Big Brown Box

What better gift is there than the big brown box? Sure, the advertisers will tell you that what’s inside is what matters. And, there’s always that fond memory of that gifts that surprised and delighted as if they were the epitome of gift giving; but measure them all against the fun found in playing with the boxes and there’s really no competition. Even cats know this – and cats are experts at indulgence. What’s on your wish list that will be as much fun as a big brown box? Who would have the courage to give one as a gift?

I’d like to include a picture of a Transmorgifier from Calvin & Hobbes. Oops. Spell and fact check time. Make that a Transmogrifier. (There’s actually a Calvin and Hobbes wiki. Imagine that.) Flip the box upside down, stick a dial on the side, climb in as a small kid, come back out as – something only a kid could imagine. It’s also a multi-tasker. Flip it back, right side up, and it’s a time machine. Face one way to go forward in time. Face another way to go backwards in time. Or, ignore all that and use it to fly to an alien planet. Remember to pack the tuna fish sandwiches.

I’d like to include a picture from one of my copies of the books, but I just realized I gave them away for Christmas. A few weeks ago I cleared out some space in my spare bedroom, aka the rarely used office, aka rarely visited storage for my official papers and such. I was making room for my new career as a real estate broker and dropped into my minimalist mode. What was sitting around gathering dust that could live a more active life somewhere else? Cartoon books, DVDs, and a few other things looked like they’d make nice Christmas presents for someone shopping at Good Cheer, one of the local thrift stores. In addition to Calvin cartoons, someone gets a chance at the boxed set of Lord of the Rings movies. They may not come in a big brown box, but they may be appreciated even more.

I used big brown boxes as a kid. We put on shows, made a backyard fair, flattened them into stupidly fast ways to slide down wet grass in the spring, and generally used them as canvases on which we drew our childhoods.

I use big brown boxes as a grown-up, or at least as someone who has a few decades between now and childhood. A Transmogrifier, time machine, or space ship sounds awesome, but I restrict my playing with cardboard to more practical uses like drip cloths, a cleaner way to slide under the truck, or as a cover for my fireplace doors on cold, windy nights. (My fireplace is nice to have, but the damper is rusted open. Ventilation in every season! – whether I want it or not.)

Occasionally I challenge myself to take a big piece of cardboard, or even a big piece of butcher paper, and play. Just play. Draw, scribble, doodle, fold, spindle, and whatever else comes to mind. I admit it isn’t the same. Too many “shoulds” get in the way. I shouldn’t waste the cardboard or the paper. I should spend the time getting more work done. I should, …

There are regular reminders that adults forget how to play. Play is valuable. It relieves stress. It generates ideas. And most importantly, it’s fun.

One Christmas I went home with a slightly different set of gifts. Most of them were the usual things from the mall, but one was for my Dad. It was a Nerf ball. Not one of the fancy ones shaped like a football, not a gun, not a sword – just a ball. It was one of those Christmases after my parents had become empty-nesters but before they had many grandkids to play with. My Dad unwrapped his gift, smiled, and chuckled. My Mom (who could out-Martha Stewart Martha Stewart) wasn’t happy at all. “Why would you give your father a gift like that?” At which point my Dad bopped me in the head with the ball, and I tossed it back at him. We laughed. She shook her head. I can’t remember anything else from that Christmas, but I remember that Nerf ball and my parents’ reactions.

I’m due for another round of play. I look forward to more hiking, skiing, bicycling, and maybe even sailing; but those are all expensive. The toys I have sitting on my living room shelf are a bottle of Mr. Bubbles (for blowing bubbles), a yo-yo, water balloons (which are fun to fill and freeze as cheap and temporary outdoor ornaments), and a box of sidewalk chalk (definitely something for drier days.) Boots, skis, bicycles, and boats can be fun, can be practical, and are definitely expensive. Shop right, and twenty dollars can buy a lot of toys.

Christmas is only a few days away. The recycle station will be busy as soon as it reopens, and that dumpster for the cardboard will fill fast. Maybe hang onto some of those boxes just a little longer. Even if you don’t have kids and can’t remember how to act like one, leave one out for the pets, see what the local deer and bunnies do with one, try folding one into an enormous paper airplane. Need ideas? Isn’t that what egg nog is for?

Christmas is only a few days away. If the must-have gift is already gone from the stores, if you can’t think of what to get the person who has everything, maybe just find a big box. Throw in some crayons, magic markets, tape, and maybe some stickers. Whether it is a big brown box or something similarly silly, make something that helps them make something they can’t even imagine because it’s been so long since someone gave them a reason, an excuse, and an inspiration to simply play. It takes a bit of courage to do something different, but what are those memories worth?

I hope you all enjoy the season.

PS The forecast is for snow. Calvin and Hobbes fans know what that means: Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons!

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Littler To Do Lists

What day is it? How’d we get so close to Christmas so quickly? Looks like a lot of things are going to get done a little later than usual, but then, a faster pace of life has become the usual. Maybe it’s time to get a littler list of things to do. I can do that, I think.

Here I sit, just about ten days from Christmas, and I haven’t started my main Christmas baking. Once upon a time I did so much baking that I’d go through about $200 of raw materials: eggs, sugar, flour, nuts, dried fruits, and chocolate. The most time consuming baking was dozens of individual, tiny nut rolls. One session would take about five hours. They were my faves. A dozen of those and a tall glass of milk would kick off flashbacks of playing Battleship with my brothers. The easiest, cheapest, and sweetest were what one friend called Igneous Brownies. Chocolate, butter, sugar, and just enough eggs and flour to make the batter flow across a sheet pan into a form that looked like Hawaiian lava. My ironic favorite was fruitcake, the much maligned, rarely appreciated fruitcake. I don’t see what the jokes are about, but then, baking a fruitcake from scratch with organic ingredients and months of patience is not common, evidently. For a while I listened to the jokes and I quit making them – and found out they were missed and the number of requests doubled the number I usually made.

That $200 shopping trip doesn’t happen anymore. The $200 is harder to find; and various doctors have steered me away from sugar and wheat. Take away those ingredients and try to make something from eggs, butter, dried fruits, and nuts. Sounds like a weird omelet.

