speaks to him. He feels what it says.

“Safe is an illusion. No longer be fooled.”

It’s night. Past 11. He can’t sleep. The moon-shine exposes dread in his eyes.

He’s lived on each side of the wall for so long, in his mind and heart. He’s felt safe when he shouldn’t. In the world around him where good and evil co-exist, he believes the blackness is winning. It’s only a matter of time…

He speaks. Softly to no one. 

“I can’t tell the dark from the light anymore.”

Rick at walking dead wall

A character development analysis for the AMC hit drama “The Walking Dead.”


Right around 6pm. In the blue-orange shade of autumn dusk, the terror is restless.

The dark flows. It creeps on spider legs in a pendulum moving across the sky. It waits its turn. Away from low-evening sun’s reflection.

Slivers of black stay small in the shadows of a harvest moon.

shadow moon

Behind rows of single-pane glass, a ground-floor visual to the playground long ignored and overcome by ravenous scrubland. Built with good intentions. To entertain children of a post-war Brooklyn baby boom. Those kids were never to return. Grateful to be gone. I envied the ones who got out.

Good intentions were lost on the youth of the 70s who perceived the location as treacherous as parked cars along Shore Parkway. When the odds of Son of Sam shooting you in the face were just too great to risk the adventure.

A leprous, asphalt square, bordered by shake-chain fencing, littered with weeds (they seemed to live forever) and crushed beer cans. The shriveled after-life of condoms. Squirly, white rubber slip bottoms longed to push you from the earth. Return you closer to…

Spot droplets trapped in bottles of Boone’s Farm’s finest brew. The acidity of alcohol and apple close enough to your nose to water the eyes. Jagged glass longing to take out your eyes.

son of sam

After all, black sky, urban muck and human dredge combined are not for the timid. Best to be inside before nightfall. To keep out the demons, I used roofing nails through shabby wooden window frames to fortify my bedroom from intruders.

A typical (atypical?) 8 year-old boy’s bedroom: G.I. Joe. Nestled in the map room of his official headquarters. Every horror plastic model kit Aurora molded. Seams glued tight, parts painstakingly painted, proudly displayed on a desktop.

aurora monsters

Clear 100-watt GE luminaries (5) drowned the room in electric fire.

GE Bulb

White walls merged to sharp lines. Electric blaze magnified the reflection of gloss lead paint in the corners. Enough to make me squint.

I imagined the wall blades as swords. They were to slay the evil that gamboled among the cracked and pocked foundation beyond the bricks. I know they cavorted on fossilized wood of busted teeter totters. Day-glo orange paint appeared to be nibbled away from the ends of the sees. And the saws. Now, jagged like spears gnawed on by night creatures with sharp teeth.

I fooled myself into believing that I could protect against my fear.

In my mind, they were there. The strangers. Their stares real and imaginary, froze my blood. Through the pane they would enter. Eyes first.

Darkness was how the guilty busted through the membrane of the innocent. Eager to steal everyone and everything you love. Because people got killed in the black. Oh, there was plenty of death in the daylight. I could deal with that. Not afraid.

In the dark things changed. Danger was just more dangerous in the dark.

darkness eyes

The ice tumor block in my femoral told me so.

At 8 years old, my panic rose as weak sun slid below the horizontal dirt line where the feet of bums and other suspicious characters met piles of dog shit along McDonald Avenue.

My insomnia lasted years. I rarely slept.

I walked a quiet hallway most nights until dawn. White socks slid across cheap slat wood to cause less creak. A lingering odor of heavy shellac blasted my nasal passages.

I watched my parents sleep. Not sure how my mother slept through dad’s apnea.

Thinking: “How could they with all the horror about to break loose?”

Hell, I was dreaming “The Purge” before it ever became a movie idea. I should be a fucking billionaire already. Jesus.

The Purge

My transistor AM frequencies remained hot all night. With robotic and manly yet comforting resonance, the overnight voices working the microphones at New York’s “all news all the time” station 1010 WINS, feverishly reported on five boroughs of insidious nocturnal activity. Obviously, the radio aloud in full evening murder alert was stupid. Ironically, I was comforted by the voices. The radio people were the good guys. Go figure.

The dark I despised hit full steam when Channel 5 WNYW TV shifted over to death mode. Sounded its nightly warning siren – “It’s 10pm: Do you know where your children are?”

Where and who were these kids? Were they dead? Why was a local TV station asking? And EVERY NIGHT? Without fail. Was that necessary? The visual that complimented the ominous query was eerie –

Black & white. Picture an urban park deep in a concrete jungle. Rows of swings. Empty. Still. Except one. Moving. Like a kid just jumped and ran. Or worse – This child was abducted. Fade to black.

How would parents not know where their children were? If you didn’t know by 10pm, oh yeah, they were missing or dead.

And who the hell is swinging at that hour?

The demons required the playground for their evening monkeyshines. So they snatched the children of irresponsible parents, whisked them off to place cordoned from the light, and braised them as the main course of a hellish feast.

