Consulting is a tough lifestyle for someone accustomed to the heights of corporate America. I was a fairly senior person in my corporate life, having zipped and lucked my way into a corner office overlooking downtown Manhattan. Only two people in my reporting chain separated me from the CEO of the company. But I had severe problems with the organization and with my boss, and eventually that combined with the incessant travel and never ending corporate politics wore on me. When I got married, I realized that there was a life beyond work and Friday nights.

So I joined a consulting firm that provided almost no support other than locating clients and taking care of billing and collection. I don’t get a computer from my company, or any sort of review or office supplies or whatever. I rely on my client for that. However, I don’t have the headache of finding clients or chasing after invoices, which is no small thing. And most importantly, they pick up 50% of my health insurance costs.

I went from commanding multiple teams in far-flung countries to commanding, well, myself. I am in charge of nothing and nobody, and I am often supervised by people who are junior to me and who would have worked one or two levels below me in the past. So I stop and remind myself once in a while about why I do it:

I never travel. Travel is a lot of fun when you’re single. I visited half the planet while staying in swank hotels and eating rich food. However, after you’ve been to Paris for the fifteenth time it gets boring. The routine of plane-hotel-office-hotel-office-plane gets overwhelming after a while. I keep a journal, and on these business trips I routinely have entries that begin “Stayed up until 2 am drafting the final report in my room.” I wasn’t partying constantly. Now, if I don’t want to travel, I don’t work for clients who require it.

I have no corporate political affiliation. My previous jobs had a high component of politics; alliances were formed, strategy meetings were held, whispered conversations in board rooms were standard, and after-hours meetings huddled over drinks were frequent. I was sick to death of these things. I was good at corporate politics, but I realized that what “being good” meant was that I was expert at ripping other people down without really lifting myself up. I did do some good – I often used my political scheming to help lift some great people who worked for me – but by and large it was all negative. As a consultant I have no stake in such things, since I have no hope of promotion or fear of demotion. It’s liberating to only worry about the actual work.

I leave work at 5, both physically and mentally. As I said above, I used to carry my work home with me, and even into my bed and sleep. No more. I am not reachable once I leave work. I don’t check my work email before sleeping. I have no Blackberry. There are no weekend “catching up on my reading” sessions.

I have no investment in the company. I used to worry about the success of my company. This may seem like a small thing, but as an auditor you have some ability to really seriously damage your company, either through missing something in the audit (Enron, anyone?) or finding something in the audit (Worldcom). This presented me with harsh choices at least three times in my career. Each time, I tried to raise serious issues to senior management and was overridden by my superiors, creating a real love/hate attitude in me. It’s not easy knowing you work for crooked people, because then even your honest efforts only serve to enrich them. Now all I do is my work – my investment is in me and the quality of my work that will be the basis for landing future clients.

I get paid overtime. That’s no small thing. I used to work 80 or 90 hour weeks and wouldn’t get a dime more; in fact, 40 hours would have been considered slacking. Now if I work more than 40 hours my rate skyrockets. Most clients don’t like the higher rate, so they send me home after 40 hours. I can’t say I hate that – getting home at 6 or 6:30 gives me time to go a few rounds with Little Buddy before he goes to sleep. In my past life, when I wasn’t traveling I often wouldn’t be home before 8.

I get to quit my job two or three times a year. This is the greatest thing. I had a client earlier this year that nauseated me. Their unprofessional attitudes, horrible physical offices and cruel treatment of their staff made it one of the worst places I’ve ever worked. However, rather than needing to go through the drama of worrying about quitting a job I’d just started, I simply wound down my consulting gig and moved on. I never have to give any of those guys another thought. Even at the good clients I only stay long enough to do good work; when they start making small talk about me coming on board as an employee I usually know it’s time to go

boosting your career with an overseas stint

When I was younger, I was largely unaware and uninterested in the world outside the US until I won a scholarship to study in Germany when I was 15. I had a terrific experience, both personally and academically, that inspired me to continue my German studies and someday return to live and work in Germany. One of the main reasons I went into accounting was the knowledge that it was a worldwide profession – business travel, international business, and so on made it likely that I would have a shot at going overseas sometime in my work life.

During college I decided that I had studied German long enough and that I would fulfill my language requirements with courses in Japanese. This being the late 80s, Japan’s economy was blazing and knowing Japanese seemed like a good idea. However, when I showed up at the registrar to sign up for Japanese I found that the course was full. The university I went to had a fairly limited selection of languages, including mostly the usual suspects – French, German, Spanish and Italian. However, I noticed they had added a course in Russian, so I signed up for that, instead. I had some history with Russian, so I figured I could do fairly well in this language that was, at the time, a pointless diversion.

In the late 80s there was no real reason to suspect that (a) Russia would ever be particularly open to Westerners or (b) a place that would offer any sort of opportunities to anyone other than academics and writers. That would of course change rapidly but at the time it did not seem particularly likely. So I studied Russian, and my professor – Dr. Don – was a real inspiration and one of the two or three best teachers I’ve ever had. He was young, enthusiastic, friendly and had a real passion for languages and linguistics. I stayed in the class past the minimum requirements and went on to be one of the first two Russian minors in the school’s history.

So approximately five years later, in late 1995, I was approached by a partner in the Big 4 firm I was working in. I had told everyone quite frequently that I wanted to work in Germany, and the partners had told me they would keep an eye out. Of course, Germany didn’t lack for accountants so the idea of me working there had a slim chance of success. However, the partner told me that they had received an unusual request from the Moscow office for short-term assistance for any Americans. The partner knew I had a Russian minor, and asked if I was interested.

