Thursday, June 22, 2017

My Beautiful Boy

"I'll see you soon. You be good."

That's what I said to Thor every day when I left the flat to go to work.  I would, and he would.  We kept our promises.  That's how friendships work.

I have written about him here before.  (you could look it up) Our relationship was forged from the first day we saw each other.  He in a cage at the PetsMart and me looking for a new companion.  Every other cat had a placard with an explanation of how they wound up there:  My owner was allergic.  I moved to a place that doesn't allow cats. He doesn't get along with my children. Etcetera.

Thor.  Just the placard with his name and age, "Between 1 and 2 years."  "How did he get here?" I asked.  Nobody at the store knew.  Somehow, he appeared - as if to wait for me?  When I took him out of the cage, he placed a paw on my cheek. The shelter women were aghast.  "He never does that with anybody!"
"OK then, I guess this is my cat," I said.
And the rest, as they say, is history.

I saw him through the loss of almost all of his teeth, pancreatitis, weight issues, and kidney disease - which would ultimately be his demise.  But, not without a fight.  I found solace in the fact that, if it weren't for me, he would not have lived the life he did.  He beat all of them, except the kidneys.  Logic tells us that four out of five cats succumb to it.  My heart tells me that he should have been the fifth.  

--------------------------------------------------

My home is empty now.  When I call, "Hey buddy, I'm home!" nobody comes to the door. He won't, except in my heart.  I'll always come home to his nose poking out of my door, waiting for his dinner.  You could sit on the deck and watch the birds, chew the grass in my flower pots, or just sun yourself in the warmth of its glow.  It made me happy to make you happy.

We humans don't get many chances to help. People can help themselves.  Machines run and fail.  Grass grows, and flowers bloom without our help.  With dogs and cats, we can pick them out of the darkness of their shelter cage and let them roam around our home and find their peace.  It's what makes life worthwhile for some of us.  

He returned the favor.  He gave me unconditional love. When my life stunk and I wanted to give up, I couldn't, because he depended on me, and I was grateful to be in his service.  It gave my life purpose to make him happy.

When he got sick, and needed fluid injections, pills, and special food to keep him going - it was a financial burden, but I took it on because I got a huge return on my investment - his love.

Eventually, as with all things, they come to an end.  If you want a pet that out-lives you, get a tortoise or a parrot.  Otherwise, you're doomed to relinquish their mortality on your emotional need.  That's just the way it is.

In Thor's case (and this is about him) I felt like I should have been able to do more - but there was no more I could do.  I couldn't force him to eat when he was so sick that food had no appeal. I couldn't make him sleep with me when all he wanted to do was be off on his own, under my desk.  He's a noble beast, and doesn't want me to see him at anything other than at his best, even though he was suffering.  It was his battle, not mine.  I wanted to make it mine, but he would have none of it.

Finally, the illness claimed him.  His tenacity and willpower would give-in to his pain, and he couldn't take it anymore.  I came home and found him on the bathroom floor - prone and listless. It was painful for me to see, and I selfishly hoped that he would pick himself up and make another run at his food, but no.  In fact, he had soiled himself, and when I got the carrier out to take him for his final vet visit, he climbed in as if to tell me, "It's time." He was crying, 'Uncle.'

The thought occurs:  When I came home tonight, I couldn't find him. Eventually, I found him prone in the bathroom - where he never was before - prone and listless. Perhaps he was there because he wanted me to find him, and knew that it would be the first place I looked? It's extraordinary, but it makes sense to think that he would have wanted help in his final hours, and knew that he had to be in the one place that was open.  They are smarter than us.

He fought a brave fight.  Daily fluid injections, four medications, and countless attempts at finding something that he would eat.  All for naught.  In the end, he was better than me.  He made the effort when I wanted to give up.  He wouldn't let me give up because he wasn't worth giving up on.

Until the end, when it was just too much for either of us to endure.  Finally, I had to say, "Goodbye."

You be good.  I'll see you soon.

