Hey-O! After several months of writing steadily I enjoyed a little break-ee-poo. But things are still movin’ and shakin’, so let’s get back out on the dance floor.
This post (and probably the next few) will contain segments that are all part of my larger story but not necessarily connected to each other. Expect direct follow-ups to what I call the blog’s ‘central story arc’ (all previous posts), fun new announcements, and progress updates on my move to Spain.
Let’s jump in it!
The Fortuitous Veer
My last handful of posts (from To The Healing Side to Welcome To The Party, Breaux), were exclusively centered around my success doing somatic experiencing therapy. If you read each post in order, you were witnessing- almost in real time, my methodical shedding of childhood trauma, and the a written unveiling of the Gary I was supposed to be all along.
It is a minor aside at this point, but I want to say that my initial vision for the blog was to simply share with everyone how I arrived at my decision to move from the US to Salamanca, Spain. Veering off into jarring family stories of suicide and heartbreak wasn’t part of the original plan at all. It just worked out that way….just as it needed to for me to internally heal from the trauma I’d been carrying inside all my life. Somatic therapy was the innovative and ingenious technique I used to heal myself, but it was also the opening up of my mind- as facilitated by the blog -that gave space and opportunity for my body-self to do what it needed to do. When writing about the circumstances of my childhood, I dove far deeper into my psyche than I ever had before. And made revelatory new connections between past and present. It was my mind and body working together that brought me home.
In the end, the blog will forever stand as a body of personal reclamation and universal redemption. I am thrilled to have been able to share it with you (and the world). I am also enormously pleased that at least a couple folks that follow my blog are firmly on their own path of healing from childhood trauma, too.
I am proud of myself. I did something. I barely have a sense in words of what “pride” means, but I know I have felt it more than a few times in recent weeks. It’s a feeling of accomplishment, I suppose. Appreciation and admiration resulting in satisfaction. How does that work for ya?
Proud of what? This blog. This healing. This Gary.
Pride is not the only “new emotion” I have felt recently. Since therapy breakthroughs moved me from blocked to open in terms of my emotional access, I have also felt genuine anger for the first time in….well, forever. Sadness, too. My overall ability to empathize is much greater, as well. Little more than a week ago I was in the presence of a friend who was hardcore venting his way through some harsh emotions- it was a manic episode, in truth. As I sat and listened, my body began to shake and quiver until I started to cry along with my friend. Pretty incredible, right?! No, I am not the Gary you thought you knew.
Even laughing feels different. With the same friend I cried with, (on a different day) I had a laugh so deep I felt it in both flanks of my torso.
Born At Zero
After giving my therapist (Gabe) plenty of thanks, praise and thousands of dollars (over the course of six months), I have now moved forward on my own with all the tools I need to continue doing somatic experiencing at home. My plan is to set aside some time (almost) every morning to keep it going.
It’s been great so far. And the more I do it, the better I get at it and the more I learn.
The concepts of being blocked or open to emotions are something I’ve learned quite a bit about (and now written about extensively). Not surprising to anyone that knows me, but I’ve also “quantified” what it is to be blocked on an imaginary scale of my own invention. [Reminder: Blocked is when someone cannot fully access their emotions, or is unable to regulate them in a healthy, normal way.] Check out this fancy graphic:
Open 0 ——————————————— 100 Blocked
Simple enough, right? Here’s how it works. We are born our pure selves at zero, “Open” in my terminology. This is the mind-self and body-self being synchronized so that all natural human emotions can be accessed and experienced. But as abuse, neglect, disconnection and general dysfunction in childhood accumulates, our blocked score goes up. Narcissists (like Trump, for example) have shitty, abusive childhoods and grow into adults blocked from their emotions somewhere in the 95 – 100 point range. (Psychopaths are right up there with them.) Knowing everything I know now, I would give myself a blocked score in the 65 – 70 point range. My ex-girlfriend and many of my friends [your vibe attracts your tribe] are all blocked by roughly the same amount. (No, not all. I do have good friends with blocked scores very much on the lower end of my made-up scale.)
By the time I said good-byes to Gabe, I estimate that my somatic breakthroughs had reduced my blocked score down to around 35, about half of where I started. This left me comfortable and experienced enough to continue this type of therapy pretty much anywhere, anytime. Further work at home has dropped my score down even further- probably to the 10 – 15 point range. That’s REALLY LOW, folks!!!! Good on me!
