Oh, The Places You’ll Go: My Year in Travel (2013)

For the past five years, travel has been one of my top priorities. I’ve made a habit of taking two major international trips each year. This year was no exception. In 2013, I visited six other countries (three for the first time). I also got a chance for first visits to several states.

January

In early January, I flew to Houston, Texas to visit with Toni and Amy. Toni and I spent three days giving Amy advice about blogging and marketing. In turn, Amy and her husband treated us to great meals and good wine.

Toni snaps a photo of her 40th birthday dessert
Toni snaps a photo of her 40th birthday dessert

When I returned from my trip to Texas, I embarked upon a one-month detox in which I consumed no alcohol, no caffeine, and very little sugar. My body was grateful.

February

I didn’t travel in February, but I did move house. After a year in an apartment, I bought a lovely condo in a popular Portland neighborhood.

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Becca, Baker, and Kim helping with the move…

Moving in was an adventure. Not quite a vacation, I guess, but still fun.

March

In late March, Kim and I took our first long trip together. We started with a week in Paris, France. We ate a lot of cheese and drank a lot of wine. Because Kim was still recovering from shoulder surgery, we didn’t do anything too adventurous, but we had fun.

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Wine and cheese in France…


After our week in France, we took the train to London, where we rented a car and headed out into the countryside with no plans. We spent a couple of days driving through the beautiful hills and valleys near Bath and Coventry.

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Then we drove north through the Lake District and on into Scotland. In cold, cold Edinburgh, we were delighted by the warmth of the people, especially Frank, a friend of a friend. Frank and his family showed us around the city.

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Whisky and cheese in Scotland…

After four days in Scotland, we had a marathon day of driving (while both of us were sick!) to reach London’s Gatwick airport and our flight to Norway.

April

Our trip continued with four nights in Oslo and Bergen, where we joined Chris Guillebeau’s “End of the World” party.


Touring the Viking Museum in Oslo…

We had a good time in Norway, but were glad to escape the high prices and return to London, where we spent four days experiencing everything the city had to offer.

After three weeks on the road, we flew home, rested and happy.

May

During the month of May, my only escape was for two nights in central Oregon’s Sunriver Resort, where Kim and I joined some friends for an annual weekend away.

June

June was filled with quick getaways. First, Kim and I spent two nights at the Allison Inn and Spa in Newberg, Oregon. We drove around wine country, got massages, and generally just relaxed.

Then I flew to Cincinnati, Ohio (by way of northern Kentucky) for two days at the Savvy Blogging Summit. Finally, we spent three days in Groveland, California (outside Yosemite National park) to celebrate the birth of Kim’s new nephew, Porter.

The weather was hot, so we spent an afternoon cooling off underneath a waterfall.

After we flew home, I jumped right into work for the third-annual World Domination Summit, which was a smashing success.

July

I didn’t travel in July, but spent the month reorganizing my life in preparation for new projects. Plus, Kim moved into the condo with me.

August

At the start of August, Kim and I drove to Boise to visit her father. The highlight of the trip was an afternoon float down the Boise River.

Also in August, we spent a weekend on the Oregon Coast for the wedding of one of Kim’s colleagues.

After three relaxing days at the beach, we drove north to catch a seven-day Alaskan cruise. On the boat, we ate and drank too much. Off the boat, we explored the Alaskan wilderness, including an amazing trip into the heart of a melting glacier.


No joke. This was one of the highlights of my life.

When we returned from the cruise, I had two days to pack before my next trip.

September

I spent most of September in Ecuador. First, I flew to Quito, where I spent ten days participating in a retreat about wealth and happiness.

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Pete and Amy look on raptly as I share some brilliant insight…

When work was finished, I fulfilled a life-long ambition: I spent five days in and among the Galápagos Islands. The experience was magical.

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Everywhere you go on the Galápagos, there are sea lions.

After nearly three weeks away, I flew home to resume work on a couple of big projects.

October

In mid-October, I spent three nights in St. Louis, Missouri for the third annual Financial Blogger Conference. This year, I acted as emcee, which gave me a chance to practice my speaking skills while taking some pressure off conference organizer Philip Taylor. This was the best Fincon yet.

At the end of October, Kim and I took a spontaneous 24-hour vacation to Hood River, which lies just an hour east of Portland. I’d never explored the area. Turns out it’s actually pretty darn fun — a great place for a quick escape.


Hanging out in Hood River…

November

During the first weekend in November, we drove to Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho, where we spent three nights at the Coeur d’Alene Resort. The tourist season had ended and it was very cold, so there wasn’t a lot to do. We explored the town anyhow, and enjoyed a tour of the hotel’s vast wine collection.


Exploring the wine cellars at the Coeur d’Alene Resort…

December

For Christmas, we flew to Bigfork, Montana, a small town on the edge of Glacier National Park. There we enjoyed the hospitality of extended family. We slept a lot and took daily walks in the snow.


Hiking to cut our Christmas tree…

Summary

By my count (which, admittedly, may be a little off), here’s how much time I spent away from home last year (not counting nights at Kim’s place). Bold indicates a new state or country for me.

  • Other Oregon locations — 7 nights
  • Texas — 3 nights
  • California — 3 nights
  • Ohio — 2 nights
  • Idaho — 6 nights
  • Missouri — 5 nights
  • Montana — 6 nights
  • Alaska — 5 nights
  • Washington — 1 night
  • Canada — 1 night
  • France — 7 nights
  • England — 7 nights
  • Scotland — 4 nights
  • Norway — 4 nights
  • Ecuador — 16 nights

That’s seven nights around Oregon, 31 nights in eight other U.S. states (including the entire Pacific Northwest!), and 39 nights abroad, for a total of 77 nights away from home. I spent roughly one-fifth of my time sleeping in strange beds this year. (Thus the reason I’m reluctant to commit to things like pets or location-dependent work!)

