Doom And Bloom

The West is in drought, and is burning. The banks are too big to fail, again. The intersection of Asia, Europe, and Africa is in turmoil, as usual. Tonight’s attempt at chili became something else. Okay, that last one isn’t traumatic, but it does point to something a friend has labeled The Trimbath Sanguinity. Great title, and I had to look up sanguine’s definition to be sure. My sanguinity in the midst of my financial turmoil is akin to another new word I’m glad someone invented, Apocaloptimist. Go ahead and feel sorry for Spell Check. The basic concept is simple and counter-intuitive; the world is headed to at least one apocalypse, and everything will somehow turn out fine.

How many apocalypse scenarios do you want? Turn on the news. They’ll deliver a dozen. Climate change went from a warning, to a debate, to reality for coasties, to consequences now playing themselves out inland. And, it’s only just begun. Skip talking about glaciers melting. Now it entire continents and the polar ice cap. The banks just had their report cards marked Incomplete and sent back to do more homework. It turns out that they haven’t reformed themselves as the law requires, and the regulators saw a wide enough gap that they couldn’t look the other way. I’m not going to dive into the travesties of the wars in the birthplaces of civilization. None of them seem to be in good shape, or safe. Purely for brevity I’ll put aside overfishing, fracking, pandemics, and the rest of the list that my brain balks at recalling. Those bomb shelter bunkers from 1950 start to look appealing.

Two sayings come to mind:
There is chaos under heaven and the situation is excellent.
Relax. Nothing is under control.

Believing there will be solutions can be considered polyannic, or counter-productive. A few years ago I began developing a vehicle that would begin pulling plastics back out of the ocean. I was surprised to see how many people were against it. Their argument was that by reducing the problem we’d be reducing the urgency people felt about it. They didn’t want solutions. They wanted heightened urgency, even if the situation had to be worsened to increase the urgency. Their rebukes were public and what private support I had dramatically diminished. Someday, I’ll get around to updating the online version of the design, but work occupies my time for now.

I believe we are witnessing the early stages of scenarios that will impact billions of people. On an individual basis there will be suffering. Sorry, but that’s the case. I’ve already witnessed some, which is implicit in many of my posts. The apocalypse part of Apocaloptimist is probably unavoidable.

I am also an optimist. My optimism is based on that strange occupation called studying history. Every turmoil the human race has encountered resulted in innovation, shifted paradigms, and a more capable civilization. According to DNA regression, the human species almost died out about 195,000 years ago. Some estimates place the total planetary population at 2,000-3,000 people. Prior to that, humans didn’t move around much. After that, we began expanding across the planet.

Each challenge is an opportunity for an advance, and every advance has its benefits and detriments. We’re currently working through the first truly global detriments in almost 200,000 years, and it may be our fault. And we may be the solution.

We witness what’s going on around us, prudently extrapolate in a search for warning signs, and gradually shift the will of a populace to make the right changes. But, simply extrapolating is assuming that everything will continue as it has. The use of extrapolation is a measure of trying to understand, and therefore control the situation. I think we have more than enough evidence that we are not very good terrible at controlling the planet or the entire population or anything besides ourselves – and even personal control has problems in the vicinity of chocolate.

There is chaos under heaven and the situation is excellent.
Relax. Nothing is under control.

I keep apocalypses in mind because I do make some attempts at control in my life. I have such a wealth of Backup Plans because I’m aware of so many scenarios and contingencies. I have a lot less urgency than others expect, though; because, I also know that very little of it is in my control. I am optimistic about the future because so many people are quietly changing their way of life. Without any plan or celebration the other day, those of us at the Langley Coworks noticed that everyone except one rode their bicycles to work or to shop because it simply made sense. (Occupy Your Bike!) Personal finance plans are most useful when they are aware of apocalypse and optimism.

The wildfires in Washington State are incredible. Hundreds of thousands of acres in flame. Fires so large that entire metropolitan areas would fit inside. Six years ago I drove through that area, a year or so after another section had burned through. The hikes I took were through recovering forests. Charred trunks and fresh growth. The color contrasts were magnificent, and the young foliage was exuberant.
DSC_3139
My business schedule now means that Sunday can be my busiest day; so, I decided to make lazy man chili. Lazy Man Chili: one big pot plus stock, leftovers, sausage, onions, tomatoes, beans (welcome to my finances), spices, herbs, garlic, and heat. Simmer forever while getting lots of work done. It was a chaotic mess. And it didn’t become a chili. But, what it did become is something I don’t have a name for that turned out to be very tasty with just the right amount of heat.
DSC_4872
The day has hit 9pm. It has been a chaotic mix of building fences, helping repair a lawn mower, bicycling for my commute, cooking, working on a museum, a frugality organization, an aerospace blog, considering becoming a member of the community council, and after I post this blog, washing the dishes.

There is chaos under heaven and the situation is excellent.
Relax. Nothing is under control.

And, whether doom is headed this way or not, I suspect a bloom is on its way.
PS
My friend who labeled the Trimbath Sanguinity suggested I give talks about it. If you’re interested, send me a note. Let’s relax and see what the situation becomes.

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My Money And My Life

Clear one hurdle and a new adventure embarks. From what I can tell, I’ve managed to keep my house, get an impressively modified mortgage, and built my business to the point that I can pay at least all my regular bills by working seven days a week. That is an immense improvement compared to last year. I look forward to the next improvement that will allow some ease. Frugality and investing helped me reach financial independence for a while, more than a decade ago. Now, to reclaim it, I plan to step back through that process again. I am confident I can regain financial independence the way I did the first time, but along the way I followed some other steps that systematized the process. A bit of structure is handy, and I will use it. I followed eight of the nine steps of Joe Dominguez’ Nine Step Program, Transforming Your Relationship With Money that was popularized through the book Vicki Robin wrote, Your Money or Your Life (aka YMOYL). Over the next several months I plan to step through those steps again. You are welcome to come along.