What will I be like if I make it all the way to zero? Should I start shopping now for tie-dye shirts and headbands? My answer to this is, NO. I don’t say no flippantly. I plan to remain quite firmly grounded outside and in. This is what I foresee as being my niche within conversations that depart from the material world into one that’s harder to detect with our traditional senses. I will make sense of the non-material “dimension” by anchoring it firmly to the everyday world we see all around.
In Other News….
I have a new adventure I am super-excited about– a podcast. Yes, I know….there are already (quite literally) a million podcasts out there…. but I’m telling you, none like this one. The name of the podcast is Marty & The Bro. Don’t look for it yet because we haven’t even recorded the first episode. Preparations are definitely underway, however, and I am feeling pretty rosy about it.
So, if I am The Bro (per how my last name is pronounced, though not spelled), who the hell is Marty? Readers that have been with me since the beginning were (somewhat) introduced to Marty already. The fourth post I did was called, Smoke ‘em If You Want To Live. Go back and read it if you didn’t already. It’s a great post and still ranked as the #1 most read post of this entire blog. One of the stories I share within that post is about a friend I refer to only as M. The story involves the day he planned to take his own life. M is Marty. Marty LIVES! Marty is my partner on the podcast.
Marty’s given name is Marcellus Wright, Jr. In his old neighborhood a lot of people called him Marty and that’s how he introduces himself in certain situations. I won’t say much more about Marty now or how he and I got to know each other. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out. He’s a remarkable guy and I am excited for others to get to know him as I do. Our plan is to launch the podcast the first week of January 2021.
Don’t Forget Spain
My visa application to Spain is a work in progress. There is quite a lot to it– an FBI background check, medical certificate of health, financial records, health insurance, translations, etc -but I feel like I am still on track to start my new life in Spain on or about February 1st of 2021.
In case you were wondering… last week I received the FBI Background check. And they found nothing! So there! HA!!!
From behind the wheel, my mom turns her face towards me, her right arm reaching across the upper part of the seat-back. She tells me she loves me. It’s ordinary the way she says it. How easy for me to tell her “I love you, too, mom.” But I am 13 years old. I am unsure, unsteady, conflicted, angry. I am blocked.
It was typical for me to ride my bike to T.H. Rogers Jr. High, but this particular morning, the one that stands out in my memory more than any other, it’s my mom that drives me to school in our copper-colored big American station wagon. She pulls to a stop at the nearby intersection and I get out from the passenger seat. My backpack is on the seat behind me, filled with heavy textbooks, spiral notebooks, and my lunch. I open the rear door to grab it. That’s when I see her face and hear her saying to me those three awkward words.
Before I close the door, all that I have lived from birth to this moment becomes compressed into a pause of two seconds. She tilts her head, and I can feel her eyes begging me for reflection. She asks, “You can’t tell me you love me?” Two more seconds of heavy silence passes. I close the heavy car door, swing my heavy backpack onto a shoulder, and walk away heavy.
I’m so sorry, mom. I couldn’t say it. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t know what to feel.
No Optimus Prime Time
At this point, we’ll pick right back up from where the last two posts left you hanging. My final words in the previous post were, “Thank you for this day, sweet universe. I don’t understand you. But now I am open.”
What the hell does that even mean?! And then the post just ends.
Friends, followers, (countrymen?), here is what it means. Going from blocked to open was transformative. A bona-fide breakthrough! There’s no way I could have imagined it, either. I have gone through the looking glass that I did not know existed.
[Pause…breathe] I also want to be careful not to overstate what happened on Oct 12th. Those six somatic cycles I went through did not transform me from a car into a six-story tall fighting robot. No miracles occurred. I did not lay down on the futon wearing dark-rimmed glasses and get up 2 hours later wearing tights and a cape. When I say transformative, it’s on the scale of how a person might appear different from beginning to end on an Extreme Makeover reality show. But the cool thing about my “makeover,” is that changes took place on the inside.
To get a true feel for what this transformation really felt like, we unfortunately must first spend more time talking about trauma and what it is to be “blocked” in the first place. The perversely good news is that emotionally blocked is how I’ve been all my life. It’s what I know best. Being open has only been my experience for about two and a half weeks.
