2016 & 2017 Christmas Letters

CHRISTMAS 2016
 

My Dear Friends,

(Slowly exhale)......Where do I begin?

I promised myself that I would not get into the election but I don't know how to avoid it.  In fact, here I am opening my Christmas Letter....with the election.  Its exhausting, regardless of who you voted for....or against, who you wanted in the primaries...or didn't...and how you feel about the results now.  Its exhausting.  In all my years, I don't ever remember a time when we were so divided and/or so angry and/or so emotional about an election.  Newspapers and magazines are devoting large blocks of space to articles on how to avoid conflict at holiday gatherings.  For awhile, Thanksgiving dinner was sounding more like a family battleground than a family reunion.  Dear Abby devoted an entire column on how to avoid conflict at the dinner table.  Its exhausting.

Words of wisdom?  I wish I had some to pass on but I feel woefully inadequate.  What I tell my sons from time to time is this.  "You really can't help the way you feel.  But you choose what you do."  One of my favorite lifelong axioms is the phrase,  "You are what you do and you do what you choose".  Yes....I know.  Its never really that simple.  I hope you understand what I mean.  We go through our days assaulted by one news clip after another.  There are devastating tragedies just about every day.  There are stories that shock us with their brutality.  There are good people who suffer in ways that make absolutely no sense.  We wonder "why" and "how" and sometimes question our very faith.  There are also stories of charity and love.  People who reach out in remarkable ways to bring help and comfort to those in need.  There is still balance.

There are the simple, thoughtful things that you do every day that you probably never think much about.  Stopping to let someone cross in front of you.  Holding a door.  Letting someone cut in front of you in line because they only have one or two items.  Listening when you would prefer to talk.  Just being a good friend or neighbor.  In my role as financial advisor, I continue to be touched by the quiet generosity that so many of you display.

There is something about this election cycle that seems to have so many of us by the throat.  Emotions run deep.  Its raw and visceral.  It's almost as if for every person who is angry, frustrated and scared to death, there is someone else who is delighted, confident and full of hope.  I guess that I'm somewhere in the middle at this point.  I wasn't all that happy with my choices to begin with and the only thing I'm sure of right now is "today is today".  Whether thrilled or chilled, the election is over.  And that "Silent Majority" that we have heard so much about over the years.....Well.....it appears that they have found their voice.

So....are we doomed?  Or are we saved?  Clearly a topic for a different conversation.  I'll just say that as a financial guy....I like much of what I see so far.  As a husband, father and grandfather..... I'm still a bit unsettled.  I'm working on it.  Stay tuned.

We had our office Christmas Party on Friday night at the Cooked Goose.  For years, Andrew and his staff have treated us with extraordinary care and grace on this special occasion.  This year was no different.  Awesome.  Before we ate, I talked to our staff members and their husbands and wives about the difference they make each day in the lives of our clients.   What I said on Friday night was "Thank you".  Hillary was right when she said, "It takes a village".  I am so proud of our staff members.  I routinely receive emails from clients thanking me for the efforts of "someone" who took the time to listen, to understand, and went the extra mile to do whatever was needed.

I'm often asked about when I plan to retire.  "No plans yet", I continue to reply.  And here's why.  I know that what I do each day.....makes a difference in the lives of my clients.  It makes a difference in your life.  And that's what each member of our staff knows.  What they do matters.  What they do makes a difference.  What a privilege and special responsibility we have.

I met with a husband and wife just a couple of weeks ago.  He retired from Pfizer in 1992 at age 55.  They were a great couple.  Young.  Smart.  Athletic.  Good looking.  And very nervous about retiring so young.  Its been a relationship that I have come to cherish over the years.  As we sat around the table again, I was reminded that time is not always our friend.  He was still dealing with the results of a stroke that occurred about four years ago.  Parkinson's disease brought a tremor to his hands and made speech difficult at times.  We had a wonderful meeting, often going back to stories from earlier times.  As we all stood up to leave, I extended my hand to her and she walked through it to give me a warm, wonderful hug.  She looked me straight in the eye and said, "Thank you....for everything".  I caught my breath, blinked back a couple of tears and turned to him.  He extended his hand.  I opened my arms.  "Give me a hug, my friend, it's so good to see you."

Men don't hug men well.  We usually turn sideways or just slightly lean forward or stick a forearm between our chests.  Its usually a bit awkward.  This wasn't awkward.  We hugged.  And the tears came.  For both of us.  We were in the reception room and simply sat down to give the emotions time to pass.  In that handful of minutes he was able to convey his feelings of gratitude for having been able to retire at such an early age, to keep his family safe, and to look back on a life well lived.  I was reminded again that my business is not just about numbers, and statistics and interest rates, and portfolio managers, and taxes, and planning and "stuff".  My business is about people.  My business is about "you".  