A (one) spring of rosemary

Decorations have changed, too. Instead of driving to the store and buying a wreath of pine boughs, I walk out into the yard, harvest some epic rosemary, and make a fragrant wreath in less time than it takes to drive to the store. As a flourish, I added a late autumn rose from the rose bush. A rose in the rosemary seems appropriate – and makes me wonder how rosemary got the word rose in its name. The outdoor tree that would normally be draped in lights didn’t survive another season. In its place is a sprig, a six foot tall sprig, of holly from a friend’s vacant lot. Wrap it in some lights bought at discount last year, and in the dark most folks may not notice the difference. I hope to get a Charlie Brown tree the same way this weekend. (Anyone in the neighborhood trying to clear a weed pine or fir from their yard? Send me a note.)

Gifts are changing, regardless of my financial condition. Friends and family are getting older and downsizing. People are shedding rather than accumulating. Consumables are gaining popularity. Food, wines, candles, and books (you know I write books, right?) turn into great combinations for winter evenings. Instead of about three gifts per person, there may only be three or four gifts under the tree, and that’s fine. I enjoyed a tweet I saw go by that echoed what I’ve said before. Want to give an author a gift without spending money? Review their book and post it online. Get a local library or book club to talk about it. Help them arrange a reading or a signing and it might actually make them money. An author making money? That’s a rare treat!

My holiday To Do list is getting shorter because my work To Do list got longer. Some of you know that I recently became a real estate broker. (Thanks for the support and encouragement.) Being a broker didn’t replace my other jobs, it added to them. That may be the main reason I got to the middle of December without realizing there was less than half the month remained before a very definite day off. Baking, packing, and shipping in time for the 25th is only going to happen if the 25th happens to be in January. (That’s another fine day worth celebrating, but that’s another story.)

Americans live at too fast a pace, in general. That seems to be especially true for those working in the Gig Economy. Days off = lost income. Considering the price of housing and health insurance, days off can put some very basic needs at risk. Ideally, we’d be able to slow down, at least tap the brakes, and find a balance in life. For about 20%-40% of Americans (depending on how financial health is measured), slowing down isn’t an option. There is overwhelming evidence that working less is healthy, that relaxing is healthy, that exercise, meditation, and even socializing are healthy; but there’s an unspoken assumption that is invalid for that 20%-40%. Advice is great – as long as you can pay your bills (ALAYCPYB). It may not be a handy acronym, and it can’t be easily pronounced, but it is a reality for tens of millions of Americans.

That daily time crunch is a reality that is heightened during the holidays. The anxieties are easily amplified with the emphasis on buying gifts, dressing up, and decorating homes.

I miss the big piles of presents under the tree, but I also enjoy my small house and don’t want to fill it with stuff for the sake of stuff. There will be some good sales after the holidays when I can pick up an item or two. I miss feasting with friends, but navigating around my dietary restrictions and wanting to lose weight make too many feasts too much of a good thing. I’ll save my feasting for one or two days when I can concentrate on cooking, baking, aromas, flavors, and sharing with friends. Decorating is fun, but I enjoy a subtler touch that doesn’t pump out so much light that the inside looks like the outside is surrounded by spotlights.

That may change if I win the lottery jackpot; but then I’ll have enough money to pay my bills, have extra time to fill, and can indulge in generosity again. (And, no, I didn’t win the $229M Powerball lottery. Maybe next time.)

In the meantime, I’ll make a few apologies (sorry about not getting the nut rolls baked), I’ll be thankful for a reason and an excuse to honor my most cherished traditions, and I’ll enjoy the necessity of a littler To Do list. And maybe, maybe, I’ll get around to making the Igneous Brownies. There should always be enough room for at least one easy indulgence.


If you want a list of charities on the island, check out my post on

If you want some choices for Christmas cards, I’ve got a site for those, too.

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Breaking My Way To A Better Life

Guess what broke the other morning as I got into the shower. So much for water coming out of the little holes in the shower head. The water decided to spray out from a crack in the hose behind it. Not optimal. Things break, and sometimes that the only way I upgrade an appliance. If it isn’t broke, why fix it? If it is broke, its replacement will probably be better than what I was using. At times it seems as if the world is retreating, but progress continues. Whether that’s through inertia, stubbornness, or ignorance, things have been getting better, regardless of what I do. That’s a source of optimism, and optimism is worth a lot, lately.

They probably did make them better in the old days, whenever that was. But, they also made them differently. The shower head that broke was a replacement for a shower head that clogged from minerals in the water. About half the water came through the nozzles. The other half sprung from every crack in the plastic. It wasn’t totally useless, so I stored in on a shelf when I replaced it with a low-flow shower head that was made more affordable through energy conservation subsidies. That was an upgrade from the previous one that was a simple nozzle without a hose. The new one has the hose, several settings, looks nice, and comes with a metal hose. A nice upgrade for only $20. Amortize that over the number of showers it provides and it becomes even more affordable.

This is the time of year to reflect. How were things last year? What did I expect would happen this year? Are things better or worse? There’s more than one answer because lives are complicated.

As with every year, I expected this one would be dramatically better. Even with the turmoil of politics and disasters, I expected my workload, my portfolio, and some good luck would make this December much more comfortable than last December.

Last year’s promise was partly a series of job applications that looked promising. They fell through for reasons like: not having the word “Seattle” in my street address, and being overqualified for another job. Disappointing, and yet, this year my work load is just as high but is mostly directed towards a job that benefits from living on the island and having many qualifications: my gig as a real estate broker.

mailing in the official paperwork

That’s promising, especially as Seattle’s market continues to be hot, and people priced out of that market may jump the moat to land on the island.

Last year’s promise was partly based on my portfolio. There will be a more detailed report later, but that fell short – even though I was right about a few things. GigOptix finally reached profitability – which led to the management accepting a great buyout that benefited them more than it benefited the rest of the shareholders. MicroVision made great progress, but not great enough to reach expectations. Hence, it languishes. The promise of AST, GERN, and MVIS remain high, or even higher because the companies have made progress.

Last year’s promise included the same amount of luck most of us get, which means I haven’t won the lottery jackpot, either – yet.

Despite unmet promises, I look around and celebrate unexpected benefits. The truck broke down, but now it has a new belt, new battery, and a repaired axle seal. Driving around is more relaxing, something appreciated as I tour homes for sale.

