Indiana, hoosier daddy?

People often say to put your money where your mouth is. In the case of blatant discrimination, like what is legal in Indiana now, I’m inclined to do just that. More and more high profile figures (including mayors of Connecticut and Washington as well as NASCAR itself) are coming out against the state of Indiana and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law last Thursday by Republican governor, Michael Pence.

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In 2002, the Human Rights Campaign came out with its Corporate Equality Index. On the surface, this national benchmarking tool sought to recognize those companies with exemplary policies and practices for LGBT employees. In my opinion, this tool is more of a double edged sword than anything. On one hand, we celebrate the companies who score 100 and recognize that they deserve gay people’s money for being on the right side of history. The first companies to score 100 on the pilot index included Apple, Intel, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Nike.

The published Index also does a fantastic job of publicly shaming via sharing the companies with a big fat zero score. In 2002, the zero scores included Lockheed Martin and Cracker Barrel. Even in the 2014 Index, we see the likes of Berkshire Hathaway with a score of zero, and ExxonMobil with a score of -25. Yeah, you read that right – negative.

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Perhaps I am spoiled because I was born and raised in California, a state that prohibits discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.

I completely agree that if a company cannot treat its employees and customers with common decency and acknowledge their human and civil rights, they do not deserve my money. The business has taken an unpopular and just plain wrong stance, and they should be punished for it by suffering dwindling profits and hopefully, ultimate closure and corporate death.

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Here’s the other side of that sword, when the other shoe falls: if gay people don’t patronize stores, if those stores “lose the gay dollar,” then employees who work there don’t feel supported or appreciated for who they are and what they do. How would you feel if you worked at a place that denied people their most basic human rights, and you knew your LGBT friends and allies would not shop where you worked? Because where you work can often be so intertwined with your individual identity, it can begin to feel like they don’t support you, as a person. That’s an awful feeling, and it can make one feel awfully alone, when all you are trying to do is fulfill your life’s purpose, use what God gave you for talent, and make a living.

Here’s where I pause, though.

I heard the argument ages ago, and it has to do with perception of brotherhood and sisterhood. If we see certain companies coming out in support of human and civil rights for LGBT employees, celebrating those companies by spending our money at their establishment is simply no-brainer good business. It’s socially responsible. We see Gayglers (from Google); Gays, Lesbians, and Everyone Else (GLEE) at my employer in Sydney; Out Professional Employee Network (OPEN) at my current employer in San Francisco, GLOBE, GLAMEX, and all those other fabulous acronyms that are synonyms for LGBT. Employee Resource Groups are the new “college” – all employees expect to see it on a corporate profile/website to ensure LGBT employees feel supported, to prevent discrimination and foster inclusion. Quote this and that survey and that research and study over there, and we all know happy employees equal more profits. The LGBT market represents trillions of dollars in whatever census, and some made-up statistic is the new black. Yadda yadda yadda.

God forbid a gay person goes into Chick Fil A and spends money on a chicken burger, while a closeted, repressed employee recognizes him from the club the other night. Both of them are social pariahs, betraying the entire LGBT community by giving their money to and earning their income from a company who deserves to die for its stance against LGBT people. Anyone who works at those companies like Chick Fil A, Berkshire Hathaway, or ExxonMobil and who may happen to be gay and terrified of coming out, will see gay people not supporting their primary money-earning activity. It’s already a punch in the gut when your own employer doesn’t recognize you as a whole person with rights, but when the community turns on you too, that’s the knockout.

Gay people need to eat and pay for medical attention too; our blood runs just as red and thick. For some LGBT people, working part time at a Chick Fil A barely pays the rent, which they need to do because they don’t live at home anymore. Maybe their parents kicked them out on the street when they looked to them for support and acceptance.

There can be a negative branding impact if your company does not support human and civil and LGBT rights. Your competitors are behind the pro-LGBT initiatives. Your two largest stakeholders, your employees should reflect the market they serve, and your community should feel safe because they see members of their community working at a place of business. They are upright, tax paying citizens, providing for their alternative, modern family, protecting the people they love, like everybody else. Their very way of life depends on the presence of commerce that acknowledges basic rights of participants.

Listen up, because with my latest diet, I only have the blood sugar to tell you this once:

I have a dream, that my fellow butch lesbians can go to a car lot and buy the most decked out pickup truck in Indianapolis to take their femme girlfriends to NASCAR or the roller derby, without discrimination against their tattoos and mullets.

I have a dream that the gay men will go to the gym and whale on their pecs in peace, hogging machines too long while they scan Grindr for the hotties next to them on the lat-pull machine. After a gym session, they’ll hit up GNC for supplements and Jamba Juice for a smoothie with protein boost, all while remaining fearless for their own safety.

And like Martin Luther King, Jr.,

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Maybe I don’t have those four little children yet, and maybe sexual orientation and gender identity know no color of skin because they transcend physical attributes and reach people of all races and ethnicities. But I believe some of the best people I know identify as LGBT or support friends and family who identify as LGBT. Their character is so full of content, it cannot be bound by a place of business or state lines.

If you haven’t read it yet, the Bold Italic published an open letter from San Francisco to Indiana that’s worth reading: http://www.thebolditalic.com/articles/7168-an-open-letter-from-san-francisco-to-indiana

I couldn’t agree with the first comment on that letter more, either. Leslie Knope, a fictional character from Pawnee, Indiana, in the show Parks & Recreation, a public official and Indiana-lover in the TV show, would never get behind something like this. In fact, neither would her fictional mustachioed mentor, Ron Swanson. Nick Offerman has canceled an upcoming stop in Indiana for his tour, and is donating proceeds of the one speaking engagement he’s keeping in that state and donating it to none other than HRC. I love his response to Indiana’s “thinly disguised legal discrimination”:  http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/nick-offerman-cancels-indiana-show

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Last night, I saw a large group of people, led by two men carrying a large wooden cross, protesting while marching down Market Street, towards City Hall. The protestors carried signs that said “Teach Acceptance”, a message for Indiana. The irony of our reaction to unacceptable behavior being to accept it is not lost on me. Jesus supposedly hung out with lepers, slaves, and the lowest of the low in society, and he loved them all the same.

