Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The South Napa Earthquake .....

I am a native Californian.  I can still remember the first earthquake I finally felt.  I say "finally" because I was in several where someone else said, "Did you feel that?"  And I hadn't.  Or ones where I was in an area where everyone else felt the earthquake, I had no idea anything was going on, and was later asked, "Hey they had an earthquake.  Did you feel it?"  I finally felt one in Sacramento while waiting for a hairdresser's appointment.  I was sitting in an overstuffed chair and my feet didn't touch the floor.  Suddenly it felt like someone pushed on my chair from behind.  So much so, I turned my head and looked behind me.  As I faced forward again, I heard an announcer on the radio say, "We just had an earthquake."

The second earthquake I felt was the Loma Prieta quake of 1989.  I was at a friend's house and we were talking in her living room.  All of the sudden the wrought iron steps to the upstairs apartments began to shake and rattle.  I stood in the center of the room slack-jawed as my brain tried to figure out what was happening.  My friend was much quicker than me and had led me by my shirtsleeve towards a door frame before I realized:  earthquake.  

Those were the days.  That was when earthquakes were a fun little physical experience like a brush with vertigo on an airplane or amusement park ride.  Then I experienced my first one where I actually lived near the epicenter.  It was in 2000, in Napa, and on Labor Day weekend.  Not so very far from where we are right now.  It was 1:16am not 3:20am, but it still woke us up in our beds.  At that time, I still lived with my ex-husband.  We hadn't even said the "d" word yet, I don't think.  Although it wasn't very far in our futures.  The quake was 5.2 in magnitude and lasted 18 seconds.  I approached it with efficiency and matter of factness.  I kept myself busy checking on others, cleaning and helping.  I didn't examine my feelings about it.  

Earthquakes stories are like drunk stories.  We all have some.  Mine from the earthquake of 2000 was what happened in my kitchen.  Every cabinet, including the refrigerator, had its doors flung open, the majority of the contents belched out, and doors flung shut again.  The result was one entire trash can  (the size you'd leave at the curb for the garbage company to pick up) of broken glass stuck to the floor with spilt soft drinks.  In my head, it was like a twisted Disney cartoon, that detail where the doors shut again.  It anthropomorphized the earthquake for me in a cute sort of way.  I don't remember if the quake scared me.  I didn't have to think about that much either because I focused instead on my husband.  It was the first earthquake he had ever felt, at least that's how I remember it, and his reaction triggered mine.  It made me become "The Strong One." 

I lived in the same house, sans ex husband, for the South Napa Earthquake of 2014.  The only facts I could find about duration were vague, saying 10 to 20 seconds.  The magnitude was 6.0.  There was a lot less glass broken this time, but you wouldn't be wrong if you guessed that was because I owned less.  Cabinets and bookshelves were tossed and dumped over in every room of the house.  Even the medicine cabinet spit vitamins and Tylenol bottles onto the floor.  The same thing happened where I work.  I feel like I will be cleaning for at least the rest of 2014.  But I don't care.  In a weird sort of way, I've come to feel that earthquakes simply direct your attention to all the things you should have gotten rid of anyway.  As long as I lived, my pets lived and my friends lived; I really could give a toss what was broken.  

Still that earthquake has me stuck.  It caught my attention in a way that slowed time and made me realize there was something here I could learn from if I simply paid attention.  First, it seemed to me it was something about the sensation.  Believe me when I say, the difference between a 5.2 magnitude earthquake and a 6.0 is much greater than you think.  At least in terms of what it feels like.  For one thing, the 2000 earthquake was 18 seconds, which is almost 20.  This recent earthquake was somewhere between 10 to 20 seconds, yet felt like it lasted 5 times longer than 2000's.  An impossibility.  So perhaps the sensation is really just much stronger which leaves the lasting impression of having continued too long.

