Water’s Edge

Dipping my toes in the water of our connectedness
Touching that bliss, walls fall, hearts meet
Taking care not to dive in too deep
At this church
On this earth we are mortal
Children depend on us
And our ability to be present
In the madness of it all
Living requires
Delayed comprehension
A willingness to take a lot for granted
To dance at a wedding
And type words to no one
While the soul yearns for freedom from its cage.

Jumping Back In

If we really fear
That we are powerful beyond measure
Maybe we just needed to feel poor for a while
To be out of the spotlight for a while
To let others shine for a while
But no one can play our part
So the system isn’t working right
We all need to jump back in
Because everything you want is a few steps away
Let’s burn the journals already
Make a bunch of new mistakes
And create a world of our own  choosing
Because it never was about you
Or them

Taking back our power: What families and small businesses should learn from the failures of Wall Street

I’d like to start this essay with compassion. Collectively, we’ve been through a lot of financial turbulence in the 80 years following the Great Depression. Rebounding from a period of austerity, easy access to credit in recent years overextended most families and individuals beyond our means, just as subsidized food has expanded waistlines.

With many people living on the brink of financial ruin, it may be time to stop pointing fingers of blame at the 1%, and rather point the finger of curiosity: What can we learn from the very public meltdown of Wall Street, and how can we use that information to take back our power on Main Street? I believe the following three lessons will help families and small businesses get back on track toward financial health:

1. The Danger of Money Illusions and Spending Money Before you Have It

We can learn a lot from the failure of brokerage firm MF Global in 2011. CEO and former lawmaker Jon Corzine took over this firm when it was struggling and in the red (like many families are today). In order to try and turn the company around, he started placing bets on complicated derivative products, which were unique in that they enabled his business to show profit on the accounting side before any actual profits materialized. This made his company appear healthy and robust to outside investors and regulators, who continued to support the company’s efforts. Meanwhile, the CEO was involved in an obscenely risky gamble involving 6 billion dollars of the company’s already troubled assets in unapproved overseas markets and sovereign debt derivatives.

So how does this at all relate to what an individual might experience at home? When your personal finances are in the red, you eagerly anticipate the next influx of cash, whether this is a salaried paycheck or some other income payment. You are the CEO in charge of bringing your family’s finances back into the black. It might be a sure bet, or there might be some risk as to when you will receive the next cash influx, or how much you will receive. The amount of confusion around the amount of money you will receive and when is similar to having a derivative product on your hands.

When you think you have money coming in, and feel pressure to meet financial obligations, you tend to make worse assumptions and take higher risks than you otherwise might. You also take more risks than a large business might, because it is likely that no one is looking over your “accounting” at all to regulate you. You might subconsciously inflate your income in your head, or assume you have more money coming in than you actually do, or sooner than it actually will, and you might feel pressured to spend the money before it arrives, maybe by taking out a “payday loan”, or by spending up to the amount you think you are going to have on “necessities” or perceived priorities, or buy things on credit believing your ship is coming in.

The confusion around it all is somewhat comforting, because you don’t actually WANT to face how much money you owe or how much is coming in. But this almost always causes you to spend more and earlier than you ought to, digging yourself further into debt.

On the small business, side, I believe that Groupon (and its competitors) has become wildly successful off the backs of small business owners who are not skilled in keeping business accounts in the black and are hungry for a risky quick-fix. A Groupon-type deal can be seen as a way to influx a failing (harsh but true) business with cash to give it the illusion of solvency. It is a sure bet that not all the customers who buy the deal will redeem their certificates, so the business gets the illusion of having made a profit before any actual transaction has occurred with a client. This can and has caused businesses to take even higher risks, rather than solve their cash flow issues, leading many businesses to ultimately go out of business sooner than they might have trying to charge full price for their services.

To break the downward spiral of debt accumulation, one must simply stop spending money before one has it in the account, period. This removes temptation for more risky bets and actions, and shifts the focus toward money-making.

Ultimately, such derivative products as invested in by MF Global are becoming more and more regulated/banned. We learned that we need to know the details of financial investments so that actual risk can be made apparent to investors or those that entrust their money to others.

Individuals can do the same by insisting on a personal discipline of only acting on money that is already 100% cleared in their accounts. Once an individual is financially healthy again, transparent risk-taking can be responsibly added back into the equation.


2. Inappropriately borrowing from internal accounts instead of making money or cutting back

In the case of MF Global, the company likely did not have enough capital to cover the investments that were being made. Inevitably, the money had to come from somewhere, and what was found was evidence of internal borrowing – called internal repo – where a brokerage firm can borrow money internally from another part of the firm. In addition, according to a Frontline investigation, “Investigators are now trying to determine if in those last desperate days, MF Global executives intentionally transferred customer money to JPMorgan to meet a margin call from the bank.”

