February 27, 2007

Bet on a sinner, come up a winner

What are today's "sins" have, over the past 50 years, have come out big winners in the investment world. Philip Morris, maker of cigarettes and beer -- and over the years creator of many a cholesterol-fest -- has proved what I have always thought to be true about your average financial crisis.

Say you worked for a great magazine that folded. Here today, then it's history. Staff reaction? When the going gets tough, the nondrinkers start drinking; the nonsmokers start smoking; everyone eats as if food is going out of style; and curious sexual liaisons result. (If Philip Morris were in the condom business, they would then have all the basics covered.)

Alice worked during the part of the economic cycle immediately preceding the 1990-1991 recession ; her employer, a trendy magazine, outdid the competition. It was so trendy, it folded before all its contemporaries in the late 1980s-early 1990s. The net result for the "sin stock" investor? Vice is nice.

The Wall Street Journal will note on March 1 that the S&P 500, considered a widely representative of the stock market as a whole (it has 500 stocks, versus the 30 that comprise the Dow Jones Industrial Average), has had its 50th "birthday." In that time, according to the authors, the best performing stock that started in the S&P and continues to this day is -- Philip Morris.

Known today for P.R. purposes as "Altria Corp.," the stock, if you had had $1,000 to invest in it in 1957, in the non-PC days when it was Philip Morris, would have returned almost twice as much as the rest of the annual return of the entire S&P index.

In other words, if Mom and Dad smoked Marlboros and put their money not only where their mouths were but where the cash was going, "an investment of $1,000 put into Philip Morris in 1957 would have grown to $8.4 million by the end of 2006 -- compared to a mere $168,000 accumulation in the S&P 500 itself."

Who says smoking doesn't pay?

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February 21, 2007

How to hem a pair of pants

Alice and her mother, as it has been observed by many and verified by independent sources, are not the go-to women when your need is for something domestic. From an early age Alice learned how to hire the housekeeper (she has done a better job than her mother at keeping "help," as her mother would call it), realized that lightbulbs are best changed by those taller than she; that washing machines and laundry apparatus were best kept floors apart and not to be operated by Alice; and that her mother never applied needle and thread to cloth.

With the exception of sewing name tags (for which Alice had to demonstrate use of the sewing machine, a gift from her father, whose business was textiles and on whom Alice relied for lessons in all things domestic except cleaning, where he followed Alice's mother's need and hired out.), Alice's father taught her to sew and cook; her mother taught her to make the proverbial reservations and how to decide when clothing needed to go to the dry cleaner or the tailor/seamstress, depending on complexity.

The other day, Alice and her mother attempted a new venture: Mom had found a role of double-sided cloth-fusing tape from some long ago and far away venture of Alice's father, and Alice had velour black pants that needed to be shortened. First, where was the iron? Alice had to double check. Was it a steam iron? Check again. Now, the ironing board.

Alice purchased this full-size item several years ago, at The Croquet Player's request. He can wield his way around pressing croquet whites and dress shirts without a second thought. (He remembered to call Alice to inquire about the state of her ironing equipment, knowing full well that she was unlikely to have any on hand or to know how to use what she had.)

Perhaps he remembered her last demonstration of domestic impairment: she was at a college in the late 1980s, for a writing seminar, and her laundry had reached the breaking point, so she hauled it over to the campus laundry center.

Insert clothes, turn button to "permanent press," measure detergent and voila! Or, not so much. All of Alice's clothing that summer started as white, black, or pink. She ended the summer a study in pink. When a high school student came into the laundry to ask for advice, Alice was pulling out her new pink wardrobe. Her one suggestion? Sort your colors.

But I digress: this pair of pants that were not going to shrink to an acceptable length needed a hem. Alice's hands, still in splints, just weren't up to the task. Besides, she is middle aged and needs reading glasses to have half a chance of threading a needle. She also hasn't hemmed or sewed on a button in years, and manual dexterity is obviously not her strong suit.

Hence, the mother arrives, with cloth fusing tape. She measures the pant legs, determines a hem length. Then the fun starts: how to measure a hem. Does Alice have tailor's chalk? Try soap instead. As for measuring, they decide on three inches, and the total is marked to match the needed length.

This fusing tape requires a) a steam iron -- with water -- set on wool; a damp ironing cloth (previously known as a dishtowel), and a timer. Ten seconds per pressing. Mother lines up the cloth that comprises the part of the hem to be taken up, layers in the fusing tape, lines up the rest of the cloth, and says, "ready."

Ready is my cue to go to the microwave, hit the "1" button, announced the start time, and, ten seconds later, announce the stop/remove iron time. Repeat six times, with inspections between fusings. Finally, time to stash the ironing board away -- Alice's mother has trouble figuring out how to close it, Alice doesn't have a clue, but finally her mother hits lift-off.

We don't anticipate a repeat performance at any time in this decade. So, the next time you find yourself without a needle, and you don't want to Scotch tape, pin, or staple your hems, remember iron-on fusing tape is a no-fail option, guaranteed by the domestic incompetence of Alice and her mother. Just don't ask Alice to do it.

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February 09, 2007

Aunt Alice heads south

My niece, Kayanna, is adorable. Of course, I am biased. And I've never bonded with an infant prior to this trip to Florida. I cuddled her, I fed her, I made funny faces at her, I talked to/at her. (I did not, as you may gather, change her diapers, but I learned to recognize the look on her face that preceded the need for a diaper change, so I could hand her off in time.)

My brother is shaping up to be a devoted and bonded dad, in the way I've heard men of his generation can be. My new sister-in-law, when I left, was feeling sleep-deprived, and I don't know quite what she thinks of me. We do, however, laugh simultaneously at the same sights: our reaction to the customer in red sequins in my brother's restaurant required no verbal communication between us.

She was unnerved by the prospect of meeting my mother, the presumptive grandma. Did we paint such a terrifying portrait of my mother? I don't know what my brother has said or left unsaid, but I suspect I was pretty unsparing the few times she came up in conversation. Alice's mother lives in her own, unique version of Wonderland, and it has even less bearing on reality than the Wonderland in which Alice resides.

I did tell my sister-in-law that everyone likes my mother; that the only person who seems to be troubled by her is me. I am also the only daily recipient of her domestic-related phone calls, many of which involve retelling me about a purchase she has made, even shown me, then forgotten she ever mentioned the item. She also constantly updates me on the weather, as if I couldn't open a window, turn on the TV, or check it on line.

It is the little things that drive me insane.

I spoke to my sister-in-law after my mother returned from Florida. Apparently she was looking over some pictures with my brother, and, presented with one of a woman about my age holding my niece, my mother said, "the baby looks cute, but the nurse is ugly." Said nurse was, in fact, my sister-in-law's mother.

If I had explained my mother as Sophia on The Golden Girls, a woman without the ability or interest to censor herself, my sister-in-law says she would have understood that completely. My mother is of the, don't-ask-me-what-I-think-unless-you-want-my-honest-answer school. It makes her to be described as "interesting."

Well, she does keep things lively.

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