But I’ll tell you, the contrast between these two emotional states of existence really pops when you cross over from one side to the other. Did anyone notice that I only began using the terms blocked and open (within this specific context) after the Oct 12th, super-sonic breakthrough? Only after reaching the wider lens of the looking glass could I then turn around to see where I had been. In the post To The Healing Side, (publishedon Oct 10th), I had the concept but used the word “disconnected.” Yes, that is a big part of it as you will see, but blocked paired with open feels much more accurate.
With these concepts revealed to me and the short-hand to describe them, my challenge is now to make blocked and open as clear to you as they are to me.
Trauma, Bury, Disconnect
When a person is blocked it means that childhood trauma has caused them to bury their rightful emotions and disconnect themselves from the feelings of others, and from their own feelings, too.
Notice the italics I have added to the three terms I will be diving into today- trauma, bury and disconnect. Same as the word “inconceivable” from The Princess Bride, each of these words may not mean what you think it means. Let’s begin where the trouble begins, with trauma.
A quick heads up that I will be going back quite often to the terms body-self and mind-self because they are so key to grasping the physiological underpinnings of what it is to be blocked (and then open). Review anyone?
Trauma Is Not So “Bad”
“No House of Horrors” was the subtitle I used for one of the first segments of my post, Breeding Ground for Suicide. Here is how I summed-up my childhood then:
“What’s amazing to me is just how relatively close to center my early upbringing was. There were no alcohol-fueled episodes of physical abuse, no child molestation, no cages, no torture chambers, no material for a future Netflix documentary. The dysfunction in my childhood home was the product of two parents living inside their own blind spots.”
I know the word “trauma” first brings to mind explosions, violence, rape, incest, etc, but I want to make it clear that trauma, specifically childhood trauma, comes in many forms- angry ruptures that go unrepaired; direct (and indirect) emotional abuse; an absence of nurturing love; and willful neglect. My list is not exhaustive, but enough to make the point. Notice, physical abuse is not on the list. That’s because it is additive, not required.
When young Gary both witnessed and experienced these less headline-grabbing forms of trauma without any means of escape, he/I learned to cope. The trade-off was to become emotionally blocked. My body-self was born to scream and cry and love, but when the parental forces around me would not support these natural human emotions, my mind-self had to figure out how to hold the whole of me together. Evidently my answer (and that for males almost everywhere) was to toughen-up, to put a lid on my emotions. This required turning off some chemical “switches” buried deep inside my body.
The next paragraph is one I wish I didn’t feel was necessary to write. It makes it seem like I’m trying to explain sciencey stuff in my blog when a scientist, I am not. Just relax, Max…I am simply passing along something I read about recently, but also quite literally felt. This I will explain after you hear what the science says…
Peer-reviewed, scientific research studies on adults who’ve had trauma in their childhoods confirm there are real-life biological, physical, and identifiable changes that occur within the human body directly correlated to trauma—lower cortisol levels, higher stress hormones, and these little things called “methyl groups” that attach themselves to certain genes, turning them either on or off. Quantities of these measurable physical attributes even correlate to the severity of the trauma.
All this is saying is that trauma affects the chemistry of our bodies in ways that can be measured. But I didn’t have to read this in a book before I knew it was true. The six somatic experiencing cycles I went through on Oct 12th, left me physically feeling changed. [Hey, I’m just telling you what happened.] To be clear, I am not talking about feeling these changes right away. I mean, I kind of did, but I’m slow to trust anything that seems too good to be true, especially while still under the elevating influence of cannabis. However, by days three and four the jury was in. The physical changes were not an illusion or a biased perception. They were just as real as a new haircut.
What kind of physical changes are we talking about? Familiar pains in my right shoulder, right hip and left knee all felt better right away. My body-self was clearly happy to finally complete some full cycles from Danger to Safe, from Anger to Safe, and from Sad to Safe. It was epic!
My right shoulder was especially different. With weights at the gym I do these exercises called shrugs so that maaaaybe my shoulders won’t look so boney. I hang onto a 40 lb dumbbell with each hand and then shrug like I’m saying, “I don’t know” over and over again. If I’m not careful in how I do these lifts, I will feel a crunchy pain when my right shoulder moves in certain ways. After the breakthrough… Gone! [Okay, so that’s not 100% true, but the age-old pains I was very familiar with were reduced by like… a whopping 90%.]
