Trees are my enemy

I know it’s commonplace for middle-aged men to complain that growing old isn’t for sissies, but I’m about to grouse about my health. Fair warning.

Now, nothing drastic is wrong with me at the moment. Thank goodness. But in recent years, I’ve experienced a variety of physical woes, large and small. I’ve had pneumonia, which I guess can hit anyone at any age. Because I was overweight for so long, my back experienced low level chronic pain. I struggle to get good sleep. I was flexible when I was young; that is no longer true. Last year, for no apparent reason, I tore a bicep tendon. That sucked in a big way.

But I think my biggest frustration stems from my allergies.

When I was a boy, my parents had me tested for food allergies. The testing revealed that I have problems with wheat and potatoes (but nothing else, fortunately). For a while — one year? two? three? — my mother drove me to get allergy shots every week. As far as I can tell, I no longer have issues with wheat or potatoes.

I do have problems with dairy products, but I’m not hear to day to complain about lactose intolerance. Most folks struggle with that to some degree, right?

No, I’m here to complain about trees.

About fifteen years ago, I began to notice I had severe allergy issues every spring. Right around spring break, I grew miserable. Sore throat. Itchy eyes. Sneezing. Stuffy nose. I was a mess. On sunny days, I was such a mess that I didn’t want to leave the house. I would literally retreat to the bathtub, place a wet washcloth over my face, then lay there for hours (I’m serious!) listening to audiobooks. It was the only way for me to get comfortable.

We Roths aren’t so good at solving problems sometimes. We’ll take care of the immediate issue (by hiding in the bathtub with a washcloth draped across our faces!), but we won’t address the core issue. I have this problem, but it’s not just me. It’s my family.

Well, eventually Kris (my wife at the time) managed to convince me to see an allergist. Just like when I was a kid, they gave me a battery of tests. Grass was fine. Dust was fine. Lots of things were fine. Trees were not fine.

In fact, when the doc came in to look at my scratch test, he was startled the welts on my arm. “Wow,” he said. “Trees are your enemy!” I laughed at the time, but that’s stuck with me all of these years. Trees are my enemy.

Alder, in particular, sets me off. The allergist told me that the long, long welt on my arm from the Alder test was one of the biggest responses he had ever seen.

Anyhow, this all comes up because we’re approaching allergy season, and I can sense it. I just spent ten minutes with a minor sneezing/nose-blowing fit. My allergies don’t usually set in until late February, but temps have been warm this year, and we already have some trees blooming here in the Portland area. Not many, but enough. My enemies have launched their first attack of 2021!

Over the years, I’ve developed a regimen to combat these vile plants.

Usually, I start taking a battery of drugs on or around Valentine’s Day. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what works. I take a 12-hour pseudoephedrine in the morning along with loratadine. At night before bed, I take diphenhydramine. (I take two if I’m especially miserable.)

These drugs don’t eliminate my symptoms, but they make them manageable.

It used to be that I only needed these crutches from March 1st to April 15th. I’ve learned though that if I start on February 14th, my body builds up defenses. If I wait until March 1st, there’s a transition week where things suck. I’m also learning that I oughtn’t stop on April 15th. If I do, then the last week of April also sucks. So, I’m currently on a ten-week schedule with these anti-tree meds: February 14th to April 30th.

But this year? This year, things may be starting even earlier. I’m going to message my doctor this morning to see if she can put in a prescription for Claritin-D. I’ll try to hold out until Valentine’s Day before I begin taking them, but at this point it looks like the trees have launched a sneak attack. It’s time for me to take up arms.

Finding leaks and rot in our crawlspace

Kim and I moved out of our lovely penthouse condo in June 2017 and moved into our quaint country cottage. In many ways, we love the place. But in some ways, this has been the worst financial decision I’ve ever made.

This house has been a money pit. And I have very real fears that things are about to get worse.

Despite reassurances from a structural engineer and a foundation contractor that our house, while a little wonky, isn’t about to fall down, I’ve been worried since we moved in that the foundation is faulty.

Those worries intensified this summer and autumn as I discovered a variety of cracks in the walls and ceiling.

Last Sunday, feel stress not just from the house but also from the U.S. political environment, I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to crawl under the house and poke around for a while. Stress relief, you know? So, that’s what I did.

There was good news and bad news. The good news was that I didn’t see anything different about the foundation than on previous inspections. (Well, I don’t think I did, anyhow.) The bad news is that I found out that we have some rot directly beneath our bathtub.

Really, though, the best thing about this whole process was alleviating some uncertainty. I’d been stressing about all of this, floundering about what to do. Now, I feel like I have some direction. I have a next step. And I know one problem, at the very least.

Because we’ve already poured so much money into repairing this place (nearly $100,000!), I’m hoping that any potential repairs here don’t get costly. But who knows? In any event, I’m certain to have more stuff to write about in the near future!

Life without alcohol is life on easy mode

While walking the dog this morning, I had a realization. A re-realization, really. I was struck by the difference in my mindset today vs. when I’m consuming too much alcohol.

The past couple of days have contained a lot of stressors for me.