So, it is with some hesitation only because of the perceived abandonment of our LGBT brothers and sisters who live and work in Indiana, that I, too, tell Indiana lawmaker Governor Pence to get stuffed. Arkansas governor Hutchinson will announce tomorrow whether it will sign into law a similar RFRA in the wake of Indiana. So go ahead and get stuffed, the pair of ya’s. I support you and your families, my LGBT brothers and sisters in those states, but your lawmakers are not doing you justice. Stand up and be counted. Fight back. They are on the wrong side of history. Do the right thing. Or get the hell out of there while you still can, and come to California. Trust me, it’s better here all around.

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Bay area investor love stories: Netflix and Apple

In some of my previous posts, I’ve brought up my love/hate relationship with Netflix. “I wish I knew how to quit you,” I thought about Netflix with a Brokeback Mountain scenic setting in the background.

Netflix and I go way back. I wanted to buy some shares when it IPO’ed in 2002 at around $16/share, but like major companies that IPO, there is a phenomenon where shortly afterward, nearly all IPO’s actually suffer a decrease in value. There is irrational investor hype around the public offering and everyone latches on to the excitement, and then the realities of ownership sink in as the dust settles, creating a post-IPO dip in value. Instead, that is when I first purchased Netflix stock for my portfolio for $9.50/share, in 2003, when a sort of buyer’s remorse washed over the crowd and the sturdiness of the underlying fundamentals was tested against a soaring P/E ratio, only to nearly halve in value.

My primary investing strategy is to invest in companies I like being a customer of. Basically, if I’m happy to turn over my hard earned money for one of your products, I believe in your business plan and revenue stream, cause hey, it worked on this sucker.

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I held the Netflix stock for about 18 months, give or take, to get a benefit via long term capital gains tax lower tax rate. I sold Netflix when the share price hit 53.82. That was enough to take my money and put it somewhere else.

I bought the stock again in 2004 for $33.56/share, once again driven by the underlying fundamentals and the fact that I was still a customer. Bad idea. I held the stock for 3 years and it didn’t do anything for me, as it fought against Blockbuster and even ended up victorious. I sold it in 2007 chalking it up to a lost cause for $17.26/share. I used the losses to offset other capital gains in my portfolio from other sells, so it ended up working to my advantage for tax purposes. No big loss and I moved on.

I dated Netflix’ Australian cousin, Quickflix, in Sydney for 3 years. My flatmate got a subscription and allowed me to add movies to the queue. The business model is strong – DVD delivered to my mailbox, which causes joy cause 1) mail for me! and 2) movies! Then, after we watched it at our own pace, we’d drop them in a mail box as we hiked our butts uphill in the rain to the gym. It’s a vicious cycle.

Now, when I moved back to San Francisco, I stood at a crossroads. I made a decision that I didn’t realize at the time was valuable foresight into this company’s business model again.

Living in San Francisco, I have technology everywhere outside my doorstep. This is a city on the forefront of innovation. As a consumer, I debated committing to Comcast for cable which would likely average at least $100/month to get decent channels and a DVR. I need options; my job has crazy hours sometimes, and I can’t watch TV when a show is actually on. I would DVR it, and watch it on my terms, usually via a weekend binge session.

However, I decided not to commit to cable this time. I didn’t see the point in the overhead. I wanted sleek, simple, no hassle, no commitment. I opted for a 1) Comcast Wi-Fi for $34.99/month with a decent speed, 2) a smart TV which actually connects to said Wi-Fi purchased with a coupon for around $300, and 3) a Netflix streaming subscription for $8.99/month. I cut the cord on cable. There wasn’t room for its bulkiness in my life anymore. And it was just too complicated. I’d be paying for a buffet, when all I needed were a few a la carte items. I just didn’t have enough demand to justify that kind of commitment. It seemed like overkill and the antithesis of the simplicity I was aiming for.

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Turns out, that is where the future is going. I read an article linked to the NFLX ticker, which is of course in my portfolio again (see the story of the most recent Netflix love affair in this post).

For those of you interested, here is the article: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/can-apple-make-46-of-you-cut-the-cord-2015-03-19

Apparently, Netflix is the “clear winner” in the TV unbundling race, with Apple being the latest company to see an opportunity for itself in this market too. An analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald reiterated a buy rating on the stock and believes the accurate price of the stock, or target price for the next year, is $500/share. Today, as I write this, Netflix is trading at $427.51/share.

HBO is unbundling itself from cable packages and selling all-access independent subscriptions. HBO has produced some of my favorite shows and it has the differentiation market strategy to achieve this independent flight, in my opinion.

This article I read also mentioned that a study had been conducted by Baird Equity Research that indicated 46% of customers are interested in cutting the cable cord. They want to stop paying more for the buffet, and just get the a la carte items, too. That same bit of research also said only 15% of consumers actually had cut the cord. That makes me part of the 15% on the front wave of this. This excites me. I don’t regret cutting the cord at all. Granted, the internet access and streaming speed bears room for improvement in coming years, so it streams smoother and with better quality, but that can only benefit from recent net neutrality rulings.

On a separate tangent, I am also a shareholder of Apple, which has been nothing but an investor love story from day one. I bought my first Apple shares for $40.74/share on April 1, 2005. I sold that lot a year later for $69.38/share. That was around the 2nd generation iPod and all the rage of the iPod with Steve jobs innovating how we listen to music. It was an exciting time.

