Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Location: Berkeley, CA

Back in the late 90s, when no one really knew what to do with this whole inter-tubes thingymagig, I was a consultant who made a living running large e-business strategy projects. The project usually started with us explaining what e-business was, and why it was different from a web strategy (you actually wanted to make money) versus a traditional business strategy (you weren't necessarily going to actually make money).

The next step was to spend several weeks wandering in the desert. Throwing away old assumptions. Listening to stakeholders. Researching. Generally being frustrated that the answer wasn't obvious, and we actually had to work and think hard to figure it out. Every project was different, and though we reused some general models (my Gartner roots showed every time I pulled out a 2x2 matrix... which was every project), a new model was always required somewhere along the way, a new way of looking at the world, and that was a big part of the discovery process.

And then suddenly the answer would be obvious. It would jump out from the middle of all that research and pondering. You'd be standing in the shower, or waiting for a flight, or staring out the window in a cab... and out of seemingly nowhere, in that instant, it would appear. And in your gut you knew it to be true. 

But along the way... you had to get really comfortable with being uncomfortable. You also had to start recognizing that activity didn't necessarily equate to progress. It's rarely a straight line. Your research might take you in completely unexpected directions, and that was the point, to let it take you there, and most importantly, not try to force it. The more time you spent researching didn't necessarily equate to the quality of the answer (though there is often a correlation). The important thing was to give yourself space in between the research and the thinking to process, and absorb, and let the connections occur organically.

I'm writing this mostly as a reminder to myself. The past few weeks since we've been back, and especially the past week since I left Gap, I've been impatient (I know, shocker, right?). I get frustrated wondering whether we're making any progress, and asking when we're going to have this whole life path thing figured out. Asking myself whether I'm spending my days working toward a goal, and wether I've accomplished anything. 

I'm now remembering to apply my business lessons to my own life. I'm remembering what it's like to be in the desert. I always hated the meandering, the wandering, the mind-numbing research. For some people, it's their favorite part because they are dealing with tangible facts/findings instead of having to make the leap to conclusions. For me, I love the leap. I love the moment when you know you've found the right answer and you can get on with executing it. Even when you still need to spend time justifying the answer, or explaining it to others, you already know in your heart that you're right. And you know you couldn't have gotten to the answer any other way, or any faster.

So here it is 5:30, and my day went something like this: fed the dog, slept a little more, ate breakfast, did some errands in preparation for my cousin's wedding in Dallas this weekend (a little shopping, mani/pedi, eyebrow wax). Took Apollo to Point Isobel and enjoyed a leisurely walk on a beautiful day, talking to random people along the way. Watched Gossip Girl while I ate a late lunch. Finally sat down to do some writing around 4pm.

To the casual observer, it might appear that I haven't accomplished much today. (Well, to most men anyway - most women would look at my beautiful red nails and new silver shoes and know it was time well spent).  In reality, I know that I've moved one step closer to The Answer. I don't know for sure what it is yet, and that's still making me slightly crazy. But in the meantime, I've consciously remembered what it's like to not know the answer, and reminded myself that that's OK. 

Last night we went out in the city to a happy hour of Renaissance Weekend friends, and I was reminded yet again that we know some really interesting, intelligent, thoughtful, accomplished people. Though I was sad that someone, i.e. me, had to drive home and therefore had to exercise a rare modicum of restraint, it was still an enjoyable evening. I thought it would again be difficult not having an answer to the So-Now-What, but it would seem that I'm getting better at explaining that we're in process. 

Most importantly, Apollo has stopped having projectile diarrhea, and that is something to be celebrated. Turns out he had Giardia. It's a nasty little parasite that he probably picked up from eating his favorite delicacy: cat poop. Unfortunately it's also contagious to humans, so I'm really, really, *really* hoping I'm not bringing an uninvited plus one with me to Dallas this weekend... 


Zen and the Art of Cleaning Up Dog Poop

Location: Berkeley, CA

The past four mornings I've awoken to a horrible sight. Actually, I should be more specific and say it's the smell that has done it. Wafting from the first floor, I have risen to the scent of, you guessed it, dog poop. 

Poor Apollo has had diarrhea since Friday morning. At first, I wasn't too concerned about it. One morning of finding your yellow lab has turned chocolate isn't the end of the world, despite the unpleasantness of chasing the dog out the back door to avoid poopy pawprints all over the house, then dragging the crate out to be power washed, then submitting the dog to a morning hose down. We had gone on a trail hike on Thursday, and I figured he must have gotten into something; it usually passes within a day. Moreover, he was his usual energetic, hungry self, so I didn't worry. But Friday night we went out, and after a few hours of running the local pool table, came home to the smell of shit. And woke up, hungover, to the smell of shit. And that's how I ended up spending my Sunday afternoon at the vet.

