It Has Been A Quiet Week

It’s been a quiet week, here beside Cultus Bay. That’s a rare thing to hear from me lately, but it’s true. And it was welcome. In the world of ironies, though, the less I worked, the more good news happened to arrive.

Life has been crazy enough since my Triple Whammy. Many people have patiently listened to my descriptions of working seven days a week, frequently from 8 to 8. The last four months were a climax of overlapping (mostly temporary) assignments that were the first time in years when I made more than my bills (just in time for taxes); but at the cost of my health (oops, diabetes).

Without any great planning, several deadlines were accomplished and passed. A few major but temporary projects were completed. And then, a great gap in my schedule. There were a few items to work on, but my work life looked like a downhill roll after a long bicycle ride uphill. One of the messages from my health scare was that self-care had been neglected. I knew I’d neglected it. But, times and taxes demanded taking the risk of the added stress and strain. Now, health demanded taking time for taking care.

I quietly settled into a week with only one scheduled meeting. Shh. Don’t tell anyone.

It is easy to fall out of good habits. It took me several evenings to remember what I would do when I had free time. A very spooky feeling. I’m not surprised when I hear about people who fear retirement because they won’t know how to spend their time. Relax. There’ll always be something to do, and it’s also good to learn when to do nothing – and learning to relax can take effort.

It was weird enough to realize I forgot how I spent evenings. It was even weirder to feel my body adjust. For a day or two, everything seemed the same. Then, aches began for seemingly no reason; my muscles were so tight for so long that relaxing them hurt. Time for a massage. I got a tour of the extent of the tensed muscles thanks to a quick massage by Faith Bushby (she does in-store massages at Star Store Basics in Langley on Wednesdays). My body was so tight that it was as if eye strain was the new normal. A bit of relaxation and I could see more clearly. How many hints does a guy need to relax?

There was weirdness at work, too, and in a good way. Instead of sending out a swarm of emails asking for my next assignments, the assignments started showing up unsolicited. By the end of the week (and it isn’t over yet), I had three or four new assignments with existing clients, plus leads on two more. Evidently (and happily), I’m now some unofficial Welcome to Whidbey person. Someone connected via Twitter and we connected at a local coffee shop. Synchronicity happens and the meeting revealed some nice networking opportunities, plus I may have inadvertently connected a household with a house for sale (that I happened to have written the listing’s marketing remarks for). (Maybe I should try this realty thing, after all.) The flourish on top was a raise, a >75% raise from a client who finally realized that I’d “been working for peanuts.” Granted, this is after an 80% cut in the budget (the math: (1-0.8)*(1+0.75) = 0.35 ), but that means “only” a 65% cut for less time; and I can use the extra time for that personal care I mentioned.

A friend and ace consultant, Steve Smolinsky, has an entertaining and insightful blog about life and corporate culture. For years he has advocated for the kind of time I just spent. His calls them Clarity Breaks. Of course, his application of the idea is clearer and not interrupted with even the low level of chores and tasks I took on; but the effect is similar. Sometimes the best way to move ahead is to stand still.

I’ve been pushing hard because I’ve had to, but as I’ve shown, it is possible to push too much. Clarity Breaks aren’t new to me. Most people have ways to take some time for themselves. I do, or at least did, too. Look back on some of these posts when evening found me sitting on the deck with a cocktail beside me.

Ah, those were the days. Some day, again.

The cocktail wasn’t necessary except as an anchor that kept me in my seat for long enough to drink it, and relax. Whether it is a cocktail (which I can’t have now, rats) or a cup of tea, I found that sitting still for an hour usually ended with quickly and efficiently completing a series of tasks. Relaxing isn’t just about making a person more efficient, but it is one of the easier successes to describe and celebrate.

I suspect that given enough discretionary cash, I’d take a week to clear my mind, probably a month to reinvigorate my body, and months to regain my health. I’m not there, yet.

Two other things happened that put the rest in perspective, even that garnish. MVIS had a good week. Two impressive days saw the stock rise over 10%. By the end of the week, MVIS was up over 27%. I’ll save the analysis until after next week’s conference call, but that activity increased my net worth by almost a month’s living expenses. My portfolio and my house are probably both undervalued and both have reasons that their values may rise faster than my typical monthly revenues – without me having to push hard (except when I mow the lawn.) Maybe that’s the secret. Do less. Relax. Let things take care of themselves.

It has been a quiet week, and the quiet times can be the best times – in many ways.

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Small Town Working Spaces

Random acts of kindness are greatly appreciated. For a week or so this month I had the luxury of using an empty desk in the heart of Langley, our small tourist town. Two people have been watching the development of coworks on the south half of Whidbey Island, know that I’m an advocate for working spaces for Gig Economy workers, and knew that I have yet to find a place that meets my requirements. They offered, I accepted, it was good; and it isn’t the only option in town. Coworks have hit a series of quiet milestones in the Village by the Sea, so I wanted to celebrate their accomplishments and help chronicle the new way of working as it works its way into a historic place.

Ross Chapin is an architect known around the world for designing Pocket Neighborhoods, intentional communities that emphasize shared spaces, fine detail, and consequentially more sustainable living. Ann Medlock’s work extends around the world as her position as Founder and Executive Director of Giraffe Project, an organization that supports “compassionate risk-takers who are largely unknown, people who have the courage to stick their necks out for the common good“. Quaint little Langley, home to two of many similarly impactful people. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Ross has nice offices. He also has a few empty desks. Ann works from one, and they’re hunting for a couple of other people to work from the other two (the sweet window seats.) Thanks to their generosity and a cooperative schedule, I was treated to trying out one of the window desks for a while. (Great people watching in a tourist town.)


