Posts Tagged ‘loss’

Affairs, Fodder for Comedy, Not a Laughing Matter in Real Life

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

#divorce #infidelity #marriagecounseling #betrayal #affair

John J. Hohn - Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

John J. Hohn – Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

I never thought I’d marry more than once. I remember driving down I-35W in Minneapolis one winter night after my first wife Elaine disclosed she was in love with another guy. I kept saying divorced over and over to myself because I could not get the idea to fit with ny definition of myself . But like a lot of things I never expected in life, it happened.

My wife had her reasons, all stuff I didn’t want to hear. She, too, felt as though life was passing her by. Midway through her thirties, she realized she had missed the carefree years. The women’s movement was in full swing. She wanted to be part of it but felt she had forfeited her membership by marrying as young as we did. There was still time. She was still young and very attractive. She also had complaints about me.

I wasn’t an easy man to live with. Selfish. Controlling. My views of marriage were very conventional, sexist in many ways. I had not made her happiness a priority. I was resentful at being held back in my career by family issues and the burden of providing support. My college classmates were all moving up in the world. I was envious. I finally landed a job where I could make up for lost ground and I was consumed by it. I was unavailable most of the time. I traveled a lot and left her with a house full of teenagers to raise. I took too much for granted.

Shared expectations . . .

Elaine did not share my aspirations for financial success. She grew up in a working class home. If anything, she was distrustful of the upper-middle class values, country club membership, and all the trappings. Other than returning to school to get a degree in nursing, I didn’t know what she wanted out of life. We almost never discussed it.

We tried to take a vacation with the children in the middle of everything. I was reeling from her indifference toward me, sensing something was wrong but not knowing the cause. We took a hike with the kids up one of the hillsides near Dillon, Colorado. I was in terrible shape – overweight, no stamina, short of breath from smoking. I stopped to rest while my wife went on with the children. While I waited, I scratched my name onto a gray rock that fit my palm, and I threw it down the hillside as far as I could. The meaning of the metaphor, hopelessly melodramatic as it is, was clear to me at the time, but the impulse that prompted me to act it out was still buried in my subconscious. I had been thrown away. My self-esteem since a teenager had been almost totally dependent on my wife’s affection and affirmation. That must have constituted a hell of a burden for her. Every time I was unhappy, it was her job to make things right. It was pretty much the same job my mom had as I was growing up.

When we finally got to a marriage counselor, there was so much to sort through that, after a couple of initial meetings, our counselor decided it would be better to work with us individually before tackling the tougher stuff that had our relationship all jammed up. “She can see your anger,” the therapist said during one session. The statement struck me as strange. I didn’t know that I had been all that angry. I was a storm trying to find its center – lots of lightning and violent downdrafts of depression. “I feel like a money-making machine with a dick on it,” I said in one later session and was surprised to see my wife react with dismay.

Ever Been Tempted . . .

“Haven’t you ever been tempted,” the therapist continued. “You’ve been away from home a lot. Haven’t there been any situations where you might have done something?”

“I’ve been tempted often enough,” I said, “but it’s a long walk from the hotel bar to my room. I had time to think things over. Besides, I got nervous. It was something I’d never done. I couldn’t do like other guys, just chuck it and make a move.” The therapist was disappointed. She must have wanted me to admit a comparable guilt. I had nothing to confess. Yeah, I lusted after other women. Found myself obsessing over this one or that. But I never had whatever it took to act on the attraction. I’d be the one guy in a thousand who’d get caught and there’d be a terrible price to pay. The moral injunctions of my Catholic upbringing reigned me in. My emotions got all jammed up. My own history was a restraining influence. I had paid enough for the sexual transgressions of my teenage years. I had profoundly disappointed my parents. I threw away any chance at enjoying carefree years to discover my intellectual strengths and preferences. Marrying shaped my life before I was of age to decide much of anything for myself. The little head had ruled once. I was not about to give it a second chance.

The therapist wanted me to see the human dimension in my wife’s conduct. To see it as a frailty that all of us fall victim to from time to time. I get that today, but at the time, her appeal was misdirected. My mind was elsewhere. My life was falling apart. My self-image had been shattered. I had been living a lie. My wife fell in love with another guy. It was an affair. It had gone on for months. I didn’t know what or who to trust any more.

Less the Flailing and Panic . . .

The Author, 1976 "No idea who I was.

The Author, 1976 “No idea who I was.”

Perhaps things would have cleared up a little for me if the therapist addressed my pain, let me express it and talk it out. I might have been able to move to a more settled place, grab hold of something in the torrent to lessen the flailing and panic. As it was, I was so distrustful that I obsessed on nearly everything my wife said. One business trip to Washington, DC, I felt compelled to walk the streets of the city to control my raging doubt, and as I walked, I obsessed on what she had said as I left the house to make sure that I had understood its meaning and could believe her. At work, unless someone shoved something right into my face, I couldn’t concentrate. I’d close the door to my office and brood. I’d burst into tears and embarrass myself.

My wife, meanwhile, went passively along when all the ramifications of what was taking place swamped my thinking. She didn’t move out. She couldn’t afford it. She didn’t ask for a divorce. She was glad when I went off on business. She was in the driver’s seat but refused to put her hands on the wheel. The consequences were clear for me. Daily contact with my children was at stake. I’d need to change jobs so that I could stay home if she left home? I didn’t know whether I could afford to support myself living alone and the family also? I didn’t know how the children would react. I didn’t want them hurt.