Though the physical changes were quite remarkable, the larger headline font should be reserved for how much different my mind felt- GARY MAKES PEACE DEAL. I am telling you…the literalness of this change is still hard for me to wrap my head around. I had no concept a transformation such as this could be a real thing. The closest relatable feeling I can think of is the one you would experience after learning a piece of good news has cancelled your need to worry and stress; like a weight has been lifted. What is that, right?! Well, the stuff I read about changes to cortisol levels, stress hormones and genes was exactly the type of sciencey confirmation a born skeptic like me appreciates to explain this feeling of change (and change of feeling). In a nutshell, when my direct personal experience is backed up by science, I’m all the way in.
Completed somatic cycles changed my body’s chemistry for the better and I am happy to let that be true.
The day after my super-sonic breakthrough I wondered to myself what I’ll say the next time someone asks me, How are you? I posed the question to myself first and came up with an answer that both sounds kind of humorous and also feels like there’s truth in it. I will say- I haven’t felt this good since I was 3 months old.
Prior to my very first session of therapy in the first part of May, I added a note to my phone with an absurdly long header, “What I Hope to Get Out of Therapy and Questions I’d Like Answered.” In the note I list 13 things. Item #4 relates to this idea of connection. I wrote, Will therapy help me figure out if being “Mr Jokester” all the time is a crutch? Ha! Now I have my answer… Abso-friggen-lutely!
Now that I am open, it’s not difficult to make sense of my own behavior patterns as a person who was pretty dam-blocked. Being Mr. Jokester is not a bad thing, overall. [C’mon, I’m funny sometimes, right?] But my problem was always cracking jokes when the situation called for a higher degree of seriousness and sensitivity. I didn’t care about people in the way I should have. Meaning, I could intellectually care about someone all day long, but what’s always been missing was feeling it.
I can recall a specific moment from when I was 16 years old and working at the beloved (and long-since closed-down) amusement park in Houston called Astroworld. I was working in the “Oriental” section near the Runaway Rickshaw ride when I saw a little boy off by himself, crying and lost. I went over to him, but really didn’t know what to say. Just being honest with you, I felt uncomfortable handling what should have been an easy task. About a minute later, an area foreman named Willie Wamble (Yes, that’s his name) was walking by so I grabbed his attention with a wave and motioned him over. Instinctively, Willie goes straight to the crying little boy and squats down so they are at eye-level. The way Willie speaks to the kid is something I’ve apparently never forgotten. He is so caring and sensitive. He first comforts the boy, then reassures him his parents are definitely looking for him right then. Willie says to the kid, “I’m going to help you, alright? You’re gonna be okay.” Meanwhile I am standing a short distance away thinking, Wow, I could never do that.
Seeing how Willie interacted with that little boy was something I could intuitively admire, but my instincts to do the same were unavailable to me. It’s episodes like this that let me know deep down that something was wrong with me. Being blocked from having normal human feelings not only inhibited my ability to connect with others, but also to myself. It would take me 40 years of cold living, a personal blog of deep psychological exploration, and six months of somatic therapy visits before I would begin gaining access to my own healthy and appropriate human emotions.
Hey! Better now than never, right? What I would really like to do at this point is test my hypothesis. If you happen to lose your small child, let me know and I’ll help with the search. 😉
Sorry Mom…We Got Disconnected
The opening scene at the top of this post is one of my most uncomfortable memories. Reliving this moment hurts now, but I needed to tell the story to show you what being disconnected looks like.
What a far different, more complicated and complete, picture I have of my mother today! If my mom were still alive, this is the conversation I would like to have with her…
Mom, I know the sudden loss of your own mother when you were 13 was a rupture that no one could ever repair. While I never heard much about your father I have connected enough dots to conclude he was an abusive alcoholic and your mom left him when you were around 7 years old. He had a lot of mental problems and spent the last 15 years of his life at the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in Michigan. He died when you were 25 of pancreatic cancer, but also written on his death certificate next to “Other Significant Conditions” are the words, Psychosis with organic brain disease. I can translate that– Your father was horribly abused as a child.