Of course I was, so I jumped at the chance. I did a phone interview and was all set to go in February of 1996. I flew to Russia and realized on the taxi ride into Moscow that I didn’t even remember the word for snow (“snyeg” if you’re curious). My Russian was very, very rusty. I had a lot of adventures in Russia, both in my initial four month stint and in my return for a year and a half for a different company, and in further visits and business trips there. I will cover those in future posts.

Today, however, I am going to focus on the five most important outcomes of my work in Russia as it has related to my career since. I think these outcomes are critical if you’re considering working overseas, or want a big-time corporate job. I’m not sure working in England would give you the same cachet as more exotic locations like Russia or Indonesia or China, but it might.

  1. I learned a foreign language really well – not just grammar, but some slang, intonation, and so on. This is only moderately useful if the language in question is Russian, but considering Russia has one of the hottest economies in the world and is used as a lingua franca throughout Central Asia, it is more useful than Italian or German.

  2. I embraced a culture and by doing so, became more open to all cultures. I wasn’t close minded or terribly parochial, but I really learned what it was like to be immersed in a culture fairly alien to one’s own. I can’t say I went native. I lived in an apartment that cost 10 times what the normal Russian could pay. I spent more on a meal and drinks on a date than most Russians would see in a month. I had an Internet connection and a state-of-the-art computer. But I did make friends, and spent time at their homes and talking with them and doing things with them on the weekends that a lot of my colleagues – who uniformly didn’t speak Russian – never did. And that experience made it that much easier for me to relax in the future when I went to other countries around the world (although I never got comfortable with midnight steak dinners in Argentina…)

  3. I learned true independence. If you want to learn how to deal with customer service problems in the US, try standing in line at the Russian phone service center and arguing with a 50 year old grandmother in Russian about your disconnected phone bill. And if that example’s too mild, try going cross-country in a four-wheel drive with two bodyguards to a former prison camp surrounded by radioactive wastelands, then eating lunch with a sobbing drunken bank director choking out patriotic Soviet songs while eating toasted pine cone seeds. If you don’t feel a little bit lost during that experience and a little bit more confident about handling yourself after it’s over.

  4. I gained tremendous work experience. I had to constantly work not only on accounting, but on three different types (US, Russian and international), all while constantly switching back and forth between two languages, managing clients and handling a huge workload. I had been managing a staff of maybe 1 person, auditing $2 million dollars in sales per year companies at home. The next year, in Moscow, I was managing 25 people on an audit of one of the biggest clients of my firm in Russia, with audit fees alone of $2 million.

  5. Finally, and most importantly, I created a massive shining bright spot on my resume that, ten years later, still draws more attention, more conversation and more interest than anything else I’ve ever done. I’ve worked since then in locations from Turkey to Argentina, and nothing compares to the shock and amazement your average corporate worker expresses to me when they found out I worked in Russia. It has gotten my foot in the door at several companies; it has wowed recruiters and it has become an endless source of anecdotes that seem to fascinate people (or it could be just that they are polite but I think I can tell the difference).

If you’re planning on getting a job in the corporate world, you should consider a stint overseas, preferably someplace that isn’t ‘safe’. At every step of my career there have been people competing with me for positions, assignments and promotions. Many went to better schools, had more certifications, had better connections or frankly were smarter or better looking. But I have yet to encounter many who could top the conversational firestorm I can usually unleash by dropping “that reminds me of the time I got arrested by Russian immigration on a business trip in Vladivostok” or “at least no-one is getting assassinated like the general director of my client in Moscow” and so on.

I suppose that despite my appearance, my mild southern accent or my calm outward appearance my willingness to go work in the wild East in the mid-90s, when things were just 30 minutes away from total chaos in Russia, makes me look like a super-confident, devil-be-damned risk taker to some people. It’s not true; I am a pretty conservative guy in most of my actions. However, the appearance is enough to provide an ‘in’, and that’s usually what it’s all about in appearance-conscious corporate America.

Buddhism versus creative visualization

Probably like a lot of other self-improvement junkies I have always been mildly interested in the idea of Buddhism if not the actual practice of Buddhism. I have not really been exposed to it very often, and honestly most of my knowledge of it comes via movies like Seven Years In Tibet and Little Buddha. I also was very fond of a book, Zen Buddhism, which helped me learn the practice of clearing my mind before sleeping. I don’t think that was the point of the book, but the ability to fall asleep in 5 minutes or less every evening has been a great gift throughout my adult life.

There are a number of things that appeal to me about Buddhism. There are, however, just as many aspects of Buddhism that don’t appeal to me. Buddhism still has its feet firmly planted in the supernatural, an area that I more or less completely reject. I find that the Great Story, for example, is a million times more awe-inspiring. I look at the Pillars of Creation and think that if something like that is the result of the unimaginable complexity of the universe rather than simply the plot and plan of a supreme intelligence it’s actually more amazing rather than less so. That’s my own interpretation.

The current Dalai Lama – who for all intents and purposes is the Pope of the Buddhists to someone like me – seems to be a man of the political/temporal world rather than a truly religious person. The idea of a truly religious person, to me, summons up a hermit. If you truly believed in prayer/meditation/etc. as the instrument of God, why would any fundraising or speeches or anything like that be necessary? Specifically for the Dalai Lama, why should he care about Tibet’s independence as a political entity? It seems to me that freedom of religious practice for all people would be a better cause, even if Tibet remained part of China, or an autonomous region like Hong Kong or Macau. In any case, the Free Tibet movement, to me, is about as meaningful as a Free Texas movement. That ship has sailed on off into the sea of history.

