Friday, March 30, 2012

Our Colorado High


This year our son’s family’s spring break takes us to Winter Park, Colorado, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains - Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, the three grandkids ages 7, 4, and 19 months.

There is not much snow in these here Colorado parts, but ski slopes remain snow-covered and open. The rest of the terrain is brown. Brown mountains, brown roads, brown grass, bushes, and buildings.

The two older kids are skiers, having spent several Saturdays at ski schools. Mom and Dad joined the kids on the slopes, including ski lessons and lunch. What a deal! (thank you, Groupon).
                                                                                                                                   Grandma and Grandpa spent an interesting day exploring the slopes.  We do not downhill skill for several reasons including the cost and our age. We cross country ski and snowshoe. Having packed and schlepped our snowshoes West, we were anxious to use them.

Cross-country trails were snowless, but there was an alternative.

We snow shoed the ski slopes.

Most ski slopes in the West are in national parks. The land is accessible to everyone – for free. Skiers pay an astronomical amount of money not to ski down the slopes, but for the privilege of riding up the mountains in a chair lift, gondola or some other contraption. If an individual wants to walk up the mountain and ski down, they can do it – for free.

Snowshoeing is permissible on the slopes. We snow shoed the Turnpike, an easy-rated trail winding uphill around the base of the mountain (EZpass not needed!). The trail ends at Snoasis, a lodge on the slopes offering food, restrooms and warmth.

I could boast we walked half way up the mountain, which is what it felt like. Actually, looking at the trail map, Snoasis is not far from the bottom. It is where the ski school feeds the kids. It is where you can see young parents with leads on their tiny tots meandering down the hill, teaching our future winter Olympic wonder kids. Some were as young as three, maybe younger, and I am sure one or two were still in diapers.

It took us an hour at a very slow pace to reach Snoasis. The altitude, the steady uphill and our desire to savor the surroundings are all excuses for our turtle pace. Winter sports in early spring can be idyllic – warm days (it has averaged 50 degrees), fewer crowds, cheaper lodging. The skies are totally clear, the sun strong. I could have sat at a picnic table on the Snoasis patio all afternoon soaking up the rays.

The experience almost makes one forget the occasional meal time temper tantrums, the baby crying the two hour drive back to Winter Park from Steamboat Springs one day, an obstinate kid deciding he (or she) really does not want to do whatever activity is on the agenda, the evening melt-downs as totally exhausted, wiped out children and adults wind down.

Creating memories and a vacation to remember.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Westward Bound Once Again



 It has been three months since my last plane trip. Now once again hub and I are on a Southwest Airlines plane on our way to the stunningly beautiful, hopefully snow-covered, yet early spring warmth of the Rocky Mountains. We anticipate an action-packed week with the grandkids and their Mom and Dad.

But first we have to get there. Plane travel can be a stressful, tiresome and irritating activity, replete with long airport lines, crowds, the hassle of packing, stopping newspapers and mail, making sure the house is in order before leaving.

My husband cannot understand why I must clean the house before leaving for a vacation. We have been married forty years and he still is amazed when he has finished packing, rolls his suitcase out of the bedroom and finds me cleaning the kitchen. “Oh, yes, I forgot,” he says sarcastically, “the house has to be clean before we can leave.”

Not that it is clean most of the rest of the time – like when we are home. I am not a stickler for a clean house. My tolerance for clutter and mild chaos is fairly high. I will use every excuse imaginable to put off cleaning. The phone rings, I have to talk to a friend…Our elderly neighbor is sitting outside on his front porch; I must go over and say hello…I forgot to buy something I need for dinner. I will walk around to the grocery store and buy a few things…Time to check my e-mail…Snail mail call!

But leaving the house for several days requires more attention and diligence. What if our neighbor/house watcher needs to get into the house? What if something happens to me, hub, or both of us and family and friends need to enter the house?

If family or friends enter the house it will not be too messy. There are clean sheets on all the beds. The bathrooms are clean. I watered the plants. The refrigerator is just about empty, but there are provisions in the freezer.

I have strayed from my discussion of our so-far pleasant trip on Southwest Airlines.

Over the years we have spent a lot of time searching for the best flights (read: cheapest). We usually manage to find reasonable prices, unless we have to fly certain dates, such as around holidays. As a result we have experienced trips on a variety of different airlines, including Spirit Airlines, United, Delta, USAirways, Air Tran (purchased by Southwest recently), and American. I have a few points on several airlines. Hub does a lot of business travel and has accumulated numerous points on a couple of airlines. Sometimes we secure free flights, but that is becoming more and more difficult to do. Airlines have cut the number of flights and made it challenging and sometimes impossible to cash in mileage points.

But once again I wander. A lot of airlines now charge for any extras they can dream up, such as for the privilege of boarding early or checking bags.

Southwest allows passengers to check two bags apiece at no extra charge.  Our boarding process was quick and seamless. The seats are fairly comfortable. I have been on planes where the seats are very close together, providing minimal leg or shoulder room. The attendant gave the required opening safety and other announcements with a touch of humor.

Our westward bound trip is off to a good start. Colorado, here we come!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Everything is Relative, Including Corruption


We used to live in the great state of Pennsylvania, about 50 miles west of Philadelphia, in Lancaster, which most people know as Amish country. A couple of years ago we moved to a New Jersey shore community. At the time the news headlines – not only in New Jersey, but in PA and a lot of other places around the country - were all about the arrest of three mayors, two assemblymen and five rabbis, among 44 upstanding New Jersey citizens ensnared in a corruption scandal; specifically money-laundering.