That was the message that I left with our staff on Friday night.  What we do......changes lives....hopefully for the better.

And speaking of recognitions......every year Raymond James invites advisors, staff members and employees from offices nationwide to participate in a very special art exhibit and competition.  A little known fact is that Tom James, son of founder Bob James and current CEO of Raymond James owns one of the finest art collections in all of Florida.  It is on exhibit throughout the corporate offices in Tampa-Saint Petersburg.  There are numerous categories to enter from water colors to oils to crafts.  Its amazing to see the talent that is represented.

This year's "Best of Show" winner was our own Lee Ann Kozora.  Her Watercolor "Poppies" will be on display at the Raymond James home office for a year.  Congratulations Lee Ann.  We are envious and enormously proud of you.  

I recently read that the Army Corps of Engineers wants to spend $59 million dollars to raise 341 private homes built along the water's edge from Mystic to Narragansett.  Their  forecast is for tides to rise 4.4 inches by 2050.  Its a huge issue along the shoreline communities as residents debate the concept of using taxpayer money to solve private homeowner issues.  One of the intriguing things about this is that NOAA is saying that the Army Corps of Engineers calculations are far too conservative.  They are predicting that tides will rise twenty four inches by 2050 and potentially a full seven feet by 2100.  It reminds me of the punchline to the question, "What do you need to own waterfront property"?  The answer........"Patience".

As if that isn't bad enough, the renowned English theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, was recently quoted as saying that he believed that the earth had about 1000 years left.  Seems like a hundred years one way or the other could make a big difference.  Or maybe not.

As I write this, John Glenn passed away today at age 95.  I remember meeting Mr. Glenn and his wife, Annie, in 1999.  He and Annie both personally signed the book that he gave me which has had a place of honor ever since in my office library.  He seemed so unaffected and (forgive me for saying this) so down to earth.  I remember our conversation and thinking at the time that he was a guy I could have been friends with.  When I compare him.....his courage.....his achievements.....and his legacy to so many of today's talking heads....there isn't much of a comparison.  Paul Simon once mourned the loss of Joe DiMaggio, an American hero.  Today....we should all mourn the loss of John Glenn who represented the American dream of overcoming the greatest of odds in order to achieve the seemingly impossible.  When I think of Americans and American achievement......John Glenn will always come to mind.

And maybe that's the place I want to focus on this holiday season.  There is so much "noise".  So much drama.  So many words.  John Glenn was a man of few words and incredible accomplishments.  That would be my prayer for our leaders as we move forward.  I'm reminded of my high school guidance counselor who constantly badgered me with his comment, "Malcolm, you have so much potential.  Why aren't your grades better?"  He could never come to grips with the fact the fact that I left school at 2:30 and started my shift at Central Market at 3:00 and worked until 10:00 each night.  Homework sometimes suffered.  But my family had issues and at ages 16 and 17 and 18.....I needed to work.  

Today our wonderful country has issues.  And we all need to work to make it better.  Sometimes is does take sacrifice.  Will Mr. Trump fulfill his promises?  I don't know.  But I will support him and his team as he tries.  And, more importantly, I will support the efforts of my community to improve services, to reach more people who need reaching and do whatever I can to improve the lives of my family, my friends and my neighbors.  Honestly, I think America is already great.  But there is so much more we can do.

So....the next time you hold the door for someone, the next time you stop to let someone pass in front of you, the next time you say "yes" instead of "no"......the next time you have opportunity.....remember John Glenn.  He didn't do it for the money.  He did it because he had the opportunity.   According to Stephen Hawking, time is running out.  Its time to put some effort into this.

As we approach the new year full of hope and some trepidation, I want to say "thank you" for the opportunity you have given us to work with you as you try to achieve your own personal dreams and goals.  I appreciate the trust you have placed in all of us at PPG and promise that we will continue do do everything we can to maintain it.  

I know many of you have family members in active service in our military.  "Thank you for your service" seems so inadequate when you think about what service for our country really means.  Amy Grzybowski, the new Executive Director of the  Westerly Higher Education and Industrial Center was giving me a tour of the new educational facility being built near the train station on Friendship St.  What an incredible facility this will be and, even more, what a benefit for our southern New England community.  As we talked, I asked about her family and she said they were trying to get themselves ready for her husband's upcoming deployment.  "He will be away for about a year," she said.

"Amy," I said, "You have three young children and a big time job.  You and Michael adore each other.  A year!?!  How do you get through that".

