Your Life Unfolding

Sometimes you read or see something that connects with you on a deeper, almost spiritual, level. David sent me a short video that contains some pieces of wisdom that really resonate with where I am in life.

Narrator: What is the most important thing you have learned in life?

Dan Millman: If I only had one sentence to say to somebody about life, it would probably be, “Trust the process of your life unfolding.”

I don’t know if it’s true or not that everything that happens if for a highest good and learning, but I choose to take that on as an operating belief in my life. Because I can never choose to feel like a victim. Then instead of saying, “Why did this happen to me?” or “How come? Is God Punishing me?” if this is a difficult time, instead I can only say, if I chose this on some level, I might as well make the best of it.

I tell people that at least 10% of what I say is going to be wrong for you. You need to determine which 10%. Discriminate. Have your bullshit detector on, turned up. You check it out against your own inner knowing, because I’m not here for people to trust me, I’m here to help people to trust themselves.

Narrator: I love this journey. I get to live my dream, travel the country, and meet amazing people. The only time I really screw it up is when I try to control it instead of just letting it unfold as it should.

Lately I feel like I’m too inclined to micro-manage my life and the things I’m doing. I don’t enjoy that micromanagement. I think that in many ways this attention prevents my life from actually happening. I’m always worried about how other people are going to react when I should just relax and let life unwind. I should just be myself.

Amok Time

For most of the time since I’ve been working as a writer, Kris has been getting home from work at 4:45. Or 5:00. Or 5:15. (It’s all rather random, despite what she says.)

Lately, though, she’s moved to her “winter schedule”, which means now she’s getting home at about 6:00 or 6:15.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually rather disconcerting. Right now, for example, it’s 8:45 but it feels like it should only be 7:15. By coming home later, Kris has shortened my evenings!

Colin Powell on His Reasons for Supporting Barack Obama

It’s not often I discover something profound on Digg (a social networking site seemingly inhabited by every freshman boy on a college campus in the U.S.), but it does happen. Today somebody quoted a piece of the transcript in which Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for President:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave.

And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

So, when I look at all of this and I think back to my Army career, we’ve got two individuals, either one of them could be a good president. But which is the president that we need now? Which is the individual that serves the needs of the nation for the next period of time? And I come to the conclusion that because of his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities–and we have to take that into account–as well as his substance–he has both style and substance–he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president. I think he is a transformational figure.

I think both of the Presidential candidates are fine choices, despite the histrionics from either side. It’s these histrionics, which seem to be most pronounced right now from the Republicans, that drive me nuts.

So, it’s refreshing to hear Colin Powell speak evenly about both men, and to offer a reason for supporting Obama that transcends the mudslinging. And it’s refreshing to have found this on Digg!

Hello, Autumn

Autumn is here. The days and nights are getting colder. My usual strategy for coping with the chill is to bundle up. This morning, though, I couldn’t shake the cold. I turned on the heat for the first time since April, and sat at the kitchen table drinking a mug of cocoa.

As I ran a hot bath, I sat and watched the leaves fall from the walnut tree. I mowed the lawn yesterday, so the grass beneath the tree is short, like a carpet. There’s no wind to speak of, but still yellow dying leaves are drifting down in waves. It’s as if a group of leaves hatched a plan: “Let’s all jump at the same time.”

The cats aren’t pleased with the change in seasons. First of all, there’s not enough light. Second, it’s raining too often. Third, although they have fur, they’d prefer not to have to rely upon it to stay warm. Finally, they no longer have freedom of movement. During the summer, the doors are open constantly, and they can come and go as they please. Not now. Now they have to ask to be let in and out, but they don’t like asking.

Mornings like this are slow. They’re nice. But I need to have some productive mornings. During the week before our vacation, I worked hard to prep articles for the time we’d be gone. It’s been nearly two weeks now since I worked at such a frenzy, but I can’t seem to muster ever a little motivation.

That’s okay, though. I have stuff ready to go through this weekend, for the most part. I still have time to sit at the table, sipping a mug of cocoa, watching the leaves fall.

Why I Blog

“Are you watching YouTube again?” Kris asks me nearly every day. Usually I am. She doesn’t get it. But to me, YouTube is just another form of blogging. Both are new forms of community, ways to express yourself and to interact with other people (most of whom are strangers, no doubt, but who can become acquaintances — or friends).

The following video is an hour long, but it does an outstanding job of capturing the mood, the mentality, and the motives behind blogging. Even though it’s about YouTube:

The world is a mess lately: economic turmoil, a contentious Presidential election, and rumors of doom from the corners of the globe. But, for whatever reason, this new interconnectivity gives me hope.