This weekend a news story announced that New Jersey was the least corruptible state in our country. Who knew?

The results were from a study conducted by a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization, the Center for Public Integrity. I am sure they did their homework. What bothers me, interests me, confounds and amazes me, is that if New Jersey is the best, how bad are all the others?

New Jersey earned the highest grade, a B+ and 87 score. No A’s among the 50 states. The other states rounding out the top five were Connecticut, Washington, California, and Nebraska, all receiving B’s or B minuses. A varied lot they are.

The 50th state, the worst of the lot, the bottom of the pile? – Georgia, with a grade of F and score of 49. Other F states include Maine, Virginia, South Carolina, Michigan, South Dakota, and Wyoming. These states probably work at being at the bottom of the corruption pyramid. Or to put it another way, they do not work very hard at clawing their way to the top of the ethical, honest heap.

Why did New Jersey come out on top? Apparently an important criterion was not the amount or types of corruption, but the remedies for the maladies. Current Governor Chris Christie, as state’s attorney general for seven years, won corruption cases against more than 100 public officials.

But my guess is even ex-Attorney General and current Governor General Christie cannot entirely erase Jersey’s infamous past. Jersey’s notorious saga of corruption is portrayed (forever) in the movie On the Waterfront and the HBO series The Sopranos.

And then there is HBO’s recent series Boardwalk Empire, which is not all about Atlantic City’s squeaky clean public officials and private businessmen. The history of Atlantic City can be represented by a long list of corrupt and/or inept mayors and other public officials. Google “New Jersey corruption” and you get 27,100,000 results, the first of which is, “the latest news on political corruption and arrests in NJ” on the corruption page of nj.com: http://www.nj.com/corruption/

PA received a grade of C- (71). Google Pennsylvania corruption and you only get 19,800,000 results. New York – my home state – received a D with a 65 score.

Want to know your state’s grade on the corruption scale? Check out the Center for Public Integrity’s map and results here (for grade score) and here (for numerical score, grade and ranking).
Meanwhile the weather is beautiful, the skies bright blue, not a cloud anywhere, the flowers are blooming and the weeds are starting to proliferate. Gardening time soon!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Are Large Financial Institutions our Friends or the Enemy?


I posted this article on my other blog today, From Rags to Richards, with the title, Are Financial Institutions in the Business of Screwing the Client? I think the topic is important enough for everyone to think about.

Yesterday a Goldman Sachs executive publicly quit his job. He did so in a rather spectacular manner. No private letter to the human resources department. No closed door meeting with his boss. No quiet cleaning out of his desk and, voila, one more employee quietly slips out the door.

Greg Smith let the whole world know why he was leaving the venerable financial institution. His open letter to his employer was printed on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. It became an immediate sensation.

Mr. Smith wrote that, when he joined the firm twelve years earlier, he was proud of the firm and honored to be a member of their team. At the time, he writes, the corporate culture, “revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.” He goes on to say that the culture radically changed. Making money off the clients is now the company’s top priority. “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.”
 
The picture Mr. Smith describes of Goldman’s corporate culture is nothing new or shocking, except for the fact that Goldman has traditionally been considered one of the good guys.

Dealing with large financial institutions has always been risky business. Following the stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression a series of laws regulating banks and other financial institutions were passed. The goal was to make the firms safer and more secure for customers.

One of the laws, the Glass Steagall Act, established a wall between investment banking and securities trading, and commercial banking operations. Over the years federal bank regulators eased the restrictions. In their wisdom Congress repealed the law in 1999. Banks could now participate in investment banking, securities trading, and commercial activities – no strings attached. And they did so with a vengeance.

The result contributed to the financial debacle less than a decade later. But I guess that is another story. The point is that many, if not most, large financial institutions are not client-first oriented.

One of the most famous scandals, and examples of the client-be-damned attitude of many financial professionals and their employers, is the dot-com bubble. Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodgett is just one of the infamous scoundrels who earned a fortune convincing clients to buy stock in companies he (and his firm) knew were rubbish. He wrote glowing reports of companies to clients while vilifying the same companies in internal corporate e-mails. Merrill executives were involved in helping Enron prop up the company’s income and cash flow prior to the company’s sudden collapse. Meanwhile shareholders were clueless about back-office shenanigans.

Large financial institutions are not our friends. They never were and probably never will be. I like to bank at community banks whenever possible (we have no control over our mortgage holder, for example). Local banks may not offer as many perks and services, but their priority is not to wring every penny they can from me, either. Just last week Wells Fargo announced plans to end free checking in six states and charge a $7 monthly fee, unless account holders keep a minimum of $1,500 in their account or direct deposit at least $500 a month.

Once again I digress. The moral of the story is do not blindly follow investment advice from bank employees (who are eager to sell annuities and other high-commission securities) or other investment professionals. Do your homework and feel confident the investment meets your needs – not the financial institution’s.

My personal opinion, totally worthless of course, is that many financial institutions do not care about their clients and are definitely not our friends – especially the little guy. Walk in with a multi-million dollar account and it may be different, but most of us do not have that kind of nest egg. There are ethical, client-oriented, honest companies and financial professionals out there. Sometimes it just seems they are hard to find.