A Day In The Gig Economy – 2018

I thought it was silly when I first heard a futurist predict that the next generation would have seven careers in their life. Retirement would take on a new meaning. Allow me to take this opportunity to count whether I did something similar in one day in the Gig Economy.

Two or three career choices was easy enough to imagine while working my way through an engineering job that looked like it was good for a lifetime. Few were as fortunate as me. Within my years with Boeing, I steered myself to the job I aimed for while in college: working on the next generation space shuttle. From the grumblings I heard, it sounded like most people worked in jobs, not careers, that had little to do with their dreams, intentions, and education. My Dad’s generation raised the expectation of one job for life, but then, life didn’t last as long then. A trend that went from a lifetime job, to a couple of jobs in a lifetime, to seven careers seemed unreasonable. The futurist may have been conservative with his estimate.

When I retired at 38 – (pardon the pause as I reflect on that decision made over twenty years ago) – I expected to create a new career. Conventional wisdom for such an unconventional situation was to channel a bit of Monty Python; “And now for something completely different.” Stepping right back into the role of an engineer or manager could unfortunately reinforce a personal identity based on a job title. The answer to “who are you” is not limited to a job description. Who am I? Instead of limiting that to “engineer” I can tell you I am a person who is fascinated by people and ideas – and who enjoys personal powered play time like hiking, skiing, bicycling, dancing, and such. Following that advice, I followed the advice by embarking on something completely different: putting my black belt to use by teaching a very old style of karate.

Skip forward 14 years. The karate business was shelved because of martial arts politics and logistics. Unrelated, I requested and received a divorce (dissolution in Washington State). Independent of that, my portfolio was hit by a Triple Whammy as the nation was struggling with the Great Recession (the Great Depression Part II). When I could no longer pay my bills, I stopped paying my mortgage, and I implemented My Backup Plans. In those years, I accidentally became a writer by bicycling across AmericaJust Keep Pedaling, began teaching about modern self-publishing and social media before they were popular, initiated my management consulting business, and basically fielded invitations to entrepreneurial situations that would begin as soon as they found the right money.

Skip forward about 6 more years and notice that the total of all of that work, effort, networking, and patience was less than enough to pay my bills. At least I was able to negotiate a modified mortgage and keep my house. I needed something else, and became a real estate broker. Stay tuned on that venture, and be encouraged because it turns out that real estate benefits from someone who understands how to run a business, write, speak, take photographs, negotiate contracts, network, treat people and paperwork responsibly and with respect, and communicate that through social media.

At least for today, none of my ventures have been an all-or-nothing success. For today, they mean a full day built from a string of gigs that involve a mind-numbing array of business styles, tax laws, contracts, responsibilities, and discretions.

A Day In The Gig Economy

  • Wake up after a fitful night’s sleep.
  • Before getting out of bed (er, futon couch because the bed was sold years ago) check stocks (because I maintain some hope for my portfolio), news (because the world has gone weird in ways that affect me), and emails (because one email can change my entire day.) By the time I stood up, I’d checked on book publishing and real estate clients. Three aspects of my recovery already reviewed.
  • Turn on the radio until I hear serious news about politics, then switch to online replays of the late night talk shows making serious humor from the same news items.
  • Shower, shave, and make a lunch to go.
  • Today, a special treat, eating out for breakfast as a way to get to know more people on the island that I normally wouldn’t meet.
  • Back to the real estate office for my shift. We make sure there’s always one broker on duty for people who walk in.
  • Switch hats, but not seats, to dive into more non-real estate business details. Decide what to do with a possible class in Modern Self-Publishing. Contact a fellow presenter for a duet of a talk at the local library this fall. Check in with a book publishing client about their paperback and ebook that will follow the recently produced hardback.
  • Settle into managing an online museum for an hour or so, just to make sure the communications are flowing smoothly.
  • Realize my next real estate shift has to be shifted because a real estate client wants to meet at the same time. Be thankful for a supportive group of brokers in our office.
  • Skim then scan news sources for PretendingNotToPanic.com, a side venture that I maintain for people who are eager and anxious about the future, and who prefer news that is apolitical, factual, based on data, and consequential. That task was a lot easier until November 2016. Very little is apolitical anymore; and facts and logic are no longer in style. Consequential, ironically, has never been more consequential.
  • Jump back into real estate by pulling together the paperwork for a hoped-for deal.
  • Lunch! But eat quick because there’s a real estate errand at another office that has to be squeezed in before a meeting with another book publishing client.
  • Sneak in a few minutes with my eyes closed to reset my brain into editor/publisher/consultant mode. Then, meet with an fascinating client to polish and submit their book for publication. Oh Microsoft Word, quit trying to be so helpful. A simple task takes twice as long as we spend as much time making changes as we do undoing the changes the programs makes while trying to help. Success! And, a very happy writer/author. Now, about that next book…
  • Swing back into the real estate office to check emails, hoping to finish early enough for a bicycle ride and writing this blog (without knowing what the topic will be.) Get an email, then a phone call from a client who wants to look at a house in under two hours. Happy to help – and grab a can of soup from the local grocery for a quick, light dinner.
  • Find that I’ve been invited to be part of a panel discussion about the island and security issues.
  • Tour a recently listed house that, in typical Whidbey fashion, was lived in – creatively. Listen to what they want, find something possibly a lot better for less tha 10% more, then head home.
  • On the drive home, decide whether to detour to the site of my next Twelve Month photo seriesDSC_0126, or head directly home to work on this blog. A little later, and the colors would be richer, but too early is too dull, so drive home.
  • Get home. Sigh.
  • Boot the home computer. Check emails. Send out a few to real estate clients based on what I’d just toured, including more details on the nicer properties (that are also a better fit and cheaper to live in, and realize that the blog has to be simple.
  • Decide that the simplest, yet most illuminating and useful blog for one of my next books, is to chronicle most, but not all of the day’s events.
  • Count the gigs.
    • 1) Investing – something to continue because passive wealth generation is powerful, and is something I’m known for as a writer, speaker, and investor.
    • 2) Book Publishing – something I do as a management and project consultant, which I’m well-enough known for that I’m currently working with five clients, none of which are working on similar projects.
    • 3) Real Estate – and its many facets that are known for overwhelming and upsetting schedules
    • 4) Teaching – one of the most powerful ways for me to connect people and ideas.
    • 5) Public Speaking – ditto
    • 6) Museum Management – which can sound out of place, but it is an extension of my consultancy where, according to the executive director, I’ve helped them get more done in a year than they did in a decade
    • 7) News and Merchandising – an odd pairing combined in Pretending Not To Panic, but with the potential of the folks that creating “Life Is Good”
    • 8) Strategic and Community Planning – because evidently someone with a variety of perspectives is appreciated (though uncompensated financially)
    • 9) Photographer – even when deciding not to take a photograph, the decision making process is part of the job.

So, seven careers in a lifetime? How about nine gigs in a day?