The vet told me to not feed him until this morning, which is particularly cruel punishment for a lab, and for which I was rewarded with exceedingly ornery behavior at the dog park. He appears to be on the mend now that he's on the bland food and antibiotics, but we shall see... waking to a chocolate lab is not something you want to repeat. 

In the meantime, once I shower off the poop, I've been adjusting to being semi-retired. One of the things I've noticed is how often I have to tell people I don't work. When the vet asks if I'm around during the day, or the woman at the dog park is surprised that I walk him mid-day, or I'm being introduced to a friend of a friend, or any number of other random questions which apparently occur far more frequently than I realized... I find I am still looking for a good answer that explains that I'm in fact not currently working (at least not in the normal sense). I mean, the real answer, that I'm in the process of undergoing a major change in life direction, or that I'm working on my book, or looking for property to buy in foreign countries, well, that's not exactly casual conversation fodder... not to mention it has the slight possibility of coming off sounding insanely pretentious (only a slight possibility ;). But if you simply say you don't work, people think you're unemployed, or else just a complete slacker, which is hard for me to take.

So I'm trying to come up with a good, quick explanation that ends the discussion, similar to finding your Starbucks coffee name (Lucinda is surprisingly beyond the grasp of your average barista). I could go with "I'm a kept woman." Or perhaps "I'm working on my plot to overthrow the government," which while it could get me in real trouble with the authorities, has the attraction that in Berkeley it would likely get me lots of dinner invitations and perhaps an honorary degree. 

Beyond my obviously rough life, Steve and I are continuing to work through our plan. We've figured out the basic outline of how to legally put our money to work most effectively in purchasing foreign property. Note: the operative word in that sentence is *legally*. You'd be surprised how many ideas turn out to have nasty labels... like "racketeering." Who knew? Luckily we are making progress in finding qualified, knowledgeable individuals to advise us. Our initial instinct to consult the internet, while an appropriate response to shopping for shoes, turns out to have non-trivial limitations when considering the tax (and legal) ramifications of making international investment decisions. 

So now that we believe we can make it work financially, the next question is where. Do we go with our first love? That might be like like marrying your high school sweetheart - sometimes it works beautifully and saves you from painful years of dating nightmares, as in the case of my brother and my favorite (and only :) sister-in-law... but sometimes you grow apart. I mean, how do you know they won't change after college... or hurricane season? So then I think about spending the next months or year scouting and scouring the planet to make sure the grass isn't greener somewhere else. But what if we come back to our first love, only to discover they've found someone else and we've missed our chance? 

If you were in our situation, what would you do? where would you go? 

I'm not complaining - truly I'm not - but having more options is often harder than having only a few. As hard as it was to select a place to commit to for two months, I'm realizing it's exponentially more difficult to commit for our next phase of life.

I am now remembering why college students are so annoyingly angst-ridden.


Day One

Location: Berkeley, CA

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives...

Yesterday was my last day at the Gap. After a final day of exit interviews, heartfelt goodbyes, turning in my employee discount card (sadness!) and, appropriately enough, send off cheesesteaks (thanks Dave!), I packed up the car with the remnants of my desk and headed back over the bridge.

How did we celebrate? Last night we drank great wine, indulged in a yummy dinner at A Cote... and then I handily kicked my husband's ass on the pool table, four games to one :). (Note: Steve is insisting that I explain that his back has been having spasms, and he was not up to his usual finesse. Uh huh.).

As of today, we've now both officially absconded from the "real" world. We woke up around 8:30... wandered to Rick & Ann's, the neighborhood hot spot for breakfast... skipped spin class (reference earlier paragraph), came home and set up my new gmail calendar. Unfortunately I didn't factor in that my first day home is also the day my housekeeper comes, and it's raining, again :(, so my husband and I are hunkered down with our dog in the upstairs office. He's already destroyed a new toy... the dog, that is... jury is still out on whether the husband will follow suit.

While we don't yet have an answer to the "Now what?" question, I feel like we're getting warmer. Literally. We've been doing a lot of drinking and talking - don't you know the best marital discussions always involve a bottle of wine? We're investigating some very interesting options, particularly those in our favorite warm, spicy, tasty, sunny, rum-filled locale.

Our original plan to buy a second house in Berkeley has likely been put on the shelf. You might think this is due to the cold rain that just won't stop, despite being well past time for northern california to turn beautiful... and in part you'd be right. You might also suspect it's due in part to Steve's discovery that his back is not as strong as his desire to do the work, and can be defeated by an ancient bougainvillea root system that stretched through the earth's core to reach Tahiti... and again, in part you'd be right.