2014

Next year, it’s unlikely that I’ll travel as much. For one, I’m trying to save money. For another, I want to focus more on work. Also, I want to get into more of routine here at home. Still, I plan to make a return trip to Ecuador (with Kim) in the summer. Plus, I’ll make at least three trips to California in 2014, will visit Hawaii for the first time, will probably make a short visit to New York, and will get an introduction to New Orleans, Louisiana!

Travel remains a priority for me, and 2015 may see some of my biggest adventures yet. But I’ll admit: I’m looking forward to a bit more stability in the year ahead.

Scrawny to Brawny: Eating a Big-Ass Breakfast

In early November, I joined an online fitness forum. Scrawny to Brawny is a year-long program designed to provide structure, feedback, and support while helping participants build lean muscle mass and strength. To start, though, we simply “bulk up”.

Every two weeks, those of us doing Scrawny to Brawny (S2B) are assigned a new “habit”. We do this habit every day for fourteen days. The S2B website asks us to report on our compliance (as well as compliance with workouts and other assignments). After two weeks, we’re expected to continue with each new habit, although we no longer report on it. Instead, focus shifts to a new habit.

Our first habit was to drink three “super shakes” per day. (Each super shake is composed of a bit of milk, a bit of ice, a bit of fruit, a bit of vegetable, and a scoop of protein powder.) Our second habit was to practice good posture and to perform a series of daily stretches. Our third habit — the one we’re practicing right now — is to eat a “muscle breakfast”. While the first two habits were tough, I eventually made them part of my daily routine (and continue to practice them, which is the point). This third habit, though, is killing me.

You see, I’m not a big breakfast guy. I like traditional breakfast foods, such as pancakes and bacon, but on a typical day I don’t eat breakfast until three or four hours after I get out of bed. Even then, it’s usually just a piece of toast (with almond butter) or something similarly simple. When I started the super shake habit, that became my breakfast. I especially dislike eating before my daily workout.

Now, however, the muscle breakfast has reared its ugly head. Every day, we’re supposed to eat:

  • 4 whole eggs
  • about 200 grams of lean meat (ground beef, sliced ham or turkey etc.)
  • ½ cup of oats (dry measure)
  • 2 tablespoons of nut butter (peanut, almond, cashew, pecan etc.)
  • 2 servings of fresh veggies
  • 1 medium piece of fruit, or 1 cup berries
  • 2 tablespoons of a “topper” (sundried tomatoes, pesto, hummus, tomato sauce, spice & herbs, etc.)
  • 1 glass of 
water

Ho. Ly. Cats.

This habit is hard for me. That’s a huge amount of food, especially for breakfast. It’s tough to wolf it down when I have no appetite. Some days, I have to set aside half of my meal to eat the next day. (Plus, don’t forget, I’m also drinking about 1000 calories worth of super shakes each day, plus eating lunch and dinner!)

At this very moment, I’m staring at a plate filled with 3-1/2 eggs and one chicken sausage. I’ve eaten the other stuff on the list (except the fruit), but there’s no way I’m going to get the rest of this plate down anytime soon. I get nauseated just thinking about taking another bite.

So why keep at it?

This whole Scrawny to Brawny thing is a fun experiment for me. My body is built for long, slow distances. It likes to run and to bike. Its ideal form of exercise is hiking. I can go for hours on end while trekking at high altitude with a pack on my back. I’ve seen other, fitter fellows knocked on their butts by that kind of activity, but my body likes it. It’s what evolution (or god, if you prefer) has designed me to do.

My body is less good at lifting heavy weights. Yet I enjoy this sort of training too. I thought it would be fun to spend a year building muscle in order to see what I’m capable of achieving. Plus, this has provided motivation to get back in shape. (I’d begun the slide into flabbiness.)

As part of the S2B program, we’re required to take monthly photographs of our progress. After only a few weeks, there’s not a lot of visual difference between now and the time I started — except for my back. Most of my exercise the past month has been focused on building back and core strength so that I can move on to more common lifts with good form. I was skeptical that anything had actually changed until I saw this:

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The photo on the left is from 11 November 2014. The one on the right is from 14 December.

That’s not a huge change, obviously, but it’s enough. I can see the difference, and I can feel it. So can Kim. Whatever I’m doing seems to be working.

Last weekend, I talked with Cody, my Crossfit trainer (and friend). I told him how tough this was for me mentally. He knows. Most of my life, I’ve been fat. I have a huge mental barrier to being fat again. To willingly pack on the pounds by stuffing my face every day goes against every fiber of my being.

“Trust the process,” Cody told me. “You’re going to gain weight, and some of it’s going to go to your belly. You’ll shed those excess pounds later. You’re bulking now, and you’ll shred in the summer.”

And so, I’m going to trust the process. But it’s not easy!

Following My Own Advice

Because I’m a blogger, I’ve come to know a lot of other bloggers. And because I blog about self-improvement, I tend to know many bloggers who also write about becoming a better person. Over the years, I’ve learned that those of us in this niche often write about our chosen topics because these are the things we struggle with personally. For instance, my buddy Leo from Zen Habits has a website about balance because that’s something that he’s not naturally good at. It takes work for him.

That’s why I started Get Rich Slowly too. I wasn’t naturally good with money, so I wrote about my progress as I tried to get better. Even today, after nearly a decade of reading and writing about the subject, smart money management takes work for me. It’s not a reflex.

I mention this because I’ve noticed lately that I don’t always take my own advice.

That is, I know what I ought to do in a given situation — and I don’t just mean with money, here — but I can’t always make the right choice, even when I know what that choice is.