That having been said, the Dalai Lama has some great quotes. I first read this one a few years ago and wasn’t impressed, but for some reason recently it has spoken to me a lot more:

Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.(link).

That’s a nice thought. It’s probably as much as many of us can hope to achieve, and really other than maybe throwing in a little more family-specific phrase to be a good father and husband and son and brother and grandson and whatnot, there’s not a whole lot more to say. I think enlightenment for the benefit of all beings is a pretty tall order out of that list. I think it encompasses vegetarianism and pacifism, achievable goals, and maybe some sort of benign spiritual missionary type thinking, which for me isn’t so achievable (or desirable).

Buddha himself had a great quote which irritates Bubelah to no end (I paraphrase): “Desire is the root of all suffering.” I think about this quote a lot. It directly contradicts the fundamental premise of creative visualization, a school of thought she follows. Creative visualization refers to the practice of seeking to affect the outer world via changing one’s thoughts. Although various spiritual traditions claim that our thoughts affect the outer world, the phrase “Creative Visualization” came from the New Age Movement. (from Wikipedia)

Any way you look at that, it’s certainly not saying that desires (for love, for health, for security, for wealth, and so on) are something to be avoided and put aside if possible. So to my mind it more or less contradicts the Buddhist ideal. The question then becomes whether you can integrate these two philosophies into your life, or whether you should strive to attain one and reject the other.

I look at it this way (today). Ask me a year from now and my mindset may have changed. I apply the Buddhist principle to the concept of wealth, and the creative visualization to health, lifestyle, goals and so on. I try not to desire material things. I do, because I buy new shoes or get Netflix or any one of a number of things. But I do make an effort to consume out of necessity (or what I perceive as necessity) rather than out of pure and simple desire.

On the flip side, I may want a bigger house, or a different job or a stronger ankle. These aren’t bad things to want. Buddhism just argues that WANTING them is bad. Maybe the Nike “Just do it” slogan is most applicable – rather than desiring health, go exercise. Rather than desiring wealth, go invest or be frugal or whatnot.

Everyone has to get to a point where they are comfortable with their desires (or lack thereof). Failure to do this will just make you miserable. I have desires which are somewhat unrealistic that cause me a great deal of stress, and I try to eliminate them. Some are very petty – I’d like a neat handheld computer or the full HBO package. Those desires cause a great deal of stress, since you know they are “doable” and only your own self-discipline prevents them from becoming reality. Other desires, like the desire to be fit, may actually be good since the stress derived from them could drive you to overcome obstacles.

To separate desires, there are a few tests you could apply (bad desire, good desire):

  • Is this something other people would consider selfish or altruistic to desire? (a CD of music your family doesn’t like vs. a CD of singalong songs)
  • Does this desire require a material thing or an action in order to be fulfilled? (wanting to buy a new chair versus learning for yourself how to upholster an old one)
  • Does fulfilling this desire create a new desire, or will it end this ‘type’ of desire? (wanting a new video game machine, creating an unlimited desire for new games for it, vs. buying a book you’ve wanted for a while)

I’m sure there are other tests, but I think the pattern is clear.


I wasn’t the greatest tennis player in the world, but I played on a team that was usually in the top 2-3 in our district and the top 10 in the state. Mississippi was a pretty competitive tennis state, so that wasn’t a small achievement. I was on the varsity team in the 10th grade, playing mixed doubles (basically the #4 guy on the varsity team). I just missed the cut to letter, but by my junior year I was up to the #2/#3 guy on the team, playing men’s doubles, and a few times I even played at the #1 position. By my senior year I was pretty much in a good position to challenge for #1 although there were definitely two guys much better than me on the team (both seniors, like me), and one junior who was probably better although not really “into” it that much – he tended to skip practices and miss tournaments, which obviously meant the coach didn’t trust him much.

I had a love/hate relationship with tennis throughout high school. It dominated my daily life more than anything except my studies, really. However, the day I played my last tennis match as a senior, I more or less quit forever. I think I played sporadically that summer but basically I quit playing for anything more than just idle “hit-arounds” at that point.

Things I like about tennis:

  • Tennis is an incredibly athletic sport that requires dexterity, strength, flexibility, speed, endurance and focus. I can’t think of another sport that is so demanding in terms of total physical workouts, except maybe – maybe – basketball as played on a “street” level. A lot of pro basketball and even college basketball is standing around passing the ball back and forth.
  • It’s a fairly simple sport. The rules aren’t that tough to understand and at its base the rule is basically “hit it back over the net before it bounces twice”. Nothing like baseball, for example.
  • It’s international in appeal. There’s nowhere in the world where tennis, or some form of it, isn’t a fairly-well recognized sport. There are other sports that approach it, such as basketball, and one that transcends it, football (soccer), but generally it is one of the few worldwide sports.
  • It’s not a team sport. I’m excluding doubles tennis, which I always hated, from this, but basically you’re on your own. If you miss tackling a receiver in football, the cornerback may save the touchdown for you. If you miss a baseline shot in tennis, there is nobody backing you up.
  • Anna Kournikova played tennis.
  • Things I don’t like about tennis:

  • It’s elitist. Now, golf is far more elitist, but in much of the US you still see tennis restricted to similarly well-to-do areas. Where I live in New Jersey, for example, the tennis courts are few and far between. Most of the ones I’ve seen are in pretty poor shape. It’s not a sport like soccer that you can just pick up in the backyard.
  • It’s strenuous. My wrist still aches today from the pounding it got in high school. Heard of tennis elbow? It’s real. It hurts.
  • It’s not a team sport. I learned a lot playing lacrosse that I didn’t learn from tennis. Even though I was on a team, you don’t really learn the ins-and-outs of reliance on others that you get from a team sport. I sincerely loved the camaraderie of a team sport. I never had that with tennis. Sure, I had friends on the team, but they were my friends from school, not because of tennis.
  • It’s boring. This is the main reason I don’t follow it today or care about any of the players or even really want to play it myself, anymore. Although I played it for years, watching tennis is almost exhaustingly boring. I can’t think of a way I’d less like to spend 6 hours than watching two guys thunder 100-mile-per-hour serves at each other with one/two stroke volleys. Dull, dull, dull.
  • Nowadays I don’t watch sports like I used to; I don’t see much except late-night football after Little Buddy hits the sack. I certainly don’t follow tennis, and my nagging wrist problems keep me from being anxious to play again. When I was in college, and had not played in about three years, I was challenged by a fraternity brother of mine who thought he was pretty good and had never seen me play. So I borrowed a racket and beat him 6-0, 6-0. But the painful ache in my wrist the next day made me decide that was it, period, and to the best of my recollection it’s been about 17 years since I played a set. I tend to imagine that unless Little Buddy takes it up I won’t ever play it again. Better to play golf.

    College beer bash, or how to launch massive weight gains

    I am not a dietician, a nutritionist, a doctor, a trainer, etc. Please consult a doctor before beginning any diet program.

    So in my earlier post I discussed my high school exercise and eating habits. I came to college determined to take a break from athletics and concentrate on studying and fraternity life. Both decisions would, in a sense, be terrible mistakes.

    You may read that and wonder how studying could be a mistake. I think, looking back on it now, that in the grand scheme of life studying in college isn’t terribly important. I’m not sure how other professions would view it, but certainly my lack of stellar grades in my major (mathematics) didn’t keep me from being accepted to a well-known major university for a PhD in mathematics, skipping the master’s program. I certainly don’t think that a B in history hurt my eventual career working in the Big 4 accounting arena. There’s a limit of course – making straight Cs would have ended my chances of graduating eventually. But in retrospect, the lack of exercise and poor nutrition that I might have passed off to “being too busy” studying probably hurt me more, in terms of my energy level, appearance and overall ability to impress people (clients, employers, etc.)

    Frat life and its horrible effect on fitness and health goes without saying. A culture of indolence, heavy drinking and late-night food binges is the usual portrayal in the movies and it is not far off at all. I drank a lot of beer, ate food I didn’t need, and certainly felt no pressure from my peers to do much of anything else. I’m sure that others have had perfectly good experiences with college fraternities. Some of my best friends today are ones I made in the fraternity. But the overall effect on my health was negative. Heavy drinking and poor diet took a real toll on me.

    Finally, I gave up athletics. Without the structure of a team, I didn’t really have the motivation to exercise. I did, fitfully, from time to time, but not enough to make a difference. I played flag football or some shootaround basketball but certainly didn’t spend time running or sprinting or doing weight training. I didn’t return to organized athletics until late in my junior year when I started playing lacrosse. By that time, I still had some athletic ability left but had certainly packed on some pounds. In a way, lacrosse had the same effect tennis had had in high school – it gave me a false sense of fitness that would roar out of control once I started working.

    So once in college I spent most of my time partying or studying or playing in a sport that required some physical activity but not nearly as much as tennis. I was a goalie/defender in lacrosse, which does involve some running, but also involves long periods of standing and waiting. I also didn’t train much. It was a club sport, meaning the university supported us with equipment and travel money, but our coach was also a player and we didn’t have the forced structure of an athletic team in high school.

    College wasn’t too bad, though. I definitely bulked up, but I was still moderately fit and certainly not out of control weight-wise. The real problem was that the habits I picked up in college would destroy me over the first 6 years of my working life. In college I still had to stay somewhat active (playing lacrosse, walking to class, etc.). That kept my pizza-eating beer-drinking habits somewhat in check. My lack of money also helped – I had plenty of money but not enough to blindly indulge in whatever I wanted nonstop. I drank a lot of Coors Light, for example.

    In my next post in this series, I’ll go into the years when I really spiraled out of control: getting behind a desk, working insane hours and finally going overseas to work.

    Turn off the TV

    About a month ago I decided to quit watching TV, more or less, and quit reading anything related to “news” or “current events” on the internet. I’m not sure why, but a few stories bothered me to a pretty fundamental level: child soldiers in Somalia, unspeakable cruelty to babies (don’t click on that link unless you want to be horrified) and of course the never-ending fount of joy that is the WPE.

    I still watch movies. I have always loved the movie format – 2 hours of character development, special effects and plot (hopefully). The best actors gravitate to the movies, much as the best athletes gravitate towards sports (as opposed to areas where athleticism might be useful but not noticed like firefighting, say). People want to share their gifts and movies reach the widest audience. But I digress. The two media are fundamentally similar but one is much, much, much, much more enjoyable and took a lot more work to create.

    Back on track. After spending some time reading Leo’s really excellent blog Zen Habits and his comments on TV and how to spend your time I realized that the time I spent reading news, watching news, following politics, writing politics, etc. was helping no-one and bringing a lot of negativity into my life. I worry about Darfur, I do. I worry about living in a decaying country. I worry about the world my son will grow up in, and whether he, like my Bubelah’s father, will someday be faced with a crumbling, hostile and shifting homeland that ejects its best and brightest out into the world without anything but the clothes on their backs. I sure hope not, but I want to prepare myself and my descendants for that possibility. They won’t be ready if I’ve been obsessing on Iraq instead of teaching them how to guard their own health and wealth.