Workers in the Gig Economy frequently try to fit themselves and their laptops into coffeeshop and library furnishings and schedules. Quiet and privacy are traded for access to food, drink, Internet access, with a bit of accidental social networking. These aren’t casual workers, though. Their schedules can spread across time zones, coordinating with clients and colleagues can require quiet backgrounds, and a cafe table or the arm of a chair can be a bit limiting when the work requires spreading out papers and other devices.

To me, what Ross is offering is the higher-end of a coworking environment. A few desks with a lot of room and a professional environment. One of the biggest benefits for me was being able to have a key. 24/7 access better reflects the Gig Economy’s schedule. It was also nice to be able to run errands without having to shut everything down and cart it around.

Not all solutions are the same. Three other coworks have passed major hurdles.

Fine Balance Imaging and Printing created a two section coworks. The outer section is more open, has several desks, access to the kitchen amenities, and a professional and fine art printing and supply business. Need a copy or something scanned? Do you want one or 10,000 copies? Need a pen NOW? They got that. The other section is behind a door, creating a combination conference room, web conference site, and room for spreading out those papers. It has been a handy place for private client calls.

South Whidbey Commons is relocating their coworks (I believe) from the attic (which I reported from earlier) to the much more accessible and roomier backroom. There’s enough of a separation that the pesky espresso machine sounds can’t make it around the corner and down the hall; but food and drink are still available. Some of my clients prefer meeting there for the coffee, sometimes because it is familiar, and sometimes because it is a non-profit that teaches teenagers how to run a business.

The third place is the showcase of what is making this surge of coworks more possible (besides the tantalizing profit margins of running a coworks), The Big GiG. The Big Gig Center is one of Whidbey Telecom’s demonstration sites for one of their initiatives that should be making national news. They’ve brought 10G Internet access to the island. Like with any such infrastructure project, it starts from a hub and works its way out. (My house is probably years away, but that’s okay.) The download speeds are impressive, but the upload speeds are incredible. Uploads that take an hour at home take minutes or seconds at the Big GiG. Sometimes they go by so quickly that I miss the notification, think it didn’t do anything, and then find that it was done about the time my finger lifted from the keyboard. One of their demonstration areas holds three desks, each with large monitors, power stands, task lighting, ergonomic chairs, and (temporary) storage. There’s also a conference table, massive whiteboard, and maybe VR some day. My clients who want the quietest environment ask to meet there.

So, why aren’t these all considered to be open for business and spreading the word? Thank small town politeness and considerations. Rather than try to outcompete each other, the various principals are trying to find a way to work as a consortium. Very impressive. Pay the consortium and work wherever works best. That’s an effort I encourage. In the meantime, it also means that some of the spaces are available for free, or at least for the price of a cup of coffee. (Good thing that I drink tea, which is even cheaper.)

I have no favorite, and that isn’t just me being diplomatic. I seem to be attracting a different set of clients recently, but I don’t know if this is temporary or the entrance to a new phase of my business. At this point, no one solution meets all of my requirements, though as a consortium they get very close.

For me, coworks emphasize the co-. The more people the better. 24/7 is important to me because, even though Langley works on tourist time, I frequently work from 8 to 8. Being able to leave my computer at the site would mean better health (a recent issue) because it makes it easier to commute by bicycle. Being able to bring my own food and drink keeps the cost of working out of the house down. There are hints of these various things happening, but not yet.

Coworks in small towns aren’t limited to Langley, of course. Even on the island I enjoyed using a space at Whidbey Tel’s Freeland office, and I hear there may be a coworks in my even smaller town of Clinton (though the commute’s about the same distance.)

The old economy of paychecks and W-2s is being replaced by the Gig Economy and its 1099s. In ten years, the number of Americans working as contractors rose by 60% with no signs of stopping. The economy is changing. My business is changing. And, I’m glad to see that the towns on South Whidbey are changing, too. Now, what do I have to pay to join the consortium, please?

(Check the “coworks” tag for more of the history including previous coworks.)

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Diabetes Begins

I look forward to writing the post that will be titled Diabetes Ends. I was delivered the shock of news last week. I am diabetic. Any doubt I had about the Gig Economy being unhealthy was proved correct, at least for me. The bad news was delivered by someone who created a safe place for me to hear it; and yet, the impact was severe. The good news is that I have a lot of tools available for fixing this fractured lifestyle. Let’s get to work.

Thank you, Molly Fox, a naturopath who began practicing in Langley, within walking distance of several coworks and offices I use. We’ll get back to her in a paragraph or two.

I thought I’d written a post about my return to dealing with doctors. Here’s a synopsis because I can’t find the right link.

Life’s been so busy with working seven days a week and having seven bosses that the story may have rattled around in my brain without finding its way into the blog. Go back about eight years and find that I had a series of bad events with conventional medicine. (That lead to Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland.) The highlight was trying to pass a stress test the day the hospital held a terrorism drill. Evidently, my blood pressure spiked that day. Several other episodes had a similar theme; “We’re going to measure this to see if you’re going to die of that.” After enough repetitions, just hearing the blood pressure cuff inflate would kick off a three-day anxiety attack. Silly? Maybe. But true. Then my Triple Whammy hit. Losing almost everything meant any visit to the doctor was a opening to a bankruptcy, or so I imagined and no doctor dissuaded me. Friends called me for rides to the hospital for emergencies that I knew I couldn’t afford, even with insurance.

But, I knew I had to get back to regular health care. So, I scheduled a meet & greet with the last clinic I’d used, explained the situation, and nervously showed up early. Instead of a simple, informal conversation just to get used to the place again, they launched into the conventional routine stressing the “need” to get their data. I’ll skip the details, but they kicked off the very anxiety attack I was trying to avoid. I was trying to become one of their patients, told them how that could happen, and watched the system (not the people) work exactly against that.