For those of you who aren’t aware of Joe Dominguez’s or Vicki Robin’s work, don’t be surprised. Yes, the Nine Step Program is impressive. Yes, Your Money or Your Life is a bestseller. And yet, most people do not want to study, research, or deal with personal finance. In America, despite our fascination with wealth, we have layers of taboos about money. Avoid understanding personal finance, and avoid the taboos. Ignorance is a socially acceptable position. To fully understand the Nine Step Program you have to read through and do the Nine Step Program. It is inherently simple, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Allow me to poorly paraphrase within this paragraph: money is a thing and doesn’t carry any emotion so don’t give it any, we exchange our time for money so keep in mind that money is slices of a life and therefore precious, respect your value, live according to your values, spend less than you make, invest the rest. Either in the books or directly in the Guides, you can find the rest of the details.

An understanding of personal finance escapes most people. Even without the taboos, messages from financial institutions reinforce the notion that personal finance can best be handled by professionals. In some cases that is true. In many cases it is not. There is no magic formula for managing money, whether managed by professionals or individuals. Decreasing expenses and increasing income to the point that you have enough is not a formula, but it is a way of life. The odd thing is that, as a way of life, it is so uncommon. In some cases, hiring someone else to manage a person’s money is necessary because of lifestyle choices, learning difficulties, a lack of confidence, or a desire for optimization. In many cases, getting enough relies more on understanding personal values than it does on accumulating massive wealth. The person who is happy with living aboard a small sailboat needs less than someone who needs a 4,000 square foot formal mansion on a golf course in Hawaii.

Joe Dominguez was a revolutionary who used conventional investing to live a life based on his frugal values. For more of the story, go to New Road Map’s web site. From what I understand, Joe saw a way out of his job, retired very young, developed and taught the Nine Step Program as a series of workshops and seminars and tapes, which with Vicki Robin’s help became the first edition of Your Money or Your Life, which led to the second edition of Your Money or Your Life. Disclosure: the workshops and such funded a foundation called the New Road Map Foundation

New Road Map Foundation

New Road Map Foundation

where I’ve been board Secretary and am now the Information Manager, and while talking to Vicki Robin about the second edition I was encouraged to write my own story and perspective in another book called, Dream. Invest. Live.Dream. Invest. Live. which came out as the economy crashed and most of my investments subsequently imploded.

Back in 1998 I recognized that through frugal living and prudent investing early retirement was an option. A year or two later a friend suggested that I read YMOYL. It confirmed my assertion, and it also systematized how to quantify the situation. Within months of finishing the book and the program, I was able to reasonably confidently retire from my aerospace engineering career. Then the market boomed and busted. And for health reasons I asked for a divorce. And what had been enough for two to retire was less than enough for one. A bit of patience and optimism almost regained my financial independence, but then the Triple Whammy happened. Several months later my portfolio hadn’t recovered and my job applications were unanswered. Through a lot of hard work and timely advice I was able to build my business and save my house. Now that I know what I owe I have the data I need to step back into the Program.

Throughout all of this, while I may be discussing the Nine Step Program and personal finance, it is easy to overlook the importance of frugality and personal values. I know I couldn’t be in such a positive position without understanding my needs and values. Without those two items, the rest is moot.

The perfect blogger’s approach would be to establish a schedule, demonstrate regular and periodic progress; but the realist knows that it is more important to chronicle such a journey within the constraints of maintaining a job, a home, a place in community, and a social life. I don’t know how long this will take.

I’m not starting from a clean slate. I’ve already read the book. I read and suggested changes to the early versions of the second edition, and ended up in it as a case study. I worked through the entire program, with an unfortunately inauspicious difference of opinion about Step 9 – Investing. I’ve worked through my thoughts enough to write my book, which I continue to have confidence in, though maybe less in the investment environment. I’ve waited to restart until I arrayed some of the data points that I know will be key: my total debt, online banking accounts, and a level of income security that is shaky and about as certain as most people’s.

This time through I plan to use the Nine Step Program that is online, partly because I understand the narrative within the books and simply want to use the structure to support my effort.

Through serendipity I’ve somehow managed to be given my own copies of the tapes, the CDs, both copies of Your Money or Your Life, and of course my copy of Dream. Invest. Live. There’s a progression that I suspect will continue. The double digit interest rates of Joe’s era are temporarily gone. Prices change. The relative expense of food versus fuel versus housing shift. Income has a different character in 2014 than in 1994. The world is further along in the changes we haven’t forestalled. DSC_4850The photo shows one product leading to another, and I purposely left room for more; possibly even a second edition of my book that reflects what was revealed during the recent economic turmoil.

If you think personal finance is dull, I’m not surprised. If you think financial independence is unattainable, you have lots of company. If you want to watch as someone works to attain it – again – stay tuned. If you are willing to embark on your own journey, I applaud you.

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My Mortgage Modification Chronology

The short story: I get to keep my house, and here’s how it happened.

This post will be far less literary than most, but also far more literal and hopefully useful. It is inspired by a celebratory event that I have yet to emotionally celebrate. The title of the key document actually emphasizes the opposite of the outcome. I finally received the Foreclosure Mediation Report/Certification, which is one of the official documents that certifies that I have a modified mortgage. As most folks prefer to hear it, I get to keep my house. I’ve blogged about the process, laying out my emotions along the way in thousands of words. Anyone in a similar circumstance doesn’t have that much free time, nor have any need to live through my turmoils. They have their own. They may, however, benefit from seeing my steps, how long they took, and a few of the imperfections in the process. If you’re going through the threat of foreclosure, I’m sorry to hear it. I navigated my way through. While many outside the process see it as simple as: quit paying your mortgage and either a) get kicked out or b) stay in until they kick you out; the reality is that many people renegotiate their mortgage but it takes a long time and a lot of work. I am lucky enough that Washington State has non-profit services like Parkview Services that helped me immensely – for free. (Be wary of folks that charge a fee. Caveat Emptor.) Here’s my chronology with links to some of the posts. I won’t hand out advice unless it is requested. I suspect that if you read enough you’ll find your own. And to all who provided emotional, financial, and in some cases physical support, Thank you.

