The direction of this blog might change over the next 12-24 months as I start to explore more of what is happening in our life and where my thoughts take me. At times there may be no connection to any sporting event or race. As in life, balance is key. I enjoy the freedom and energy going for a simple run can infuse in me and sharing about where those journeys take me. However there are other things to discover and explore. Two nights a week I’m coaching Dylan’s Little League team and the the other nights we are playing tennis or hitting the trails. So many other things consume my life and time and yet I find I seldom write about those things. Not because they are unimportant, but the introspective life can be more work and take more time. The next 12-24 months will be a work in progress. Although part of me wishes to know exactly where we will go and how we will get there, the better part of me knows the uncertainty and discovery of the journey will be the best part.
A constant battle has been taking place, deep in the back of my mind. Once reserved for the daydreams of a working boy, my mind now more closely resembles the cluttered desk of a middle aged man trying to find his way through life. I’m on a mission to simplify our life but finding simplicity has proven so complicated. I’ve been lucky up to this point to enjoy a front row seat to the journey of my life and chase after my dreams. And, for me, it’s been pretty remarkable to watch the story unwind the way it has. At this point, it’s hard to imagine life any different but I know there have been countless times when it could have taken a different turn. Now, I feel we are nearing the point where we will make another turn and start another chapter in our life. Life is about to pivot.
I grew up in a family that struggled to make ends meet. It was not uncommon for us to have a can of gasoline stashed in the back of our car, just in case we ran out of gas. The smell of gasoline and oil-stained rags along with the sight of a banged up red steel can behind the front seats reminded me things were tight. We didn’t run out of gas that often, but it happened enough that I remember walking along the shoulder of Highway 101 a few times with my dad in search of the nearest service station to get enough fuel to make it home. If we didn’t run out of gas, it was more likely our car was going to overheat. To prevent this, next to the red gas can we’d line gallons of water that we would use to refill the radiator when the temperature gauge started leaning too close to the H. Other times, our car would just break down with no warning. Leaving for school, the car might not start for my mom. We would need to push the car down the driveway until it was rolling fast enough to pop the clutch. I remember when I was probably only 5 or 6 years old, my mom paying for groceries with food stamps. It only happened a few times but even as a little kid I knew we were struggling. The living pay check to pay check, buying on layaway instead of with credit and seeing my parents pay $15 fees for bouncing $5 checks was how I grew up. More than a few times our checks were rejected at the checkout line because our name was on a list. There was always that feeling when getting in line with a full cart, “I hope they accept our check.” We were penalized over and over with what I call the “poor man’s tax”.
Writing a check for $5 only to have it returned for insufficient funds and then paying a $15 fee is a poor man’s tax. Having to take out a car loan at 13% in order to buy a used car for $1000 in order to drive to work and back is a poor man’s tax. Frequently paying bills late and incurring a late fee each time is a poor man’s tax. The poor man doesn’t know his own actions are taxing and stealing his precious income. He works so hard only to lose his money by his own undoing. While the rich man earns money in his sleep with his investments paying dividends, the poor man is usually living one paycheck behind and instead of receiving interest from savings and dividends from investments, the poor man repeatedly finds himself in a predicament where he owes money that he hasn’t even earned, and he burdens himself with unnecessary debt. Like an albatross hung around his neck, his unnecessary debt weighs him down. And too often, the poor man mistakenly believes the debt weighing him down is going to make him rich. The debt burden is often hidden from our neighbors. We are often fooled into thinking someone is rich because they have the appearance of being well off. You can’t tell if most of what they have has been purchased with borrowed money. Most people can tell if you are 50 lbs overweight. However, there’s no outward sign if have $50K in credit card debt. Read “The Millionaire Next Door” by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko and it might change your perception of wealth.
Growing up, we could have been the face of the working class. My dad always had a job. We weren’t living on unemployment but things were always tight. For the most part, kids don’t know what they don’t have so we didn’t grow up thinking we were missing something. For better or for worse, the path our life took was just that, it was my parents putting their stamp on life and it’s what made it so memorable for me. I remember a few times thinking there must be an easier path but as the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” The earliest memory I have of my dad working was when he worked in the laundry room at Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa, washing and drying the linens and uniforms. When Hewlett Packard opened some of their manufacturing in Santa Rosa, he started working at HP until I finished high school. I give my dad a lot of credit for working hard throughout my childhood. They weren’t dream jobs but they provided the means to get through the week.
Hewlett Packard was a union job and, for my dad, being part of the union was the best part of working there. I’m not sure it mattered if the work was challenging, the pay good and there was advancement potential, being a union member was the main decision factor when considering job opportunities. And once you had a union job you secured your future. Why would you ever consider any other job? Later when I started working at Safeway during high school, my dad thought my future was secured. Why would I ever need to work anywhere else besides Safeway? At 16 I had landed a union job. I was set for the next 50 years.
I began my own working career in 5th grade delivering newspapers. For the next 4 years I stuffed, folded and delivered newspapers across town on my bicycle. I’d carry a backpack style sack full of newspapers that was filled front and back with papers. Just getting a full load balanced on my shoulders while riding a bike was a workout. From 5th grade, I’ve always had a job save for a few gaps during college. For the most part, I’ve kept my head down and tried to stay focused on working hard and not being hit by the “poor man’s tax”. Already, it’s been 30+ years of working and sometimes I’m tired from all those years. I’m still challenged with work and am drawn to technology and software but it can be exhausting. When my dad came home from work, he too was exhausted.