To their practitioners, most medical systems are conventional. I’ve tried a few others and have noticed that the non-mainstream or non-Western ones tend to take a different approach; less bureaucracy, a greater emphasis on health, less expensive, and much more personal. I decided to give Molly a try. Within the first few minutes I felt at ease. She listened to my concerns, filled out a few forms but with a casual manner, and did something I thought was brilliant. Rather than try to find ways to get the vital signs that would ironically make me feel less healthy, she worked with simple things that would be familiar to the old-style family doctor. Evidently, she learned a lot from a stethoscope, the weird little hammer to the knee, and generally examining me without making me uncomfortable or feeling threatened. The conversation was a long list of things that were healthy. Imagine that, a health care professional emphasizing health – with of course the suggestion that I could lose some weight. But I already knew that.

I agreed to return for another test, this time a blood test, which brings us to last week’s news. The good news was that almost everything was fine. As gentle as she was, the one bit of bad news was worse than I thought, though not as bad as it could be. I may be diabetic, but it isn’t to the extent of pricking my finger or giving myself injections. It also can’t be ignored, and I’m not ignoring it. Hence, this post; because such things influence personal finance on both the income and expense side.

Work is probably the main cause of the condition, and is necessary to pay for the cure. Actually, that is incorrect. Working too hard wasn’t as bad as working so hard that I didn’t exercise, meditate, or relax enough. My fitness dropped. My weight climbed. Simple things like bad ergonomics allowed various aches and pains to accumulate. Work is not, however, necessary to pay for the cure; money is. Right now, unless I’ve won the lottery, money comes from work. Until there’s an excess of money, I must maintain about this level of work.

That’s life in the Gig Economy. As I said on Marketplace, working in the Gig Economy is expensive. Here’s a case where I pay for hundreds of dollars per month for insurance, but for far less than that I can find good health care. Those hundreds of dollars going to health insurance come from days of working. If I could swap that money for time to exercise, meditate, and relax, I might not be in this condition. That is an option I am considering, not carrying health insurance so I can be healthy. Then the biggest penalty may be whatever the government imposes.

I took a day to reflect on work, life, health, and anything else that came to mind. (My apologies to those clients whose work was delayed by a day. I think I may have lost one or two because of it.) The news was better than I thought. In general, my work schedule has been full; but the last three months had a perfect storm of rush jobs, reworks from redefined tasks, and the real storm of terrible weather for working out. That was temporary. Spring has returned. Already my work calendar is returning to normal, I’ve identified some adjustments, and found at least three full time island jobs that would be a great improvement. I’ve already applied for the position of Executive Director for the Port of Coupeville, and Communications and Outreach Specialist at Whidbey Camano Land Trust; both are jobs that fit personal passions: sustainable economics and environment.

Regardless of my place in 1099 and W-2 economies, I have to add one more task to my list: me. Exercise; hey, I rode across America, hiked the Cascades, and walked across Scotland. I can do this. Diet: I enjoy cooking, now I get to invent new recipes that avoid gluten, milk, cream, and grains. As one person said, “Sounds like bacon and eggs three times a day.” Intriguing. There may be pills involved. There will definitely be more tests involved. One of my sources of optimism is that there is always change involved. I couldn’t have predicted I’d be in this situation, so I don’t know what comes next. But, as another friend said, “What?! Diabetes!? Haven’t you had enough bad luck? It’s time for something good to happen to you.” I agree.

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Lower Income Higher Taxes

Whew. I paid my taxes, again, of course. I’m glad that’s over, though the costs will linger. My income taxes continue their inverse relationship with logic. The less I make, the more I pay. I suspect I’m not the only one. At least this year I was almost able to pay them.

This year held an improvement.

Last year’s filing ended with;
$4,000. That’s more than my bank account. Maybe I can scrounge enough to pay it, but then there won’t be enough for things like the mortgage and my healthcare premium.
Out comes the credit card, which I recognized was an option. (Cue the groans, lamentations, critiques, and offers of help from many friends. I hear you…)

This year’s filing ended with about a 5% drop in revenue and a 25% increase in what I owe; $5,000. The good news is that this year I had that much in my bank account. The bad news is that I need that cushion because of an expected dip in revenues. I could pay the IRS in full, but if my business doesn’t fill in the gap I’d be living too risky of a life. In this situation, I would’ve preferred to pay the majority with cash and make up the rest with the credit card; but that wasn’t an option. It all goes on the card, and next month I’ll make a very large payment – or even pay it all off if the right job/gig(s) come by.

The total time to collect all of the records, shuffle them into a spreadsheet, and run through TurboTax was one calendar week and about five hours. That doesn’t sound like much now that I’m done, but it was grueling while I was in the middle of it.

When I was semi-retired and living from money I made investing in stocks, my tax rate was effectively zero. That was possible because I lived a frugal life (so I didn’t have to sell much), invested for the long term (which has about the lowest tax rate), and tended to have a few losses to balance the gains. While that can sound like I was losing as much as I was making, that wasn’t the case. Watch a stock rise from $3 to $45, and peel off a slice big enough for one year’s living expenses while leaving the rest to grow. The sell produces cash, not just profits; but it is only the profits that are taxed. Watch a stock fall from $3 to $0 and notice a limit to the losses. Play the game right (and it is effectively a game to many) and don’t worry about paying much in taxes until the portfolio is so large that any taxes become relatively small – as long as the sales fund a frugal not a flagrant lifestyle.

The other thing about living off a portfolio is simplicity. Live a simple life. Fill out simple forms.

Tax laws change. Rates change. Keeping track is tough enough that people devote their careers to keeping up, and that’s not easy. They’re worth their money.