Dissect it and, if you weren't worried for your safety and that of your loved ones, it should be a rather fun sensation.  We pay good money to create roller coasters and other rides to deliver similar sensations.  In fact, I realized that earthquake was very similar to the Walt Disney ride "Tower of Terror" for me.  You see, I love rides with a good drop.  I am terrified by them and dread them at the same time.  So I rode ToT with a great deal of excitement and expectation.  If you aren't familiar with ToT, it is like many other "Drop Zone" rides except with a Disney story to go along with it and the element of randomness.  You don't actually drop, you are pulled faster than gravity would drop you.  The ride's computer delivers a different ride every time.  Sometimes you go up at first and then drop.  Sometimes you drop first and then go up higher only to drop again.  Some drops are long.  Some drops are short.  Sometimes you are dropped as many as five or six times.

I finally had "that" ride on "Tower of Terror."  The one that left a lasting impression of having continued too long.  It made me analyze why I felt that way.  First, I decided that the drop configuration I enjoy is the sensation of dropping on a slope, like on Splash Mountain or an old school wooden roller coaster.  Secondly, and more importantly, I realized I hated not knowing how many times we would drop.  It bothers me to admit.  That isn't a sensation issue.  That is a control issue.  

That's how I felt during the 2014 earthquake.  A loud noise woke me.  My cat, Peabody, ran across my chest, leaving nail punctures which he is far too gentle a cat to "normally" do.  I sat up, worried if he had gotten to someplace safe and experienced a rough rocking that felt like some sort of ancient creature was rising up out of the earth right underneath my house.  I didn't know it at the time, but my bed moved five or six inches.  What I did know, is the sensation lasted long enough for me to wish it was over.  

That wasn't a sensation issue.  It is a control issue.  

Earthquakes are not-so-subtle reminders of just about how little control we actually have.  When you consider how many people lost items which had been bolted or secured for earthquakes or how many had retrofitted their house to be earthquake safe, yet lost exactly what they aimed to protect.  You can't even plan to diminish your losses with any certainty.  

The South Napa Earthquake stared me in the face and reminded me I have no control over anything and I didn't like it.  Further, I knew that already and I STILL didn't like it.  If we have a 7.0 in another 14 years, I hope have further released my desire to control and ride it like a surfer, hands waving "Hang Loose Hawaii."


The one thing you always do have, is control over your own behavior.  In the wake of The South Napa Earthquake, Napans (or "Napkins" as I've heard some refer to themselves as) have proven to be absolute gems.  I have witnessed kindness and good humor that makes me wish I could give the entire town a big hug.  Napa, you're a class act with a big heart and I love you.  

(But stop it with the one way/two way "Presto-Change-o's" with the streets. You're killin' me.  JK xoxo) 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Money is a Tool

That's all it really is.  A tool.  Like many other tools, you can choose the budget, mid-range, or luxury version.  Sometimes the level of tool you purchased can compromise the integrity or quality of the work you perform with it.  I have a diagonal scar on my left thumb given to me by a $20 matte cutter that taught me that lesson.

I have been so fortunate in my life.  I have been so lucky.  I think of the luxury version of money being a fancy hotel with all white and gold fixtures.  I really hate white and gold fixtures.  What I love is a patina with rich deep colors and a bit of texture and dirt.  That budget to mid-range lifestyle suits "me to a T" as long as I add in some perks like traveling wherever I like.  (Why, in my head, does it feel like there are rules that mid-range life-stylers are only supposed to take driving vacations?  Or if they do fly, they are only allowed the continental US?)  Nearly nothing about the luxury lifestyle actually appealed to me, so I never had to figure out how to attract that.

See I'm lucky.  I "got it" long ago.  Well, at least about money.  Money isn't love.  It isn't evil.  It cannot buy you happiness.  See the trick there is, it can buy you things that you may see as the elements which will make you happy.  However, the end result is solely dependent on whether or not you clearly discerned what would bring you happiness.  We have endless examples where someone tried just that and failed.  So we know it isn't a sure deal.  It isn't certain enough to write a mathematic equation around.

X (Money) + Y (Things Money Can Buy) = Z (Happiness)

Z would have to have some sort of modifier.  Something that quantified the element of self awareness.