The long story:

  • August 2011 My finances are hit with a Triple Whammy. Start looking for a job.
  • May 2012 Hunt for a realtor. Put my house on the market.8199 Cultus Drive, Clinton WA 98236
  • October 2012 Sell my last shares of DNDN and a few others.
  • October 2012 Make a partial mortgage payment.
  • October 2012 Minimalist Garage Sale
  • November 2012 Begin collection calls from the mortgage servicer.
  • November 2012 Stop making mortgage payments.
  • December 2012 Sign up my first major client.
  • February 2013 “The mortgage company just informed me that the house “will go into foreclosure” or “be in foreclosure” or have “a foreclosure notice” as of March 17th”
  • May 2013 Sign up my second major client.
  • May 2013 Notice of Default or ForeclosureNotice of Default May 21, 2013
  • May 2013 Contact and attend Parkview Services‘ presentation. Thank them for the handiest graphic of the entire process.WA Foreclosure Timeline 2012
  • May 2013 Begin months of maintaining documentation of all bank accounts, scanning, and emailing them to appropriate parties.
  • May 2013 Meet with Fannie Mae, Parkview Services attending.
  • June 2013 Begin receiving HAMP style documents from my mortgage servicer
  • July 2013 File a claim (with the aid of Parkview Servicers) with the State’s Attorney General against the mortgage servicer because the Notice of Default was written incorrectly.
  • July 2013 Receive notification of the first Mediation meeting – originally for September, slid until October.
  • August 2013 Keep looking for a job but quit applying so energetically because my own business looks like a better possibility for income, and two years with only one full-time job interview is an impressive hint.
  • August 2013 Receive a Streamlined Mortgage Modification offer within 48 hours of the time when the mortgage servicer requires receipt of the completed documentation.
  • September 2013 My two biggest clients agree to double my hours. One asks for even more time and gives me a raise.
  • October 2013 Mediation meeting miscommunication. Reschedule.
  • October 2013 Mediation meeting miscommunication again. Reschedule again.
  • November 2013 Mediation meeting happens but without the mortgage servicer. Reschedule again. Counselors and mediator decide to pick March 2014 to allow for three consecutive months of business financial data.
  • January 2014 Receive phone call from mortgage servicer asking me about my response to their foreclosure. My response is that, as I understand it, there can be no foreclosure while we are in mediation. Their representative wasn’t aware that we were in mediation. I suggested they go talk to their lawyer.
  • March 2014 Prior to the mediation meeting get a phone call from Parkview Services telling me that a new mortgage modification is being offered at significantly lower terms. I should expect an official document soon. Postpone the mediation meeting until July 2014.
  • March 2014 Begin making trial payments.
  • April 2014 Took the house off the market because a sale at the reduced price would cost me more money than I have.
  • June 2014 Contacted mortgage servicer and Parkview Services because the mortgage modification documentation hadn’t arrived.
  • June 2014 Make mortgage payment as if it was a trial payment because the documents haven’t arrived and the end of the month is approaching. Hope the amount on the check is the same in the documentation.
  • June 2014 Received the mortgage modification documents. Negotiated the proper way to fill them out. Mail them Express to get them there by the end of the month.
  • July 2014 Learn that the mortgage servicer can’t find the documents, though the Post Office return receipt proves they were delivered.
  • July 2014 My half of the official documents are returned to me, signed and stamped.
  • July 2014 The Certificate from the mediator arrives verifying the details of the deal.
  • August 2014 Have yet to receive a proper mortgage statement, but have started fixing the house again anyway.
    My house, my home.

    My house, my home.

    I plan to make this into a presentation. Anyone that wants to hear the story, contact me and we’ll see what we can do. I might charge a fee; you see, I have this mortgage I have to pay off . . .

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News Here Movement There

Believe it or not, I do own stock that isn’t MVIS. MicroVision (MVIS) is a good story, but they don’t have much relevant financial data. GigOptix, that partly embodies a spinoff from MicroVision called Lumera, has better data, reported it, and surprised me with good news. The market decided to ignore all of that and move a completely different stock, AMSC, that had no news and no new data. Investing, logical in the long run, chaotic in the meantime.

Companies buy companies, and an event that gets labeled as a Merger or Acquisition, can really be a takeover or a cheap way to buy talent or patents.

Back about 2007, MicroVision needed some cash and didn’t want to go into debt. They had two main sets of product lines: image capture and projection based on a mirror on a chip, and an incredible suite of products based on a fancy organic material. MicroVision emphasized the Vision part of their name, kept the image based technology, and spun off the rest into Lumera. The short version is that Lumera never succeeded and eventually became part of GigOptix, a high tech electro-optical switching company. I think it was a merger, but more like a takeover. The longer version is in a previous post (UW MVIS LMRA GGOX GIG). MicroVision sold their LMRA shares. I kept mine, which are now GIG.

Tech takes time, and after all of these years, Lumera’s tech within GigOptix’s product line is finally making money. In recent years, GigOptix has grown to making about $30,000,000 in annual revenue, only some of which is from Lumera tech. GIG’s market cap isn’t much more than that. Price to Sales is about one. MicroVision is making about $6,000,000 and has a market cap about twice GigOptix’s. Just based on MVIS’s valuation, GIG’s valuation should be about ten times MVIS’s (5 times higher revenue and 2 times the P/S.)

One reason for MVIS’s higher valuation may be MicroVision’s potential, which I’ve described numerous times (Semi Annual Exercise Mid 2014, Abnormal And Extraordinary Surprises).

High tech companies like GigOptix are harder for analysts to understand. Who cares whether they make a better 60 GHz switch or are one of the few that can make a 70 GHz switch? Evidently enough tech folks care that the company made tens of millions of dollars. GigOptix’s story is similar to f5’s (FFIV). Few analysts understood the technical details, but the technicians appreciated the product and stock that traded at $3 now trades over $100 because eventually they made a lot of money. There’s that benefit of long term investing.

GigOptix’s revenues have been uneven. Analysts like steady growth. Any appearance of chaos is not appreciated. Here was the good news. GigOptix reported 18% revenue growth. Good. They also reported the growth in two other sectors. They were small sectors but the one roughly doubled and the other roughly tripled. I believe those sectors incorporate Lumera’s technology. Very nice.