Now, my life is complicated. My portfolio is a collection of seeds in ground that I think is fertile, yet the shoots aren’t sprouting – yet. Maybe they’re more like mushrooms that take years to mature and pop out seemingly overnight. My business is primarily consulting and communications. I help people plan their projects or provide a fresh perspective on seemingly intractable issues; but I also make money from writing, photography, speaking, and teaching. Business revenues are a mix of retail, wholesale, royalties, commissions, and contracts. The numbers for many of the categories are small, but the IRS requires that they all be accounted for. Fortunately, TurboTax handles that complexity readily. I don’t know if TurboTax is best, but it is convenient, relatively inexpensive, and familiar.

I’m an optimist. Every year since I’ve been relying on my business instead of my portfolio, I remind myself that next year can be completely different and better. Maybe I can simplify and do them myself. Maybe I can afford to have someone else do them. A portfolio that recovers, word-of-mouth leading to increased consulting business, a good job, or maybe even one of my books becoming rediscovered and becoming a best-seller. Hey, I can dream.

Whether next year is different or not isn’t the issue. Conventional wisdom holds that the more you make the more you pay. I know that’s not true. As my fortunes have dipped my taxes have risen. I suspect I’m not the only one. Tune in again next year and see what changes – to me and all of us.

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Purposely Vague And Private

Listen to three friends and one news story and hear a thread that’s permeating society with cautions and clues about our future.

Good luck trying to be the first in line with new news in a small town. Everyone knows everyone, or so it seems. A friend and I were talking about the nature of small towns. The stereotype is slightly flawed. Unless the town is only a few hundred people, there are inevitable fractures and factions, or at least groups with different interests. It is easy to sit within one group with common interests and see them as normal and the rest as the eccentrics. My friend and I were commenting on what’s it’s like to be the bridge between the groups, seeing more diversity than most suspect. In a small enough town, it doesn’t take many bridges to connect the community. That can be a blessing in a crisis, and a cause for caution when seeking privacy. For me, I’ve lived within the anonymity of the big city and suburban life. There’s greater diversity, but it is also easier to be disconnected. Sit inside a big enough group and you can’t see the edge of it. That also means strangers are more impersonal, people can be treated without regard to whether they’ll ever be met again. Honk your horn in a small town and you better mean it because you’re doing it in a places with echoes.

Another friend made a comment today about my style of writing. I listen because they’re a writer, too. You can see it in this post. I frequently use pronouns, and am less likely than most to mention names unless it is as a compliment. Ironically, the style is vague, ambiguous, and somewhat impersonal. That contrasts with the way I talk in person, but words on the Internet are relatively permanent and can be taken out of context. For someone who wants to do a bit of sleuthing, they can reveal connections, or think they have. The fewer hints, the safer. Unfortunately, that also means that in a business like mine, news is muffled within a fog. I try to treat my consulting clients with discretion and leave it to them to talk about their use of my services. Some people, especially in small communities, would rather not let it known that they needed or paid for advice. I hear very nice compliments, but muffled news is also muffled word-of-mouth advertising. I apologize, but don’t expect to change because those basic values haven’t changed.

New legislation means that what each of us does on the Internet is no longer as private as it was. Most people won’t notice. The details can be confusing, so many won’t worry about it. (That’s also a measure of blithely we accept yet another loss of liberty.) The idea of a person’s browser history being for sale sounds silly, except that there is great value in such data. Marketers get a better idea of who will buy what and when and where. Various agencies are already using such data to predict things the government may be more interested in: who is doing what, when, and where. One measure I have of the importance of the issue is that, the more a person understands the issue, the more likely they are to be careful and cautious online; and that my friends and clients who’ve worked in such agencies are more likely to have computers that purposely don’t have the hardware to connect to the Internet. I can think of two (arguably both geniuses) that would resort to only transferring information from their “air-gapped” computer to a “normal” computer by paper and typing. Personally, I’ve seen slices of Facebook’s data of my activity and know that I can discern patterns. As I displayed one set of a data in one of my “Getting Started With Facebook” classes, a friend in the audience was able to figure out when I visited yet another friend. For a while I was helping someone recover from an ailment, and their house didn’t have cell phone coverage or wi-fi. A gap was born.

These anecdotes all reveal different aspects of anonymity and privacy; but they can sound abstract. That was until two versions of one question came up today: what do I think it will be like in 5-10 years, and what do you tell a 13 year old about how to act now to be ready for then? Abstractions and adults make for interesting conversations. The future of a thirteen year old child felt more real.

Let’s go back to the basis for this blog, personal finance. Even without Internet privacy concerns, broad databases are already being connected to affect our lives in ways not possible before. Applying for a job thirty years ago involved a nicely typed and printed resume on good paper, showing up on time and nicely dressed for the interview, and having good eye contact and a firm handshake. Now, some companies are asking for access to social media accounts, and are using credit scores as a hiring criterion. Taking it a step further, correlations are being drawn between the timing of online activities and credit risk. People who post late tend to have higher credit risks, regardless of why they’re online. Income, jobs, and the ability to get a loan are less in a person’s control; which is why it is more important to exercise proper control whenever possible.

One of my clients had two names. Don’t be surprised. That happens with writers frequently. One name was their real name, which was associated with their business, job, and resume. The other was a pen name, which was necessary because they were writing an expose about real people. We worked hard at creating the appropriate social media accounts and pages. Everything looked fine and distinct. Something, probably only one thing, went wrong. LinkedIn proudly stated that the two identities were connected and LinkedIn was happy to solidify the connection by cross-posting information between the profiles. My client had to abandon the expose. Sadly, probably just coincidentally, they were laid off within a few weeks.

