My life, a work in progress.
Smitty pulled the sedan away from the curb and slowly began his circuit around the city block. Despite his nervousness, he noticed his stomach grumbling, and regretted not taking the time for breakfast that morning. He was in such a hurry not to be late he had completely forgotten to eat.
“What the hay,” he thought, “They won’t be done for a ‘nother half hour at least, I got plenty of time to stop at Gloria’s.” It was his favorite restaurant in town, or rather, the only one within a half-hour of this lonely corner of Arkansas. Smitty had grown up here in Beauford, near the bottom of the 15 in his graduating class, preferring to tinker around engines rather than books. He’d begun doing minor car repairs at Doc’s Auto on the east end right out of high school, and while becoming an expert auto mechanic, never had much ambition to go further, preferring the slow life of a small town. Gloria’s Home Cooking was a regular stop at least once most days.
“Mornin’, Smitty,” a cheerful voice called out. Darlene, the granddaughter of Gloria Wells, for whom the restaurant was named, was the current owner, cook, cashier and waitress. “Late start today, huh? Get’cher usual? Momma made us a coffee cake fer Sunday dinner yesterday, I can cut ya a piece,” she continued, setting a chipped white coffee cup on the counter and pouring it full. Of course, Darlene knew everyone in town, and served them up home cooking and conversation at least once a week. She kept an eye out for Smitty, an only child whose parents had passed years ago.
“Um, yeah, that’s good. I mean, uh, eggs and everything, plus ‘at coffee cake. An’ I gotta get going. Lots to do today.”
“Oh? Whose car you workin’ on now?”
“Car? Oh, um, well, Ol’ Man Jenks needs a exhaust put in, and ah, you know, a bunch of other small stuff. I gotta get goin’,” he concluded, looking out the windows down the street where he’d come from.
“Hmm,” Darlene replied. She could tell Smitty wasn’t telling all. “Ok, Mister Top Secret Project, you know. I’m just yer best friend in the whole world. You don’t have to tell me anything. I’ll just make yer breakfast and feed ya, don’t worry about me!”
Smitty hung his head. He knew he was hiding something, but just couldn’t tell Darlene what he was involved with. He was always open with Darlene; she was like a sister to him. He felt terrible. “Aw, Dar, it’s just… Oh, I don’t know, there’s some things a man’s gotta keep to hisself, you know? I ain’t mean to be secretive or nothin’, I just got some stuff to do an’ can’t tell nobody about it.”
“Ok, fine, fine.” Smitty was the only customer at the time, and the next few minutes were difficult and very quiet. His breakfast finally arrived, and Darlene stood behind the counter refilling his coffee cup. “I”m sorry, Smitty, I don’t mean to pry. It’s just that you and me haven’t had secrets from each other before. I don’t know what to make of it. Is everything all right?”
“Sure!” Smitty answered quickly, but then added, “I guess.” He glanced out the window again, and back to his plate, his cheeks reddening.
“Who you lookin’ fer, child? I ain’t seen you so worked up in a long time.”
“What is it, honey? You can tell me.”
“You know that ol’ house I got? Well, I… oh, man, I is in such a mess, Darlene,” he hesitated, holding his head in his hands. After a moment, he continued, “I ain’t been able to pay no income taxes fer a coupla years now, Doc’s just don’t have enough business to keep up.” He sighed deeply.
“Oh, Smitty,” Darlene said, “I didn’t know things was that bad. You should’a told me!”
“Well that’s not the worst part yet. These outta town guys in suits come in last week and told me they was gonna report me to the IRS, but if’n I’d help ’em out with a job, they’d gimme two thousand dollars! Dar, that’s mor’n enough to pay all my back taxes! Oh, I didn’t know what to do, so’s I just said yes, an’ here I am, but I think they’re doin’ somethin’ terrible.”
“What do you mean, here you are? What are you supposed to be doing?”
“Jest driving. You know, pick ’em up when they finish their business at the bank, and drive ’em out to the county line bridge. Oh, it just don’t feel right,” he wailed.
“At the bank?…” Darlene paused. “You don’t think…”
Their conversation was interrupted by a siren. Quickly turning toward the front window, Smitty looked on as the squad car pulled up to the bank building and two officers bounded out and into the front doors. Smitty and Darlene couldn’t speak; a hundred thoughts going through their heads. A minute later, the officers led out two men in handcuffs and into the police car.
“Did you know…”
“Oh, I didn’t even ask what their business was, I know I shoulda, but I was in such a mess,” Smitty moaned. “That coulda been me bein’ arrested, if’n I’d been waitin’ for ’em at the curb like I’s supposed to. Glory be, Darlene, if you hadn’t a kept after me with your questions, you’d be seein’ me in tha jail. Jes’ like yer mother, never a minute o’ peace around here when she was around…”
“Why you ungrateful wretch, Smitty, I oughtta smack you silly, you old good for nothin’…”
She stopped and began to grin as Smitty looked up at her, beaming. “Gotcha!”