What I Did on My Autumn Vacation

Kris and I had a good trip to San Juan Island. We didn’t do much besides laze around. We chose to go in early October because peak season has ended and prices on most things (like our bed and breakfast) had dropped. We gambled on the weather, of course — if it were always nice in early October, it would still be peak season, after all. It ended up mostly misty and grey, but that’s okay. We are from Portland, after all.

On our first day, we drove around the circumference of the island. Just outside Friday Harbor (the only real town on San Juan Island), I fell in love with a house: a 1915 bungalow on a few acres of farmland. Love love love it. But I don’t have $726,000. Plus, I’m not sure how I’d do isolated on an island.

Lime Kiln Lighthouse
The Lime Kiln Lighthouse — not the farmhouse I covet.

After coveting this farmhouse, we drove down to see the lighthouse, visited American Camp, stopped at Lime Kiln Point, resisted the urge to spend money at an alpaca farm (I very much wanted a $99 “throw”), and then swung back toward Friday Harbor. We stopped to visit Mona, the local celebrity camel.

Mona the Camel
Mona, the camel of San Juan Island.

The second day was cold and rainy, and we didn’t do much but wander Friday Harbor (we visited the consignment store and the thrift shop — I bought books for the first time in ages). In the afternoon, we read and watched Heroes on the laptop.

On our third day, the sun was shining, so we hopped on the inter-island ferry and spent a couple hours seeing the sites. It was lovely.

Like I said: we didn’t do much. But it was a great vacation nonetheless. We enjoyed our time at The Kirk House, a Craftsman bed-and-breakfast just across from the high school. We fretted about the Focus and all of the nasty smells it threw off. And we planned for our future.

Good times.

Can you guess who’s most glad that Kris and I are home from vacation now? The cats, that’s who.

After a week penned inside the house, they finally have the freedom to go outside, which, as they’ll tell you, is their natual habitat. Inside is only for food and sleeping.

They’re especially happy to have us back in bed at night. Max takes the corner by my feet, Simon takes the corner by Kris’ feet, and Toto sleeps by our heads. (Nemo is too scared to sleep with us — he’s scared of everything.) Mom and Dad make for a warm bed.

Half Full or Half Empty?

Kris and I are taking a short vacation to Washington State’s San Juan Islands.

“What time does the ferry leave from Anacortes?” I asked last night before bed. We were planning our agenda.

“5:25,” Kris said. “And if we miss that, the last ferry is at 6:00. What time do you think we should leave?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “How about ten? Then I can go to the gym first.”

“How about nine?” Kris said.

I went to the gym when it opened this morning at eight. I lifted weights. I ran on the treadmill. When I got home at 9:15, Kris asked, “How long until you’re ready to leave?”

“About half an hour,” I said. “I still need to pack. What’s the rush?”

“I don’t want to miss the ferry,” she said.

In true J.D. fashion, I dragged my feet. I answered some e-mail. I made a post at Get Fit Slowly. I debated which sweater to bring. “Come on,” Kris said.

We finally left the house at around ten. On our drive north, we listened to This American Life. We listened to The Decemberists. We chatted. We made good time.

“We’re making good time,” I said. “But we still have to make it through Seattle.” Seattle’s traffic is a nightmare.

But this time, we only had a five-minute patch of stop-and-go in the city, and then it was smooth sailing. We left Seattle at about 1:30.

“Huh,” I said. “Is there a ferry before the 5:25?”

Kris checked. “There’s a 2:45,” she said. “Do you think we can make it?”

“It’s going to be very very close,” I said, and I stepped on the gas. We flew through Everett. We flew through Mount Vernon. We tried to fly to Anacortes, but our progress was slowed by a minivan from Pennsylvania and a pumpkin festival.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it,” I said, as we marched through the lights in downtown Anacortes. “I guess we’ll have to settle for being 2-1/2 hours early.”

As we crested a bluff, we saw the 2:45 ferry pulling away. Kris gave me a look.

The good news is:

  • We’re first in line for the 5:25 ferry to San Juan island.
  • There’s a picnic table we can sit at while we wait.
  • For $3.95, I was able to purchase two hours of wireless so that I could share this funny story with you.

As a footnote for the Ice Queens in the audience, Kris has decided it’s too cold at the picnic table, and she’s gone to sit in the car. I bet she’ll be back to join me sometime in the next two hours!

Drama in real life: Foreclosure!