The Internet connects computers. There are now more computers than people. As people use computers, and especially as people carry mobile, communicating computers, privacy is reduced, anonymity fades. Life in the modern world becomes more like life in a small town where what you say and do (including how you make and spend your money) and how you treat others becomes much more important. Within a small town, that creates community and intimacy. The person who buys and hires local has a stronger network than the person who heads for the big box stores. Within the wider population, that may be too much of a shock, especially when some of the neighbors are massive organizations. It might just mean that, when that thirteen year old turns twenty-three, they’ll have to assume to entire world is a small town, but without the face-to-face connection and the hugs and handshakes – and they should start acting that way, now.

As for anyone that want’s to sleuth through my social media accounts, well, I’ve published over a million words in books and blogs. You might be at it for a very long time.

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A Silly Little Slide

We had a silly little slide outside the neighborhood a few days ago. I say silly because it is small relative to the slides I geek out on at @DavePetley‘s blog. He chronicles the massive slides that sometimes make the news, and also the ones that are equally massive but ignored because they happen far from “civilization”. The locals probably think differently about that civilization thing. Our slide wasn’t a surprise. For a long time I wondered when it would go. Now that it has, it has inspired quick reviews of the various emergency preparedness actions I’ve taken over the years, including simple frugality. A small thing can uncover big issues to those involved.

I live in a nice neighborhood with great views, a small marina, and only one road for access. That road, like several on the island is above an earthquake fault, passes through a tsunami zone, and is built on the rubble pile of sand and gravel left by the glaciers. Slides are common, but they usually happen off to the side where they are curiosities. Occasionally, big ones hit the news when they move houses or parts of neighborhoods. Luckily, this one isn’t threatening to move a house. It did, however move much of the land that holds the bluff that holds the road above the shore. I trust the local authorities to find a solution. I won’t be surprised if it means moving the road over a lane or two. I also won’t be surprised if it means some interesting disruptions while they work. We all hope that we aren’t treated to yet another surprise which is the slope sliding more and cutting off the road, or the power, or the phones, or the various cables that provide civilized services to the hundreds of homes in the various neighborhoods.

Well, thinking about those earthquakes and tsunamis mean I have an earthquake kit. In this situation, I’m comforted more by all the preparations in place for our power outages. A full pantry, various ways to cook food, and local water and septic services mean interruptions don’t interrupt as much as they might. If all goes well, I won’t have to worry about anything more than dealing with a one lane road for a while. If something goes amiss, well, that’s a broad range of possibilities.

I won’t make claims about cause and effect, but here’s the sequence as I saw it. The road runs from just above the high tide line, roughly follows the shore of Cultus Bay as it climbs over a hundred feet atop a forested bluff, then heads south with roads splintering off into a patch of suburbia poised beside Puget Sound. On my various walks, I noticed a skinny section of the shoulder near the top of the bluff. It was a spot to avoid when cars came by, but it wasn’t dangerous, just a risk not worth taking. Wait a bit then walk on. Looking out from the shoulder it was hard to tell how steep the bluff was because of the heavy undergrowth. There was also a tree not very far out that was very far down. Look straight out and seemingly see more than half way up the tree. We grow trees tall here, so that was possibly a very large drop to the ground. No evidence of slides or subsidences. No cracks in the asphalt. No particularly tilted trees, that I can recall. Maybe the signs were there but I missed them. I am not a professional geologist. I’m just someone fascinated by nature and the fluidity of the seemingly solid earth. A short while ago we got a treat. Finally, a road crew installed a long guardrail along the bluff. A very prudent idea, and surprising in retrospect that it took so long. The guardrail starts in the tsunami zone and finishes just a few dozen feet past the skinny section. Yeah! More civilization! The next time I drove by the work crews were gone, a shiny strip of steel wound along the bluff, and one of the lanes was blocked by traffic cones near the top end of the rail. I can’t recall if I noticed the extra sunshine. Last week I was fortunate enough to have a client within walking distance. Walking made it much easier to get around the traffic cones and look down a ravine that was naked of foliage. From the road side of the guardrail posts, possibly to the asphalt, the ground was gone. The trees and the shrubs were piled up most of the way to the shore. I didn’t want to be late, so I didn’t dally. On the way back there was much more time. A pair of neighbors were there when I walked back. The damage became more apparent. They pointed out that one of the guardrail posts was completely exposed. The only thing holding up the post was the guardrail. There was dirt on the post, so it apparently was installed in dirt, but the dirt left the scene. Now, the traffic cones are accompanied by two stop signs that use the honor system to make sure people look before driving in the one lane. Straw has been spread on the slide. And we wait and wonder.

 

The Seattle area has had one of the wettest winters on record. The weather year around here goes from October to September. We’ve already had a year’s worth of rain. If it didn’t rain until next October, the total would look normal (but the months of drought would look abnormal.) The landslide hazard throughout the region is elevated, particularly after rains. It rains here. This will be interesting.

It has already been interesting watching people’s reactions. Events like this challenge assumptions. What would you do if your car or truck was stuck on this side of the slide? There are some inventive routes through backyards and over the ridge, but I suspect the neighbors may protest and the saturated yards may not cooperate. If it is only the road that is out, but the utilities work, then what can be done about temporary parking lots and changes to bus schedules? I’m comfortable walking and bicycling, so frugality has its benefits, again. If the utilities are out, I’d have some interesting commutes because almost all of my work is online. No Internet equals a big dip in my revenues. One neighbor is considering getting their RV out of the neighborhood before there are any width or weight restrictions. Others are wondering what it would be like to commute and shop by boat, a return to island life of a hundred years ago. Check your tide tables.

It may be a silly little side, but it is a valuable one. The repair will be valuable, and pricey. But one of the benefits may be an increased awareness of the riches we unconsciously enjoy, the value of properly maintaining them, and the security inherent in at least some level of self-sufficiency. Understanding basic resources is one of the key characteristics of frugality. Resourcefulness is best exercised by choice, rather than necessity. Our silly little slide may be an interruption, but if it is going to happen, it is better to happen when there are few other distractions. If it happened because of an earthquake, work crews would be busy working in central locations, first. Maybe this way, the road and the utilities will be better prepared to survive another event; as will the residents.