Some examples:

  • I write a lot about living for yourself and not for other people. In fact, that’s the whole theme of my (as-yet-unpublished) material on obtaining personal freedom. Yet, I still sometimes make choices in an effort to please others. These decisions range from the very small — whether or not to attend book group, for instance — to the very large — choosing which projects deserve my attention during the day.
  • Along the same lines, I don’t think it’s fair for us to expect others to behave the way we want them to behave. We have to accept people as they are instead of trying to impose our wills on them. Sure, relationships involve some degree of compromise, but ideally both people can just be wholly themselves. Well, sometimes I want my friends to be something other than they are. I want them to be ideal versions of themselves. This is unfair of me.
  • Despite my best efforts, I sometimes take things personally. I understand intellectually that nothing anyone else does is because of me. What others say and do is based on their experience and their reality — not mine. But having an intellectual understanding of this is different than having an emotional understanding.
  • Finally, I sometimes make mistakes. I do and say things that aren’t true to who I am, things that are hurtful to others and to my own integrity. I know this is a very human flaw, but that’s no excuse. I’ve done some very dumb things over the past year. I ought to make better decisions.

It’s not that I expect myself to be perfect — although perfectionism is definitely something I wrestle with — but that I feel I’m capable of so much more.

Being aware of my mistakes is a great start, I think. I cannot change or improve if I’m not even conscious that there are areas that need change and improvement. But change requires more than just wishful thinking. Change requires action. If I want to be a better man, I need to be a better man.

Starting today.

How to Become a Writer

More often than you might expect, I get questions about how to become a writer. Specifically, how to become a writer online. Just this morning, for instance, I spent half an hour on the phone with Kimberlee, who wants to make the move from academic to science writer but doesn’t know where to start.

I don’t feel like an expert on this subject — far from it — but I do have some opinions based on my personal experience. Here’s my advice for folks who want to become writers:

  • Tell stories. When I speak at conferences, I try to hammer home this point. My talk at the first Fincon was about the power of story. I’ve stressed the importance of story at the Savvy Blogging Summit. For WDS 2013, I secretly fostered a story-based theme among the keynote speakers. Why? Because people relate to stories. Even if they can’t identify with you and your specific circumstances, stories help them relate to the point you’re trying to make. Story provides context. It’s illustrative. It’s one thing to describe the dangers of credit cards; it’s another to share actual anecdotes of people who’ve spent years trying to recover from stupid spending. When possible, tell a story.
  • Be conversational. In college, I was taught to write in an academic style. Contractions were frowned upon. First person was forbidden. Everything was formal. As a result, everything was also lifeless and dull. In time, I’ve come to realize that good writing — especially for mass consumption — is conversational. In fact, when I work with actual magazine and book editors, they often ask me to be even more informal than I alraedy am. (I didn’t fully embrace contractions until working on Your Money: The Missing Manual. My editor was changing every instance of “you will” to “you’ll”, etc., which helped me realize that contractions make things easier to read. They’re an ally, not an enemy!)
  • Develop your voice. Fifteen years ago, when I began to get serious about writing, my stories mimicked other authors. I wrote a story that was a combination of Charles Dickens and Patrick Süskind. I wrote a story that was all Faulkner and one that was clearly an homage to Hemingway. This sort of imitation is natural, but it’s not sustainable. In time, I found my own voice. I learned to write like J.D. Roth instead of like somebody else. Write in a way that feels easy to you. That’s your voice.
  • Hone your craft. The best writers I know work to improve their skills. They read voraciously; as they do, they pay attention to how good writing works. After reading a great piece, they re-read it to find the form and struture. I once attended a reading by David Sedaris. I was fascinated by the way he’d calmly make a mark on the page every time the audience roared with laughter. He was learning from his audience — and I was learning from him. Good writers also take classes and read writing manuals (such as those listed below). Real writers generate a ton of material that never sees publication. I write all day long, but only about ten percent of what I produce ever sees the light of day. The rest is practice.
  • Edit, edit, edit. Eighty percent of writing is editing. Okay, that’s not a scientific number, but you get the idea. You should spend more time editing a piece than you do writing it — generally much more time. When I was younger, I was one of those stereotypical writers who thought his work was art. It was sacred. Criticism bothered me, and I hated when others offered suggestions for improvement. When somebody edited my work, I felt like they were saying I’d done something wrong. After nearly a decade of writing every day, I have a different perspective. My goal is to communicate clearly with my audience. To do that, I need to edit my own material. I need to polish it, smoothing away the rough edges. And if other people want to help me do that work, so much the better!
  • Write. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Thinking about writing doesn’t make you a writer, and neither does talking about writing. A writer writes. End of story.

None of this is new, I know. But there’s a reason everyone offers the same advice. It’s because these are the things you need to do to become an effective writer. Like anything else, it takes practices to get good at this job. I often think of Malcolm Gladwell’s point in Outliers. He notes that research indicates that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become truly proficient at a skill. That’s five years of full-time work. Over the past decade, I estimate I’ve spent around 15,000 hours writing — maybe more. That’s enough time for me to feel comfortable with my craft, to reach a level where I can confidently say, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

At dinner recently, Kathleen (of Frugal Portland) and I talked about writing. She thinks she might register for a community college writing class to improve her skills.

“That’s a great idea,” I said. “I do that every few years. I know I write well, but there’s always room for improvement. I learn tons every time I take a class. And since one of my goals for 2014 is to write a novel, I feel like I should take a class again soon.”

Kathleen showed me the book she was reading, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. “Have you heard of it?” she asked. “It’s awesome. She wrote it in 1938 as a guide to her writing students, but a lot of it isn’t even about writing. For instance, she talks about how you can jump-start the creative process just by going for a walk. She used to walk several miles a day, and she says it helped her write better.”

I smiled. “Yes, I’ve heard of the book,” I said. “It’s one of my favorites.” I opened Kathleen’s copy to the first page and pointed to the title of the first chapter: Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. “I’ve incorporated that idea into my personal philosophy. I truly believe it.”

“In fact, this is one of the books I push on people all the time. I always have a few copies on hand to give to aspiring writers. I have three at home write now.” (Actually, it turns out I have four copies here in my office.)

“Would you be interested in a list of my favorite books about writing?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” Kathleen said.