The old, broken dishwasher was replaced with a free (plus installation charges) dishwasher. Labor saving devices are easier to appreciate when they’ve been unavailable for years. Now, the dishes can get washed while I type.

A friend was downsizing, and I got a new-to-me camera.

Someone bought the wrong boots at the thrift store for $15, and I got essentially new $150 boots for free.

Gardeners discarding old pots turned into a bonus for my garden, me, and my health.

A neighbor’s unused downspout gets repurposed as a way to fill yet another rain barrel.

Bicycle brakes squeal so much that I get them replaced, cheap, and find care free cycling again.

Overwork and under-care led to a bout of diabetes, which led to a better diet, more exercise, weight loss – and a retreat from diabetes. (Gotta watch that though. This time of year and this workload is a bad combination for exercise and weight gain.)

Speaking out on a couple of issues on Twitter turned into being interviewed about health insurance and the gig economy by Marketplace.

The year appears to be ending with money being a bit tight as I spend to build yet another new career. I’m told it takes about $2,000 to properly equip a new real estate broker. Don’t be surprised if the frugal part of me finds ways to reduce and delay those expenses in innovative ways. Those upgrades will come later, probably after a sale or two.

Little annoyances, which sometimes are accompanied by big grimaces, can lead to a ratcheting of improvements. What will my life be like next year at this time? It promises to be better, and I expect to have a few more improvements (particularly now that smartphones with embedded projectors are finally coming to America.) One thing that would be even better would be upgrading before replacing is necessary. It could happen. You see, there’s this leaky kitchen faucet, a window I’d like to replace, and …

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Health Insurance Confusion 2017

I’m happy to thank Jasmine, Joe, Adrienne, Christine, Glenn, Kathleen, and Bill. Oops. Sorry. That Bill should be a bill, but we’ll get to that. Thanks to their efforts, the efforts of folks in the industry, and an orphaned bill I have a plan that looks better, my health insurance costs dropped ~40% while my premiums went up ~ 33%. Look strange? That isn’t the strangest part, but at least I’ve navigated the system to something that looks like an improvement – which I doubt is sustainable. I’ll take it.

If you missed the news, here’s an update: Open Enrollment began on November 1st, the deadline for January 1st coverage is December 15th, and Open Enrollment ends on January 15th. You have a great excuse for not hearing about it this year. The budget for announcing it was cut 90%.

I knew about it, but didn’t do anything about it until November 26th. With the chaos in DC, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the system changing within the open period. The thing that prompted my action was receiving a bill from a health insurance company I’d never dealt with, Kaiser Permanente.

For weeks there were emails and letters from my current insurance company, Premera. A glance told me what I’d heard from friends. Our county was only going to have one provider. The letters and emails were details about the cessation of coverage. I set them aside to see if anything would change in the political landscape.

Then, there was a letter from Kaiser Permanente; but it wasn’t a letter. It was a bill. It was a bill with a premium that had risen to within 1% of my mortgage payment. Health care has become so expensive that I see health insurance as a cost without a benefit, as long as I stay healthy. At least with a mortgage I get a house and am building equity while decreasing my debt. With the plan I had in 2017, a major medical issue could bankrupt me, even with insurance. High deductibles are like that. Increasing expenses at the time of decreasing income meant I would probably cancel my health insurance. I’d be living at risk, but I was doing that anyway. The benefit would be appreciated by my credit card company because I’d accelerate the paydown of my credit card balance. Waiting until the December 15th deadline left no room for options, so I gathered my courage (by calling a friend and venting, first), and scheduled some time to dive into the morass.

First stop,, the health insurance marketplace for Washington State. Every year I contact them, sometimes online, sometimes on the phone, sometimes both. After the usual username password guessing game, I got in and hit the first bit of confusion. The bill from Kaiser was for about the same amount as the low-income assistance I’d been receiving. Were they billing me for that? Even more reason to cancel. But, no. That was the total bill due, and it wasn’t due until January. Cautiously, optimism crept in. Sure enough. If I kept my old plan with the new provider, my monthly bill would drop 40% while the total premium went up 33% which meant the assistance more than doubled. I appreciate the assistance and won’t turn it down, but the math left me confused. How is it sustainable? That’s far more than the government collects from me for taxes, and while I am considered low income (at least temporarily) I’m doing better than 20%-40% of American households. The world is weird. I shrugged and said thank you.

While I was there I used the site for what it was designed for, to compare plans. To simplify, there are three levels of plans: bronze, silver, and gold – as if they were Olympic medals. For the last few years, silver has been the balancing act between premiums and deductibles. Cheaper premiums had deductibles that were so high that they’d bankrupt me. Higher premiums had lower deductibles, but it would be too onerous to spend that much per month. How is it this year? The cheaper option, bronze, cost less than $7 per month because the assistance almost completely covers the cost. That was astonishing. The deductible was high enough for caution. I resigned myself to keeping the silver plan until I noticed that the gold plan dropped the deductible to less than one month’s premium, the total out-of-pocket to only a few month’s premiums, and only cost $5 more per month. Why stay with sliver? I went for the gold.

Such low premiums were unbelievable, so I waited until Monday morning, 8AM, to call the folks at Washington Healthplanfinder to verify my conclusion. Within ten minutes they confirmed my perception and executed the change. Cool. And surprising.

Good news can evaporate quickly, so I hung up and dialed Kaiser Permanente to confirm the confirmation. Uh. Oops. They couldn’t find any record of the transaction. They couldn’t find any record of me. Subscriber IDs, social security number, phone number, birthday, – they even checked my name (astonishing in a world of ID numbers). Nothing. And yet, I had a bill from them with most of those IDs, as well as an invoice number from their system and a file name from their computer. We bumped it up a level, they called in experts – nothing. We agreed that I should read every line of the bill to them over the phone, from the header to the footer, including trademark marks, icons, everything. Nothing. If nothing else, I thought they’d like to know that their accounting system was sending out invoices that called for payments, but were invoices they couldn’t track. If they can’t track their invoices, why would I expect them to track me, my health care, or my payments? Maybe it was a temporary glitch.

