Diana takes down her shingle

We’re learning that one of the really tough things about the extrication process is figuring out the best order to do things.  Which comes first, quitting your job or finding a new place to live?  Telling your friends or telling your clients? Someone should make a consulting business out of this.

In the meantime, Diana has decided that this is as good a time as any to close down her massage studio, so we’ve got our weekend cut out for us.  She had been winding it down for a while now, choosing to only see existing clients.  But it’s pretty much reached the point of diminishing returns, so we’ll be packing it up and hauling it home where it will join the larger pile of stuff we no longer have a use for.

Di’s massage and wax business was another casualty of the economic crash.  She had only recently moved to a prime downtown location when the winter of 2008 brought a sudden and decisive end to most people’s discretionary spending.  And, it doesn’t get much more discretionary than enjoying a massage or getting your giblets waxed.

Through the years, Diana’s clients have been extremely loyal, often following her from one location to the next without even considering her competitors.  Having spent more than a few hours on her table, it’s not hard to see why.  She is quiet, earthy, smart and genuine; the kind of person you can tell anything to.  And believe me they do.  Diana’s knows more about some of her client’s lives than any psychiatrist could hope for.  And they all seem to instinctively know that what is said on Di’s massage table stays on the Di’s massage table.  No matter how many times I ask.

Personally, I don’t say too much on Diana’s table.  In fact I’m lucky to last more than 20 minutes into a massage without falling asleep.  She has Ambien hands. I still don’t know if she actually bothers to finish the massage once she hears the first snore.

Regardless, It’s all coming home on Saturday.  This will be hard for Diana, but we’re both trying to keep our eye on the big picture.

Some days it’s clearer than others.

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He aint heavy, he’s my 145 lb. brother

It’s official.  We’ve got a new member in our wagon train to Ecuador.  My brother Mike has decided to quit his perfectly good job as a city firefighter and join us.  In truth, he had been seriously considering and researching the whole expat thing longer than Diana and I.  But like most people, he’d been waiting for that mythical day when all the stars were aligned.

As I’ve written about in the past, it’s all just talk until you quit your job.  I relate it to stepping off a cliff.  All it takes is that first little step and, ready or not, the rest is going to happen.  I suppose I should try to think of a more positive metaphor, but you get the idea.

At any rate, like my job as a modern day Mad Man, Mike’s occupation is one that is often portrayed in movies and TV shows.  And in his case, it’s for good reason.  He really has carried children and puppies out of burning buildings, saved the homes of little old ladies, and brought the dead back to life while their families anxiously looked on.

Yes, there were plenty of hours that would have been too dull for even the most inane reality show.  But a handful of times each year, Mike and his station-mates were someone’s only hope.  And I can assure you that in his twenty years on the job, he always managed to not only act–but actually care about the outcome–when that call rang out.

I’ll never forget the night after September 11, 2001, when I was awakened by a call from Mike at about 2 a.m.  It lasted nearly an hour, yet there were almost no words spoken.  There was only the uncontrollable sobbing of a man dealing with the loss of 343 brothers he’d never met.

For several years following that unspeakable disaster, America seemed to have a whole new appreciation for the sacrifices its firefighters and police officers made when duty called.  We started thanking them for their service.  We bought them drinks in neighborhood pubs.  And if we were women–according to Mike–we were more brazen than ever about slipping them our phone numbers.

Then one day, a group calling itself the Tea Party figured the patriotic thing to do was to malign the people who protect or lives and property, put criminals behind bars, teach our children, etc.  They decided that “government workers” was a better title than say, “heroes.”  Then they explained how these leeches on society were the whole problem.  After all, they had unions that ensured they were fairly compensated.  The nerve of these people, expecting the American Taxpayer to pay middle-class wages to a guy just for running into burning buildings, stepping between criminals and their would-be victims, or educating the children most of us threw in daycare until they were finally school-aged.

Come to think of it, maybe the stars have aligned for Mike to leave the country after all. Hell, maybe he and his band of blood-suckers should be deported altogether.  Just think of the savings to Sean Hannity’s tax bill.

Anyway, it looks like there will be one less “government worker” for President Romney to deal with come January of 2013.

Now if he can just figure out how to keep poor people from needing food.

The Expat To-Do List

Okay, it’s been about a week-and-a-half since I finally managed to tell my boss that I’m quitting and moving to Ecuador.  Since then, I’ve been focused on shoring things up there, including working on a large brand development project for a casino, shooting a TV commercial and participating in a follow-up pitch for a new grocery chain account.  Like most creative people I know, I’ve always preferred being busy, so this was all fine for the most part.  It just meant even more of my blog posts had to be written at four in the morning, when I inevitably wake up with nagging idea in my head.