For that matter, I didn’t know what I wanted. If Elaine turned to me full of remorse and begged for forgiveness, I don’t know what my response would have been. The months leading up to her confession had been some of the most unhappy in my life; the weeks after, sheer hell. No. There was no easy stopping place. No timeout. No fix-fix, as if it were all pretend. I needed time to decide but anxiety stole every moment from me. For all I knew she was still seeing the other guy. I finally did the unthinkable. I called him and implored him to stop seeing her until I had a chance to do whatever was needed to reorder my life. I pleaded. He agreed.

My wife was angry at her lover’s decision to put their affair on hold. There was a dimension to her rage that I understood. She stormed about two guys deciding what was right for her as if she had no say. That’s what guys do, right? Stay in charge. The male code called for punching the guy’s lights out. But I wasn’t feeling angry. All I felt was a disabling anxiousness, as if I had been hit across the broad of my back with a baseball bat.

Just Watch Me . . .

It took years for me to understand. I was bottled up. Crippled with anxiety. I told our counselor during our first meeting the I was traumatized. My wife’s betrayal was not the only cause for my severe disorientation. My world was collapsing. All of the avoidance and pretense was crashing down. I was 35 years old and had never been through a disappointment in love. My family was my justification for everything. Being a father, a husband and a moral man were huge parts of my definition of myself and braced me from the outside. On the inside, I hardly knew who I was. I was a pleaser. A chameleon. I sought the acceptance of others even to the point of forsaking my own perspective. I was raising a happy family, unlike my father who ruled a stormy home in which fights broke out suddenly and frightened my sister, my brother and me. I was going to earn more money than he without benefit of professional degree. Just watch me was my mantra. I’d make up for all the disappointment. Everyone would say that I had done all right. I’d been a good son after all. But now everything translated into the indictment that I had failed. I didn’t have the ego strength to remain stable and confident of who I was, all of which should have been the product of taking life head on instead of hiding in a marriage. I couldn’t see it then, but most of my anguish was from a crash of my own making, errors in my navigating my way. Many causes were yet to be discovered,  tasks that had been abandoned or never addressed, but for the moment, I had not equipped myself to cope with a crisis.

To be continued . . .

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Elephants, Mankind’s Last Innocence Endangered

Monday, December 28th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

When Cecil, a magnificent twelve year old male lion, was killed by Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, the world took note. Finally, a cowardly act so outrageous in its cruelty gave rise to an outcry from thousands. Perhaps now, in the anger and grief, attention will be focused on the barbaric slaughter of the animals of the wilds of Africa. One person who has taken up the cause in a persuasive and powerfully eloquent manner is Mary Baures. A psychologist, Baures pours her clinical knowledge and compassionate nature into her book, Love Heals Baby Elephants: Rebirthing Ivory Orphans. Her depiction of the plight of the elephants and rhinoceros is impassioned, poetic, poignant and compelling. She describes Cecil’s death in a manner worth repeating to keep the horror of Palmer’s cruelty well in mind.

His (Palmer’s) Zimbabwe guides tied a dead animal to the back of their vehicle and lured Cecil, a beautiful, black maned lion with twelve cubs to protect, out of a safe area in Hwange National Park. They chose him because he was massive, a warrior with big black chunks of dreadlocks. They shined a spotlight on Cecil to blind him, then Palmer shot him with a bow and arrow. Cecil was injured from the first shot but escaped and fought to live forty-four hours while the crew tracked him and killed him. The team . . . tried to destroy the GPS tracking collar, probably visible when they led him out of the park and into the spotlights before the kill. Palmer butchered an Oxford University research subject ….

Author Mary Baures

Author Mary Baures

To drive her point home that Palmer is typical of the sport hunters who are the scourge of the savannas that are home to the beasts of the wild, Baures at one point observes. “Palmer’s treatment of his victims mirrors those of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.”

Baures also mentions Jimmy John Liatuad whose obscene pictures depicting him standing two-thumbs up on his kills, including an elephant and a rhino, should inspire a boycott of his Jimmy Johns restaurant chain. Liatuad is a coward, a bully and a mindless killer.

Baures’ plea is all the more powerful because she brings her trained eye to her subjects. She cites examples of creatures working out of a sense of compassion for one another. Baboons, in one situation, drop mangoes from the tree tops to an orphaned baby elephant so that it can survive. In another, a hyena protects an orphan baby elephant from attack by a pack of her own kind. Her descriptions of the nurturing and rebirthing of the tiny orphans is especially moving. The newborn of the elephants, like humans, take much longer to reach maturity than other mammals. The horror of seeing the mothers slaughtered in front of their eyes is traumatizing, just as it would be for a human child. They need to recover physically and psychologically. Most, tragically, do not. Only about one-third of the orphans are ever rescued. Some die after rescue because of the severity of their injuries and the shock of seeing their mothers butchered. Those who do recover must learn to trust again, most of all the humans, representatives from the same species that killed their mothers. The miracle is that the tiny creatures, with the support, nurturance, and affection of the rest of rescued herd, eventually learn to accept others again, find a home and learn to play among the their new found friends. Eventually, and probably with greater discernment than most humans, they find a way to accept the attention and love of their human keepers.

We have stepped outside of nature . . .

Men are capable of outrageous cruelty toward their fellow beings because we have stepped outside of nature. The author quotes Albert Einstein observation that the task for humans “is to widen ‘our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.’” The enormity of our crimes against our fellow beings is staggering. “Fifty years ago,” the author reports, “there were 450,000 lions. Now (2105) there are only 23,000.” At one time, three million elephants roamed the African savannas. Their number has been reduced to 30,000. Yet the slaughter continues.

