Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Gather Ye Assets While Ye May

I have worked where I work for 25 years now. This milestone has caused me to look over my shoulder, so to speak, and wonder where the heck the time has gone. I know that it has been 25 years because I have a plaque which attests to this fact. I am an official member of the Quarter Century Club. They gave me a burrito breakfast to seal the deal and I chose a single diamond necklace as my “gift” for all my years of dedicated service. I could have chosen a camera, video recorder, luggage… the list goes on and on. But I chose the diamond because when I am dead, I want my ancestors to know that the fable about the tortoise and the hare is brilliant and I am a living example. And so I say: to all you future descendants, here’s the diamond to prove it…”

I suppose we all either boil down to being hares or tortoises. As it turns out, I am a tortoise. This comes as a bit of shock to me, (and it may to you, too) as I have always considered myself to be a bunny-like kind of gal. I loved the scene in Legally Blonde where she shows up at the party in her pink satin bunny suit. I also love this same scene in Bridgett Jones. This would be me. Curling my hair, donning fishnets to display my inner bunny (she is in there somewhere competing with my inner 50’s housewife.) I am prone to hop to attention and I think of myself more as a cute female Disney rabbit, kind of like Thumper’s girl friend bunny, than as a Disney turtle. Plus, I have always been drawn to angora. In fact, I still own a pale lavender angora sweater I bought in 1981 from a darling boutique in Portland, Oregon.

So, discovering that I am actually a tortoise was somewhat unnerving. But the truth of the matter is, like that great Aesop story, I have been plodding along, one foot in front of the other for 25 years now and it is only recently that I have discovered how eminently sensible this has turned out to be.

While other women that I have encountered along the way have sprinted ahead of me to become “VP’s” or Private Bankers or Executive Directors for trendy non-profits, leaving for greener pastures, or just grazing from job to job, I have poked along in my position, hesitant to give up my sure thing, my good deal, occasionally taking tests for a little extra money here or a bigger bonus there. I have heaved big sighs and quietly hung on to my health insurance. (I know that this is a main theme for this blog, but I promise to explain this obsession someday. It’s all wound up in my Jane Austen fixation and commitment to personal responsibility.) I have also saved incrementally in boring monthly payroll deductions for retirement. I continue to drearily engage in dollar cost averaging and dutifully increase my 401-K contribution by at least 1 percent after I receive my raise each year.

Nope. No fancy titles for me. I just know every in and out of the wacky brokerage world. Big Yawn. I can, however, effectively wiggle my way through the eye of the needle know as “LEGAL”. Or, at least anticipate what they will say before they say it and save at least two weeks of wrangling and agony. It doesn’t make great cocktail party blather, I mean, no one would probably care to hear about how FAST I managed to divide Dr. Whozit”s mother’s estate before the end of the year, (like, really fast, like, December 29th, when the cutoff was December 10th or something) or the clever way I found the lost money of someone’s addlepated Aunt Esther hidden in a bizarre account at a Bank America in California. Nor do they give a hoot about just how high I was able to finagle the bid of XYZ shares for Mr. Soandso’s Employee Stock Option. It was like a high wire act. It was impressive. I felt like I was playing intergalactic mind games with the unseen trader standing somewhere on the trading floor of the NYSE. All I could see on the screen was the ask blinking up and becoming my bid each time… BWA HA HA!

At one point, it felt like all my careful saving and dutiful attention to security was a bunch of nothing, but I recently came across my 401-k statement from 1991 and OH-MY-GOD, what they say about slow and steady is the dog-gone truth! This is the day that it dawned on me, I AM A TORTOISE.

When I started, the Dow Jones stood at about 860. From there it has only gone up. But things can be pretty if-ey in the world of brokerage firms. It’s a tough business no matter how you slice it. Brokers come and brokers go. Mostly, they go. Twenty five years ago, when I was hired as an assistant to stock brokers, I was only on the job for one week before I realized stock brokers made great money. At the time it seemed like a winning strategy. You earned commission if your client bought a stock and also if your client sold a stock. Even if they lost money!! WOW! Who thought of that? It’s brilliant! But the more I watched, the more I realized how hard it was. First you had to find the people WITH the stocks. To gather assets, that is. That is what they call it, asset gathering.

For years, I pictured all the lovely, white males I work with dressed in blue gingham dresses, and red hooded capes, wearing a wig of blonde ringlets. I imagined them skipping through a dark, green forest of stocks, bonds and cash equivalents, a wicker basket slung over their arm, gathering assets. Mostly, they would run into lions and tigers and bears, but all it took was the occasional bull guarding a pot of gold to set them up for life. The caveat: finding the gold is tough. Really, really tough. I knew right away, 25 years ago, I wasn’t up to it.

I once worked for a woman. She was bold as brass. I heard her telling all her little old lady clients in no uncertain terms, “NO! ALMA! You absolutely can NOT buy a beach house!!! I am going to buy that hospital bond instead. If you want your grandchildren to swim, put a pool in your backyard!”

I would have said to Alma, “OH, GOODY! Can I help you decorate the beach house?” No, I was never meant to be an asset gatherer.

So, I stayed put. Just being a top notch assistant. Knowing the business as well as they did, able to be the best damn Girl Friday anyone could ever ask for; but nothing to brag about. No names to drop. No fifteen minutes of anything but, “Oh, look! The market is up 100!”

Recently, one of those rabbit women who passed me by 15 years ago title-wise commented that she wished she had been more like me; just a good, capable assistant with a wad in her 401-K and solid steady job. Sure, she’s been an Asst VP and a VP and Executive Director… but she is also currently on straight commission in that dark forest of stocks, bonds and cash equivalents, with no pots of gold in sight.

Slow and steady might not be flashy or impressive. But it pays the bills and wins the race. Plus, I think even Walt Disney girl turtles have lovely, long, curly eyelashes and are pretty darn cute.

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Words to Live By

" desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil - widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."

Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) Middlemarch

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