I knew it.

As I age, I’ve grown to fear “fear” less. As a matter of fact, I’ve grown exhilarated in battle. Facing the darkness in the window has made me stronger than I’ve ever been. My will, my mind is steeled to fight. To overcome.

You must embrace the darkness in the window. Then you can transform it. Tame it. Control it. No. Better yet. Let it be. You don’t need to control it. Why? Because you can see the light in the dark. It’s at that point, fear retreats or dies.

Rick Grimes is “in-between the shades,” as I describe it for the sixth season of The Walking Dead.

Rick Grimes dark

In our lives, we go through turbulent periods when we exist “between the shades.” It’s a vacuum of growth even though you don’t think so. It’s a time when you’ll fear the darkness because you haven’t embraced it. But you will. Eventually.

Victory arrives for those who can’t tell the difference “between the light and dark anymore.” What appears to be evil may be just the thing that saves you.

Random Thoughts:

Don’t fear the stranger in the window. He’s always there. It’s you. It’s the part of yourself you can’t face but must to move on. Nobody ever broke into our apartment. Never were there eyes in my bedroom glass. I created something that didn’t exist because something inside my light was missing.

The eyes of the non-nondescript stranger haunted me for years. I realize now it was the gatekeepers. Those who created rules, like my parents, I never wanted to follow but thought I must. Well, it was the gatekeeper in myself. In a dark place that taunted me.

It’s 10pm. I wanted to be one of the kids swinging in the dark. 

The demon in the backyard said no.

Once I learned to see the keepers, identify them, I learned how to fight because a corporate intruder came after me with a vengeance. I was pushed into a fight of my life. I emerged victorious.

I now can rummage through the black with comfort and find my diamonds. So can you.

Embrace the black. You’ll fight kicking and screaming as you get pulled into the dark. You’ll torch thousands of lightbulbs to avoid the stranger. Stop thrashing and get pulled in. Just for a bit. You’ll see. In the dark there are shiny lessons. You’re getting stared at through the window. What is it? Who is it? Is it you?

With age comes less fear. Kids fear stuff because they don’t know better. As adults we do too but should know better. The people who embrace the stranger, twill not feel comforted wedged in dark cubicle corners. They’ll show the stranger and his beasts they’re not afraid and fight to understand what lurks in the dark. Friend or foe?

As an adult, every pivotal experience has helped me take a footfall across the jagged bottle, a discarded condom. My fingers have slid gently across formed blades of a forgotten teeter-totter. I walk that backyard in my sleep now. Slow. I’m outside, exposed in the night. I place my hand against poor masonry of an aged urban dwelling. I feel like I belong. The hum. The cold is warm.

I can leave this space anytime I like. With a lesson. I wave to them, the devils. They return the favor. Nod their heads.

Where’s your dark place with money? There’s a black spot on your finances. It prevents you from embracing and building wealth. Not the gatekeepers definition of wealth, either. Yours.

Understanding your perspective about wealth is the first step. The discovery process will push you “in-between the shades.” Like when I closed the white shade in my childhood bedroom.

The thin membrane I believed protected me from the black rot on the other side. My thin wall. It vibrated when touched. I have a definition of money that crosses me emotionally, spiritually. Physically. You’ll need to face what holds you back from generating wealth.

Touch the wall of your soul.

Listen to it resonate.

Know what’s on the other side.

Embrace it to survive. Know your enemies in the dark. And in the light.

They thrive in both.

Now, you’re a force.

More dangerous than you’ve ever been.

In this world.

The world before.

You are more than one.

You are a herd.

You are heard.

the herd

Six Ways The Living Are Dead With Their Money.


A version of this writing appears in Nerdwallet, &

Zombies have gone mainstream in pop-culture due primarily to the popular cable television show – AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Wandering corpses are scary. Financial dead zones are equally frightening.

wandering zombies

There are situations that corner money in a dangerous place.

The habits are so stealth you may never calculate how many dollars were bled or lost.

There are indeed occasions when the living are dead with their cash.

Random Thoughts on how to protect yourself and avoid financial ‘zombie traps.’

Bank fees can chip away at the flesh and blood of net worth – Moebs Services a leading economic research firm in a recent study discovered that overdraft revenue for banks, credit unions and Thrifts was an astounding $32.5 billion for the year ending June 2015. That’s the highest level since June 2010.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau registered approximately 410,000 complaints from December 2011 to June 2015. What’s amazing is that out of them only 1.6% were attributed to overdrafts. Consumers lost billions in fees by overdrawing accounts, but rarely took issue with a median $27 dollar fee for protection. Talk about bleeding dollars!

To avoid or minimize this zombie trap link-up a savings account or credit card to your checking. For an average charge of $5, money will transfer automatically to cover.  You can actively opt-out of a bank’s automatic overdraft program, too. Even better – Consider institutions with no overdraft fees. Google Nerdwallet and check their list of banks that won’t bloody you with overdraft charges.