  • Although Tuesday’s riots at the U.S. Capitol weren’t unexpected, they still way heavily on my mind. I know I shouldn’t let national news affect me, but I do. When COVID hit last March, it depressed me. The events around November’s election depressed me. Tuesday’s riots were a similar Big Ugly Event.
  • Yesterday, I did a dumb thing. In the comments at Get Rich Slowly, I called out my colleague Financial Samurai based on some unsubstantiated info. This was a mistake. I own it and I regret it. We’ve resolved things amicably but I feel terrible about what I did. This sort of stuff usually sends me into a tailspin too.
  • Meanwhile, I have ongoing trepidation about the structural stability of our house and my ability to live on my savings for the next eight years. Kim tells me that I’m “catastrophizing”, and I know that this is at least partially true. (Possibly 100% true.) But still, I cannot stop myself.

A year ago, this combination of factors would have me in a pit of despair. My depression and anxiety would be at extreme levels. I would be avoiding work. I would be soaking in the hot tub all day while playing video games. I would feel miserable and worthless.

Today, there are still elements of this going on — there’s a corner of my brain where these thoughts exist — but mostly I find I’m able to tell myself, “Get over it, J.D. You cannot control national events. You made a mistake with Sam and apologized; what’s done is done. And Kim is right that you are catastrophizing. If you don’t like this house, you need to fix it or move.”

I feel as if my current response to things is much healthier than my response might have been a year ago. Or three years ago.

Why is that? I keep coming back to alcohol.

My Relationship with Alcohol

For most of my life, I did not drink. I grew up Mormon. Mormons don’t drink. Although I was no longer LDS when I left for college, I still didn’t drink a lot while there. Yes, I drank some. But not much. And when I drank, it was weird. (I would down two or three shots of vodka in rapid succession while plugging my nose and chasing everything with a salty snack. I hated it.)

When Kris and I got together, she didn’t like me drinking, so I didn’t. We were pretty much alcohol-free until 1998.

In 1998, I started having panic attacks. (I thought they were heart attacks.) For real, my doctor suggested that I start drinking red wine to combat this. So, I did. For fifteen years, I drank wine and whisky now and then, but it wasn’t a regular habit. (And I rarely got more than mildly buzzed.)

In 2012, I learned to like beer. And when Kim and I started dating around this time, many of the things we did were centered on alcohol: wine tasting, wine bars, speak-easies, late-night dive bars, etc.

Then, starting on our RV trip in 2015, my alcohol consumption began to creep higher. With nothing to do in the motorhome in the evening, we’d often enjoy two or three beers (each) or share a bottle of wine.

Eventually I reached the point where I was drinking nearly every day. Even after we returned to Portland, I maintained the habit.

When I started seeing a therapist in 2019, she had me keep a log of my alcohol consumption. I was consuming between 21 and 28 portions of alcohol every week — and that’s just what I was recording. (I tried to be honest, but I know I wasn’t 100% faithful.) Plus, I would count a 22-ounce bottle of 7.0% beer as one portion. Haha.

In the U.S., fourteen grams of pure alcohol is considered a “standard” drink. (Why grams instead of milliliters? Because it’s the U.S., I guess. It’s bizarre.) This is roughly twelve ounces of 5% beer. Or five ounces of 12% wine. But a 22-ounce bottle of 7% beer? Well, that contains 45 ml (~36 g) of alcohol. That’s nearly three standard drinks. (It’d be considered more than four “units” of alcohol in the U.K.)

Translation: I was drinking a lot, and it was fucking with my head. I have no doubt now that much of my depression and anxiety stemmed from alcohol consumption.

Test-Driving Sobriety

In 2020, I managed to go from July 5th to October 28th without consuming alcohol. By the end of that stretch, I was operating at peak performance for the first time in years. I felt great! I felt like myself again.

Yes, I did replace alcohol with pot for some of that time (marijuana is legal here in Oregon), but there were long stretches where I was completely sober. I used non-alcoholic beer to cope with some of the cravings.

From Halloween to Thanksgiving, though, I returned to my old ways. I wasn’t consuming 28 drinks per week, but I was drinking at least three days a week and probably enjoying 12+ servings of alcohol each week. In early December, I felt the depression creeping back, so I put the brakes on.

For the past month or so, I’ve given up alcohol again — but not completely. I may indeed go dry for another extended period of time, but right now I’m simply choosing not to drink whenever possible, and when I do drink, I limit myself to one or two.

During the first seven days of 2021, I consumed four drinks. I drank on three days. Yesterday at Costco, I bought a 22-ounce beer that’s sitting in the fridge for this weekend. I may or may not drink it. We’ll see.

So, let’s go back to my current state of mind.

Life Without Alcohol Is Life on Easy Mode

As I said, if I were currently drinking a lot, the events of the past couple of days would have shoved me into a dark place. I would be miserable and unproductive.

But because I’m not drinking (or not drinking much, anyhow), I’m better able to deal with things. I let myself get riled up by the Capitol riots, but I’m ready to let those feelings go now. I screwed up with Sam, but I dealt with the problem immediately in an adult way instead of allowing it to fester. And while yes, I continue to fret about the house and my financial situation, I recognize that if these things bug me, I need to take steps to fix them.