“Done,” I said.

Here are three of my favorite books about writing:

  • If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. This is an inspirational book that many return to in order to escape the dreaded writer’s block. (In fact, I may re-read a bit of it later today.)
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This book is primarily about writing nonfiction. It offers lots of advice about the actual craft of writing, including clarity, revision, tone, and more. This is another book I keep on hand to give away. (Also see Writing to Learn by the same author.)
  • Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method by Gerald M. Weinberg. This flawed but brilliant manual describes the author’s method for organizing writing ideas. It’s sort of a left-brained approach to a write-brained activity. I think it’s especially useful for bloggers and magazine columnists.

There are many other books I like, including:

Many people I know like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (although, curiously, none of these people are writers). Most folks love Lamott’s style. I don’t. She has some good things to say, but I find her manner twee. It’s grating. I’m in a small minority, though, and you will probably love her, just like everybody else.

Every writer has room for improvement. Most of us write every day, and that’s great — that’s the best way to develop skill — but there are other things we could (and should) do to hone our craft. Take classes. Join writing groups. Read books. And, most of all, occasionally do work that requires an editor.

Paperback Writer

Last week, I wrote about how I’m trying to focus on just one thing at a time in my professional life. Instead of tackling many projects at once — preventing me from giving my full attention to any of them — I’m instead devoting my attention to a single job. It makes me happier and more productive.

This new productivity method doesn’t keep me from dreaming, however. I still have lots of ideas on the backburner, and I’m eager to get started on each of them.

One idea that really has me excited is a return to writing fiction.

You see, I never set out to become a personal-finance writer. I stumbled into that career. And as much as I love it, there’s a part of me that still wants to write poetry and science fiction and literary short stories.

I wrote a lot of poetry during high school and college, but this urge has faded in adulthood. I think this is the last poem I wrote myself (in March 2005):

Like a Lion

The coming of Spring is a violent thing:
The tulips proclaim their riotous hues
While peas and then carrots have thrust their way through
the crust of the earth (swollen and muddy).

The apples and cherries and plums are now budding.
The camelias are flinging their petals en masse
Bright-colored habits for shaggy-haired grass.

The Earth’s in rebellion! Again has grown bold!
Has dethroned Old Winter, destroying his hold
On daylight and sunshine and the world out-of-doors.
Spring has arrived: Hear how she roars!

As my poetical self has diminished, a different sort of writer has emerged. I want to tell stories. For several years, I took writing classes intermittently at the local community college. As a result, I produced half a dozen short stories like this one [DOC file].

I used to think my writing sucked. I don’t think that anymore. I’ve been writing full-time for nearly a decade, and I’ve had a lot of practice. Sure, there’s more improvement to be had, but that’s why I’m constantly reading writing manuals, and that’s why I want to take another writing class when January rolls around.

This time, I want to try something different. This time, I want to write a novel. Perhaps a children’s novel.

I’ve always loved a certain type of book, one that describes the adventures (and/or misadventures) of a group of smart kids living in a small town. Examples include The Mad Scientists’ Club by Bertrand Brinley (holy cats! look at those Amazon reviews — 61 five-star, two four-star, and one three-star!), The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (another five-star book at Amazon!), and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I think it’d be fun to tackle a similar world, although I’m still not clear on what sort of conflict/plot my story would involve. (I do have some characters and scenes in my head, though. And because Kim also grew up in a small town, I listen to her stories with great interest!)

So, my goal for 2014 is to return to writing fiction. I have a lot of other things that must get finished first. I have to finish my ebook. I have to start a digital magazine. I have to help Kim launch her website. I have to start a new website (or two) of my own. And I have to begin organizing a retreat with Harlan and Jim. But after all that? Yeah, I’m going to write a novel.

One Thing at a Time

Balance

I wrote recently that I’ve begun the Scrawny to Brawny fitness regimen. After ten days, I like it — but I also find it a little frustrating. I want more to happen NOW! but instead must wait patiently as the program guides me through gradual change.

You see, the folks who designed Scrawny to Brawny are clever. Instead of giving participants a basket full of changes and asking us to implement them all at once, they instead ask us to modify one thing at a time. After we’ve had time to build one habit, they add another. And another. They want us to get fit slowly.

Intellectually, I recognize that this is the right way to do things in order to achieve lasting change. Research indicates that both attention and willpower are depletable — each of us has a finite supply of them. If we try to do too much or try to make too many changes at once, we’re less likely to succeed than if we make small moves or tackle only a few things at a time.

So, it makes sense for the Scrawny to Brawny system to first ask participants to get in the habits of going to the gym and drinking three “super shakes” every day first before diving deeper into the program.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to apply a similar principle to my own life.

Every January, for instance, I choose one major goal for the year. Instead of creating a list of resolutions, I pick one thing that I’d really like to improve, and that becomes my focus for twelve months. That’s how 2010 became the “year of fitness”. (To be honest, I’ve actually found that I can handle a few things at a time — as long as these goals are from different domains. In other words, I can handle one fitness goal, one finance goal, and one professional goal simultaneously, but not three finance goals.)

In 2012, I tried something a little different. It worked.

My friend Castle told me she’d started a new project. Each day, she tried one new thing. Maybe it was a new food. Maybe it was a new exercise. Maybe it was a new TV show. One day, she decided to try making more eye contact with people. “It was amazing,” she told me. People responded much more positively to her.

“I don’t keep all of the changes I make,” Castle explained. “The goal is just to try something new for one day. If I don’t like it, I don’t need to continue. But it doesn’t hurt me to try anything for just one day, right?”

In 2012, instead of doing one new thing each day, I decided to focus on doing one new thing each month. But I tried to make these changes bigger.