Elephants at the water hole. Once they numbered 3,000,000, Poachers and reduced their number to 30,000.

Elephants at the water hole. Once  3,000,000 strong, poachers have reduced their number to 30,000.

The ivory trade funds organized crime who attack with helicopters, off-road vehicles, rocket launchers and rapid-fire semi-automatic weapons. To prevent detection, they use gun silencers and sedation to capture their prey who they butcher in the field and leave the caucuses to rot, often with their babies clinging by the remains, vulnerable and alone. Baures supports her statements with facts. She writes, “The illegal wildlife trade is the world’s fourth largest criminal activity, with annual profits of $20 billion.” She reports that 1,200 rangers from thirty-six countries have been killed in the line of duty. Rangers are charged with the task of protecting the wildlife in their area.

Baures’ reporting is balanced. She justifiably rails against the cruelty, insensitivity and horror of the hunting and harvesting body parts. She balances her righteous condemnation with insight into the wonder and awe of the creatures she observes. Elephants have brains four times as large as human brains. Their capacity for memory is not a myth. They exhibit psychic abilities far beyond those known to most humans. They have an inspiring capacity for love, compassion and sharing affection. One event report was especially moving:

Mystical knowing . . .

When Lawrence Anthony, the elephant whisperer, died in March 2012, thirty-one elephants from two herds arrived after traveling 112 miles. The marched in a solemn line for hours to pay their respects. . . . They were led by Nana, the matriarch, and had not been to his (Lawrence’s’) reserve at Thula for a year and a half. They continued their grief vigil for two days before heading back to the bush. Their knowledge of his passing speaks of the mystical knowing of elephants. (Reviewer’s note: Nobody told the elephants of Lawrence’s death.)

“They are loving,” Baures writes, “wise and peaceful. Perhaps the telepathic abilities of elephants come from their rootedness in the Earth and their collective sense of self.”

“Unlike us,” the author observes in a later passage, “they don’t conceive of themselves as separate from other creatures or from the vast universal mind. Love melts away the boundaries between self and other creatures and may explain elephants’ extraordinary knowing.”

“You are our last innocence,” Baures writes.

A young elephant, probably an orphan. Look at the eyes of the intelligent animal.

A young elephant, probably an orphan. Look at the eyes of this intelligent animal.

Readers are urged to buy the print versions of Love Heals Baby Elephants because of the many wonderful pictures included in the text. This reviewer found the Kindle format too confining and lacking in detail when viewing the photos. The book has a casually rushed feel to it which is completely understandable. Given the Palmer horror, the time was at hand to get the word out. The flow of the book is almost conversational. Also, the title is a bit misleading because the book is not confined to discussing only elephants. Wait until you read about the ostriches Pea and Pod and the great fun they have playing among the behemoths of wild. The plight of the rhinoceros also falls within the author’s concern. Black rhinos have been driven to near extinction in malicious harvesting of their horns in the false belief that powder made from them is an aphrodisiac. (The horns consist of tissue much like fingernails, with no food or  medicinal value.) Ms. Baures has a straightforward, easy to read literary style. While her subject at times becomes somewhat technical, her explanations are in the language of a layperson and easy to follow. Her poetic nature shines in passages, some planted like gems and set out as pleasant, insightful surprises for the reader.

Years ago, Rachel Carlson wrote Silent Spring which became a bestseller. Mary Baures deserves that same recognition for the power of her compassionate message. Hopefully she will be as instrumental in forcing a long overdue change and that as humans everywhere we grow in our awareness that we are sharing our Earth with our fellow creatures. They deserve our respect and compassion. We diminish ourselves every time we forget our relationship with them.

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Barter Theater Stage II Presentation of “The Gin Game” — A Review

Friday, July 5th, 2013

John J. Hohn, Author

Perhaps a member of the audience needs to be at least 70 years old to realize that Director Eugene Wolfe missed the point of D. L. Coburn’s award winning play, “The Gin Game,” as it is currently being presented at The Barter Theater Stage II. Wolf  failed to grasp that he had three actors on stage, not two. The third actor, a presence really, is behind the door to the card room and is heard at times only in garbled gibberish, the way several voices all speaking at once sound at a distance.

The presence behind the door consists of the other residents of the elderly care home who are described as “glassy eyed” aged folks who babble meaninglessly and complain constantly about their health. The two principals in the play, Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey escape this tedious company by retreating to the card room—the room where nobody else ever goes. They do not want to be numbered among “intellectually and emotionally dead.”

A Virtuoso Performance

Mary Lucy Bivins delivers a virtuoso performance as Fonsia Dorsey, a 71 year old divorcee. Her portrayal is powerful, poignant and exquisitely nuanced. Too bad her director did not inspire the same level of artistry from her partner on stage, Richard Rose, who plays the aging and angry Weller Martin. Martin still seems eager to triumph somehow in life, even if it is in a game of cards. He is angry. In fact, that is about all the audience sees of Martin—anger, loud competitive anger. As an actor, surely Rose’s range is more expansive than what he projects. Anger can be expressed without yelling,after all, often in ways that are more terrifying.

Unlike Bivins, little in Rose’s portrayal shows that Martin is aware that his real antagonist lurks behind the door in the form of diminished capacity, pampers, and loss of identity. The blame for undershooting the role lies at the feet of Director Wolfe.