“You!” Darlene reached over the counter and hugged Smitty around the shoulders.
“I’ll get them taxes paid somehow,” he said. “An’ I ain’t gonna do no more work for strangers without askin’ more questions!”
Perhaps I’m one of those people who need to learn things the hard way. Perhaps I just need a concrete example in order to burn in a principle. Regardless, I had to take the difficult road in order to learn that debt is to be avoided like the plague.
My wife and I began life together with debt – me with a car loan and her with a school loan. Over several years of apartment living we erased that debt, and enjoyed spending the surplus income. We took a couple car loans in later years, once even buying a living room set on delayed credit . Those were paid off as expected, and we rejoiced at the increase in spendable income when the loan papers were burned.
We borrowed some money from my dad to get set up in our first small house on a city lot. Spending habits changed a bit, less money going toward pleasure and more toward home expenses. I was adept at home repairs and improvements, so we built equity in our little house and sold it at profit some 4-5 years later. The gains were put into the next larger home, which again was mortgaged for 30 years. This time the improvements needed were quite a bit more substantial, and we had no saved money to put towards them, and our mortgage was high (large farmhouse in 5 acres). About this time, our income was significantly reduced, and we chose to downsize.
We again sold the house at profit, and bought a smaller one. We retained some $15K to cover temporary living expenses until my income would increase. It never did, and we plowed through that, $50K of credit debt and a $20K loan from a friend, before I was able to find a job. Soon after, we were able to move once more, into a condo of a friend. A year later we found ourselves owing $10K in back taxes. We rented the condo for $200/mo plus I did all the maintenance on his 4 condos, so we were able to put a lot more into paying down our debts.
The payments on the credit debt was killing us, though, and at one point we were late or missed a payment on one of the cards and went into default. We made arrangements with a collection agency – stressful times – and after a couple years, they offered to settle for half of the $40K remaining if we would pay $20K now. I sought a loan from my dad for the $20K and finally paid off that debt, though we now owed him.
Both personal loans have been paid off. We increased our rent to $500/mo so as not to take advantage of our friend’s generosity. We still owe most of the IRS money, and the remaining credit card is down to about $2K. Then just when I thought I could see the end of the tunnel, two of our cars died. Despite the literal ache in my heart, there’s now another car loan for about $14K.
It’s a heavy burden to bear. We’ve been prevented from more fully assisting our children in the life directions they’re pursuing. Paying for college isn’t even an option. Moving into a home suitable for us and my wife’s ailing parents has been and is unlikely. We’ve set a poor financial example for our children, and haven’t given them a strong financial footing. We’ve had our hands tied in so many ways, and felt the burden of living paycheck-to-paycheck for so long. My wife has been a supreme blessing by managing our checkbook for all these years. I don’t know how she does it – I tried for a little while, and the frustration was too much.
It’s been about 11 years since we started getting into this mess, and it’ll be another 3 years before we’re debt free, unless God has a greater lesson for us to learn. I can hardly wait for that day!
Five years ago I was at the tail end of self-employment, and a year from accepting a position with my current employer. I was working for my father on and off – he did not have sufficient income to pay me fulltime – and some programming, web design and home-business gigs. Unfortunately, there was not enough sustainable income, and my family was getting deeper and deeper into debt, which would at one point top $50K. I was feeling helpless, frustrated and depressed.
I had left my previous job 6 years before, to take on some work with my dad. He (inexperienced in software development, but too persistent to let that get in his way) designed and coded a software program used in the long-term care dietary business, and needed help with, well, Help. It wasn’t writing code, but technical manuals was fine with me to start with. I shortly after began to assist with software development, support, sales and marketing. It wasn’t long, however, until financial difficulties began. There was not sufficient income from the company to support me fulltime, despite my dad’s hopes and dreams that things would get better. He paid when he could – or wanted to – but it wasn’t enough, and we soon began relying on credit.
The peculiar thing was, I didn’t feel I could just say “no” to him and move on. By the time things were bad, I was fully involved and he was – to a great extent – dependent on me. I felt that to bail out at that point would be not only end my hopes for a work-at-home job, but also crush his hopes and dreams. How could I do that to my own father? I was beset on all sides – my supremely patient wife continued to urge me to quit, my bank account begged me to find a paying job, and my dad continued to not care about my financial situation. I felt helpless to act at all.