Friday, June 16, 2017

CLEAN-UP IN AISLE FIVE

Unless you've been asleep in a cave, you heard that Amazon (AMZN) bought Whole Foods Markets (WFM) in a deal valued at $42 a share to Whole Foods shareholders, and $13.7 billion to Amazon.  It sent waves of concern through the stock market today, as investors of retailers everywhere started looking under their skirts for a sign that something might be creeping up on them.


All of those names you see above had their stocks hammered or at the very least, bitten into over this deal.  So, what's going on?  Are we headed toward a one-retailer world, or is this just yet another over-reaction to a short-term stimulus?  Or both?

One strange thing that happened is that Amazon's stock went up after the deal was announced, to a degree that equated to almost getting the Whole Foods property for free.  That's odd, especially since the deal was funded from debt.  Somehow, Amazon shareholders didn't care about that.  So, we'll wait for that other shoe to drop.
The other strange thing is that the stock of Whole Foods traded above the $42 offer price for most of the day, and closed at nearly $43.  That tells me one thing:  Somebody influential is expecting another offer to come to the table.  Will that happen?


CNBC analyst Karen Finerman thought that perhaps Walmart could step-in and make a counter-offer for more than the Amazon offer.  There's a low chance of that happening, but apparently, traders thought that there was enough of a shot that it was worth an extra dollar of share price in exchange for the risk.  Let's see what Whole Foods' shareholders have to say about this deal.  A 9% stakeholder, Jana Partners, has been putting pressure on Whole Foods to sell or do something to increase its market share.  They were tired of the moniker Whole Paycheck, which was my impression the few times I shopped there more than 20 years ago.

Now, to the nuts and bolts.  For those of you who think that the Internet rules retail, consider that 92% of all sales is off-line (which includes gasoline - and let's see Amazon get into that) and only 20% of 25-to-34-year old's buy their groceries online.  Those are two big trends, and it's up to Amazon to buck them with this purchase, which one presumes they aim to do.
As far as grocery sales are concerned, Amazon does about $5 billion a year in that "Amazon Fresh" thing that they sell to Prime members.  Whole Foods does $16 billion - so perhaps there is future earnings here?

Are you willing to allow someone else to pick-out your fruit and vegetables and deliver them to your home?  Perhaps I'm old-school, but I enjoy shopping. I like the idea of picking out my own things and taking them home myself.  Is that what Amazon is banking on by buying Whole Foods?  OR ...
Are they planning to make another purchase - such as Lyft or Uber - to enhance the home delivery segment?  Already, Walmart is paying employees to take products to customers on their way home.  This is just one step behind the Uber concept.  Something tells me that Amazon isn't done.

And, what about other businesses?  Would you be willing to buy your prescriptions online and have Amazon deliver them?  Look out, CVS, Walgreen's, and Rite Aid.  Buying a car? Let us deliver it to you.  Carmax, look in your rear-view mirror.
The Universe of possible acquisitions is almost unlimited.

Meanwhile, Amazon has gone from "asset light" (online only) to "asset heavy" (brick and mortar) and one wonders what Jeff Bezos' long range idea is here.  Are they building a network of distribution centers?  It's no coincidence that most of Whole Foods' stores are close to Amazon distribution centers.
Grocery stores are traditionally low-margin businesses, and that's why the sector struggles.  Great companies like Kroger, Costco, Sprouts, and others (see above) are struggling financially while still giving great service and wonderful shopping experiences to consumers.  It's more than the great experience, and the problem is that it's difficult to do both.  That's where Target struggles, and why they will either have to rebuild themselves or give-up selling food altogether.
The latter will be a great concession, since it was a commitment that they made (albeit half-heartedly) to compete with the likes of Walmart.