The Gig Economy is portrayed as a panacea for those who decide to skip the corporate path. The truth is that most of the job creation since the Great Recession has been in the Gig Economy. They are unsettled jobs with chaotic income streams that require vigilance rarely experienced in large companies (and probably never by politicians – oh yeah, and I planned to run instead of simply making commentaries, but look at what I just wrote and understand why I missed the deadline. That would’ve been gig #10.)

I plan to write a sequel to Dream. Invest. Live. The working title is From Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By23697 Middle Class to Millionaire. If I waited to chronicle days like this, I’d forget too much. It is hard to keep track while in the midst of the muddling. I suspect this it temporary, but this temporary situation has been happening for over six years, there are no guarantees it isn’t permanent, and I consider myself one of the lucky ones because I have so many opportunities.

By the way, that “lifetime” engineering career probably wasn’t a lifetime option. Almost all of my engineering friends have been laid off or encouraged to spend more time with their families.

It is after a late springtime sunset by the Salish Sea, as is astronomically predictable at this latitude. My literary friends would encourage a more literary ending and conclusion. Accept my apologies that I don’t spend more time editing and polishing before taking what remains of my drink and enjoying it on the deck in the fading light. Tomorrow is another day in the Gig Economy. I wonder what it will bring.

(Doh! I forgot to mention the writing assignment I was arranging today. Oh well, it’s all good – and someday, somehow, good enough.)


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Little Time But Good Food

Hello, clients. Pardon me as I take a break to type during a busy work day in the Gig Economy. There’s plenty of work to do, but the Sun and the horizon are closing on each other, it has been a long day, and somehow dinner is going to happen. Frozen pizzas or nachos are answers, but I like to cook from scratch. Making a pizza crust is going to take too long. Making chips from tortillas would take longer. Decades of experimentation (and a tolerance for culinary excursions) has brought me back around to basics done simply and well – or at least well enough. It is an approach frugal folks recognize; respect time, money, priorities, and basic necessities and pleasures. The approach applies to tonight’s dinner, but it also applies to the work that led to it.

I am not a chef. I was brought up on truck stop food because my Dad drove trucks (and eventually managed the operation), and packaged foods because my Mom was the daughter of immigrants and it seemed that labels and brands were American. In their quick defense, my Dad was also a fan of fresh fruit farm stands before they were popular, and my Mom innovated with cheap cuts of meat in ways I thought were sophisticated. Still, I can be more comfortable around a buffet than ordering from waiters with their priceless menus.

I am a cook, and I enjoy it. My Mom started me with simple recipes, steered me towards cookbooks that relied on Cream of Mushroom soup, and showed me how far she could go with Rice Krispies, Heinz ketchup (and it had to Heinz because we lived just outside Pittsburgh), and bacon grease – not all together. Now, my meals are far from what she cooked (fresh veggies!) and more likely to fit my lifestyle. She had to make our breakfast, prepare jello molds for bridge club and the women’s club, then come home to cook for the two of them, plus three boys, feed us all, then watch my Dad head off to his second job. My dinner table requires far fewer seats, and only has to accommodate one set of tastes (but probably with more dietary restrictions than my entire family.)

I am surprised that more college students don’t learn to cook when they leave home. It is understandable that life in the dorms can also mean prepared meals in the dining hall; but eventually, moving off campus (or getting kicked off, but that’s another story) on a limited budget meant the steepest learning curve of my collegiate career. The first meal couldn’t wait days or weeks. Maybe it was a pizza delivered by another student. I can’t recall. But, I do remember that, of the three of us, the one who labeled himself a gourmet chef only liked to cook one meal a week, my other roommate had a mother who supplied us with groceries which were appreciated and fulfilled his obligation, which left me standing in the kitchen trying to decipher the Betty Crocker Cookbook. Yes. Smoke alarms are exercised by bachelor cooks.

After college, the Joy of Cooking began educating me. Cooking was cheap entertainment, and I entertained myself enough to gain twenty or thirty pounds. More sophisticated cookbooks were distractions that didn’t lead to how I wanted to live. Then, the Food Network came through the cable and I began to learn from Alton Brown. His show, Good Eats, focused on the basics. Why stock makes food taste richer, and how to make stock at home. Why the same energy delivered slow and low cooks differently than fast and hot, and when to use each. One of his themes resonated with my Mom’s cooking and my Dad’s appreciation of it. Recipes that others have turned into sophisticated procedures and elegant presentations frequently started as ways to use cheap ingredients to feed exhausted workers. Roasts, casseroles, and stews didn’t rely on the best ingredients. They relied on slow and low to break down tough tissues and to blend flavors. Fast and hot had their place with quick meals that were enabled by slicing ingredients into smaller or thinner pieces. Hello, stir fry and minute steaks.

Those meals were built around the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear family, and the Baby Boom. My meals are built around the Gig Economy, cooking for myself, and saving the inevitable leftovers. Maybe my college grades would’ve been better if I was able to spend more time studying and less time cooking.

Then, there was one extra lesson I learned that made my life easier, and just as tasty. Make the recipes match my life, rather than making time in my life for recipes.

Photo from an earlier dinner

Read most recipes and they do what they are supposed to do: tell the cook how to gather ingredients, measure, season, prepare, cook, tend as necessary, wait for the timer, portion, plate, present, and eat. It looks like clockwork, and can intimidate those who believe perfectly following the recipe is the only way to succeed at making a meal.

Thanks for the suggestions. Welcome to reality.

Cooking frozen foods. I’m not talking about frozen dinners. I’m talking about ice-hard chunks of meats and vegetables. Sure, thawing them properly is preferred. But, many meals work out fine if cooked a lot slower and a little cooler. Tonight’s dinner is a frozen chunk of chuck steak surrounded by frozen veggies with a huge carrot broken into thirds. Drop it all into a roasting pan, season with whatever seems reasonable, cover, set in the oven at something over 250F and under 300F, and let it cook as I type. The aroma will tell me when it is done. One extra hour is usually enough. No need for a timer (though I set one anyway, just in case.)

Cooking beans and grains. Ah, they are supposed to be soaked. Yeah. But again, I give them more time, keep them moist, and create chilis and casseroles that I enjoy. I even take time with oatmeal. Rather than pay attention to it as it cooks or nukes, I cook it earlier than I need it, set it aside, and let the rehydration commence. Need some heat? Mr. Microwave can add some energy at the end. I had a tough time timing rice because it would burn while simmering. Now, I cook it for a minute, lid it, and take it off the heat. I don’t try to start it fifteen minutes before I need it. Perfection and perfect timing is tiring. I make it up to an hour earlier and let it set.

When I want something fast, sandwiches suffice. If I want something fast and hot, I’ll splurge on a steak – and keep the cost down by keeping the size of the steak down. Eggs cook quick. And, of course, leftovers reheat well enough for a busy worker.

There’s probably a cookbook that already covers all of this; but experience has steered me away from recipes and directed me to techniques.

