life writing

Paddling Against the Storm

Oh, creativity. It required time, energy, and at least some level of peace, quiet, and mental space. But for the past three years I dealt with an overabundance of “you have to’s” that resulted in very little free time, energy, or quiet. In a most remarkable turn of events, at the end of a three-year marathon of obligations I was rewarded with a noteworthy and glorious gift: the first full week off at home in fifteen years, and during a national holiday no less.

In any given “normal” week I was alotted a very narrow window of time for creative pursuits after employment and family obligations were met, and a big event like a move to a new house always cut my free time to zero for weeks or months. My family and I moved five times in twelve years.

From 2010 to 2017, we moved three times to different houses around Kamakura, Japan, though moving to a new house in Japan was relatively easy for me. All I had to do was continue fulfilling my employment obligations on the Navy base and let the wife handle the planning, paperwork, packing, unpacking, and coordinating of kids. We also got significant help from family and friends.

We lived in Kamakura a total of ten years, during which time I never experienced a full week off at home. Okay, I did take paternity leave both times we had a new baby in the house, but of course those weeks could not really be considered “time off”. During the decade in Japan I did take a week or so off a few times a year, but that time always seemed to be dominated by family vacations and other events.

When time permitted I paddle-board surfed the beaches of the Shonan Coast. Whenever we moved to a new house, it reminded me of paddling against a strong offshore wind, using all my strength just to avoid getting blown out to sea. But over time the storm would pass and things would calm down enough for me to write a story or two.

Between 2016 and 2018 I even managed to write a novel in the lull between moves, though this effort involved extreme levels of discipline, dedication, and deprivation of sleep. I established a deadline to publish Tokyo Green by 2018 because for a long time I had known what horrible life-changing endeavor came next.

Our trans-Pacific move from Japan to the United States in 2020 was quite possibly the most difficult project I had ever attempted. I arrived in Utah (of all places) two months before the rest of the family. For a long time it left me with zero creative time and a very angry muse. There was a gap of almost one year during which I didn’t write a single blog post, between the “2020 Job Search Journey” and “The Great Return”. There was so much to do, and as the only adult American in the family I had to do all of it – the paperwork, planning, unpacking, getting the kids registered in school, and what-not – just as my Japanese wife had done in Japan. Fair enough, but I was also the sole breadwinner of the family, holding down a full-time career that I did not want, enduring the puss-spewing wound of a midlife crisis that would seemingly never heal. The Great Return was a storm that blew me out to sea so far that I could not see the shore.

As a year or two passed I found the time to engage in creative projects like 3D printing, pyrography, painting, and playing D&D with the kids, though writing on a semi-pro basis was still the furthest thing from my mind.

In 2023, I engaged in perhaps the second most difficult project of my life: yet another move, but this one just a couple miles away. It took comparable effort to defy America’s great, silent housing crisis and move us from our so-called temporary, low-cost housing to something more suitable for us. I took an eight-month break from writing blog posts, and my infrequent journal entries were for the most part to-do lists and gripes about not having enough time to honor the muse. My wife and I dumped an insane amount of time and energy into house-hunting. The miracle did finally happen, but once again I would tackle all moving tasks alone.

My wife and kids would be in Japan all summer. They weren’t escaping the move efforts; this trip had been planned long before we knew we’d be buying and moving into a new house. So once again, for the second time in three years, all moving tasks fell on my shoulders: the house-buying, the dreaded paperwork, the physical move itself, the unpacking, the additional furnishing, the necessary renovations, and everything else – all while holding down the involuntary obligation of a demanding career as sole breadwinner of the house. What an amazing thing my membership of the so-called American patriarchy was! According to whatever sadistic maniacs came up with this concept, I was the most fortunate and priveleged son of a bitch in the world.

For a few weeks in July of 2023 I did join the family in Japan, but for a couple of months I was alone without them in Utah. I hated our time apart, and it added additional stress. But I did get a lot done in terms of getting moved in and settled in the new house.

They returned in August and that’s when an even bigger wave of to-do lists began. For the next couple of months I was paddling with all my strength, continually solving problems around the house, and pushing back on the wife’s frantic pace of getting everything perfectly squared away in the narrowest window of time. We were going to be in this house for a long time. Did we really have to do everything right now? It got to the point where I’d flinch everytime my wife opened her mouth, because I knew she’d stack yet another task on top of all the other things I hadn’t yet found time to do.

By late November of 2023 the worst was done. The persistent paddling had paid off. We were sufficiently settled in for the holidays, and I welcomed the winter snow. By mid-December all the kids’ holiday activities (the recitals, parties, and what-not) were done. Only one set of obstacles remained: Christmas get-together’s with family and friends.

Then, I was blessed with a double whammy of good fortune. First, my brother’s dog died. The original plan had been for my brother and his family to spend the holidays in Mexico, while my mom came out and stayed at their place to watch their dog who was too old to make the trip. Pico the Chihuaua was a a legendary dog and a great hiker, but with his death my mom cancelled her Christmas visit. “Shucks! Say it ain’t so!” I exclaimed with disappointment in my voice but with relief in my heart. I would so miss having someone around to make continuous unsolicited suggestions about how to improve my life during my one precious week off.

The next stroke of luck was that my wife got sick. I had never seen her so sick. She couldn’t get out of bed for days. The holiday plan-maker and to-do list filler-upper was effectively disabled! All I had to do was work and take care of the kids. This was a welcome burden compared to all the engagements she’d no doubt be planning and all the tasks she would otherwise ask me to do. We never identified whether she had COVID, but who cared? COVID was the golden ticket to my ideal situation: solace and exemption from unwanted holiday hustle, even if it resulted in death.

So, that was how I got my first full week off at home in fifteen years, and I remained strong and healthy throughout. What did I do with this time? I skiied. I walked. I unwound. I reflected, spent time with my family. I wrote goals, and thought about how to get back on track. What was the track, anyway? Where was I going? Through all the excitement I had forgotten who I was or where I had meant for my life to go. Why had I paddled so hard and for so long? What had it gotten me? Now that the storm had passed, what would I do once I at last set foot on shore?


A Basic Necessity – FINAL

Almost all of Americans were in either of two groups when the Great Housing Disaster of the early 2020’s hit. For the most part, neither group realized there was a housing disaster at all. Group One consisted of the people who already owned a house, and Group Two were the people who could not afford a house to begin with.

There was also a Group Three, a very rare species of prospective first-time homeowners who were equity poor, debt-free, and cash rich – but who were still unwilling to bet their financial futures on whether this economic insanity was normal.

And how could it be normal? Housing in America had never been more expensive, in either real or relative terms. The median house price in America had more than doubled since the great recession, increasing fifty percent in the COVID years alone. For sure, nobody’s household income had come close to doubling during this time. Forget eight or ten percent inflation on a loaf of bread. What about one hundred percent inflation on the price of a house, the most expensive thing most people would ever buy? This unprecedented economic paradigm shift was one of the most impactful slow-moving events of the twenty-first century, but astonishingly it didn’t get much play in mainstream news.