Two days later I called again. Again, they couldn’t find me. And then one of them decided to kick it to the side instead of up. From what I understand, they have a unit called the Health Benefit Exchange. Someone over there broke through the fog. I existed, I had a new plan, and I owed them money. They couldn’t figure out which plan I’d signed up for, but the number owed matched the gold plan I picked. A bill was on its way. That was good enough for me.

Rather than wait until the bill arrived, I decided to write and publish this post now for others who may be in a similar situation. If something goes amiss, I’ll try to post it here.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to scheduling a few doctor appointments in 2018 (Molly, that’s a heads-up.) 2018 has the potential to be a much healthier year, and thanks to so shifts in my business (including passing my real estate exam) I might get to deal with the mixed reaction to making enough money to pay for health insurance, health care, and a healthy life style without any assistance. If that happens, maybe there won’t be a sequel called Health Insurance Confusion 2018.

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CEOs Not In Charge

(Editorial note from an astute reader who caught the mistake made by a writer writing too late on a Friday night. “I think you mean Lasers where you have mentioned LED’s. LED’s are light emitting diodes and are not used in Microvision technology.”

I was looking forward to writing about good news for MicroVision. Good news for MicroVision should be good news for the stock, MVIS, which should be good news for my portfolio, which should be good news for me. The company’s press releases sound positive, but the stock price suggests the investors are less interested in investing as a result. Chief Executive Officers are the chief officers in charge of making sure the corporation executes their plan to reach their goal, generally. They are paid well, and they do carry the responsibility, but nobody and no company is in complete control. The rest of the world has an influence whether it knows the company exists or not. The lack of control is part of investing, and something individual investors get to deal with. Here’s one example from MicroVision, a company that seems to be nothing but anecdotes and examples.

Good news! Revenues are up 50%! A new CEO is taking command! They’ve raised millions of dollars! Those were three of the most recent press releases.

Good news? In the last month, MVIS is down ~39% and after hours is down another ~9%.

My interpretation of the market’s response

Revenues are up 50%, but expenses were up and long-anticipated deals weren’t announced during the conference call for the earnings report. Patience evidently wore out for investors who expected a positive report before the end of the year. There were hints of deals about to be signed, but unfulfilled hints are too common for MicroVision. It looks like many investors finally gave up, gave in, and sold out.

A new CEO is taking command, which some have been hoping for. The announcement came days after the earnings report and the stock price drop. Regardless of the skills of the new CEO, many read the transition as a sign that the good news hinted at during the conference call may not be happening. That’s only speculation, but without better information, speculation is all most investors have to make decisions from.

They’ve raised millions of dollars, which also suggests yet more dilution (A Study In Dilution MVIS). The more positive news would’ve been a long-awaited surge in sales that carries the company to cash flow positive and profitability. Maybe they need the cash for expansion. Maybe they need it for survival. As I just wrote above; “That’s only speculation, but without better information, speculation is all most investors have to make decisions from.”

The stock drop associated with the earnings report wasn’t under the control of the CEO. A drop in stock price can lead to disrupted deals, degraded financial terms, and a decrease in confidence about the company. Big companies are cautious about dealing with little companies, and little companies that look shaky can look like bad business partners. Maybe that encouraged the shift in CEOs. Who knows? Someone, but not the investors.

The departing CEO didn’t live up to expectations, arguably expectations that he raised; but he is still recognized as one of the most positive developments in the company’s history. He replaced a CEO that made great bombastic promises, that only later were shown to be more talk than substance. The departing CEO did a great job at providing solidity to the design process, initiated a crucial technical development and invention program that resulted in real rather than virtual products, and may have almost succeeded. If there were critical flaws in the product or the business, they haven’t been revealed to the investors. The lack of significant sales suggests that something was amiss, but that’s speculation, again. The new CEO benefits from expectations that are at their lowest in years. At this point, survival may be seen as an accomplishment.

Raising millions of dollars may simply be a smart move by the new CEO. Create a cash cushion during an apparent crisis that could be attributed to the previous management. If the deals come through, then the financing is just that, a cushion. If the deals fall through, there’s enough money to provide hope for other deals to succeed. Raising the money is under their control, but the stock price associated with it is not.

There’s a story of the lack of control from an unexpected source. Thank your iPhone and its Gorilla Glass.
MicroVision’s technology uses a series of laser LEDs to paint the image. Red, green, and blue lasers rapidly turn on and off to create all of the necessary colors, just like most monitors. The difference is that the lasers shine (or don’t) onto a tiny oscillating mirror. Do it right, and an image is projected. A device the size of a thin mint can create images measured in feet. They dim with size, just like a flashlight, but images the sizes of standard monitors can be very bright. They can also be very crisp because they don’t have to fake black.

Red LEDs have been around for decades. Blue LEDs are newer, but BluRay devices is a sign that their quantity was up and their cost was down. Unfortunately, the first CEO didn’t make much mention of the green LEDs. The second CEO pointed that out soon after taking office. He launched an impressive campaign to invent, truly invent, the technology necessary commercially viable green LEDs, and got big corporations like Corning to participate. That was good news. There was great anticipation. And then people realized that Corning backed out. There was no explanation, just a disappointment. Fortunately, enough advances were made that green LEDs were feasible, though not as economically viable as needed.

Here’s where the benefit of reading broadly comes in. I enjoyed having a subscription to Wired Magazine. They catch trends early and relay the news in an entertaining style.
In September 2012, a Wired Magazine article described another possibility for Corning’s decision. The CEO was being interviewed about the origins of Gorilla Glass. Evidently, The CEO was giving a tour to Steve Jobs. The CEO mentioned the possibility of embedded projectors and the need for direct green lasers. Jobs’ response was that he was committed to what would become the iPhone. He needed a strong glass that hadn’t been developed. Corning’s CEO decided to switch development funding from lasers to Gorilla Glass.

MicroVision has risen to the point of being the topic of discussion between the CEO of Apple and the CEO of Corning. That’s impressive for a tiny company. Unfortunately, MicroVision wasn’t there to defend the technology and their concept. The key conversation was out of their control. Hence, disruptions, delays, and a chance for competitors to catch up.

As much as I’m writing this about MicroVision’s CEOs, I suspect even the CEOs of Apple and Corning find that they don’t have as much control as they’d like.