That was your dad. How about the other men in your life?
I know your first husband (Tommy’s father) was physically abusive, and you left him. Your second husband (my father) was emotionally abusive, and you left him. You had one more significant relationship after my dad with a mercifully kind-hearted alcoholic, but an alcoholic, nonetheless. It took many heartbreaking years, but eventually you left him, too. Your vibe attracts your tribe, mom. You were blocked, and so were all of the men in your life, including all three of your sons… including me, mom. Tommy and Bill succumbed to their inner world of pain, but for reasons I cannot yet understand, I am the son that has survived.
Now I am here to tell your story and connect it to my own. All our family ever knew up until now was disconnection. Well, now it’s time for me to connect.
I do not have children of my own to repair the family’s chain of abuse, neglect, and disconnection. However, I’m writing a blog these days, mom. I think it’s really good. Maybe there’s someone out there that will read it, and it will help them make the loving connections we never could.
More Than Words
One thing you might still be confused about. I say that both my mother and I were blocked, lacking access to our emotions, right? But we all hear my mother turn to me and tell me she loves me. This speaks to the internal battle everyone living in the blocked world faces. Our body-selves crave to feel the love that trauma prevents us from giving or receiving. Our mind-self can intellectually match-up this innate craving to what we know we should be saying and feeling. In short, we try. All our lives, we try. My mother was trying. All her life she was trying.
The understanding I now have of my mother (and every member of my family), is at an all-time high. More pieces of my family’s puzzle are yet to be discovered, for sure. But I’ve got the bulk of it figured out. The bottom line is that we were a disaster of a family. Disconnection breeds disconnection and the painful results speak volumes. All of us, blocked, blocked, blocked.
On a brighter, more positive note, I want to tell you about my mother’s death. [Wait! Don’t smack me. I’m funny sometimes, remember?!] What I’m going to tell you is that the happiest stretch of my mom’s life was definitely the last 15 or so years. She had bouts of depression throughout her life, but I remember maybe only one episode of it in her final decade and a half. I do not believe she ever healed from her trauma, but she certainly worked at it. For that she deserves mad props.
Dam Aunt Sana
Before wrapping up this post about what it’s like to be blocked, there’s someone I’d like you to meet– my Aunt Sana. She was my dad’s older sister and a perfectly pleasant individual, but whoa Nellie, blocked like the Hoover Dam. The family joke was that if Sana came to pay you a visit in the hospital while you were on your deathbed and dying, she would be sure to tell you first, “Well, when I was on my deathbed and dying…”
It was only about one month ago that a few new pieces of my Aunt’s life (and my dad’s) fell into place. The family called her Sana, but her given name was Helen Randolph Breaux. Randolph is a family name intended for the first born son. (It was my older brother Bill’s middle name, as well.) My “female” aunt showed up first but still snagged the name Randolph. I’m adding quote-marks to “female,” because my aunt had uncommonly large dimensions for a woman. She was 5’11” and built like a tight-end. My dad (the last born) was more slender and two inches smaller, like a second-string running back (which he was on his college football team).
It’s a trippy thought, but it’s as though my Aunt Sana should have been the boy, and my dad the girl. Gender identity issues were never discussed over family Thanksgiving dinner, but as I look back, it’s almost guaranteed that my aunt was never able to live life as her true self. I do know she lived into her 80’s, never had a boyfriend/girlfriend, voraciously devoured romance novels, and was a virgin to the day she really was….on her deathbed and dying.
For my dad’s part, to think that he might have been gay, trans, or at the very least, sexually confused, and having to suppress his truest nature, would certainly explain a lot about his awkward personality traits. And also explain the degree to which he was emotionally disconnected from everyone around him. My dad even had quite a few physical “ticks” that I think were a direct consequence of the trauma he suffered growing up. He had this odd, repetitive way in which he would move the thumb on his left hand, like there was a tight rubber band underneath his skin and he couldn’t get it to snap no matter how many times he tried.
Being Blocked Is Soooo Yesterday
Seeing myself in these two examples- the I love you non-exchange with my mom at 13, and also the story about the lost kid at Astroworld a few years later. How could I have been so cold and uncaring? It’s because I literally didn’t possess the ability to connect- the mechanisms of trauma wouldn’t allow for it. Connecting is seeing. And I mean truly seeing another person, taking the whole of them into account when you’re communicating. Being able to feel and reflect-back the other person’s emotions, not just intellectually, but because your own are available to share, as well. That is connecting.