  • In March, I had lunch or dinner with a different friend every day. This let me reconnect with some people I’d been missing.
  • In April, I embarked upon an Extreme Dating Project. My goal was to date as many different women as possible. April was a fun month.
  • Then I made it a goal to go to the gym every day in May.
  • In June, my aim was to eat “no junk in June”. I focused on my diet, which helped me to lose five pounds and two percent body fat.

Perhaps my most successful month-long experiment came in January of this year, where I went “chemical-free”. I gave up caffeine and alcohol for thirty days to see how I felt. I felt great — something I’ve been reminding myself lately as I feel run-down. (Maybe it’s time to try that experiment again?)

Lately, I’ve applied the “one thing at a time” idea to a different part of my life. In general, I tend to take on too much work. I’m usually juggling several projects at once. As a result, I don’t do any of them to the best of my ability.

Kim was listening to me list the various things I want to do — write an ebook, write a real book, produce a conference, hold a retreat, start a new blog, start another blog, start a third blog, start a consulting business with friends, and so on — when she offered a suggestion: “Why not just do one thing at a time and then move on to another one?”

Obvious, right? Not to me.

Since returning from Ecuador, I’ve put Kim’s advice into practice. I’ve been focusing on a single project: an ebook about money. Even with this constant focus, the work has taken longer than I’d hoped (and anticipated). I’m not sure what would have happened if I’d allowed myself to try to tackle several things at once! Still, I know I’m doing quality work, and that offers solace. If I’m focused on only one thing and I’m doing the best I can do, there’s not much more I can ask of myself.

I’m now a convert to the “one thing at a time” approach to my work.

A few weeks ago, Kim gave me a small stone into which was carved a single word: Balance. Kris used to urge me to find equilibrium too. I have a tendency to be “all or nothing”, as many people have noticed — even blog readers. The “one thing at a time” method is a sort of lifehack to force me to stay balanced when my natural tendency is to take on too much.

Ideally, of course, I’d find a way to integrate a couple of ongoing projects into my life at the same time that I tackle a single major project. To an extent, I do this. I continue to write my weekly column at Get Rich Slowly, for example, and I’m doing my best to make it to exercise every day. But I’m only able to do these things because they are habits, deeply ingrained into my daily life. I don’t have to think about them. They don’t add much to my mental burden, don’t deplete my attention or willpower in the same way a second or third major project would.

In time, maybe I can incorporate another blog (or two) into my daily routine in such a way that they don’t seem like major projects. Or maybe I can make it one of my major projects to set up systems to “harvest” information about Animal Intelligence and Awesome People efficiently so that writing these sites doesn’t take too much time and attention.

For now, however, I’m going to stick with what’s working. I’m going to tackle one thing at a time.

Scrawny to Brawny: Hydrostatic Testing

At the start of 2013, I vowed to re-dedicate myself to a focus on fitness. After two-and-a-half years of exercising and eating well, I’d let my attention to health and well-being slide a little, and I didn’t like it.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. I said fitness was a priority but my actions showed otherwise. I didn’t make it to the gym as often as I wanted and I rarely went for runs. After a one-month detox at the start of the year — no caffeine, no alcohol, low sugar, and so on — my diet became mediocre. It was never bad, really, meaning I didn’t fall into eating junk food on a regular basis, but it was never great either.

I’m not willing to keep coasting along, so I recently signed up for the one-year Scrawny to Brawny program. Though its name is funny, my research indicates that this coaching program (which is based on a book by the same name) is based on common sense and sound methodology. Because I do well with structure and feedback, this seems like a good choice for me. I’m going to give it a shot. My new fitness regimen starts today.

As part of that, I need to have accurate measurements of my body composition.

For the past few years, I’ve been using a scale with a body-composition monitor. This device, which provides accurate and consistent weight measurements (always a good thing in a scale!), uses electrical impedance to estimate body fat.

At the moment, I’m forty-four years old. I’m five feet, eight inches tall (173 centimeters). When I started using the scale in April 2010, my weight was 213 pounds (96.6 kilograms) and my body fat was 35.0%. My body-mass index (BMI) was 32.3. At my leanest in June 2012, my weight was 163 pounds (73.9 kilograms) and my body fat was 17.5%. My BMI was 24.7.

According to my scale, I lost fifty pounds and half my body fat in just over two years.

Today I weigh 176 pounds (79.8 kilograms) and my fancy scale says I’m 23.3% body fat. My BMI is 26.7. Over the past year, I’ve softened. I’ve exercised less and discovered a love for beer. This isn’t a great combination for a fitness-minded fellow!

For a while, I’ve understood that the body composition numbers from my scale probably aren’t accurate. Electrical impedance isn’t the most accurate method of measurement for this sort of thing. I’m okay with that, though, since the scale is cheap (as in, I already own it) and if I use sound methodology, I can at least get a good idea of how my body composition changes over time. That is, if I measure myself under the same conditions and at the same time every day, the variation in results will give me a good idea of what’s happening to my body.

Still, I’ve always wanted to get an accurate test from a trained professional. When I heard that Portland’s Adventist Medical Center offers body-composition testing, including the very accurate hydrostatic method, I scheduled an appointment.

I dropped by at noon last Friday to be tested. It was quick and easy.

First, the nurse measured my body composition using calipers. She pinched my skin and measured the thickness of the folds at seven different locations, including chest, belly, thigh, and so on. Next, she had me fully immerse myself in a tank of water four times. I brought a camera to film the process:


Sorry about the funky audio…

While I changed back into my street clothes, the nurse punched numbers into a computer. The results startled me. Kim teases me that I have some sort of body dysmorphia (and Kris would be inclined to agree with her, I’m sure), but I’ve always just laughed it off. Maybe she’s right. I feel f-a-t right now. I don’t like the way I look. And if anything, I believed my scale’s 23.3% body fat numbers were low. Well…

“Your results are remarkably consistent,” the nurse told me when she sat down to review the results with me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, usually there’s a large variance between the results of these tests. Three to five percent is normal. Your results only vary by one-and-a-half percent. And if we leave out the least accurate method, there’s no statistical difference between the other two.”