In A Basic Necessity – Part 4, I overcame my self-pity, shock and despair over this housing disaster and its terrible timing (what were the odds this would occur at precisely the time I had planned to buy a house, after having saved for thirteen years?) and committed to buy a house that was suitable for me and my family. There was considerable negative motivation involved. Our so-called temporary housing situation was way past its expiration date and it was having a negative affect my mental health. We needed to escape our tiny duplex on the shabby, low-income street with its depressing stretch of junk-covered lawns, shirtless chain-smokers, spilled garbage, dog poop, and cars on blocks.

Every weekday morning I surveyed this street as I walked the kids to school. I was no safety freak, but there were very real safety concerns around our house. On a crime map it wasn’t quite red, but maybe orange or yellow, depending on the week. Mild safety concerns aside, I walked the kids to school every weekday morning to get some fresh air, stretch my legs, and clear my mind before the work day began. Most of these morning walks were in very frosty weather, with snow and ice everywhere, before the sun appeared over the mountains to give the valley a little warmth. We had record snowfall in 2023.

At the kids’ school I’d see them off, and then walk back up the hill to the house, reciting my goals like a mantra, the first of which was “I help elevate the lives of my family by doing great things, including (but not limited to) a major housing upgrade this year”. This goal seemed impossible, but I forced myself to repeat it through clenched teeth, every single day. This went on for most of the school year. At some point toward the end of winter we took action. The wife and I started looking at houses for sale. Out of maybe twenty houses, we saw three that we considered suitable for us.

The house search was depressing because:

  1. I still felt like I was nowhere, despite the mountains and outdoor lifestyle perks.
  2. The quality of houses in our neighborhood were not that great on average, as compared to anywhere we had ever lived.
  3. And houses were still selling for an insanely inflated price, as compared to just a few years before.

The same question churned through my mind for years: what was reality? The price of housing had never gone up so much and so fast. I didn’t mind paying whatever was actual value of a house, even if it was near a million dollars on average in our area, but I did mind paying that kind of money for an otherwise very average house.

Supply was still a major problem that drove prices impossibly higher. The homeowners in Group One were not selling because nobody could afford to move (and thereby double their mortgage payment).

As May rolled around we were still looking at houses, but our enthusiasm had slacked. We had recently found two houses we liked, but couldn’t get our foot in the door. One of them had an “unlimited” cash offer. It was reminiscent of the FOMO frenzy of the previous two years. My wife and kids would be in Japan for most of the summer, departing the first week of June. I was planning on joining them there for most of the month of July. We had more or less decided to suspend our housing search until autumn, but there was one more house.

I didn’t want to see it. I was too defeated, depressed. My wife talked me into it. She loved this house. The place was fifty years old, but very well upgraded and maintained. It checked off all the boxes for us, and other boxes we hadn’t imagined. If rented, this place would go for at least $3,500 per month. If we took out a mortgage, we would’ve paid hundreds of thousands in interest over the full term of the loan. In my mind there was no way we’d get this house.

But we did. We were fortunate to be in Group Three. Ours was not the highest offer, but it was cash. Being cash buyers was like traversing this economic hellscape with a special immunity card or an amulet of protection. Credit scores and interest rates were irrelevant. We had lived a frugal life for decades, never accumulating a single penny of debt.

So we succeeded. All those months of reciting my goal through clenched teeth in frigid weather had finally paid off. Three years after having made the move from Japan to America, we were finally “home”.

Our problem might have been resolved; HOWEVER, one thing had bothered me during this whole endeavor: how would our children and future generations ever be able to buy a house? Was this a permanent paradigm shift that signaled the end of traditional quality of life in America? My family and I were fortunate to have had financial liquidity and leverage that were unheard of for most people, and it still seemed miraculous that even we were able to overcome this economic disaster. Would future generations become permanent renters, with a small minority of landlords and investors rising to the top? Was the single-family home a thing of the past?

life tech

A New Slacker and More

This January I engaged in a couple of projects that absorbed all of my spare time, forcing me to put my usual creative activities on hold. First there were the holidays, which was always a project unto itself, with all the obligatory get-togethers, visits from extended family, and gift coordination for the kids. A couple weeks before the holidays my wife had instructed me to build a personal computer (code name “Slacker”) for our oldest boy. I put it off until January, knowing what an effort it would be. I was also informed that I’d be waking up in the pre-dawn hours every Friday morning in January to take our youngest boy to skiing lessons at Brighton, up Big Cottonwood Canyon.

For the most part, my life was directed by a meticulously-organized Japanese woman, and I was okay with that. However, January was the month that I had planned to dive feet first into the training that would help me evolve my career and thereby allow me to elevate the lives of my family (in the form of a major housing upgrade in 2023, for example), and of course there were my usual creative projects, prerequisites to positive mental health. In the triad of goal categories I had created (family / creativity / vocation), family came first. I’d have to put creativity and vocation on on hold for a while to get these family projects done.

Four mornings at Brighton ski resort might not have seemed like too heavy of a chore, and in fact it may have sounded downright luxurious; but Friday mornings were normally my slot for prime-time productivity when it came to advancing my conditions at work, and for exploring whatever creative projects I had going at the time.

Very close to every hour of my remaining free time in January was devoted to the great PC upgrade. In truth there were two upgrades: upgrade number one was my son’s first PC, which I’d build using some of the components (motherboard, CPU, power supply) from my current gaming rig, Slacker, and install them in a new PC case with new RAM and video. The motherboard, CPU and RAM were about seven years old, but with the new video card they’d suffice. I’d also involve my son in every step of the hardware assembly and wiring, making sure he understood how all the parts fit together and how the system worked. Upgrade number two was the replacement of my gaming rig, which I’d build from scratch with all new parts. It would be nice to have a new PC, but I knew how much work it would take.

I had first started building PC’s in the 90’s, when I worked at a major electronics retailer as a techie dweeb who built, repaired, and-or upgraded thousands of computers. In the twenty years since then I had also assembled a couple dozen PC’s for myself, family, and friends. Seven years had passed since my last upgrade, and that had been more of an emergency repair, when the motherboard and CPU were upgraded to support a new video card that replaced one that had died. The technology had changed a lot since then.

The first phase of the project involved shopping and research. I took notes. LOTS of notes. For example, if I wanted X hardware feature on one component, would the other components be compatible? Was X component worth the extra X dollars it would cost? Would there be any noticeable performance increase? Would it be upgradeable in the future? For these evaluations I leaned heavily on my Canadian geek friend in Ontario. We had worked together for many years, and he had remained more tech-savvy when it came to assembling PC’s. We established a price-to-performance matrix with various upgrade paths and options. I spent maybe eight hours over the course of a week in this phase of the project and then sat back and waited for the waves of deliveries to arrive at our door.

The next phase of the project involved a) the disassembly of Slacker, my current gaming rig, b) the assembly of my son’s computer with old and new parts, and c) the instruction that went along with it. I set up an informal curriculum that involved explaining the function of each component and how they all fit together. We spent a couple nights after dinner putting things together and talking about how computers worked, and even more time on troubleshooting and configuration. This phase took maybe ten hours total. (Instruction on internet safety would come later!)