While my dad went to work, the work came to my mom. Growing up, her job meant running a day care center out of our house. My parents had only two biological kids, my younger brother and I, but it felt like we always had a house full of kids. And I’m sure in some way battling for my mom’s attention against lots of other kids when I was younger, left me wanting a smaller family of my own. We had kids coming at 7 in the morning and leaving at 6 at night. Weekends were sometimes spent watching a special needs child so his/her parents could get a brief few hours of respite. Looking back, it was all a noble cause but at the time it felt like I was missing something. At times I longed for a more normal family and I can remember telling my mom I thought she cared more about the other kids than me. I was not a neglected child. Maybe I should have viewed the situation with more compassion and perspective, but at the time I just wished things were different.
It seemed being around kids is what energized her. Her work was a true labor of love. The money was not enough, the hours were long and there were never any days off. My mom loved her work. She would have made a terrific grandmother and would have claimed our guest bedroom as her own to spend time with Dylan.
Running a daycare out of our home gave my mom some extra income. I doubt my parents were working to be wealthy. With two kids and a mortgage, most of the time they were just trying to make it to payday. MacGregor was our Nike. I’d browse the Santa Rosa Kmart sporting department gazing at the latest MacGregor tennis shoes and then hand over $5 to put a pair of white and red MacGregor shoes on layaway. Layaway: another poor man’s tax. You hand over your money in exchange for nothing more than a promise you can buy the item later. You give them your earnings so they can use that money to earn interest while “holding” the item for you to pay in full later. Since we didn’t have a credit card, layaway was one of our preferred methods of funding a purchase.
Many childhood memories revolve around the family car. For years, my mom wanted a baby blue Ford Pinto, the car also known as an exploding gas tank on 4 wheels. Due to the placement of the gas tank at rear of the vehicle, stories of the Ford Pinto exploding if hit from behind were popular in the news. But the cars seem to hold their popularity. We finally upgraded our VW bug to a 2 door baby blue Ford Pinto (the one in the picture). Ours had a passenger door that wouldn’t close unless you lifted the door while slamming the door closed. This meant that you could really only close the door from the outside where you could get a get hold, then lift and slam. So either the driver would have to lift and close the passenger door then walk around and get in. Or, what became more popular, was the passenger would open the door and let the kids jump in the backseat. Then the passenger would roll down the window, lift and slam the door shut before getting in and finally crawl in through the window. It was our own version of the Dukes and Hazards’ General Lee.
I don’t think, growing up, we ever emerged from living paycheck to paycheck. It was the sort of life that was hard. Not too hard. Just hard enough to make you appreciate the good things and the easier times when they came. What’s hard to know is what part of those experiences made me who I am today. We want to provide our kids with some of the opportunities we missed out when growing up, but will this only soften them? It is hard to say. But the one thing I know for sure is when I ask myself what I would change, it is I wish I had a father who wanted to be involved in my life and who was there for advice, wisdom and even the occasional “Nice job!”
Which, in a round about way, bring us to the pivot. For 20 years, we’ve had the pressures of mortgages, car payments and bills like everyone else. And for many of those early years, it felt like Nicole and I had multiple jobs. Our day job was in the office, then our evening and weekend job was working on a house to improve it through sweat equity or work on a rental property. Some times we were stretched to the max. I remember after living in one of our houses for a year we still had no money to furnish the place beyond a few things here and there. My mom flew out to visit. She walked in our front door with a friend and the friend, surveying the empty living and dining rooms honestly asks, “Oh this is nice, when do you move in?” After a year of living in the house, our paychecks were going to mortgages and renovations and in a 2,700 square foot house we had furnishings for only about 500 square feet. But we survived and in a few years we sold that house and that proved a game changer for us. By the time we were in our 30’s, we had bought 7 homes and sold 5, making a profit on all but one.
We are the first to say that we benefited from the luck of timing and the support and advice of good friends. So much of life is determined by timing. We could be on the right path just at the wrong time. For the most part, knowing when to do something is hardest part of the decision. In most decisions, it comes down to imagining where we want to be in 2 or 5 or 10 years and then making the decisions to try and get us there. And benefiting from lucky timing.
Nearly 10 years ago, for our 10 year anniversary, we bought a cabin in the Lake Tahoe area. It was a dream come true for me. The best place on earth is in the mountains, breathing the thin mountain air, smelling the pine needles and exploring the endless trails. I’d gone from growing up in a tiny house on 732 Park Glen Drive in Windsor to writing pharmacy software, having rental properties and having a cabin in the woods. I thought we would have our cabin for the rest of our lives and it would be a place where Dylan and I would share mountain bike rides and summer hikes.
We are always looking ahead and trying to imagine where we want to be and what we want to working on in 2 or 5 years. Last year, we sat down in January and it became clear that in order to do what we want to do in the next few years, we should sell our cabin the woods. So we made the decision to sell one dream in order to chase another. The decision was truly a bittersweet one. We had so many good memories and plans but dreams change over time and we realized closing one door was going to open some other doors for us down the road. It took a while but we sold our cabin (at a loss – timing is everything) and paid off the mortgage on our house to be completely debt free.
At 43 years old, we are at a place very different than where my parents where when they were in the 40’s. I have a relationship with my son that I don’t think I ever had with my dad. I don’t see myself as just a provider. The decisions we have made over the past few years are ones that will hopefully translate into spending more time together. I don’t need a bigger house or a faster car or another finisher’s medal. I’ve had my fill. Dreams can shift and our dreams will likely shift again. We’ve decided to pass on the dream house we had in the mountains. At 43, the thing I hope to find is a little more time. More time with my wife and son. At the end of the day, right now my dream is to play some catch with my son. When I ask, “Hey, how about some catch?” and his eyes light up and he yells “Yea!”. Those moments are often some of my favorite parts of the day.