She turned her head thoughtfully, then looked me square in the eyes.  "We're a military family.  It's what we do."

So as the holidays approach , all of us at PPG;  Kathy, Eileen, Lee-Ann, Jennifer, Diane, Margaret, Nadine, Lori, Mike, Chris, Peter, Dan, Garrett, Jonathan, our families, my wife Martha and, of course, Reddington and Annabelle join me in wishing you and your families a blessed and spirit filled Christmas and New Year.  For you who have lost loved ones this past year, I pray that you will find a place of comfort and strength.  I cannot imagine how difficult these holidays will be for you.  As I say every year, the world needs our passion and our prayers.  I love this country and continue to pray for wisdom, clarity and respect among our leaders. 

I know that I've said this so many times in the past, but please remember the families and especially the children who need a helping hand.  They aren't hard to find.  Remember as well organizations like the United Way, the YMCA, the Jonnycake Center and others in our community who, each day, strive to make a difference.  I respectfully invite you to take a moment, bow your head with ours, and quietly share your spirit and energy with those hidden in the shadows of our local neighborhoods and around the world.  They need our prayers.  They need our respect.  They need our support.

It may seem overwhelming as we think about the enormity of it all.  But, really....it's one kind word, one helping hand, one family, one child......one step at a time.

 

And so, as Tiny Tim said so many years ago, "Merry Christmas to all; God bless us everyone."

 

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah,

 

 

Malcolm A Makin, CFP®

President 

 

*Any opinions are those of Malcolm Makin and not necessarily those of RJFS or Raymond James.  Raymond James is not affiliated with any of the organizations named.

 

 

CHRISTMAS 2017

My Dear Friends,

So many wonderful stories begin with a phone call.

“Hello, Mal.  This is your cousin, Bruce.”

Now, I am at a stage in life where my cousins are relatively few and far between.  I must admit to a certain amount of envy for those of you who have cousins, aunts, uncles… family members whose numbers are in high double digits.  My family wasn’t like that.  Bruce was the oldest son of my father’s sister.  I always looked up to him growing up.  Bruce was smart.  He was athletic.  He was a tap dancer.  I think he appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour at least four or five times.  Of course it was small screen, black and white, but that was all we had back then.  I can remember him trying to practice in the kitchen of my parent’s farmhouse when I was a small boy.  Bruce had this wonderful routine where he would tap dance up and down a small two foot triangular ladder.  We had a seven foot ceiling in our kitchen.   It wasn’t pretty.

I’ve probably only seen Bruce a handful of times during the past twenty years or so, but every year on my birthday, I could count on receiving a nice card with a warm greeting from him and his wife, Lizz.  I’ve always appreciated the fact that he didn’t allow our relationship to simply drift away as so often happens.  But… back to the phone call.

Bruce wanted to come to Rhode Island to see me.  It’s a long drive from his home in Maine, but he insisted that he had “something” that he wanted me to have.  “A clock,” he said.  “An old, beautiful grandfather clock.  It needs to stay in the family.”

We made the arrangements.  Bruce and Lizz arrived at our home one afternoon in early October driving a rented U-Haul panel truck.  In the back, wrapped in blankets and love was Aunt Agnes’s grandfather clock.  Bruce thinks it was originally made in London, England more than 300 years ago.  

In 1894, my father’s mother (my grandmother) Ruth Malcolm sailed from Scotland with her sister Agnes, a couple of uncles and maybe someone else.  The details are sketchy, at best.  My grandmother and her sister Agnes settled in Providence.  Agnes brought with her from Scotland an antique clock that had been passed down to her.  When she was quite elderly, and Bruce was quite young (ten years old), Aunt Agnes “gave” the clock to Bruce.  

“She actually didn’t give it to me,” Bruce explained.  “She made me the custodian of the clock.  She made me promise that I would take care of it and, when the time came, pass it on to someone in the Malcolm family.  I have taken care of it for seventy one years.  Now I want to pass it on to you.”

Now symbols are funny things.  They reach back to childhood… or forward to whatever lies ahead.  They connect us to things that are buried deep.  They connect us to things that matter.  They connect us.  They bind us.  They give us meaning.

So much of life is placing one foot in front of the other and hoping that we have made good decisions.  History will be the judge.  We simply do the best we can with whatever we have to work with.  I had the privilege of spending a day, today actually, in New York City with Joe and Roberta Lombardino.  They retired from Pfizer in 1999.  It seems like yesterday.  I loved listening to them tell the story of how they met, fell in love, and married fifty seven years ago.  They still hold hands walking down the sidewalk and call each other… well you get the idea.  They are still in love.  Roberta says that Joe was described to her as “the youngest PhD ever hired by Pfizer.”  He was 24 years of age.  