Still, what hasn’t happened since the day I announced my resignation is anything that really advances our ultimate departure.  I can already see that inertia is the enemy in all this.  Sure, we talk to family and friends about our move; we research little beach towns, rental properties and language schools; we put something up on Craigslist here and there.  But the real, physical tasks and arrangements required to make all this happen, have been quietly simmering on the back burner.  So, today being Sunday, we’ve decided to jumpstart the process by creating our detailed Expat To-Do List.  Diana and I will be doing this separately, then merging the two lists together, decreasing the chances of our forgetting something important.

Here is my first crack at naming all the vegetables we have to eat before being excused from the table here in the States:

Eye exams

Dental exams

Physicals/blood work

Have any other nagging medical stuff looked at/poked/prodded

Formalize my target end-date at work and the structure of our freelance agreement

Choose the dates of our “scouting trip” to Ecuador (about two weeks in August)

Book flights

Book accommodations, most likely in Bahia or Crucita

Give away personal items and family stuff to the appropriate kid, nephew, brother, sister, grandma, etc.

Take the scouting trip

Share the results (photos/housing/healthcare info) with my Dad in the hope that he’ll agree to come with us

Figure out what to do with my Dad when he says no

Have a large yard sale (unless someone has a better idea for us?!)

Put what doesn’t sell on Craigslist

Give the rest to Goodwill or place in storage

Create a small shopping list of provisions we’ll need to take with us, preferably limited to two backpacks

Contact the nearest Ecuadoran embassy office about Visa/residency requirements

Apply for my Dad’s passport, just in case

Do my 2012 taxes (yes, I got an extension) and figure out how to pay them

Rollover what’s left of my 401(k) into an IRA (Roth or Traditional?)

Give our landlord 30 days notice

Diligently clean and vacate our rental as if we might actually receive our deposit back

Through gritted teeth, move our checking and any savings to one of those “Too Big to Fail” banks with branches in Ecuador

Choose a target date for final departure

Book final flights

Secure beachfront/view rental property

Select a mail capturing service

Have one last party/barbecue for family and friends (or not?!)

Merge this list with the one Diana is creating

Pull out a calendar and put a target date to every item on the final merged list

Power down our electronic devices in preparation for takeoff

Wait for the drink cart

If any of the twenty things I’ve obviously overlooked occur to you, please shoot me a comment.  Once we’ve put dates to the final master list, I’ll post them here.

In the meantime, I’ve got shit to do!

Being rich vs. having money

I believe that far fewer people are afraid to die than are afraid to live.

Having once had enough assets to think of myself as “well-off,” I’ve had occasion to notice a segment of wealthy people don’t ever actually “LIVE it up.”  Instead, a large percentage of them squirrel it away, creating a nice, safe fortress around themselves and their families.  For this segment, the real end-game is to place as many people between themselves and starvation as possible.

I once knew of a farmer from my own small hometown who worked from sunup to sundown every day of his adult life.  Wally and his wife lived in a very simple, but well-maintained house and never traveled or purchased anything more extravagant than the occasional used farm implement.  Season after season he would receive a nice fat check in return for his crop and place it directly in the bank, where it would barely make a ripple in his already massive account balance.

At his 70th birthday party Wally announced his retirement and, naturally, everyone congratulated him.  He talked about treating his wife of nearly 50 years to a Hawaiian vacation.  Neither of them had ever been to the tropics.  In fact the only time he’d been out of the mainland U.S. was the two years he’d spent in the military as a much younger man.  Everyone was excited for Wally and his wife.  After all, they had certainly earned it.

About a year later, a mutual friend of ours couldn’t help noticing that Wally continued to show up at the local cafe, every day around 10 o’clock, to have a cup of coffee at the “farmer’s table.”  You see this table in every small town.  It’s where farmers and ranchers meet for a spell after the morning chores are wrapped up.

At any rate, one morning when Wally pulled up a chair, my friend decided to go ahead and ask the question on everyone’s mind: “Hey, what ever happened to all that traveling you were going to do now that you’re retired?”  Wally looked uncomfortable as five or six of his closest buddies sat waiting for the answer.  He took a sip of coffee, hung his head and came out with it:

“To tell you the truth, fellas, I just worked so hard to make that money I haven’t got the heart to spend it.”

The next year Wally died of a heart attack and his wife promptly took their three adult children, along with their spouses and five grandchildren, on a Hawaiian vacation.