When I’m drinking, everything is harder. That’s because alcohol exacerbates my natural tendency toward depression. And when you’re depressed, it’s like you’re constantly trying to live normal life while submerged neck-deep in water. It’s a slog.

Life without alcohol is life on “easy” mode. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but it’s certainly life on “easier” mode. (Maybe a better way to look at it is life with alcohol is life on “hard” mode and life without is life on “normal” mode. Maybe I’d find “easy” mode if I gave up alcohol and took my ADHD meds. I don’t know.)

How much time do people spend in a hot tub?

Nearly three years ago now, Kim and I had a hot tub installed at our “country cottage”. I know some people consider hot tubs (and pools) to be foolish expenses, but that’s largely (I think) because most people don’t use them often enough to justify their cost. They get installed, then they become money pits.

I was worried about this too.

For a time after we had the hot tub installed, I tracked how much we were using it. I kept a spreadsheet log and found that we were averaging about three “people hours” per day in the thing before I stopped tracking numbers.

But I knew we’d get use out of the spa based on our existing habits.

Kim is a bath person. She likes to soak in the tub and watch her favorite shows. I’m a bath person too — and I always have been. When I was in grade school, I’d sit in the tub and read Hardy Boys books. When I had my own apartment in college, I’d spend hours in the tub reading comic books. And as an adult, this pattern has continued.

When Kris and I moved to our old house in 2004 (the same house where she currently lives), we remodeled the bathroom. As part of that, we put in a big, deep claw-foot tub. The tub saw a lot of use from both of us.

In the condo Kim and I had before we moved here, there was a big soaking tub in the master bathroom. We used it a lot. But the tub in this house? It’s just average. We used it (and still do) but it wasn’t any fun. At the same time, we have a gorgeous park-like back yard. (The back yard was the main selling feature for this place!) We knew when we purchased the place that we wanted to install a hot tub.

But do we still use the spa now, three years later? Yes. Yes, we do. We use it a lot.

Now that I’m logging how I spend my time, I can see just how much we actually use the spa. So far this year — and I know it’s just four days, but still — I’ve used the hot tub more than two hours per day. (And the bath tub nearly an hour per day.) That’s a lot of soaking!

What do I do while soaking? I read books and comics. I watch TV and movies. I write blog posts very slowly on the iPad. I play games. Or, sometimes, I put everything away and sit still, listening to the birds and the rain and the sounds of the neighborhood.

So, the hot tub has been a worthwhile expense for us. The initial outlay was large (several thousand dollars) and it costs maybe $20 or $30 per month to maintain the thing, but we probably get 1000 hours of use per year out of it. It’ll be a few years before our overall cost of ownership drops below one dollar per hour total, but I think that’ll happen.

The cats have learned to like the hot tub too. On especially cold days, they’ll sit on the closed spa cover, which tells me that the thing isn’t as well insulated as we might like. When the cover is open (and we’re sitting in the hot tub), the little beasts will hang out with us, sitting on the edge. It’s cute.

In fact, Savannah is very proud of herself because she has learned how to monkey up the decorative lattice-work at the edge of the tub. It’s pretty hilarious. Here’s a short video of her acrobatics.

Building My New Writing Studio

Kim and I moved into a new house on July 1st. Well, it’s new to us. The house itself was actually built in 1948 — or before. According to neighborhood gossip, the house survived the 1948 Vanport flood, was sawed in half, moved here, then put back together. (I’m not sure why somebody would haul this house twenty miles and up a massive hill, but maybe they got a great deal on it?)

Anyhow, when we moved in, we knew we were downsizing. The condo we’d lived in for the previous four years had 1550 square feet of space. We each had individual offices. This new place only has 1250 square feet, and there isn’t room for both of us to have an office.

After some thought, I decided it made sense to construct an outbuilding to serve as my writing studio.

Picking a Building

First, I had to research zoning laws in our area. Because we’re in unincorporated Clackamas County (and not inside any city limits), we don’t need permits to put up any building less than 200 square feet in size — as long as the average height is less than ten feet. (The building can’t have wiring or plumbing either. Those also require permits.)

With those basic parameters, I began doing some research.

First, I emailed my friend Pete (a.k.a. Mr. Money Mustache), who recently built a fancy studio of his own. Because Pete is handy — carpentry is his hobby! — he did everything himself. Having seen his studio first-hand, I can tell you it’s awesome. “That’s probably outside your skillset,” he told me. “I recommend you order a pre-fab building from a place online.”

Pete recommended a company in Colorado. While their buildings were indeed awesome, they were also expensive. I wasn’t willing to put $25,000 into my writing studio. But I might be willing to spend half that amount!

Further research online revealed even more awesome custom sheds, but always at custom prices. I was frustrated.

Then one day while at Home Depot, I noticed they had a bunch of garden sheds in the parking lot. Most weren’t really suitable, but a few were. I took home some propaganda. I also stopped by other hardware stores to see what they offered. Turns out there are lots of options. Most of these building are suitable only to store Christmas lights and garden gear, but some could be converted to use as a writing studio.