Well, I did act a little, and purchased a reseller account from a web host, thinking that I could fill in the gaps with web programming and hosting. Weak in the sales/marketing area, I found myself undercharging (per my astute wife) for work, and giving away too much for free. Hardly the way to make a decent income, but when you’re working for your friends (how else do you get started in this business?) I felt like it was almost an insult to charge going rates. Plus, I wanted to “build up the portfolio.” Unfortunately, since I did next to nothing marketing-wise, the web business didn’t grow. I don’t believe I was equipped to be a successful entrepreneur – I was only a technician (according to The E-Myth) and missing the kind of skills needed to grow the business. Here I was full of programming skills, but I didn’t know how to effectively do anything about getting clients. That was frustrating.
So I was in a horrible financial situation, feeling helpless and frustrated. There was a terrible amount of pressure to change my situation, but I seemed to be paralyzed. One reason might be that I sincerely thought that working from home was the Ultimate. Oh, we’d escaped the traditional church and were meeting in homes, we’d rejected public schools and home educated our children. Bringing the work home seemed like the next logical step, and God-ordained. Yet here we were in a much worse financial situation than we’d ever been in! What was I doing wrong? Were we totally deceived? I began a long period of self-doubt and depression over our situation. I lost interest in work, in the business, in home life.
What do I wish I would have done differently? I don’t think leaving the previous job was wrong; I’d do that again in a moment (besides, a layoff there was imminent). Here are some things I, in perfect hindsight, would redo:
– Talk openly with my dad about my finances, and ask pointed questions about his. Finances were never an open subject with my folks, and I didn’t get started of with a good foundation. Hence I had no savings to draw on, and we weren’t accustomed to changing lifestyle to accommodate reduced income. Anyhow, if my dad and I could have talked about my financial needs on a regular basis, perhaps we both would have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t working out, and bail earlier with no hard feelings.
– Connect with other web developers in the area in order to work cooperatively. I was lacking some skills, but perhaps with others we could have presented a full complement of abilities to potential clients. In an office, I find myself wanting to connect with other independent types at coffee shops, open workplaces, and the like – I should have jumped at those opportunities, or created them. Alone in a home office is no way to network.
– Get out my shell. I’m an introvert, and find it extremely difficult to cold-call and meet new people. Less so now, but much more then. I should have sought for advice on how to overcome this inward tendency, and how to improve those skills needed for an entrepreneurial business to survive.
– Open up to people. When things are going badly, I have a tendency to withdraw. I should have talked more openly with my wife and family about what I was going through, and drawn comfort from their love. I felt like nobody knew what I was going through. I’m sure some did, but I didn’t open up about it, to my loss. It wasn’t all about me and my failures (what I thought at the time); it was about the journey God was bring me – and us – through. That should have been shared more openly.
– Do that which I think or know is right. I was full of fear at what people would think, or how people would take my actions if I stopped working for my dad and friend (I’d set up a little home-business with a close friend that supported his business) and found a “regular” job again. Walking in fear is not a good thing, I realize now. I wish I would have gotten that back then.
A bright spot in all of this is that our eyes were opened – through that friend – to the beauty of God’s undying love and the hopeful theology of the kingdom during this low period. Had I not gone through these difficult times and been brought so low, I don’t believe I would have been as open to receive these truths. Through the slough of despond, God has brought us out into a beautiful vision of life and purpose. That’s a topic for another post, I think.
Men are born with the innate desire to create. Women are born with the innate desire to nurture, but that’s perhaps another post. Creativity is a general characteristic of both men and women (or mostly children, these days), but to men, I think, creativity is a need, a validating force.
Here’s an example. I write software in my day job. The aspect of the work I enjoy the most is creating new software. I derive a great deal of pleasure from taking an idea and implementing it from scratch, especially where I have freedom to choose my tools and use my experience and the user-interface skills I have to build a piece of software. The more complicated, the better. This is much more satisfying than maintaining existing code. Even writing a specification for a new project is satisfying. I really get excited when I can spend time in creative designing and coding work.
Many guys have a place to putter about – a shop, a workbench – but the real satisfaction often comes with creating something there. Building a picture frame, a table, a solar heat exchanger or a go-cart are all achievements that bring a lot of satisfaction to the average male. Well, they would for me! These kinds of work – some might call them hobbies – are a guy’s way of feeding that need to create that might be missing in his day job.
So here’s a test: find a guy – or a bunch of them – and see if those whose jobs are predominantly rote have a creative outlet somewhere else in their life. Then think about how much more fulfilled they might be if their primary job centered around that creative outlet. I’m not suggesting that the key to fulfillment in life is finding a job that you love, but that a job that doesn’t offer a creative outlet may be stifling.
Does your life feel flat-lined right now? Why not try creating something!
I hear people say sensible things all the time; my problem is that I don’t remember those things. Every once in a while, though, one sticks in my head and I find myself thinking about it over the course of several days.