I can see now how my attempts to insert witty comments (to be Mr. Jokester) into otherwise serious conversations were too often a substitute for sincere listening. Frankly, it’s a tell-tale sign of a person who is blocked. Another flavor of this same blocked condition is found in people (like my Aunt Sana) who talk about themselves non-stop. [Oh, you mean like the guy who’s writing this giant blog?] What you are witnessing from people in your life that exhibit this trait in spades is a person who cannot leave their own heads long enough to connect to yours.
The coda to the story about my mother and me is this. Eventually I reached a point in my life where I could tell my mom, I love you, but sadly, while she was still alive I was never able to feel it. Do I feel it now? Honestly, I don’t know yet. Coming into the open world is new to me. [It’s barely been two weeks!] My capacity to love freely is uncharted territory. Plus, great progress on my part does not mean my growth as a person is over. Ha, wouldn’t that be something! It’s more likely that I am just getting started.
So, that’s a lot more about being Blocked. Plus, a little more about what it means to be Open. But we haven’t even gotten to the craziest part of it.
Only three posts left in the 1 More World blog central story arc! Can you believe that? We’ve come quite a long way since I launched this blog on June 30, 2020. There are still several more key puzzle pieces looking to be set into place. And money is one of them.
My house in Austin went on the market late August. I am so fortunate to have received several good offers right away. So….SOLD! Closing hasn’t occurred yet (as of this post), but it’s scheduled for next week.
Hard to Say Goodbye
Two days ago I returned from a short trip to Austin to tend to my dear periwinkle house one last time. I had to quickly sell, donate, and throw out, all kinds of miscellaneous items, large and small, that were still in the house, mostly in the garage. For me it was emotional to the hilt. I cried a lot. No, like…A LOT! Wednesday afternoon, I had the honor of doing a walk-through with the new owner. I am profoundly sad/melancholy about passing along this house that has been such a big part of my life but also feel really happy about the new owner. I think she’s going to take great care of the place for years come.
My last few minutes with the house were meaningful. I walked slowly through the house from back to front. In every room I paused to reflect and remember. I saw each of the cats that lived there over the years from my first cat Shelly to my mom’s last two cats Sam and Kera. I listed in my head all of the people that lived in the house at one time or another. I even thought of the hundreds of Airbnb guests that house has hosted, as well.
When I stepped into the empty bedroom where I’d slept my first night ever in that house some 32 years ago, I was overcome. I walked my body over to the location where my bed was positioned and crumbled down to the bare floor. I let the tears flow. The moment was deeply emotional. Not all that I felt was sadness, just heavy, complicated, raw, living, human, emotion, spilling out into the room. Whatever it was, I tried to let myself just feel it.
Right after the night of the avalanche back in April, I dove headlong into researching whether or not I might have enough net worth already to pivot my entire 55 year old life towards a fresh new beginning somewhere else in the world. That’s what this post will be about– the money, honey! I will share with you how much I have and my thought process around planning out this last stretch of my life. I will get into some detail below, all without revealing my new city, country and continent. You won’t have long to wait for the reveal, however. It will be in my next post.
Whenever I’m talking about my “net worth,” most of it (two-thirds) is the value of my house. Whatever strategizing I did on how to achieve my bright new fresh and exciting future was built upon when the house would sell and for how much. Now that I am so close to selling it, I can tell you that everything is going according to plan.
Sometimes it takes a while. 55 years is nothing on the cosmic scale, but in my life… it’s everything. That’s how long it took for me to know myself well-enough to identify a “lifestyle” that has a pretty good chance of making me happy. I’m calling it “I Want What I Want.” Before you recoil in horror at how simultaneously arrogant and obvious my declared lifestyle choice sounds, make sure you know what it means. I touched upon this briefly in an earlier post so I won’t retread the same ground here. Just know that I want a house with a roommate, quality cookware, and enough money to make choices at the grocery story without having to stress too much over items that tend to cost a little more…like pecans.
