midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

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Midlife and Crisis: An Uneasy Relationship

This essay is the introduction to my new book, All That’s Gone and Still Remains: Reflections of a Man at Midlife, based on the Midlife Dude blog.

Midlife gets a bad rap. What else can be concluded when “midlife” is practically married to “crisis?” Two peas in a pod they are, “midlife” and “crisis.” But are they really well matched?

Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965, concluding in a study that creative geniuses underwent changes of style or declines in productivity in their mid-to-late-30s. The term gained traction in popular culture by the 1970s, describing the time of life roughly between ages 40 and 65 when adults become attuned to their own mortality, concerned with leaving a mark before dying, and reflective about whether their first half of life has been meaningful.MidlifeCrisisGuyWithCar

But the term has snowballed from its origins documenting the imaginative processes of artists and poets in an obscure, dry journal of psychoanalysis to represent everything cataclysmic that seemingly afflicts the middle-aged trying desperately to ignore failed dreams and roll back the merciless tide of aging in a culture fixated on youth. Author Gail Sheehy cemented the gloomy view of midlife in her landmark 1976 bestselling book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, referring to decades of life as the “Forlorn Forties” and “Resigned Fifties.”

Time to Ditch Wife for Bombshell?

“Midlife crisis” is more typically applied to males, at least when couched in a derogatory manner signifying an unofficial malady. “Midlife crisis” has come to denote the man who ditches his long-devoted, slightly wrinkling and graying wife for the platinum blonde bombshell 20 years his junior in his office; trades in his practical suburban family vehicle for the candy-apple red Porsche roadster; and transforms from dull and predictable to flamboyant and impulsive, fueled by a surge of drugging and boozing in a pathetic effort to recapture the carefree, raucous days of yore.

For women, the term “midlife crisis” generally carries an undertone that is more forgiving and socially validating, one tilted more toward liberation than debauchery. Sure, some midlife women succumb to vain attempts to recapture youth through medical and cosmetic procedures, or irresponsibly abandon a family to engage in self-indulgent, feel-good, self-destructive behaviors. The 40s decade certainly seems a marker of heightened vulnerability and confusion, as the beauty of youth wanes, marriages grow stale and risk of divorce increase, and children become more independent and leave, diminishing what many women regard as a primary raison d’etre.

Yet, midlife is characterized more as a time of renewal, rebirth and exploration for women. It is seen as an opportunity to shed an old self that may have been contorted to meet societal, cultural and parental expectations and transform into a more authentic, independent, self-accepting, self-confident being, and to reclaim aspects of personality and passions lost along the way. Midlife is viewed as a period of re-evaluation and adjustment, of increased wisdom, strengths, experience and vitality, when old dreams that no longer inspire are abandoned and more genuine desires and talents take hold, a process known as self-actualization, or becoming more fully oneself. Rather than a “crisis” producing angst, depression and dissatisfaction, psychotherapist and author Stephanie Marston declared that  the women she chronicled in her book, If Not Now, When? Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife, characterized midlife as “one of the best times of their lives.”

What’s the Crisis?

Social science researchers have varied widely on whether any identifiable phenomenon that could be labeled as “midlife crisis” exists; numerous studies have shown midlife is not characterized by pervasive crises. Certainly, there are no commonly defined symptoms and nothing resembling a midlife disorder appears in the Bible of mental health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Count renowned psychologist Daniel Levinson, author of the 1978 seminal book, Seasons of a Man’s Life, among the true believers. Following a group of working men for 10 years, Levinson developed a theory that delineated adulthood as a series of stages and transitions, each with a developmental task or crisis to resolve to advance to the next with a sense of well-being. Unlike some other researchers who rejected the concept of a “midlife crisis,” Levinson determined that 80 percent of the men he interviewed found the midlife transition a tumultuous struggle and psychologically painful. He bluntly described the existential predicament men face at midlife in Seasons: “Adults hope that life begins at 40 – but the great anxiety is that it ends there…It is terrifying to go through middle age in the shadow of death…and it is a self-defeating illusion to live it in the shadow of youth…”

I believe the stereotypical male version of a “midlife crisis” is overblown, hyperbole, a caricature. In reality, I contend a man’s “midlife crisis” more closely resembles the woman’s experience of re-evaluation, greater self-knowledge and wisdom – at least among those adults who aren’t withering in place – than the stereotypical jerk wearing shiny new bling glinting through an open shirt, cruising in an eye-popping Corvette convertible, ditzy blonde under his arm, toupee blowing in the wind.