So - what do we do here?  We watch Amazon for the next move forward and marvel at their preoccupation with world dominance.  If I was a WFM shareholder, I'd hang in, waiting for a counter-offer.  The possibility of some government interference is low, but there is still the possibility of another, higher offer.
What to buy? Well - groceries.  But stocks? My money is on Walmart.  I can't see them laying down and allowing Amazon to roll over them.  Besides, I'd suspect that there is almost no overlap between Whole Foods' customers and Walmart customers.  They are both entrenched in their habits.
And after all, there is room for more than one dominant retailer.

At least for now.



Saturday, June 10, 2017

Let us Review:

Over the past several months, I have diverted from the usual opinions of life in these United States and my own struggles with it into the areas of personal finance and our crazy stock market.  I'm hoping that you have been reading, and in some cases, I hope you have taken my advice to heart - or pocketbook - however you see fit.  So - let's see how some of my opinions have fared:

On December 31, 2016 I wrote that "precious metals are ripe through 2017," and backed the opinion up with some horrible ideas about President Trump and his goals.  The particular investment I am in is an ETF that is 65% gold, with the remainder in silver, palladium, and platinum.  Since January 1, the fund is up from $58.53 to $63.56; a gain of a little more than 8%.  I'll accept that as a win, considering the risk involved. If you want your investments to gain more than 9% in six months, maybe you should try betting on football.

On April 12, I reiterated my stance on gold, as well as hi-yield corporate bonds, emerging markets, and municipal bonds. 
The iShares hi-yield corporate bond ETF (LQD) was at 118.31 on April 12.  Today, it sits at 120.05.  OK, then.
The iShares Muni Bond ETF (MUB) was at 109.14 on April 12.  Today, it is 110.65.  Tax-free, mind you. (I have to find a positive in there someplace)
The iShares Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) was at 39.31 on April 12. Today, it is at 41.61.
Gold, we have discussed.
So, this particular idea package would have left you up in general, but you could have done better.  Suffice it to say that these things should be part of a larger portion of your investments.

On April 18,  I said that you should "stay on the sidelines" regarding shares of Goldman Sachs (GS). The stock was at 225.50.  Today, it trades at 222.44.  Sidelines would have been a good choice.
I said that Facebook (FB) appeared to be "fully valued."  It was at 140.96.  Today it is at 149.60. You win some, and you lose some.  I still say, wait on this.  You may get a better opportunity.
I said that The Home Depot (HD) was "a good choice" in the retail sector.  It was at 146.91.  Today, the stock is at 152.96.  Alright, then.
I mentioned CarMax (KMX) and McDonald's (MCD) as well. CarMax was at 57.17, and has come down off its springtime high near 65 to settle at 59.61.  McDonald's was a no-brainer, and is up to 151.48 from around 130 at the time I wrote about it.  I can't take credit for that, since a blind chimpanzee with a pencil in his butt could have picked that one.

The riskier picks I have made are still on the table. I wrote about Highpower (HPJ) and Limelight Networks (LLNW) on April 18.  Highpower had a little run, and it sitting at 4.75, which is near its price when I mentioned it.  Limelight is up about 15% (from 2.50 to 2.95) but is still a huge speculative play.  It could just as easily be back to 2.50 or up to 3.00.  I'm holding it, as if I don't need the money for another five years, which I do not.

The other was DelTaco Restaurants (TACO), which I said "hold it" on April 18.  The stock is volatile,  as is the casual dining industry. If you're inclined to follow me, wait until the stock trades below $13 to jump in.  It's at $13.50 now, and it's approaching my "Don't Buy" price.  (ask me what that is, and I'll tell you) Until then, I'm continuing to make my weekly investments.  With a new CEO and their growth plans still in place, I'm anxiously awaiting their earnings report in August.  Other stocks in the industry have made significant jumps in price, and I'm thinking that rotation out of those names into smaller companies like DelTaco might help get the shares back to the P/E levels of McDonald's and Domino's.  

Overall, I'd say it hasn't been a bad half-year.  I'll continue writing about this stuff if you agree to do your own research and take my ideas and opinions with the significant grain of salt that they deserve.

Godspeed.




Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Animals

I don't remember where I read it, but I read it somewhere:  Dogs don't show pain.  They can be in awful agony, and their expression shows no pain.  Things that would put you or I on short-term disability are invisible to dogs. I guess they don't want us to see them in pain, being our best friends and all.

I've never owned a dog.  I'm a cat person.  Cats fit into my lifestyle.  I can care for them, feed them, and leave them for most of the day without worry, as long as their litter pan is clean and they have something to drink.  With dogs, you have to be around to walk them, or fear that they'll pee on the floor.  Not that I'd blame them.  I couldn't sit in a place for 12 hours without the urge to pee somewhere.  I love dogs, but one has to realize ones limitations.

I have shared my life with two cats over the past 26 years.  The first one stayed with me through my divorce and was at my side as we both struggled with desertion.  The cat sat by the front door for a few days, until I said, "She isn't coming back."  Eventually, he acquiesced, and we shared another 12 years together.  He was fortunate, since, during our marriage, I was the one who fed him.

After he died, I went a year without another cat.  I didn't realize how long it had been, but once I felt that the time was right, I sought-out another feline companion.  Sorrow has a long healing period.

I have documented that process, so I will not repeat it.  Suffice it to say, my time with Thor has been both satisfying and a learning experience.  The animals teach us, even though they do not realize it, an they bring joy to us, even though they do not intend it.

He is sick.  His kidneys are failing.  They were tiny to start with, and now their diminutive size is working against him.  He is too young to be going through kidney failure, but old to be doing it with such a small organ.
The satisfaction I bring out of being his caretaker is that he would surely have been dead long ago were it not for me.  Some would see it as a rationalization, but I see it as a truth.

He had gingivitis when I adopted him.  Two years later, while cleaning his teeth, almost all of them fell out.  He was left with a couple of teeth and a still-healthy jawbone due to the diligence of caring for his oral health.  Had he been left to suffer, his jaw would have deteriorated, and he would have died.
Pancreatitis caused him to spend three days in hospital and countless more at home without an appetite.  I struggled to find food that he could eat, settling on chicken broth and the juice from Fancy Feast fish packets until he was healthy enough to chew.

His last set of bloodwork numbers were bad enough for me to think that he was lucky to be alive, let alone still walking and purring.  That was several months ago.  The decline has been slow and steady, and his mood has likewise been declining.  Lately, he sits alone rather than with me, and sleeps in some secluded spot until I find him and gather him up to sleep with me.  It's my selfishness that I require his company, and his selflessness that he wishes to be left alone.

We struggle with out desires.  His desire to be left alone to deal with his declining health and my desire to share as much time with him as possible while his health declines.  We are at crossed purposes.

As these last few weeks (months?) wind down, I will fight my desire to have him at my side while he fights his desire to show his weakness.  I will win, because I am bigger and stronger, but I will feel his pain because that's what I do.  The thing neither of us knows is how much longer we have together.  I suppose that is true of every human/pet relationship, but in this case, we have a finite time and we know it.  I think he knows it, too.  He has to know that he isn't the same cat that he was five years ago.  I know I'm not the same man I was five years ago, and I'm just a stupid human.

We will carry on.  He will get his daily fluid injections (which he has gotten increasingly tired of - as have I) and I will continue to struggle to find food that he will eat - until he stops eating - which I have been told is the next step.  His phosphorous levels will get so high that he will lose his appetite.  Once he stops eating, it won't be long before the inevitable takes command, and I have to do what I have been fearing.

And then, it will likely be another year before I subject myself to the unconditional love and acceptance that a cat gives me.  After all, there's only so much more of that I can take.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Memories

Bill Maher is in trouble.  Again, or now, I don't know.  I think he has been in trouble before over things he has said.  But, here's the thing:  We come to know and appreciate people for their outlandish viewpoints and even celebrate them for it.  Except:  When that viewpoint opposes what we think or want to hear.  Then, it's offensive all of a sudden, and they are punished by the very people that accepted them for being outlandish.  In fact, you can only be outlandish to the point that it offends some people.  After that, you're on your own.  It's a strange place.  Ask Kathy Griffin.