Martin and Dorsey are opponents at cards. Wolfe has them making the most predictable choices. They  fight each other for all the laughter it might produce. But the audience laughs at them, not with them. Weller and Martin, in turn, rant against the fate of their fellow residents, but never register a sympathetic note, nor dread, nor concern. They make it clear that they never want to be included among the other residents, but never give a hint of how threatened they may feel.

Failures as a Part of Us

Both Weller and Martin have regrets. Neither lived an apparently fulfilling life. Both are broke and on welfare. Both withhold the truth from the other in an effort to preserve their dignity. They confess their failures only when they recognize that by owning them they triumph for one more day over the ignominy of becoming non-persons in their dotage. Our failures are part of us, after all.

Martin induces Fonsia to play one more round of gin, ostensibly to give him a chance to eventually win. But the underlying reason in dealing the deck once more is to extend their unacknowledged conspiracy to push against the verdict in time when one or the other will be forced to join the unaware in the adjacent room. When Martin finally wins a hand, he accuses Fonsia of handing him the victory. She denies it, of course, but winning for Martin ends a quest. He abandons Fonsia, opens the door and  loses himself among the garbled voices beyond it. His departure leaves the audience guessing as to whether he departs because he is angry at Fonsia or because he knows that the victory he is being denied is winning at life.

Anger is a secondary emotion. Something always seethes beneath it. Perhaps in Martin’s case, it’s a storm of denial because sees the onset of his diminished competence which his losses at gin make obvious. Perhaps it’s fear because he knows he is losing control of himself. We never find out. In his bombast slams the door on any insight to what is really bothering him..

Dorsey’s final line, “Oh no.” is not that her partner has given up the card game in anger. Her dismay, rather, is as much for Martin as it is for herself because she knows that he has surrendered to his fate in joining the mindless souls in the room beyond, leaving her, cards or no cards, to fend for herself and alone. Bivins delivers the line perfectly. But her grief is lost on the audience because the her fear and Martin’s of the third presence is never brought to light under Wolfe’s direction. The audience, in fact, does not realize that the play ends with Dorsey’s anguished cry. It takes bringing up the house lights to let them know that the show is over.

The play is a must see if only to witness Bivin’s performance. Others may play Fonsia as well, but none will ever better her in the role.  She is memorable.

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My Dad Believed in the Manly Art of Self-Defense. No Boxing Gloves for Grampa

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

#selfdefense  #boxing  #grandfather  #grandchildren

May 28 is the anniversary of my father’s death. I wrote about the days leading up to his death in an earlier article for this web site.

John J. Hohn, Author

My dad died on May 28, 1980, after a debilitating series of small strokes that diminished him in degrees until he was barely there for any of us. We took turns at his bedside while he held on in a coma, struggling for his next breath. One day, when I was in his hospital room with him, a nun walked up behind me.

“It’s always so difficult,” she said in a tone of voice that let me know that she had been at the bedside with many like my dad.

“It’s so hard to see him this way,” I responded, “knowing that he can’t come back, yet he fights on and on.”

She placed her hand on my shoulder. “I know. I know.”

Anyone who knew my dad would know that he would put up a fight. Dad was not pugilistic, but he believed in the manly art of self-defense. He bought boxing gloves as big as hassock cushions for my brother and me so that we could learn to box. He would put on a pair himself, get down on his knees, and square off with us one at a time. Years later, I watched the home movies of these bouts. I would flail away at him and he’d block every one of my swings. Then tap. Tap. He’d strike with a pointed jab that would zip right through my guard and bop me on the nose, then the chin. My defenses were always in total disarray because my attacks on him were so wild with abandon. I wanted to hit him, I remember that, but my blows never landed and as fatigue overtook me, I would concede defeat.

“Never give up,” he would say taking off the gloves. “You can always get a lunch even if the other guy is getting a meal.” Or, “So you lose. Get a couple of punches in on him and the other guy will know enough not to mess with you again.”

Joseph M. Hohn, circa 1950

My dad, Joseph M. Hohn, DDS circa 1950

He put up a boxer’s punching bag in the basement and demonstrated how my brother and I should practice with it. Tappity, tappity, tappity, his bare fists turned the bag into a blurred pendulum as he stood up to it. The bag rebounded back into his next punch and whipped back in forth in a rhythmic frenzy.  Whop. I’d hit it once, and it would still be hanging like a large bloated pear. “Harder,” Dad would yell. Whop, once. Whop, again. “Well, work at it,” he’d say and go back up stairs.

I was not a fighter. The few times I did mix it up with any other kid, I lost. I hated fighting. I never felt angry enough to fight. All I ever felt was fear—fear of getting hurt. After a loss, my pride sustaining more bruises more than any part of my body, I’d retreat home downcast, sometimes even crying. One time Dad, in total disgust with me, took me by the back of my collar, hauled me back out into the front yard where my adversary was still gloating over his victory, and demanded that both of us resume combat. “Go ahead,” Dad shouted. “Stand up to him like a man.”

I couldn’t of course. I could hardly see my opponent for the humiliating tears in my eyes. For his part, my would-be foe looked back at me with more  sympathy than I thought him capable of feeling and then hit me squarely in the mouth, splitting lower my lip. That knock-out punch spelled defeat for Dad, also. He turned and walked without a word back to the house. Later that day, I heard him tell Mom, “That kid needs to learn how to stick up for himself. He can’t run home crying like that every time he gets into a scrap or they’ll run him right off the block.” A good thing for me that nobody ever tried. Somehow I reached maturity without without ever needing to prevail in a do-or-die scrap with anyone. Despite my dad efforts, I was a coward. Although I turned in respectable efforts as lineman on my high school championship football team, I have remained a devout chicken to this day.