I purchased Apple again for my portfolio in 2009 for what would be the adjusted for stock splits price today of $27.85. The first iPhone was released in 2007, and having seen what it did to the market, I knew it was time to have myself an Apple again. I converted my personal computing accessories to Mac in November 2010 with a first generation MacBook Air that still operates well, despite being unable to upgrade RAM for faster performance due to fitting all that technology in the new tiny lightweight frame. No complaints here. Besides, I’ll be due for an upgrade when the latest toy comes out so I’m happy to keep that for a while, since it ain’t broke.

The first iPad was released in April 2010… which meant that purchase in 2009 was well-timed. So with a cost basis of $27.85/share, and the stock trading today at $427.51/share, insert smug face.

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Yes, Netflix and I have had our ups and downs. So have Apple and me. I’ve won some; I’ve lost some, being a shareholder of Apple. As a customer of Apple, I’ve never lost. As a customer of Netflix, I’ve never lost.

I was beating myself up over how I kept investing in a loser like Netflix lately though. I dollar-costed my way into a significant portion of my portfolio being allocated to this investment, more than I was comfortable holding if I’m 100% honest with myself, especially when it kept losing. I kept telling myself it’ll get better, but inevitably cringing every time the price dropped.

It’s been on the rise since early 2015, making me glad I didn’t bail at the bottom and end up buying high and selling low. That’s not how you make money. Turns out, with 20/20 hindsight, I actually did the right thing. I bought shares of a company whose fundamentals made sense, whose business I was happy to be a patron (matron?) of, and when the price went down, I took on a value strategy and bought more. I did all the things I was supposed to do. The first lot of Netflix I bought at the highest price was $428.70/share. That is the only lot where I actually have a $55 loss on Netflix. My other tax lots are in a gain position of roughly $2,755. Therefore, the gain from my dollar-cost averaging investment activity is $2,700. Damn, sometimes I can look like I know what I’m doing. Sometimes my mistakes I beat myself up over the most end up working to my favor. I just have to have a little faith that sometimes I know what the hell I’m doing.

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Estimating value

Because many of my busy season clients are private equity and venture capital funds, I have spent a good portion of the last two months reviewing valuations. When I step back and think about it, finance specialists are assigning a value to something based on various inputs and assumptions. They’re assessing cash flows and pay-offs, accounting for the time value of money, and also applying various discounts for things which decrease value.

While the valuations I see day to day are for portfolio companies or financial instruments, it’s an interesting concept to apply valuation to a person or to something intangible. So I’m going to explore a tangent.

Let’s assume I am a financial instrument, and you wanted to place a value on me. For some people in the marketplace, the key driver of value is free cash flow, or the ability to generate future cash flows. One could say I have a decent, stable job, and there is a present value to the future cash flow potential I have when it comes to earnings. So perhaps people would value the money I could bring in. They could say, I have no children or heirs to which I would leave an estate when I pass, and I have two living older relatives who plan to leave an unknown amount to me when they pass, so perhaps some would think that would increase my value further. I’m virtually debt free, but for some credit card debt accumulated in my trip purchasing activities lately to go on the trip highlighted in this post. That is temporary and due to timing, and further, it’s not indicative of further financing troubles.

Some people don’t value money producing capability at all. For those people, I would have not have such a high value. Unless, I had other qualities they value. Some people might value my tidiness, cleanliness, and organizational skills. Others may value my honesty, integrity, reliability, and character. I assign a premium to people not for looks, but for brains. I heart nerds. That has high value to me.

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Hopefully you’re beginning to see that just about anything or anybody can have value for any number of reasons. Value is in the eye of the beholder, if you will.

Some specialists could recommend, in the first scenario above, that while my ability to produce future cash flows is strong, there should be an applied Discount for Lack Of Marketability. This is one of my favorite acronyms this year – DLOM. It’s like, you can dress me up, but you can’t take me out. I can’t sell this. Perhaps there is a lock-up period, or I look like Quasimodo, but for whatever reason, a purchaser in the market wouldn’t want to pay full price, because there are few bits of sequins missing, or a rip in my sleeve, etc. It makes me laugh to think of chucking someone into the clearance bin for a minor flaw, like so many stores do with their merchandise.

There is also something to be said about value in a primary market, versus value in a market for which something is not originally intended. I’ll give you an example. I had a 1988 Toyota pickup truck when I was 16 that I bought from my Auntie Chianti, secondhand. It was a 4-speed she’d driven into the ground in the desert – no A/C, vinyl seats, a very simple automobile to get me from point A to point B.

I drove that pickup further into the ground and put over 300,000 miles on it. When I went to get rid of it, I could have sold my pickup in one whole piece, to someone who would drive it until there were no miles left. Or, I could sell it for parts. Someone might value a replacement motor, windshield, hell even the truck bed, a lot more than the whole truck. That would be the secondary market for the truck – stripping it and selling it for parts. Perhaps it’s not the best use for the truck, but there is still a way to salvage value out of it.

I think we as people hardly stop to perform valuations on ourselves on a periodic basis. It would be kind of a hoot if someone did do annual check-ins and run the calculations and models to assess their own self-worth.

My point is that even if you put a lot of time into estimating one’s value, assessing every possible model one could use which assigns value, utilizing assumptions and developing metrics to use as inputs, you’re assigning a tangible number to an intangible characteristic. There are probabilities to consider, discounts, and so on. All said and done, one arrives at an estimate of value. If you think back to your early years and learning what an estimate is, it’s a just a guess. Statistically, it’s not correct. An estimate by its very nature has a 99.99% probability of being wrong. Valuation specialists could argue all day about an estimate of a person’s value, and argue that someone is really a 257 or someone else might think you’re a 392. It’s all arbitrary.

My job is to look at those estimates of value, and assess their accuracy, reliability, completeness, and existence. We have our own valuation specialists who know more than you would ever think there is to know about how to value something. They could come up with their best guess, and when that value is compared to the value chosen by a client, it’s basically one party’s word against another’s. Neither party is right or wrong. Both are right; yet both are wrong. I can’t tell a client with 100% confidence their number is wrong but mine is right – I know because my number is an estimate too, that it too is wrong. How do you tell a client to remove their wrong number and put your wrong number in as the value instead? Doesn’t make much sense.