    I see more reason to invest that time into improving my knowledge of health, or how to build wealth, or how to raise a child, or frankly into just playing with Little Buddy than I do spending it on the horrific minutiae that is American news. Reading about Israel for the millionth time will bring no-one closer to peace – not them, not me. I plan to vote for Democrats until a viable third-party candidate comes along (in about the year 2854 at this rate). But I won’t spend 3 hours a day reading about the still-one-year-away presidential primaries. Life is too short and I still haven’t managed to read Crime and Punishment past the first chapter.

    Here are my list of 10 self-tricks to ending your addiction to TV and the news.

    10. Quit turning on the TV, period. Let someone else do it. Just set a rule for yourself that you don’t touch the remote. If they do it, fine, allow yourself to watch it. I found that very quickly I didn’t really want it on. I have very quickly learned to appreciate silence, light music, or just the quiet babbling of Little Buddy over the constant blare of the television. I say that as someone who has always wanted “background noise”; I would have the TV turned on even if I was doing something else just to have that hum in the background.

     9. Get a lot of novels. Read a book. Load up at the library or at It will distract you, trust me.

     8. Get a Netflix subscription. Only watch “happy” movies, and don’t rent season 3 of the Sopranos. I think that’s OK, unless you really want to just eliminate all time in front of the TV. I personally think that movies are OK since you can watch a little bit higher level of art in movies (if you so choose) than on TV. Watch “The Fountain” on DVD and compare it to “Deal or No Deal” and you’ll get my point.

     7. Get the LeechBlock browser add-on for Firefox (if you don’t use Firefox, what are you waiting for – it’s a million times better than Explorer). Block these sites:,,, etc. If you’re a conservative, block Fox News.

     6. Read a lot about one subject that’s not news that interests you. Using RSS feeds is great for this. I loaded up my Google Reader with RSS feeds about personal finance and self-improvement and that exhausts my interest in reading every day before I even think of reading the news.

    5. This may seem obvious, but don’t buy newspapers or magazines. It’s a waste of money here in the internet age, it’s environmentally wasteful and most of them are trite.

     4. Watch CNN, FoxNews and the Daily Show one last time. Realize that of the three of these, only one is giving non-propagandized news. It’s on Comedy Central and that says something about the “news” you pay attention to, doesn’t it?

    3. Read some blogs. Read the ones that are opposite to your point of view: read Daily Kos if you’re a conservative, read Instapundit if you’re a liberal. If you do this for several days, you’ll realize that all of the reading in the world won’t change anyone’s opinion, improve anyone’s mind, or improve anyone’s mood.

    2. Play with a toddler. OK, this is sort of a simplistic suggestion, colored by having my own toddler at home, but you’ll realize that there is a lot of pure joy in the simplicity of not knowing anything about the world around you. Just play, enjoy the moment and try to postpone the grim world as long as possible.

    1. Sleep. Instead of staying up to watch TV, just go ahead and go to sleep. You can thank me tomorrow.

    Give it a shot. Life is short. Don’t spend it watching this.

    Brip Blap

    As an aside, the name of the blog comes from my parents. As a child and on into my adult years I have had fairly drastic mood swings. I am generally a very upbeat calm person – I would say most of the time I operate at a 6 on a happiness scale where 1 is miserable and 10 is ebullient. However, once every few months (more in the winter, less in the summer) I will either zoom up to 10 or down to 1. My depressions are fairly rare, but when they come they are, for me, pretty bleak and not really easily shaken. Likewise my up periods – I’ll be maniacally energetic for a few days. I don’t think I have any sort of real psychological condition. I assume that it’s just my nature. Maybe that’s a dangerous assumption, but at least after nearly 40 years in the world it never seems to have led me to do anything more than mope, other than one fairly severe downtime when Bubelah and I were dating that very nearly ended our relationship. Note the word nearly, though, since obviously being married and having a child means that we worked through it.

    Back when I was a baby, my parents said I was a brip (imagine waving hands dramatically upward, fingers a-flutter) blap (now imagine them swooping downwards) baby. I was bubbly one day and quiet or grumpy the next. So I think, for better or for worse, that describes me at my core – a generally pacific state with regular but brief swings between extremes. So that’s brip blap. You’ll have to see if that’s apparent in the blog or not. My guess is that it will be. My goal is to write frequently enough that it will be obvious, though, so we’ll see!

    11 tips to a soda-free existence

    I’m of the firm opinion that a lot of the choices we make in terms of the substances we ingest determine our health, which then influences wealth, happiness and on and on ad nauseum. A lot of the “ingestibles” in America are really bad for you. This is not solely an American problem but it seems to be exacerbated to a greater degree here.

    Americans ingest a lot of bad things, although some of them are arguable; alcohol or certain types of drugs may not always be a bad thing, for example. Big culprits:

    • Fast food (it’s not just McDonald’s, either – supermarkets, schools and high-end restaurants are selling the same junk)
    • Highly processed foods
    • Artificial flavors and colors
    • Pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables
    • Hormone-laced milk and milk products
    • Tobacco products (one of the few things on this list that has no redeeming features whatsoever)
    • Alcohol (although in moderation, alcohol can actually be good for you)
    • Genetically modified foods (jury’s still out on this one)
    • Drugs (prescription, over-the-counter and illegal)
    • And finally the subject of this article, soda, but I could probably think of 20 more examples.