Midlife Challenges

Midlife requires leaps of faith, acceptance and tolerance of uncertainty. We encounter the realization that our careers may have hit a ceiling, and re-evaluate whether the work at which we might have labored for decades provides meaning or nourishes our soul anymore, or ever did. We pause to question whether the race for success, advancement and achievement, as defined in young adulthood, is worth chasing anymore. If we haven’t already experienced job loss through no fault of our own, we are prime targets for downsizing and early retirement packages because of our age and salaries. We have to run ever faster to avoid becoming obsolete in the face of rapid societal and technological changes, the province of the young.

We grapple with the financial pressures of mortgages, college tuitions, accumulated debt, material acquisitions, increasing health care costs and looming retirement. We question whether our marriages are satisfying or have gone flat, whether the grass may be greener. We groom our children and ultimately set them free – except those suffering from Failure to Launch Syndrome — experiencing some sense of loss entering the childless phase. We may be sandwiched, caring for ailing parents while parenting our own kids. Mounting midlife challenges can be associated with high levels of stress, anxiety and sadness, which can lead to unhealthy lifestyles, deterioration of physical and mental health and acceleration of aging.

Through it all, we face choices, the biggest of which is whether we will transition at this crossroad toward reimagining and reinvigorating a life with new possibilities, purpose and contributions through continued growth and development, or whether we will hunker down, circle the wagons, kick like a mule, pull the covers tight, switch on autopilot and hang on mightily to the status quo, resigned to becoming a member of the walking dead until the nursing home comes calling.

Giving Back vs. Giving Up

Psychologist Erik Erickson captured this dichotomous phase of life in his preeminent Stages of Psychosocial Development theory, identifying midlife as the period of Generativity vs. Stagnation. Adults entering their second half of life would either help guide the next generation through socially valuable work, creativity, productivity and loving relationships, or would stagnate in a pool of self-centeredness and ineffectiveness. Those who do not associate change with growth but rather with loss, being passed by or failing are destined to weigh on Erickson’s Stagnation side of the scale.

I have dealt with many of midlife’s rites of passage. I have lost jobs multiple times; changed careers, requiring a return to school and sacrificing years of experience and money to start over in an occupation that stirred my soul; moved to experience a new environment and culture; divorced and remarried; faced the challenges of parenting teen-aged kids and watched them leave home for independent lives; cared for an ailing mother, and lost her; observed a colleague succumb to the ravages of alcohol and depression; experienced a major health setback and long rehabilitation; and strived for self-fulfilling goals involving creative expression. I believe I’m heading down Erickson’s path of Generativity; if I wasn’t, I imagine my life would be crushingly bland and I would be miserable.

These essays, compiled upon my entry into and over the course of a clinical mental health counseling graduate program from my late 40s to mid-50s, provide commentary from a personal perspective on these and other midlife issues, and seek to relate my experiences broadly to others going through similar midlife transitional phases and events. These writings reflect the opportunities and challenges, risks and rewards, hopes and fears, and triumphs and setbacks I’ve experienced and observed in midlife.

In tone, the essays are inspirational, triumphant, motivational, hopeful, wistful, prideful, contemplative,  inquisitive, wondrous, melancholic, depressing, upsetting, mournful, resigned, disappointed, critical, self-questioning – in short, the kaleidoscope that the midlife passage presents to our minds, hearts and souls.

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Debt: The Mosquito in my Ear

Debt nags me like a mosquito buzzing my ear as I try to sleep.