That would be a good descriptor, right?  Self awareness.  Something to describe how accurate you are in pre-determining what will make you happy.  I mean, we don't just think it's a crap shoot.  We don't just think, "Ok, I'll drop a few grand on this 52" plasma to watch the ball games.  MAYBE that will make me happy.  Or maybe it will be like having a root canal.  Who knows?"

No, I think we're pretty accurate, at least in choosing things we will enjoy.  We just don't really seem to think about whether that enjoyment will be long lasting or not.

You'd think I'd given this a lot of thought.  Not really.  What I did give a lot of thought was my mother and why she behaved in the ways that she did.  My mother loved to shop.  My mother loved to buy things.  I think she loved to shop a little bit more than she loved to buy things, but she loved to shop and buy things way more than she liked actually having things.  Don't get me wrong.  To anybody other than me, my mother would cut you to the quick if you were taking something that was hers.  But other than the notion of how much stuff she had, she didn't care as much about those things.  You could watch dust collect on some of them or notice packages that had never actually been opened.  It didn't take me long to realize what she loved was shopping and buying.  At first I saw it in some sort of terms of "the thrill of the hunt."  Except I realized my mother's shopping style was much more like "shooting fish in a barrel." It must have been then that my mother talked about her childhood and repeated one of her stories.

I need to explain.  That was what my mother talked about most.  Her childhood.  Over and over and over again.  We existed in a weird world where no one ever even bothered to point out, "Hey I've heard this one before."  We just listened as if it was the first time.  I need to explain too that she and her sister never got along.  They would hate each other for 20 year spans.  As a child, I was instructed that, if I saw my aunt, I was to pretend I didn't see her.

When you live in families with weird rules like that, you spend a lot of time trying to understand what is going on.

My mother was a child during World War II.  Even though there was rationing, my grandparents would take my mother and her sister out window shopping every Saturday.  While I was living in their household and had no capability of doing anything else, my mother and father took me out shopping every Saturday.  After I moved out, my parents still went out shopping every Saturday until my mother's poor health prevented her from going.  Then she sent my father.

It was after my aunt died and I heard the details of her life that were previously unknown to me that I began to believe what I had already suspected.  You see, my aunt was a hoarder too.  She went shopping every Saturday too.  What I decided was that one of those Saturdays back in the 40's was very special to those two little girls.  Whatever happened.  Whatever they purchased or simply dreamt of purchasing, it translated to them as happiness.  But the rest of their lives, no matter what they bought, neither of them was ever really happy.  It never lasted.  Because the next Saturday?  They were right out there again.  I could be wrong, but I've always suspected if they simply had pieced things together like I did.  If they had looked at the arrangement of their lives like I did, maybe they would have stopped shopping and actually ended up happy.   But really I'm just guessing.  After all, I'm the daughter who shopped every Saturday and ended up hating it.  I'm the Queen of "know what you want, get in, and get back out again."  I practically worship Amazon.com simply for existing.

If I'm right, though, maybe the self awareness we lack is about our empty holes.  That's what I picture them doing, weekend after weekend.  Frantically stuffing an empty hole with things.

Maybe this will work as a theorem.

Money is a tool.  In order to properly use a tool, you need to know when and how to use it.  Unless otherwise indicated, sunscreen won't protect you from bugs and bug-spray won't prevent your sunburn.  Perhaps the people who are successful with money and always have what they need, know how and when to use it.  While the people who struggle are throwing it into a big empty hole like my mother.

It's a theory anyway.  But for me it gives an example of why we try and fail to buy happiness with money.  My aunt and my mother didn't really want any of the things they bought.  They were trying to buy that happy experience they had as children.  I can relate to that.  I've had a time period I thought was the happiest in my life and had it go away.  If I thought it would have brought it back, I would have even gone shopping on a Saturday.

But it doesn't work that way.  Because that isn't really happiness.  It is something called attachment.  I used to live in an "addiction is something that happens to other people" world.  Then I had my own "attachment" incident.  It's horrible.  I felt like I would never be happy again.  I couldn't even rationally see the entire picture.  What I lost was everything wonderful.  It had been all upside with no bad elements.

