2018 Review

posted by Jeff | Friday, December 28, 2018, 9:00 PM | comments: 0

These retrospectives seem to come faster and faster. I am acutely aware of the passage of time lately. With that said, given the perception of urgency, let me get to it!

Career

This year was marked by a ton of anxiety, which is a new experience for me. I mean, I'm no stranger to stress, and how to deal with it, but anxiety is something different. When the last year ended, I felt good about the progress I made with my team after a grueling year of hiring, and it was good to turn a corner. But in April, the risk I accepted by joining a small bootstrapped company became a liability when I got let go, and the timing was pretty terrible. I have generally distilled work down to a simple business proposition, where a company gives you money, and you provide something of value, but I swung in the other direction where it was something very much attached to identity and purpose. I haven't felt that way about work in a long time, and in that sense it was a good reminder that we should strive to fall somewhere between those extremes. I let work-life balance get out of whack, and a year ago I knew that was a problem.

Honestly, there was a weight lifted at that point, though the timing was terrible even if the cash flow situation was good (I'll get to that). Around the same time, Gideon, our big cat, was dying of cancer, Simon was struggling at the end of school and picking his skin off because of meds and I was putting in way too many extra hours for work. I needed a break.

I ended up having three reasonable job offers, which frankly was lucky because work is harder to find at the level I'm at. Only one really fit the direction I wanted to go, and they found me, so that also involved a little luck. It was the position I didn't know I was looking for until the new ownership firm invited me to apply. I wasn't even sure it was for me until the second interview.

The gig at PowerDMS has been super challenging, but the thing that's really different is the scale. The difficulty is rooted in my ability to challenge the assumptions I have about how the familiar success patterns apply to a larger org. The good news is that I really like the people, the product and the market opportunity. I can see the future, and it's really exciting. I've not been in a company during a private equity growth phase. Should be an intense ride.

One thing I still struggle with is the balance. In six months I've only taken net 7 days off, even though we have unlimited time off. I did 14 weeks without a break, and even then I did a staycation, a series of date days with Diana. I'm finally taking a week off, on a boat, unplugging completely. I have to remember to do this, because not doing is making an excuse. There will always be something, in every job. Take the time off.

The business

After 7 straight years of decline, ad revenue finally went the other way, and in fact was up 24% year-over-year, which is remarkable since it's mostly from Google. That sounds great, but the decline over the 7 years was on the order of a 70% decrease, so it has to just about triple over this year's total to reach back to 2010 levels. What I still can't nail down is why CoasterBuzz traffic is twice as valuable as PointBuzz traffic. Part of it I'm sure is that PointBuzz leans heavily mobile (69%), and mobile is less lucrative in terms of advertising. It's not age, or at least not in the ratio I would expect, as PointBuzz leans just slightly older to the 35-44 group, according to Google. It's creepy that they know that.

Speaking of the mobile phenomenon, one of the interesting things is that CoasterBuzz sells way more club memberships to desktop users. 77% of club sales go to desktop even though they account for 41% of traffic. I've always maintained that the site is a workplace distraction that weights heavily to business hours, but this seems to reinforce that. Unsurprisingly, club members account for only 1.4% of traffic but view a staggeringly high 7 pages per visit, compared to 2 for anonymous users, and 5.5 for logged in, non-club users.

I need to think of something fun to build and run on the side that isn't world dominating or time consuming, but makes some nice side-coin. That's definitely not some kind of content, but perhaps some simple thing that people will give me recurring money for. I mean, if I could find some reason for people to give me $50 per month, I would only need 20 of them to score a grand per month.

Sustainable energy

We ended up replacing both of our EV's this year. Nissan wouldn't allow us to keep extending the lease on the Leaf, as we started at two years and ended at four. We replaced it with another Leaf, and it's pretty great with about 60% more range. We also sold our Tesla Model S and bought a Model 3, several months after our reservation came up. It's a less expensive car, but still pricey since the "inexpensive" model won't come until they can get to the volume that allows it. It's an amazing piece of technology, and while I like participating in this transition to sustainable transportation, I look forward to the day when a long-range EV costs the same amount as a Prius. After 3.5 years of being an all-EV family, I can't ever imagine going back to gas. Using gas seems completely absurd, and we have 80k miles to back up how much better electric is. I haven't been to a gas station in that time.