We talked over dinner about decisions and choices we have made throughout our lives that have brought us to the places we are now.  People who believed in us.  People who helped us believe in ourselves.  I asked Joe how he discovered Feldine, a phenomenally successful drug for Pfizer with net revenues of something like seven billion dollars.  Yes, that’s right.  Billion… with a B.  Joe smiled tapped his forehead, and said he was mowing his lawn when it all came to him and he “knew.”  It still took two years of trials to put it all together, but in that moment… he “knew.”

One foot in front of the other…

Aunt Agnes’ clock seems to represent a tapestry of moments that connect me with my past.  Some are good.  Some are not so good to remember.  But together, they combine to remind me of who I am.  I am so grateful for that.  Aunt Agnes passed before I was born but her legacy continues on.  What a marvelous gift.  I need to find out more about her.

Last year, I talked about a country divided.  I talked about a country that was “thrilled” or “chilled” following the November Presidential election.  Today it appears that not much has changed in terms of how we see our leaders.  But… our economy is strong.  Our markets are robust.  The tweets… OMG.  And the dialogue between the parties is pathetic.  I still remember Rodney King standing in the streets in Los Angeles in 1992 pleading “Can’t we all just get along?”  Can’t we?  Is political bias so much stronger than common sense?

Matt Lauer got bounced this morning.  Charlie Rose a few days ago.  And Kevin Spacey a few days before that.  Where does this all come from?  Have we lost our minds? Our innocence?  Or simply lost our way?  Maybe we’ve lost something far more valuable.  

As we all get older together, I am truly humbled by the strength and courage so many of you have.  In the past several weeks, I have talked with spouses living with husbands and/or wives with dementia, Alzheimer’s, cancer or worse… if that is possible.  You have such courage and love.  I keep tissues near our conference table just in case, but many times, I’m the one reaching for the Kleenex to wipe my eyes.  I can’t name names, but I hope you know how much respect and admiration I have for you.   For so many of you.

I flew to Florida this weekend to play in a Pro-Am.  It was great fun.  I didn’t win anything that I will add to my trophy case but I was reminded again that one of the reasons I love golf is that it is so difficult to play consistently well.  I have a friend who says that “golf is 75% mental and the rest is all in your head.”  People who seem to enjoy the game the most are those who relish the occasional brilliant shot and can forgive and forget the occasional not-so-brilliant shot.  On the first day or the tournament, I put a ball in the water for a double bogey, put a ball in the bunker for a bogey and then on a difficult par four, drew the ball around a fairway bunker, stopped a few feet short of the water and hit a nine iron 133 yards into the cup for an eagle two.  Go figure.  I love golf.  And every now and then… it loves me back.

Now the point of telling the golf story was not to talk about golf but to talk about Bob and his wife of forty-one years.  On Friday night I went to the “Corner Deli” for dinner.  The food was ok but my real interest was in listening to the music.  I had read that someone named Bob was playing guitar and singing some of the old coffee-house music from the sixties.  Now that’s my kind of music.  The place was practically empty.  There was a fellow drinking at the bar.  He seemed very focused on his one beer after another.  There was a young couple in a booth way over in the corner. I don’t think that they were even alive in the sixties, or seventies, or even the eighties for that matter.  They weren’t there for the music.  There was an older lady wearing an oxygen flow tube attached to a portable tank who seemed to know the words to every song Bob sang.  There was the owner who seemed to just wander in and out of the room.  And me.  We were Bob’s audience for that Friday night.  

Bob was not a performer.  He was an artist.  He sang from his soul for the pure joy of singing.  I kept the beat with my ten fingered table drum and when he saw that I knew the words and music to “Bobby McGee” he motioned for me to come up and sit with him.  We sang together for what was probably an hour and a half.  It took me back to almost fifty years ago when I sat in Bob’s seat and sang to anyone who would listen.  I saw the brace on Bob’s leg.  His wife, the lady with the oxygen mask, said he has MS and has difficulty getting around.  He can no longer play his twelve string.  In fact, he only has use of about 60% of his hands.  Many chords are impossible for him to play.  He has to watch where his fingers go on the strings to make sure they hit the right spot. But… he plays from his soul.  His wife of forty-one years, still looks at him like he is the only man on earth.  And her eyes still tear up when he sings her favorite love song.  It was an evening I will never forget.  There have been so many years between “then” and now.  Such a rare gift, Bob.  I wonder if you have any idea.  Thank you.