The same lesson applies to work. In the work world, the recipes are the checklists and procedures that must be followed, frequently because of tradition. Much of the urgency and drama is created by “we’ve always done it that way” and “because they said so.” Preparing tasks early when time allows, then setting them aside, lets some things simmer. Sometimes, while things sit, better ideas and alterations arrive. Rushing to a boil can create messes and occasional alarms. If a diner is paying for a gourmet meal, then give them one; but they may only be hunting for quick something. Don’t make them Eggs Benedict when all they want is a hard-boiled egg and a piece of cheese.

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Stocks Houses Books

They handed me a pink envelope, which means it is time to raise a glass. I also suspect someone is popping champagne corks while others are at least hoisting a beer. It has been a good day, and feels like a prelude to more frequent and larger celebrations.

Let’s start with stocks. MicroVision announced a new $10M contract. That’s not enough for profitability, but it eases some of their money worries, which eases some of the shareholders’ investing anxieties. The $10M is a licensing contract with the usual waffle words that attempt to convey the significance of the situation without revealing the actual customer, product, or terms. But, at least this time there’s a specific number and a specific time: $10M in 2018. They followed that with the quarterly earnings report and conference call suggested better financial reports are coming. Good news now, better news later. Of course, long term MVIS shareholders have heard similar stories before, but the numbers continue to climb. They may not be rocketing upwards, but after years on the launch pad, it is nice to see evidence that the fire may finally be lit. That’s a beer celebration, not champagne.

That pink envelope has nothing to do with pink slips. At least in my real estate office (Coldwell Banker Tara Properties in Bayview – which I spell out as much for legal disclosure as well as marketing reasons) the pink envelope delivers the news that a deal was closed and the money distributed. It’s my first, and is likely to be quickly followed by others that are larger. (Some are already in work as Whidbey’s market gets busy. Give me a call if you want or need some help with such things.) The first deal is definitely welcome and well-timed. It arrived on my six-month anniversary of receiving my license. That means I’m also a quarter of the way through my critical first two years. One friend found a good way to give it perspective. He didn’t want to know the specifics, but he wanted to know if this first check paid for the expenses it took to get here. Yep. So, another beer celebration. But not much more, hence the beer and not the champagne. With my engineering background and familiarity with the island, I’ve been able to parse the data to understand how well things could be. At this point, encouraging – especially thanks to the other brokers who have supported me (as they were supported when they started) and the realization that having left and right brain skills is handy in real estate.

Those champagne corks should be popping for several of my project management clients. These folks are artists working on projects that are nearing completion. For the last month or three I’ve been busier with clients than in a long time. The fun part is that five of them are working on self-publishing books, all of which are either available or about to be available. Some are working incognito, so I won’t get into details about their works but the projects include a cookbook, book of poetry, inspirational/environmental/spiritual novella, a parenting guide, and a novel of ancient Greece set in the homes and the battlefields. I congratulate any writer who writes. Any writer who completes their manuscript has cleared a higher hurdle, and deserves recognition. Those writers who become authors take the largest step from the solitary, introspective work of writing to the gregarious, extroverted activity that is publishing, marketing, and selling a book. Even if the books aren’t profitable, pop those corks. If the books are profitable, pop another one or two – then get back to writing to meet that demand. (By the way, we’re conducting a workshop for those writers who want to become authors by self-publishing. Whidbey is a great escape for writers. The community is supportive, and not surprised to see someone scribbling notes on paper or typing at a laptop almost anywhere. Whidbey also has enough distractions for the partners of writers. Partners may love the writer but would rather spend their time doing something else. Whidbey may provide. One of my other blogs, AboutWhidbey.com is a place to start.)

This November will be the tenth anniversary of the book that inspired this blog, Dream. Invest. Live. The unofficial subtitle is “personal finance for frugal folk”. Books are static. Personal finance is and isn’t. Some aspects of personal finance persist: “Spend less than you make. Invest the rest.” Some aspects of personal finance change every day: stock prices, housing prices, income, expenses, interest rates, etc. The book covers the persistent bits. The blog gets to cover the rest, or at least the rest that I decide to write about. Regular readers know that the dynamic aspects of my personal finances were swung far off-center by (as several finance professionals have commented) a perfect storm of bad luck. In America we generally ignore the role of luck, but I no longer do. The last ten years have been a roller coaster ride through America’s wealth classes that inspired me to pursue whatever opportunity I thought could help me recover. Today feels like a major milestone in that effort.

There’s a 10,000 Hour Rule, which isn’t really a rule, but an interesting guideline. Check out the book, Outliers, for a better description. The short version is that a study about success discerned a pattern. People frequently succeed after they’ve devoted 10,000 hours to their effort. It may be 10,000 hours crammed into the fewest years possible (see Bill Gates’ childhood), or stretched out over decades (see late-bloomers and overnight successes that took years to get there. MVIS eventually?) Take that 10,000 rule and apply it to people who work several jobs without taking days off and become part of a great debate about whether 2,000 hours spent on 5 jobs is just as good as 10,000 hours spent on one project. There are no guarantees, and luck does play a role, but considering the number of overworked Americans, I wonder if we’re going to use them up, or if they are about to ignite a necessary renaissance.

A few of my friends have suggested that my workload, typical 4-7 job active schedule, and over 2,000,000 publicly available words might just mean I will finally succeed in many ways at the same time. They wonder if I will swing from trying to find something that will sustain my frugal lifestyle by saying “yes” to almost anything, then swing to having to say “no” to too many opportunities. Check back to find out. I certainly don’t know.

I do know that, the more today’s style of celebration is repeated and escalated, the more likely I’ll get around to using this blog to create the sequel to Dream. Invest. Live. From Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By is the working title for what will probably be a book about that roller coaster ride that is as much about emotion and community as it is about logic and conventional wisdom. With days like this it is easy to imagine stocks, houses, and books all contributing to doing more than simply sustaining my simple lifestyle.

Until then, it is time to consider making my celebration just a little bit bigger. It has been years since I’ve had a party at my house: good people, good conversations, and usually eventually good dancing. Stay tuned.

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My House Appreciation

Curse you, Sean Keeley! I was going to write about house prices and their appreciation. He beat me to it. That’s okay. He’s writing for a national audience from Neighborhoods.com. I’m writing about my house and more than just appreciating its price.

Maybe I should put together a personal FAQ list. A real Frequently Asked Question list is not supposed to be some pre-ordained list of questions. A FAQ should provide answers to frequently asked questions, answer that people asked for, not scripted answers and questions that attempt to control the conversation. There are several that are common for me because I: retired early, became a millionaire, wrote a book about personal finance, lost 98% of my net worth, and continue to work at recovering from my Triple Whammy. More succinctly, people ask about my roller-coaster ride through America’s wealth classes and why I haven’t followed their advice, or their friend’s advice, or some other stranger’s advice.

Near the top of the list (I don’t keep count) is why I don’t sell my house. The assumption is that people hold onto houses for emotional reasons that overwhelm logic. The assumption is that someone with tight money issues is ignoring logic and hanging onto their house because they can’t imagine giving it up. I like my house and am glad I’ve been able to keep it, but I also keep it because of math.