We also installed a 10 kW solar system on top of our house. It doesn't quite cover all of our electrical use in the summer, mostly because of the cars and the fact that I now commute. Still, after the federal tax credit, the return on investment period should be just under 9 years, and obviously it adds to the value of the house. We've been in the house for just about a year, and it's not cheap to keep it cool. (It didn't help that the insulation wasn't well distributed, but we had that taken care of in the warranty period.) If we had the roof space for another 4 kW of panels, I would consider it. I applaud California for mandating solar on new construction. It's so obvious that a distributed grid is our future, and looking at Kauai's evolving co-op as proof, we have the technology to get there.

Health

My yearly check up last summer was about where the other have been in recent years. I haven't lost enough weight, or in the case of this year gained, my cholesterol is just a little too high and triglycerides are way too high. But something interesting happened with blood pressure, because I got it down to normal at the time of the visit. I think I was moving around just enough to affect that, along with taking Omega-3 supplements per the doctor's orders. That was a relief.

But the truth is that I have largely treated eating as a sport this year. I definitely eat my feelings, and I let it get out of control this year. I can't tell you how often I've found myself eating to the point of discomfort. I wouldn't say that I've unlearned the habits of the last decade or so, but I definitely have not given respect to those habits. Mind you, I'm still generally avoiding the worst of it, like fried food, excessive junk food, etc., but eating three times your weight in low calorie foods is still overeating.

My activity level isn't good either. I mean, Fitbit actually says I did 2.1 million steps this year, over last year's 1.8 million, but an embarrassing amount of that walking was undoubtedly to lunch or around Epcot during the Food & Wine Festival. The biggest change is that I'm not working remotely, so I'm not getting out and walking around first thing in the morning. I really miss doing that. This is on me, obviously, and I need to make better choices.

The aforementioned anxiety definitely caused some problems for me, but I realized that much of the way I could roll with it was to make time to switch off. I've come to realize that for most of my life I've engaged in what others would call meditation, or some variation thereof. For me it's not an issue of trying to flush my head of all kinds of thoughts, but rather redirect myself toward whatever is present. It can be just feeling the sun on your face while you lie in the sun, or the sound of the ocean (or train whistles in the distance). I think it's also OK to let your mind drift toward fantasy and good memories, too. It's definitely good to have a nice nap now and then, because it's rest for your brain and your body.

This was the first year in a long time that stress was causing the physical manifestation of IBS. For me at least, it generally comes as the result of poor eating or being tweaked out, and in the case of this year, probably both. It got better toward the end of the year, but that extreme cramping in a constipation-diarrhea cycle sucks. It has generally been rare since moving to Florida, but it caused some rough days this year.

Diana had a few serious headaches this year, one requiring an ER visit to break, and also started on a medication that caused her to lose a ton of weight, to an unhealthy point. That was scary stuff, to see her kind of fade like that, but the doctor put her on something else that had weight gain as a side effect. I'd rather she had to watch her intake of delicious cheese than be skin and bones, so we'll take that.

Simon's ADHD medication situation changed a bunch, where he went from picking his skin off to not seemingly have any real effect on a different med, and I'm not sure where we really are now. The problem is that the cycle to prescribe, validate and adjust is so long that I worry it isn't going to help him in an already challenging year of school (because of the fucking testing expectations). It's also not particularly easy to explain medication to a kid who doesn't have anything physically wrong, especially when he also has ASD.

Parenting and family

I feel like I've turned a corner with parenting, but only after a mostly rough year. In all of my desire to see more empathy from Simon, I realized I wasn't exhibiting much toward him. I've spent a whole lot of time to trying to figure out how to balance his independence and helping him, leaning generally toward letting him flail a bit. That's made me the somewhat less liked parent, but I know it's what he needs. He still splits on developmental issues, getting ahead on some things while behind on others, and that causes us all anxiety. The testing pressure is getting to him because he believes that it's critical he not get anything wrong, and reading comprehension (or more specifically, retention) is hard when your mind is all over the place with ADHD. He struggles to even choose a story with the home based lessons, let alone get to reading them.

Where I do feel like I've made some progress is just generally being patient with him and trying not to react emotionally. I've got a long way to go on this, but I feel like I'm getting better at it. Just changing the expectation that I'm not going to flip out on him when he asks a question is a start. He can't compute sarcasm, and jokes don't always land with him, but he's got this level of scientific and relational intelligence being held back from the way he processes the inputs. I can relate to this so much, and when I'm patient, I can find other ways to package something so that he gets it.

More to the point though, I'm latching on to the experiences that make him happy. When he finds music he likes, I listen with him. When he engages in a topic that interests him, I go there. It's not usually social behavior that he gravitates to, but I connect with him anyway. I love his sense of wonder at the world, and wish I could bottle it because I know it doesn't last.