After a few days of research, I settled on buying from a company called Tuff Shed. I spent several hours on their website, playing with their custom design tool. (Fun fun fun!) In the end, this is the building I created:

Tuff Shed design

In retrospect, I could have saved some money (and headache) by reducing the number of windows, not choosing the sloped ceiling, and electing to paint the shed myself. But at the time I designed it, all of these things seemed awesome and right.

Waiting, Waiting, Waiting

After designing my Tuff Shed, I placed the order. And waited. And waited. I knew in advance that there’d be a lot of waiting, so that’s not the issue. The issue was that it was tough for me to be patient. I wanted the building now.

Ultimately, it was good that my shed wasn’t delivered until the end of September. Up until that time, our attention was wholly focused on remodeling the house. If the shed had arrived any earlier, there would have been some serious logistics issues. (We don’t have a big driveway, and there’s no place to park on the road. We would have had contractors colliding!)

While I waited, I leveled the spot I had picked for the shed to be built. We live in a very slope-y neighborhood. There aren’t any flat spaces anywhere for hundreds of feet. Our lot is no different. Because Tuff Shed requires a flat area to build the building, I had to spend several hours using a spade to dig things to level. It was actually kind of fun.

Tuff Shed prep

Finally, on a morning at the end of September, two young men pulled up with a pickup and trailer. While one guy hauled the pre-fab pieces to the bottom of our property, the other guy started putting them together.

Tuff Shed delivery

Tuff Shed base

When they were done hauling and piecing things together, I had an empty shed that looked more or less like this:

Tuff Shed construction

Now it was my turn to get to work.

Finishing My Writing Studio

I am not a handy fellow. Or, I should say, I never have been before. But the older I get, the more I enjoy trying to figure out stuff like this. I’m cautious with wiring and plumbing because there’s just so much that can go wrong, but I’m happy to tackle other aspects of home improvement. And when the “home” in question is a writing studio, the pressure is especially low.

First up, I knew I had to insulate and install some sort of moisture barrier. This is Oregon, after all. I spent a day stapling pink fiberglass insulation to the ceiling and the floors. While it wasn’t tough, it was a bit itchy and nasty. Next, I installed some rigid foam insulation in the floors. The stuff doesn’t have a high R-value, but it’s better than nothing.

Tuff Shed insulation

After the insulation was installed, it was time to put up the ceiling, walls, and floors.

For the ceiling, I opted to use a thin plywood. If I knew then what I know now, I would have made sure to cut the plywood to stud lengths first so that it looked good. But this was my first time doing anything like this, so I just nailed it up in 48×96 sheets. “It’s all wavy and warped,” Kim said when she saw it. She’s right. Next summer, I may go back and re-do the ceiling so it looks nicer. It’s not a high priority at the moment.

While hanging the ceiling, I sustained my first injury. I was using a utility knife to cut the thin plywood to size. I didn’t think my circular saw would handle the stuff well. While pulling down against the straight edge, the knife jumped up and sliced into the tip of my thumb. Oops. Bloody mess!

Next, I nailed sheetrock to the walls. This I did cut to fit the studs. I had learned my lesson with the ceiling. Hanging the drywall wasn’t tough — only time-consuming.

Tuff Shed drywall

At this point, I had to make a decision. Most folks would opt to tape and mud the drywall so that they could then add texture and paint. This sounded like a long, tedious (and messy) process, so I fished around for other options. My brother suggested using a type of panelboard with a faux distressed wood look. I drove 45 minutes to the only store that carried it, but ultimately decided it wouldn’t work for my application. But I liked the idea of a rustic wood look.

On the way home from this distant store, I remembered that I’d seen a bunch of cedar fencing in my local Home Depot. “I wonder if that would work for the walls?” I thought. I stopped to take a look. Sure enough! The cedar was just what I wanted. I crunched some numbers while standing in the aisle, then loaded up 960 linear feet of cedar fencing. I spent the next eight hours cutting the wood, then nailing it over the top of the drywall. In the end, it looked (and smelled) awesome.

Tuff Shed cedar walls

The next problem was the floor. What should I use? Carpet? Raw plywood? Something else? I had already nailed plywood over the insulation, but I decided I’d like something a little more “finished” to make the studio look better. In the end, I opted for laminate flooring with a hickory finish. Last weekend, Kim and I spent all Saturday (and many beers and curse words) installing the floor. It was frustrating, but the end product was worth it.

Tuff Shed unpacking

Finishing Touches

After the floor was installed, I could finally start shaping the space to be an actual writing studio.

  • When we moved into the house, the previous owners had left a corner desk from IKEA. I unmounted the desk from our guest room, then installed it in the corner of my shed.
  • I had planned to build custom bookshelves for the space, but eventually decided this would be both time-consuming and expensive. Besides, when I did the math, I realized I had exactly twenty feet of shelving already. The heights weren’t quite what I wanted, but it seemed foolish not to use my existing bookshelves.
  • Kim and I debated whether or not we should put a futon in the shed. In the end, I decided I wanted the easy chair and ottoman that I bought in 1993. The colors seem garish by modern standards, but I’ve read and wrote a lot in that chair. It’s a sentimental piece.
  • Lastly, I chose to move a small table into the center of the room. This IKEA table has been my writing desk for the past five years, but now will serve as a place for me to write by hand — or to play games when people come over.