I’ve spent my midlife trying to get out of debt while preserving assets – in other words, reducing debt with current income while attempting to avoid incurring more liabilities Debtor depleting investments. Sometimes I have had to unload investments to pay off debts, and always feel bad about it, like I’m filling a city street pothole that is sure to crater again.

Overall, I’ve been fairly successful at paying down and staving off debt. Still, whenever I become completely debt-free, something seems to suck me back “into the red” – a job loss, a major repair, education costs, or simply operating a budget that gets out of whack and spending beyond current means, a cash flow problem. I’m not alone.

Americans are swimming in debt:

  • The average American household that carries credit card debt has a balance of more than $15,000 on the cards, according to a 2017 NerdWallet survey. The same study found that the average American household carrying student loan debt owed $46,597 in education expenses, and the average American household with auto loans owed $27,669 for their vehicles.
  • A 2014 Urban Institute study found that 35 percent of Americans had delinquent debt. That debt typically came from credit cards or medical or utility bills that was more than 180 days past due and had been turned over to collections. The debts averaged more than $5,000.
  • In 2013, 7 out of 10 graduating college seniors were entering post-college life with student loans, which averaged $28,400, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Debt limits freedom and choice. Debt triggers shame and guilt. Debt causes stress and distrust in relationships. Worry over debt can lead to physical health problems, such as high blood pressure.

Debt makes me irritable, anxious and angry. I’m not alone in suffering from negative emotions related to debt. Research has found links between financial health and mental health.

Researchers from the University of South Hampton who analyzed 65 studies on debt and mental health determined the likelihood of having a mental health problem, particularly depression and anxiety disorders, is three times higher among people who have debt. The link between debt and suicide was especially pronounced: People who committed suicide were eight times more likely to be in debt.

Drug abusers were more than eight times more likely to be in debt, and problem drinkers 2.5 times more likely.

Short-term debt, such as credit card debt and overdue bills, was associated with greater depressive symptoms, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. People in the latter stage of midlife and closing in on retirement, 51- to 64-year-olds, were among the groups where the link between debt and depression was the strongest, along with people who were not stably married and those with no higher than a high school education.

Researchers aren’t unified in what causes what – whether stress related to debt causes mental health problems or mental health problems lead to poor financial management. But the two woes are close partners either way.

As midlife progresses, the urgency to escape debt and then keep it at bay increases. Time becomes the enemy; opportunities to get out of debt and recover start to diminish. Wives have been horribly miscast; debt is the real proverbial “ball and chain,” and not something one wants to drag into later adulthood. Whenever I hear that mosquito known as debt whining in my ear, I’m going to slap it silly.

Minimalism: More Freedom, Less Crap – Material and Otherwise

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around… Minimalists search for happiness not through things, but through life itself.

— The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

In a medical office waiting room, I stumbled across a reference to a book that piqued my interest, Everything That Remains, a memoir by two Dayton, Ohio young men with working class upbringings and early adulthood, ladder-climbing, wealth-accumulating ambitions, about their gravitation from the timeworn path toward an illusory standard of The American Dream to something more introspective and streamlined called Minimalism.

I found it at the library and read it. You might think the rest of this essay will be a screed about the evils and vacuousness of materialism and consumerism, and the beauty and simplicity of deprivation and Idealism, and a door-to-door-Bible-salesman-like proselytization aimed at convincing you to chuck the former’s wanderings through a vast commercial wasteland in favor of a holier life spent in the latter’s pure Garden of Eden. Breathe a sigh of relief; it won’t be.

The book did put a name to the broad ideas about how I’d prefer to live, though. And I believe I’m largely putting those ideas into practice.

When people hear the term “Minimalism” applied to a lifestyle, it does seem to conjure the image of someone just barely better off than Fed Ex plane crash survivor Tom Hanks’ character stranded on an uninhabited island in Castaway, fashioning shoes from palm fronds, feverishly twirling a stick on a rock to start a fire, and squeezing meager marine nourishment out of a shellfish speared with a homespun, sharpened bamboo pole. They think Minimalism means living a Spartan, monk-like, stripped-down existence: doing without, possessing no things, having no fun, staring at four bare walls from a lonely chair, living in a quixotic commune, scraping by on the minimum, spending no money – hell, making no money! It doesn’t.