Don’t ignore 401K allocations.  Your company retirement account is a potential dead zone. Once money is invested, there are two potential, lethal bites to net worth. First, there’s a tendency to build a stealth overweight in company stock whether it’s through payroll contributions or employer match.

The danger arises when 15% or more of your liquid assets are tied up in one investment and it underperforms or worse – drops dramatically in price, as witnessed in the energy sector over the last year. To manage risk, once (if) the stock allocation becomes monstrous, or 15-20% of the total value of a retirement account, protect yourself and trim it back to less than 15%.

Second, there’s a tendency to invest and forget: In other words, employees rarely review, alter or rebalance holdings. Money requires attention to deflect a zombie pitfall. Set aside 30 minutes every 3 months to ensure investment selections still fit your tolerance for risk, sell (take profits) from what’s performed the best, and determine whether you’re comfortable with your overall mix or asset allocation. Consider using the services of a Certified Financial Planner to provide an objective analysis of current investments and specific recommendation changes.

Minimum credit card payments. According to Nerdwallet, as of October 2015, U.S. household average credit card debt is $16,140. In zombie environs, this balance would be considered a herd. A group of living dead that moves as one, like waves. They overwhelm everything in their path.

So, if the minimum payment is roughly 5% of the balance (plus interest) at an interest rate of 15% (U.S. median), it would take close to 11 years to pay off the balance (assuming you stop using the card). Yikes. Talk about dead money!

In addition, you would incur $5,327 in interest charges. Minimum payments are not adequate weapons against herds. You’re going to need more firepower. Consider special deals that come with balance transfer offers, use liquid savings (which currently pay close to zero), or call the credit card company and ask for a lower rate – I’ve witnessed people negotiate attractive rates and save thousands.

Stealth, recurring charges. They are the most horrific. They’re like zombies in the fog. You won’t notice until it’s too late. Recently, after a close examination of my credit card statements, I discovered a quarterly payment of $9 dollars to a forgotten newsletter. I’m ashamed to say this had been going on for TWO YEARS. I bled money for 8 quarters!

Think about the recurrent payments you haven’t cleaned up because they’re a nuisance or frankly, you don’t remember. Debits for subscription periodicals you no longer read or membership fees for services you rarely use. This living dead walks among your credit balances. Just look.

PRINT (no online review) and closely examine your credit card and checking account statements at the minimum on a quarterly basis. Be proactive to battle the fog zombies. Call vendors to not only stop future debits but to reimburse you for services you haven’t used. I did. They rebated four quarters of charges.

Paying extra on a mortgage. Borrowers love to pay extra on their mortgages. It feels good. Like a cure that protects against lethal zombie bites. It isn’t. Most homeowners will stay in their residences for 5 years (not 30). Making larger payments is money taken from the life blood of liquidity. The additional cash has the potential for greater and higher uses like reducing high-interest debts, building emergency liquid reserves, bolstering investments that will be needed to generate retirement income. Unless you plan to remain in a house for 10 years or longer, paying extra only makes sense if you have adequately funded investments or completely paid off debts.

Overlooking important employer benefits. Benefits enrollment season is about to begin. Annually, I observe employees make mistakes that leave their futures up to chance. For example, they fail to take medical coverage or feel disability insurance isn’t required since “nothing bad is going to happen.”

There are hazards that have potential to wield long-term damage. A serious illness or a disability without adequate insurance coverage leaves you exposed to unrecoverable financial shocks. It would be like fending off a bunch of ravenous zombies with a plastic teaspoon.

It’s smart to accept when you’re outnumbered. To survive, transferring risk to a fighter with great resources (like an insurance company), is a money-smart way to live.

The dead can devour money.

They have an appetite for poor financial decisions.

Now you know how to detect and destroy them.

And live a zombie-free, financially less-frightening life.

zombie comic

4 Reasons To Embrace An Imperfect Retirement Plan.


A version of this writing appears in MarketWatch.

The recent downturn in the stock market has placed an important decision on the back burner.

It’s not strange to change direction through a storm of uncertainty. Through a volatile period it’s not unusual to move a retirement date out, continue to collect a paycheck, bolster savings and reduce debts.

I hear it often – “I’ll work just one more year.”

The working dead

On the surface, it feels right to wait.

I call it ‘failure to launch.’

There’s never an opportune time to retire, regardless of the preparation and the formal financial planning undertaken to ensure lift-off. Frankly, even when the stock market is on solid footing people tend to find reasons to delay the next step.

It’s perfectly understandable. It’s human to feel vulnerable at the crossroad of a life-changing moment especially when the moment has arrived.

The financial planning process can inadvertently exacerbate “launch dysfunction.” It’s also in a planner’s nature to be conservative and advocate a decision to wait for a better time (whenever that is).

I’ve discovered after hundreds of retirement discussions and volumes of plans delivered, that the decision to wait is rooted in an overdependence on the successful outcomes of formal retirement plans designed to predict the survivability of assets to meet lifestyle expenses for three decades or longer.