Thanks to a difficult but successful mortgage modification struggle, my mortgage payments are now less than a thousand dollars per month. That’s less than most folks spend on an apartment. If I move, even to a smaller place than my small house, my housing bill would probably go up.

Even if my monthly housing expenses went down, they’d have to drop about 33% to equal the total cost and benefit. That’s because about one-third of my mortgage payment goes to paying down the principal on the house. A few hundred of those dollars are dollars I get back when or if I sell. They are an asset being traded for an asset.

Individual results will vary, but in general, housing prices are going up. Here’s the part that Sean Keeley goes into in more detail. Here’s also an exercise for any homeowner. Take your house’s value. Check with a few of the sources of real estate data for your neighborhood’s price rise. (Need help? Check with a broker.) Apply that to your house’s value. That’s how much your house is appreciating, maybe. Compare that to your monthly expenses. For some people, their houses are making more money sitting there than they are working. That asset growth, however, isn’t the same as income – but it is useful.

For me, in my house, in my neighborhood, on Whidbey Island, for the last year, my house’s appreciation is so close to my expenses that they’re effectively equal. For every month I live here, I accumulate one month’s living expenses – as long as the market doesn’t turn down before I sell.

Apply compounding. If my house’s price appreciates faster than my expenses, I should stay in my house as long as possible. For every year that is the case, the excess continues to increase.

Imagine a frugal person living in a house in some of the hottest neighborhoods in the nation. Because they need so little, every increase creates an increasingly larger buffer. If their income meets or exceeds their expenses, then their house becomes an impressive investment. In many ways, that’s the economic model that worked with the post-World War II era when prices started low and people were still frugal from the Great Depression, life-long careers with benefits were common, and housing was cheap because it was expanding into the innovation that was the suburb.

As we’ve experienced, the model can break. Inflation can rise. Housing bubbles can pop. Fixed incomes can be too limiting. Careers can vanish. The long-term general trend, however remains that spending less than you make and investing the rest is a good plan.

I didn’t plan this, but this is the way the world happens. I started this post reflecting on an earlier post. (Sean doesn’t get all of the credit or blame.) One year ago I wrote “My Rule Of 7 – One Day Off“. Check an even earlier post for details of My Rule of 7. Basically, because my house had appreciated enough to raise my net worth by $100,000 I decided to start taking one day off each week. That may not sound radical, but for several years previous I’d been taking off a day every two months.

I’d like to update that by announcing that I can now take two days off each week, but business is down as I took time to pass my real estate exam and get that aspect of my business operating, and neither my house nor my other investments haven’t appreciated by another $100,000.

The appreciation doesn’t trigger the next step in my Rule of 7, but it does continue to approximate my monthly expenses. That’s worth celebrating, too.

Because I’m a real estate broker now I spend more time diving into the data. The engineer in me enjoys pulling apart the various databases and data sources, checking their assumptions and methods, and realizing that no one really knows how much more a house is worth until someone sells it and someone buys it. Even then, the data are noisy because people sell and buy, and people are people, and people aren’t always logical – even when it is the largest purchase most people will make in their life. That’s not a surprise. The thing that changes a house into a home is emotion. A house became a home because someone cared.

I care about my house. Of all the places I’ve lived, it is the only one I consider home. I like it so much that I apologize to it for not taking better care of it. More income will mean better care. One way homeowners can turn some of that asset appreciation into income, or at least cash, is to take out a home equity loan. Depending on my business and several other factors, I might do that to pay for some maintenance. That might even increase the value of the asset, though it does so by increasing debt. I might only do that if I am confident I will also see increased income.

Despite all of that, I regularly review the logic and the math of selling. If I sell, how much do I get? If I sell, how far do I have to move to afford something else, preferably debt-free? I tried selling before, but that was in the slump when there were lots of sellers but few buyers. Now, South Whidbey has just passed through a record low number of sellers, which means some houses are being bought in days instead of months, and that prices are probably appreciated more rapidly. Because everything is changing, I conduct the review regularly.

And then, of course, there’s the other type of appreciation, the appreciation that made this house a home. The walls, windows, and roof protected me from winter. The grass and garden are growing. It’s a sunny day, and a rare one because I’m working from home instead of the real estate office, or the coworks (WIcoWorks in Clinton, WA), or any of my favorite coffeeshops and libraries. It is low tide on Cultus Bay. If I wasn’t writing this blog while waiting for a client’s phone call, I’d wander down to walk the square miles of exposed sand. I’ll enjoy the view of it, the Sound, and the cloud-shrouded Olympic Mountains as I sit and type. It is a small house (868 square feet), the smallest house I’ve owned, and the one I like best. After living in it for the last decade or so, I can imagine living in something even smaller.

I imagine living in other places in other styles, but most of those imaginings are based on the extremes of contingencies plans in case of emergencies, or dreamy possibilities based on winning the lottery jackpot. A tiny house in some place remote and cheap is appealing as a retreat, in case something major goes amiss. There are some nice private islands for sale that are appealing as a different kind of retreat. Coincidentally, my main objective in either case it to take time to recover my health and fitness.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to work (about six days a week, but schedules shift), enjoy the price appreciation of my house, appreciate my home, and continue to playfully shake my fist at Sean for scooping my story.

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Frugal Gardening 2018

It’s that time of year again. Ha! That makes it sound like doing chores is something that’s planned. In the Gig Economy, chores get done when the chores can get done. The weather is warm and clear. My work schedule opened after an intense and fruitful week. Working from home felt like playing hooky even though I worked on at least four different projects. Saving time by not commuting, not worrying about what to wear, or not having to pack a lunch meant I had more time to mow the yard, whack the weeds, and get the garden going. There are some advantages to working in the Gig Economy.

Last year’s harvest teaches lessons about what to plant this year.

The surprise hit was lettuce.
I’ve skipped it in the past because it looked too fragile, too easy for slugs and bunnies to feast first. A few years ago, I realized that containers on my deck are more productive (or more easily defended) than seeds in the backyard’s dirt. The backyard looks like the typical solution: raised beds, fruit trees, and a row of raspberries. The raised beds, however, didn’t raise the plants out of reach of the critters. Now that I’ve found ways to make it harder for pests, fragile plants like lettuce proliferate. I became a much bigger fan of salads when the lettuce was effectively free, fresh, and convenient. Having a diabetes scare helped, too. So, lettuce is already planted. About the only change there is that I am not doing the seeds-in-the-soil-bag arrangement. It works, but my schedule meant working with what I already had: last year’s dirt, my neighbor’s re-used pots, and seeds from several seasons ago.

The biggest fail? That’s a longer list.
The raspberries died. My fault. Not enough weeding or watering.
Gourds. I keep trying to grow them for birdhouses, art objects, or just for fun. Alas. They don’t mature around me.
Spinach should be successful, and it grew, but it wilts to nothing and I can grow a lot more lettuce in the same space.