I have told these stories to friends many times. “How awful,” some remarked. Yet, I do not think it so myself. He was my dad. He thought it was important for me to learn how to defend myself. Perhaps fighting was far more commonplace in the age when he was boy. His efforts were in vain because he never reckoned with my marrow-deep fear of pain and the conviction that I was going to lose anyway, no matter what I did. Besides, I didn’t want to hurt anyone else. It just wasn’t in me. To this day, I will go to considerable lengths to avoid the possibility of physical pain. Dad, on the other hand, accepted it as part of life.

“So it will hurt for a little while,” he would say.

Not me, I’d say to myself. Not me. No way.

My Dad with My Sons James and Joseph. No Boxing Gloves for Grampa

I loved my dad. I revere his memory. I am now within two years of his age at the time of his death. A child creates an image of his or her father. And like any impression we form of another, a child interacts and reacts to the image rather than the man himself who is, as we may eventually acknowledge, fallible and even weak at times. For their part, fathers often prefer to be the man behind the curtain and continue to project the image of the all powerful Dad* rather than risk vulnerability and reveal themselves. The real loss to both the child and the father is the failure on the part of one, if not both, to forsake the images and become available to one another—as a person of strengths and weaknesses, wise and foolish, vulnerable and sometimes unaware. Dad and I got very close to a man-to-man friendship before he died, and I will always be grateful that he had the courage to make himself available to me. He enabled me to reciprocate.

* The allusion here, of course is to The Wizard of Oz. I wanted to create a link for it but Amazon hogs all the Google searches.

This is the first in a series that I plan to write about my father. Please check back with my web site form time to time for my subsequent posts. Meanwhile, while you are here, please consider entering a comment below. I also invite you to thumb through the other pages of my web site. Thanks for dropping in.

Variable Annuities Insure Beneficiaries Against Loss Due to Market Risk

Friday, April 26th, 2013

This is the second in a series of articles that I am writing on variable annuities. Readers are urged to read the first installment before tackling the one that follows.

My initial article about variable annuities stressed:

  • Financial advisers have strong incentives to sell variable annuities as they pay more in commissions than most other investment vehicles.
  • Variable annuities offer an array of funds into which the owner can allocate funds based upon the owner’s objectives and risk tolerance.
  • Variable annuities offer tax-deferment of capital gains and dividend and interest income, none of which need to be reported until funds are withdrawn from the annuity.
  • Contributions to variable annuities are not tax-deductible as with IRA’s, 401(k)’s or 403(b).
  • Annuity companies charge an early withdrawal fee during the first several years that an annuity is in place. Funds can be withdrawn, however, prior to the age of 59 ½ without incurring a tax penalty from the IRS.
Author John J. Hohn, Retired Financial Adviser

Financial Adviser John J. Hohn, Retired

Everyone knows that investing entails risk. The stock market goes up and down. The bond market is in and out of favor. Even gold and precious metals can be volatile. Nothing is an absolute sure thing.

Variable annuities, however, assume most of the market risk for the investor by insuring the amount invested for the beneficiaries named in the contract in the event of the owner’s death. Thus, the value of the owner’s estate is not subject to market risk. This is an attractive option for investors who are within a decade or so of retirement when mortality becomes a very serious component in financial planning for a surviving spouse or children.

To illustrate, an investor could fund a variable annuity with $50,000. The contract would insure the initial investment so that, if the value of the investment dropped because of poor market performance to, say, $30,000, the named beneficiary would be paid the initial amount of $50,000 in the event of the owner’s death.

Protecting the Growth

Further, many companies insure the value of a variable annuity beyond the amount of the initial investment. Many contracts stipulate that the company will pay the highest amount achieved on the anniversary of the effective date by the funds in the contract. The original $50,000, in other words, might grow so that on the third anniversary of the contract, the variable annuity is worth $70,000.  If, in the year thereafter, the market collapses, and the stated value of the funds within the annuity drops to $45,000, the beneficiaries named in the contract would receive the $70,000 value level recorded on an anniversary date.

Contracts do not insure the highest level achieved in the market. They insure the highest amount achieved and recorded on an anniversary of the effective date of the variable annuity.

Over the years, additional insurance features have been added to variable annuities and companies are continuing to innovate. Insured income is one such innovation and one that I plan to cover in my next article.

Not a Substitute for Life Insurance

Insurance against market risk is a major advantage of a variable annuity. It is not a substitute for life insurance, but a supplementary protection for the estate of the owner.  Fees for variable annuities are higher because of the life insurance feature. The health and age of the owner is not considered in the application. The insurance component of the fee, therefore, is a flat charge, and it is the same for all owners as the contract is not rated as a life insurance policy would be.

Because variable annuities are long term contracts with early withdrawal fees, they should be considered only when other contingencies have been addressed in a financial plan including an emergency contingency fund, fully funded retirement plans such as an IRA or 401(k). Usually owners are advised not to tap into a variable annuity for retirement income but to hold them in reserve because of their insurance value. The reserve strategy presupposes that other funds will be invested to supplement retirement income from social security and/or pensions. Under most circumstance, a balanced financial plan for retirement would commit no more than 25 per cent of a portfolio to a variable annuity.  Although variable annuities are covered by the Security Investors Protection Corporation (SIPC), it is generally not advisable to invest more than 10 percent or $500,000 in any one variable annuity company.