Remember the horrible wildfires that spread though California this fall?  For days it seemed like most of California was on fire and then… nothing.  No news at all, or so it seemed.  We were back to what I can only call the “shrill.”  In mid November I received an email from my friend Tony Lachowicz.  Tony and Connie retired to Sonoma County in 2010.  Tony writes:

“Well, the last month has been quite an adventure.  The wildfires started on October 8th.  About 2:00 a.m., on the morning of the 9th, Connie and I got a phone call from a friend who lives nearby telling us that a fire was coming our way and “you have to get out!!”  He could see the flames from his deck about ten miles away.  Connie and I packed what we could in the car, grabbed the dog and headed out.  This was about 2:30 a.m.  We texted some friends and agreed to meet at a local shopping center to figure out what to do. We never thought this would last very long and assumed that the firefighters would quickly put out the flames.  We soon realized we were in it for longer than we thought.  At 3:00 a.m. our friend booked us a room at a local hotel. By 4:00 a.m. every room in the place had been booked.  We found out later that every hotel room within 50 miles had been taken by evacuees like us

We spent two nights at the hotel.  The managers were super friendly, allowed our pets to stay with us in the room and gave us free meals for the duration of our stay.  All the news we saw for the next few days was bad.  The fire was spreading at an alarming rate.  Crews were arriving from all over California and other states to battle it.  It was really scary, because the fire seemed to be spreading to all sides of our community of Oakmont.  Connie and I decided to go down to Oakland to stay with our daughter to ride out the storm.  We were not able to return to Oakmont until October 18, nine nights later.

When we finally got back home, we found our house covered in ashes and a few branches down from the trees, but otherwise intact.  Thank goodness!  The fires never actually made it to Oakmont, but there was plenty of burned out devastation all around.  Final tally had some 5300 homes burned and 23 people dead in Sonoma County alone.  The flames actually jumped a 4 lane highway and burned out an entire neighborhood plus a K-Mart shopping center.

So now we are all focusing on recovery and how to deal with the thousands of people without a home to return to.  People have been very generous to donate to a relief fund to assist those who lost their homes, and to thank the firefighters.  It will no doubt take years to get things back to be where they used to be, but so far everyone is working together… even the politicians.”  It is difficult to try to respond to something like this.  It certainly helps bring perspective.  Being truly alive is having the ability, and the courage, to take that next step.  The people I admire and respect the most are those who remain true to themselves, their faith and their families regardless of where that next step takes them.  

As Americans, we have so much to be thankful for.  Ours is a nation rich in opportunity.  It hasn’t always been pretty and that opportunity hasn’t always been easily available to everyone.  There is enough shame in our history to give any of us a moment of pause.  But, I believe that is how we have grown and matured as a culture.  And how we must grow going forward.  There are so many of us today who only see things in absolutes.  Right or wrong.  Black or white.  Innocent or guilty.  Fair or unfair.  Just or unjust.  With me or against me.  

If only it were that easy.  “This” way or “that” way.  Nothing in between.  It’s not that easy.  I don’t want us to become a nation of intolerance when only a crisis can bring us together.  I am still struck by the significance of Tony’s final thought.  “It will take years… but so far everyone is working together… even the politicians.”  

I think that is the message that I want to leave with you as we celebrate this special holiday and move forward wherever our steps take us in the year ahead.  It’s easy to get lost in the angry, shrill sounds of (pick whatever national news service you want).  Just don’t become that angry, shrill person yourself.  We all have places where we can choose to make a difference for the better.  One of my favorite clichés is:  “Be the person your dog thinks you are.”  What a wonderful concept.

Thank you for the opportunity my family and I have to know you and work with you.  It’s been a fabulous forty plus years… and, I hope, many more ahead.  I’ve said so often that one of my greatest joys is to be a part of your lives, to share your successes and to learn from you.  All of us at PPG; Kathy, Eileen, Lee-Ann, Jennifer, Diane, Margaret, Nadine, Colleen, McKinley, Mike, Chris, Peter, Dan, Garrett, Jon, Tina, our families, my wife Martha and, of course, Reddington and Annabelle join me in wishing you and your families a holiday and new year filled with joy, laughter and understanding.  Our world needs our prayers.  Our leaders need the same.  And please remember the men and women in uniform who love and defend our country and willingly make the sacrifices they do.

God bless each of you and, in the words of Tiny Tim, “May God bless us everyone.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah… and thank you Aunt Agnes.  Well done.  Thank you.

 

mMakin2

*Any opinions are those of Malcolm Makin and not necessarily those of RJFS or Raymond James.  Raymond James is not affiliated with any of the organizations named.