And yet, CEOs are responsible, as is appropriate. To be responsible is to be able to respond. Another connotation is to take the credit and the blame for the company’s successes or failures. The shift in CEOs may simply be a reflection of that response, or it truly is only that the departing CEO wants to spend more time with his family. It happens.

Investors are responsible, too. I am the only person who has to respond to my investment decisions. I’ve held MVIS since about 2000. If it didn’t seem like a good idea, I would’ve sold. As usual, though, I’m holding because those deals may come through. The cash flow may finally turn positive. The new CEO may have just the right negotiating and management skills. Maybe they’ll succeed quickly enough that any further dilution will be minimal. But, there are too many maybes in there for me to buy, and I think that lack of control may be a larger lack than expected.

Individual investing can be a powerful wealth creation tool. Passive asset growth is very nice. I’ve experienced it for decades. It can happen again, but it requires a high tolerance for risk (understatement) and a realization that no one is truly in control. Not even the CEO.

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Welcome to About Whidbey

Welcome to a spinoff of this blog:, Island living from an islander’s perspective.
Thanks to some recent writing assignments and my new gig as a real estate broker means I wanted a venue for island stories, resources, news, and maybe even some real estate stuff. Stay tuned.

About Whidbey

Welcome to AboutWhidbey, a blog about a very welcoming island. I was welcomed here in 1980 by some very neighborly people who befriended a young aerospace engineer who’d moved from Pittsburgh, PA to Everett, WA. It only took me 25 years to actually move to the island, the first place that’s truly felt like home. Until then, I’d mostly lived in apartments, condos, and houses; not in a home or a community.


For a variety of reasons and in a variety of venues, I’ve written about life on Whidbey, always in some unofficial or informal capacity. Unofficial and informal, yep, that describes island life. Don’t be surprised to find “-ish” appended to a lot of scheduled events. Things happen noon-ish, or 4pm-ish, or whatever-ish, but probably not too early (except for fishing and exercise) or too late (“Closed” is a popular sign after 10pm-ish.) Now that I’ve passed my real…

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Tom Trimbath Real Estate Broker

And now for something completely different – that really isn’t. On Wednesday, November 8th, I passed the exam for becoming a real estate broker in the state of Washington. I also breathed a great sigh of relief. Taking tests is hard, just ask the anxiety attack that threatened to derail the attempt. But, success! Listening to hints from the universe isn’t easy, either, but several of them (as well as many of my friends) convinced me to add yet another skill to my career set. As if I wasn’t already dealing with being “overqualified.” At least now I get to use my qualifications as a fan of Whidbey, helping people achieve their goals, and a wide variety of communications skills. One concession: I won’t be wearing shorts as often.

mailing in the official paperwork

Astute readers noticed that I have been posting less frequently here, on Facebook, or on stock discussion boards, lately. For the last few months I’ve been fitting in 90 hours of required class work, dozens of hours of highly-recommended class work, and the logistics involved in taking the 3.5 hour test. All of that was happening while maintaining all of my regular gigs. The training sounded easy because I’ve bought and sold several houses since I moved to the Seattle area. Then, I learned that the exam delved into the issues that brokers see that I ignored as a buyer or a seller. The tall stack of forms got that tall because some issue created the need for yet another legal clarification. Add in the fact that most real estate deals involve fractions of a million dollars, and it is easy to see why people care about clauses, contingencies, and reducing confusion.

Big life changes are rarely made for only one reason.

Seattle has already become unaffordable for many. That’s true because so many are making so much that it’s affordable for them, even as prices and rents rise. That’s good for Seattle’s economy, but causes cautions about sustainability. Whidbey Island, where I live, is beginning to be affected by Seattle, though dampened by distance. I look forward to living on the island, but must admit that I’m concerned about my long term sustainability. A recovered stock portfolio could alleviate those concerns, but that hasn’t happened, yet. Winning the lottery jackpot would also take care of the issue, but that’s hard to realistically plan for. Being turned down for yet another job (overqualified, again) inspired me to consider the possibilities.

So, in true and proper consultant fashion, I conducted an economic analysis of my situation. I won’t repeat the entire analysis here, but the summary is simple. Three ways to keep up with rising costs is to either increase income, increase net worth, or both. My portfolio, house, and lottery tickets were working on the increased net worth. Increasing income is something almost every entrepreneur is doing (except for some frugal folks, and religious types like a Buddhist monk I know). Jobs on the island that have a chance of growing income as expenses grow are things like professions (doctors, lawyers, and such), full-time gigs with the few large companies on the island (where my applications seem to vanish), and jobs related to the largest collections of assets on the island (stocks and real estate.) Becoming a doctor or lawyer takes too long and costs too much. I’ve tried the companies, alas. I enjoy stocks, but there are more positions in real estate than in financial planning. Process of elimination = real estate.

Real estate isn’t just about buying and selling homes. Besides brokers there are appraisers, inspectors, mortgage brokers, and people working in title and escrow companies. There’s a lot to choose from. Becoming a broker had its appeal, but so many friends are brokers that I didn’t want to compete with them. Unfortunately, none of the other options worked out because of logistics, bizarre regulations, and no demand for new employees. I mentioned that to several brokers and was surprised at the response. Competition? Sure. But there’s also a lot of cooperation. A lot of encouragement came my way. At some point, I decided to listen.

That was the analytical path. The emotional path clinched the deal.

Instead of thinking about buying and selling I realized I could look at a broker’s job as helping. As I learned as a consultant, one of my life joys is helping people pursue their projects, helping them get things done. For me, buying or selling houses wasn’t about investing, it was about moving from one phase of life to another. Life changes, goals change, and a house that made sense ten years ago may not make as much sense after those changes. Jobs change. Families grow and shrink. Hobbies can shift from a basement workbench to the acreage required to hold a horse or three. Someone needs to find a quiet place to retire, recover, or play? Sure, I’m happy to help them meet that goal. Thinking about real estate that way is actually inspiring.

This blog is about personal finance. While real estate is part of personal finance, I don’t intend to turn this blog into a long series of stories about houses. I’ll continue to comment occasionally, but I’ll be starting a separate blog that talks about island life, various aspects of Whidbey Island, and possibly what it’s like to be a fresh real estate broker at my age.