"This is America. We have the freedom of speech in America.  And, you'd better say what you're supposed to say."
- Tom Smothers, 1967

This week is the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles' "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album.  While I appreciate the occasion, it is yet another even-numbered anniversary that somehow has more significance than others.  Why wasn't the 49th anniversary a big deal last year?  Because we love even numbers, and nobody ever made money selling "49th Anniversary" merchandise - and, isn't that what it's all about?  OK, let's get beyond that.

For me, the album wasn't a big deal, and for years I struggled with it.  After all, I heard so many people talking about what a grand leap it was musically, and how influential it was.  For me, it was not only not their best album, but I didn't get why it was so highly acclaimed, since the original release wasn't a huge deal to a kid who, at that time had every Beatles' album, Monkees' album, and boxes full of 45s.  As a nine-year-old, I was musically precocious.
Why wasn't it a big deal?  Only now do I realize why.  My father died in May of 1967.  It's probably for that reason that the wind was knocked out of my sails, and this monumental thing that happened a month later would pass by the wayside as a speck in the timeline of my life.
Sometimes, you have to be there - or wish you were not.

Which led me to think about the things that we believe, or believed that we saw happen, or otherwise.  Thousands of people say they were at the game where Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points. It in fact, happened at the Hershey Sports Arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania; where the attendance was 4,124.  I'd guess that many people believed that they were there because they heard the game on the radio or placed themselves in the game for whatever reason occurred in their mind.

I have seen photos of things that happened in my childhood, and believe that I remember those instances, even though I cannot tell (beyond the shadow of a doubt) that I remember the incident or the photograph of the incident as etched in my memory.  What is it that separates our memories from the re-telling or re-imaging of them?  Can we be sure that we actually remember those things, or just the recreations of them?

Do people think that they saw The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in February of 1964 because they saw video of it later, or were they actually there?  Their first appearance drew 73 million viewers, but I'd guess that there are five times that many who would testify to seeing it live - including me, as a barely 6-year-old child.  The only thing I can use to back up my testimony is the picture sleeve 45 of "I Saw Her Standing There" that was purchased during that time.  So, I'm not exactly gilding the lily here.
Moreover, in those days, there was no DVR, OnDemand, or other ability to "binge watch" stuff.  You either had to see it live or miss it altogether. Hence, the millions of people who would stay home for Milton Berle or Sid Casear in the early days of television.  You either saw it live or never saw it.  Imagine that, Millennials. [brains exploding]

So, perhaps my memories have merit?  Perhaps I really did see those early Ed Sullivan shows, the Gemini rocket launches, the John Kennedy funeral procession, and perhaps I'm right when I believe that my grammar school teacher wheeled a TV into our schoolroom to watch coverage of Bobby Kennedy's assassination?  It was June 5, 1968 which was a Wednesday - so...

I'll go on believing that, because otherwise, I'm living a lie - and nobody wants to do that.




Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How Could We?

We knew more about him than we knew about any presidential candidate in history.  That's not an exaggeration.  He was present in our everyday lives, and on television every week for many years.  Buildings and golf courses were named after him.  We knew.

We knew, and still, the masses (albeit not the majority) voted for him, knowing what a pompous jackass he was.  They justified it by saying, "He says what he thinks," which is another way of saying that he says what nobody should say.  That's the problem.

We elected him to the highest office in the land, and maybe the world. President T***p.  I can't type his name, because it might come up in a Google search and I don't want to be investigated by the FBI after I say that I hate his guts and I wish he'd fall out of an airplane.

Oh - wait --- the FBI?  They're powerless, right?  Nevermind.  I hope Trump falls out of an airplane.  There, I said it.  Hey, you never know.  He might open a door that he thinks is a bathroom and ... explosive decompression.  It happens.