Debtors living on the brink of ruin become extremely resourceful about consuming every available resource toward their debt and needs. No accounts are left alone. If a home has equity, it gets spent. If a credit card is found with a lower interest rate, balances are shifted around accounts to make the debt appear less burdensome. But it’s all just a futile game. The mind in debt has been trained to look backward and around for money, and not forward to new sources.

This is resourcefulness as a vice. Instead of reaching outside to investors for capital, a company will suck every already available resource to make a financial play. A person will “borrow” from their 401K or retirement accounts to make ends meet somewhere else, borrow from a friend or family member, take money out of a savings account, or drain some other account which has temporarily been granted “low priority.”

Taken to another level, it’s like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. It’s the same kind of thinking that led to the ruin of Bernie Madoff and his investors. On a psychological level, part of it is acting like a rogue, not being willing to ask for help when it is needed, and taking on too much risk without having an end-game. Part of it is defining your resources too narrowly, and not thinking outside the debtor’s box.

In December 2011, the CFTC banned internal repo as a viable financial practice for companies. Individuals should do the same.

Do not take on new expenditures if it means taking from other accounts available to you which you have already designated for other purposes.



3. Giving Away Your Power: Ignoring or Delegating Financial Decisions

Wrapped up in all the financial turmoil we’ve experienced in the recent Wall Street crises is the idea that we trusted people to manage our money, manage our financial system, and that they “failed us.” There’s a lot of blame going on. There’s a lot of talk about the 1%, about bailout regrets, about taxing the rich, making them pay their “fair share.”

CEO’s have multiple zeros beyond their employee’s paychecks. The richest citizens are obscenely rich compared to the average family’s income. Health care is no longer controlled by doctors or patients, but by the insurance companies who have been entrusted with dealing with the financial side of the business. This is serious stuff. It seems everyone knows someone who is struggling because the retirement money they entrusted someone else to manage straight up evaporated.

There’s an elephant in this room, and it’s wearing a suit and tie. No one is asking, “Why have we given all of our money to other people to manage in the first place?”

There is a lot of ignorance out there regarding money, and excuses for why we don’t take responsibility for our own financial success. People will say, “I’m not good with numbers,” “I don’t understand investing,” or “Taxes are too complicated.” I think there is something deeper going on here. Where there is great resistance, there are great lessons to be uncovered. I think money is so deeply tied up with our basic needs for safety, security, housing, food, love, and appreciation, that we are afraid of what our ability to handle money might say about us. So we don’t even try. If someone else fails us, we can sit back with no responsibility and blame them for their shortcomings.

The first step back to financial health is a sense of responsibility, then awareness, then education.

A person must be willing to open their bills, to look at financial statements, to start keeping accurate records. There’s nothing wrong with consulting with someone for their expertise, but at the point where you relinquish responsibility for the outcome, you have given too much of your power away.

I believe that if our economy is going to turn around, it has to happen one individual at a time, in our personal economies. There is no savior coming. No change of parties in the White House can make this happen. It starts with us.

Christina McKinstry is a San Francisco coach and small business owner coming back from bankruptcy in 2011.

20/20 Vision Restored Naturally (update)

I had a step-change in my vision this week which was really exciting and actually pretty emotional.

I discovered the important concept of “trying” to see without straining. It was important to make an effort to have distant objects come into focus. The eyes are used to being passive and letting the glasses/contacts focus the image so they aren’t used to working. The key point here is, however, that healthy eyes don’t FEEL like they’re working when they are working. It FEELS effortless and yet there is focus involved.

It kind of reminds me of what I thought at the time was a kind of hippie, bullshit pamphlet I paid for at a health fair several years ago that described a system of “exercise without effort”. The guy was so nice and sincere and the concept was so wacky I felt it was worth paying for it, if only for entertainment value.

Turns out restoring your vision involves exercise without effort, or at least without strain. Thinking about it another way, why would you want to have to strain all the time to see normally? You don’t want to practice feeling that way if you don’t want it to be a permanent condition.

What is happening when I practice seeing distant objects without strain is that my eyes water more and I blink more frequently. I also feel the need to stretch out my jaw more. Sometimes that leads to yawning, which waters my eyes more. Somehow my jaw tension is related. Once it is more relaxed, I see better. My dentist tells me every 6 months that my jaw muscles are too tight and I’m grinding my teeth. I also get better results when smiling and imagining that distant objects are easy to see, counteracting the info my brain is telling me that they are blurry.

Anyway it’s pretty exciting. I’ve noticed the most change first thing in the morning. I can see things across the room slightly sharper, almost like a double image, where before they’d just be a blur.

But it is full time work to blink frequently and not let distant objects register as blurry. I can see why it is recommended to take several days off for every few days of work.

We Don’t Want to Work Harder

“Slavery created conditions in the South not unlike those for the Irish in Ireland. A crucial fact for both groups is that labor did not produce value for the worker, and so hard work was not initially a cultural value for either group. The work of the slave resulted in gain only for the slave owner…”

“The minimum wage in 2009 is only 73% of what it was in 1968 in real dollars.”

from Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard E. Nisbett


Might this explain the modern college graduate, disillusioned by their parents’ generation’s “hard work” not paying off for the family?