At my age, there’s an interesting coincidence. I’m almost 60, but not yet. My Dad found himself in a job that he had to leave for moral, ethical, and legal reasons. They were doing things he didn’t want to be a part of. At 58 years old he quit his job, recreated himself, and grew his way into retirement. His choice and actions were impressive and inspiring. I’ll be happy if I can do well enough to live comfortably sustainably, while staying on the island.

I’ll launch the other blog soon. First, there’s an amazing amount of paperwork behind becoming a broker. Any new job comes with a sweep of forms for new accounts, passwords, rules, procedures, and generally being a newbie. Amongst that, I’ll find time for my regular gigs because they all share my life joy in helping people. My title isn’t changing, just another one to add to my long list; “Real Estate Broker, Consultant, Writer, Speaker, Teacher, Photographer, Engineer, Entrepreneur, etc.” I suspect a much shorter title will end up on the For Sale signs, something like, “Tom Trimbath, Real Estate Broker – Coldwell Banker”.

Give me a call. You know I enjoy talking – and helping.

Hey! They already loaded up my agent’s profile.

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Commons And Whidbey Authors

How many writers are there on Whidbey Island? The bookstores probably know because they’ve probably met most of the authors when they come in to try selling their books. Authors may not know. Authors like to meet authors. That’s odd considering most authors are introverts, and a club of introverts wanting to meet other introverts might have a small roster. Readers like to meet authors, too, which is why it was nice for one of the local bookstores to host a panel discussion of four local novelists. I’m glad I went. Novelists are good at telling stories, one of them is coordinating a workshop that I’ll be a part of on November 11th, and I enjoy listening to passionate people who’ve done more than talk about their passion. Authors actually get something into print. Besides, serendipity encouraged me to attend by cutting off power to my house for the day.

Langley may be a small town on the quiet southern half of a rural island, but it has an abundance of book stores. The South Whidbey Commons is unique. They have books, of course; encourage local authors, as do others; serve food and drink, a dangerous combination in the vicinity of books; and operate the business so students can learn how to operate a business. I’ve given several talks there, but on Saturday I got to sit in the audience as they welcomed a panel of Dave Anderson, Jo Meador, Dan Pedersen, and Michael Seraphinoff. Four novelists, one hour, and not enough time to hear all they have to tell. Want to know more? Read (and maybe even buy) their books.

It was a standing-room only crowd, a handy feature on a day when a snow storm was approaching. All of those warm bodies kept the room cozy. I took my typical seat in the back and tried to keep my mouth shut. I’ve been on similar panels, and enjoyed them. It was entertaining to hear others’ motivations, processes, and experiences. Story telling is part of being human. Writing is more recent, but most people write at least something thanks to email and the internet. Becoming an author, though, is obviously a lot more work, takes a bit of courage, and makes every author reveal vulnerabilities – especially in the age of the internet.

The unspoken messages are sometimes the loudest. At least three, and maybe all four, of the authors came from non-writing careers. Writing was involved, but the careers were in anthropology, politics, and database management. Not exactly the stereotypical path of first pursuing Master of Fine Arts degrees. I’ve seen it before. People who were forced to document their work were effectively forced to write – and write concisely to a deadline. The same thing happened to me. Frequently, I’d spend five days dealing with technical and engineering issues at NASA, and then reduce the experience to a few hundred words translated into management-speak within a couple of hours after getting back to my desk. Fear the blank page? There’s no time. Make the blank page fear you!

There was a pleasant surprise near the end. One of the members of the audience knew about Jo’s workshop, realized no one had mentioned it, and asked a leading question that she and I could answer. Thanks for the plug, Talia. On November 11th, Jo will spend the morning conducting a workshop about writing and editing (for details, check with Jo), and I’ll spend the afternoon describing how write for the internet and how to self-publish. Another way to look at it: Jo will handle the fundamentals that never change, and I’ll handle the environment that’s so fluid that every time I teach it I have to change it.

Writing for the Internet starts with the same goals of most writers and authors: gain exposure, read an audience and a community or a market, spread a message, and if the writer is lucky, maybe even make some money. That last one is tough, but that’s always been the case. Style has changed. Being concise is much more valuable thanks to shorter attention spans and the visual limitations of screen sizes. Adhering to various manuals of style isn’t as appreciated as producing something that can be searched, found, and shared. Book authors get to create tomes that are hundreds of thousands of pages long, but on the internet they can expect to find tl;dr (too long; didn’t read.) Get a slice of that message across in 2,000 words, or 500 words, or even 140 characters and more people will read it. Give up on the idea of controlling formatting. Elegant fonts, page layouts, and professional headers and footers are lost on devices where the reader can grow, shrink, and change the color of the text. What are you reading this on: a monitor, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone? I don’t care because I don’t try to optimize for any platform. The formats that matter are headlines, images, links, and hashtags; all things that lead to searching and sharing. Be too common, and the words get lost in the crowd. Be too uncommon, and never be found. Write about something others care about, make it easy to share, and reach farther than most authors did thirty years ago. Then, pull up the analytics and truly learn what resonated with readers, and what was there mostly for self-satisfaction.

Modern Self-Publishing has become so common that there’s less of a reason to make the distinction since I first used it in 2002. Print-on-demand is such a common way to print a book that it’s hard to distinguish from traditional printing. E-books are so ubiquitous that they’ve standardizing on prices, file formats, and delivery mechanisms. In the early years of the movement, I wrote a book about the technique, but the technology and the industry changed so quickly that the book had to be edited and re-released every six months. I gave up and simply reinvented the message every time I taught the class.

The title of one of my books (and the basis for this blog) is Dream. Invest. Live. It is a self-published and due for a second edition. That first word, Dream, is something that many people put off until retirement. Authors are writers who finally gave up and quit waiting. They dreamed, or at least strongly considered, of something that should be told; invested amazing amounts of time, mental anguish, and sometimes money writing the story; and then get to live the life of an author – which usually means having some other source of income. As one of the authors mentioned, most books only sell a couple of hundred copies. I’ve seen the data. Very few succeed financially, though the few that do have basically written themselves a lottery ticket.