It comes down to finding a “reasonable range” and whether or not someone’s estimate of value falls within that range. You have to set limits whereby anything outside those limits is not acceptable. So perhaps I might say a reasonable range for value is between 100 and 500, and since you guessed 333, technically, that is within the bounds of what is considered reasonable. So you land on “that’s good enough for me.”

In the end, a person’s value is arbitrary and in the eye of the beholder. Hopefully, your own self-worth is positive by your own assessment, not too high, but within a reasonable range. You have value to yourself, and you have value to those who love you. It doesn’t matter if it’s 333 or 917. All that matters is that it’s enough for you.

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Looking forward to leaving

Life has been a little busier than normal lately, between work and basic things like eating and sleeping. I’ve been working quite a lot as it’s my busiest time of year at work. There is an end in sight though, and that end is May 5. That is the date I go on leave for 2 months and head to Europe.

I don’t think I’ve shared my full itinerary with you yet, dear reader. I’ve only just hinted at bits and pieces. Perhaps I shall clue you in now, as it’s one of the main things on my mind, getting me through the days and nights.

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On May 5, I shall board a flight I acquired through use of United award miles for an ungodly low amount, and head to London, UK (1) as my first stop. There I will visit a friend and my former flatmate from Sydney who lives there now. I went to London in 2009 and saw many of the tourist attractions then – Kensington Palace, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Tate Modern; I even saw the crown jewels of Henry VIII that was on display at the time. Therefore, London is about unwinding, detoxing, acclimating to a new time zone, and seeing good people. I’ll have time to deprogram from work and I’ll call London home for about 2 weeks. Then the real adventures begin to countries and cities I have not yet visited.

I depart London on May 21 for 5 days in Paris, France (2), with said flatmate from Sydney. He spoke French in school, and knows many things about the culture. I know next to nothing. I’ve never been to Paris. I was holding out on Paris and most of Italy until I had a romantic significant other, to make the experience that much more enjoyable. However, life is too short to hold out any longer, so I figured it’s time. On the docket in Paris is the Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe, Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre, Notre-Dame cathedral, Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Louvre, Moulin Rouge, and possibly the catacombs (though I’ve heard the last one is actually somewhat illegal, so forget I mentioned that.) I shan’t forget the wine tasting experiences and food to try either – though I doubt escargot will make an appearance. Snails are for throwing, not for eating…

After Paris, my flatmate and I will take a train for 5 days in Rome, Italy (3). After reading the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, I knew just what I wanted to see in Rome – and it’s a loooong list. Too long to include here, but rest assured, I’m going to see the hell out of the city, all the things, and probably get lost a few times, too. There will be pizza, pasta, carbs of all shapes and sizes, balsamic vinegar, serrano ham, buffalo mozzarella, and all kinds of amazing food and drink.

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From Rome, we’ll head back to London for 1 night, and then my flatmate returns to work while I venture elsewhere. I hope to not have a tearful goodbye; rather, I hope to have many more memories of hilarious moments and funny accents with him. Retreating back to London after our Paris/Rome debauchery also allows me to travel lighter in those two locales, and leave my larger luggage in London at his place. I’ll repack my bags and head off on June 1 to Helsinki via Oslo.

In Helsinki, Finland (4), on June 1, I will meet up with a travel buddy from Sydney, a friend I’ve mentioned in my blogs before called “Hank Moody”. Hank and I have a couple days to explore Helsinki, with its Bronze Age historical sites and unique cafes, and then will meet up with my aunt (also formerly mentioned in another blog post), “Auntie Chianti”, before we board a train to St. Petersburg, Russia (5).

I’m very excited for St. Petersburg. I’ve written posts on Russia and the Anastasia adventure I want to have there. The excitement of having obtained a Russian visa, and the contact drunk from being near so much vodka, crescendos with tickets to a Russian ballet production, just a single day after Russia’s national Dostoevsky Day on June 3. While we only have a couple days in Russia, I hope to see the beautiful unique architecture, and hear the husky accents en masse. That is, of course, if they let me in.

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From St. Petersburg, we’ll head back to Helsinki via train for one more night, and then the following day we’ll depart for Stockholm, Sweden (6) via ferry. It’s an overnight ferry, and in my imagination, it’s a giant Viking ship with a beautiful wooden mermaid at the front, which I’ll stand behind wearing Viking horns, pretending I’m flying on the Titanic. In the land of IKEA and meatballs, I hope to see much more beautiful architecture. We have nearly a full week there to let our hair down and experience the local flavors.

From Stockholm, we’ll take a train to Oslo, Norway (7). In Oslo, Auntie Chianti will go her separate way onto Budapest to visit family living near there, giving me a total of 2 weeks with my aunt abroad. The last time we travelled together internationally was over 10 years ago, to Mexico. For two people who enjoy it so, that is much too long. Hank Moody and I will enjoy a bit of Oslo and then depart for Berlin, Germany (8) for a brief weekend.

I’ve heard amazing things about Berlin, from people who’ve visited and even from someone raised there. The wall came down when I was only 8 years old, and I didn’t have an appreciation at the time what that meant. I learned about the Holocaust in history classes, which I admit to halfheartedly committing to memory, and have since read a couple great books and seen a couple great movies which depict stories about that time. I highly recommend the book “Not Me” and the film “The Book Thief”, if you haven’t seen them. Also a huge influencer in my life is Pink Floyd’s video for the entire “The Wall” album, which is artistically fashioned with Germanic references.

After experiencing what Berlin has to offer Hank and me, we’ll fly back to Oslo in time to catch a train to Bergen, Norway (9). The train from Oslo to Bergen, east to west, weaves throughout the fjords and offers amazing views. I’m more excited for the ride than the destination, if I’m honest. However, most of this trip’s accommodation will be spent in hostels and backpackers, which is also a first for me. The first hotel I’ll get to enjoy is a Best Western in Rome, Italy, and won’t enjoy those creature comforts again until 1 month later in Bergen. Hank and I splurged on a cozy bed and breakfast hotel with chunky wooden furniture and a very homey feel.