With news like that, and some nice after hours market action, I expected GIG to rise nicely the next day. As I got up and did my regular check to see if MVIS’s surprise positive announcement happened, I saw that my portfolio was up nicely. It wasn’t because of MVIS. And it wasn’t because of GIG. My portfolio was up because of AMSC. Even the message boards were wondering about the move.

All three stocks have good reason to grow. GIG’s reasons were most current, but the data trend isn’t long enough and the company is small enough that the stock remains overlooked. MVIS’s reasons are based on speculation that good news is about to be announced – any day now – for the last few years. AMSC’s reasons are varied, with one dramatic catalyst being progress in an intellectual property dispute in the Chinese courts. But there wasn’t news there, or from sales; and yet the stock moved.

My investing philosophy has long been Long Term Buy and Hold, and that strategy has been tested in the last few years. The long term has been taking too long. And yet, the fundamental logic of the strategy remains valid, progress is being made (even though it may be overlooked), and my best tactic is to stand still and hold as long as I think the story hasn’t changed significantly. Standing still long enough for persistence to pay can take a lot of work.

Headaches happen when the brain tries to force one world view (the ideal of the long term) onto another world view (the reality of now). I’ve been investing long enough that the incongruity is familiar. I’ve also been investing long enough to know that as much as a stock can be unreasonably discounted for a long time, it can also be granted an unreasonable premium for a long time. The transition from one to the other is fascinating and fun to experience. It apparently didn’t happen for GIG or MVIS that day. Maybe it is beginning to happen for AMSC.

The news was here, for GIG. The movement was over there, at AMSC. I think and hope that the real movement will be then, sometime soon; after which, headaches may no longer be an issue.

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An Impressively Redefined Life – Paul Schell

Today Paul Schell died. Most people will have to do research to learn who he was. Most people will identify him by his job as Mayor of Seattle. On Whidbey he’s as well known for caring about a small town called Langley, a place he moved to and helped shape. Langley, WA July 2013Live and stay active long enough and be known for many things. We get chances every day to redefine ourselves. The people that impress me the most are the ones that take those opportunities and try to make those changes positive.

I’ve lived in or near Langley for nine years. I’ve actually known about and visited Langley since 1980, but it wasn’t until 2005 that I moved to Whidbey Island. Now I live near the southern tip. The county seat is thirty miles up the road. The biggest, and really only, city is about ten miles farther north. (It’s a big island.) World travelers know about the island from two tourist towns: Coupeville and Langley. They’re both good places. (A friend and I have produced videos of both: Langley, Coupeville.) For my first two official years I settled in Langley because, while as nice as Coupeville, Langley had the right mix of businesses that made it possible to live car-free. It was almost as if someone, or some group, had decided to design a place with a grocery, not a supermarket; a theater, not a multi-plex; more than enough bookstores; multiple real theaters for plays within a few blocks; and an awareness of the value of gardens, parks, and architecture.

I also moved out after two years on the advice of someone with many more years in the town. Move to Langley for two years. Get to know an amazing community of engaged people. Then, if you don’t like living in a fish bowl, get out of town. I’ve lived about ten miles out of Langley since then. Sweet as it looks, any small town is a opportunity for the authentic and enthusiastic inquiry into a person’s well-being even if there’s nothing to say and the only person to say it to is a stranger; e.g. gossip. As a single guy I heard too many stories about me, sometimes based on nothing more than someone picking my house to park their car in front of.

I don’t know the extent of Paul’s influence. Most of it was quiet, or at least not grabbing headlines. But as I became more familiar with the town, his name would come up about this initiative, or that contribution. Sadly, I was unexpectedly the one to deliver the news of his death to someone he mentored. Her reaction was immediate and heartfelt. No one I knew treated the news lightly. He obviously hadn’t just retired to Langley.

Transitions are more common because change is less unavoidable. Decades ago it was possible to move somewhere so remote that the news wouldn’t reach, but that doesn’t happen anymore.

Through layoffs, retirements, and friends passing I’m witnessing many people dealing with transitions. Transitions aren’t easy; especially, when identities are challenged. In America, identity and job title are synonymous. I had two major transitions: retiring from engineering in 1998, and getting divorced in 2005. Married engineer is a respectable label, and one that is easy to add into an introduction or into a conversation. Unmarried unengineer doesn’t work, not even for spellcheck; and it only defines the negatives. Eventually I stumbled into a variety of labels that I velcro to myself depending on the situation: consultant, writer, artist, dancer. Consultant is handy in any business setting because it is vague enough to be easily engaged with or passed over without judgment. Writer and artist are handy titles because people have so low expectations of them. If a writer is sober and ontime they are exceeding expectations. Dancer is handy is there’s music playing because, well, come on, it’s fun dancing with a partner.

Without knowing if anyone is writing Paul’s biography, I know that I am impressed with anyone who can move from being the mayor of a major city of near-enough to one million people to being an advocate and enthusiast for a town of near-enough to one thousand people without a publicly apparent problem with ego.

Paul’s passing affected me more than I expected because it was sudden and because I wonder what is going to happen to small towns like Langley as generations shift. Sustaining Small Town Charity comes to mind with renewed emphasis. Small towns are losing young people to big cities because of jobs and culture. Langley certainly has culture but the volume tends to be low and done by 10pm. Langley has jobs but they tend to pay minimum wage and rely on the seasonal tourist traffic. I cheer one response which is Fusion Spark Media’s Kickstarter campaign to bring people and non-tourism jobs to the entire island. Such initiatives are necessary, and are more likely to rely on local businesses and individuals than municipal institutions. A small tax base can result in small efforts which aren’t enough.

We are living longer. A life with a career ended after thirty years can fit in yet another career with time left over. The re- part of retirement is more re-definition, a chance to do something different now that you have decades of experience and hopefully wisdom. Oh, if I was starting out again . . . Well, most of us will. Look at what Paul did with his.

Hey, there’s an idea. Come to Langley and look at what Paul did with his. And not just Paul. Look at what a community can do. Langley isn’t pristine. Anyone who spends more than a week in any place can soon hear the intrigues, meet the range of characters, find the gold and the tarnish. Even so, impressive things happen.

And not just Langley, and not just small towns. As a wave of transitions wash across the country, millions will wonder what to do next whether by choice or necessity. There is plenty of work to do, and amazing people becoming available to do it – or at least to continue on the work of others. An amazing opportunity to respect those who came before, to define new roles in life, and to welcome others to join in. Oh yes, and there will be dancing.

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Repair The Fourth R

A lawnmower, a weed whacker, a convection/microwave, and a big hurking battery. Meet four of the items that fell into disrepair when I couldn’t pay the mortgage. They are also four steps I’m taking in my recovery, thanks to a man who fixes the bits of the world that he can touch with his hands. He is why I think we’re missing a fourth R: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – and Repair.

Guess who ate 100 feet of fishing line.

Guess who ate 100 feet of fishing line.

Recycling. It is much more common now, but we continue to make jokes about it, and too often the item at hand doesn’t seem to fit into only one category. Trash happens. Go check to Pacific Plastic Gyre for proof. Go check Midway Journey to see that it isn’t just a nuisance. (And go check my long neglected plans for a oceanic plastic harvester.)

Reuse. Reuse could include repair, but for those who’ve stepped beyond just recycling, reuse usually means repurposing or buying second hand. A truck tire rim becomes a fire pit. One person’s worn dress shirt becomes someone else’s garden work shirt. Much more energy efficient than tossing out the old, though the first owner may have just spent money and energy buying something new.

Reduce. Minimalists unite! Whether by choice or necessity, minimalists discard or refuse to buy whenever possible. Stuff can own you, and the more stuff you own the more of your life is spent tending your stuff. The dusting alone is a deterrent. The less you have, the more freedom you gain; which for some means Tiny Houses under 200 square feet or nomadic lifestyles about boats or RVs.

I’m not an extremist. My recycling probably takes up more volume than my garbage because empty plastic juice jugs take up a lot of space, and with composting my garbage is typically one grocery bag per week. Most of my stuff was bought new years ago, but also bought for quality, so only after years of financial turmoil am I seeing the need to replace things. During those last few years, much of what I’ve acquired has been lightly used find from the thrift store or presented as gifts by friends. Reduce has happened by necessity as I sold a few thousands of dollars worth of stuff, most of which I haven’t missed.

Without any grand plan, I’ve been a minimalist for decades. When my first house went on the market, prospective buyers thought it was vacated even though I hadn’t moved anything out. Cleaning up is so much easier when there’s less to clean. Now, my house is a palatial 840 square feet, which has one empty room and lots of empty drawers. And still it can take days to find something that I know must be around here somewhere.

Now that I’m clearing the financial hurdle of a modified mortgage, I’m noticing how much work there is, how many plans want to be undammed, and how many things have been abandoned in place waiting for the next step. Would I get to stay, have to move into another house, have to move into an apartment, or become some sort of digital nomad? The lawnmower became balky. The weed whacker refused to whack weeds. The microwave became fickle and the convection oven started to smoke. The big hurking battery, which I use in place of a generator when the power goes out, couldn’t hold a charge. They aren’t the only things waiting for a new wire, a cleaning, or a new part of two; but fixing those four things made a statement that I’ll be taking care of the yard, working more in the kitchen, and settling in even if the power does trip off here a bit more than normal (something for island rather than urban life).

Here’s where I get to proclaim my great repair skills. Notice there isn’t much more in this paragraph.

Here’s where I get to thank a member of an important minority: an honest repairman. There’s a guy in town who does good work; and who prefers not to be named because he’s already in such demand that the work could get in the way of important things like bicycling and fishing. Repairs that could me a week with a low chance of success are things he can do in an hour. A few bucks here, he cleans the contacts better than I could. A few more bucks, he untangles the fishing line that wound itself around a motor. Point me to a spare part. Show me that the problem was more with the user than the machine. Four items are steered clear of the dump, while he makes enough for bait, I spend a lot less than buying new, we don’t have to mine the planet for some more stuff, and work gets done around my house.

These are the sorts of repairs I’m willing to pay for when I have to because of finances, but also when I have more than enough. The thrill of a new tool isn’t as gratifying as the ease of using a familiar and trusty tool. I spent enough time researching those items the first time. Even with more than enough money, I don’t want to spend yet more precious time just for the sake of digging through packaging, juggling little accessory parts, and trying to decide if it is worth it to decipher the user’s manual.

One of the sad parts of the last few years has been watching things fade and fail without being able to do much about it. Amplify that by the tens of millions in worse financial conditions than me and realize how much potential lies dormant and diminishing for the lack of just a bit more money. I believe that extends to our institutions that have experienced austerity measures even while other organizations are given budgets based on borrowing. Much more good is waiting to be done.

The engineer in me is humbled by anyone with such repair skills. I learned how to be an aerospace engineer. Aerodynamics, flight mechanics, orbital dynamics, all very useful things; but not much good when poking inside an electric mower choked with wire. But as I walked away from his shop I gave myself some credit. What he does for electrical things I do for people’s plans, choices, and even their web sites. Often enough, a problem that can cause days or weeks of consternation can be solved in an hour or a few because of a different combination of experience and perspective. Each of us can do that for someone. There are plenty of problems out there. Maybe by passing along our various talents we can repair quite a lot.

One of my favorite Will Rogers quotes leads to a personal corollary.
You know everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” – Will Rogers
Everyone is equally brilliant, only on different subjects.” – Tom Trimbath

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The Recovery Begins

My recovery begins. My modified mortgage is official, I think. Celebrations were held, mostly by others. Life is improving, slowly – and that’s the way pivotal good news happens, slowly and incrementally (unless I hit the lottery jackpot.) Welcome to a new phase of personal finance.

I’m reasonably confident that my modified mortgage is official. I have the signed paperwork that proves that someone signed paperwork. There are doubts. The paperwork’s arrival was followed by an unofficial set of emails from the lawyers and mediators who hadn’t been informed. I’d contacted the mortgage servicer, but it looks like they hadn’t contacted their lawyer. I contacted my counselor, who was happy to hear the news and then launch back into a day of probably a dozen other cases. In a day or two the USPS delivered a mortgage statement, that was obviously out-of-date I hope, because it was for tens of thousands of dollars. It probably went out before one part of the mortgage servicer had contacted the other part of the mortgage servicer. Looks like I’ll send them yet another cashier’s check to the same address via return receipt, signature required, certified mail. It costs about $7, but it is worth it.