Being back here in Berkeley is in some ways a little too comfortable. It would be so easy to slip back into our old lives, old habits, old patterns, good friends, and never make a substantive change. I mean, who wants to pack up and start over? Sell the house you worked so hard to find? turned into what you thought would be a 20-year home? In reality, the simple answer is we're ready for a new challenge, and a new place. Why live a "normal" life if you don't have to? As my one friend told me, we owe it to all those who can't afford to do it. It's time to get the machete out, and carve our own path through the jungle.

Now that the decision is made, I'm anxious to get moving. Jump into the breach. Take a leap of faith. Run headlong off the cliff. And as usual, Steve is the voice of calm and reason. Look before we leap, and all that... yada yada. I know he's right, as always, but my impatience knows no bounds. I am too excited at the prospect of completely reinventing our lives, exploring the world and discovering our true purpose. How often do you get to do that? Well, I guess we each did it once before, when we moved out to SF in the first place ten years ago... which means we're way overdue for another shake-up. Risk nothing, lose everything.

In the meantime, we are in fact enjoying being back in the Bay Area. We had a great time on Saturday at our friends' co-ed baby shower in the city (they're expecting twins). We got to see wonderful friends, enjoy a phenomenal meal and partake in crazy games I've never seen before, like "pin the baby on the boobie." Lucky for my friend, that one involved an artistic representation. Alas, having such a good time on Saturday night precluded us from making it to another friend's BBQ on Sunday.

Now that I'm no longer a cog, I plan to be far more diligent in my blog updates. I admit, inspiration hasn't been as readily available as it was in the Caribbean. I mean, anyone who has been diving in Northern California knows the pictures would be dark blurry blobs at best... assuming your fingers could even function in those thick gloves. But I'm working on it...


So Now What?

Location: Berkeley, CA

OK, so I quit last week. I've got a little over a week left to go w/ Gap before I'm officially fancy free. So far, the reactions from family and friends have all been positive, with an undercurrent of wonder: what are you going to do next? 

Well, the first thing I did was bought an iphone. Say bye-bye to the old blackberry! Now that I no longer need to be replying to emails while sitting in meetings all day long, I have broken free, and embraced my inner creative side. I'm looking forward to my Microsoft-free existence! But I know that's not *really* what people mean when they ask what's next, even though I personally feel like it's going to change my life. But I digress.

It seems like such a simple question. "What's next?" And yet, there is an implied value judgement. We live in a society where we must always be doing something. Anything. Always. Constantly. When I tell people I'm going to write, there is usually a pregnant pause before they say, either verbally or with their eyes: "And?" Perhaps I'm imagining it, but I really don't think so. Is it the protestant work ethic? Catholic guilt? I have no idea. But since I have no children, and very soon will have no job, it baffles people as to what I'm going to do with my days. 

So... what am I going to do with my days? Well, OK, I admit, it kind of baffles me too. I know my ultimate goals: finish my book, continue with my blog, travel, get in better shape, invest in real estate, manage house renovations. And while that sounds like a laundry list, it still leaves the question of what to do on a day to day basis. Which is funny.

While I was in St. Martin, I never worried about what I would do with my day. Beach? Pool? Explore? Every day was a take-it-as-it-comes attitude, and we genuinely lived in the moment. Raining? No worries, we'll wander Marigot, or work on our blogs, or just hang out and be. Here in Berkeley, for some reason that living in the moment seems far more elusive. Perhaps it's because there is always the dog to walk, or the kitchen to clean, or the laundry to be done. But I do think there is something to the fact that in the American culture, it's simply not acceptable to just be. How dare we attempt to live free of daily obligation and stress?

In the meantime, we have been focused on the next step. We've been looking for our next real estate investment. Our theory is that if we start by buying and renovating a house here in Berkeley, it will give us something worthwhile to do while we wait for the market to recover, and help us develop our real estate acumen for other more exotic destinations. We figure we can do some fun projects, both at our current house and another one, to get our hands dirty and learn.

Our first project is our backyard. Yesterday we tackled The Beast. The 30-foot-tall hedge between us and our neighbors that had grown all kinds of out of control. We had the #1 gardener on Angie's list come by to give us an estimate... and after she saw the thing, she declined! A normal man would have hired an arborist at that point, but no, we were not to be daunted. Steve purchased a 30-ft ladder on Amazon (which arrived in one day, how awesome is that?), and went to work. At one point I thought he'd be swallowed up like the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe... or at least be bitten by some denizen of the primordial forest.. or fall off the ladder and land on his saws-all (yes, there were safety hazards galore). But in the end we persevered and tamed it, though it's not the prettiest haircut I've ever seen. There were several moments of "hmm... I'll just even that up a bit..." and there are bald spots worthy of George Costanza. We'll be working on the gardening skills.