Except.  At the same time, I could.  I could rationally see the picture and I knew it hadn't all been a bed of roses.  I knew there was something off in my logic.  It was my feelings that were blind.  They didn't seem to know or care about any of that.

Like I said, I've always been lucky.  In this case, I had my aunt and my mother.  I had witnessed this phenomenon up close and personal and I knew I didn't want any part of it.

The answer to how to stop trying to fill our empty holes, is to realize we don't really have any.  It's like an exercise in the Law of Attraction.  Believe you are lacking something and you will always be lacking.  Focus instead on how much you actually have and how grateful you are for it.  Or better yet, focus on all you can do for someone else.  To date, my happiest moment involved gifts I gave someone I didn't even get to see open them.  Trust me, your heart will be so full, you won't have any space to accommodate "lacking."  You'll be too busy admiring the supernova of love you've suddenly discovered inside you.

You have to let go, though.  See, all that time you've been shoving things into your empty hole, you believed you could fill it.  You believed nirvana would come just when you smoothed over the top of that hole.  You secretly loved your pain.  You loved the fight.  You gave yourself pep talks about how much you deserved it.  (Both your current failures and your future success.)  You are caught in the end reel of an old serial.  Forever the hero, reaching for the unattainable.  It's time to step off the screen, walk past the seats and out into the daylight.  It's time to stop worrying about what you can be and be who you are.

Money is a tool.  It can buy you pieces of happiness, freedom, peace of mind, comfort or a lot of other things you might want.  It all depends on you, though.  You have to know what you're shopping for.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cleaning Up Our Acts

Over the weekend I went to an Achieve Today Sundance Retreat in Provo, Utah.  It is easily one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.  In addition to hearing excellent inspiring presentations by some of the programs best life coaches, I got to meet one of my idols, Joe Vitale in person.  Not just in a fangirl,  "I love you Joe.  Could you please sign a copy of your book for me?" sort of way, but he spent enough time with us, shoulder to shoulder, I got to glimpse a little bit of his humanity.  In other words, I got to see a little bit of the "Joe" in me and a little bit of the "me" in Joe.  I got to realize and appreciate all of the reasons why he is my idol in the first place.  All of this happened while I was surrounded by other Achieve Today students.  Awhile back, after hearing about a World-of-Warcraft-loving-friend's Blizzcon experience, I told them I wished I could find whatever it was I needed to find in order to feel like I had found "my people."   This weekend I did that.  I met people I know I will be friends with for life.  I just can't say enough good things about the experience.  It is easily one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.


Sometimes, maybe after a retreat or a workshop, we wake up, look around, and realize it has been as if we have been living our lives in a drunken stupor.  We're thirty pounds larger.  Our debt is 20% deeper.  We look at our lives and we don't like what we see going on, but we have no idea how we got to this place or what to do about it.  I have had that moment so many times in my life.  I used to view it as a moment of shame, like I was suddenly witnessing what everyone else could see.  Angela Estes sitting in a pile of my own discarded trash, spittle on my chin, cake crumbs in my lap with only cats left for friends.  (Isn't it funny how we can overdramatize everything?)

Now I see it for what I believe it is.  Opportunity knocking.  As Joe Vitale or any one of the life coaches at Achieve Today would say, "in order to know what you want, you have to know what you don't want."  Those moments display what you don't want as if on a platter before you.  In other words, I don't want to be sitting in a pile of trash; I want to wipe off the spittle, vacuum up the crumbs and, while my cat Peabody and I have a relationship that is somehow more than owner and pet, I need human friends in my life.  Those moments are the crossroads where we need to be our own advocates.  We need to be a little bit selfish, focus on our needs and our wants and sometimes, make some life altering changes.  

It's a tricky situation because I believe it is selfishness that put us on that pile of rubble in the first place.  It is looking at life and thinking ours isn't good enough and will never be good enough.  It is receiving dessert and wondering why we always get the smallest slice.  It is sitting at a large table of people and becoming offended when the waiter misses us and forgets to ask what we want to drink.  It is becoming estranged from our life partner because we focus on how they have hurt us rather than asking ourselves how we have hurt them.  In short, it is picturing ourselves as "the victim."  