Of course if a tsunami took out the road at the other end, well, that’s another issue.

Stay tuned for updates. I know my neighbors will be.

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Seven Bosses

What’s it like to work in the Gig Economy? There are infinite answers, but I’ll pass along something I’m experiencing. I have seven bosses, and that can be a good thing. And, it can also not be enough.

To corporate types who have experience with convoluted organizational charts, allow me to point out that this isn’t that. I’ve been in the mix of multiple contracts, conflicting lines of authority, and political battle and mine fields. This ain’t that.

To get a feel for life in the Gig Economy think about what it is like to celebrate getting a new gig: new opportunities, new people, new ideas, new skills. It also means, a new contract, a new way to invoice, new culture, new software, new business strategies, and new motivations. For several years, I’ve gotten by with about two or three, depending on the season. Now, as my two main long-term clients have dropped their budgets and third is suggesting something similar, four new clients have arrived. Only one is close to quarter time. The rest are good gigs but are limited to a few hours a week or a month. I don’t know if they all equal full-time employment because the pay scales are shifting so much, but I do know that they fill a seven day, 10-12 hour per day schedule.

The Gig Economy makes sense to businesses. They pay according to an invoice, but don’t have to pay for and manage benefits like health care. Scaling up or down doesn’t involve union negotiations. The workers take care of the facilities and equipment. While it helps big businesses increase profits by lowering expenses, it also means smaller firms have a better chance to get started because their cash flow is simpler. The Gig Economy is to the old model of corporate careers as online dating is to traditional marriage, a suggestion of a long term relationship but with no commitment and simplified breakups.

I enjoy my work, especially lately. For three separate assignments I’ve been able to interview architects. Architects are easy to interview. The nature of their business is to have a perspective, understand why they have it, know how to act on it, and know how to articulate it to others. Three articles overlapped with topics, people, images, and ideas. I was happy to exercise some economy of scale. Three other assignments involved whales and a bit of history. I was lucky enough to schedule two interviews on the same morning at the same place with different subjects, and all I had to do was shift my perspective from asking about whale parade (yes, Langley has a whale parade for people) to asking about what happens to the whales after they parade on by. One trip, two conversations, some hooks into the third assignment for later, and more economical use of my time, again.

Eight interviews in two days and I might just spend an evening listening to nothing in particular. The fascinating stories in my head have to quit swirling, settle down, and arrange themselves so I can pull them apart into separate articles over the next few days.

As stock investors know, diversification lowers risk. As some stocks rise, others may fall, and hopefully the balance is positive. As anyone who’s read this blog and tracked my portfolio’s recent performance knows, perfect storms of bad luck can happen. Perfect storms of good luck can happen as well.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am happy to help as a consultant. Most of my longer-term jobs are in program or information management, or as a content producer. This last week or so has been a special joy because I’ve helped four consulting clients with personal projects and business plans. That’s in addition to my seven bosses mentioned above. More diversification. More conversations with passionate people. And more contracts, agendas, and deliverables to manage.

That’s why I said in my interview on Marketplace,
“What I’ve found is, this is actually an expensive way to work. I can pay for almost all my bills with all this work, but not quite. I can either pay for everything except income tax or pay for everything except health insurance.”

There may be an economy of scale within some of the articles, but such diversification has some of the very costs that corporations try to avoid. Simplification can save time and money, and lower stress. Participants in the Gig Economy can’t afford the luxury of simplified businesses because their revenues require diversification and self-management.

I write this partly to chronicle my financial path so others can see they aren’t alone, partly to document it for myself and the possible sequel to Dream. Invest. Live., and partly so others can be disabused of the perception that the Gig Economy is a relaxing and freeing way of working. I also mention it because I’ve found one perspective that has caused shortfalls for me and others. I’ve found that when I add another boss, some of the other bosses assume that’s a good opportunity to cut back. They think someone else will add what they subtract. Add an hour from one boss and possibly lose several hours from the others. I can see why many members of the Gig Economy are secretive about their situation. Revealing any insights into their situation can become a disadvantage in negotiations. The loss of commitment creates a loss of openness.

I have plenty of work to do this evening, but I decided to take the time to write this post. While I am glad to have seven bosses and multiple clients, I also have to demonstrate a commitment to myself. It is good to be in service to others, but it is necessary to also be in service to one’s self. That’s the one boss that must be respected and obeyed. Pity that boss doesn’t generate any revenue, but at least there are other benefits.

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Happy To Help Consulting

It turns out I’m a consultant. Soon after I wrote about a recent surge in requests for my writing skills, I start getting requests for something I enjoy even more, consulting. It is good to be in demand. Writing may be more visible; but consulting is deeper, more fulfilling, can be a lot of fun, and yet is a difficult practice to grow because I’m serious about discretion. Luckily, I received a quote and the promise of a longer testimonial that I can share. My clients have proved to me why good consultants, not just me, are worth their price.

“felt like you were some ancient sage genius reading my pulse”

What do you say to a compliment like that? Take your pick of your preference from “Thank you”, or “You’re welcome”, “Happy to help”, or the far more common bit of babbling as my brain, heart, and mouth collide.

Testimonials are great (ask anyone who cares about the people they work with), but they don’t tell enough of the story. I “should” have an elevator pitch for what I do, and I do, but it’s evolving. In general, I help people find ways to get their projects done or meet their personal goals. The reality is that I enjoy working with people who are in unconventional situations: inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, and people who live creatively. Standardized advice doesn’t apply. Flexibility is necessary. One description doesn’t fit all. That gives me breadth, but is terrible when it comes to marketing, business cards, and keeping people’s eyes from rolling after they ask me what I do.