Most of the time, the talk about the housing bubble and the credit crisis and the faltering U.S. economy seem rather abstract to me, as if people were discussing a problem in Canada or Mexico. Or Norway. I’ve spent the past four years focused on my own financial situation, ignoring the outside world. The national economy often seems remote from my own personal economy.

But there are millions of average people who have been affected by this country’s fiscal woes. My little brother, Tony, is one of those average people. He’s in dire financial straits.

In 2004, Tony bought a house in Portland for $415,000. In 2006, he got a new job in central Oregon, so he moved his family to Bend. He put the Portland house on the market. He intended to rent a place in Bend until his existing home sold, but then he found a house he liked. He applied for a loan and was approved. He bought the house.

The house in Portland never sold.

For the past two years, Tony has been making $5200 in mortgage payments every month. Or, lately, not making the payments. He ran out of money long ago. Tony agreed to let me interview him yesterday in order to share his story with GRS readers.

Note: Tony knows he made some poor choices, and he blames himself for his current problems. He’s candid that he should have been paying more attention to his finances. But looking back to 2006, he doesn’t understand why the bank approved him for the mortgage on the Bend house before the one in Portland sold. It seems like the bank was betting on that sale, too.

J.D.: How are things going?

Tony: What do you mean? They’re not going very well. The house in Bend was foreclosed on yesterday. The one in Portland is for sale again.

J.D.: You weren’t able to sell the house over there, huh?

Tony: No. Plus we consulted with a lawyer, and he said we should just give it back because of the tax ramifications.

J.D.: I don’t understand.

Tony: Well, it would be a short sale. To give you an idea, we put the house up for sale at $299,000, and we paid $380,000 for it. So what you do is you do a short sale — the mortgage company has to agree to it — but the government considers the difference as money that was given to you. It’s taxable income.

J.D.: When did you buy the house in Bend?

Tony: It cost $380,000 in September 2006.

J.D.: And how much was the mortgage?

Tony: Roughly $2400 a month. There were two mortgages.

J.D.: When the bank forecloses on it, what happens?

Tony: We’ve been out of the house for a while. We’re living with my wife’s parents. From what my lawyer says, there’s nothing the bank can do to us. They’ll essentially just take the house and then auction it off at the courthouse steps. There’s no other ramifications to me. There are several houses that are being foreclosed on in our neighborhood. One that went to foreclosure and was auctioned off sold for $230,000.

J.D.: Was it the same kind of house that would have gone for $380,000 in 2006?

Tony: Yeah. It’s the exact same house as ours except it has a two-car garage and ours was a three-car garage.

J.D.: Holy cats. That’s like a 40% drop in two years!

Tony: I know.

Note: In 2006, Bend had one of the hottest real-estate markets in the country. Now it’s fallen on hard times. Again, most of Tony’s problems come from the fact that he gambled by not selling his first house before buying a second one. Back then, this didn’t seem like it would be a problem.

J.D.: You wouldn’t have been in such a bad situation except you haven’t been able to sell your Portland house, right?

Tony: Yes.

J.D.: And how much did you buy that house for?

Tony: We bought it for $415,000 at the end of 2004. We still owe the bank $367,000. We’re paying $2800 a month.

J.D.: And you tried to put it on the market when you moved to Bend, right?

Tony: Well, on the advice of our Realtor, we put it on the market for $585,000, because that’s what she said that it would go for.

J.D.: And that was in the summer of 2006?

Tony: Yes. Then after the house had been on the market for a month, we got an offer at $500,000.

J.D.: And you turned that down?

Tony: It was turned down but not by me. The Realtor got it as a verbal offer and said that she told them “no” because she could get more for it. She informed us that they had made a verbal offer a week after they made it. Then last September we almost had it sold at $480,000 but the deal fell through because it was based on whether or not the couple sold their house. Guess what didn’t happen?

J.D. And that’s when you started renting the house. [For the past year, Tony has been renting the house to a friend, trying to defray some of the mortgage expense.] What do you have it on the market for now?

Tony: We have it on the market for $499,000. We just put it on the market last weekend, but we already have somebody interested in it.

J.D.: If that sells, does it get you out of your bind?

Tony: It helps, but it doesn’t necessarily get us out of the bind. Some of that money would go to the Realtor. Plus we owe money to other people. [Tony borrowed money from various family members.] And then there are our normal bills, which are behind. So even if we sell, it doesn’t solve the problem, but it does help.

Note: You know how the power of compound interest can help you save? Well, it works in reverse too. People in credit card debt understand that. Tony’s learning that the damage from mistakes can compound, too. What started as a small problem — needing to sell the Portland house — has mushroomed out of control. Things just keep getting worse…

J.D.: A couple months ago, you mentioned that you’re doing some sort of consumer credit counseling or something. How does that work?