    I started drinking diet Coke in high school, more or less when it was first introduced. It seemed to have a lot of advantages for a high school athlete in a sport that demanded quickness, strength without being muscle-bound, and alertness. I kept it up, drinking more and more throughout my 20s and early 30s, drinking up to 8 cans per day at some points. I even kept it up throughout my time living in Russia, making frequent treks to the bakery across the street from my apartment which inexplicably sold diet Coke in addition to home-made black bread.

    I quit drinking soda in 2005, and since then I have had fewer than 10 total sodas, usually root beer or 7-Up. Ironically at the same time I quit drinking “diet” soda I lost 100 pounds – not just because of that, of course, but I think it helped. I have only touched a diet drink one time in two years, and it was horrific.

    From Wikipedia’s article on diet Coke, a list of ingredients:

    • Carbonated Water
    • Caramel Color
    • Aspartame (known better by the brand name “Nutrasweet”)
    • Phosphoric Acid
    • Potassium Benzoate
    • Natural Flavors
    • Citric Acid
    • Caffeine

    Why quit drinking sodas?

    According to Food Chemical News June 1995, FDA Epidemiology Branch Chief Thomas Wilcox reported that aspartame complaints represented 75% of all reports of adverse reactions to substances in the [US] food supply from 1981 to 1995. Sodas cost a lot of money, they eat away at your insides and your teeth, they dehydrate you and the long-term health effects of aspartame (for diet drinks) are still being debated. I can’t really see any particular reason for drinking sodas other than continuing to get that sugar/caffeine/aspartame high, which isn’t really a high; it’s the lack of those substances that makes you feel bad, so you only bring yourself back to normal when you ingest them. So how do you escape your tastebuds’ cloying captor, the soda?

    My tips for quitting:

    11. Drink seltzericon or club soda mixed with fruit juice (but make sure it’s 100% natural juice, not sweetened or artificially flavored. You can’t go wrong with this – if you try it, it’s much better. You will be amazed the first time you try this – it’s much better than straight juice or straight seltzericon, and certainly better than overpowering soda. If you take a 12 ounce glass, fill it about 1/3rd full with juice and then the rest of the way with seltzericon, it’s very tasty. You can use any kind of juice, although personally I prefer apple or cranberry juice. I love having my Soda-Club Home Soda Maker. I can make seltzericon right at home – no lugging it home from the store, no wasted plastic bottles, and fresh fizzy seltzericon any time I want it.  Here’s what it looks like:

    10. Drink lots of water. I sometimes suspect that when I used to drink a lot of soda it had somewhat of a vicious circle effect. The sodium-laced soda would make me thirsty enough to grab for another soda. Water counteracts that desire and seems to tamp down on my appetite, too. Ideally everyone should drink approximately 64 ounces a day of water. It seems like a lot when you first start, but after you get used to it you won’t notice it.

    9. Don’t drink mixed drinks with soda. This only applies if you’re a drinker, but it’s a big one. I used to drink Stoli Vanil mixed with vanilla diet Coke (while it still existed) as my drink of choice. Frankly, Stoli Vanil doesn’t mix well with juice, seltzericon, etc. What’s the solution? I switched to drinking wine instead of vodka. It has some (somewhat unproven but reasonable enough) health benefits and it doesn’t need to be mixed with soda. That was a conscious decision to get away from drinking hard liquor, and killed two bad habits with one shot.

    8. Start drinking tea. Let’s face it, no one wants to drink water all day. I work in big corporate hives where I can’t exactly keep a fresh supply of seltzericon and juice, so I get a little bored with water. I find that having a nice pile of herbal and decaffeinated teas gives you something to drink that’s flavorful and healthy.

    7. Drink lukewarm water. I think one reason people can’t drink a lot of water is that they drink ice-cold spring water bottles out of the fridge. Room temperature bottles taste terrible if you aren’t used to them, but you’ll notice they are easier to sip if they aren’t 33 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, you can keep them sitting on your desk/in your car/wherever. Since you won’t expect chilled water, it will be easier to drink.

    6. Don’t buy soda. This sounds obvious, but maybe it’s not. I stopped buying my poison of choice, diet Coke, and simply didn’t have it in the house. I had tried to “cut back” before, by buying a few two-liter bottles and telling myself “only one glass per evening”. That didn’t work for me. I removed the temptation entirely by not bringing it into my house.

    5. Drink coffee. If you are a caffeine junkie, I won’t lie to you – withdrawal hurts. I think the addiction to aspartame hurts, too, and nothing really helps that. But you can ease your caffeine DTs with a cup or two of coffee in the morning. Just make sure you don’t waste your money buying it – brew some at home. Don’t skimp, either – buy something flavorful or you’re going to hate it. And learn to drink it black. You’ll save money, calories and your teeth.

    4. Think of all the money you will save. Soda is fairly expensive. In all fairness, spring water is, too, but if you learn to drink from the office cooler at work and from the filtered water tap at home you can cut your expenses pretty significantly. I was working in one office where the diet Coke was free, which was fine, but when I moved into consulting I found I was dropping $1.25 four or five times per working day (let alone at home) to get a soda. That’s almost $1600 per year. I buy a box of tea bags for $3 (usually about 20 to a box) so even drinking five cups of tea per day, which I seldom do, I would only spend about $190 per year.