And employers wonder why things other than pay are important to this generation (time freedom, for example). We want to work smarter, not harder. We’ve been shown that our hard work generates income for employers, not for us.

Not unlike the work of slaves…

Educate Others

It’s not enough to be well-educated anymore. We have a responsibility to make sure those around us are not ignorant.


Because internet content and media “coverage” is now being delivered to us on a “pull” basis. Whatever the majority demands is what we all get exposed to.

We have to raise our lowest common denominator to get higher quality information delivered to us.

This is why experiments like www.coursera.org are so important. Free higher education for the masses can only help us now in escaping the whirlpools of ignorance and its capsizing currents of unnecessary drama. Imagine what humankind could experience…

Ego-go Trip

It took six years
To unravel myself
Peeled layer after layer
Tried on costume after costume
Plunged myself in boiling water
Let go every ounce of control
Until I was naked
On a stage
With only my guitar
And a sense of faith and guidance

I can only *be* from here


As we come closer together
I wonder
Is there any more need for poetry?
Does it obscure more than it shows?
Is it a light or is it shadow?
More connections live in metaphors
Keeping the mystery alive

Freedom, emotion, and statistics :-)

Fascinating discussion being had today as part of my Intro to Sociology course taught by a Princeton professor (www.coursera.org). It’s bringing up some concepts I’ve been meditating on recently, namely freedom, complicated environments, and probabilities.

Pavel, a student from Siberia noted the Stalin quote: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Pavel asked, “Why doesn’t our government, when communicating with its people, tell the story of one woman and her tragedies, rather than quoting statistics?”

I thought, Barack Obama did this very well. He understands that most people lead simple lives and are more touched emotionally by drama than by statistics! This is also what CNN understands and the rest of the media, entertainment businesses, cable TV, advertising, etc.  DRAMA, DRAMA, DRAMA!! People are very comfortable/familiar with drama. This is also where Kerry went wrong. Once you become very educated, you can lose touch with the emotional side and the drama of life. I feel I have the best of both worlds. I feel very educated, but it leads me to a place of reverence, poetry and beauty, as if I get to attend a private studio session with God and watch him work on a great work of art. That to me is sociology. Those less emotionally inclined (or I might argue, emotionally repressed) would say that information would lead you to a place of dry statistics.

The essay we read said that people feel trapped by their circumstances until they develop a sociological imagination. Until we can have an understanding of the environment which brought about our circumstances, we can feel that we are victimized, or have fewer options.

The flip side of entrapment, of course, would be freedom, and empowerment.

It was nice to see the entire spectrum covered. It seems, the less you know, the more drama you experience in your life, the more fearful you will be of the unknown forces that are rocking your little boat on the big ocean. However, on the other end of the spectrum, when you fully understand all the reasons for interplay in your environment, you can become an unbiased observer, free from the confusion of emotional entanglements (but I would argue that emotions are another source of information to be understood).

The professor noted that it is necessary to learn more about your environment so that you can decipher truth from illusion. Some of the other students later brought up the question of how much of society is illusion and how much is truth. So if we agree that illusions are mostly conceived in fear, traps, and ignorance, then truth can be found in the domain of  courage, freedom, and education.

That’s about all I have energy for today :-)

Moving On

So this garage sale today ended up being somewhat therapeutic. I was able to sell a lot of things I’ve had packed as storage from my former life as an engineer 6+ years ago. Specifically, I parted with a lot of kitchen stuff that I was always saving up for that special someone I would move in with who might need my kitchen supplies.

I also decided to part with my “library”, a heavy collection of books I’ve enjoyed during and since college. I was happy to pass so many on to their new owners, figuring they will do the world much more good in others’ possesion. It was cool to see the dozens and dozens of books laid out, kind of exposing the stuff I had been feeding my brain the past decade. A lot of books on spirituality, wealth-building, government/spy/economics/crime novels, various religious texts as well as anti-relgious texts, poetry books, and classics/assigned reading in college, nutrition/diet, and landscaping/plants.

In a way, it feels like I’m trusting the universe to provide a wonderful future for me and that I don’t really have to hold onto much.

I’m in a giving phase, and it feels good.

I was visited by John Avalos, who I enjoyed chatting with and sharing the blueberry-mint lemonade I had made earlier in the day. I signed his petition for superintendent and remarked that I had voted for him for mayor and was sorry that he hadn’t won. I also met several other neighbors and members of the neighborhood watch committee, which I became a member of. I also rememeber remarking to Avalos that I guess I’m finally accepting that I “live” in the Excelsior. I had only planned to live here about 3 months, for the past 5 years. I still really enjoy it here and will probably keep settling in and letting a couple more roots grow out.

To moving on….