The technology may have advanced, but PC upgrades were basically the same. My hands were always too big to fit into the spaces they needed to go (so my son’s half-size hands came in handy). There was always a screw that got dropped into the chassis, never to be seen again. It was rare that any part fit perfectly. There were always bloody injuries, like when I first took the PC case out of the box and removed the tempered glass front panel, only to have it slip out of my hands, hit the hard floor, shatter, and slice my thumb open in the process. (Ironically the paper I grabbed to stop the blood flow was a manual of Safety Information.) Cuts on the tip of the thumb were a real joy because it was almost impossible to avoid jamming the wound into something every few minutes, especially when building a PC.

And once we finished assembling my son’s PC it had to go somewhere. Our house was small and there was only one place it could go. This required rearranging furniture and getting a desk ready in our dining room. All the stuff that had been on the desk had to go somewhere, too, so we got a cabinet from IKEA and I spent a Saturday afternoon assembling it with our youngest son. This was a enjoyable family endeavor, I had to admit.

After a couple weeks the first PC was up and running, and the parts for the second PC had arrived. It was time to do it all again, this time from scratch. Most of the hardware assembly I got done in one night. Organizing the cabling inside the case was another full night. It was a geeky art form, the closest task that resembled creativity in this type of work. I liked things in the case to be attractive and neat.

The final step of the hardware install were three NVMe solid state drives. This should have taken three minutes. It ended up taking over three hours. The modules came with built-in heat sinks that made them slightly too big to fit in the M3 slots on the motherboard. The screws that were supposed to secure the modules were tiny (the size of screws that hold glasses frames together), proprietary (so a phillips screwdriver didn’t quite work), and they were too short. By one in the morning on a Wednesday night I had finally rigged something that would hold these storage modules in place (maybe), and by that time I was done, done, done with the whole project. There was still the OS and apps installs to go, along with the inevitable follow-up troubleshooting.

By the end of the month I had officially crossed the finish line of family tasks. The early morning ski lessons were done. I had successfully built two PC’s. As much of a drag some of the project had been, it sure was nice to cold-boot to Windows in 2.5 seconds, and there were so many newer games I could play with the new video upgrade. My son was delighted with his new PC, too. I was relieved to move these projects into the “done” column. But I hadn’t merely gotten these projects out of the way. I had made a permanent, positive impact on the lives of my family, and I was grateful for the opportunity to help.


A Basic Necessity – Part 4

Why did we return to America after ten years in Japan? Our primary goal was to expose our kids to American culture, to give them alternatives to the Japanese education system’s conveyor belt to forty years of corporate servitude. Next, we wanted to be close to my family. That goal was quickly satisfied, and didn’t seem so important now. We also wanted to enjoy some of the unique things America had to offer (for example, National Parks), and to give me the opportunity to work from home. Most of all, we craved a sense of permanency (as much as anything could be permanent in life), after having rented and moved from place to place around Japan’s Shonan Coast for ten years. We wanted a home of our own.

But the economy wasn’t cooperating. For the two years since returning from Japan, my mind was imprisoned in a hellish vortex of agony, depression, and rage over the insane rise of housing costs in America that just happened to coincide with our return.

In A Basic Necessity – Part 1, I established a bit of context by looking at the house-price-to-household-income ratio over time, which rose from about 2:1 in 1970 to 10:1 in 2020 (in our area).

In A Basic Necessity – Part 2, I cursed our bad luck at returning to America at the peak of such an unprecedented rise in housing costs, and tracked housing prices as they shot up another 50% while interest rates doubled – in a span of two years. I concluded that paying off a house was an impossible long-term goal for almost all would-be, first-time home-buyers (which included us, as we hadn’t owned residential real estate in America for seven years or more).

In A Basic Necessity – Part 3, I took a look at the American debt culture that made this shocking phenomenon invisible to existing home-owners (low interest meant low monthly payments), and I did some math to conclude that the throw-away money on rent in our area was actually less than the throw-away money involved in buying a house, even considering the rise in equity over time.

Fast-forwarding to the present, I needed to escape this spinning vortex of self-inflicted mental pain, and settle our housing situation once and for all. For two years we had been renting a small duplex on a shabby, low-income street – a depressing stretch of junk-covered lawns, lowlifes, and broken-down cars. Our boys were growing fast, and this place felt smaller with every passing month. I cursed every time I prepared food in our tiny, one-person kitchen. Our living conditions were a significant downgrade compared to the places we had lived in Japan, or compared to anywhere I had lived since college.

In this latest installment of A Basic Necessity, I would commit to overcoming our particular housing problem and help my family realize their dreams in the upcoming year.

The first step to solving any problem was defining it. What was the problem we faced, exactly? Or, to be more precise, how did I perceive the problem? Were things really as bad as they seemed?

When we first moved here at the end of 2020 the problem was low supply, extreme demand. Competition among buyers was like the opening round of Hunger Games, with people tearing each other’s eyes out in terrible death matches that would award a blood-soaked winner the privilege of paying 20% or more above an already super-inflated price (plus sexual favors for life to the seller, and the sacrifice of a child or two). By the summer of 2021 this FOMO frenzy had reached such levels of insanity that I abandoned any hope of finding us a suitable house.

Today, the first day of 2023, the seller’s market did not exist, thanks to high interest rates. In the last half of 2022, housing sales plummeted and house prices fell a few percentage points month over month. We were potential cash buyers, so high interest rates gave us an edge.

On the other hand, a buyer’s market did not exist either, at least not yet. Everyone was staying put. Around two-thirds of so-called homeowners in America were not owners in the true sense of the word. They paid rent to a bank in the form of a mortgage, and very few of these folks now had the financial chops to give up their low-interest loans and buy a new house – especially in a year when everything screamed “recession,” mass-layoffs, and foreclosures further down the road.

There were two other problems remaining now that the prices had leveled off. Supply was still an issue, but this situation would only get better next year.

Our other remaining problem was the risk of putting a massive stack of cash down on a house, when every economic indicator suggested that there could be a crash. This was the same reason the loathsome, big-scale investors had backed out of the market. We’d only be in America for another decade or so, which wasn’t long enough to recoup losses on a massive drop in value of a house. This problem had buried me in doubt and despair for a year or more.

But was my perception correct? Were things as hopeless as they had seemed? The reality was: if the housing market did crash after we bought a house, it wouldn’t break us. And there was no scenario in which we would lose all our money on a house. Houses were a basic necessity. Everyone needed a place to live.

Over the holidays I spoke to a few people who gently suggested that I let go of my anger over this situation, accept the new reality, and get a house.

Things might have been hopeless for future first-time, would-be home-buyers, but it was time for me to recognize that we weren’t in this group. I may have felt like the poorest person in the world in our current living conditions. I may have surrendered my lucrative job in Japan and accepted a fifty percent pay cut (as housing prices rose fifty percent). But recently I was reminded that we had more options, at least compared to 90% of the U.S.