I listen. Why not? People are impressive. Unconventional people are also thoughtful people. They’ve picked paths on purpose, have the best idea of why they’re following it, and are familiar with running into archaic attitudes and anachronistic procedures. They talk and tell me fascinating stories and struggles. I listen, and I try to find their blind spots, their strengths, and places where they have uncommon advantages. Of course that’s a fascinating endeavor. My problem is that I haven’t found a way to summarize those experiences into a sellable package. As one astrologer friend put it, astrologers need other astrologers because they’re too close to their own chart to read it right.

I’ll pass along another testimonial, but I’ll paraphrase it because of that discretion I mentioned earlier. My advice helped someone “get more done in a year than they’d gotten done in a decade”. If time is the most valuable resource, then I provided a lot of value for relatively little cost.

Whether it is personal finance, dealing with relationship issues, or managing a career, it is too easy to be too close to the issue. We all have ruts, well-exercised habits that got us to where we are, but that can keep us from getting to where we want to be. A fresh perspective can turn a difficult problem into a simpler, and sometimes fun, solution with a unexpected insight.

Recently, someone asked me for advice about money. I am not a certified financial planner or advisor and wouldn’t tell someone what to do with their money; but I can relay personal experiences and lessons. We started with something I enjoy doing, walking and talking. (Mark Lucero has formalized his version with Pathways Counseling. Smart, Mark.) They were trying to decide what to do with their investments. They had enough to build on, but not enough to generate much income. A mile went by as we talked about cds, annuities, bonds, stocks, index funds, etc. None of it generated any enthusiasm. Finance can be emotionless, but add some enthusiasm and it can shift from being a chore to something to look forward to. As we sat after the walk I asked about their business. How much did they normally make? What would make them more money, a 10% return on their portfolio, or a 10% increase in their business? Eyes lit up. I didn’t have to say much more. They realized that an extra thousand dollars directed to their business had the potential to generate far more income than leaving it as an investment. I’d provided two simple insights: 1) rather than invest in someone else’s business they could invest in their own, and 2) managing money is not an all-or-nothing choice. Almost all of the funds were going to a trusted, professional, certified financial planner; but using a bit for personal business was okay too. Look at it as either a small relief valve, or a resourceful use of resources; but what had looked like a dismal chore had become that source of enthusiasm I mentioned.

I’ve been fortunate to have several clients have similar experiences.

I’ve been fortunate to have several consultants provide the same for me. One relieved an immense amount of stress with the simple sincere phrase, “I’m sorry to see you in such emotional pain”; rather than replay old advice or encouragements. He acknowledged where I was, and then we moved on. Another pointed out something I’d said repeatedly. I thought of it as a casual aside. They pointed out that it was obviously on my mind. I took a leave from Boeing and returned a while later with a Masters in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering that got me a series of dream jobs in research and development. The advice I’m hearing from several of my consulting friends is that I’m not charging enough. Maybe I should listen to them.

There is a joy to consulting from both sides. It doesn’t have to be suit and tie and dull office stuff. Finding ways around hurdles, uncovering latent resources, sometimes simply finding someone who will listen and try to understand can turn a situation from dull to bright.

This blog is about personal finance, the effective use of our precious resources of time and money. Spending a little to save, or even create, much more is frugal. The cost may be upfront, and the benefits may seem intangible, but when they are tangible one of the greatest results is a smile or two.

I’m happy to help.

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Writing Real Estate

It turns out that I am a writer. I am also a consultant, project manager, strategic planner, organizer, engineer, photographer, and dancer; but I am also a writer. Writing is the skill that is most visible, followed by photographer and dancer. The rest may be where my greater strengths live, but they are exercised for discretion for others, and subsequently relatively hidden. Among the various writing assignments I enjoy lately has been writing about houses, homes, and how we live. As I tell my clients, I’m happy to help.

Take a look at real estate. Lots of people do, even if they aren’t thinking about buying. The number of people looking at $20M mansions is far greater than the number of people who can afford them. The number of people looking at tiny houses is also far larger than the number who would actually live in one. One of my clients, Curbed.com, lets me write about some of the biggest and smallest houses. Writing about a house’s high points, possibly noting things that don’t matter in a transaction like whether a celebrity owned it, while leaving the key data to the real estate agent’s listing. I also get to write marketing remarks for real estate listings, which must professionally fit specific formats, respect the buyers, the sellers, and the agents while describing the house to a broad audience. Those two ventures helped lead to yet a third, which is 360Modern.com, where I am writing articles about Modern homes and modern home trends. There’s even a fourth that is being developed, thanks to Tygart Media, that is more targeted content customized for narrower niches. Stay tuned for more about that.

One topic, multiple perspectives. I’d like to produce four examples based on a Modern tiny house that’s targeted at a particular niche like golfers, but that would be a full day’s work. An interesting exercise, though. Hmm. But my mind digresses.

I am not a real estate professional. I do not have an agent’s license. About the only license I have is artistic license, but even there I tend to stick to non-fiction instead of fiction. People are smart. Readers are smart. I respect their intelligence. I do, however, have some credentials based on experience. I’ve been middle class, a millionaire, and then not. I’ve bought, owned, and sold several homes; and know what it’s like to be a tenant and a landlord. Thanks to Boeing’s scattered facilities and various career moves, I’ve lived in about ten different neighborhoods in and around Seattle. I’ve also walked or biked through every county from Oregon to Canada. I’m a techie, so I enjoy modern homes. I love the mountains, so I appreciate off-the-grid cabins that were built before the grid. I even considered living on a boat, and may actually do that some day.

I also don’t mind breaking rules of writing, like starting several sentences with the same word and that word being “I”. Sometimes relaying the message is more important than following the rules.