I hope that I've done a good job being a husband, because Diana is a slam dunk as a wife. Her role as mother is critically important because she handles the doctors, medications, IEP and extra activities, and I'm there to support her in all of that. She also looks out for me and checks in every day to see how things are going at work. She still manages to work part-time, and covers a non-trivial part of our budget.

The one thing we don't do enough of, or at least we get into streaks with, is alone time. We get our Broadway season nights off, but then we don't make time beyond that as much as we should. I realized this especially in December when we had a number of outings, compared to a really spread out set of date nights for much of the rest of the year.

We unexpectedly lost Gideon to cancer, our middle cat with all of the nicknames (Basement Cat, Big Papa, Thunder Paws, Fatty, Big Fucker, etc.), in the spring. We had a long run with four cats until Cosmo, my cat, passed in 2013. I expected that Emma, now 16, would be the next to go, but aside from some white fur seems to not be slowing down just yet. Gideon was my favorite of Diana's cats, even though he took the longest to warm up to me. I joke about his weight, but he was mostly just a really large cat. He still liked Diana better, but he was a lover when he wanted to be. I miss that cat, and the timing wasn't good with the job chaos.

We're pretty sure we want to get a pair of kittens once we're down to one cat. It will be nice to have cats that know us all from the start.

No moving

Yay! We didn't move this year! No change of address for an entire year. Getting settled this time seemed to take forever, maybe because it took six months just to get handles on the kitchen cabinets. But despite the slow going, the truth is that the place feels more like a home than anywhere else we've lived. We bought Simon some non-Ikea furniture, Diana's sewing studio has all of the vibes and my office, which I only worked out of consistently for six months, feels like a place where great things could happen. The kitchen has been a warm place where we've made everything from homemade pasta with family to drinks with friends. And there's so much natural light in the evenings, which is everything I love about Florida. The nightly fireworks, just 11,000 feet away, are pretty great as well.

I think this is the year where I finally get over the move away from Seattle. I love that town, to the extent that I still identify with it in some ways more strongly than I did with Cleveland, despite being there only two years. I may still regret leaving Microsoft to an extent, but leaving that beautiful part of the country ultimately created the opportunity for a life here in Central Florida that has been mostly great. I think the thing that made me realize this was just talking with my brother-in-law, who still lives there. The housing costs have become so insane there that you couldn't easily buy in unless you've been there for at least a decade or more building equity. Houses cost double at best, and usually more, and even with higher salaries there, you won't have the kind of financial flexibility you have here. We would have been long-term renters there, but here we've built two houses. Despite being burned by real estate in Cleveland, I still think the long term play is to have something to show for years of living somewhere instead of having nothing.

Vacationing

Toward the end of last year, I got an email about doing a verified fan purchase for Hamilton tickets in New York City. After more than a year of listening to that show, it was time to see it, and I had to get over my distaste for large cities (fueled largely by Chicago and a brief visit to LA). We scored tickets for April, around our anniversary, and made a four-night, three day tour of the trip. I won't rehash that trip here, but we saw HamiltonFrozen and Kinky Boots (with Wayne Brady!), as well as a taping of Seth Meyers. We stopped by Trinity Church to see where Alexander and Eliza were buried, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, The Met, Grand Central and lots of subway tunnels. We packed a lot of stuff in, but we didn't over-do it, I think. It was just the right amount of adventure travel. I loved the city and can't wait to go back.

We booked a 5-night Bahamas cruise with two stops at Castaway Cay again this year, and while not particularly adventuresome, it's quite frankly one of the most relaxing vacations we can do. Beach days at Castaway are among the best you can have, so going 2x is a lot of best days. There is also a whole lot of built-in babysitting on those ships with the kids clubs, so we get lots of private time, adult meals and bar dates for "free." The down side is that it's so popular that the year-over-year price increased by a grand for the three of us, for the same itinerary at the same time of year. There aren't many deals these days for Disney cruises. That said, we did score a great rate on a three-night that we did just two weeks earlier by booking the last possible day. That seems redundant, but I didn't know what my vacation situation was going to look like once I went back to work (I had one offer by then, anticipating another), so we went big given the deal.