I thank my friends for the celebrations. As a friend mentioned earlier, it is obvious that the ordeal has left me emotionally numbed. Considering the more dire emotional possibilities, numb isn’t very bad, but it is certainly a measure of the struggle. My friends, however, have shouted, danced, high-fived, and celebrated for me. I’ve vicariously enjoyed my proxied exuberance. Yet another thing that friends are good for.

Life is improving slowly; but the changes are few and not very apparent. Money, time, socializing, and emotions are all in flux; but there’s less of the great release that many expect. I’m managing to keep my house, my home, by working seven days a week, taking about one day off every two months. My next vacation: Labor Day. The modified mortgage is calculated to match the income I make from my business. They had no reason to dial it back from that; so, the workload continues. Money is time, at least for most of what I do for my business. Most of my projects pay by the hour. An hour off equals money not made, and work that must be made up eventually. My time sheets have almost recovered from taking off the Fourth of July. Socializing is kicking in, yeah, partly because it is summer, partly because I have good news to share, and partly because I am determined to find time for my friends in my life. My emotions are, as my friend said, numbed; but, people continue to comment on my smile and say that I’m looking more relaxed. I’m so relaxed that I’m now aware of the tension I’ve been carrying where it was such a part of every moment that it was hard to discern before.

Bad news arrives quickly. Good news takes its time. The economic crashes of 2001 and 2008 were abrupt relative to the market’s recovery. The Dow and the S&P 500 have set records, but the NASDAQ has yet to reach its 2000 high. For the people who’ve found work, the recovery may have taken months. For many, years. For too many the recovery has yet to arrive.

As I type, almost a million acres of Washington and Oregon are on fire. The fires came on as quickly as lightning. We’re able to watch it happen over the last couple of days, and within a few days the worst should be over. The worst fires should be over. The recovery will be measured in months and years as people rebuild houses, rearrange lives, and regain a sense of security.

The people affected by Katrina and Sandy continue to recover. Life improves, but not as quickly as it was impacted.

Recovering from a personal financial upset is not instantaneous. Even if I hit the jackpot, so much maintenance was deferred that many things have to be repaired or replaced. I doubt that everything in the house could be fixed in time for winter. The plastic sheeting on the bedroom window will remain, probably be replaced this winter at least once, and hopefully allow for a simple window fix next year. It has a long list above it.

Yet, recovery does happen; and even simple steps are more welcome than they would be otherwise. An expert handyman in town hates watching things go to the dump, so for ~$30/hour he’ll try to fix things. Thanks to him I’ve already regained the use of my electric lawnmower and my convection/microwave oven. These aren’t the sort of events that anyone notices or holds parties for, but taking these first few steps to regaining some sense of sustainability has cheered me more than finding the mortgage notice in the mail.

My financial recovery will take years, especially as I pay down accumulated credit card debt (for the first time in my life.)

My emotional recovery is happening much more quickly, even if I appeared numbed; or maybe especially because I appeared that way. Each day that I wake up and remind myself that I don’t have to fear the mail or the phone is a day when I start with higher hopes. A compounding of that interest of each day is leading to an easier smile, a straighter back, and a few more relaxed muscles.

For the last few years I’ve chronicled what it was like to lose money, identity, and security. Now I get to chronicle the subsequent recovery (and I’ll include a caveat because I don’t take such things for guaranteed or granted.) I look forward to reporting good news.

In the meantime, the world is presenting me with signs of life. Now that I know I get to stay, an amaryllis in my furniture-free bedroom (I sold furniture to pay bills) took a few sips of water. Within a day the last remaining leaf was joined by two new sprouts, eager to grow and hopefully flower. I think I’ll need to get a bigger pot. Life wants to recover and thrive.

The new growth may be hard to see. That's the way recoveries happen.

The new growth may be hard to see. That’s the way recoveries happen.

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My Officially Modified Mortgage

It’s official – I think. The paperwork from the mortgage servicer came back signed and stamped. Let me check for the third or fourth time. Yep. Signatures have been applied. Okay, what’s next? Ah, wait a minute. I skipped a step or three. Wasn’t there supposed to be a cork involved? Allow me to start over.

My house, my home.

My house, though humble, my home.

Step 1) Stop paying the mortgage (for a very good reason.)
Step 2) Successfully go through an emotionally and mentally tortuous process for 19 months (numerous posts through this blog, check the tag “mortgage”).
Step 3) Get a mortgage that is half the monthly payment with a much higher principal.
Step 4) Celebrate.

I’m working on Step 4. The news hasn’t sunk in. I saw the envelope. Opened it and found the document. Acknowledged the milestone. And thought about what is next.

Such a subdued reaction felt very weird, so I told a friend. To paraphrase their response, the mortgage company (actually a mortgage servicer) numbed me down. Now I get to recover. So, he gave it a shout. That’s what friends are for. Another one high-fived me, danced in her seat, and said “That’s fantastic!” about five times. Another wrapped me in hugs and smiles. Okay, okay, it is beginning to sink in.

I took the rest of the day off. It’s evening and I’m making a steak dinner with roasted veggies and a nice red wine. It is a ritual meal I’ve planned for months. The feeling is beginning to sink in, with maybe a bit of help from the wine.

My brain went to the long list of things to do around the house. Some subdued portion woke up and gave the logical part of my brain a dope slap and said think about that later. Instead, imagine what I don’t have to do anymore and what I get to do instead of have to do.

What I don’t have to do:

  • Worry about notices taped to the door, nor any footstep that could be delivering the note.Notice of Default May 21, 2013
  • Deciphering fake notices from unknown agents pretending to be official bank notices.
  • Screening all my home calls because answering could kick off anxiety attacks that took days to recover from.
  • Treating the mail box as a booby-trap, because it could contain terrible news.
  • Drawing up my courage to open the mail, then scan, copy, email, and mail it if it came from an official source.
  • Wonder what seemingly bureaucratic arcane process is under way that I may have to respond to without understanding.
  • And most important, I don’t have to put off the things I want to do.