What Minimalism means to me, as The Minimalists describe it, is eliminating the clutterFightClub_2 from my life – figuratively and literally – so that all I have left and all that I focus my attention and physical, mental and emotional energy upon are things that add value and meaning to my life. The Minimalists love the book/movie Fight Club, about an underground, subversive group of men breaking free from the soul-numbing shackles imposed by societal, cultural and corporate expectations, citing this quote from Fight Club’s charismatic leader Tyler Durden: “The things you own end up owning you.”

Eliminating oppressive, useless clutter that bogs you down applies to relationships, careers, meaningless pursuits and time-consuming obligations – real or imagined – as well as physical objects. That’s the freedom to which The Minimalists refer.

Minimalism is about breaking free from corporate and cultural influences that tell you who you should be, how you should act, what you should believe and how you should define success. It’s about the freedom to define your own path toward happiness and fulfillment, regardless of the disapproval and negativity you may receive from friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. It’s about the freedom to take risks, the freedom to make choices, the freedom to make mistakes and fail, and the freedom to take full responsibility for all of that in service of living a more courageous, authentic, satisfying and inspiring life.

It so happens that my recent movement toward Minimalism – a transition to a new career in mental health counseling from public relations, a move to a smaller area with a simpler lifestyle – has coincided with a more Spartan lifestyle, more out of necessity than by design. I have moved from a 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom townhouse to a 1-bed, 1-bath apartment. I am earning a salary that is less than half of my last full-time job salary, the result of the career change and starting on a bottom rung in a region with lower wages. I am not “livin’ large” – I’m driving a 15-year-old economy car; watching the smallest-possible, decade-old flat-screen TV, donated to me by a friend, on a no-frills cable TV package; and sleeping on a real bed only after weeks on a constantly-deflating air mattress, because I had no bed to take on my move – but I’m livin’ free and livin’ well.

I have no debt, save for my mortgage, the house I moved from but still own, and which still adds value to my life. I feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose in my new career than my former, so much so that retirement holds no allure for me at age 54, which I consider a good thing. I am pursuing activities and relationships that enhance my life.

I am a proponent of Minimalism, not because I want to latch on to the latest fad or lifestyle trend that may be featured on the Today show or in chic lifestyle magazines, but because my  re-evaluation of the course of my life during the reflective midlife phase was pointing me in the direction of Minimalism before I realized the philosophy had been assigned a pithy label. I am striving to be a Minimalist – not impoverished, deprived, lonely, isolated, rigid, overly austere, Utopian, cultist, weird, eccentric, anti-social, anti-consumerist, or anti-technologist (think Unabomber) – but free to embrace and fully pursue the things I value.

This quote from Minimalism’s emblematic movie, Fight Club, captures the undercurrent stimulating the Ohio natives’ cum Montana entrepreneurs’ lifestyle movement:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Goddammit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man: No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Good Money

When I would tell people I got a new job to start a new career in another state and would be moving, one of the first questions they’d inevitably ask was, “How much will you be making?” Or, so as to be less crass, “Will you be making good money?”PileOfMoney

In our competitive, capitalist, consumerist society, it is only natural that money is the first thing that comes to mind when someone accepts a new position. To be sure, why would anyone choose to move more than 500 miles and three states away for a job if not to make good money?

I had three answers for that question, and all had validity:

  1. Yes, of course I would be making good money, because there’s no such thing as bad money.
  2. No, I wouldn’t be making good money, compared to the much better money I had made in previous jobs.
  3. None of your friggin’ business what kind of money!

The answer is not simple. My job as a therapist under a two-year provisional license pays considerably less than my previous positions in public relations. I am at the entry level in the mental health field, where salaries and pay, though variable depending upon many factors, are relatively low compared to many other professions.