I heard a radio commentator say that the devastation in Japan was going to be a boon for entrepreneurs. That’s all, just a short sentence. But I got to thinking about what it would be like to build a village / town / city from scratch, and all the business and infrastructure that would be needed. Entrepreneurs for sure! There will be a boatload of opportunities there!
I don’t mean to trivialize the personal and business destruction that happened there. I know lives, families and fortunes were lost in a matter of hours. It was a horrific thing, even if it’s so far from my imagination because of where I live. My heart goes out to those who have lost so much.
I don’t live where there are those kind of new opportunities, though, and at first I was tempted to sulk a bit. Coincidentally, I’d read someone that said, regarding starting a business, that you don’t need to do something something that no one else is doing, you can just do what they’re doing better. Now that’s sensible. I’m sure you (and I) have heard it a million times, but for some reason it stuck with me that day.
How many business have you patronized where you were dissatisfied with the product, service or employee performance? We to often encounter, for example, restaurants where the meals are mediocre, or the wait staff are far from satisfactory, and come away saying, “In my restaurant, things would be different.” Of course, we don’t have the experience or capital to open a restaurant, but that’s only one example. I’m sure there are many other opportunities out there for an entrepreneur to open a similar business and distinguish himself from others by providing a superior product (maybe harder) or superior service (easier). In fact, I’d say that receiving superior service is quite remarkable these days.
A recent visit to both Lowe’s and Home Depot made this clear. I’ve shopped in both innumerable times, and was generally frustrated at the difficulty of finding available floor staff for assistance. This time, however, not only were we audibly greeted by most every employee, we were always within sight of a helpful blue- or orange-vested person. When passing out of the store (were were just browsing at that point), a friendly casher engaged us in conversation, and reminded us that we could get a Lowe’s gift card at the Giant Eagle just down the way and get double Fuel Perks this week!
Well, didn’t we just high tail it down to that Giant Eagle and buy a $100 gift card, then come back to Lowe’s and purchase what we were looking at? A no-cost minimal effort on the part of one person brought profit to 2 stores and one happy couple. That’s what I’d call superior service, and it makes me much more likely to patronize that Lowe’s from now on. It also makes me think too, that any business that treats its customers this way will profit, regardless – or in spite of – the competition.
So what’s stopping you from taking that bad experience you’ve had, and turning it and some capital into an entrepreneurial opportunity?
Much of our time is spent evaluating ourselves in light of other people. We change ourselves in order to model others who we consider “popular”. More often than not, those people we consider popular have the same issue, and are themselves seeking for people to model.
Our culture values peer modeling. All you need to do is watch television to see advertisers working hard to convince you that you need their product in order to be like the “pretty people” portrayed in their ads. In other words, the person you are is not good enough, you need to conform to the socially acceptable norm.
I’m sure many have bought into this lie, having given in to the continual pressure. Others may observe the insidiousness of this pressure and resisted. Mostly. There is undoubtedly something in all of us that begs to be “normal”.
Unfortunately, there is no “normal”. Well, that’s only unfortunate to the advertisers – we are all so vastly different! This is a good thing! We should be constantly reinforcing to our children that they are unique and loved, valuable and important. No one can take away that uniqueness; it can only be subdued by constant peer evaluation and conformity.
Besides, as I said before, reality is not what it seems. Many of those people to seem to “have it together” really don’t; it’s a monstrous discrepancy. Let’s hear it for those creative, unique individuals who aren’t afraid to be different. And let’s encourage them!
A number of weeks ago I took my wife out to dinner at a pretty nice restaurant. I don’t recall the reason – but who needs one? Great dinner + lovely wife + good conversation = well-spent evening.
There aren’t many restaurants in our immediate area that I feel are chef-driven. Most popular are chains of one kind or another, and while the food may be good, it rarely changes. We found a local bistro a while ago that is privately owned, and every meal we’ve had there has been extraordinary. Plus, they cater to gluten-free diners (like my wife).
This particular evening I was feeling a bit adventurous. In fact, I’m most always adventurous when it comes to food, but since this was a special occasion, I ordered steamed mussels as an appetizer, something I’d never tasted before.
I like clams, squid and all manner of unusually textured seafood, so mussels weren’t a real stretch. “Prince Edward Isle mussels steamed in white wine, garlic and lemon butter with baby spinach and Roma tomatoes,” in the shell. And boy, were they tasty! They tasted fresh, like the ocean, and with a bite of spinach, tomato, and the light sauce, it was a mouthful of seafoody goodness I won’t soon forget.
The wife loved them as well, and I really think we could have consumed several more plates, if we hadn’t already ordered our entrees. I read later that you should really think twice before ordering mussels in a restaurant, especially if you don’t trust the cook to properly evaluate them before cooking and serving. We didn’t have a bad one in the bunch, either in aroma or taste, so I was pleasantly reassured. I would definitely order them again at our bistro.