We waive bye-bye to Bergen on June 24, and jump half of the Atlantic to rest our laurels in Reykjavik, Iceland (10). I’m probably most excited for this locale. The inner geology rock nerd I let out every so often is going to have a field day there. Geysers, waterfalls, volcanoes, the Blue Lagoon, northern lights, glaciers, and a spa day at an eclectic and hip hostel in the center of the city. We plan on doing day trips and tours to see everything we can while on that tiny island.

From Reykjavik, I fly home to San Francisco on June 30, adding 9 new locations in 8 new countries to my travel experience. I want to learn how to train my dragon, possibly get a dragon tattoo (or maybe not), visit Rasputin with a cute little bat named Bartok, hopefully not fall on some ice, ride a pretend Viking ship/ferry, and take train rides through beautiful scenery, all while experiencing a backpacker lifestyle with friends and family.

What I started out planning, and what I ended up with all said and done, are two very different trips. I anticipated using the time to be with myself, think through things, rediscover what makes me happy, write some blogs, take some photos, and grow from the new experiences. While I won’t be as solitary as initially intended, I have a chance to make great new memories with people I truly care about. I can soul-search another time, sans Viking horn hat. After all, Nicaragua is calling… but I digress.

Under pressure

When it comes to matter, as a state of being, we are most familiar with the examples afforded us in high school of ice, water, and vapor: solid, liquid, gas. Each of these states has certain properties which distinguish it from one another. Then, the teachers shake it up and blow your mind with an elusive 4th state of being – plasma. Slow down, crazy. Whoa.

I think people have states of being as well. I have my solid days when I’m the bat and the world is my baseball. I have days when I must be fluid to navigate neuroses and situations, adapt to change, and make things run smoothly. I also have days when I’m spread too thin; I’m everywhere and nowhere at once.

I’m thinking about events in my life for the last couple of weeks, primarily work-focused because, hey, busy season. Some beautiful words come to mind as I reflect on my lessons and experiences: Viscosity, Malleability, Ductility. These are all words I learned in physics class in high school, and they are capabilities of substances to interact with their immediate environment, and what that confrontation is like. They are put through trials and we see what becomes of it – cause and effect. This creates a measure of being. Add to that variations in properties based on changes in temperature, and what we get are very different scenarios of how we are when we’re cool and calm vs. when we’re immersed in hot water.

Viscosity; Vissss-cahssss-it-ee. I love the way it sounds. This is a measure of resistance to stress, and gradual deformation, and is most commonly expressed for a fluid state of being. Or you can think of it like erosion of a solid, if that’s easier to wrap your head around. When fluid interacts with a solid, say a tube or a wine glass, some interesting dynamics occur. When there is a pressure difference between you and those you encounter, there will be tension; it’s the basic concept of friction. If you squeeze wine into a tiny tube, it will slow the flow of the wine down (even if not observable to the human eye). If you pour wine into the nice tumblers, the liquid takes the shape of the solid. With slow motion image capture, things can appear to move slowly at the site of interaction between the opposing forces. At work, that meant client meetings appear docile and the team appears calm. They make it look easy. Under the surface, everyone is scurrying to barely make it by; particles are moving more quickly away from the point of interaction, because they’re not encountering conflict or opposition. It makes sense that if a liquid encounters an opposing force, or an obstacle, it will slow down.

Some fluids are more viscous than others. If Maple Syrup and Moët Chandon had a track and field meet, at the starting line of a naked race, the champagne would obviously move much more freely and faster than the maple syrup, making a bigger mess. If those two are racing peanut butter, we all know who is going home with 3rd place. But if you’re peanut butter, when you get bombarded by stress, then you don’t break down easily. Pros and cons, sweetie darling.

I think the best example of viscosity is how glaciers move. The part of the glacier closest to the ground moves slowest, as it is slowed down by friction. The glacier moves fast at the top and center, where it is not touching the ground. Most people think glaciers are solid ice, but in fact, they are not solid. There area very slow moving liquid with a high viscosity (thicker than peanut butter). Erosion patterns of glaciers are also different because of their interaction with the ground over which they advance and recede. They scoop out rounded valleys, as compared to wind and water erosion which move sediment in different ways.

Malleability refers to how we react under the pressure to deform us, or to change us. Often, this is used to speak of metal and speaks to the ability to bend or be hammered without breaking. Aluminum is a great example of a metal than can be pounded nearly flat and won’t break easily. I admire people like that. In the face of opposition, those people can take a beating and not falter.

Ductility is a property of metals, too; it measures how brittle a material is. This is the ability to be formed into a wire. Like malleability, it’s about being flexible and stretching thin, without breaking. One simply cannot work with those metals (and people) which (who) shatter or break under stress. Copper is a great example of a metal which is both malleable and ductile. It makes great pipes and wires. In metals, electrons can be shared between many atoms, which allow the atoms to slide past each other, without breaking. The bonds within a team are what hold it together when the pressure mounts and the temperature rises.

While this has certainly not been my most challenging or most sleepless busy season in my 11 years of in asset management assurance, it’s certainly been interesting. This year, I learned more about the kind of person I am and want to be when it gets down to brass tacks.

“This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure”
– Queen

When I encounter friction, I slow down a bit, but I find ways to move on and persist. I can take a beating and throw myself in front of an enemy to save my team, because pain is relative. A thousand arrows may barely pierce my skin, but just one to the people I supervise could have a huge impact on their happiness, endurance, and very wellbeing. I don’t always take the path of least resistance, but I try to go with the flow. There is an ongoing struggle between good and evil, and it’s all relative, but I am gonna fight for the good side (at least in my eyes). I have my reasons for fighting the good fight – it’s not the client, it’s not the thrill of battle.