Considering Only Financial Strong Companies

Prospective buyers should consult Best’s Insurance Guide for the rating of the strength of the company(ies) being considered. Do Not Accept the adviser’s or salesperson’s word. Best’s rating system is very sophisticated and uses language that is calculated not to offend the companies being rated. That said, the description that Best’s give whereas  further study often reveals that they are not a good choice. Final selection of a company should be from top two or three tiers of the Best system.  The hierarchy of the rating system is explained on the internet and in Best’s published annual volumes, the latter being available at most public libraries.

Variable annuities are a very valuable retirement and estate planning investment. The designation of  primary and secondary beneficiaries facilitates immediate payout of the proceeds of the contract upon the death of the owner, unlike the rest of an estate which can be delayed by probate or actions on behalf of heirs in protest against a will or revocable trust. Care needs to be taken in selecting a contract and the company making it available. The purchase is not a casual decision. Any buyer being rushed to a decision should be suspicious of the salesperson’s intentions or the quality of the product being recommended.

Thanks for checking in. I welcome comments below and invite you to look through the pages of my web site. Watch for my next article on variable annuities which ill be posted in a few days.

April 6, Marks My Mom’s Birthday. I Remember Mother in Poetry.

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012
Author John J. Hohn, circa 1955, with his dog Toby

Author John J. Hohn, circa 1955, with his dog Toby

My mother was born on April 6, 1904. She died in January 1985. She is often a subject in my poetry. For the post today, I am featuring two poems about her as a commemorative. The first is a memory piece. My brother and I had slept in an upstairs bedroom in our home. The telephone was located at the foot of the stairs  in an alcove so that it could be reached from either the stairwell or the hallway on the main floor. On Saturday morning when there was no school, I would sleep late, sometimes until around 9:30. Frequently, I was roused from my adolescent slumber by the sound of mother visiting with someone on the phone, perhaps her sister who lived on the other side of town or perhaps with the grocer as she placed her order for the week.

 

Saturday Morning

Her voice blossomed
In the stairwell.
My waking thoughts
Trembled on the bloom.
I descended into her fuss,
Through the dining room —
Air fat as furniture polish.
The breeze from the river
Vaulted the sill
And spun spires of pink roses
Over milky pools of bone china.
She sang to the wrens
Perched in the cotoneaster,
Then sat to have coffee and chat.
My plans for the afternoon
Pooled up on my plate
And the sun on the hedge
Tripped away with her song.

Author John J. Hohn's Mother Ileen Carlon Hohn, 1980

Ileen Caron Hohn, 1980. John J. Hohn's Mother

The second piece is about an incident many years later when neither she nor I found that our lives had worked out for us as we may once have hoped. I was divorced. All my children had left home. I was starting my career all over again because the company I was with failed. During that time, I had traveled back to Yankton to visit my brother and his wife and see my mother who was battling breast cancer. My father had died a couple of years earlier, and mother struggled with her grief and missing him as she tried to regain her health and vitality.

One night, while I was staying at my mother’s home, I could not sleep. I got out of bed and finding a chair in the living room, settled down with my thoughts and my distress. From my chair, I could look down the hallway that leads to the back of the house. All three bedrooms opened off of the hallway. I heard someone moving about and I looked up to see mother in the hallway crossing to the door to the bedroom I had just vacated. I knew if I spoke that I would startle her.

 

Saying Goodnight

She stopped in the hallway
And peered
Into the dark room.
Seeing the bed again empty,
She wrapped the boughs of night
Tightly around her
And returned with a shrug
To her bed.
A trapped bird fluttered
In the fireplace chimney.
In the living room, the davenport,
Swollen like a neglected promise,
Stood nearly awash in the echoes
Of highball laughter.
The arthritic Frigidaire stirred.
Dust storms scudded
Across the braided rug
By the kitchen door.
Tomorrow’s news crouched
In the wooden Philco
By the white sink.
A brown paper bag,
Filled with dirty turnips,
Sat on the front porch steps.
In the morning,
Neighborhood boys,
On their way to school,
Would shout up the street
With the backs to the dawn.

Humans imbue places with essences of who they are, as if we cannot take in everything that is happening in an given moment so we shove the excess into the physical setting of where we happened to be at the time. Thus, when we return years later to a place, or when we retrieve an item that was part of a place that was special to us at one time, the excess is released back to us. We recall who we were and how the world and our lives felt to us, and while can we dismiss the experience as mere recollection, it is a re-experiencing of a past event and it can move us as deeply as we allow. That is why the things in both poems are special to me.

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When a Million Is Not Enough–Conclusion. Expensive Games Get Played

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012
Author John J. Hohn, Retired Financial Adviser

Financial Adviser John J. Hohn, Retired

  #marginloans  #financialplanning  #investing

I was a professional trainer for several years in the 1970’s with Wilson Learning Corporation who developed Counselor Selling—a sales training program based on Transactional Analysis (TA). The program capitalized on public interest in TA as popularized by Thomas A. Harris’ best selling I’m OK, You’re OK. Eric Berne is cited as the person who developed the theoretical groundwork for TA as published in his Games People Play. The language of TA demystified psychology for the average person.