But is that practical?


Before you decide to undergo retirement planning, you must make peace with the fact that the entire process is extraordinarily imperfect, like you and me.

Retirement plans are 20% science and 80% forecast (or art).

Unfortunately, there are elements you will never be able to predict with complete accuracy. You may not live to 95 even though you believe it to be true.  Future market returns are an educated guess at best.

Instead of waiting for every financial star to align before retirement, consider the following random thoughts:

You’re better off with formal retirement planning, than not. People who begin formal planning early on, five to ten years before retirement, increase the odds of a successful launch date compared to those who begin late or not at all.

A plan which includes a complete inventory of assets, liabilities and future goals coupled with assumptions for inflation and realistic future investment return simulations helps you gain invaluable intelligence early that can be used to create an ongoing action plan to validate positive financial habits and minimize the impact of weaknesses.

A plan is not right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful. It’s not a threat, or a reason to be chastised for poor fiscal behavior. The first iteration is the start of a long-term educational process, an awareness and ongoing tuning of financial strengths that apex at a launch point I call ‘escape velocity.’

Consider escape velocity a financial trajectory that launches a retiree successfully through the first decade of expenses and withdrawals with minimal negative impact to investment assets. Academic studies outline how the first ten years of asset drawdowns is crucial to the survival of a portfolio over the next twenty.

Within a plan, your financial life is run through a simulation to determine probabilities of success which comes down to your money lasting as long as you do (or longer if you wish to leave assets behind for others).

You’ll see, how in the face of withdrawals and changing market returns, your asset values ebb and flow. Through great bull markets (best case), bear markets (worst case hope not) and somewhere in between.

If your assets can make it through the first ten years successfully. And I mean at a 75% or greater probability of success, you are ready to launch into imperfect retirement mode as long as expenses are monitored annually and changes are made to reduce lifestyle expenses.

I’m not saying it’ll be clear sailing. Or you won’t need to adjust mid-flight: Work part-time, cut costs, downsize.

Most likely, you will.

I’m saying there’s a delicate balance at stake. A point of no return to consider.

Either retire early enough to enjoy the experience, forsake a perfect planning outcome, take a leap of faith, or wait until your probabilities of success through the worst market cycle is 95% or greater. By then it may be too late due to health issues and aging. The retirement you hoped for may be one you regret.

You see, this is the art part. When you’re planning to travel a path three decades long, science fades into the dark pitch of road and creativity and faith take over, more often than not.

Mentally, you must let go of perfection and consider multiple detours to navigate the imperfect.

Be overly (insanely) cautious the first five years.  Academic work by financial planner, speaker and educator Michael Kitces and Professor Wade Pfau outlines how your asset allocation should be conservative in the early stages of retirement, especially in the face of lofty stock valuations.

Generally, I have retirees reduce equity exposure by 20% at the beginning of retirement and I’m not opposed to holding 2-5 years’ worth of cash or cash equivalents for withdrawals and to eventually purchase stocks at lower prices.

You’re thinking cash doesn’t earn anything. Well, it doesn’t lose anything, either. You can make up losses due to inflation. Principal erosion due to market losses is an entirely different story.

What most investors do not realize currently is that they could hold cash today and in five years will likely be better off. However, since making such a suggestion is strictly “taboo” because one might “miss some upside,” it becomes extremely important for measures to be put into place to protect investment capital from downturns.

Friend and business partner Lance Roberts provides the following chart which outlines the inflation adjusted return of $100 invested in the S&P 500 (using data provided by Dr. Robert Shiller).

The chart also shows Dr. Shiller’s CAPE ratio. We capped the CAPE ratio at 23x earnings which has historically been the peak of secular bull markets in the past. Lastly, we calculated a simple cash/stock switching model which buys stocks at a CAPE ratio of 6x or less and moves to cash at a ratio of 23x.

The value of holding cash has been adjusted for the annual inflation rate which is why during the sharp rise in inflation in the 1970’s there is a downward slope in the value of cash.

However, while the value of cash is adjusted for purchasing power in terms of acquiring goods or services in the future, the impact of inflation on cash as an asset with respect to reinvestment may be different since asset prices are negatively impacted by spiking inflation. In such an event, cash gains purchasing power parity in the future if assets prices fall more than inflation rises.

The importance of “cash” as an asset class is revealed.

While the cash did lose relative purchasing power, due to inflation, the benefits of having capital to invest at low valuations produced substantial outperformance over waiting for previously destroyed investment capital to recover.

While we can debate over methodologies, allocations, etc., the point here is that “time frames” are crucial in the discussion of cash as an asset class. If an individual is “literally” burying cash in their backyard, then the discussion of loss of purchasing power is appropriate. However, if the holding of cash is a “tactical” holding to avoid short-term destruction of capital, then the protection afforded outweighs the loss of purchasing power in the distant future.

Cash is not exciting. However, the excitement at the beginning of retirement should be about the memories you build, not the money you can potentially lose in stocks.