Perennials and surprises
Slugs and bunnies don’t stop apples and figs. The trees are growing too well. I had to severely trim them this winter to keep within the neighborhood’s covenants. The apple trees seem unaffected. Their blossoms are the heaviest and densest I can remember. My main concern is that there should be a surge in the bee population, but the trees are too quiet. I think the fig tree is scoffing at me. It had such a great surge that I had to cut back branches tall enough for ten foot poles. What’s left is looking reluctant. We’ll see.
I didn’t plant onions and potatoes last year. I planted them years ago, and gave up. They grow, but they don’t grow very large. My naturopath is steering me away from potatoes, and onions can be cheap; so, the loss would be small. They don’t care. They’ve overwintered and are sprouting in the spring warmth. Don’t let me get in the way. That’s probably best.
Fall was months ago, so I excuse myself for forgetting that I collected seeds from a tiny crop of squash, peas, and beans. They all grew, but not enough to make many meals. So, I harvested the seeds, set them aside, and forgot about them. I don’t know if they will grow. That puff of dust or decay that arose when I touched them suggest they may have rotted, but I planted them anyway.
My mushrooms may finally be sprouting, but they may have lost the battle to a different species. My mushroom logs were planted so long ago that I forgot what they’re supposed to look like. I expected mushroom shaped mushrooms. Instead, some look mushed. Others look like tree fungus. I’ll check with the experts before putting one in my mouth.

New stalwarts
The main inspiration for the container garden was hot house plants like tomatoes and peppers. My deck is backed by west facing windows. The deck gets hot. Rather than fight it and complain about it, I decided to treat it like an outdoor greenhouse. Prop the pots on wire pedestals and the slugs can’t climb the skinny wires. Water regularly. Pick up the pots if the wind blows them down, and wait for August. No need to change that strategy. It’s working.

Second tries
I’m trying the peas and beans again. Last year I extended the wire pedestal idea by making a ten foot tall wire hoop with the pots inside, elevated beyond bunny reach, and with plenty of room for the vines to climb. The engineer in me made sure it was stable despite being very light. That worked, but the hoop made it hard to get to the plants for watering and weeding. This year, the hoop has become a half-hoop, a tall semi-circle of a cylinder. Maybe better access will make them grow and me garden better.

Dirt is cheap, or at least I bought a lot of it when I bought the property. I’ve got about 8,000 square feet of dirt. Ironically, dirt, really soil, is the only thing I paid full price for. The pots were donated by a neighbor – as they were on the way to the dump. The heaviest wire is from a scrap pile at the building supply yard. The lighter wire was bought at retail, but is cheap and plentiful. The seeds were bought on sale. One of the wonders of this world is that plants want to grow. We just have to remove their hurdles and get out of their way.

I’m slightly sore. It’s that good soreness that suggests good work was done, and that more such work would mean not being so sore. The Gig Economy has cost me some physical fitness. It will be good to get it back. Of course, now that the heaviest lifting and digging is done, my kind of garden becomes no more than weeding and watering – and apologizing to my garden for when I don’t do either enough.

Each year is a new opportunity. Every past year is a course-load of lessons. They teach, but I have to learn. And not just learn, but act on what I now know. Check back in a few months to learn if I learned anything.

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Medicate And Wait

I’m going to challenge myself tonight. I’m going to attempt eating a pork chop. About two weeks ago a tooth started to ache. Toothaches come and go, but this one stayed. In about a half an hour, while I’m typing, my alarm should go off to take my antibiotics. I’ve never had to take antibiotics for a toothache, but then, I’ve never had a tooth ache this much. It is amazing how one little nerve with a bad message can overwhelm the billions of other nerves that say everything else is fine. The same might be said of the situation that may have kicked off the episode.

Usually, I try to include at least one photo or graphic in my posts. I suspect you’ll pardon my departure from the practice in this instance. There isn’t much to see. The tooth looks normal at a glance, but about ten years ago a previous dentist showed me a microscopic photo of a hairline crack in one of my molars. Some bit of popcorn or a nut provided the opportunity for me to crack a tooth. Since then, it’s been sensitive but manageable. That’s what happens as the decades accumulate, we learn ways to accommodate our imperfections.

The tooth would hurt, but only occasionally. There was actually a benefit. The tooth became a stress indicator. Under normal daily stress, there was very little if any pain because the crack was so small. When the stress built, I’d clench my teeth, which possibly pressed on the nerve, and my tooth would ache. Ironically, when I was most relaxed, my jaw would relax, and it seemed to allow the tooth to open a minute amount sufficient to let hot or cold food and drink to trigger the ache. I can’t prove that was the cause, but the correlation seemed reliable.

So, when the ache arrived again I decided to let it slide and abate as usual. This time wasn’t usual. A few days into the episode, I started applying folk remedies, like homemade clove tinctures. That almost worked. By then, however, it was the weekend and too late to check for an appointment. So, I ramped up the at home medication with over the counter solutions like clove oil and then OraGel. They started to make a difference, but the pain spread. By a week into the event the toothache was joined by an ear ache and a head ache. My head felt tight. The last time my head felt that tight it affected my eyesight until a massage therapist massaged away the pain. My muscles were so tight that they restricted the blood flow to my eyes. A twenty minute session was enough to show me the benefit. I was familiar with the possible cause and effect, but this was worse.

Another end of the week approached and it seemed that the symptoms would diminish. For a day or two, it did. In a sudden reversal, the pain grew until I had to work in 45 minute sprints, then stand until getting vertical rearranged the way my blood flowed. That night felt like a another breakthrough, though; so, I held off scheduling a dentist appointment. Over the weekend, it all escalated. Sunday night I left a message with the dentist asking for a semi-emergency appointment. Monday morning I drove straight to the office as they opened, hoping for a cancellation. They could see me in a day. Cue the ibuprofen. Get to work. And be greatly relieved there was a cancellation that morning that only meant curtailing one client meeting by about fifteen minutes.

The dentist will see you now, and he did. He alleviated my worst fears (which I won’t go into, but were rather extreme because too many friends provide advice via horror stories that are incredibly low probability, evidently.) He confirmed my financial fears. the reason I didn’t get the tooth taken care of ten years ago was because a crown would cost over $2,000. $2,000 for a microscopic crack seemed disproportionate then, and it did now. Add in inflation, and make that at least $2,500. But now, the crown would be coupled with a root canal, a root canal with no assurance that they’d find all of the affected material. It would be possible to spend thousands of dollars without resolving the issue, and then have to spend more to extract the tooth. The good news was that extracting the tooth could be done for about a tenth the cost of the crown and root canal. The bad news was that my mouth, teeth, gums, and jaws are so healthy that extracting that molar would be painful for me and difficult for him.

An axiom in karate is, “Do not move until it is to your advantage to do so.” All of the options involved pain. There was one option, however, that could involve the least pain and possibly the least expense. Leave the tooth in place, wait, and medicate in the interim to fight pain and possible infections. Hence, the ibuprofen and antibiotics, (and it just happens to be the time to take my medication, so pardon me as I step away to pop a pill.)