Over the holidays a friend sent me an article on “signs of financial fitness”. It was astonishing to see such pathetic standards for “financial fitness,” and to remember how poor America really was. The debt culture had disguised the poverty of the masses, with the mentality of “how much debt can I sustain?” instead of “should I maintain debt at all?”

In sharp contrast to almost all Americans, we had always maintained zero debt, and we lived far below our means. We were sitting on a mountain of slowly-deflating U.S. dollars, just begging to be spent. Losing US$200K in a housing crash would hurt, but it would not be a life-changing event.

With that mental barrier out of the way, what were our options now? We wanted a home of our own, but what did that mean? Or, as my wife liked to ask, what was the plan?

We had checked off the box of “being close to family,” and it didn’t seem such a high priority now. My mom had originally planned to move to SLC, but then changed her mind. My brother and his family lived nearby, but they’d likely move away when their daughter graduated high school in a couple of years. Salt Lake had a lot to offer, but there was nothing keeping us here. We could go anywhere that offered a better quality of life.

In the coming year, flexibility was our friend. We would monitor the housing market in our current community, while evaluating the possibility of moving to another state. We’d spend another summer in Japan, with a loose goal of moving to a new house in the fall. It could happen before then if conditions were right.

Most of all, I vowed to maintain optimism about housing. The FOMO frenzy was over. Economic disaster for most would only mean opportunity for us. In any event, 2023 promised to be a much better year.


Adventures In 3D Printing

A couple months ago I bought a 3D printer to satisfy my interest in the technology, and for the more exact purpose of creating miniatures for tabletop gaming. Years earlier I had researched 3D printing for my novel Tokyo Green, and now I was excited to explore the technology first-hand.

My excitement abated somewhat as I struggled to overcome a steep learning curve and understand why some prints failed. 3D printers had improved in price and performance in recent years, but they weren’t exactly like a microwave oven you could just plug in and use countless times without problems.

I was always okay with a learning curve as long as it involved expanding my creative output, and it was a good thing I liked learning, because this new hobby would require an extra dose of dedication to launch.

Stereolithography (SLA) printers functioned on a simple principle: there was a vat of photosensitive liquid polymer resin that was cured and hardened with precise blasts of ultraviolet light. The bottom of the goo vat was a thin, durable, clear plastic screen called the FEP (acronym meaning?), and below the FEP was the thin LCD screen that coordinated the ultraviolet light show to cure the resin. Above the vat was a metal build plate that squished down into the goo until there was only a thin layer between the plate and FEP. This layer was cured by the UV light in the precise pattern of the digital model, designed by “slicer” software (referring to the model being designed in layers, or slices). During a print, the plate lifted, and the process repeated until the model was created, layer by layer. A simple model 30 mm (a little more than an inch) in height could require a thousand layers and take hours to print. But the detail was impressive and it was fun to create.

For the first month or so the printer operated very well. It was humming along, churning out mobs of heroes and monsters for our gaming sessions. At the end of October we stayed a couple nights at a U.S. National Park in southern Utah, and when we returned the weather had changed. It was cold, getting down to near freezing in the garage where I had set up my little printing lab. At this point the 3D prints began to fail. I contacted vendor support for advice, but meanwhile I also bought an insulated enclosure, heater, and thermostat to keep the printer within the recommended range of 20-35 C. Based on my research, I was betting temperature was the problem.

As it turned out, temperature was not the problem, or at least it was not the only problem. The print failures kept happening even with the appropriate heat. Working with support, I upgraded the firmware, reattached motherboard ribbon cables, and ran diagnostics on the UV output. Based on the results, Support judged it was a faulty LCD screen. They sent a replacement kit to me on a slow boat from China. It took almost three weeks to arrive.

Meanwhile I also bought a new resin tray, as the FEP on the original tray had become cloudy and scratched, with some deep divots in it. At that time I didn’t realize it was possible to replace only the film on the tray and thereby save some money.

The LCD screen arrived in a nice plastic carrying case. It was a huge pain to remove the original screen, as it was firmly cemented to the frame. It took a half hour or so of dissolving the glue with isopropyl alcohol and gently pressing from underneath with my hand lodged in the chassis. I wanted to avoid shattering the glass screen and sending the shards into the UV light. The new screen was very easy to mount and plug into the motherboard. The diagnostics looked good after the install. I tried printing the default model and … success! I was back in business.

The Terrain Problem

A few weeks later I got the idea to print some terrain – dungeon walls and floor tiles – to bring to life a major encounter area I had designed for an upcoming D&D adventure. The floor tiles turned out great, though the last one was warped on one corner, reminiscent of the problem I saw before the LCD screen went out.

(I also spent an insane amount of time one week printing and assembling magnet clips to hold the floor tiles together, but that was another story.)

The first wall piece turned out perfectly, so I tried four wall pieces at once, making three duplicates of the original wall piece in the “slicer” design. Normally supports were used to print the model at an angle, but walls printed pretty well vertically because there was no overhang or edges jutting out. From a design point of view it was just a thousand or so rectangular layers stacked on top of each other.

Still, the batch of four walls failed. They stuck to the plate, but the bases on one side were warped. I tried the single wall again. It printed perfectly. I didn’t do anything special in between these prints, just scraped the models off the build plate, and cleaned with IPA and paper towels. This wasn’t really necessary, but I liked to confirm there were no bits of cured resin on the plate that might fall into the vat and mess up a print. I tried printing four walls again but they turned into an inexplicable gooey mess on the build plate and a thin rectangle of cured resin stuck to the bottom of the vat, with the first few layers of the base of each wall embedded in it. It was a huge, time-consuming hassle to scrape semi-cured resin off the bottom of the vat without damaging the FEP!

I tried the single wall again and it also failed, with the same thin rectangle stuck to the FEP, and a bizarre short wall stuck to one edge of the build plate (I had centered the model on the plate in the design). There was also an thin vertical monolith hanging off the build plate.

Befuddled, I stepped away from the printer and returned to the drawing board to evaluate what had gone wrong. What had I learned so far that might explain why prints warped and-or fell off the build plate? These two types of failures seemed to share most of the same possible causes.

  1. Temperature: lower temperatures required longer exposure times; but the enclosure seemed to do a good job of keeping the resin well within the recommended range of 20-35 C, and I wasn’t sure how to dial in the settings to match a given temperature.
  2. Print settings: if there was nothing stuck to the build plate and the first few layers of the model were sinking to the bottom of the resin vat, then modifying the below settings by 10-20% could possibly help with adhesion. Increase the bottom layer exposure time. Increase the amount of bottom layers. Increase the wait time before lift on bottom layers. Increase UV power (this was a setting available for my printer for which I was not yet sure how or when to use). Decrease the lift & retract speed of bottom layers. Decrease the lift & retract speed of bottom layers.
  3. Build plate calibration: if the print failed and there was only a thin layer that sunk to the bottom of the resin vat, then the build plate might’ve not been aligned correctly.
  4. Tilt: using the slicer software to design a model tilted at an angle between 30-45 degrees, with supports, helped alleviate a lot of pressure between the build plate and FEP, allowing the build plate to win the tug-o-war contest of holding onto the model, especially during the initial layers of the print.
  5. Damaged FEP: if the clear plastic sheet on the bottom of the resin vat is scratched, dented, cloudy, or (worse) punctured then this could cause prints to fail because the build plate wouldn’t have a flat surface on which to land. It was unclear how much scratching and cloudiness necessitated a FEP swap, but one source suggested that a FEP film typically needed to be changed after every twenty prints.
  6. Hardware failure, for example, a faulty LCD screen or light source. This would be the last to replace, after all other possible causes were eliminated, but from what I read (and experienced first-hand) it was one possible culprit if nothing sticks to the plate at all.