The popularity of TA has faded over the years but the validity of its approach to understanding human behavior has never been rejected. One of Berne’s especially durable models in Games People Play illustrates how a person can assume one of three roles in a psychological game, sometimes because of a predisposition for the role or coercion due to circumstances. Berne labeled the roles as victim, rescuer, and persecutor. Readers are urged to follow the links in this text for a comprehensive explanation.

The Customer is Always Right

It is easy as a financial advisor to get caught in a game. The inducement, of course, is the desire to acquire or retain a client. The customer is always right means that the advisor needs to pull a lot of punches. Confrontations are out. Diplomacy is the rule with no small amount of circumlocution thrown in.

I was wary when the two older men and younger woman wanted to discuss my client, Jennifer, (not her real name) who had received the million dollar lump sum divorce settlement and then allowed herself to be bilked out of most of it by her boyfriend, Big Dan. Within in three years, her fortune dwindled to less than one third of its initial value. She shoveled cash to Big Dan for three years and then opened her home to her family of freeloaders. That’s a rescuer racing headlong for victim status. The trio now hoping to save her from herself may have wanted to strike while the pickings were still good. There was still a little meat left on the bone.

They, of course, could be as they presented themselves, rescuers of pure intent doing good for it’s own sake. They wore their Christianity on their sleeves but it meant nothing to me. A million dollars doesn’t usually attract the altruistic.

Better Planning Time Belongs to Better Clients

My client called to say that she wanted to meet with all three friends to discuss her situation. I agreed but it was the extra mile for me. My time was valuable. No advisor enjoys putting a long-range plan together for a client who will not commit to it. Better planning time belongs to better clients. But I went back to the computer and worked things through again. Several things were immediately obvious.

My client had too much house. The additions made it worth approximately $650,000, although in a better location it would have commanded more. She was paying approximately $3,200 a month in interest on her margin loan. That was a little more than 5.00% of her total portfolio, which meant that I would need to be aggressive to earn her enough to meet day-to-day expenses, and I didn’t want to take the risk involved in doing so.

She needed to get out from under the margin debt. The rules for margin accounts dictate how much can be loaned against the collateral. Up to 90% can be loaned against an insured municipal bond, for example. But only 50% can be loaned against the common stocks that are subject to fluctuations in value. The large loan against her holdings demanded that the portfolio be infused with as many bonds as possible to give it greater stability and provide the margin to cover the loans efficiently. The downside was that bonds would not help the holdings grow very much. Every dollar in interest was sopped up by the margin loan, and my client kept going deeper and deeper into debt to cover her living expenses, money flying out of her account like bats flushed from a cave. She had spent roughly $270,000 right off the top, which reduced her holdings to $730,000. $460,000 of margin debt netted her account at $270,000, her only source of income as she had yet to begin looking for a job.

A Way Out

I laid out a simple program. She needed to sell her house and buy a more modest one to replace it. If she reinvested $175,000 in a replacement home, she would free up $475,000 to pay of the margin loan with a little to spare. Her portfolio would be restored to a value of roughly $745,000, which could be managed to generate about $3,725 a month income with no mortgage to pay—enough to live on and expect that her portfolio would grow over time.

“I can’t sell the house. It’s what I spent the money on.”

“I know that you have a lot invested in the house, your feelings and your money, but you need to consider it,” I said.

“What will my folks do? They live there now.”

“I know that you want to  consider them. What did the do before the moved in with you?” I asked.

“They worked for an airline company, but they were laid off.”

“Have they looked for other work?” I asked.

“That’s their business. You don’t think that I’m going to tell them to get out and look for a job, do you?”

“It may come to that,”  I replied pleased that the trio in the room nodded in agreement.

Jennifer’s woman friend leaned forward and said, “They are not your responsibility, sweetie. They are taking advantage of you.”

“I just want to help them until the get a new start.”

“But they are not trying to get a new start. You know that. You can see that. They are just living off you,” the friend said.

“They are Grampa and Nana to my boys. I could never explain to them why I threw them out.” (more…)

When a Million Is Not Enough — Part II ( Margin is not the Answer)

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

John J. Hohn and dog Jessie

Everyone saw it coming except my client. Big Dan pulled up stakes and left. My client had backed him until her million dollar nest egg was severely depleted and her own well being in jeopardy. The margin loan (See Part I) was not being repaid. It was on the books at a rate of 8.50%. Advisors are often compensated for promoting use of margin loans. They can get paid a few basis points on the interest. My policy was to avoid margin. My reasoning went as follows:

  • The interest charged on margin loans is a difficult to beat with a return on investments.
  • The rate  is usually higher than what a bank might offer.
  • Borrowing money to bolster portfolio performance is inherently risky and usually reflects a lack of planning. If a client doesn’t have enough money to make a plan work, the goals have not been set realistically
  • Borrowing is addictive. Once an investor takes out a margin loan, additional borrowings become easier and easier.
  • Planning becomes much more complicated with the additional task of retiring the loan to be worked into it.
  • Borrowing on margin is almost always justified because the investor wants to make a high-risk purchase. A sure thing is almost always a long shot and when it doesn’t pay, the loss is twice as painful because the loan is still on the books.
  • Most investors would not borrow money from a bank or mortgage company to fund an investment purchase, as it seems too risky. A margin loan is no less risky, just more convenient, so much so investors do not stop to think.

True to form, my client called one day to tell me that she wanted to buy stock in a local software company that planned to put all the books ever published on the Internet and allow anyone with a computer to access them. No. This wasn’t Google. It was a local start-up that was being put together by a man who had one failure notched in his belt already—a robotics company that never got off the ground and lost thousands for scores of local investors.