It’s for the people above who give me a safe space to try incredible things, even if I fail. They give me room to fail; in fact, it’s ok if I fail. Just get back up and keep going. Resiliency is the key to success. Just get back up.

I certainly gave at least 100% when it came to my boss and my team. I probably only gave 80% when it came to myself and what I’m truly capable of, if I include a discount for the not-caring-anymore factor. I didn’t have expectations this time around, except to come out alive on the other side and not feel like I compromised on my principles, beliefs, and the core of my being. In that regard, I was not a disappointment. I only missed the gym the one week I was sicker than a dog.

I could have given more, and with hindsight, there are some things I should have known or done better. They were immaterial and small, and perhaps with a more focused attention to detail and desire to do well, I could have totally nailed it. But I still nailed it pretty good this time around. It’s not over yet, as I still have three more projects to get out the door before my excellent Scandinavian European Adventure. But for now, I did well enough for me, and that’s all that counts. I was kind, patient, responsible, caring, and thoughtful. I didn’t extinguish anyone else’s light in order to make mine shine brighter. I think that’s all anyone can hope to be. And I didn’t kill anyone.

‘The only real failure is the failure to try, and the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment. As we always must. We came here, and we tried. All of us, in our different ways… We get up every morning, we do our best. Nothing else matters.’ – Deborah Moggach

So today I celebrate the anticlimactic success of being done with the most difficult project this year. Last night, after leaving the client’s offices on a Sunday evening, I stopped on the way home and got a pizza. Treat yo self.

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Happiness of pursuit, not the pursuit of happiness

So I did it backwards again. I watched Hector and the Search For Happiness before reading the book on which it was based. If you haven’t seen my post, That time I did it backwards, I also saw the movie Maze Runner before I read the Maze Runner trilogy of books. I have to say, this Hector movie was so good, it made me want to read the book. Perhaps I should view movies before reading books more often.

I promptly added the paperback version of Hector and the Search for Happiness to my amazon wishlist after watching the movie. I found his observations on happiness to be quite provocative, humorous, and poignantly true. I’m sharing them here because they bear repeating. I’ll of course add my commentary where appropriate and inappropriate.

Observations on Hector’s search for happiness with my own commentary:

1. Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.

So true. I try not to compare myself to others as a general rule. However, when you compare what you have to what others have, there can be a feeling of inequality. Like track runners who line up for the shotgun, if just one of them gets the advantage of a head start, or if they’re stronger than you, or African (sorry but it’s true – African runners are amazing). I’ve learned in my life not to look behind me, or even next to me as I’m running the race. The second I pause to look, is when someone I didn’t see out of the corner of my eye overtakes me and wins. So just focus ahead, eyes on the prize and keep going forward. Just do you. If you’re doing it right, you’re doing what is right only for you. There is no too fast, too slow, only the pace that works for you. The only comparison that should be made is not “that person has more than me” but “does that person have enough?”

2. A lot of people think happiness means being richer, or more important.

They’re simply wrong. Having money or status does not equal happiness. Simple as that.

3. Many people only see happiness in their future.

Happiness should be right here, right now. The future is not guaranteed, and there is no point waiting for what may never come. So try to find and make happiness right here and now.

4. Happiness could be the freedom to love more than one woman at the same time.

Hector ends up scratching this one. Grass is always greener, but to me, I’d want my partner to be the greenest grass, at least, that’s what I’m holding out for. If your partner isn’t the greenest grass to you, then perhaps you need an arrangement where you do have the flexibility to be polyamorous. For me, it’s hard enough loving one person the way they want and need, nay, deserve, to be loved. Hell, I can barely take care of myself.

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5. Sometimes, happiness is not knowing the whole story.

It’s true – ignorance is bliss. Or so I’ve heard. I wouldn’t know – I didn’t really ask.

6. Avoiding unhappiness is not the road to happiness.

Not being unhappy is not the same as being happy. Don’t get confused by the double negatives; just because you can’t complain, doesn’t mean you are happy. The absence of unhappiness does not an aurora borealis of your brain make.

7. Does this person bring you predominantly: a) up or b) down?

If the person brings you down, their negative energy is a drain on your life. You should be around people who bring you up. Now, as a person diagnosed with depression, this can be hard one. I do feel bad sometimes because I won’t always lift someone else up. Sometimes I need the lifting up. I have to concentrate on holding myself up, and motivating myself a lot. More than most people need to. That doesn’t mean that I always need to be a downer or drag others down. Overall, there will be times when I will have pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, and my energy can radiate. I can still bring other people up, even if I am sometimes down. Loving someone with depression can still raise you up. That person may need a little extra TLC, but supposedly, loving someone with depression is just like loving anybody else. We all have special needs when it comes to love – some need to be held close, some need to be left to their own devices. But happiness does exist in relationships between people where one or both of them have depression. Long story short, continue surrounding yourself with the people who lift you up, and minimize the time you spend with people who bring you down.

8. Happiness is answering your calling.

I’ve mulled over this one a lot in my blog posts. I’ve debated my life’s purpose, the passion that lies just around the riverbend, and others. For me, I wish I could hear what that calling is saying. I struggle with this one a lot, because I’m not sure what I’m being called to do. I have a knack for math/science/accounting, but accounting cannot be my calling because it doesn’t make me happy. I’ve been doing it for nigh on 11 years now, and this chosen career profession has proven not to be a contributor to my happiness; it’s a detractor. So it’s not my calling, then.

9. Happiness is being loved for who you are.

I couldn’t agree with this more. So much of dating is lying, and so many people spend a lot of time trying to be someone they are not so someone else will fall in love with them. Remove the marketing and dating and lying, and just be yourself. Happiness is being loved not only for who you are, but also who you are not. You shouldn’t have to change for anybody – only for yourself, and only if you want to. Let ‘em hit you with their best shot – you can only react the best way you know how. Like this dog.