These finishing touches really pulled the room together. It feels cozy and warm. I like it. The cats like it. The dog loves it.

Because I’m trying to keep things legally unpermitted, I didn’t run electricity to the building. So, how do I power my computers? A big-ass extension cord. I chose a cord that’s rated for outside use and which can provide sufficient power. My electrician groaned when he saw what I’d done, but after a private email exchange, he seemed resigned to my choice — as long as I’m careful about everything. (I turn everything off when I’m not in the studio. I’m going to get a cover to protect the joint where my two extension cords meet. And I’m going to get a low-power wall heater that my electrician recommended as a safe option.)

In the end, the Tuff Shed cost me about $10,000 to have built, delivered, and installed. I spent an additional $2500 to finish the inside. It cost me a total of $12,500 to build my writing studio, which is exactly half of what it would have taken to order from the place Mr. Money Mustache had recommended. That seems reasonable to me.

And best of all? I love the space. It’s awesome. It’s the perfect place for me. I look forward to many years of writing about money from my Tuff Shed writing studio.

How I Got My Groove Back

It’s been an interesting week here in Savannah.

After Kim and I settled here six weeks ago, I slipped into a sort of routine. I’d get up in the morning, answer email, do a bit of work, go for a five-mile walk, come back and do more work, and then call it a day. Much of the time, I struggled to get my writing done. It felt like everything was rusty, like I was trying to remember how to make things move again.

That’s changed now, and in a big way.

For the past four-and-a-half days (it’s almost noon on Friday), I have been a writing machine. I haven’t been able to tear myself away from the computer.

I get up in the morning and sit down at my desk. I sit there, clacking away at the keyboard until dinnertime (with only a brief break for lunch). I’m not going for walks, I’m not answering email, and I’m not getting anything else done that needs to get done.

This will be a problem if it continues indefinitely, but for now I’m just riding the wave. It feels so good to have my groove back. This is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi means when he describes the psychology of flow. I’m doing meaningful work that challenges me, and it makes me feel terrific.

Note: As you might expect, 95% of what I’m writing is for Money Boss, my new personal-finance blog. The site went live this week, and I’ve been backfilling the archives with bits and pieces I wrote this summer. Plus, I continue to write long essays as part of the “financial freedom crash course” I’m sending people when they sign up for the email list.

What was it that helped me find flow once more? It was a combination of a few things.

  • First, I’ve begun reading about money again. After I left Get Rich Slowly, I stopped reading personal-finance books. It was as if I took five years away from immersing myself in the subject. Now, though, I’m re-reading classics (like The Millionaire Next Door), finding new favorites (like the Warren Buffet biography The Snowball), and searching for other books about wealth. The stuff I read is constantly triggering new ideas for articles. I love that!
  • Second, I’ve been talking about money with readers and colleagues. I’ve always been piss-poor at answering emails, but when I started Money Boss I made a vow to reply to as many messages as possible. (This is something Chris Guillebeau does that makes a big impression on his audience.) So, I’ve been reading the email people send me, answering their financial questions, and sharing stories and ideas. This too has given me lots of ideas for articles.
  • Lastly, I’ve been freewriting. One of the sucky things about being a writer is that the stuff you produce when you’re “cold” usually isn’t very good. In fact, it’s often terrible. But novice writers — or experienced writers who have forgotten — don’t realize that it’s this shitty early stuff that sets the stage for the better stuff later on. You’ve got to push through it. You’ve got to produce a lot of words that will never see the light of day before you get to the gold. I’m finally getting to the gold.

The bottom line: I’m churning out articles at a terrific rate, and it feels awesome.

Meanwhile, Kim is experiencing a similar resurgence in her own world.

When we arrived in Savannah, she started the long process of getting her dental hygiene license in Georgia. She’s been working on starting a side business (selling stuff online), but that’s not really her passion. In fact, she kind of hates the internet. But she loves people (and people love her). Working with patients puts her into a flow state of her own.

On Monday, Kim’s hygiene license finally came through. On Tuesday, she hit the streets, going door to door across Savannah, dropping off her résumé and chatting with doctors. On Wednesday, she worked her first fill-in shift — and she’s already scheduled for several more. She even has an interview for a temporary full-time position!

When Kim came home after her first day on the job, she was glowing. “I missed that,” she said. “I missed talking with people and doing something that I’m good at.”

I know what she means.

Some Unintended Consequences — and How We Dealt with Them

Everything in life is a trade-off. If you choose to do one thing, you’re implicitly choosing not to do other things. If you choose to have children, for instance, you’ve made a tacit choice to forego many of the things you valued before. Or, if you choose not to have children, you’re making an indirect choice to never experience all that parenthood has to offer.

Sometimes these trade-offs are obvious. We all know that when we choose to buy a new car, that’s money that can no longer be used for, say, buying a boat. Or a house.

Most of the time, though, trade-offs aren’t so obvious. It’s tough to take into account all repercussions of every decision because usually we don’t even know what all of the consequences will be.