How would I troubleshoot my failure to print the terrain? I’d stick with the constants: the same STL file that succeeded initially for the single wall, and the same slicer settings.

Hardware failure was beyond my control, so I’d eliminate all other possible problems before contacting support again.

Printer settings were important. I’d explore these later, but since the printer settings remained a constant throughout all prints, it didn’t seem the most logical place to start.

I also had faith the build plate was properly calibrated.

I would try tilting the model on supports later.

First I’d try replacing the FEP. Changing the FEP was a colossal pain in the ass, taking about an hour. All those little screws, getting the tension of the plastic strung with such precision over the resin vat frame. A couple of the videos I saw online even suggested getting an audio diagnostics app to register the exact pitch the film made when tapping it. Good grief, did I need to be a percussion technician now, too?? All I hoped (and prayed) was that I had secured the FEP onto the resin vat in a way that was not too loose nor too tight. The worst possible scenario would’ve been a leaky resin tray pouring uncured resin into the chassis of the printer.

I re-leveled the build plate, secured the resin tray, poured in the resin, heated the enclosure for an hour to ensure the resin was at the right temperature, and printed the same single wall design. How did it turn out?

Well, the results were mixed. Technically the print failed, but it failed in a way that suggested the new FEP had helped. The good news was there was no resin leak, meaning I had actually installed the new FEP properly; and the base of the wall model printed fine and remained attached to the build plate. The bad news was that it stopped printing on the normal layers, about half way through the wall. There was the same rectangle stuck to the FEP, and the same thin vertical monolith in the same position as before, so the FEP appeared to help, but there problem was clearly somewhere else.

What could have caused the print quality to deteriorate, when all other variables remained the same?

I tried printing the same single wall at an angle next, using medium supports to hold up the model. It failed, resulting in the same rectangle of cured resin stuck to the FEP, a thin rectangle stuck to the build plate at the same angle as the model, and the same thin vertical monolith as before.

It was time to step back once more and consider everything that had happened since the LCD screen had been replaced. Typically I cleaned and recalibrated the build plate between prints, regardless of success or failure. Temperature and printer settings remained constant. Model design remained constant, with the exception of a couple attempts at modifying tilt angle and supports that didn’t make any noticeable difference.

  • Replaced LCD screen.
  • Successful print of default Anycubic model.
  • 4 consecutive successful prints (custom models).
  • Partial success of one print, with warped edges.
  • Successful print of 1 custom model.
  • Failed print, with rectangle of cured resin stuck to FEP, and a thin vertical monolith of cured resin stuck to build plate.
  • Failed print, with same results as above.
  • Replaced FEP.
  • Failed print, with distorted yet slightly better results.
  • Failed print (after modifying supports and tilt angle of model).

I posted the above info along with my printer setting on the Reddit forum for Anycubic Photon printers, but twenty-four hours later there were no significant replies.

I commented on a Youtuber’s video about struggles he had experienced with the same printer. The Youtuber replied to me, explaining he had given up on this model of printer, and had instead purchased a smaller, cheaper printer from another manufacturer, the Elegoo Mars 3, and it was kicking ass.

With no more apparent troubleshooting options, I opened another ticket with Anycubic support. I stepped through the same routine as before, updating the firmware, checking the hardware connections, running the UV exposure diagnostics. The support guy concluded it was yet another bad LCD screen, and had one sent to me. I figured it would be delivered on another slow boat from China, arriving in three or four weeks.

Meanwhile, I still had model terrain to print before our next, so I decided to gamble on another printer, the Elegoo Mars Pro 3 that the Youtuber had recommended. By some odd coincidence the new printer and the replacement LCD screen for the original printer arrived on the same day. This time the replacement part had arrived in less than a week! But I wasn’t in the mood for more repair and troubleshooting. I had stuff to print. The new printer was up and running quickly, completing its first test print within hours of its arrival on my doorstep. The first print was a success!

I tried printing the single wall again, with the addition of a raft and supports. The new slicer software was not as intuitive as the previous app I had used, but it was easy enough to figure out. It resulted in another successful print!

Next, I duplicated the single wall and printed three walls. Success! I churned through another two prints of the same three-wall model to get the wall pieces I needed. All turned out perfectly.

The 3D print shop was back in business, producing all the prints I needed to enhance our gaming experience and to satisfy my curiosity with the tech. It had been a tough learning curve, but to me this creative endeavor had been well worth the time.


There Are No Sides

No title could be more ironic on the day of U.S. mid-term elections of 2022, but it’s true. There are no sides. Americans have been duped into hating each other to a degree not seen since the Civil War in the 1860’s, and as an American who has recently lived outside of this country for a decade, things seemed impossibly strange.

This inexplicable division was by far the most jarring facet of culture shock I experienced upon returning to America in 2020 after a decade in Japan. A lot happened in America during those ten years, but as horrible as some of those things seemed for both supposed sides, they weren’t so bad when viewing the situation from afar.

“But you just don’t get it! Have you seen what the other side has done?!” It’s weird how people who identify with one side or another are as taken aback by a non-sider like me as they are by enemy they presume to exist. Sometimes they assume I am the enemy, maybe because not being on a side is too hard to comprehend.

A few things might help to explain how my audacious worldview came to be:

  1. I do not belong to a political tribe.
  2. I lived outside of America for a very long time.
  3. I do not use social media of any sort (since 2007).
  4. I have worked in Tech for thirty years.
  5. I have a natural tendency toward balance over conflict.
  6. I love individuals of all sorts, but avoid groups.
  7. I am highly critical and skeptical of everything.
  8. I enjoy reading political science from one extreme to the other.
  9. I have a degree in political science (1993).

Item 1 came from item 2. It just didn’t make sense to belong to an American political tribe when seeing the whole dynamic from outside the fishbowl for so long. It wasn’t so much the geographic separation that allowed this perspective, but rather a separation from the daily brain droppings that people receive without thinking much about it, little thoughts here and there that form into opinions held by a particular “side”. Item 9, my university degree, is irrelevant at this point, but it helps to explain item 8, my continued interest in political ideas.

I can’t overstate how awesome it was to have a conversation about politics in Japan with American and British ex-pats from all walks of life, because none of them were afflicted by this mental virus of division. There was always a broader understanding, tolerance, and acceptance that doesn’t seem to happen anymore at “home”.