By the way, it is more than popping a pill. I am not required to eat something at the same time, but it helps. So, my apologies to my naturopath as I have a snack before dinner.

For the last several days, most of my diet has been mush food. A few days of the antibiotics, a few doses of ibuprofen, reassuring (yet cautionary) words from my dentist, and perhaps my body’s natural healing abilities mean the pain has mostly subsided. I’m willing to try eating something that involves a knife and a fork.

I think back two weeks to when the pain started and can’t recall anything I ate that could act as a trigger. It wasn’t until yesterday that I made a connection. Two weeks ago there was an event that caused me to clench my teeth, carry too much stress, and make me worry about my ability to keep my house and stay in my community. I paid my taxes. I paid more in taxes by percent and by dollar amount than I had in years, despite only making 1% more than the year before. Personal finances are personal. Numbers are objective and arguably abstract; but our economy and society rely on currency and numbers. Sudden bills are a threat to anyone without sufficient resources; but they create a threat that isn’t addressed by flight or fight. We are left with the options of grin, grit, or grind and move on.

There are real pains associated with being poor, or at least poor enough to not be able to pay for all of the necessities. Thanks to rising home prices, instead of 40% of Americans having negative net worth, there’s only 20%. I’m one of the lucky ones who has moved up. I make about half the median income, which puts me in the bottom 50%; but doing better than the 43 million who live in poverty. I am amazed at the millions whose situation are dire, and am not surprised that their health can be poor, their health care costs high, and see them falling into a trap.

I’m fortunate enough that my business is doing much better this year by some measures, and that my move into real estate is looking encouraging thanks to supportive friends, brokers, and serendipity. (Thanks to co-listing, I’m now involved in three listings and maybe a sale or two: Dunlap Drive, Otter Way, and Timber Lane.)

Encouragement comes as non-real estate clients advance their projects, buyers visit listings, my portfolio possibly recovers, and a variety of endeavours proceed. Those activities are in a race with my medications, my body’s natural healing efforts, and a wide set of influences in this bizarre world we live in. Stay tuned to see who wins and how. In the meantime, I’ll wait and medicate – and very carefully practice using a knife and fork, again.

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Growing Up American Or America Growing Up

America is growing up, or at least growing older. Sometimes the world works in ways that lets one job work for two. This blog is about personal finance, frugality, and community. (Based on my book; Dream. Invest. Live.) Thanks to it, I also get paid to write for other blogs. Occasionally, a topic is appropriate for my client and me. 360 Modern is a real estate brokerage with a blog that I contribute to about once or twice a month. We were both interested in the generational changes happening in America. They focus on the impact on real estate. For this blog, I recognized impacts on the way people spend, save, live, and live with each other. 360 Modern was kind enough to let me repost an excerpt and a link to the main article.

“America is growing up and getting older. That isn’t news. Everyone is getting older. Growing up, well, that’s a separate issue for some. America’s demographics are shifting in ways that are creating new trends and revisiting old ones. It is fascinating to explore, the way things change and the way they stay the same throughout generations and across demographics. This week we examined America’s “generations” – what defines them, as well as the particular generations most affecting and predicted to most heavily impact the home buying process in the future.”

excerpted from Growing Up American: Shifts and Constants in American Demographics

(And, of course, you are welcome to browse the other posts to read what they’re interested and other things I write about. Enjoy.)

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A Day Off For Taxes

Surprise! I made about $1,000 more in 2017 than in 2016 – and paid about 15% more in income tax. So much for relaxing on the surprise of a day off. My common refrain: “Next year will be better. Right?”

A welcome surprise. The day’s meetings were cancelled or postponed with a day’s notice. Take a hint from the universe and take a day off for the first time in about a month. Ah. But, responsibility rules. Pay those taxes. But check emails. Done. And do again later because clients and real estate deserve attention too. First great hurdle of the day, making sure my plastic plumbing fix fixes a problem I caused with my sink that hopefully didn’t affect my dishwasher. Grease. Ugh. Listening for it to drain without spilling and maybe not even dripping is distracting; so, don’t get too deep into the taxes until the dishwasher is done. Success! Imagine that.

Okay, back to work.

Gather up the folder of Taxes 2017 and realize how little is in it. Ah ha! There are two folders. I didn’t realize I was doubly organized. Start opening envelopes labeled “IMPORTANT TAX RETURN DOCUMENTS ENCLOSED’. One of the consequences of the Gig Economy is lots of envelopes with paperwork enumerating significant sums, but sums that don’t sum to enough to cover all of the bills. It’s like Christmas Day with lots of socks and underwear. And then realize (a lot of realizing going on here) that some of the documents are electronic and easy to overlook – and hard to look at if I forget the username and password for an account I only use once a year.

By the way, thanks for coming along for the ride. Weirdly enough, it is comforting to write this down as if someone will read it.

But first, find the notes for the old password and immediately make up a new one that fits the new rules without repeating an old password – for an account I evidently access twice a year.

Okay. Papers compiled. Take a break before plunging into TurboTax where I’ll find myself scrambling for other ones, though hopefully not.

Enough of the distractions of lunch and a bout of Civilization (the game, not reality). To TurboTax I go, possibly via my bank’s offer; so, I’ll log in there first. Log out because it looks like it is the Free option, which usually isn’t the version I need for a home business. Ah, but that is a impulsive reaction. Log back in and double check. Click on the link and it takes me out to TurboTax. Start for Free versus Sign In. What’s the difference? No clue. Hit Free for the fun of it.

Ah, Start for Free – and then pay $104.99 after the bank’s $15 discount. Here we go – after I run out to the mail box. Ironically, the only piece of mail was from Quicken, part of the same company that operates TurboTax (unless some merger or spinoff changed things, again.)

Another once-a-year username and password. Right on the second guess.

My Info
New format. New training session. Less confidence as a result. This is a time for the familiar not the eternally shifting.

Another sales pitch that I decline. I don’t want MAXX.

Federal Info

Interrupted by a confirmation email from TurboTax.

It is heart-wrenching to watch the Federal Balance Due climb with every entry. Nah. Let me get this right. It is gut-clenching. Breathe, Tom, breathe.

7 1099s, and that’s only from my clients who reported paying me more than $600 in 2017. Oops. Some set me 1099s even for amounts under $50. Ah, useless paperwork that must be respected and reported.

Now I see the Hide button for the Federal Balance Due. Maybe the worst is over and it will only go down from here. I’ll leave it up.

Oops. Missed a category, all of those non-1099 gigs. Prepare for a higher tax bill.

Shuffling entries because each sounds like another.

Add in my pension and Boing!!! goes the taxes.

Yet another ad, and another.

Opps. Forgot a stock trade I was forced to take by a takeover. Now I must go into yet another web site. It automatically adds a bunch of forms with zeroes. Not productive, but possibly necessary. It also means going through the ads again.

Grr. Can’t find the mortgage company form.

Go online. Set up an account on the mortgage company’s site. Rummage around for the account number on the monthly bill. Get everything arranged – and find the right form sitting under the old statement beside the computer. Logout.