What do I mean?

Trying to See the Future

Let’s take our year-long RV trip, for example. When Kim and I set out on our quest to drive across the United States, we did our best to plan for what lie ahead. We talked with other trailerites. We read books and websites. We considered our own personalities and preferences. For the most part, we did a fine job prepping and packing for life on the road.

We knew that our trip would require certain trade-offs, and we were ready for these. We trimmed our wardrobes to just the essentials. We filtered through all of the Stuff in our apartment to choose only the things we truly valued. (Or, if you prefer, those items that spark joy.) We negotiated living space. We planned an itinerary. We talked about how we were going to eat right and exercise while constantly on the move.

For the most part, our planning paid off. For those trade-offs we could foresee, we did a great job of coping with compromise. Obviously, however, I wouldn’t be writing this post if we’d planned everything perfectly.

There’s No Write Time

There were certain trade-offs we failed to foresee before setting out on this trip. We didn’t anticipate just how exhausted we’d get (mentally and physically) from the constant migration. We should have known — but didn’t — that by drinking beer and wine every night, we’d not only consume way too many calories but also thwart our motivation to work out in the morning. (And we didn’t count on just how frustrating road workouts could be.)

But for me, the primary problem has been a lack of time to write. “I’ll just squeeze my writing time between the cracks,” I thought before we left. But when you fail to make time for your big rocks, they don’t fit between the cracks!

Once on the road, I realized that regular writing would be almost impossible. Kim and I were constantly on the move, either traveling across the country or exploring the places where we parked. Even when I did have time to write — usually early in the morning — it was tough to do so without disturbing Kim in our tiny motorhome.

So, I haven’t written nearly as much as I’d wanted, neither here nor anywhere else. (Only our travel blog has received regular updates, and those haven’t been frequent.)

This lack of writing time was fine at first. It was like a break. I’ve spent the past decade of my life writing constantly, so it was relaxing to not have to think about putting pen to paper.

In time, though, the break became a burden. I’m a writer. It’s not only my vocation but also my avocation. I do it for work and play. Writing is a release for me, a way for me to unburden my mind. When I take a week or two off from writing, it’s a vacation. But when I take a month or two off from writing? I get cranky. And five months — or six? Prolonged torture!

Money Boss

Things came to a head at the end of July. While we were stranded in South Dakota, I wrote an article here about the cost of living. That one article lit a spark inside me that has grown into a raging fire.

“I want to write about personal finance again,” I told Kim on the day I published that piece. “I want to start a new money blog.” I shared my vision with her: A site that built upon the work I did developing the “Be Your Own CFO” guide I wrote a couple of years ago.

“That message seems to resonate with people,” I said. “They get it. When I say you should manage your personal finances as if you were managing a business, it seems to make sense.”

That conversation gave birth to Money Boss, my new blog about money. I’ve spent the past two months talking with friends and colleagues about the site, planning its future, trying to find time to write for it. Things may have been quiet here, but they’ve been busy behind the scenes.

And here’s another unexpected consequence: For the past few weeks, I haven’t been able to focus on our trip. All I want to do is work on Money Boss. I haven’t appreciated anything we’ve seen or done since northern Indiana (except for Niagara Falls, which was awesome). Kim too has been struggling to enjoy our adventures.

Solving the Problem

Instead of slogging through six more months on the road, we decided to take action. We need to rest. We need to eat right and exercise. We need to work. To that end:

  • We’ve rented a condo in Savannah, Georgia for six months. We’ll be here until the end of March.
  • Our number-one goal while we’re here is to get back in shape. We’ve already begun eating right and exercising. We both know what we need to do, and we’re doing it.
  • While we’re here, I’m going to write. (Hallelujah!) My primary goal is to launch Money Boss. But be warned that I also plan to post lots around here.
  • Kim too is going to work. She hopes to find a temporary position as a dental hygienist in town (she’s getting certified in Georgia). Plus she wants to launch an online store.

We moved into our new place last Thursday. Boy, does it feel good. We love our motorhome, but living in 250 square feet is confining. This condo is four times as large, so we have space to spread out. We’re close to a Whole Foods, so it’s easy to find and stock healthier food. There are also lots of ways for us to exercise here. (There’s an HOA fitness center thirty seconds outside our front door, so no excuses!)

Best of all? You guessed it: Time and space to write. This morning, I was able to do the same routine I do at home in Portland. I woke up, grabbed some coffee, and sat down in front of my computer. I wrote an article for Far Away Places. I wrote this article. In a moment, I’ll write an article for Money Boss.

It feels amazing to have time to write once more.

I’m happy happy happy.

My Experience with an IRS Audit (Video Edition)

After my complaints that I performed poorly during my interview with Yahoo Finance last week, it’s interesting to see how everything turned out. Here’s the article and video about my experience being audited by the IRS:

It’s instructive to see how professionals take thirty minutes of footage and edit everything down to two minutes, fifteen seconds.

I’m well aware the importance of editing, of course. I preach editing fundamentals when I speak at blogging conferences, and I’ve learned to edit photos (both individual photos and collections).