Steve is also in the process of designing raised flower beds, a hammock oasis and a travertine patio. I question whether we need all of these things - perhaps it would be nice to keep at least some of the grass? But in the end I will defer to his design aesthetic which is shockingly good for a heterosexual man. My role, of course, is to create the project plan and budget, order materials... and supervise him, which, really, is a full-time job. 

In the meantime, we have been scouring the local real estate listings. We want a genuine fixer-upper, something where we can add true value over the course of a year. We keep hearing about these flippers who pick up all the distressed property on the courthouse stairs, so that they can do a quick and dirty home depot flip - paint a little here, cheap kitchen there, et voila, $100k over purchase price. That's not our plan. But while it is definitely still a buyer's market, there isn't yet a property that fits our criteria. 

Today we saw a crazy house that had been used as a bed & breakfast. It was the most jacked-up house I've seen in a long time - they needed three agents strategically positioned throughout the house as guides. Seriously, guides. They should have given out a map, or one of those headsets you get at the museum. You could miss an entire wing of the house by passing by what appeared to be a closet. It was heavily decorated with crazy paint colors - like navy blue to match a bedspread, and dark red in the living room - with mirrors everywhere. There was one room with miniature bookshelves, and miniature table and chairs, as though the entire room was a doll's house. Can you say through the rabbit hole? This place would take at least $50k to just de-crazy the walls, but there was no answer for fixing the byzantine layout. There was even a rental unit, with the renter sitting at her computer in her messy kitchen during the open house. Just sitting there, at her computer, with dirty dishes in the sink. It wasn't even what you'd call a studio apartment, it was a kitchen with a nook under the stairs with a pallet and pillow, like Harry Potter before he found out he was a wizard. Perhaps that was her hope? 

There's another house we were interested in, but we couldn't get in to see it. Why? Because you have to be in contract to see it. Excuse me??? Oh yeah, they expect you to bid site unseen. It was in contract already, then fell out. Somewhere there is a real estate agent who is smoking crack. 

So the search continues. I'm wrapping up at the Gap. Steve is getting to work on the backyard. And I'm still working on the quick and easy answer to the question of "so now what?"...  wishing the weather would clear up so I could go to the pool and stop worrying about it... 


To Quit or Not To Quit?

Location: 2nd floor cube, San Francisco

I'm back at work (in theory, anyway). Here I am, sitting at my cube, wondering what the hell I used to do with my days... and more importantly, why I used to do it.

For weeks, I've been doing some soul searching, trying to decide whether I ought to just quit. It's not like I have another job lined up. But now is the time to make a break, and do something different. We spent two months exploring a new lifestyle, one where we travel and live in the moment... and it's not an easy lifestyle to forget. I can't simply go back to how things used to be. Nor do I want to.

But to just quit... it's terrifying. What would I do with my days? I know I want to continue writing. I love keeping my blog, and if I quit, I'll actually get to have more life experiences that are worth blogging about. I've also been working more on my book. I've been writing far more than I've actually posted here.

At the same time, Steve and I have determined we want to live the life. We want to own property in beautiful places around the world, places we'll get to restore, manage, rent and visit, living at our own pace. And if we're seriously going to start investing in and managing real estate, it makes a lot of sense for me to get licensed, or at least become far more knowledgeable about real estate overall.

When I think about what I want to do with my days, and what I enjoy, I know I want to have intellectual challenges (the writing) while at the same time, work with people and do something tangible (real estate). After months of trying to balance seemingly opposing desires, I have discovered that they actually might just match up together.

This morning I told my boss I wasn't *really* back, despite my physical presence at the office. It's not yet official news, or public, so I can't yet actually publish this post. But I'm sitting at my cube, brimming with excitement to get on with the next phase of my life, wondering what the hell I am doing sitting at this desk. The good news is that after agonizing over the decision - I mean, really, really agonizing, you can ask Steve who had to sit through it all - now that it's in motion, I am beyond excited to move on. I have great friends here, and it's been wonderful seeing them and catching up, but ultimately, it's time for a change.

UPDATE As of April 7th

It's finally official. No need to keep it under my hat anymore. I've quit. My last day is April 20th. What happens on April 21st? We shall see... At the very least, what happens on that day will be my decision and what I want to do.