To fellow Whidbey authors, my curiosity encouraged me to start counting how many books have been written by authors who live on the island. Go to the Whidbey Authors Facebook group if you want your books to be counted. I suspect the total is in the hundreds. That’s a lot of gifting opportunities, and a lot of opportunities for authors to meet with authors. We can compare notes on how well our notes have sold.

To fellow Whidbey writers who haven’t published yet, well, by now you know about the workshop, and you probably suspect that plenty of us are happy to help outside of such structured environments. People everywhere have fascinating stories to tell, and people everywhere want to hear new stories. Welcome to a fundamental part of being human.

For now, the power is back on, the snow is getting closer, the house is up to 65F, and I’m probably done writing for the day. It’s time to sit back, share this post, stoke the fire just in case the power goes out again, and watch a movie I picked up from the library. Books are great, but I’ve been writing so much I need to take a break from reading for the evening. Of course, if the power goes out, then out come the books and even more stories.

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Wasting Time On Facebook

Does Facebook seem a bit bloated, lately? More ads than updates? More about politicians and less about families and friends? Yeah. I’m a fan of social media, in general, but I’m also a fan of spending time wisely. That’s the frugal part of me. Spending time with friends is fun. Scrolling past ads isn’t any better on Facebook than it is on television. Aw. Maybe I’m just imagining it. Maybe not. The geek in me decided to take data. Just how far has Facebook drifted from what I like most about it?

This was easy, and unscientific. I scrolled through one hour of posts on a Friday morning. Here’s what Facebook decided to show me that was “Most Recent” – a setting which I have to repeatedly set every time I use the site.

  1. ad for a yard sale
  2. ad for Verizon
  3. personality profile news item
  4. selfie
  5. list click bait
  6. video of old cartoon
  7. advocacy group
  8. ad for local event
  9. shared cartoon
  10. vacation photos
  11. someone’s birthday
  12. fundraiser
  13. ad for event
  14. selfie
  15. a message between two friends
  16. political post
  17. shared humor
  18. advocacy
  19. weather forecast
  20. shared humor
  21. ad for a movie
  22. ad for an event
  23. fun personal photo
  24. ad for a car
  25. someone’s birthday
  26. ad for an event
  27. art from a proud artist
  28. ad for an event
  29. meme
  30. personal insight into a cause
  31. shared news
  32. advocacy
  33. ad for an event
  34. ad for software
  35. ad for an event
  36. ad for music
  37. vacation photos
  38. ad for a yard sale
  39. advocacy
  40. ad for a business

That was 40 posts in about an hour. Only about a quarter of them were from friends doing something fun, casual, personal, and real. Of the other thirty, most of them were from friends, too; but they were advocating for a cause or funds – effectively ads, again. Ah, but the geek in me prefers to have more than one data point. I’m lucky enough to have one. I’ve been on Facebook since 2008 – back when there were no ads, the news feed didn’t try to reorder my life into Top Stories, and things like photos and links were relatively new. From 100% news from friends to 25% news from friends in under a decade. At that rate only about 6% of the posts will be news from friends in 2028. No wonder it seems like spending time on Facebook feels more like a chore than a pleasure.

I am one of the guilty ones. I teach classes about social media. Social media is a great enabler that doesn’t charge, significantly expands a network and community, and helps people and ideas reach further. I don’t advocate promoting ads. The extra reach seems to reach a random set of people, regardless of the filters. I do advocate using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. for artists, entrepreneurs, and advocates to spread their word. The various sites reach hundreds of millions of people. (Facebook reaches billions, but there’s some doubt about many of the accounts.) It would be silly to overlook such a venue. (Side note: the next class is part of the November 11 Madrona Writers Workshop on Whidbey.) Instead of spending money promoting ads, I suggest spending time engaging with family, friends, and followers. It’s social media. Be social!

While I may be guilty of posting ads, too, I also try to do so off to the side. That’s what business pages are for. Most of my consulting, art, writing, and teaching posts are first published on Trimbath Creative Enterprises’ web site and shared to Trimbath Creative Enterprises’ Facebook page. If there’s enough interest, then I share it to my timeline where it might show up on followers’ news feeds. Now that I look at that data, I wonder whether to be a purist and only post to my business’ page, or give in and post everything to my timeline like so many others. They seem to be successful, but that also may just be part of the Facebook facade.

And then some crisis or celebration occurs. My friends amaze and impress me with their response. I’ve seen support groups form before an accident victim has gotten home. Power outages are managed by a community sharing notes, reports, and offers of help. Groups of passionate people may be too hard to organize in the real world, but can come together in a group. I frequently visit the dance community and the writing community. Someone added me to a group of Bohemians. Cool.

At least in the groups, paid ads seem to be less common. Self-promotion is a balancing act, which means there’s always someone sharing too much and others that I wish would share more. I’m not sure where I sit on that.

I’m a fan of people, which is why I’m a fan of social media. But I find myself using Facebook less and using Twitter more (@tetrimbath). Twitter has fewer ads and it is easier to sort sources to follow. LinkedIn keeps trying to be the office version of Facebook; maybe I’ll engage there more if others did, too. Reddit is a wild place with few ads, but also a site for crazy waves of comments and occasionally immoderate moderators. There are hundreds of sites. They are competing with Facebook. While it may look like none of them can become bigger than Facebook, similar things were said about IBM, until Microsoft redefined the world, and then Apple redefined it again, and now Google, and now Facebook, and now – who’s next?

Frugality is about respecting resources and personal values. It isn’t about being cheap. Frugality is about spending time and money in ways that complement an individual’s goals and interests. Facebook is free, expect for the time spent using it. From my one sample, that time is only a quarter as efficient as it was when I signed up. From that logic, it can take four times the time to receive the same effect. I don’t want to spend time that inefficiently. So, I must find other ways to use it efficiently.

Using Facebook more efficiently for me means paying less attention to the content it pushes.

I already ignore Top Stories. That’s the default, so every time I visit the site it shows me the story it thinks is the most important. Sometimes it keeps the same story up for days. Get on with it, eh?

I switch Top Stories to Most Recent to see if anything new has been happening with my friends. But, I don’t scroll down far. One great example was a report of a meteor the other night. Instead of a flash in the sky it turned into a splash in the water. I saw the post come up, jumped over to Twitter to contact the National Weather Service, USGS, and NASA to get the official story, and posted some details.