What I get to do:

  • Undam my Dammed Plans; dozens of plans put on hold because I didn’t know if I was going to have to move within 17 days – for the last 16 months.
  • Keep working as hard as I’ve been working to make the money to make the payments.
  • Pull together my financial records now that I know what I owe, and maybe embark upon the Nine Step Program
    New Road Map Foundation

    New Road Map Foundation

    yet again.

  • Commit to living on Whidbey, at least as long as any other resident. Almost all of my work is virtual, so any move could have been to any place reached by the Internet.
  • Relax.
  • Know that my house is my home.
  • Restock the pantry.
  • Restock the wine “cellar”.
  • Thank everyone who supported me through this trial.

DSCN5589Help others navigate their way through their trials.
For now, I think I’ll work on that mood by emptying a bit of that wine cellar and enjoying a view that varies every night – for many nights to come.

DSCN5580

 

PS Thanks again to Parkview Services, an organization that (as I understand it) works with the state of Washington to help homeowners stay in their homes for no fee (at least I was never charged for any of their services.) Special thanks to my counselor, Ivy, who had to deal with my style of handling paperwork.

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Saying Yes To Startup Dreams

A friend called up with a new idea. It will probably only cost a bit of time and effort – and who knows where it will go? I’m honored to be included. New ideas are what we need, and they need a bit of energy and enthusiasm to get them started. Of course, I’d be happy to help. The possibility of getting paid to help is even more enticing. Mega-corps, world-changing charities, political shifts, and awesome art have all been spawned by such simple phone calls. My love of people and ideas, and my background in technology and business mean I get a lot of such simple calls. I have to say No a lot, but it feels so good to say Yes.

Lately, saying Yes has been emotionally supportive, but only occasionally financially so. The most initiative making the most progress has been the Virtual Museum for the History of Computing in Learning and Education (HCLE). I’m helping Liza Loop build her online museum, a museum that will eventually require a reasonably large staff, but that for now is mostly Liza, me, and a few volunteers. We few, we happy few. Almost all of the rest of the projects are inching along, slowly growing while waiting for the right funds or people to clear their immediate hurdle. A variety of blogs, retail businesses, services, inventions, philanthropies, and a lot of innovative ideas that don’t fit into clear categories are sources of optimism and conversation, but not much else – for now.

Why spend so much time on ideas that don’t pay? My passion is for people and ideas; and, I think the world needs new ideas or a refreshing of some resourceful old ideas. Working on ideas for no pay can be fun, but only when there’s enough money from something else to cover the bills.

A friend called up with an idea for a blog that will be a series of video interviews. Dawn Griffin has a book about personal transformation coming out this autumn, and wanted to start a public conversation about people who have stepped beyond their limiting beliefs. She was nice enough to invite me to be the first interviewee, an honor; which is possibly helped along by the fact that I am somewhat comfortable working through technical glitches and fluid artistic concepts.

Besides, it was fun talking to Dawn. She even suggested that I may get to be an interviewer (paid?) if the idea catches on. If you want to see how far video blogs can go, check out vlogbrothers, myharto, or vsauce on YouTube. Each had a simple idea that had a bumpy start that matured through persistence into something awesome.

I know dozens of entrepreneurs who understand enthusiasm and potential. The ones I deal with usually have already taken the steps to realize that they can’t do it all on their own. I’m happy to help. It is a joy to see fresh ideas unbesmirched by dismal assaults of pessimism. Many ideas have succeeded because their proponents didn’t know the conventional wisdom that predicted their failure. Making movies on computers? Pixar can never succeed. Selling coffee as if was some premium product? Starbucks is just silly. Making and selling grain-less granola or home-made biscotti? Primal Island and Biscotti Journey haven’t a chance in the world of super-mega-markets – except they might. Whether they hire me or not, I’m happy to hear about their plans.

Yet, here I sit, wondering if my Backup Plans will establish themselves into an enjoyable, sustainable, long term lifestyle. Why persist?

Businesses grow, if they are tended and have some good luck. Mine has grown and provided me some enthusiasm, though revenues have yet to reach that critical threshold that provides some ease as well as paying the bills.

Portfolios grow, if they are tended and have some good luck. Mine has been languishing, yet my semi-annual review provided me with a bit of confidence again. Reflecting on my pre-2008 performance provides me with a lot of confidence (see my book, Dream. Invest. Live.Dream. Invest. Live. for data and details.).

Enthusiasm and confidence don’t pay bills, but persistence provides the energy and time to allow very good things to happen.

I invest in small companies and plan to sell their stocks when they are large companies. Every large company was small originally. Some have had extraordinary IPOs, but I avoid those. I invest in the small companies with big ideas that are hard to evaluate because their main assets are enthusiasm and confidence. If they can demonstrate persistence, so can I (though a few like GERN and MVIS are testing that.) That is the basis of my version of LTBH, Long Term Buy and Hold. Finding an investment early enough that others have overlooked it, which also means it is usually undervalued, i.e. cheap; and then holding until its value makes my life easier to live.

There is an oversupply of good ideas in the world. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the resources go to old ideas, entrenched companies and concepts, and institutions that have forgotten how to change. I may not have much money, but I invest it where I think it needs to go while honestly acknowledging that I hope to make a large profit. I have as much time in a day as anyone; so I am glad when I can spend it furthering one of my ideas or a friend’s idea. Inevitably, money and time are constrained to the point that I have to say No; but at least I know that up until that point I got to say Yes. If I generate the money that allows for ease, then I get to say Yes more often. Someone saying Yes is what turns idealistic dreams into fascinating realities. Why wouldn’t I want to do that?

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Weed Changes Whidbey

Today I walked into a store in Washington, bought a mood-altering drug that was recently illegal, and knew I could enjoy it if I treated it with respect. Its legalization has led to the undermining of criminal drug organizations and, despite its stigma, is part of normal society for many. There was even a reasonably good supply. As of a few years ago, I can buy Kentucky Bourbon in the grocery store. I almost bought some marijuana at the small strip mall nearby, but the plant that is healthier to ingest, less processed, has fewer calories, won’t break if I drop it, and is more useful in cooking hadn’t arrived at the new store on the island: Whidbey Island Cannabis Company.DSCN5462 Instead while I type this post, I’m enjoying an icy bourbon and soda on this hot summer day. Regardless of me and my actions, a world is changing.