Based on her measurements, here’s my current body composition:

  • I’m 5′ 8″ and weigh 176 pounds (which is what my home scale says).
  • Using the three-point skinfold method (which is a subset of the seven-fold method), I have 17.0% body fat. This method isn’t as accurate as its big brother, though.
  • Using the seven-point skinfold method, I have 18.5% body fat.
  • Using the hydrostatic method, which is most accurate, I have 18.3% body fat.

The nurse and I chatted about the results.

“Your results are fine,” she told me. “You’re within the healthy range. You have some extra fat in your belly, but I’d guess that’s because you drink too much.” I laughed because she’s right. “If you cut back on your drinking, that should go away.”

She asked why I wanted to get my body composition measured, and I told her that I was starting the Scrawny to Brawny program. She nodded. “That sounds like a fine idea,” she said. “But be careful. Most of my clients are athletes, and I see all kinds. Some use steroids; some don’t. When you go to the gym, give up the idea of ever looking like the guys with lots of muscles. For one thing, that’s not how you are built. For another, the guys who are ripped get that way artificially. When I measure powerlifters, the guys who get strong and build muscle naturally still look a little ‘soft’. That’s just how our bodies work.”

All of this is fascinating. I have no desire whatsoever to use steroids, so that’s not a concern. But I think the nurse sensed some of my body dysmorphia and was trying to set me up to have reasonable expectations. That’s a good thing.

Ultimately, my goal is to be happy and healthy. That means eating right and exercising regularly. I’ve seen that I’m good at this when I make it a priority and it becomes a habit. I’ve just let that lapse. Starting today, however, it’s back to the gym!

A Random Stack of Stuff

In a sad state of affairs, I managed to lock myself out of my own blog for a couple of weeks. For whatever reason, this site gets hammered by hackers. I took some security precautions to make things more difficult for them. As a side effect, I made them more difficult for myself. I couldn’t figure out how to log in!

I’m back now, though, with a stack of random stuff.


In the olden days, I would use a horizontal rule to separate sections of my posts. Will that still work? I’m experimenting to find out!


The condo is cold.

Both the thermostat and the stand-alone weather station say that it’s 68 degrees (20 degrees centigrade), which is supposed to be a comfortable room temperature, but my fingers and nose and toes are cold. My coffee is cold. I need a hot bath. Something tells me I’m not ready for winter. (And something else tells me it’s time to turn up the thermostat!)


I have a tendency to take on too much. Every opportunity sounds great, so I eagerly accept. It’s taken me years to tame this urge.

Kim has been encouraging me to reduce the quantity of things I’m involved with so that I can focus more on the quality. That’s a fine philosophy. She thinks I should take on no more than three major projects at a time, and she thinks it would be better if I kept it to two. Or one. I’ve been doing that for the past couple of months, and it’s working great. I’m able to do each of the things I choose to do with greater intensity.

(Kris’s response to this: “Ha! I wish you luck at narrowing down your activities. Kim is a good influence, it seems, and helps you control some of your self-destructive tendencies.” Who knew I had self-destructive tendencies?)

Even with this narrowed focus, I’m not getting everything done that I want.

Two weeks ago, I spent several days in St. Louis for Fincon, the Financial Blogger Conference. (This conference is about much more than blogging these days, though.)

I didn’t speak at Fincon this year. Instead, I volunteered to be emcee. I’ve decided that I’m done being scared to speak on stage, and I want to get better. I asked Philip, the conference organizer, if he’d like some help, and he said yes. So, I introduced speakers and made announcements from the main stage. It was fun!

But that week in St. Louis took time from my biggest project at the moment — producing a book about personal and financial independence. In theory, this is an ebook. And, in theory, the manuscript is due on Friday. It’s still possible I’ll meet that deadline, but more and more I suspect I’m going to need another week to finish.

On some levels, this delay is frustrating. It’s very important to me to meet my obligations to my “publisher”. At the same time, I’ve realized that this book could be a legacy project for me. In fact, I consider it my life’s work. It’s the culmination of everything I’ve been reading and writing and thinking about for the past decade. I have high hopes it could help many other people.

So, missing my deadline: bad — but not the end of the world.


Next year, I’m going to try something really different.

I hate deadlines. I’ve decided that next year will be the “year without deadlines”. I’m not going to take on any big projects with drop-dead due dates.

I have a couple of regular ongoing gigs that are time-sensitive, such as my column at Get Rich Slowly, but I won’t add any new deadlines, and I’ll try to minimize the effects of the deadlines I already have to deal with.


What I really want to do next year is turn my attention to fiction.

Before I stumbled into a career as a professional blogger, I wanted to write short stories. I took writing classes at local colleges, and participated in a monthly writing group. I loved it.

When Kim moved in last July, I was forced to sort through boxes of my old papers. As part of that process, I found some of my old stories. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them. Not to be conceited, but at times I’m a damn fine writer!

Starting in January, I’m going to take another fiction writing class — my first one in a decade. My goal for 2014 is to write a novel, believe it or not, something I never thought I’d do.

I used to think I couldn’t tell a story. Now I know that’s not true. I can tell stories, and I can make them compelling. I just can’t do it out loud. My ADHD causes me to jump all over the place, which makes my stories incoherent. But on paper — or in pixels — I can edit myself. I can carefully craft the arc and flow of a story. I can tweak words and sentences until they’re just right.


Last night, I had the most hilarious nightmare.

The world was devastated by nuclear war. Cats, which had developed speech due to radioactive fallout, were Earth’s only hope of salvation, but they couldn’t be bothered. We’d prod and prod the brightest cats to take decisive action, but they’d only glower at us, lick their paws, and go back to sleep.

If our future depends on cats, we are doomed.