Tony: Not very well. It’s not a debt consolidation place, but it kind of is. These guys are for profit. They piss me off. They told me they settled a Bank of America account for me, but I keep getting letters from Bank of America saying the account is not settled. So this place drafts money out of my account every month to pay the people we owe — it’s kind of forced savings, in a sense — but I won’t let them draft any more until they give me written proof that they’ve settled with Bank of America.

You know, this is my own frickin’ fault for not paying attention to exactly what was going on. I want to repay everyone because it’s my debt, but at the same time, it’s so frickin’ huge, I don’t know how I’ll ever do that.

J.D.: Why do you think you got in debt? Do you think it’s because of the house? Or do you think it’s other stuff?

Tony: There are several reasons that got us into debt. The first time we put the house on the market in Portland, we used credit cards to fix it up. We put a fence on it and that sort of stuff. The move here probably cost us $8,000. The idea was when we the house sold, that’d be paid back right away. The house never sold. Then we got ourselves into a situation where we had double mortgages.

J.D.: Oh yeah. What was the mortgage on the Portland house?

Tony: $2800. You do the math there. So, we had double mortgages, and we’re doing whatever we can to pay them both, praying that the house in Portland will sell. So we borrow from people. Slowly but surely, the amount we can beg, borrow, or steal keeps dwindling. I finally said, “This is is not going to work. We’ve got to do something different.”

J.D.: Were you having problems with debt before?

Tony: Before we moved from Portland? No. We were actually okay. We were financially okay. Did we have credit card debt? Yeah. Was it manageable? Yeah. Could we make all our monthly payments? Yes. Did we have extra spending money after we made our monthly payments? Yes. We weren’t paying off our debt extremely fast, but we weren’t building debt. You know what I mean?

J.D.: To me, you guys typify all the problems that are going on with the economy at large. You guys are the ones we know most being affected by it. Do you pay attention to the economic news at all?

Tony: Hell yeah — every day!

J.D.: What do you think about it?

Tony: I was just talking about this with my wife the other day. I don’t know if it’s because of what I’ve been going through or what, but my personal opinion is that we’re not looking at a recession. We’re looking at a depression.

J.D.: And what’s going to happen for you guys if there is a depression?

Tony: To be honest with you, I have no clue. I’m scared.

My heart aches for my little brother. Obviously, Tony is not a “victim” — I don’t think he’d claim to be — but he is one very real part of the ongoing credit crisis. To me, he’s the average American. He wasn’t pro-active. He was eager to have a new house, so he bought one before the old house sold. He didn’t have anything in savings, so he took a risk by financing his move on credit. Now, along with many others, he’s paying the price. I just hope he comes through this okay. Photo by respres.

Connections to the Cosmos

Over the past few years, I’ve accumulated a lot of Amazon credit by selling books on my various web sites. The problem is, I accumulate it faster than I can spend it. Sometimes I buy comics. Sometimes Kris buys something for herself. But mostly it just sits there, unused.

Today I decided to splurge a little with my untapped wealth. I picked up (used) DVD copies of two of my favorite television series, series I haven’t seen in more than a decade.

First up, James Burke’s Connections. When I first saw this series in 1993, it blew my mind. Over 10 episodes, Burke traces the history of everyday objects: nylon, plastic, computers. Trust me: it’s much more exciting than it sounds. In fact, I’m a little giddy at the prospect of watching this again.

Here are the first ten minutes of the first episode:

Okay, that’s not fair. Here are parts two, three, four, five. (And you can find the entire series on YouTube, though surely not legally.) See also: James Burke’s Fan Companion.

I haven’t seen the second series since 1983 (or before!). Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has had a profound influence on my life. It’s imbued with a sense of wonder that’s almost child-like, but at the same time reaches the pinnacle of human knowledge. I love it.

Here’s the beginning of the first episode:

And the end of the same:

Most especially, I love the music. I have three copies of the Cosmos soundtrack on CD. There are two different versions — the long version would be great but it has annoying segues between tracks. I also own the soundtrack on vinyl and cassette tape. (This soundtrack is awesome, but it’s out of print. The regular soundtrack goes for $85 on Amazon, and the two-disc set goes for $200. Amazing.)

You can find most (not all) of Cosmos on YouTube, too. (This excerpt is amazing.)

Anyhow —

Today I splurged on 23 hours of the finest intellectual stimulation I could find. I can’t wait for these boxes to arrive on my doorstep.