America has always been a Coke or Pepsi nation. In the mid-20th century, our commercialism cranked binary thinking up a notch. “What beverage do you prefer?” The only possible answers are “Coke” or “Pepsi”. You can’t say that you don’t like cola at all, or you mix the two together, or you drink one on Saturday’s and the other on Monday’s. It’s either Coke, Pepsi, or fuck you. That’s how we roll. More to the point, it’s how we sell ideas.

There are color-coded signals to help us Americans define where we stand. As much as this might seem like kindergarten, it’s true. There has never been much room for nuance in this country, only red and blue. Coke is red. Pepsi is blue. CNN and Fox, one red, one blue. Republicans and Democrats, red and blue.

America has an infinite number of breakfast cereals from which to choose, as George Carlin once pointed out, but when it comes to the most important things the choice is always binary, this or that, red or blue. This is by design. It’s the most efficient way to get people to buy things, whether it’s a carbonated beverage or political ideas.

Then social media happened. Giving America social media in the early 21st century was like giving cocaine to someone already struggling with mental health. Social media is Coke versus Pepsi on speed, with its thumbs-up / thumbs-down, binary take on the world. It started with the goofy sales pitch of “bring people together,” but it achieved the exact opposite. As a set of technologies, it became the biggest and most sophisticated advertising (mind control) machine the world had ever seen.

Social media thrives on division, because that’s where the money is. There is no Dr. Pepper in this equation. Only this or that.

This artificially-induced mass-neuroticism seeped out into the greater culture, to those who didn’t use social media at all. Mainstream media bowed down to their new social media masters, and became Downstream Media instead. Real investigative journalism disappeared. There once was one truth, but now there were two: either red or blue. Pre-existing tribalism deepened, and social media companies doubled down. They engineered their technologies for more divisiveness, more outrage, deepening the tribalism even more. As a result, these companies became some of the richest and most powerful organizations on earth.

The U.S. president elected in 2020 was a product of this insanity, not the cause (though he would succeed in making the divisions much worse).

To complicate matters further, there are foreign powers who aggressively seek to undermine America at every turn, and they know how to use our technologies to social-engineer us on a mass scale.

America is still portrayed as being red versus blue. There are the traditional conservatives who are typically religious. I am not a religious conservative, but I support their freedom of religion 100% (as long as they’re not telling me what to do).

Then there are the Obama Democrats, who believe America can be united, that as a country we share a common dream. For the most part I put myself in this camp, but I tend to take it issue by issue, like the ancient Romans did, back when there were no sides.

There emerged two new camps in the ten years I was gone: MAGA and Woke, though I view them both as part of the same phenomenon. The MAGA / Woke dragon is forever chasing its own tail. This horrific monster was summoned from a wicked brew, the final ingredient of which was Social Media. For now I’ll describe the dragon and its tail as if they’re separate because that’s how they’re known. It’s the best I can do in a two-truth world.

MAGA types have pledged allegiance to an obnoxious, would-be dictator who rejects the legitimacy of the current presidential administration (not to mention the legitimacy of the government itself). They don’t seem too fond of Democracy, though in my opinion the labels of “fascist” and “racist” are often used too loosely to define them. They seem to think anyone who opposes them are baby-eaters and pedophiles. (I still don’t know if this is a real belief shared by MAGA types, or some kind of joke.) They ended a 246-year tradition of peaceful transference of power in America. Whatever “making America great again” might mean, this is not it. They believe America is under threat by its own tail. Whether or not this perception is accurate does not matter. It’s how they see things, and I empathize with some of their concerns.

Then there is the new left, generally known as Woke. They don’t want to make America great again. They want to make America great for the first time. This camp sees America through the lens of oppressor versus oppressed, where those with the most grievances are most revered.

(Hey, wait a minute, this sounds suspiciously like the Marxist hierarchy of oppression described by to me by a self-proclaimed communist professor I had in my political science studies of the early 90’s. Coincidence? Uh, yes?)

These days, Woke culture dominates American entertainment, media outlets, higher education (and by extension, science), and the corporate world. It is divisive because it seems tailor-made to infuriate the people it ostensibly wants to protect.

Woke reminds me of the religious conservatives I grew up with in Texas, the finger-wagging, Bible-banging Southern Baptists who just might let a Catholic boy into heaven (if I’m lucky). Woke is just another religion to me, except without the spirituality. If I virtue-signal enough in front of Wokesters (many of whom are rich white people) then this male of European descent just might make it into Woke Heaven (if I’m lucky). I don’t know what Woke Heaven looks like, but I’m sure it’s equally as horrible as spending eternity in a Southern Baptist church.

From a practical point of view, Woke is a catastrophe for Liberalism and for the Democrats’ efforts to win. It is impossible to convince those who would bring you to power by insulting them and calling them idiots for not understanding your ideas. And no one can understand their ideas. By design. This is not a good approach.

In order for Liberalism to work it must be tolerant, patient and wise, in the tradition of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. It must rise above everything and call for unity, as Obama did. If it included EVERYONE in the working class then the Democrats would never lose another election again. The left must never cancel people who express different ideas. This kind of anti-liberal approach is the biggest irony ever, as it leaves conservatives as the only defenders of traditional liberal ideals.

It’s possible I’m not seeing any of this clearly. I’m back in the fishbowl now, so it’s hard to tell. How many Woke / MAGA are out there? I’ve seen numbers that vary widely, depending on what source you check. Some numbers cannot be true. At the end of the day reality is based on perception, even if the perception is delusional and artificially formed. Whatever the case, the perception that there are inconsolable sides is the MAINSTREAM view. And none of us are mainstream, are we?

The issues that supposedly divide America aren’t any more severe than in times when Red and Blue got along, and in many ways things are just plain better today.

There are differences in America. This is good. But there are no sides.


The Demon Inside

There was a demon inside of me that had to be exorcised every so often before it devoured me from the inside out. The demon’s name was Creativity, or, in more poetic terms, The Muse. The demon was a fallen angel, of course. My greatest challenge had always been including this pesky bastard in my daily routine where work and family came first.

My favored means of exorcism was writing. It was the creative skill I had developed the most. But for over a year I had been too shell-shocked from the big trans-Pacific move (The Great Return) to write much beyond journal entries and a blog post here and there. This did not satisfy The Muse, so other things happened instead.

Aside from being a writer, I was also a maker, which seemed like a trendy way of saying “hobbyist,” someone who made stuff in his spare time. There was a fine line between vocation and avocation, and that line was money. If at some point a hobby paid the bills, then its status was elevated to “job”. None of my hobbies paid the bills, but they did exorcise the creative demon inside.

One activity that helped me recover from The Great Return was chopping wood. There was something meditative about splitting logs. I spent many a snowy afternoon in the mountains swinging an axe, and then using a skill saw to cut the pieces in half to fit a small fire pit.

I did this so often last winter that it became ceremonious, and every ceremony required a ritual instrument. That was where creativity came into play. I bought a pyrography kit and decorated an axe. Then I decorated another, and it became a regular thing. I bought more axes, burned in my own designs, and gave them away to friends.