Specific purchases aside, the I Want What I Want lifestyle means I can just be myself. I am not a fancy guy with expensive tastes, so living simply but comfortably without having to stress over money is all I’m really talking about. I think it’s within reach! A little further below, I’ll get into specifics, but first some background on me and money.
Not a Fan
Just being honest with you, I am no fan of money. It’s a means to an end, of course, but if I can avoid being bothered by tending to it, all the better. I was the child of a depression-era father. Do you have any idea what that was like? The constant energy he spent worrying about money created a walk-on-eggshells atmosphere for all those around him. Me not giving a shit about money now is how I am balancing out the equation. Having said all that, I do have a degree in accounting and, occasional minor missteps aside, I am generally capable of handling the basics of money when I need to; I would simply rather not.
As a little kid, I saw my dad go off to work every day wearing his Haggar slacks, button-down shirt and tie, and those polished black dress-shoes. He must have earned a good salary as an engineer for Brown & Root. We owned the house I grew up in, a rental house on Seminole Street, and even a (primitive) bayhouse down near the Texas coast where we’d often spend our weekends. Financially speaking, my dad did well. And yet the Great Depression never allowed him to relax.
Just as the person I am today is traceable back to the environment I grew up in, I suppose this was no less true for my father. He would have been 10-13 years old while the Great Depression wreaked havoc on daily life in the US. At least with me, he never talked about bread lines or soup kitchens, or how his out-of-work father might have yelled at him for leaving a light on, or taking too much time in the shower. I guess my dad didn’t need to talk about his experiences during the depression; he revealed them on a daily basis through his over-the-top, high-volume, angry rants over money and not wasting a penny of it. Within the walls of my childhood home, the Great Depression never ended.
Steve Says To “Buy The Best…”
By the time I was in my mid-to-late teens and earning a paycheck of my own, I started to de-program myself from my dad’s extremist mind-set towards money. Eventually, I went hard in the opposite direction, but it was a process- an evolution that spanned years. Money is a devilish frenemy. Figuring out your relationship to it requires some genuine life-experience.
To be clear, I am not saying my dad hoarded money so I am now a spendthrift. My dad was simply an unbearable cheapskate. I’d prefer having less stuff to buying cheap. Steve Pasco, the late husband of one of my oldest friends, once told me his motto when it comes to buying stuff. He said, “Buy the best and you’ll never be disappointed.” I love that phrase and have repeated it to myself and shared it with others many times ever since first hearing it.
Like nearly everyone I know, my own financial situation has been precarious at best for most of my life. It’s only been since my late 40’s that I’ve been able to breathe easier. In 2012 I inherited about $170K from my Aunt Betty. Over half of this money was from her IRA and not readily available to me without paying unwanted taxes on it, which in some cases it made sense to do. All in all, this money helped me get a solid handle on my financial circumstances for the first time ever. Of the original inheritance I received from my aunt, I still have about $75K left.
By the way, my father– the man that spent his whole life figuratively hunched over every dollar like a miser –died with only a couple thousand bucks to his name. From the “estate” I received around $450 for being the beneficiary on one of his depleted investment accounts. The fascinating corollary to my dad’s depression-era preoccupation with money is that one of the ways he chased the dragon of financial security was that he gambled. Whether it was the stock market, investing in coal mines (yes, coal mines), playing the lottery, or taking trips to Las Vegas, my dad was enamored by the thought of one day “striking it rich.” A few of his investments turned positive over the years, but far more of them did not.
Tim Mullaney, my newly-found financial advisor, is an interesting cat. My initial consultation with him over Zoom was scheduled for 11 am on a Monday. I was ready early and waiting with high anticipation for 11 o’clock to roll around. 11:05… 11:10… 11:15. I watched the minutes proceed and my phone was not ringing. It’s our first meeting, how could he not be on time? 11:25… 11:30. Maybe I have the appointment set wrong. Or are we having time zone confusion? I double-checked everything. I was in the right place at the right time, so where was Tim? I texted my friend Vanessa, the one who had recommended I talk to him. By now it’s 11:40 or so. Vanessa says she’ll send him a text. Another couple of minutes pass and finally Tim calls. His voice is gentle. He apologizes, telling me he was with another client and their meeting went long, which is kind of what I figured, but still…. Then, seeing how my own initial conversation with Tim lasted nearly 4 hours, I understood how he prioritizes his time and why his approach to clients sets him apart from nearly everyone else working in the financial services industry.