    3. Tell your friends, family, co-workers and anyone else who cares to listen that you are eliminating soda from your life. A lot of people will laugh, but by and large I think most people realize that soda is bad for you and will be supportive. I wasn’t asking people not to drink soda in front of me, or anything, but the simple fact is that if you tell a lot of people who will be with you at mealtimes or other times you might drink a soda, you will be too embarrassed to drink one and look like a backslider in front of them. Public goal-setting is a great way to maintain a resolution.

    2. Read. What? Read about aspartame. Read about Coke’s uses as a toilet bowl cleaner, or how it dissolves a steak. Do you really want that in your system?

    1. Wait. If you stop drinking soda and give it a few weeks – and that’s it, really – you won’t want soda anymore. I never meant to completely quit drinking soda when I gave it up, but somehow I lost the desire for soda when I quit drinking it regularly. It just doesn’t seem appealing. Diet Coke is downright nauseating – it has a chemically, bitter taste. Regular soda, quite honestly, still tastes good. But the cloying sweetness is overpowering after you drink juice/ seltzericon or water or tea or black coffee for a while. I just don’t want soda. In the two years I have had a few sodas – on vacation I drank a root beer, and maybe once every six weeks I’ll find myself at a food court or some such place where my choices are tap water or soda. In those cases I’ll stick with 7-Up (supposedly all-natural) if they have it and Sprite if they don’t. But I haven’t had a Coke or a Pepsi in two years, with one exception. I was waiting overnight in a hospital on Little Buddy, who was briefly ill with a terrible virus earlier this year, and late at night I desperately needed caffeine to stay awake. The vending machine had nothing left but diet Pepsi. I choked half of it down, but even then I couldn’t drink it. Fortunately a very kind nurse (the wonderful Expie who seemed to me that night one of the most wonderful people on this planet) brewed a pot of coffee for me.

    So that’s it. If I forgot a tip, feel free to comment or email me for a future post!

    Random thoughts on investing

    I have a lot of thoughts on money, which in my case center not so much around how to spend it as how to save it. I rely heavily on my own prejudices, which are heavily influenced by my cynicism as an auditor who sees crooked finance and operations people every day at big multinational oligarchic companies. And I was heavily influenced by Rich Dad, Poor Dad (although some of my earlier infatuation with Kiyosaki has lessened as I thought more about his advice – more on that later).

    Saying there is nothing urgent about saving money for the future is, to put it mildly, famous last words. Better to deal with things when you can do it in a calm and relaxed manner rather than needing to scramble when you’re 65.

    I am a believer in the US market primarily because there is no real alternative for a corporate employee who has to put most of his savings in a tax-advantaged 401(k) that only really allows cash (money market-type holdings), bond funds and mutual funds as investments.

    I have held individual stocks for most of my investing life, but no more. Why? Here’s an example. I was holding Wal-Mart stock. I got it when it was selling at 6. It split 4 or 5 times, went up to 50, and then stagnated for years, paying an awful 3% in dividends which were reinvested.

    I took a look at Cigna, a major holding of my very elderly grandparents, recently. I personally think it is utterly crazy for retirees in their eighties to have so much money in a single stock. Cigna right now has a .04/share yield, which considering the $163/share price is effectively $0 yield per year: therefore they are losing 5.25% on 100,000 per year, or 5250. So if there was a capital gains tax hit of 15%, it would take 3 years to get in the black (and that’s simplified since I’m not considering taxes on interest). From a risk perspective, I think an insured money market would be far safer and significantly more liquid. The instant liquidity of cash principal may be important soon, and if they were forced to sell Cigna when it WASN’T selling at near its 52-week high, they could take a huge (imaginary, since it never really existed as a “gain”, only on paper) loss. Cash will not go down (except via inflation, blah blah blah, but that can be effectively hedged with a TIP or a money market, since inflation is not running at 17% – yet). CDs, barring some economic meltdown, are safe and insured.

    However, it will take 3-4 years to be in “profit” mode selling off a huge stock holding like that, so it might not be worth it from that perspective. But in the long run at 5-6% in a CD/online savings account they could squeeze out another $5000 or so of cash a year.

    The general fragility of the US economic system is a big bugaboo for Bubelah (my wife, at least what I’ll call her on this blog) and me. We have spent some time trying to figure out how to legally open a Euro bank account to start shifting our money out of the US. People put a great deal of reliance, for example, on the Chinese not calling their 500 billion in loans to the US. And I got really spooked by our stock-concentrated savings a couple of years ago – actually maybe a year and a half ago – watching a documentary about Enron. They were issuing “buy” recommendations on that while unbeknownst to the analysts, regulators, etc. Jeff Skilling was dancing around drunk telling his staff to make up fake invoices inflating sales. Is any other company out there as bad as Enron? Beats me. Could be. Maybe not. Maybe so. Probably so, in fact – human nature being what it is there’s always a guy out there who thinks he can game the system.

    My thinking with finances has therefore been that rather than trying to think I can outsmart the thieves, the traders, the investment banks with their Crays making 8.2 million trades per second, better to plow everything into high-return cash and mutual funds that mimic the market, and then forget about it. If the US crashes, we’re in a bad spot, but if 5 of the Fortune 500 turned into Enrons tomorrow it would only be 1% of our portfolio. If someone holds a half dozen stocks, it’s 15% of theirs.

    It’s tricky. Obviously I’m not retired and living off my investment income in Bermuda so it’s not like I know it all.

    High school athlete, or how to set the table for massive weight gains

    I am not a dietician, a nutritionist, a doctor, a trainer, etc. Please consult a doctor before beginning any diet program.

    OK, now that’s out of the way. When I was younger I wasn’t particularly athletic but I wasn’t particularly non-athletic, either. I spent the usual amount of time running around playing and didn’t really eat to excess – maybe I had a weakness for chips and French fries but it’s not like it was served every day around the house, so I wasn’t eating much except what went on the table.