Think there’s no stigma against alcohol? To many it is a guilty pleasure that must be prefaced with assurances that the drinker is not an alcoholic. Even in the open and liberal and libertarian society that is my neighborhood, considerable levels of guilt are dealt. The Prohibition against alcohol was repealed in 1933 in most, but not all of the US. Since then there have been enough drunk driver deaths and other abuses that there is considerable reason for caution; but the levels of violence, criminal activity, and hypocrisy that existed during Prohibition were far worse.

Marijuana’s stigma is different. The hype against marijuana was more political and ideological than medical. The legality is far fresher. Only Colorado and Washington State have made recreational marijuana use legal. That means at least two states allow a dramatic lowering of the hypocrisy barrier. Today’s twitter traffic had a chorus of alarmist hyperbole that had little or no substantiating data; especially, when compared to the amount of scientific and usage data. Yet, positive data aside, hyperbole fuels negativity and stigmas are reinforced. It will be interesting to see if marijuana’s stigma subsides faster than alcohol’s.

I didn’t plan to drop by the store today. According to my calendar I had meetings and work in the morning, and another set in the afternoon. But, a cancelled meeting in the morning opened up some time, and the history buff in me wanted to witness the historic event. The day Prohibition was repealed is splashed around with videos of parties and public celebrations. Marijuana’s celebration would probably be much more mellow, but historic in any case. Why pass up the opportunity to greet history? Besides, I knew the person opening the store and wanted to see how well it worked for her. I probably wouldn’t buy any because I have enough bills to pay, and yet . . .

Washington State only authorized 25 stores to open. This could get much more interesting. Fewer places opening. Fewer places to buy. Fewer places to line up. How long a line could we get on our island; especially, when all of Seattle only had one store opening, too? I might get to witness a media circus.

I planned to bicycle to the shop, but a flat tire and a time crunch meant I drove. Well, if there was a crowd I’d take advantage of the fact that a half-mile walk from a parking spot wouldn’t be an issue. Besides, I could bogart some wi-fi from the parking lot and get some work done first.

There wasn’t a line. An hour’s work later, there still wasn’t a line. I walked up to one of Whidbey’s less appealing strip malls, that did have the appeal of meeting all of the community boundary conditions of distances from schools, parks, and churches.  (The strip mall does have a good Mexican restaurant and karate dojo.) DSCN5461There was an open door, and there was one of my fellow bloggers, Sean, who writes for @CurbedSeattle. We talked a few days earlier. Neither of us planned to buy, but we wanted to watch. Wold CNN actually make it to the island?

It was still an hour before opening, but the door was open. Why not walk in? The room was empty except for one poster on the wall, a ribbon barrier, and a sign that said “Line Forms Here.” The counter was empty. The store looked empty. There were echoes. The guy running the place came up to his side of the counter and stood for a chat. Yes, they planned to open on time. Yes, the media came and went – much earlier in the morning. No, they had nothing to sell. Oops. That explained the empty counter. Everything about opening the store happened so quickly that they barely had time to get the walls put up. They only thing they had to pass out were state pamphlets.

Talk about stigmas - the web site is hosted by the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute

Talk about stigmas – the web site is hosted by the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute

Evidently, Washington State was simultaneously cautious and abrupt. Of the 300 licensees, 25 were given ten days notice that they’d be the ones to open first. As I understand it, the State would arrange the deliveries and define the prices. Only a few growers and processors were legally authorized, so only about 400 pounds to 500 pounds were harvested, and only about 22 pounds were properly inspected. 25 stores were going to open with only 22 pounds of product. Imagine running a store like that.

Sean and I settled into spots on the sidewalk just to see what would happen, at least for a while. If there was a line, the two guys who hadn’t planned to buy anything (at least not on the first day) were it. People drove up, got out, heard the news, and usually pleasantly shrugged and drove away. (Except for one very agitated woman who was so upset she almost got into a wreck as she spun off to Seattle, hoping to get some there.) After about thirty minutes we had a line of four. If we were a circus, we were a mellow and small one. Jokes were involved.

About two dozen people dropped by while we waited. It became obvious that people who had experience with marijuana didn’t stress out about it. Maybe it is an island thing, but hey, they’d come back later. Few if any had no experience. Those with decades of experience, including one man who’d been advocating for this since 1965, took this slight delay as just that. Whidbey is rural. Things grow here. They possibly already had a supply and just wanted to be part of the event.

And yet, it wasn’t a non-event. The legalization of marijuana is having a similar affect on the drug cartels that the repeal of Prohibition had on the Capone-era mob wars. As the legal product becomes more available, there’s less demand for the illegal product; the prices of both drop, consumers and producers who had been criminals could now be tax-paying citizens, and the violence and hypocrisy diminish. As a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, I am excited about the prospect of the government turning an expense into income, and people finding a safe and possibly healthy alternative to alcohol while also finding less violence in their neighborhood.

The world is changing. People are hunting for solutions and challenging assumptions. The search for solutions is one reason for the positive hype. People want to try something new, or at least know that they have more rather than fewer options. Something similar is happening with BitCoins. BitCoins generate a lot of news, conceivably are a viable alternative currency; but, there’s very little real activity. I’ve opened my business to accepting BitCoins weeks ago and have yet to receive even an inquiry. Marijuana legalization is big headlines, yet the total number of purchasers is small. Maybe BitCoins will become a currency as large as a moderate nation, but that’s a long way off. Maybe marijuana will become as pervasive as alcohol, but this bud’s for you will continue to mean beer, not weed for a while.

The world is changing because a few people in a few places are willing to ask key questions and act on the answers. Thanks to all who have done so.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it is time to enjoy another government regulated product for which some hold a stigma – a steak; after which it would be nice to learn that I’d won the lottery jackpot, which is another stigma-prone government regulated product.DSCN5471DSCN5466

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