I didn't know it at the time, but my father once told me a story that perfectly embodies what I am trying to say.  My father was a Nuclear Scheduler at Mare Island Naval Shipyard.  Like anybody, he had preferences as to his work hours.  He had a bit of a longish commute and used a Mare Island "commute specific" bus to make life easier.  During one extended time period, when he had to work the swing shift instead of his preferred day shift and he was having to drive the entire commute himself, he was feeling a little put out and essentially while he wouldn't say it, I will.  He became "the victim."  In order to make his situation more bearable, he started stopping at Dairy Queen on the way home and buying a milk shake for the rest of the drive.  Then, of course, he woke one morning and had problems buttoning the top button of his pants and swore off ice cream forever.  Until the next time.  

I think victimhood is the ground floor to the downward elevator called "bad decisions."  We feel bad.  We feel bad and we want to feel better RIGHT NOW.  We demand instant gratification.  We may not tell ourselves we deserve to be happy or have the life of our dreams, but it is easy to say, "I've had a hard time here.  I deserve that designer pair of shoes."  How can we more easily tell a bad decision from a good decision?  A bad decision feeds the moment, whereas a good decision feeds the lifetime.

That's a tricky situation too because I believe the way to escape telling yourself you're a victim is to ground yourself in the moment.  Because really, you may think you are reacting to something in the moment when you're victimizing yourself, but aren't you really just revisiting a long list of grievances?  All of those bad things happened in your past, but when we are wearing a victim's mindset, we see them constantly reoccurring whether they truly are or not.  In other words, we spend our days looking to be offended.  For instance, let's take that poor busy, harried waiter trying to take drink orders for a large table of people.  The victim's mindset can make you actually believe that out of a table of twenty or more people he singled you out to slight as not being worthy enough of choosing a beverage!  (Isn't it funny how important we can make ourselves while telling ourselves we are unimportant?)  No one at that table knows all your baggage and judges you for it.  It is YOU who knows your baggage and judges you for it.  While you judge yourself for it, you believe you are undeserving.  While you believe you are undeserving, your heart aches like a cut with dirt in it, but instead of actually cleaning it out, you buy designer handbags and milkshakes to bandage the wound and you wonder why it is still festering time and time again.

You need to stop.  Take a big breath in.  As Janeen Detrick, an executive coach at Achieve Today, frequently suggests "Touch something around you and tell it thank you."  Perhaps the chair you are sitting on.  Breathe in the air of the moment deeply and slowly.  Feel the way the chair is supporting you.  Is there a cushion?  Is it soft and envelopes you?  Or is it cushion-less, but strong, solid and durable?  Really notice everything that surrounds you.  Rather than always noticing the sudden burst of car alarms or horns honking, what about the birds singing or the breezes whispering in between them.  Why not thank the chair for being there to allow you to sit rather than stand?  Why not bathe yourself in the gratitude of all the beautiful sounds, smells and sights that surround you.  As Eckhart Tolle says, "The past has no power over the present moment."  Peace and piece of mind are always waiting for you, grounded in the present moment.

Fully present and in NOW, you have a better chance of making good decisions.  The discord and discomfort of victimhood frequently makes us feel like we have to act hastily.  "I can't bear this and have to bandage this bad old thing RIGHT NOW!."  A calm mind sees choices and decisions as simply a variety of paths and opportunities.  There is no right one that is a cure all.  There is no wrong one that destroys your life.  Every choice is either a blessing and a joy or a lesson learned which can help you better fine tune your future choices.