The day my dishwasher died

When I bought my condo in February, one of the things that impressed me about the place was the built-in shiny silver kitchen appliances. They were all so fancy and fun! My parents always had cheap appliances. When Kris and I were married, we too had cheap-ish stuff. (The dishwasher at our last house was almost 30 years old when we inherited it! Kris finally had to replace it last spring.) I soon learned that shiny silver kitchen appliances may be fancy but they’re not always fun.

The Trouble With Fancy

“What’s the deal with the microwave?” Kim asked soon after I moved in. “I can’t just punch in a time and go?” “No,” I said. “You have to press cook time, rotate the little dial to select the timer, press the dial, rotate it again to set the timer, press it again, rotate it down to start, and then press it again.” “Wha–?” she said. “Exactly,” I said.

Why anyone would design a microwave in this inane fashion is beyond me. The most common function now takes about 10 times as long as it ought to. Sure, we can select all sorts of fancy setting if we want to. But we never want to.

Meanwhile, the fancy fridge had its own issues. The plug at the back of the ice-maker bin had fallen out and gone missing before we moved in. Whenever we had the ice-maker make ice, the cubes would cascade down the back of the freezer. (I fixed that, obviously, but it was still dumb. Why was there even a plug in the bin?) Worse, we couldn’t use magnets on the doors.

But most frustrating was the dishwasher. Instead of an easy mechanical dial and push buttons, the controls were computerized. You selected a cycle (and various options) from a control pad. I’d never seen such a thing before. I liked the idea of it, but the reality was different. It was stuck in pot-scrubbing mode. I scoured the instruction manual and the Internet to see if this was normal behavior, but I couldn’t find any answers. So, for eight months, we washed our dishes on this single cycle.

Last Sunday, even that option disappeared. The control panel became unresponsive, constantly flashing “rinse only.” Kind of a bummer since Kim had just spent the weekend making bone broth, which had dirtied nearly every pot in the house. A little research online revealed that I wasn’t going to be able to solve this myself. I called in an expert.

Dishwasher Disaster

Yesterday, a service tech from Sears stopped by the condo to diagnose the problem. “Huh,” he said after a few minutes of fiddling with the dishwasher. “Interesting.”

“I don’t like to hear that,” I said. “I used to repair computers. I know that ‘interesting’ is code for ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ or ‘You need a new machine.'”

“You might need a new machine,” said the service guy.

He spent another 20 minutes playing with the dishwasher and punching info into his diagnostic computer. Eventually, he came to me with the news. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “That control panel is gone. You need a new one. That’ll set you back $460 for the part. Plus there’s labor. Plus there’s the $80 for my visit today.”

“Ouch,” I said. “Right,” he said. “And it looks like there are other things that could fail soon.” (He named the parts, but I didn’t file those in my memory.)

“So, we’re looking at $600 or $700 total to repair this?” I asked. “How much does a new dishwasher cost?” “They start at $600 or $700,” he said. “Plus, if you choose to go that route, I can give you a coupon for $100 off if you buy it from Sears.”

This sounded a little like a slimy sales gimmick, but the guy seemed in earnest. I sighed, thanked him for his time, and took the $100 coupon.

Over-Analytical Man

Now I’m faced with two unpleasant tasks. First, I’m back to washing dishes by hand. This isn’t really that big of a deal. I washed dishes by hand for all of 2012, both at my apartment and at Kim’s house. The dishwasher is a luxury. Still, it’s a luxury I like, which brings up unpleasant task number two. I have to shop for a new dishwasher.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t enjoy shopping for furniture or appliances. I see the process as a necessary evil. I put it off as long as possible. Why? Because it’s overwhelming. There are so many products available and so many places to buy them. Because I’m by nature a Maximizer, it’s too easy for me to get locked in “analysis paralysis.”

Note: Here’s a quick review of the difference between Maximizers and Satisficers (terms I picked up from Barry Schwartz’s fascinating “The Paradox of Choice”). Maximizers want the best; they need to know that every decision they make is the best possible decision. Satisficers settle for “good enough”; they find something that meets their needs and don’t worry about the possibility that there might be something better. As you might guess, Satisficers tend to be happier and more productive than Maximizers, living with less regret. For Maximizers like me, increased choice just means increased suffering. When we have only two or three options, it’s easy to choose the best one. When there are 20 or 30, it’s almost impossible.

After the service tech left last night, I pulled out the July 2013 issue of Consumer Reports to read up on dishwashers. It wasn’t helpful. The article rated 87 dishwashers — 87! — with 10 recommended models and one “best buy.” How do I choose? Should I buy another KitchenAid to match the rest of the appliances we have? But I don’t even like the other appliances, so maybe I should opt for another brand? Should I only go with the models that Sears stocks so I can use the $100 coupon? Or should I browse at Costco? And how much time am I really willing to devote to this process? Ultimately, this is what I decided to do:

  • Set a budget. The dishwashers listed in Consumer Reports range from $260 to $1,800 (although most of the cheap dishwashers get poor test scores). Since it would cost $600 or $700 to repair our current dishwasher, that’s my spending target. (I’ll admit I’m willing to spend a little more than that, but not much — certainly not over $1,000.)
  • Select a store. I don’t have time to install the new dishwasher myself. I’m in the middle of writing a book and prepping for this year’s Financial Blogger Conference. Plus, I don’t want the hassle of disposing of the old dishwasher. Because of this, I need to buy from a place that will deliver and install the dishwasher. I’m not a Sears loyalist by any means, but because I have a coupon and because there’s a Sears close to me, I’m going to start there.
  • Limit my search to certain brands. I realize good appliances can be had from any provider. For my purposes, though, I’m going to limit myself to three brands: KitchenAid (to match the rest of the kitchen appliances we own), Samsung (because I like my Samsung washer and dryer), and Bosch (which gets great ratings from CR while having the best reliability).
  • Set a time limit. I know myself. I could turn this into a two-day quest for the Best Dishwasher Ever. I’m not going to do that. The next time I run errands, I’ll add this to the list. I’ll spend a couple of hours looking at the various models and choose the one that best matches my needs after the end of that time.