When I told Tim I no longer wished to live according to a set of rules I had no say in making….and that I wanted to start living life on my own terms, he was fully on-board. This was something Tim figured out a long time ago in the aftermath of his 22 month old daughter’s diagnosis with leukemia. It was a multi-year long ordeal where Tim learned a painful but invaluable lesson about accepting things that are outside of one’s own control. He also learned the flip side of this— recognizing that many things in life are within our control….if we choose to take the wheel and drive with intention.
Tim’s daughter Kelsey survived her battle with Leukemia. She is now 26 years old and doing well.
Despite Tim’s apology, my guess is that he wasn’t truly too bothered to have been 40 minutes late for our first appointment. He was helping a client. That was Tim’s priority. These are his terms. #RESPECT
After my own initial marathon conversation with Tim, I was feeling more positive than ever I was on the right track. Regarding the big question- Is a little over a half-million dollars of net worth enough for me to achieve my I Want What I Want lifestyle? While not answered until our third or fourth conversation. I will skip ahead and just tell you it looks to be a YES!
In our society (and in most societies around the world), you just don’t talk openly about money. Well, not my rules; I’m so going to spill the golden beans. Really, here’s why. I figure my story has the potential to be instructive to others. If I’m not open and honest about the real-life dollars involved, suddenly there’s nothing for the next person to latch onto and relate back to their own financial situation, be it more or less. Plus, I can’t be the only one in the world in their 50’s that’s been motivated to go to work every day on blind inertia alone…only to have it dawn on them during a night of high-flying revelations that there might be another way.
Knowing if $550K is a big enough number for me to achieve my I Want What I Want lifestyle, I first had few things to figure out. If not in America, where would I be living? Once I had that answer narrowed down to two locations, I was able to make some round-number estimates of how much it would cost to resettle myself into either of these two new-to-me countries. My estimate had to include living expenses for the first year or so it might take me to get settled ($50K), money to put down on a four bedroom house ($110K), and money to furnish it to my liking ($20K). Included within my furnishings figure was enough money to set up an Airbnb at my house, too. While I had no great confidence in the accuracy of any of my estimates, what I did have was a starting point.
Assuming I could pull off the above I still had to think about my ongoing monthly expenses after getting settled. Here’s the way I thought about it. How much would I need to cover all my basics- housing, transportation, healthcare, food, and some modest extras like eating out occasionally? I called this the I Want What I Want- Basic, and started out estimating $2K per month. The thought was that if I were able to afford the Basic without working, this meant every extra dollar I might earn from a job would go towards I Want What I Want- Premium. Meaning, I would be able to afford some “splurges” like extra travel or perhaps even a car. When I talked to Tim about breaking it down like this, he equated the Basic to a paycheck and the Premium to a “playcheck.” With this scheme I would be incentivized to work, but –knowing that all my basics are covered—free to pursue whatever type of work floats my boat; it would all be gravy at that point.
I started out with an estimate of $2K per month for the Basic. This figure assumed my monthly housing expense would net down to about $600/month after considering my plan to have both a roommate and income from the Airbnb. However, by the time all the numbers were crunched, I found there was room for me to bump my monthly living expense budget up to $2,500.
So, here’s the high-level summary of my working plan: If I can walk away with $360K (or more) from the sale of my house in Austin I will set aside $110K for a down payment on a future house. (I’ll tell you why this figure is so big in the next post.) Another $125K will be placed into a 10-year investment, with the remaining $125K plus the roughly $75K I already have in savings put into a more liquid investment vehicle for me to live on (or use for contingencies). I am currently 55 years old so my challenge is to bridge the gap between now and when I can begin drawing on social security. I will rely on Tim’s expertise to handle all “investment vehicle” details, but if he says, “Can do,” imma doin’.
After the night of the avalanche I was excited and hopeful my plan to leave the US and begin a new life elsewhere was indeed possible, but I was not confident. By the time I had developed my estimates and talked to Tim several more times over the span of a few months, my blind hope grew into wishful confidence. Quite a while back I told my workplace I had plans to resign. I am still working my job at Sunrun today- training the new guy that was hired to replace me. My last day will be next week.
It’s happening, folks. I have a lot to feel good about right now.