We ended the year on a week-long cruise to the Virgin Islands. To be honest, I enjoy the cruise experience but don't find the tropics to be that interesting as cruise destinations, and a lot of the decision making on these is influenced by the fact that we don't have to fly anywhere. But we still had not been on the Fantasy, so now we've seen the fleet before the new ships launch. We really want to hit the European itineraries, but we're not sure if that's a with or without Simon situation, and in the latter scenario, getting someone to watch him for an extended period might be hard.

Of course, when you live in Orange County, Florida, you do stuff all of the time that is vacation-like. When I finally took time off in the new job, I didn't travel, but I did a series of day dates with Diana. We went to theme parks, did mini-golf, rented a boat... tourist stuff. I'm not sure if that really counts, but there was a lot of festival food and drink at Epcot, and some early morning rides in the new Toy Story land.

On a related note, it has been years since I took so few photos. My phone logged only 1,200 photos, compared to 1,500 last year, this despite the fact that the Pixel 2 is an amazing phone with an amazing camera. I didn't bust out my Canons or my fantastic smaller Panasonic mirrorless either. I feel weird about that, because I love photography, but phones have come a long way, though their fake depth of field tricks are not entirely convincing. I need to do one of my little photo shoots with Diana and Simon this year.

Dollars and sense

This hasn't been a good year. It's hard to make that case when there hasn't been any net adverse effect on life (especially relative to the struggles of others), but whatever, my therapist says it's OK to measure life as it appears before you. The short version is that the fiscal plan for the year tanked in a big way, and there's a lot of real cost associated with it.

The year started with our house sale falling through because of a flaky buyer and a real estate agent (the buyer's) who sucked at life. I fully expected maybe two months of overlap between the two houses, but it ended up being six. Six months with two mortgages. No sooner was that resolved that I ended up forced into a few months of "self employment," which further derailed things. This all went down in the midst of trying to replace the car with the less expensive Model 3, and get solar installed on the roof. All of that adversely affected getting the equity from the previous house rolled into the new house so our cash flow wouldn't be totally screwed up. It cost us well into five figures, and that delayed recasting our mortgage by about seven months (plus another several voluntarily, because dammit, we were still going to vacation hard once in the winter no matter what).

The move to the newer house was totally within our means by all of the usual metrics in terms of housing as a percentage of income, debt ratios and all of that. Even then, I wanted to make sure that the net increase in monthly expenses didn't become astronomically high, so a smaller car payment and less electricity expense would help mitigate that. The end result is that we get there, but almost a year later than expected and no savings to show for it.

None of this is the end of the world, but as someone who used to carry a bunch of revolving debt for years, pissing away money, it doesn't feel good to even lean in that direction. I carried a balance mostly out of convenience for a couple of months (because I had to direct cash to the car replacements and solar, all in progress when stuff happened), and that felt gross. I was also surprised at how medical co-pays and deductibles stacked up, and it angers me that someone making $30k a year would be screwed or just not get the care if they had a similar situation.

On the plus side, the markets all ended the year on sale, thanks to the dipshit-in-chief that keeps freaking out investors with every Twitter hit. My return on retirement accounts is in the shitter this year, but I don't need to retire so whatever. It means I need to make solid contributions.

The world

Last year I said I was disappointed that we had, "Nazis, mass-shootings, massive hurricanes, wild fires, starvation, nuclear proliferation and my country is being represented by a man with no moral compass." Not much has changed this year, but people don't seem willing to admit to supporting a fascist in polite conversation as much as they did two years ago, so that's a step in the right direction. People are getting involved, especially women and minorities, and that's positive. I'm not as down on the world as I was a year ago. I see the seeds of a better future, and I'll do what I can to support that.

Stepping away from social media to some extent helped my world view as well. I get no notifications on my phone anymore, and at this point use Facebook and Instagram more as a historical record for myself than anything else. I only read news from real journalists. I see what good people are doing to change the world. It's not that I avoid politics, because you have to pay attention, but I don't let it dominate my head space.

Am I happy?

I struggled quite a bit in the spring and summer this year. I felt like I wasn't winning at very many things and something about my age was creating a sense of urgency for something I couldn't even define. I didn't think that I was being the father I needed to be. There were lots of uncomfortable feelings. But I eventually started to work things out, retain perspective and try to focus more on being present. While I'm still rolling with the challenges that come with entering midlife, and that's on me, I get so much joy by being around my darling son and wife. I feel like I beat the odds, getting to be with two people that wonderful.

Ultimately, the thing that's important to keep in mind is that we only have so much time, and using it to be unhappy is a choice we can't afford to make. That statement of fact is something that is driving more of my day to day to decisions.

Comments

Post your comment: