Some anniversaries aren’t celebrated, but can be recognized. Two years ago I felt like I was hit by a Triple Whammy. As I said then, “my semi-sustainable lifestyle is at least temporarily threatened“. I re-read that post and am pondering the nature of the word “temporary”. Throughout these two years the potential for my closing thought from that blog continues. “I give the universe the opportunity to positively amaze me.” The pessimist says it won’t. The optimist says that every day of delay increases the positivity of the eventual amazement. Now would be a good time, and not just for me.
The last two years have made real a perspective I understood as an abstraction. Having less than enough is tough. That’s a major understatement. Many of life’s crises are traumatic and dynamic. Not having enough isn’t as dynamic but it is a moment-by-moment reminder that you can’t pay the entry fee to participate in our society. As I have found myself more frequently standing outside the gates of opportunities, I’ve been amazed to see the crowd of remarkable people who’ve been there for years. My attitude has gone from, “We really ought to do something about people who’ve been hit by misfortune” to “Who do we think we are if we’re not helping those who’ve been hit by misfortune?” Many of our “greatest nation” cliches are amazingly hollow; especially, when compared to “lesser” countries that are far smaller.
A friend asked the most frequent question yet again. “How are you doing? No, really. How are you doing?” My first quip of a response didn’t appease. This friend actually is one of the few that I’ll tell the fuller story to, but being asked in the middle of the grocery store wasn’t the place for me to launch into the real response. How am I doing? Any given day I encounter a wider range of emotions than I could when I had “enough”. I’m somewhat practiced with words, and I can’t convey the radically different experience. Demonstrating it through dance might succeed, but bouncing off the rutabagas would probably curtail my creative expression.
My reason for writing this is not to belabor my situation, but to illuminate what can happen to any of us. I know many who have lost much more; they’re just not as likely to talk about it. Shame, embarrassment, and truth live behind many facades.
My reason for writing this is also to emphasize the possibilities. While our society no longer provides enough safety nets for its citizens, the American form of government continues to provide opportunity and empowerment.
Chronicling this experience may be the best way to illustrate how our society, government, and civilization actually work.
For brevity, those who don’t want to hear the rest of the downside can skip ahead a paragraph. For completeness in my chronicling, welcome to the improbable litany of the last two years. A little more than two years ago, AMSC was a major portion of my portfolio, and had good reason to rise. They profit from alternative energies and from improving our power infrastructure – until their largest customer apparently stole AMSC’s intellectual property and cancelled their orders. AMSC dropped from over $40 to under $3. Wham. Dendreon (DNDN) looked like it would make up the difference because their cancer vaccine was approved and working better than expected medically; but, the company didn’t meet Wall Street’s expectations. The ~40% drop in DNDN was a bigger whammy. A stock that I thought would rise $22 dropped $22 and continued to fall. Instead of being out of debt, I found myself selling a decreasing stock from a diminishing portfolio, even as the treatment improved. I started looking for a job that month, August 2011. I thought the stock would recover quickly, and therefore put a few extra bills on credit, which became the stereotypical trap. I sold almost all of my non-IRA stock to pay bills, and then dipped into my IRA. I put my house on the market because it was the most likely source of equity, according to zillow.com. With my non-IRA stocks almost all gone, I finally quit paying the mortgage when the last of the DNDN sold out of my IRA. That was in the fall of 2012. My mortgager is not pleased. The third part of the whammy was actually a flounder. The whammy was the emotional hit I took when I realized that MicroVision (MVIS) wasn’t going to have their self-proclaimed “Super Bowl year” in 2011, 2012, (2013?). MVIS continues to languish at about a quarter of what it was then, which was also a drop from – well – much higher. While all of this was going on I ramped up my existing business. My Rule of 7 applied and eventually I was working seven days a week finishing my book about Scotland, completing a five-year photo essay of Whidbey Island, teaching classes, consulting with clients, and doing whatever I could to make money. My portfolio is about a tenth of what it was. My house has had less then six buyers even visit it in the year that it’s been on the market. I’ve only had one job interview for a full-time professional job, despite two years of applying. My pantry and freezer have a lot of empty space, and I’ve even been able to clear out a room because I’ve been selling my stuff. Being a bit discouraged shouldn’t be much of a surprise, and if you actually read through this entire paragraph I applaud your perseverance.
Here’s the upside. Things are looking better. My business is up 70% from last year. (Hi, want help with your projects? An hour or two with me may save you weeks or months.) Book sales are up, thanks to Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland. Photo sales are up, thanks to my new online galleries (Gratitude Gallery
and Fine Art America). At this rate, my business will be able to pay my bills in 2015, not soon enough, but not bad either. The Puget Sound housing market is improving. Some of the work I’m doing for clients could turn into more hours, better pay, or even full time employment. My name recognition is high, and so many people have endorsed me on LinkedIn that I’ve maxed out the number of talents I’m allowed to display. And, despite the lack of DNDN, the companies in my portfolio have progressed to the point that even a return to conservative valuations will provide me years of living expenses. If companies like MicroVision succeed and trade at a premium my portfolio will provide decades of living expenses.
Two years is a long time (and so is this post). I wonder how much longer all of this can go on.
There are no guarantees. The elements within my situation are running at about the same pace. I’m living a race in which I am largely a spectator because most of the entrants are out of my control. Without guarantees, I don’t know which happens first: running out of money, or returning to comfortably enough.
The lack of control increases the frustration. One criterion for evaluating the functionality of a workplace is whether the people with responsibility are also given the appropriate authority, and whether people with authority also carry responsibility. Authority without responsibility is the life of the spoiled child. Responsibility without authority is the life of the scapegoat. Our treatment of the misfortunate is more the latter, and evident in the news. Excessive executive compensation in the midst of atrocious performance is an example of the former. What I look forward to is a return to that middle ground, which also embodied our stereotypical American spirit: a more rational world where value is valued, and that value reflects a person’s effort and also the fact that they are a person.
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading. Really, we’re getting to the good stuff, honest. (I hope, I hope, I hope.)
Thanks, Tom for another thought provoking epistle.
I especially appreciated the authority/responsibility discussion. I feel that both responsibility and accountability are often lacking in our public discourse and private actions. But, to your point, those in authority often choose to act irresponsibly (hello Anthony Weiner). And many who act responsibly lack the authority needed to assist them in progressing forward.
Keep up the good work!