“Move to Ecuador” the little voice whispered

Recently a lot of people have asked me why we have decided on Ecuador of all places.  It’s a good question, and I wish I had a really good answer.  After all, it’s common knowledge that most Americans choose Costa Rica or Panama over the other 18 Latin American options.

All I can tell you is it’s kind of one of those “little voice” things.  You know, like in the movie Field of Dreams, when Kevin Costner is minding his own business, working in the corn field, and the little voice suddenly says “if you build it they will come.”

Well fortunately my little voice is a tad more blunt than the Hollywood version.  I imagine him in a tank-style undershirt and smoking a cheap cigar as he tells me exactly what to do.  “Quit your job, stupid,” he blurted out one morning back in May as I was driving to a client meeting. So I did.

A few days later, the little voice suddenly pipes up again, asking “What are you still doing with this piece of shit car and a garage full of crap?”  I had no answer for him, so I started listing stuff on Craigslist. I kind of liked this little voice.  He had spunk.

After that, I began listening to some expat podcasts and researching locations online.  A little Caribbean beach community called Tela, Honduras, seemed like just what Diana and I were looking for.  That is, until the little voice suddenly hitches up his pants and weighs in with “Use your head, dumbass. Ecuador’s the place for you.”

So I looked it up, and sure enough, it seemed to have everything we were looking for.  Nice beaches, warm weather, mountains and jungles to explore, a reasonably stable government, and fewer people per capita who want to murder us with machetes.  Something told me this little voice was right again, so I said “Gee thanks, little voice.”  He exhaled some cigar smoke and said “Don’t mention it, numbnuts.”  Then I’m pretty sure I heard him yell at his wife to fetch him another beer.

I just hope that after the last stick of furniture is sold, I don’t land in Ecuador, set down my backpack, survey the landscape and suddenly hear the little voice say, “What the fuck is this?”

America’s new slogan

I believe we all possess the adventure gene, but most of us suppress it for one reason or another.

In college I went home to the farm for spring break while my friends did jello shots in Mexico.

Upon graduation, I landed an internship at my first ad agency.  There would be no backpacking through Italy, pub crawls in Ireland or drug trips in Amsterdam.  I had a career to build, and besides, there would be plenty of time for travel and adventure after I made my first million or two.

I was well on my way as the ’90’s brought prosperity and wealth to businesses large and small.  These businesses had brands to build and required ad campaigns to help them stand out from their equally successful competitors.  It was a great time to be an ad man.  Hell, it was a great time to be an American.  Bill Clinton raised taxes to encourage things like home ownership, 401k contribution, business ventures, capital investment, etc.  All good, healthy, economy-boosting ways to avoid paying any more of those higher taxes than necessary.  And still, even Uncle Sam’s budget got balanced, thanks to all the new and growing businesses–not to mention the 28 million new jobs–adding to government coffers.

Then we elected a “c” student from Texas who promptly lowered taxes, making it easier for the wealthy to bank their money rather than reinvest it.  He called these people the “job creators” because it sounded much friendlier than “greedy bastards.”  And over the next eight years, a measly 3 million more jobs would be added to Clinton’s 28 million; not even enough to keep up with population growth.

In 2008 the economy would finally collapse, clients would struggle or go bankrupt, and my personal compensation would be cut in half.  In less than a year I would go from owning a house valued at more than twice what I payed for it, to having the sheriff post a vacate notice on my door.  My 401k would get a 40% haircut.  Bankruptcy and divorce would soon follow.

Lately, every time I hear the phrase “The American Dream” I throw up a little.  I now understand that it was a marketing slogan all along.  The kind of slogan I’ve been writing for banks, casinos, newspapers, fast-food joints, power companies, grocery chains and ski resorts for more than a quarter century.

The good news is I’m over the idea of waiting until I make my first million or two before I allow myself an adventure.  And I’m also over the notion that this country holds some divine blessing for me anymore.  In fact, if I managed to land the United State of America account today, the first thing I would propose is a new slogan:

America.  It was good while it lasted.

I just quit my job. (What was the big deal again?)

Okay, to be accurate, I gave my notice.  And frankly it wasn’t the hand-wringing, snot-bubble inducing process I expected.  I’m pretty sure he wasn’t happy about it, but I have him on record admitting “I don’t think you’re crazy.”

If you don’t believe me, you can listen for yourself when I post my recording of it later today.  In fact, the entire conversation will be made available by tonight sometime.  Not to embarrass or make fun of anyone, but because this blog was always about sharing as much as I could about the extrication process.

I’ve got a lot more thoughts on yesterday’s action, but I should really get to work right now.  To see if the locks have been changed.