We can only hope.

He is an embarrassment to America and Americans.  People around the world are wondering, "How could you elect him?" And sadly, we are left with the same questions.  It's the principle reason why the allegations of Russian election fixing are paramount in the news.  How else could he have won if not for fixing the election?  I have no idea, since we knew what a skunk he was to begin with.

Mister Trump was a horrible person.  He bankrupted casinos and airlines, played an ass on a network television show, and otherwise endeared himself to those who enjoyed theater.  Theater is different than running a country.  We put President Trump in charge of running our country.

The mind boggles.

So, there he is - running our country.  Giving up secrets to the Russians, Tweeting at all hours of the day and night, snubbing leaders of countries that were once our friends, and generally behaving like a private citizen who won some sort of lottery and is now in charge of the free world.  It's a pathetic fraternity prank.

His supporters are rejoicing - today - but I wonder how much they will be rejoicing once they find out how much of their tax deductions he will take away, and how much of their health coverage will be left to the dust.  His mantra of "Make America Great Again" will be a distant memory when they find out that building his ridiculous border wall will cost them huge chunks of their health care and ta deductions that they took for granted.  The day of reckoning is coming.

He has been in office for barely 5 months, and already the winds of impeachment and "appointing a special prosecutor" are blowing.  One wonders what the next 6 months will bring. He's such a loose cannon, I suspect that he will eventually say or do something that he and his Republican supporters cannot worm their way out of.
Already, NBC Nightly News has devoted 13 minutes of a half-hour broadcast to the latest Russian security leak.  How much longer can it continue?

Not much longer, one hopes.  Although, the thought of President Pence frightens me equally.
But, we'll burn that bridge when we come to it.



Thursday, May 11, 2017

Separation of the Classes

It's probably me - yeah, it's definitely me - but the separation of classes in society affects me in ways that maybe nobody else experiences.  Unless you're like me, in which case, I'm sorry.

Life separates us into classes.  There is more than the typical "lower, middle, and upper."  There are sub-sets of those classes, and even though you might consider yourself one or the other, your middle class identity is dependent on your idea of what "Middle Class" is. I'd guess it's not what you think, and I can prove it.

For purposes of this discussion, let's exclude the upper class and the lower class.  If you are lower class, you aren't reading this. If you are upper class, you don't care.  That leaves the...

Middle class - the idea suggests anyone who isn't living on food stamps or earning a six-figure salary at some corporate job, but my research suggests otherwise.
There are variations of middle class.  There's a middle class who is just above lower class, scraping by on credit card debt and living week-to-paycheck.  They call themselves middle class because of their annual salary, which is a bullshit way to evaluate anything.

There are levels of Middle Class. It's not just one thing.  There is the middle class who is like that.  There is also the middle class who has two homes - one here and one in the mountains or at the shore, and doesn't identify with the other middle class.  That middle class is closer to the statistical middle class that we are supposed to identify with.

Some of them have lavish homes in the suburbs. Others have homes in more than one location - even though they are saying that they are part of 'us,' it is clear that they are not. It's either some expensive home, or other extravagance that we know is out of our reach as "The Middle Class," and we are left wondering ... how the fuck?

That's my usual response: "How the fuck.." with the middle being "...can they" and the end being "...that?" With a question mark.  I suppose I prefer the company of those who are economically challenged, otherwise, why would I be asking these questions?

I know how much money I make, and I have an idea how much money they make - and I cannot make the two equal the same "Middle Class" qualification - so, I figure there must be some other sociological classification that they fall into, or I fall into.  Either way, it's disturbing to realize that I am not in the same social circle as people that I am equated with.  Why don't I fall-in with the same people I am supposed to be in a "class" with?  Economically, I'm not close.

And therein lies the rub:  My discomfort with people.  In general, or sociological; whatever.

For all we know, this void will grow
And everything's in vain, distressing you won't leave me open
Feels so right that I'll end this all before it gets me.
- Seether

And so, it's like that.