Real value of cash

Cover as much fixed expenses as possible with income you can’t outlive. Maximizing Social Security payouts and minimizing taxes on those payments by coordinating benefits received with withdrawals from investment assets, can add thousands to your household cash flow over a lifetime.

Social Security is an income stream you can’t outlive and should not be discounted in your retirement analysis. It needs to be a crucial element of your written plan.

Creating a pension through the use of deferred income or single-premium annuities can supplement social security and bolster your income for life.

Investors fear annuities. Financial pundits on the radio and in print advise how annuities “are bad.” If you’re purchasing annuities, you’re most likely taking money away from them as advisors. Understand the motives behind negative blanket statements about annuities.

Not all annuities are the same.

Consider the word annuity means “a fixed sum of money paid to someone each year, typically for life.”

Social Security is an annuity, right?

The combination of Social Security plus income annuities can be employed to cover expenses you must pay – think rent, food and insurance. Leaving your variable assets like stocks as supplements to your income requirements.

Avoid variable annuities. They are unnecessary and expensive. When you think negatively about annuities, it’s the variable ones you’re most likely referencing.

Decrease cash outflow throughout retirement.  The first two years of retirement is a soul-searching expedition. It’s also a period where I witness retirees highly sensitive to stress and anguish from having too much ‘stuff,’ large homes and big overhead.

Reducing financial pressure by going smaller generates great emotional benefits. Monetary bandwidth can be built into your budget. If you’re prepared to reduce portfolio withdrawal rates through rough market periods without seriously inhibiting your lifestyle, then an imperfect retirement mindset can work.

An imperfect retirement strategy is not “set it and forget it.”

Throughout, you must be willing to regularly meet with your financial partner to analyze withdrawals market cycles and adjust accordingly. In addition, you need to be receptive to change and flexibility. Even be open to part-time employment to increase household income.

Because waiting for perfection is not practical or realistic.

And a life is at stake.


imperfect striving

From Accumulation to Distribution: A Retirement Crossroad.

Richard M. Rosso, CFP:

In retirement, follow again what makes you human. Re-discover what you lost before you were a slave to the clock.

Originally posted on Random Thoughts of a Money Muse:

As originally appeared in MarketWatch’s Retirement Weekly.

What’s been my greatest advice to people once they seriously consider retirement?

No it’s not create a budget.

It’s watch the movie “Castaway.”

Castaway one

Take notes. Life is about to get bumpy.

Money is at the bottom of the life list for surprises. There are enough academic studies that prove how people with formal retirement planning are more successful than those who don’t plan.

No, there’s another storm front to weather.

In the 2000 film Tom Hanks portrays a frenetic FedEx systems employee obsessed with time and productivity. During a Christmas evening flight to Malaysia, his delivery plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. He is violently tossed and cast to a remote island where he remains trapped and surrounded by cascading ocean currents. Over four years, while loved ones consider him lost (they had a funeral), and the love of his life marries and…

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A Houston Lesson – Be “One” & “Someone” To A Happy Retirement.


A version of this writing appeared on MarketWatch.

There’s a controversy brewing in Houston.

The conflict between the “one” and the “someone,” is highly visible, to thousands of commuters to see.

Painted on the side of an overpass, for as long as I can remember, at least 17 years, those heading south on a bustling freeway have grown accustomed to the weather-worn message.

“Be Someone.”

Be Someone

Between ominous rusted-steel teeth at the mouth to downtown, I find myself looking for it, expecting the usual sight of what has become a faded element of the urban landscape.

I laugh to myself every time I pass. Why do I care? Is it tradition? Beacon? Wisdom? No idea. I think -Who shall I be today? Can my identity stand the elements and test of time? Will my integrity allow me to remain or be someone?


An unidentified culprit painted over, messed with the message.  A word that completely changed the tone was gone.

The day “BE SOMEONE” became “BE ONE.”

Be One

No longer was I someone. A vandal’s vandalism of vandalism merged me into life’s traffic? Houston’s road congestion is bad enough, now this, too.

I wasn’t the only one disrupted by the alteration.

There was local news coverage. Television, radio, print.

Then, as quickly as media attention emerged, an urban hero yet to be named, wronged a graffiti right.

In fresh paint, “BE SOMEONE” was back.

The message in the infrastructure had returned.

Throughout retirement, you will travel the roads, switch lanes between “BE ONE” and “BE SOMEONE.”

The best way to avoid surprises and maximize life in retirement, is to hit the gas.

Embrace both.

A “BE SOMEONE” mindset is you as you stand apart from others.

A “BE ONE” frame of reference arises as you stand together as a share of a greater whole.

Random Thoughts:

Be Someone: Retirement is the opportunity to re-awaken your true identity, rekindle inner passions. Relish the time to march to your own beat, again.

I consult with retirees who are forging a road to awareness and re-connection to what was important to them in the past. I call it a “re-acquaintance list.”