“You seem like a frugal guy,” the service tech told me as he was leaving yesterday. “I can tell you don’t like to spend money.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Here’s what I’d do,” he told me. “Don’t go to the main Sears store at the mall. There’s an outlet center down the road. Go there. They’ll have last year’s models, but that doesn’t matter. They’re still fine machines. That’s your best bet for finding a bargain.”

So, that’s my plan. I’ll start at the outlet store (where my coupon is no good — although I’ll ask if I can use it). If I can’t find anything there, I’ll head to the main Sears store. And then to Costco. But that’s it.

I realize this is a lot of hand-wringing over a broken dishwasher. We each have our weak spots though, right? For me, it’s shopping for furniture and appliances. I hate it. It’s overwhelming. And it hurts to see how expensive everything is.

I’m fortunate to have enough money in savings to cover this expense; a decade ago, this would have been a disaster that set me back deeper in debt! Of course, I’m open to suggestions.

How do you shop for major appliances? How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed? How do you find good deals?

I’m open to any tips and tricks you might have to make this less painful and less expensive.

Ecuador 2013: A Short Visit to the Galápagos Islands

At last, after three weeks in Ecuador, I am home. I’ve actually been home for a week, but that week has been a whirlwind, and I’m only now finding time to write about the last half of my trip.

Put simply: The Galápagos Islands are amazing.

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The Galápagos are filled with raw, natural beauty.

Most folks are familiar with the role this archipelago played in the history of science. As a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, the 26-year-old Charles Darwin spent several weeks surveying the flora and fauna of the Galápagos in 1835. His experiences there — and in South America an Australia — planted the seeds that grew into his theory of natural selection.

More than 25 years ago (!!!), I studied Darwin’s On the Origin of Species during my freshman year of college. Because of this, I thought I knew what to expect from the Galápagos. I was wrong.

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“Are you my mother?

The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands some 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador. They’re a chain of small land masses still in the process of creation, floating on the “conveyer belt” of the Earth’s crust. The youngest islands are still being molded by occasional volcanic eruptions. The older islands, however, have had millions of years to mature. They sport lush ecosystems filled with fascinating plants and animals.

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There’s lots to see on the Galápagos…

Most Galápagos tours are land-based. You fly to one of the handful of small towns and take day trips to nearby points of interest. I chose a boat-based trip through G Adventures, and I’m glad I did. My six-day tour included three nights aboard ship and visits to five of the thirteen major islands. It wasn’t enough. I plan to return to see everything at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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From our yacht, we took dinghies to the shore…

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…where landfall was easier for some than others.

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You have to be willing to get your feet wet on the Galápagos.

Some of my group of fourteen were disappointed by the land excursions because so much what we saw was similar from island to island. We saw iguanas (red here, green there, black everywhere), boobies (blue-footed here, red-footed there), frigate birds (so fun to watch!), gulls, owls, and — of course — sea lions. The sea lions rule the Galápagos. There are colonies of them on every island.

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Everywhere you go, there are sea lions.

I, however, enjoyed the animal life. The diversity isn’t great because the islands are isolated. That’s kind of the point. And it was interesting to see that natural selection favored blue-footed boobies and red-skinned iguanas on one island while preferring red-footed boobies and green-skinned islands on others.

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Guarding a nestling…

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We spotted an owl on one island, which is rumored to be rare…

Plus, the Galápagos wildlife offers one huge advantage over any other animals I’ve ever seen: The creatures don’t care about humans. As in, they completely ignore us. Except for the bull sea lions, who will charge anything that enters their territory, the birds and the reptiles and the sea lions are perfectly content to come right up to visitors. If you’re not careful, there’s a real risk of trampling something. We were constantly dodging lizards. And once, while fiddling with my camera, I nearly stumbled onto a pair of sea lions napping in the carpetweed!

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I almost tripped over this duo of snoring sea lions.

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Brian bonds with an iguana…

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Even the fish in the tidepools would come say howdy…

The highlight of the trip for me, however, was the snorkeling. I’d never snorkeled before, and I’ll confess it scared me a little. But since I’m saying “yes” to life, I said yes to this. It was like drawing a winning lottery ticket.

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Preparing for my first dive…

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I splurged for an underwater camera. I’m glad I did.

Turns out I love to snorkel. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever experienced. When I put on the mask and look beneath the waves, I enter another world. An hour passes, and it seems like mere minutes. We snorkeled five times in my 72 hours on the boat. I could have done twice as much.

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This friendly fellow came to say “hello”.

I was sad, however, to have missed the giant tortoises. They’re one of the main reasons I made this trip, and I was looking forward to getting up close and personal with them. It was not to be. On the morning I left the group, they continued on for tortoise-viewing. Before I left, though, they had a little fun with me; they found some tortoise footage on DVD and played it for me on the TV in the boat’s main cabin.

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This is as close I got to the giant tortoises

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Kicker Island, where we did a final round of snorkeling…

Alas, my time in the Galápagos was all to brief. Before I knew it, I was back in Quito. And once there, I was pining for home.

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Quito is not without its charms, but the Galápagos are better…

Ecuador was marvelous, and I’m certain to return. Now, however, it’s back to Real Life. For the past week, I’ve been working hard on three different projects: my role at Fincon in three weeks, starting an online magazine, and (most importantly) writing an ebook about how to achieve financial independence.

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Graffiti in Quito: “Smile…in spite of everything, life is beautiful!”

Now I need to decide where to go next. The 2014 travel catalogs have begun to arrive, and they’re filling my head with visions of far-away places. Should I go to Australia and New Zealand? Kenya and Tanzania? Madagascar? Thailand and Vietnam? Wherever I go, I want to take Kim with me. This is the second September in a row that I’ve gone on an adventure without her. I don’t like it. I want us to travel the world together!