I started writing about real estate in this blog. Tiny houses are appealing solutions to many modern problems. My Triple Whammy meant almost losing my house, which I was able to keep thanks to working with the non-profit group, Parkview Services.

Getting paid to write about real estate happened by chance. Sean Keeley was the Editor for Curbed’s Seattle page. We happened to be working in a coworks. One day he was feeling overwhelmed and told me how tough it was to find writers who knew something about houses. I’ll skip the details, but I soon began lightening his load.

Welcome to the Gig Economy, where within real estate alone I have several clients. (And then there’s the consulting, planning, teaching, and speaking tasks, as well. I have a long list of bosses.)

Will Tygart, of Tygart Media, understands marketing far better than I do. He understands the value of content in social media. Will contacted me after reading some of my articles and spotting an opportunity. Writing marketing remarks for real estate agents is nothing new; it has been valued for a long time by agents who understand the value of their time. But, especially in today’s social media environment, there are more opportunities to provide the right content to the right people in a way that works for them. Will and I are working at providing that service, those services, or something similar.

As anyone on Twitter knows, media shape the message. These several hundred words will fit best as a blog post. As an email they go out as an excerpt with a link. On Facebook and most social media they are delivered as a few sentences, usually a hashtag, and a link. On Twitter, all of that must somehow fit in 140 characters (which is changing.)

Within real estate, there are similar distinctions, as the professionals and news outlets know. I’m happy to be able to write to each audience, and to be thanked by being paid. A nice combination. I’m happy to help.

One thing leads to another. Today’s world is no longer a linear progression from college to life-long career to retirement. The Gig Economy relies on the value of adaptability. Making adaptability and value visible is something others are better at, and I’m trying to learn from them. I don’t know where this new trend in my life is heading, but so far it has led from engineer to artist to consultant to writer to …? Stay tuned. I am.

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50 80 And Not A Rule

Have you heard of the 80/20 rule? It’s more of a guideline, though in these extreme times it has morphed into the 99/1 rule because the influence of “the 1%” now rules the rest. Personally, my refrain has been considering my 50/80 reality (that I hope is temporary), that has also inspired an opportunity.

Budgets run up and down depending on funding and strategies. One of the consequences of working within the Gig Economy (or the 1099 Economy) is dealing with shifting budgets from larger organizations. That was true in the corporate world, and is supposedly buffered by diversity within the contractor’s world, but perfect storms happen – and as sailors tell me, what others consider storms can be opportunities. Two clients have experienced budget cuts, one of 50% from a peak, and the other of 80% from a peak. A third is suggesting a 100% cut, but that news hasn’t blown in, yet. So much for diversification.

Woe. Oy vey. What the …! Or, whew. Yeah. “Whew”, may not be the expected response; but the combination provides a needed opportunity.

As regular readers know (and may have already heard too often) I’ve been working seven days a week for several years. Some years I’ve taken a day off every other month. Now I take a day off every month. It is a difficult pace to sustain. Even at that level of effort, it has been difficult to pay all of my bills. (If you want the short version, check out my post about being on Marketplace’s My Economy broadcast.)

Through some convoluted circumstances that require far more details than I want to relay, my pace since Thanksgiving has been higher than normal and explicitly temporary. Good news will follow, but let me pass along the bad news. Because I knew the situation was temporary, I had to maintain my regular workload, too. The good news is that I built a buffer that looked like I might be able to pay my taxes in cash for the first time in years. Whoops! There goes the rug.

If I was an automaton, or maybe 28 instead of 58, I’d logically dive in and fill the open time with job searches, resume improvements, and active networking. I suspect I will get to that. Reality though, is that getting a job does no good if I am not around to do the work. I need a break and I don’t want to take one because I broke. Instead, I’m going to do something radical. At least for a few days this month I’m only going to work until dinner, and – gasp – may even take two days off. Like I said, radical.

It is too easy to fall into a rut. A pair of quotes from my first book, Just Keep Pedaling, echo since I wrote them.

At one point I likened the bike ride to being just another rut. It is easy to fall into a rut. Living life by a series of habits is how most of us get by if I believe the experts. The bike ride was nothing but another rut. Being in another rut was not a bad thing though. It made me look at my old rut with brand new eyes when I got back to it. I appreciate so much of so much more now. I also can see parts of my life that just don’t make sense and I have to do something about those…

I do know now that every once in a while I have to get myself out of whatever rut I am in just to get a better look at that rut.

I don’t have the luxury of getting into another rut just to see the one I’ve been in; but I have already seen how deep my current rut has become. Simply not setting the alarm has changed the way I wake up. I have to remind myself that urgency isn’t a constant. Taking a few minutes to enjoy the view isn’t getting away with something; but is a natural part of living. Finding an evening when nothing is scheduled after dinner isn’t supposed to be odd. It’s supposed to be normal, or least has been since labor laws were enacted.

I chuckle at times that surprise others. Sometimes I do it to diffuse tension, which can be very effective or the opposite depending on the audience. I also chuckle when I get a rare massage (something I strive for even if it is just a ten minute neck and head massage every two months to ease neck pain from staring at a screen). I chuckle when the massage therapist hits a knot, maybe because it confirms what I suspected, that hard work isn’t purely mental.

A 50 and an 80 may seem like they are ruling my life, but they aren’t. I’m aware of the cuts, would’ve been very happy to pass along the news of a 50% increase and an 80% increase in those budgets, but that’s not happening – this month. Other things are happening. Thanks to the work I’ve done with some clients, others are suggesting themselves. None have made large commitments and there’s definitely room for others to add themselves to the list; but in the meantime, I am glad for the opportunity to look up from my rut and remind myself of the view. As a rule, that’s a good idea.

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