This is no bucket exercise. A bucket list is compiled of grandiose experiences, at least in my opinion. A re-acquaintance list is small in comparison yet ongoing. Like a support bridge underfoot that hasn’t been traveled completely – It’s what makes/made “you” well, “you.” It’s a return to simple passions that lead to greatness which I define as joy and richness of soul.

The relevance of career goals fade.

Greatness is achieved through less monumental actions which occupy slow whispers of time. It’s when the greatness of “be someone” is realized. For retirees, it’s a return to desires they needed to place on the backburner to earn a living, like reading or painting.

Also, they’re seeking educational and lifestyle enrichment by selecting retirement residences that exist on college campuses. For example, The Forest at Duke University offers apartments and single-family homes in a 40,000 square-foot independent wellness community. There is access to private primary care or skilled nursing in a lush, tranquil setting.

What retirees find most attractive about these communities is the chance to fully embark on the “be someone” concept. The Forest offers lifelong learning through regular in-house programs like lectures and resources by local scholars. In addition, the initiative to nourish the mind, body and spirit is appealing with access to performing arts, ballet, yoga and guided mediation. Residences may be apartments or single-family homes for an entry payment and a monthly service fee which is inclusive of all living expenses including meals.

Be One: To “be one” is to be a participant in something bigger. Here, your identity is at its best when part of a greater mission. People who remain engaged with former co-workers, provide deep experience into current projects, and participate in weekly or monthly rituals with friends or those in their communities appear most fulfilled through retirement.

An engineer who retired in 1996 still meets his high school buddies for dinner once a month on Thursdays. The members of this group have never missed a date. Unfortunately, several have passed.  However, that hasn’t stopped the ritual.

In 2010, a project manager known for her skills to assemble an effective team accepted a severance package from a large pharmaceutical company. She still mentors and continues friendships with those she hired throughout a 24-year tenure.

Active retirees are involved in coffee groups. Regular meetings of people who bond over hot coffee and highly-caffeinated morning conversation. From Perry, Iowa to Hartwick, New York, these gatherings have been in existence close to a decade and contribute to mental acuity through community, support, active listening and verbal engagement. There’s no room for technology like smartphones or tablets, either.

Be Someone:  March to your own drummer, walk the path that brokerage firms purposely choose to ignore and your portfolio will last as long as you do.

In a recent edition of the Journal of Financial Planning, Wade Pfau, professor at The American College re-visited the Trinity Study which appeared in the February 1998 issue of the Journal of the American Association of Individual Investors.

One of the blackest holes at brokerage firms is their continued reluctance to review, update, and contradict any study that was valid during the greatest bull market in history which was an outlier, not a common occurrence.

After all, it’s in the industry’s best interest to perpetuate the myth that stocks are a panacea regardless of cycles. Academics like Wade Pfau are leaders of the “be someone” movement and his work is crucial to your financial success in retirement.

The Trinity Study was published in 1998. The focus of the analysis was to determine the probability of portfolio success upon withdrawing 4% annually (adjusted for inflation), with a mix of long-term corporate bonds and the S&P 500 stock index. With a 50/50 asset allocation, the portfolio survived in 95% of historical rolling 30-year periods.

Per Wade Pfau, who updated the study in the August 2015 edition of the Journal of Financial Planning, today’s markets matter more to the sustainability of portfolio survival than historical outcomes.

Based on the current low interest rate environment and high stock market valuations, a sustainable 4% withdrawal rate will require a drawdown of principal. Income generated will not be enough. For new retirees this is especially dangerous as the first 10 years of portfolio withdrawals can alter permanently future portfolio longevity. If a retiree faces sequence of return risk whereby asset returns are below historical averages in the face of withdrawals that reduce principal, then portfolio success rates must be revised downward.

The outcome of the study is sobering: Wade Pfau’s simulations conclude that a portfolio with a 50% stock allocation now has a 64% probability of success with a 4% withdrawal rate, down from 95%. Success is reduced to 37% at a 5% rate.

Retirees must stay vigilant and examine portfolio withdrawals to be a step ahead of sequence-of-return risk. If portfolio distributions exceed income and appreciation for two consecutive years, withdrawal rates should be reduced for the upcoming period. It’s an exercise that should be conducted once a full year’s worth of liquidations are completed.

Be One: Retirees experience happiness when giving back to their communities. Schedule a couple of hours a week to explore a charitable passion. Serving others provides great reward for all involved. For greater fulfillment, a donation of time over money is healthier.

A list of non-profits seeking volunteers can be found in your area at You may filter by issues from “Animals” to “Women.”

From there, you can gather a deep understanding of how your non-profits of interest, operate. Written reviews by those who have donated and others who sought aid, are there to assist volunteers make informed charitable decisions.

I don’t know how the Houston “battle of the graffiti” will conclude.

Regardless, there are many ways to be “one” and “someone” in retirement. They can co-exist. Form a synergy.

In retrospect, “be both,” works.

Try it.

How a Daughter Goes From Killer to Savior at 30,000 Feet.