To get more efficient, I dive into the groups. Fewer ads, passionate people sharing news, and a more congenial atmosphere are attractive.

To get the best stuff, I head over to my friends’ personal and business pages. Facebook filters what it shares from them to my news feed. That just means I have to grab control back to find out about a friend’s new house, or recovery, or awesome painting.

Facebook, and all social media sites, are tools. Knowing how to use a tool best makes using the tool more successful and more fun. In the case of social media sites, the tools decide to change themselves. Every time I reach into that drawer for that tool I’m aware that I might have to use if differently, or reach for a different tool. Facebook is useful, but not as useful as before; so, I am also reaching for Twitter and LinkedIn. For now.

One of many ironies is that, soon after I publish this post I’ll share it to Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. I’ll keep using them all, but not as before. They’re changing. I’ll change. And, I guess I’ll continue posting my business ads on my business page – and occasionally to my news feed and groups. Of course if you want to share those around to your news feed, well, share freely and often. Just don’t be surprised to find that we’ve all drifted over to some other site within a few years and have to play by a new set of rules.

Stay tuned.

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A Little Bit Of Help

It only took me a couple of minutes.” It would’ve taken me about half a day. Dropping my bicycle off at Bayview Bicycles was an excellent example of the value of expertise. I rode across America, so some know me as a cyclist, but my bicycle would cringe. Just because I ride it doesn’t mean I know how to take care of it, at least not efficiently. I appreciated his work and his attitude so I did the modern thing and Liked his Facebook page, and posted a short testimonial on my Timeline. (I would’ve done the same on Twitter, but the business doesn’t have an account.) It was a small gesture, but hopefully helpful. Then I saw what someone posted about me. Wow.

It can take courage to ask for help. There’s a vulnerability and an admission of being human. Being human runs counter to some people’s facades. They must project perfection because they don’t want to expose any chinks in their emotional armor. I get that way sometimes, too. But, I have finally become more comfortable acknowledging some of my ignorances and inefficiencies. That awareness saves me a lot of time. Asking for help also saves me money, eventually. It’s cost incurred in that time between now and eventually that makes me hesitate.

I can fix my bicycle. Give me enough time, the right tools, the right videos, and the right attitude, and I can eventually fix this, grease that, adjust those. I’m not efficient. I may be trained as engineer, but my expertise is in aerospace, not mechanical. I work well with orbits and airflows. My brain can understand getting gears to mesh, but my fingers and hands aren’t trained for those fine maneuverings of parts and tools. The rear rim was old enough that it was cracking. The only way to fix it was to replace it, and the bicycle is so old that any replacement wouldn’t quite fit. I took the old wheel in and let Bayview Bicycles build a new wheel and put on a new tire. I should’ve taken the rest of the bicycle, too.

When I got the new wheel (at a reasonable price and in a reasonable time), I took it home for its inaugural ride – and found that the wheel wouldn’t spin. The wheel was fine. The bicycle was fine. They just weren’t fine together. New parts on an old bicycle meant adjusting the brakes, the gears, the derailleurs, and I didn’t know what else. A while back I sold my bike work stand, which meant propping it up in the carport and trying to balance everything. A quick review of the steps involved made me realize that 1) I could do it, 2) the setup, training, adjusting, and testing would add up to a few hours, and 3) there was great opportunity for frustration. I had other ways to spend my time, and maybe even get paid for my other efforts. I took the bike and the wheel back to the shop.

One convenient thing about the shop is its location, right beside one of my frequent co-work/coffeeshop stops – Flower House Cafe beside Bayview Farm and Garden. No surprise, their landscaping is excellent. (Also the setting for one of my more popular photos.) The aromas are nice, too. It just happened that a friend asked for some help with publishing his book, so I suggested we meet there while my bike was worked on. A nice way to spend a morning.

If all works well and computers don’t crash (again) an entertaining cookbook could hit the market in time for the holidays. Stay tuned.

After the meeting I went over to check on the bicycle. It was already fixed. It was already fixed, tested, and improved. Evidently, the real work was probably done before my tea had cooled. The work was so quick that even charged by the minute it would’ve been cheap. I mentioned that I’d post a quick testimonial as thanks, and was thanked.

A few chores later I got home, booted the computer, and dropped in a few lines about my experience. Not much, but every bit helps.

Then I saw a notification. Someone had posted about me.

“SUPER QUICK UPDATE…..!” from Whidbey Island Baking Company

What goes around, comes around. Nice. And then I read and read and had to hit “See More…” because he’d written more. I wrote two lines for Bayview Bicycle. Don Scobie (Whidbey Island Baking Company) wrote 24 about how I’d helped him. I paused. I blushed. I typed Ah, shucks. And I meant it. It was an overwhelming response and greatly appreciated. A super quick update? Wow.

Screen shot 2017-10-24 at 7.13.43 PM

I help people publish their books. As a consultant, I help people pursue their projects, which means helping lots of writers on Whidbey. The island does attract artistic type and talents. It’s one reason Jo Meador and I are conducting a writers workshop on November 11. (Details) There is a joy in helping people, especially in showing them how to simplify complex tasks, and how to mutually benefit from matching talents and skills with needs. Got a question? Ask friends. Facebook and Twitter are good for that. Need more help? Ask someone with at least some experience. As it says on my web site; “A hour or a day invested well can pay in that most valuable commodity: time – and probably save some money too.”

The pleasant surprise comes from hearing how much the help is appreciated. Thank yous aren’t common enough. Some doubt their sincerity, as if thanks are followed by asks. I say thank you anyway because it makes me feel better. I forget how much they can be appreciated. We can never know the impact we have on others, but having the experience reflected back is powerful.

Someone passed along a simple insight. Librarians can truly enjoy people who ask them for help. It takes training to efficiently retrieve just the right amount and type of information. Google provides a fire hose. They provide a finely decanted glass of clear water. I enjoy helping people with their projects, and enjoy listening long enough to hear how best to help, and then seeing that help truly help. Evidently, I helped today. And, I received help today. Instead of frustration, I experienced a freedom. A working bicycle is more than a couple of wheels. It is transportation, recreation, a stout backup in emergency situations – and in my case – a reminder of a life-changing event. My bicycle is fixed. Thank you.

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