“Everybody is getting in,” she insisted. “We’re friends. I see him at the club all of the time.”

I asked her if she had seen any literature, a statement from an investment banker, or anything of the sort.  “He’s not going to delay things by jumping through all of the bureaucratic hoops. He says business is over regulated by the government anyway.” I realized that she could write check on her account any day that she wanted, so I thanked her for calling, promised to look into the situation and call her back.

Research is Part of a Financial Advisor’s Service

I was curious. But I also believed that primary research is part of the package of services I offered my clients. Clients often take a narrow view a financial advisor’s service. The advisor gets slotted into a role as a stocks and bonds broker who buys and sells for them and little else. The advisor may do little to discourage the client. Research does not always end up with a recommendation to buy or sell anything. The advisor will see the time as unproductive, and if the advisor is being paid on a per-trade basis, research is not necessarily income generating. It can lead to other investment ideas or  help build loyalty because it is a value-added dimension of the relationship with the client, but the payoffs are not as immediate as many advisors might like.

I discovered that the founder of the new company was not following the usual protocol in making an initial public offering. I was unable to reach him by phone and he never returned my calls. I asked other financial advisors in town for whatever information they had on the company and everyone reported the same results. I called my client to let her know what I had found. (more…)

Gravity, Death and Taxes. Life Certainties?

Thursday, December 15th, 2011
John  J. Hohn, Financial Adviser

John J. Hohn

Life contains its certainties. Gravity is one. Death is another. In 2010, the General Electric Corporation proved that taxes are not. Most everything else is open to further investigation. Life certainties would seem to be the province of science. But theories are advanced only to be disproved and replaced by some fresh attempt to understand the universe. Certainty, instead, is the work of religion where very little can be proved outright. Faith is required. Faith is not rational. It is most frequently described as a gift.

Raised Catholic, I enjoyed the belief that death, while regrettable, was simply a launching into eternity. The loss of loved ones was eased by the conviction that they have gone on ahead of those who mourned them. There may be some kind of self-aware existence after death. I resist ruling it out. I am not persuaded one way or the other. My ambivalence is a great comfort to me.

If a form of existence continues after death, it raises a number of questions. What is outside the universe? It may be expanding, but into what? At death, am I to be recycled through the existing universe or dispatched beyond into a timeless realm? If eternity is the non-material continuance of a life as I know it, how am I to avoid treating every moment as cheap and expendable?

I am a man of faith but few beliefs. My faith does not shut out the disquiet of doubt. Doubt allows unlimited possibilities. Doubt enables awe. Awe is preferable to certainty. Doubt is not a state of being lost. I am not lost. I have never been more aware of who I am. The Supreme Being knows who I am, my mind, and my heart. And if there is no Supreme Being, what I think doesn’t matter.

One night, unable to sleep, I got up and found my wife working late in the light of her study. I needed to talk to her. I did not care how foolish I looked, how frightened and angry and confused. For I love my wife. And I love my life. I don’t ever want to let go of either—not ever. I wept. I paced. I ranted. My wife was patient and gentle. (more…)

Vairable Annuities — A Great Way to Protect a Retirement Portfolio

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

John J. Hohn and dog Jessie

Thanks for all the questions about annuities. Yes, annuities are a valuable way to protect your retirement portfolio and secure an income for your survivors. But there are several things to be considered before buying one.

There are two kinds of annuities; fixed and variable. Fixed annuities guarantee income to the owner and often the survivor at a set amount for a fixed period of time. Fixed annuities will be a topic for a later posting. Enough said for now.

Variable annuities are a hybrid product. They combine life insurance and mutual fund portfolio management into one contract. The insurance can take many different forms. The most basic benefit is that the contract insures the principle against market loss for the survivors, named as beneficiaries in the contract.

Assume an investor buys a $50,000 variable annuity either through a financial advisor or an insurance agent and directs that the funds be invested in a mutual fund portfolio that allocates 70 percent to funds that invest in common stock—equity mutual funds. Assume further that the investor holds the annuity contract for 10 years and over that period the mutual funds lose $15,000 so that the face value of the annuity is reported at $35,000 rather than the original $50,000.

But let’s have our investor open the statement, read about the losses in the face value and drop over dead from shock. With the death of the owner, the insurance features of the variable annuity come to the rescue of the named beneficiary who will collect the face value of $50,000. The owner, in other words, had $15,000 worth of insurance and did not put the principal of the contract at risk in the market.

Several conditions may apply at this point and care must be exercised to know the provisions of the contract. The death benefit may be reduced by any withdrawals taken while the owner was alive. Make sure the person offering you the contract explains all of these particulars. But lets go a step further.

More competitive variable annuities will actually guarantee a minimum level of return. The provisions vary widely from one company to the next, but in the simplest terms, a contract may state that the value of the annuity at the time of the owner’s death is equal to the highest amount the contract achieved in the market on a given date or a guaranteed amount of appreciation every year whichever is higher.

That is not as complicated as it sounds. Let’s go back to the poor devil who dropped dead over his losses. Let’s assume, further, that a contract provision guarantees that the beneficiary will be paid the face value plus 5 percent compounded annually on the initial face value or the highest level the contract achieve on any anniversary date of the purchase. The 5 percent sounds pretty good. Just remember that contracts vary widely so be sure to get this explained to your complete satisfaction before signing anything. (more…)