“I hate God!”

ten year screamng

I was less than an inch from my mother’s face. I could feel her breath. I spit in her eye by mistake. She was kneeling. Stare down at urban sunrise #1,201. This one? This one crossed boundaries.

Fleshy, fatty boundaries.

fat boy

The tiny, crucifix attached to my underwear every morning to “keep me under God’s care,” was a four-pointed golden thorn in my side. A ritual I had grown to dread. Years of passive-aggressive defiance went ignored. I had no say in this tradition passed on from God-knows-who.

It was a worthless exercise. At least to me.

Mom never missed a day. It was her thing.

The power of an undergarment idol was fleeting. I was hesitant to bring up the topic.

Perhaps it couldn’t get good reception or a signal from the heavens buried under three layers of clothing. The thickest corduroy Korvette’s carried. Like the rabbit ears on our old black & white Panasonic television, I didn’t trust “the cross” to do the job.

Religious “underpinnings” failed to protect from constant bullying (about my husky-sized everything). A huge miss.

Although, I come to believe that “God’s care” may have spared me the fate of the yearbook’s chubby road-bump of the year when Mr. K the third-grade gym teacher, speeding in his Pontiac, just missed turning my gut into the consistency of overcooked pasta.

To this day I believe he was intentionally seeking to run me down. I was never able to prove it. But I KNOW. The best news I heard last year was that he died two years ago.

Perhaps all that pinning finally kicked in. Nah.

Who am I kidding?

From diaper to big boy briefs, this small crucifix was a huge part of my childhood. A religious layer under layers. The safety pin increased in size, too – powerful and sharp enough to pierce undershirts and thick waistbands of white Fruit Of The Looms. It was the size of a small pocket knife. Against my skin it felt heavy, like an anchor. It was my personal spear.

Until that morning in October. I remember Mom’s delicate touch was uncharacteristically heavy. Her technique was sloppy. Like her eyes were closed. She had been fighting with dad all night. Non-stop since he staggered in from Delmonico’s after midnight. Her finesse now a fumbled mess of tangled fingers. I didn’t trust her to pin me with the usual grace. I kept looking down. Sweating. I tightened against what I believed was coming.

The pin penetrated like a hot blade. Deep through fat. Blood rolled down in a series of thick, bulbous drops and pooled at my feet now sweating and sticking to a heavily varnished wood floor.

All my exaggerated fears about this moment had come true.

What’s up Jesus? A nail in a cross. Now a pin in the abdomen? What gives?

Frustration and pain compelled me to unleash frustration in mom’s face. I was possessed. Perhaps she observed my father’s anger in me as I bellowed, cried at the top of my lungs.

“I hate God! No, I hate you, too!”

I knew I was dead. Disrespecting your mother in an Italian family doesn’t happen without dire consequences. It’s a no-win for a child. The repercussions are as close to fatal as you can get within the law. Not even police got in the middle of an Italian mother and her kid in the heat of a scolding.

The next move startled me. Her strike was a lightening bolt. Then a loud click between my ears. I felt warmth release from my nose and liquid down my throat. Since mom was lean, mostly bone, it was like getting slammed by a human sledgehammer.

The stab was nothing compared to the slap. The blood released immediately as my bleached-white crew neck t-shirt saturated red. To black.

I was petrified then.

And I am now.

Another female seeks blood. Terrific.

This time it’s my 17 year-old, 85 pound daughter.

Don’t let her petite frame fool you.

She’s a killer.


All of us die a little each day as our children grow. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, right?

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

killer daughter

I study her profile. Separated by an aisle on a flight from New York.

The salt of blood overwhelms my nose. I can taste it. I’m pinned to the aluminum skin of the aircraft.

I’m claustrophobic. I’m now the insane guy you read about who opens an EXIT door miles above the earth and gets sucked into the afterlife.

I’m sweating. Underneath my skin is ice.

It’s panic. Out of nowhere. My right hand is firm around one of the plastic handles on the door. The word EXIT is taunting, telling me that things will be better if I just listen.

One pull and I’m free.

Crazy thoughts bounce inside my head. They are loud enough to drown out the sound of engines.

I ring for the attendant. I need a Bloody Mary.

All I think about is how small I am. Insignificant. As a parent I hold little if any control over her. Or me.

I’m driving blind. I’m scared.  So is she. The thought escalates scare to hardcore terror. What roads will she travel? Alone. Together with another. With whom? I encourage her to consider a lesbian lifestyle. I tell her men don’t know how to wipe their asses good enough. Anything that gets her to switch teams. It’s not working. Yet. I give her advice that I know she can’t use. I’m not stupid enough to have a handle on most of what effects her. She’s her own person now. What did I miss? I know I missed something. What’s her greatest fear? I’m afraid to ask. Because I think it’s mine, too.

I’m headed for the handle on the EXIT door again. My grip is firm enough to white my knuckles.