But as Kim and I move toward future video projects — such as the Awesome People Project, which I’m eager to pursue — I’ll need to learn to sharpen those editing skills. Right now when I create video, I typically compress by about half. If I take twenty minutes of video, my final product is usually about ten minutes long. I know each circumstance is different, but I feel as if I have a lot of room for improvement.

Practice will be key. I know that. Right now, however, I’m not practicing. I’ve been too busy with RV stuff and focusing on fitness so that I’m not working with video like I should. Time to fix that, I think.

Any suggestions for short subjects you’d like to see me make? I’m willing to do anything about Portland or finance or comic books or whisky…

Never Give Up: In Praise of Failing Forward

I was interviewed this morning for a segment on Yahoo Finance. It didn’t go nearly as well as I had hoped. I was nervous. I fumbled when I spoke. I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say, even though I was speaking about my own experience.

Preparing to be filmed for Yahoo Finance
Here I am, talking to thin air…

As I stumbled — stopping and re-starting my sentences again and again — I began to panic. What was happening? I’ve been interviewed dozens of times in the past year, and I’ve interviewed dozens of people myself. I never have problems. I’ve had several interviewers praise my poise recently, but poise was nowhere to be found today.

Searching for Answers

While driving home, I tried to figure out what went wrong. Jeremy, the producer, had been friendly and organized and very clear about what he wanted. I spent plenty of time reviewing the topic we’d be covering (my tax audit in 2014) and I felt comfortable with the material. When I reached the television studio where we filmed the segment, I spent half an hour chatting with the woman who was managing things on our end. Everything should have gone great!

But it didn’t.

“You know, I always suck at television interviews,” I thought. But I know that’s not true. Sometimes I kill it when I’m on TV. Sure, I’ve had several bad experiences before, but it’s not true that I always suck at television interviews.

So, what makes some of my TV interviews go well and others poorly? Was there a common thread? I tried to find a common thread.

“Well, my favorite TV segments have been the ones where I’m actually talking with a live person,” I thought. I remembered a bit I did on DIY Christmas gifts a few years ago. For that, I stood in a local TV studio and joked around with the program’s host. That was fun. Or once in Denver, I did a segment about Fincon where I chatted directly with the news anchor. That went well too.

But what about the times I’ve sucked? There was the time I did a piece for a station in Miami. I sat in a local TV studio and talked to empty air, staring directly at the camera. I bumbled my way through that one too. At the time, I attributed my poor performance to the fact I had a high fever, but looking back I now see similarities to today’s situation. In both cases, I was talking to nobody — looking into empty space while trying to act like I was an expert.

“Aha!” I thought. “This is similar to my public speaking problems. When I’m on stage speaking to an audience, trying to play the expert, I don’t do well. I get nervous. I stumble and lose my way. But when it comes time for questions and answers, I shine. I do great when I’m interacting with somebody, when there’s a give and take, a conversation. It’s tough for me when I’m left to ramble on my own.”

After experiences like this, there’s a part of me that wants to pack it in. I want to decline all future interview opportunities. But you know what? I’ve spent the past decade learning that in order to grow, in order to enjoy life, in order to become a better person, I have to do the things that scare me. I have to face my fears and act despite of them. Will I fail? Absolutely! Sometimes I’ll fall flat on my face. Other times, like today, I’ll shuffle and stumble and be awkward. But in the long run, these failures make me better. I improve by looking at what went wrong and trying to correct it the next time.

Never Give Up

Before the interview this morning, I was thinking about the notion of never giving up. My thoughts were prompted by a trivial experience.

Over the past few months, I’ve been playing a bit of Hearthstone, which is an online card game. I like to play in the Arena, which means I pay two bucks create a deck from random cards and then am matched against random opponents. I can continue playing until I’ve lost three games.

During my Hearthstone games, it’s common for me to fall behind early. It looks like I’m going to die an early death. It would be easy to quit when my opponent is crushing me after only a few turns. But here’s the thing: My style of play is slow and methodical. Despite falling behind early, I often rally to take control of the match. Longer ago, I did concede matches if I fell behind, but now I know never to give up. There’s a good chance I’ll rally for victory.

This “never give up” attitude applies to the game at another level. Sometimes when I build a deck, I’ll lose my first two matches. In the past, I’d just throw in the towel. I wouldn’t play a third match but would instead scrap the deck and build a new one. Not anymore. I’ve learned that even when I start 0-2, I can often finish with three or four or five wins. Yesterday, for instance, I almost gave up after being crushed in my first two matches with a new deck. Instead, I gave the deck another chance. I won. Then I won again. And again. In fact, I won six straight games, which earned me enough in-game currency to build a new deck for free. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I’d given up after losing my first two games.

“Never give up” is a common admonition in game and sports. “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” we’re told. As many of you know, I’m a big fan of The Amazing Race. After watching 25 seasons of the show, I’ve learned a couple of things about the competition. The first rule of the Race is to always read your clues. (It’s mind-boggling how many people lose because they didn’t follow instructions.) But the second rule of the Race is to never give up. No matter how wrong things seem to have gone for a team, there’s always a chance they’ve been worse for somebody else.