    When I was about 14 or so (basically 9th grade) I took up tennis. I had never really played any organized sports up to that point, so that was a bit of a shock at first. I took it up casually since my friends were doing it, and then got serious about it when it was apparent that I was good enough to make the high school team. I went to camp, I started running with the team, and even sporadically began lifting weights. However, the most important aspect of all of this was that I started playing tennis – a lot. We had two seasons, fall and spring, and throughout the summers my friends on the team and I would get together and play 3 or more sets each night of the week. This was in Mississippi, where I grew up, so I was playing tennis at a competitive teenage male level 6-7 nights a week throughout the 100 degree summer, not to mention competitive tennis matches throughout the spring and fall combined with the usual training regimen of sprints, practices, etc.

    Metabolism swings

    So the result of this was that my metabolism cranked up to a pretty high level. I think there were about three main reasons, one obvious, one normal, and one abnormal. First, I was a teenage male doing a lot of exercise at a very high level. Second, I started eating more, which in a weird way, due to the massive amounts of exercise, probably cranked my metabolism up even more. I wasn’t eating lots of junk food yet, so the meat/veggies/etc. were just more fuel for the fire. Third, I switched from drinking juice and the occasional Coke to drinking diet Coke. I think that was very significant although I didn’t realize it at the time. More on that in a future post.

    So my metabolism was cranked up to the point where I was always hungry, always drinking diet Coke, always putting something in my mouth to keep up with the near-constant need for fuel.

    Basketball ankle injury

    I forget the exact date, but I think it was New Year’s Eve 1986 when I agreed to meet some of my friends and play a pickup game of basketball early in the evening. We did this pretty frequently as a way to break the monotony of (for most of us) tennis training, but there were a few non-tennis guys too. We usually played pretty hard, as competitive teen guys do, and had no rules about body checks or 3-second rules or anything that made basketball a non-contact sport.

    Anyway, to the best of my recollection I went up for a rebound, or a shot, or something, and when I came down someone stepped squarely on my ankle, bending (but not completely breaking) it sideways. I thought it was OK for a second, but when I stood up – BAM – I went right down again. It hurt, badly, and it started swelling up right away. I wasn’t going to be able to drive my stick-shift Mercury Comet, so I called my parents and they took me home.

    Being New Year’s Eve, there wasn’t a doctor easily available and it was pretty clear that while I had badly damaged my ankle, it wasn’t a break (which as you will read later will teach you, the non-doctor, not to assess injuries). So I propped it up, watched it swell up purple, and waited a couple of days before going to the doctor, hobbling around the house. When I finally had a doctor look at it, he recommended I walk on crutches for a few weeks, wear an air cast (basically a hard plastic cast with inflatable sections that made it rigid), and not play sports.

    Tennis scholarships (or lack thereof)

    So of course taking the long term view, I stayed off my feet for about two weeks, then started playing tennis with the air brace stuffed in a hightop sneaker to hold my ankle steady. I had dreams of becoming the #1 player on the team, getting tennis scholarships, etc. It wasn’t to be. I had a disappointing senior year, playing worse than I did as a junior, and never really fully recovered from the ankle injury. I got a few tennis scholarships, but they were small nominal scholarships to private schools ( i.e. $1000 per year off an $8000 tuition at the time). I didn’t have any major schools looking for me to play for them, certainly, and not even any serious interest from minor schools. So much for my dreams of tennis glory. My biggest achievement was beating a guy who would later become the #1 ranked player in the southeast US, and at least hanging in a match briefly with a guy who would later play at Wimbledon (I think I lost 6-0, 6-0, but I managed to ace him once or twice).

    So I graduated from high school as a former athlete, eating large amounts, going away from home to live on my own for the first time, newly discovering beer and diet Coke, quitting organized exercise in the form of team practices and competitive play, and coming into a large amount of money by virtue of a humungous academic scholarship and generous parents and grandparents.


    Well, I am sure everyone will be a-twitter over the relaunching of Brip Blap. If you visited the site before, you know that I wrote a vitriolic and often rage-filled political blog for about four years. It really peaked around the 2004 election, when it basically became a nonstop bloodbath of derisive comments about the Republicans.This time I don’t intend to talk about politics, although I’m sure that may come. Instead, this will be a more introspective blog, focusing more on me. Why? I am often asking myself that question. I feel like a dull person sometimes, yet, in the last ten years, I have:

    • Lived in Russia
    • Traveled to 27 different countries
    • Lost over 100 pounds through diet and exercise
    • Managed to go from a guy who got winded on a single flight of stairs to someone who has placed in the top 5 in my age category in competitive 5K races
    • Gone from being a confirmed bachelor to a happily married man with a superstar of a baby boy (update 2010:  now a big boy who now has a little sister, born in 2008).
    • Managed to go from being a workaholic nonstop business traveler to someone making in the mid-six-figures doing more or less nothing on a day-to-day basis
    • Completely 100% shifted my worldview on politics and the news and the world around in less than 6 months.

    So, I don’t know – I hope that from all of that I can draw some topics for posting. Plus, I read a lot and have a lot of strong opinions on what I read – personal finance, childhood education, history, geography, famous quotations, self-help books and movies, movies, movies. Football, when I have time (J-E-T-S). And finally I am an enthusiastic twiddler in the Web 2.0 world (more on that later). So, subscribe, comment, and I hope this is interesting to someone besides me, but if not, that’s OK.