I see my mother at 16. I study her delicate features. The cabin goes sepia. In her face and what’s beneath. In dark eyes. Pools of challenges thrive and collide. Nothing clear. Replete with angst.

From aisle seat to aisle seat I stare across and realize my mother has returned. The same edge separated by generations and together on this plane. Teetering between hope and hopelessness. A cutting blade. Back and forth inside me. The bleed I never wanted to experience again. A woman who shouldn’t have had children is alive again. Cast thee from my daughter, woman!

At times I’m hesitant to love her. It’s uncomfortable to be around her sometimes. I never closed the circle with the doppelganger. She’s a flesh mirror to the past. I see right through her and it’s my childhood, not hers. She clarifies and muddies everything.

I’m smashed in the nose thinking about the day in 2000 when my mother died on the other end of the phone while I was at work. I tried to give her peace, I did really. From my cubicle during a stock market crash. I cared more about what Intel stock was doing than stopping to comprehend that my mother would be dead before Ma Bell (she was a thing then), disconnected us.

I told her that grandpa was waiting. I heard her say she was sorry and then a man’s voice boomed in the receiver – “She’s gone.” I said nothing. Hung up. Went back to warm calling sales leads. Watching Intel. I didn’t leave work early. Didn’t think about it.

Until I finished the fake, expensive cocktail.

My daughter is frail. I see it. I accept and accommodate. Well, I accommodate. She’s delicate as a fine china plate with a crack in the middle. Her constitution sometimes strong, other times as light as tissue. I’m responsible. Well, my DNA is. It’s faulty. It carries the insanity gene. I was always scared of this. Now the ailments that took down a parent arise. The depression, especially. Today at least there’s medication. In the 70’s, psycho-doctors believed hooking your brain to electrodes and sending electricity through the head was a viable remedy.

I’m a marginal father at best. I’m not certain I’m wired for this parenting thing. I observe the actions of who I consider excellent dads and try to mirror them. I fail miserably. I hold back. Oh,on the surface I’m engaged but underneath I’m so nervous I can’t remain in the present long enough to enjoy the father/daughter moments.

I’m constantly slipping back 40 or so years to the time when I loved a woman so much yet she betrayed me by skipping out when I was a teen.

Maybe I’m not ready or mature enough to heal.

Until that return trip. Perhaps it was a lack of oxygen.

I realized that life-shifting changes do not need to arise from adversity. Sure, hardship ignites awareness. It happened for me in dramatic fashion on several occasions. However, I’ve learned that big decisions to alter course can be subtle. Uneventful. There’s a click in the head (I think) and a decision is made to change and never look back. And you don’t.

So I decide. Just like that.

She’s a savior. Not a killer.

Because that’s how easy it is.

To decide.

Random Thoughts:

I begin with gratefulness. My daughter is a connection to my past. I have been given another chance to heal by understanding through her, what my mother must have gone through at a time when depression and anxiety were ignored or denied. I know now mom must have suffered in silence. Little Italian girls were supposed to be perfect. No matter what. The impossible devil of perfection drilled into them daily. Now I get it. Finally.

All I do is try to be a better father every moment. In turn, my actions allow me to empathize and forgive a parent who battled but succumbed to the flames of inner demons.

I watched her burn. Did nothing to stop it.

I take that back.

I was ten years old. My mind was on Mad Magazine and masturbation. Not a 31 year old female with ignored mental illness in the midst of a seminal breakdown. I tried my best to understand and interpret adult situations.

I delivered cheerleader speeches. I’d stand on her bed pontificating like a midget politician  – “Mom, it’s you and me against the world – We can do it! We can get through this!”

Lots of tears. They did nothing. The drugs, the men, the alcohol, the fears, the electroshock treatments, drowned out my constant pleading for a short semblance of normalcy. Topless and drunk in the courtyard of our Brooklyn apartment building on a school morning was enough to seal my fate as the freak of the neighborhood. And still I tried.

Now I know there was nothing she could do.

woman burning

Through my daughter I forgive my mother for what I lost. A childhood.  I came to understand how the illnesses, the fears were too much to fight. I wish I had the opportunity to tell her that internal demons are scarier than hell. I wish I could say I understand why she had pinned that stupid cross to me every day without fail.

“Please God, don’t let him inherit my weaknesses. Protect him.”

female depression

It hit me. Sitting in the exit row. Finally.

Now I know. The ritual worked.

Big changes can happen without fanfare. Just decide. Don’t make it a big deal. Stay casual. Calm. Today I’ll save more. I’ll say no to lending money to others. I’ll find another job that pays more for what I’m worth. I’ll get up and go to the gym. The less you think about it and do it, the more successful you’ll be.

Like me.

When I decided. Released my grip on the exit.

And re-entered.

Accepted the truth.

I look down and read:

“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.”

Self Reliance – Essays First Series 1895 Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I have that cross. It’s a tarnished symbol after so many years.

Its power is gone.

Or is it?

As the plane landed, I couldn’t decide for sure.

I’m certain I never will.

And I’m at peace with that.