In Praise of Perseverance

This “never give up” attitude is applicable to the real world too, of course, and in non-trivial ways. During the 1990s, when I was buried in debt, I wasn’t good at persevering. I’d spend a month or three trying to pay down my credit cards, but then give up at the first sign of adversity. I did the same thing with my fitness. I’d lose a few pounds but then return to my gluttonous ways at the first temptation.

It’s trite, I know, but when I look at the people in my life who have been most successful — by whatever means you want to define that word — they’re the folks who don’t let setbacks rule their lives. They fail forward, using mistakes and adversity as a launching pad to self-improvement. It’s all to easy to use mistakes and setbacks as an excuse to not achieve the things you want; but it’s better to take the tougher route, to wrestle with these obstacles and overcome them.

I’m curious to see how this morning’s Yahoo Finance interview comes together. Maybe the final product really will suck. Maybe I was so nervous and incoherent that the producer won’t be able to create anything worthwhile from the footage. On the other hand, it’s possible that there’s enough material there for him to make me look charming and insightful (ha!).

Regardless, I know one thing: I’m not going to give up. The next time an opportunity comes along to do a television interview, I’m going to do it — even if it means I’m talking to empty space again. Someday, once I do this enough, once I fail enough, I’ll be just as good at giving TV interviews as I am at writing blog posts.

In Search of Sleep

It’s 4 a.m. on a Friday. I can’t sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning in bed, I’ve got up and moved to the couch so that I won’t wake Kim. Because I work from home, I have the luxury of catching a mid-day nap. She has to be up and out of the house in a couple of hours, so I don’t want to disturb her sleep.

J.D. in his C-PAP machinePoor sleep is nothing new for me. In 2005, when I was fifty pounds overweight, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. For the next several years, I strapped on a C-PAP machine every night. I was amazed at how better breathing led to better sleep.

When I lost weight and ditched the C-PAP machine, my sleep improved. It helped too that I learned my body’s natural rhythm. Most of the time, I sleep in ninety-minute cycles. A perfect night’s sleep is 7-1/2 hours, but six hours will do. (Tonight I only managed 4-1/2 hours.) Building my bedtime around my sleep cycle is key.

It’s also been key to realize that there’s a difference between getting to sleep and staying asleep. Some things, such as alcohol, might help me get to sleep. But these same things actually disrupt the quality of my rest. The trick is to find foods and develop habits that aid with both quality and quantity of sleep.

As bad as I have it, Kim has it worse. She’s had trouble sleeping since she was a teenager. In fact, it used to be a real burden. Much of her life was miserable because she was never well-rested. In time she too has developed tricks to improve the odds that she’ll sleep well. She is what her father calls a “cave sleeper”. That is, she needs complete darkness and no noise distractions in order to sleep well. Although she’s in the other room right now, I worry that the dim light from this laptop may wake her or that she’ll be able to hear the clickety-clickety of the keyboard above the white noise of the fan we run in the bedroom every night.

Oops! When I got up a moment ago to grab a glass of water, I saw that she’d closed the bedroom door. I’m a bad boyfriend.

Kim has sought solace through medication. When we started dating, she was taking Ambien, which was effective but made her moody. For the past couple of years, she’s been taking trazadone, which seems more effective and has fewer side effects. (Over the past year, she’s been working to reduce the dosage she takes every night. She now takes half of what she was originally prescribed and it seems to work.)

Although my doctor has given me some trazadone to tackle my own sleep problems, I almost never use it. (Just as I rarely use the Vyvanse to medicate my ADHD.) Instead, I take diphenhydramine (Benadryl) every night. Well, most nights anyhow.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with new ways to get good sleep. I’ve been increasing my intake of melatonin, for example. And just this week, I’ve begun trying 5-HTP to both address my winter blues and improve my sleep. At the same time, I’ve stopped taking Benadryl.

The results? Well, they’re mixed. I’m falling asleep easily and having very vivid dreams, which is cool. (I feel like vivid dreams are an indicator of deep sleep, at least for me.) But I can’t seem to stay asleep. Two nights ago, I woke at midnight and couldn’t fall back asleep until two. Even then my rest was fitful (maybe because I’d moved to the couch). And tonight, of course, I woke at three with my mind in full gear.

Facebook post about lack of sleep
Apparently Kathleen is struggling too tonight.

To me, the worst part about poor sleep is how I feel the next day. I feel ragged, like I have some sort of brain cloud. I’m half the man I usually am.

I’m scheduled to interview Leo from Zen Habits in a few hours. After that, Joe will interview me. At noon, I’m supposed to lift heavy weights with Cody. Later tonight, Kim and I will meet Brent and Kathleen for a comedy show. But right now I don’t want to do any of this. All I really want is to get some sleep.

Another thing I don’t like? On days like today when I have to get stuff done after a sleepless night, I take my ADHD meds. But not so that I can concentrate. I take them because I know they’re a stimulant and will help me stay awake. Now that is a bad cycle to fall into.

I guess maybe I should stick with the Benadryl. It’s not perfect — I still have insomnia once or twice a month when I use it — but it’s better than the alternatives.