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10. Sweet Potato Stew!

You had to be there for the story, I guess. So no comment. Although my version would probably have a lovely cheese pizza, just for me.

11. Fear is an impediment to happiness.

No shit, Sherlock. If I’m terrified I may not live, or if I fear losing the person I love, then yeah, I can’t have room for happiness because fear has taken up all the space for that.

12. Happiness is feeling completely alive.

I couldn’t agree with this more. When I hiked a mountain on the island of Delos in Greece, to get to the Temple of Zeus, and just paused to take in the view, I not only felt alive, but I felt happy. Here’s a photo of that moment that I will carry with me the rest of my life.

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13. Happiness is knowing how to celebrate.

Indeed. In college, I used to go out and party every night. It only got old after a while, because some nights you partied even when there was nothing to celebrate. Those nights were not fun, and didn’t have that vibe. When I look at the happiest moments of my life, one of them was my college graduation. I knew how to celebrate – people I loved surrounded me – college roommates and friends, my significant other at the time, my parents, my aunt, my professors, my friend’s families. There was weed, booze, ecstasy, and fun. Holy hell that was the happiest day of my life up until that point.

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14. Listening is loving.

Sometimes, people just need to be listened to, to be heard. In the film, this lesson came about when Hector helps a patient on board a flight experiencing major pain in her head due to high altitude and the pressure on her brain from removal of a tumor only a few months before the flight. Hector merely listens to her story, and while I he cannot heal her, he can listen and make her more comfortable. He can be a companion, and just be there for her, when she needs him. We all just want to feel heard. That is one of the easiest ways you can show love, is just listening. Sometimes just that can make everything better.

15. Nostalgia is not what it used to be.

Word.

* * * * * *

More important than what we are searching for, is what we’re avoiding. I may be on my own quest for happiness, and very soon I will be cutting the ropes that have held me back from that search. I will look in other countries, faraway lands. I will see people, and things, I have never seen before. I will be exposing myself to cultures and ways of thinking and perspectives different from my own.

I’d like to think I’m not avoiding anything. That I’m opening myself to everything and anything. However, that is not true. I’ll be avoiding looking for the answer at home. That wonderful Wizard of Oz tale had it right – Dorothy goes looking for what she wants, and instead finds everything she needs, at home. There’s no place like home. I’ll be avoiding accepting that just being here, just being now, is enough. I’m travelling; I’m collecting experiences. I’m not living my life and wanting what I’ve got here. I’m abandoning what I have here – a career I’ve built for 11 years, a community in San Francisco, and now Sydney, who loved me and supported me. I’m striking out on a journey to find something… though I don’t know what. I do not know where I will end up, what I will learn, but it will be that which I cannot find here in San Francisco.

Not to spoil the film I viewed and the book I did not read, but *spoiler alert* in the end Hector finds the happiness he craved all along in the woman he left behind, in what he had that he didn’t know he had. His happiness was there all along. But he had to go on this journey to find it. To want what he got.

I think we all do. Sometimes I go the long way, the hard way, just to learn what others learned in a much simpler, direct way. I could learn from the experiences of others. But I need to learn for myself, sometimes in the hardest of ways. But that is how I learn.

I touched on how I learn in this post. It’s funny, how all these thoughts floating around in my head, that end up in what I think are random blog posts, end up coming together in themes. Not funny haha, but funny whoa.

And now, for posterity, I loved this lecture in this movie from a college professor writing a book about happiness.

Lecture on Happiness

“And researchers just love to tell us, that money doesn’t buy happiness. I know what you’re thinking, how much do researchers make?
Everything in this world is going up. And happiness is going down, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
How many of us, I wonder, can recall that childhood moment when we experienced happiness as a state of being.
That single moment of untarnished joy. That moment when everything in our world, inside and out was alright. Everything was alright.
And now we’ve become a colony of adults and everything is all wrong. All the time! It’s as if we were on a quest to get it back.
And yet the more we focus on our own personal happiness, the more it eludes us.
In fact, it’s only when we are otherwise engaged, you know, focused, absorbed, inspired, communicating, discovering, learning, dancing, for heaven’s sake that we experience happiness as a by product, a side effect.
Oh no. We should concern ourselves not so much with the pursuit of happiness, but with the happiness of pursuit.”

I’m siiick

You know, health, like air and sex, is no big deal unless you don’t have any. I have come down with a flu or cold of sorts. The last time I was sick, it was busy season for me in Australia – over a year ago. I had a sinus infection that lasted for over a month right before my father passed away. In fact, I was still on antibiotics when I flew to California unexpectedly for his passing. Sounds totally gross, but I was literally blowing yellow ochre/electric lime mushrooms out of my nose into the tissues. I had a moat of tissues around me in the audit room, and my poor team saw me day in and day out, not getting any better.

This is not nearly as bad (or as colorful). But I cannot breathe out of my nose. My ears have water in them, and occasionally ache. My nose is getting “the rotties” – the dry, peeling skin from blowing your nose too often. My lips are chapped, and since I’m mouth breathing, I’m sure my breath is rancid. I just want to take a hot bath, but there is no bathtub in my apartment. I shall have to settle for something similar to this:

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I don’t know what happened – I kept jackets on to keep from getting a chill after a gym workout. I wash my hands and occasionally use Purell hand sanitizer (not enough to be obnoxious, mind you.) I’m usually quite healthy. In fact, I’d just started a new hardcore low calorie, low sodium, low sugar, no fun diet the week before I got sick. That’s it – being healthy must have made me sick. If I don’t consume junk, I’ll break down.

I don’t know about you, but I always seem to get sick at the most inopportune times. Usually, it’s during my busy season when I cannot afford to take a sick day. Bloody awful. All you want to do is wrap yourself in a blanket burrito with hot tea and a cat in your lap while someone caring for you just pats your head while you moan in a monotone stuffed up, “Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.”