“The xxx of total itemized deductions doesn’t count yet because your tax due already includes the best tax break, which is the $6,350 Standard Deduction.Your xxx of mortgage deductions may have also been limited depending on your income.”

Distraction from a previous episode. One of Amerigas’ competitors showed up to check how hard it would be to swap out the Amerigas tank for one of theirs. Life overlaps.

Hmm. Typing in the numbers for the healthcare premiums is supposedly aided by “Copy previous month”; but, it is almost slower than typing it it.

Done? Ouch! That’s the highest tax payment in years, and I only made about $1,000 more than last year. I’m glad I received a friend’s monetary buffer, but how does this keep happening for someone who can’t pay all of their bills? Life in the Gig Economy.

Let’s get finish this and get on with life.

Another ad on the way to the pay window means the fears of the session being dropped arise. Watch the spinning beachball of oy vey.

As if they don’t already have enough personal and private information, now they want my drivers license number.

Not enough? Now I have to prove that I’m not a robot; which I fail because I didn’t type their kaptcha characters fast enough.

More ads, which I get to see because I already gave them money? Huh?

Emails confirm that I paid my bills. I’ve done the responsible thing that would’ve been far more traumatizing if not for the buffer provided by a friend. Without it, I’d either be on some payment plan or selling my house. All this to pay for a government that spends money in ways I consider obscene. Pardon that last bit, I’ll probably feel better in a day or two, but blogging benefits by capturing the unfiltered reality and emotions.

Call a friend to vent. – And then hear about their experience which was worse and involved threats from the IRS.

Go for a run. Sweat it out.

My workload and my taxes are giving me a lot to think about. I see a sitting and thinking and drinking session arriving after I post this. Seven main jobs. A growing network of clients. Great potential, but a potential that hasn’t been realized, as measured by being able to sustain this frugal lifestyle. When the sum is less than enough, but the workload is unsustainable, which work gets removed and how does that help the sum increase? I don’t know.

Writers know the power of the strong declarative statement. Strong declarative statements appeal to people, even when they are obviously false. Check the political realm for examples. Writers know the power of the positive statement. People like happy endings.

My reality isn’t as tidy. More than six years (since My Triple Whammy) of great potential, unrealized. A prelude to success, or a pattern than I must break? Stay tuned to find out. In the meantime, I believe this evening’s introspection pairs with a martini made with homemade spiced vodka. Cheers, and sympathies to all who have similar taxing experiences.

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Expense Report – Heating Update

My, what a big padlock you have. My quest to control my heating costs continues with a bizarre twist. The good news is that the bad news is leading me to good news.

For those who are tuning in late, two months ago I got a propane bill for almost four dollars a gallon, $3.989, about double what the competitors are charging. Calls to the local Amerigas office resulted in a partial reduction, something I’ve done before. I shouldn’t have to do that, said so, and they connected me to the person who controls many of the offices in the region. There was little he could do, but he did offer a $50 credit. Fifty dollars is appreciated, but the prospect of thousand dollar or more fuel bills meant I had to investigate other solutions. That’s the short version. The long version is in the prior blog post, Expense Report – Heating.

I thank all of the contractors, suppliers, and folks in general who helped me work through the options. There can only be one supplier that benefits, but they all treated me with respect and enthusiasm.

Finding a new supplier or system would seem to be a simple thing, but simple things have to weave around complex work lives and schedules to the extent that it took two months to do the research, have the conversations, and meet some folks.

The simple answer was to keep the same kind of heating system and change suppliers. My house is heated by a radiant floor hot water system. The water does’t care which propane provider I use.


The more complicated answer is in the details. If I’m going to switch suppliers, how does the old tank and its fuel get replaced with a new tank and fuel, and get hooked up to the existing system? Who gets told what and when, and when does the work get done and in which order? The various suppliers handle this regularly, but I don’t. It probably took me more time to ask them about it than it does for them to do the work.


At the same time those conversations were happening, I was also talking to various contractors referred by Puget Sound Energy about the prospect of going all-electric. Why use propane for anything? In my simplistic vision, replace the propane furnace with an electric furnace and only worry about electricity making it down the line rather than fuel being pumped from the ground, refined, shipped, and delivered?

That was too simplistic, and an example of people not listening. A new furnace and hot water tank would cost thousands of dollars, a nice possibility if I won the lottery jackpot. Instead, every contractor focused on one thing: replacing the propane furnace with a heat pump. Modern heat pumps are much more efficient, cheaper to operate, and relatively quiet. Several of my friends have enjoyed switching to them. They have a one-time cost between $2,000 and $5,000, which is expensive until compared to the recurring roulette cost of my existing propane situation. An interesting possibility.

Unfortunately, replacing the furnace with a heat pump wouldn’t remove the propane system. Something has to heat my hot water and at least two contractors dissuaded me from considering it. So much for all-electric.

Early in the process, I called my original propane supplier (Amerigas) and asked them about delivery options. They suggested I consider switching from automatic delivery (where they guess at when I’ll need it, which they did well) to Will Call (where I call when the tank is empty enough.) All of their competitors suggested I do the same thing, switch to Will Call. So I did.

Switching to Will Call seems like the sort of thing that would be a simple phone call. Nope. Amerigas told me to fill out a form and get it to them by the end of the week to avoid getting another refill sooner than I wanted. I dutifully thanked them on Monday, got the form, filled it out, expedited its delivery on Tuesday, waited a day on Wednesday, and called them on Thursday to make sure they got it by Friday. Otherwise, I’d drive it to them before the deadline. They got it. That was good. Whew.

Within an hour or two, I saw their delivery truck heading into my neighborhood as I was driving out for a long day of work. If I was more paranoid I would’ve turned around to see if they were going to top it off at some high rate, anyway; but, I had appointments scheduled through 9pm.

Getting home after dark I checked my door to see if they’d dropped off an invoice the way they typically did. Nope. Get in. Unpack from the day. Turn up the little electric heater. And then, satisfy my curiosity with a trip to the tank. Good. They didn’t fill it. Weird. There was now a padlock on the tank. No note. No explanation. No warning. Just a padlock on the tank. What’s that all about?


It was too late to call, and the next work day was busy, so I had to wait before hearing their explanation.

I called and asked if the padlock was theirs. Why padlock it? They wanted to prevent me from filling the tank from another supplier. This is standard procedure, evidently, for people who switch to Will Call. Think about it quick and it kind of makes sense. There must be someone who’d do such a thing. Think about it longer and realize that Will Call shouldn’t make any difference. It would be possible to fill from another source even if it was on automatic delivery. Maybe they only do that with Will Calls because Will Calls are more likely to switch suppliers. In which case, how many of their customers are going through the same process? I don’t know. I do know that their logic wasn’t consistent – the kind of consistency I recommend to my clients, but they aren’t one of my clients, so there was no need for me to correct them.