I got into woodworking, making shelves for the garage, and other odd items like a nice little cabinet to organize the kids’ Nintendo stuff and surge protector on the floor below the TV.

These hobbies kept the demon docile. Regular exorcisms became part of my routine.

At some point in the previous year my kids had given me the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Kit. They had asked me to learn the rules so we could play, but I had skimmed through the books and then put it on a shelf.

By the spring of 2022 the regular exorcisms had strengthened my creative musculature to the point I was ready to geek out. I took the D&D Starter Kit off the shelf and learned the rules. It had been over twenty years since I had played D&D, so for me 5th edition was new.

I spent a month or so reading the Players Handbook and play-testing combat and spells. At some point I became ready to ref the game. My boys loved it. Together we exercised (not exorcised) our collective creativity to have fun and create an imaginary world.

I also bought miniatures and gained inspiration to paint them during a visit with a game-enthusiast friend in Japan. The minis were used to play D&D, but painting them was a separate hobby from the game itself. Eventually the whole family got into painting them. It was good, creative fun.

Dungeons & Dragons got me in the mood to write again, so I came full circle back into the fold. How had I ever come to think of my creative gifts and talents as a demon that needed to be exorcised? The demon was a fallen angel, a product of my own flawed view of the world.

At times I had assumed to live a dual life: on the one hand the person who I was, and on the other, the person who I had to be for monetary income in the world. Creativity became the enemy to the things I had to do in life. But obligations had nothing to do with who I really was.

Often people attempt to live their lives backward: They try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.

Creative Visualization, Shakti Gawain

When it came to work, I was an artist first and everything else second. I remembered who I was, did the things I was meant to do, and in that way came to have what I was grateful to have.


A Basic Necessity – Part 3

“What can we buy?” This was what most prospective home-buyers asked. It was the wrong question. The right question to ask was “what should we buy?” Or, “should we buy at all?”

For us it didn’t make any sense to buy, even though we had zero debt, enough cash, and liquid assets. “Cash” sounded great in years when the markets were down, but it was the worst possible situation during times of super-inflation and every equity market at record highs.

So we needed a place to put our cash to protect it from inflation. Was an expensive house the right place? My instinct told me no, at least for where we had chosen to live.

The featured image showed Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) on the median sale price of a house over time, as of 2020. It would shoot up another 25% to around US$600K by the end of 2021. This was the median price for all Salt Lake City. In communities where people actually wanted to live, it was closer to US$800K.

So was it cheaper to dump our cash into an eight hundred thousand dollar house, or was it cheaper to rent a house worth that much? As it would happen, my brother’s friend owned a house valued at US$800K around the corner from us, and he wanted us to rent it. We were probably in the top 5% of most reliable renters in America, but when I spoke to the landlord it felt less like a renters’ market and more like a prospective tenant’s market.

They wanted US$3000 per month for the place, and they were giving us a discount over what they’d charge strangers. We were a single income household (sacrificing a second income for parental childcare), so this rent would put us in the “distressed” housing category, paying more than 50% of our pre-tax income on a place to live. However, it was nothing unusual around here and it kept us in the neighborhood where the kids went to school and our friends lived. Plus, we had cash that was burning up due to inflation, and we had to spend it somewhere. Was it better to pay a landlord’s mortgage, or our own?

Rent versus buy on a US$800K house, monthly expense.

Rent: $3K. This included the water bill.

Buy: there were a couple ways to go here. Buy it all or pay the minimum. For now, I’d go with the minimum, 20% down on a fifteen-year mortgage, as we were not staying in the U.S. more than fifteen years.

20% of $800K was $160K down, so we’d take out a $640K loan. According to an amortization calculator I found online, this would be around $1800 interest per month, plus $2700 toward the principal. So, $4500 per month. (This payment alone was more than our total after-tax, after retirement investment, monthly income.)

$1800 interest per month was throw-away money. So was an estimated $500 per month maintenance, $500 per month property tax, and $100 per month property insurance.

Not to mention there would be at least $25K in closing fees, amounting to an extra $140 per month for FIFTEEN YEARS!

Total throw-away money to buy: $3040 per month.

Total throw-away money to rent: $3000 per month.

And these calculations assumed that housing prices would continue to go up forever, which seemed like an unsustainable economic situation.

It wasn’t very often that equity markets shot up 50% in two years. I was betting on a crash, and so was everyone else.

Everyone we knew who wasn’t a current home-owner was in the exact same situation. They preferred to rent over own. One family we knew finally gave up settling here permanently, and moved back to Japan. Some other friends of ours moved to rural Vermont. These was anecdotal examples, but a good sign of what was to come. Housing price had outpaced household income for decades, the gap between what people earned and the cost of living continuing to rise. In Salt Lake, it median home price to median household income was around 10:1.

It was no surprise to see American household debt was at an all-time high as of early 2022.

The last time household debt was this high was in 2007, and around that time I visited my dad in Las Vegas. He had lived there many years, and was looking for a house to buy. We went around with a realtor together, and she made a statement that would stick with me forever: “I don’t know how people are avoiding these prices. I guess they’ll just have to make more money. That’s how the economy works!”

I was no economist, but the real estate agent’s comment was jarring. Sure enough, a year later the housing market crashed through the floor nationwide. There would still be houses in Las Vegas underwater fourteen years later, worth less than the original price. The Las Vegas realtor was nice, but I would always remember her as one of the biggest idiots I had ever met.

In early 2022 the atmosphere in Salt Lake City felt the same.

We had done the math. It was still cheaper to rent, even considering skyrocketing rental rates. Why pay someone else’s mortgage when you could pay your own? Paying rent was throwing money away? These old adages no longer applied. So yeah, we were happy to pay someone else’s mortgage until the bottom fell out of the market, or for as long as it made sense.


A Basic Necessity – Part 2

Housing is not a right…

The other day I went to the local hardware store to buy a 1’ x 6’ board to make some shelving. At the register I was shocked to find this single plank of wood cost US$65. I took it back to the lumber section and asked them to cut it in half. Three feet would do. Back at the register, I remarked to the cashier, “Holy crap, wood is expensive! Good thing I’m not building a house.”

“You can thank the president for that, honey,” she replied.

At first I thought she meant the president of the hardware store company, but then realized she meant the President of the United States. For a moment I couldn’t even remember who the president was. Did it matter? I had lived overseas for a decade and had never given it a second thought.

I disregarded the cashier’s comment as typical American political polarity, but decided to research it when I got home.

As it turned out, the cashier lady was not incorrect. According to an article on NPR, the previous president had jacked up tariffs on Canadian lumber, America’s number one source of foreign wood, to about 9%; but the current president had double-downed on this move, raising the tax on Canadian wood to almost 20%. This gave the American lumber industry a virtual monopoly, so they could sell it at any price. And if an industry could sell something at any price, well, then things got expensive, and the hardware store could charge sixty-five freaking dollars for a single board of wood.