Let's think again about my father and his swing shift commute.  There's nothing wrong with him stopping at Dairy Queen on the way home and having a milk shake.  I'm a firm believer in occasionally treating yourself to wonderful tasty things like ice cream.  In fact, I had a milk shake just last night myself.  But if you treat yourself like that every day, you can not only gain unwanted weight and damage your health, you can suck the very joy out of a "treat."  How many days of milk shakes does it take to strip them right down to habit and routine?  Meanwhile, there are so many things he could have chosen to do that could have fed his future rather than just his resentment about the drive home.  He could have:

1.  Listened to a book on tape that would have entertained him and made the time seem like nothing.  It would have not only lightened the trip home, but the trip to work as well.
2.  Listened to a book on tape that could have taught him skills to use at his current job or towards getting a different one.
3.  As the only one in the car, he could have chosen to make a stop each day to enjoy the view or take a little time to meditate.
4.  As the only one in the car, he could have chosen a variety of routes and explore different and new sceneries.
5.  Even if he couldn't have ridden on the commuter bus he used normally, he could have pursued creating a network of friends who could trade off driving and riding when they were stuck on the other shifts.

.... and those are just a few off the top of my head.

The first step to truly "cleaning up our acts" is learning to make choices from a calm mind grounded in the present moment free of victimhood and past resentments.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


After I got over my first thrilling stock trading moments, I refined my goals in owning stocks.  In addition to occasionally making short term trades, I wanted to own a diversified portfolio of five different companies.   At its simplest level, diversified means five different companies who are in five different industries or sectors.  Which feels a bit irritating at first because it feels like it just means you have to research and own names from industries that don't interest you.  Like the only reason anyone would own some of these companies is because someone (probably working on behalf of the boring companies) sold them that they needed a diversified portfolio.

Just joking, of course, but I didn't really get the reason for the necessity until the stock market woes of 2008.  Diversification is MUCH more than simply five different companies from five different industries or sectors.  In my case, I learned it by owning too many High Yielding REITS and Master Limited Partnerships.  They generally move very slowly.  Never as quickly as momentum plays.  The high yields make it a particular favorite of retirees or retirement portfolios or, in my case, a novice trying to earn some money amidst her losses while figuring out what she is doing.  I don't remember all of the particulars of why what happened happened.  The stock market had too much margin action, I remember that.

When you buy something on margin that means you have borrowed money to make the purchase.  Usually from your broker.  (Never ever ever do that by the way.  Never ever trade stocks using margin.)  When the world goes crazy and bubbles are bursting, brokers can be known to do something known as a "margin call."  Which is essentially an abruptly announced balloon payment.  Unlike the local loan shark, your brokerage can't break your knee-caps, but if you don't pay up, they will sell off all of your positions.  Now that's bad enough for you and I may feel sorry for you, but at the same time, all this margin calling 'en masse' gives all of us who paid for our trades fair and square a nose-bleeding roller coaster ride.  

So one element of my lesson learned was caused by margin calls.  Another had to do with the fact that those high yielding REITS and MLPs were owned largely by retirement funds.  Something about the world dynamic and the margin calls caused the hedge funds and mutual funds to begin dumping their high yielding holdings.  (Probably because anything that is "high yielding" also involves "higher risk" and individuals and institutions who are "higher risk" are more likely to cash out completely when the world is caught in crisis.  Think of it this way.  What is a recession or depression really like to anyone who has plenty of money?  It's like a big close out sale.) 

Hedge and mutual funds began to bail on those slow moving, high dividend names and watching them drop like a momentum player who had had a bad day was very startling.  But it taught me a lesson.  There is much more to diversification than simply five companies from five different industries.    You are trying to protect yourself from getting slaughtered on the downside when a big market event happens.  Sometimes that means a particular industry or sector, like during the infamous "Dot Com" bubble, but other times it could mean that Wall Street is getting gun-shy about momentum or growth names and they only want to own staples or companies who make things consumers "must" buy as opposed to luxury items.  Changes in the market can happen like that without any noticeable world crisis too.  A financial policy will change.  Bond yields will change accordingly and a group of investors "in the know" to the larger implication of those bond yield changes will cause a hot sector to cool and a cold sector to catch fire.  The way I look at it is this.  Those "in the know" investors aren't doing anything else as a day job.  A lot of them "live" stocks 24/7 too.  Much more than a 40 hour work week.  It is what they talk at work and what they talk at parties.  I can't hope to ever have my finger on the pulse of the market anywhere near as completely.  Diversification helps me limit my unavoidable losses due to what I could not know.