I’m glad for competition. Amerigas’ high prices inspired me to look for alternatives. Too many times, their policies seemed to be company-centric instead of customer-centric. They take care of themselves. I get to take care of myself. Fortunately for me, their competitors convinced me they were customer-centric, too.

The tank is about 50% full. After about 20% to 40% of the tank’s fuel is spent I’ll switch suppliers. VanderYacht Propane managed to convince me on price and experience swapping tanks, and their customers convinced me of their good service. The race was close, but I could only select one, and they got the one and only vote. No vetoes.

It is spring. I use about 10% of the tank every month in winter. I use less in spring. It will take months, and possibly a season or two to use up enough of the fuel to make the tank light enough to move. Consumer decisions sound like one day decision making events. Reality takes longer. The next move may not happen for months, but I’m at least relieved that I shouldn’t receive any more Amerigas fuel bills. If I do, I look forward to finally applying that $50 credit the upper level manager offered. I can’t find it on the fuel bill, the tank bill, or in any reference to my account when I called. A switch to a better competitor may make that a small price to pay.

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GERN Spikes I Buy AST

Here’s a happy chart for a long term investor. In less than an hour and a half, stock in one of my oldest positions rose from ~$5 to over $6.60. Over 30% rise in under 90 minutes. Extrapolate that out for an entire year and re-retirement is obvious. Pull back for the broader view and notice that it was under $2.50 within the last month. This is the way biotechs work, and don’t. Geron had good news (that someone may have gotten early, but that wouldn’t happen because that wouldn’t be right) so the stock climbed, and then climbed more as the data was made public, and then the investors kicked up up when the price went over $5. In the meantime, I bought another biotech instead, AST. It promptly went down, which was fine with me.

Buying biotech stocks is one of the riskier investment strategies. Biotechs are like startups, but amplified. They have to be because they involve humans and health. An electronics startup can invent an idea, fund it, build it, and sell it in a year or so. (Someone tell MicroVision that.) A biotech has to step carefully, openly, and slowly to make sure the public, the patients, the doctors, and the federal regulators can keep up. Theory, then research, then lab tests, animal tests, and watch years of cash burn and consternation go by. Then, human trials. First comes safety, then efficacy, then dosage (not exactly, but that gives an idea of the process.) Each phase takes years to plan, conduct, and understand. If all goes well enough, then the treatment gets reviewed for months or years by the FDA. Sometimes the FDA approves the treatment. Sometimes they tell the company to go back for more data. Sometimes they say stop. Those are years of expenses with little income, lots of risk to the company and the patients, and too many opportunities for chaos or competitors to challenge the company. But if they succeed, if they succeed…

Geron is working on Imetelstat, a name so convoluted that I always have to check the spelling and never feel that I got it right. The data is specifically for a blood disorder but the implications are far grander. Geron has sold off almost all of their technologies to keep the company alive. Their remaining prominent treatment is based on managing telomeres, the molecules that tell cells to die or not. If cells don’t die properly, they can threaten the patient with cancer. If cells die too easily, it is more like autoimmune diseases. (All of this is my amateur understanding. Want the real data? Check with the company, the SEC, and the FDA.) If the treatment works, then the technology may be extended. If the technology can be extended beyond blood disorders and into other cancers, then the company may finally live up to its potential. Hence, the spike after a long wait.

My wait has been long. GERN is the only stock I bought as a tip from a friend. That was in 1999. Within three months the stock went from $14 to over $71. I felt brilliant for what little I knew about biotechnology, and grateful for my friend. Then, the Internet Bubble burst and so did irrational exuberance. Years of delays and trials have now stretched into decades. Phase 2 trials are good, but in the normal process, Geron still has to conduct Phase 3 trials and hope for a quick FDA approval. Those who follow this blog are aware that I’ve sold almost all of my portfolio as I continue to work at recovering from my Triple Whammy. Only a few stocks remain, most of which are disruptive companies that I think are under-appreciated. Each has the potential to rise as GERN did. And then it didn’t.

By the end of the day, that $1.60 rise dropped back to a $0.14 rise. The activity of the last two weeks could be a case study in the various factions within the investment community: long term shareholders, shorts, day traders, institutions, insiders, and possibly nefarious individuals and organizations. I buy stocks for the long term precisely because fundamentals and patience free me from the noise of fluctuations. $0.14 sounds small after watching $1.60 go away, but doubling in less than a month is very welcome.

I bought AST instead.

My consulting and real estate businesses haven’t suddenly exploded, but a gift of a monetary buffer from a friend freed up a much smaller pocket buffer I was holding in emergency reserve. At that point, GERN had begun its early rise, but without public data. Investing in biotechs is risky enough; buying stocks on rumors is even riskier. I looked at both of my biotech holdings and realized I preferred to have a better balance between the two. I bought some AST to even up the number of shares.

Welcome to irony. AST is the stock for Asterias, a company I am invested in because they are developing a treatment for severe nerve damage. There are few successful treatments for damaged nerves. Accident victims have few options. By applying stem cells to the affected area, Asterias has managed to help patients regain some use of their limbs. They, too, are in Phase 2 trials; but the size of the unmet need, the cost of living with damaged limbs, and the possible outcry for solutions may convince the FDA to speed the approval process. The irony is that Asterias bought the technology from Geron, and that transaction is one of the sources that has kept Geron alive.

I admit to an experience that has also cautioned me about innovative cancer treatments. Few work. Very few receive FDA approval. FDA approval would seem to be enough, yet Dendreon received FDA approval for a cancer vaccine and then went bankrupt. To me, Dendreon seemed aimed to reach profitability within a year or so, and could easily treat the prostate cancer patient population for about a billion dollars. That’s a lot, and that expense was one of the reasons claimed for its failure. If they succeeded, they would’ve out-competed companies that weren’t as effective but were making many billions more. Dendreon was actually cheap in comparison. The industry’s immune response could afford to challenge a sub-billion dollar startup with the industry’s phenomenal resources. Geron may encounter the same resistance. Asterias probably won’t. While they are both in clinical trials, however, everything is speculation – including the investments.

GERN’s spike was fun to watch. I set up my iPad just so I could see the chart action as I worked. It’s daily bubble popped, but I wasn’t dismayed. This is normal for biotechs with good news. A 30% rise in 90 minutes is small compared to what I’ve seen GERN and DNDN do. They and several of my stocks have risen 130% in a day. I recall one rising 230% in a day. Those were good days, and those days were inspired by good news.

My expectations are high. For those initial shares of GERN to be a good investment the stock would have to double every five years (~ 15% ROI, a high ROI to compensate for the risk.) In that case, 1999 = $14, 2004 = $28, 2009 = $56, 2014 = $112, 2019 = $224. Okay, allow me to revise that. I don’t expect GERN to reach $224 in 2019. It would be nice. It might even be possible, but it is improbable. I’ll accept what happens. I’ve held these last shares for this long. I’ll hold until the end of the story; but if it hits $448, well, let’s keep in mind that, as the title of my book says, Dream. Invest. Live. Investing is the tool that connects dreams to living.

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