The NPR article related these facts in an apologetic kind of way, because, presumably, even to a news outlet that could be expected to support a Democratic administration this seemed insane.

We were in the middle of a full-blown housing affordability crisis in America. Housing prices in many American cities (including the one to which we had decided to move) had tripled in the past decade (TRIPLED!), mainly due to low supply, and supply would not increase if building costs were high.

The current level of housing inflation was unprecedented in all of American history. Was this really the best time to jack up tariffs on foreign lumber? The U.S. lumber industry must’ve had some damned good lobbyists, was all I could conclude.

The apologetic NPR article attempted to end on a positive note, stating that at least the current administration was pushing the multi-trillion-dollar “Build Back Better Plan,” whatever that was. How were they were going to build anything back better with lumber prices through the roof?

For me, this topic hit much deeper than the price of a single board of wood. I was on a twenty-seven-year employment streak. Every weekday for the past quarter century I had done the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. For ten years straight I had dragged my physical meat mass through a two-hour round-trip commute aboard the trains of Tokyo metro to serve my daily sentence as a wage slave. Every day for a decade I had grit my teeth, gazed down at the tracks as the train approached, understanding why some chose to end it all. But I got through it.

Two prevailing ideas had kept me off the tracks and repeating this routine for five hundred consecutive weeks: one, my extra “hardship” pay allowed my family to enjoy a unique life in one of the best communities in Japan; and two, I was saving enough to buy a house in America when we finally moved to the States.

Housing was a basic necessity, but it was not a right.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel I deserved the opportunity to buy a house for my family at a price that would not jeopardize our financial future. I was probably in the top one percentile of most financially responsible people in America, having maintained steady income for three decades and provided for my family without incurring a single penny of debt. Hadn’t I earned my way into decent housing at a fair price?

It was entirely possible that my sense of entitlement came from a financial worldview that was no longer the norm. In my world, debt was bad. In the real world, debt was good. Everyone was in debt. Low-interest debt allowed financially average people to “own” a big house. So what if the loan was eight times what your household made in a year, if monthly payments were low?

Even cold, hard math favored debt. In a lot of cases it was just cheaper to maintain massive debt than it was to pay off a house in cash. But life wasn’t all about math. Sometimes it was worth paying more to have the feeling of actually owning something (as opposed to claiming you “own” when you were really paying rent to a bank). Actual ownership also massively lowered monthly expenses, allowing for more financially flexibility and opportunity in life.

For a long time there was this old adage, probably started and propogated by real estate agents, that used to be true in most cases: renting was throwing money away. In early 2022, even with elevated rents, this was clearly no longer true.

I did the math on a few rental houses in our neighborhood, each listed at about US$800K, and determined the throw-away money in buying a house was actually more than the throw-away money of renting the house. There was the maintenance cost, the property tax, the insurance, and all interest stacked in the first decade of a thirty-year loan.

Not to mention that we were at the peak of a titanic housing bubble. It was one thing to buy now with the funny money of inflated housing equity on the sale of your old house, but we were basically first-time home-buyers again. A 20% drop in the housing market seemed an imminent (and perhaps conservative) occurance, which for us would mean kissing that cash down payment goodbye. That was the equivalent of a college education for one of our kids that would take a decade or more to recover. We may have had the money to buy, but we also had brains.

In most cases, “owning” a “home” was fundamentally the same thing as renting anyway, except more expensive and less flexible. Banks owned two-thirds of American homes, so in most cases renting was like paying a middleman, a landlord who skimmed a few percentage points off our rental payment before giving the rest to the bank. In exchange, we renters enjoyed a tax-free, insurance-free, maintenance-free, hassle-free living experience.

These were the kinds of things I told myself during the biggest housing bubble in all of American history. Things were changing fast, and I believed they were changing to favor first-time home-buyers like us. Interest rates were going up, and residential real estate sales were going down. Soon the prices would go down, too.

In a year things would look much different indeed!


2021 Year-End Reprieve

I spent my time off working on personal projects, or, to use the pejorative phrase, exploring hobbies, pursuing endeavors of the creative sort.

Vacations with the family were good, too, but if I never travelled anywhere again then I’d be fine with that.

A few weeks ago it was brought to my attention that I had some time off that had to be burned by year-end, so I scheduled five-day weekends for the last few weeks of the year.

My family and I decorated the house for the holidays, and for a few weeks we enjoyed more than the usual number of family nights, ate good food, and generally had good times.

My first week of free time coincided with the last week of school before Christmas break, so for a few sweet days I was at home alone during school hours without the wife and kids, basking in beautiful silence, free to engage in whatever work I wanted to do.

I loved spending time with the family, but for me, alone time was a mandatory mental health requirement that almost always went unfulfilled.

What did I do on my holiday break?

As noted in a previous post, I reset and refreshed my PC. I also modified some code I had written to help back up and organize our data.

Outside, I shoveled thousands of pounds of snow, and in the process created a sledding hill for the boys. It snowed over a foot one night in early December, and the snow continued throughout the month.

Most days were sunny and bright, in typical Utah fashion.

Despite the snow I took the usual walks in the foothills, and around parks.

We skied.

One day, I drove up the canyon and skied alone. There were a few moments of awe in nature, among frosty mountaintop pines.

I reorganized the garage and cleared the work bench.

I bought an axe, chopped wood, lit camp fires in the back yard fireplace. This brought deep comfort on a level I couldn’t quite explain.

I began teaching myself the art of pyrography, burning engravings into wood (see featured image, my new year totem for 2022).

I prepared several masterful breakfasts for the family. The kids were fond of pancakes, but I prefered omlettes and such.

I wrote, which still felt like an activity someone else used to do.

Bottom line: in these precious moments alone the true “me” emerged, and I was drawn toward creative work. In the future, there would be no lazy retirement for me. I didn’t need anyone to keep me busy. I was naturally motivated to get stuff done.

Unfortunately, like most people, the kind of work I was drawn to do happened to not pay well, and I had a family to support for the next decade and a half. So I stuck with the day job that left little time, energy, or mental space to do what I was intended to do with my one shot at life. And as a result, my muse burned with fury, every moment of my life.

A few months ago I wrote something cheesy about the magic of writing, about how everything I wrote – everything that became the object of my focus – eventually came to pass.

What would be my focus for the next year? What would I write? How could I frame my perspective in a way that would result in a better quality of life for my family?

At times it was impossible to see beyond this all-encompassing employment thing I was obligated to continue. The final week of 2021 would be the 1,391st consecutive workweek I had punched the clock and collected a paycheck. It had all started in June of 1995, over a quarter century ago. People in my life have suggested this was a positive thing, something from which pride must emerge. Was it? Still, after twenty-five years, no clue.

At times I was too deep in the well of total work to shake the money slave impression of my existence, but these little holiday breaks of freedom helped. I remembered who I was, and I had the mental space to imagine who I might become.

Life was more than a series of workweeks ending in death. Or was it? Going forward, I’d need a set of goals to advance me through the next year, to remind me there was more to my existence than the obligatory routine. But what were these goals? How did I fit into the world, aside from money slave? What would I write?