Living by myself, I have no one to take care of me, or get medicine for me when I can barely schlep to the bathroom. Do you feel sorry for me yet? Don’t.

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I don’t like for people to see me sick. It’s when I’m weaker than usual, and vulnerable. I hate asking for help, or cashing in on favors. I’d rather ride out the illness in solitude, and reemerge for a big comeback in a few weeks. Fingers and toes crossed, I’ll be right as rain in a few days.

Until then, I’ve managed to clean my apartment and surfaces, so at least I don’t reinfect myself. I’ve done all the laundry, and vacuumed all the dust and particles in sight which may aggravate a simultaneous-sneezing-and-accidentally-sharting-myself fit.

Before I succumbed to admitting I’m really sick yesterday, I managed to get to the travel visa office and submit my Russian visa application. You may have seen my previous post about my excitement over my upcoming whirlwind Europe tour this summer, which includes Russia. I did accomplish something yesterday. Unfortunately, the poor babushka who helped me sort my paperwork was forced to interact with me when I probably was most contagious, before the onset of the horrible symptoms I endure as I type this. Submitting that has removed a huge stress off my shoulders though, as the visa has been causing me a bit of grief of late, as I navigated forms and fees with no instructions as to what I was doing. I have a mild separation anxiety from my passport, so hopefully I’ll be back to 100% with passport back in my possession in no time.

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I had an awesome slumber party planned with my best friend and her girlfriend tonight as we haven’t caught up in a long time. Movies, food, they would drink beer, and a cozy couch with my name on it. I’ve had to cancel, even though slumber parties by their very nature are pretty low key and relaxed. I don’t even have the energy for that, and I wouldn’t wish these symptoms on anyone else, especially my best friend and her girlfriend. I’ll have to settle for my couch now, which seems to have accumulated another tissue moat since I started writing this. Ugh.

So alone I shall pass the time this weekend, doing some work on the side in order to meet a pressing client deadline this Friday. It’s probably for the best. But I could do without the sickies. Someone wanna come over and take care of me?

I didn’t think so. Stay away, for your own good.

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A horse with no name in a storm with no rain

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about feeling like I was set up for failure. I ended up doing well and beating the odds on that particular client which posed a real challenge to me. A friend of mine who read my blog when I wrote that piece told me that I can rise up to beat those odds, and I did, even though I just smiled at her naïve optimism when she said that. Bless her little heart. But goddamn if she wasn’t right.

Friday, as I waited for public transport in the city to whisk me to the financial district for work, my iTunes was on shuffle and my headphones were snuggly secured in my ears, when Tupac (in all his wisdom) reminded me to keep my head up, and these lyrics struck me like a freight train: “ We ain’t meant to survive, cause it’s a setup And even if you’re fed up You got to keep your head up.”

I am fed up. You know when you’re done with something, like really done? You want no part of it anymore? I feel that way now. It’s not a great feeling to have. I feel like I should not have let it progress this far. Unfortunately, circumstances being what they are, that is exactly what I’ve had to do. I have to continue doing my time and keeping my head up, even though it is all a setup. No one gets out of life alive.

This is my busiest time of year for work, being in the field of accounting/auditing. No, I don’t do taxes, so I’m not driven by the April 15 deadline. I audit private equity funds and registered investment advisors, which have statutory deadlines to file by March 31. If I’m being totally honest, I couldn’t give two shits if clients meet their deadlines. My heart just isn’t in it. The daily charade of pretending to care, looking like I’m busy like everyone else is, and reminding people how busy you are just to commiserate with them about circumstances being what they are is exhausting. I simply do not have the energy for any of this work-related stuff anymore.

I’d be disappointed in myself, but I’m not. I’m actually proud of myself for recognizing this is not my passion, and having the guts to put an end to it in the very near future. I find myself waiting in the wings, most impatiently, I’m afraid, for better things to come.

I have a trip to Europe coming up in 2 months, that will be 2 months in duration. After that, who knows? Like in my favorite Wii game, Mario Kart, on one of my favorite tracks with the bouncy mushrooms, I just want to bounce on to something else.

Right now, in the forefront of my mind, is Nicaragua. I’ve been thinking about moving there on and off for 2 years now, since a partner at my firm in Australia first mentioned this odd commune style living of a group of artists near San Juan del Sur. I still want to go. I want to detox and declutter and retreat there for a bit, to get my head and heart together and back on the same page.

Besides wanting to live in Nicaragua for however long it takes, I also want to do more travelling, but that feeling is stifled by also wanting to put down roots and settle a bit. I’ve always wanted a dog and couldn’t get one because the time I spent at work prevented me from properly taking care of a dog. I can’t very well take a pet with me on all my travels, so I know I need to get that out of my system first. Yet, even when I settle and have a dog, I know I’ll still want to travel and go on trips. Travel will always be a major part of my life.

There is nothing more frustrating than being a benchwarmer when you want so much for the coach to put you in the game. Watching from the sidelines patiently only suffices for so long before one feels the need to get in there and take action. I feel that sense of urgency; a fire has been lit inside of me, and now it is only a matter of time.

Last night, for the first time since I’ve been back in San Francisco, I saw lightning. A beautiful system of low cumulus clouds rolled in from the south yesterday mid-afternoon, which was odd, as clouds and fog normally move west to east in this city. I captured some amazing images of this storm, which apparently was dropping hail the size of marbles just south of the city, but nothing where I was. It looked very pregnant, full of rain, yet none came to the city. What I got instead were beautiful flashes of lightning somehow reminiscient of, yet nowhere near in comparison to, the storms in Sydney, Australia.

Here are some of the images I took yesterday from the view that finally paid for itself. While I feel like that storm, on the surface, I must remain calm and cool and wait for the right time to make my move. Now is not that time. Like a ninja or jedi, who rests and meditates in his downtime between battles, conserving his energy and harnessing his chi, I close my eyes and force myself into calmness while I wait. And I keep my head up.

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http://youtu.be/CpSdePGgVyQ