However, my job pays considerably more annually than the series of Gig Economy counseling internships and part-time and temporary jobs I had pieced together for the final two years of my counseling master’s degree program after leaving my full-time job. So viewed from that perspective, my new job does pay good money, and I’m grateful for that.

In midlife, we evaluate what we’ve already done and what we’d like to do with our remaining years, which no longer seem infinite. Priorities change, as we shift from the achievement-oriented, ladder-climbing, self-focused goals of younger adulthood to an increased desire to make a contribution to others, pursue meaningful activities and leave a legacy. My change to a career in counseling reflects the internal re-evaluations of the midlife transitional period.

When you realign priorities and make a significant change, there will be sacrifices. For me, one of those was money – good money. I knew that consequence of my decision from the start, when I embarked on the graduate program nearly six years before actually entering the counseling field. But I ignored that inescapable fact at the time.

Now that my new level of pay is a reality, I’m adjusting my life and budget to match. I may not yet qualify as a full-fledged Minimalist, but I’ve moved closer to that end of the scale in my spending, decision-making and thinking.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of making money – good money – or pretend I don’t care. It certainly helps in many ways and I always endeavored to make good money – at least the best I could in any given circumstance. I’d certainly rather be well-off and feel secure than poor and living anxiously paycheck to paycheck. Wouldn’t everyone? Fortunately, I have some financial cushion, enough to allow me to overcome the financial anxieties of making a career change, but far below some golden threshold to claim money doesn’t really matter.

But making ever more good money – however one defines it — isn’t the end-all be-all path to an ever more glorious Shangri-La, as a 2010 Princeton University study concluded. The Princeton researchers found that no matter how much more than $75,000 per year that a person earned, their “degree of happiness,” or emotional well-being did not increase. It also found that, though earning less than $75,000 in and of itself did not cause people to feel more unhappy, it did magnify and intensify negative feelings from life problems they had.

Beyond the practical realities of how I spend and the reduced margin of discretionary money available to save or burn compared to my previous work life, I’ve had to make a humbling mental adjustment: Here I am, in my 50s, peak earning years, with two graduate degrees, making less than half of what I made at my last full-time job, and less than or equivalent to many workers with much less education or years of experience than I have. Yet, I would still contend I am making good money, not bad money.

I gain fulfillment and a sense of purpose and contribution from counseling people and helping them improve their lives. Work is stimulating, rewarding and challenging, which I couldn’t always claim before. I look forward to my future in this new profession, and its many opportunities for learning, growth and entrepreneurship.

For those reasons, I know I can take this to the bank: I am making good money, with the promise of better money to come. When you truly enjoy what you are doing for a living and apply yourself with a passion because of that, the money naturally tends to follow. Good money.

Riding the Marry-Go-Round

I’m a two-timer. An encore performer.  A twin-biller. A mulligan-taker.  A repeat customer. A re-doer. A rider on the marry-go-round. I’m remarried.

I was remarried at 47, placing me among the 16 percent of U.S. men aged 40 to 49 who have been married twice, a figure that climbs to 21.6 percent at 50 to 59 and to 24.6 Divorce-Remarriagepercent, or nearly 1 out of every 4 men, at 60 to 69, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 study, “Remarriage in the United States.” An even higher percentage of 40-to-49-year-old females, 18.2 percent, have been married twice.

My second wife has watched my two kids, who are now college-aged young adults, grow up since they were 9 and 7, and became their stepmother when they were 14 and 12, heading into the most challenging adolescent years. It requires bravery, patience, tolerance, acceptance, respect, understanding, flexibility, persistence, discipline, forgiveness and the capacity to love to become an effective and enduring stepparent.

Remarriage brings a whole new set of complications and negotiations for the new couple that cause stress: blended families; ex-spouses who may be intrusive; divided loyalties among children and extended family members; ambiguous stepparent roles and expectations; uncertain and evolving children’s reactions to changing family dynamics; financial complexities; practical and logistical decisions to reconcile often well-established, separate lives, lifestyles and cultures; trust issues and other emotional baggage; and legal agreements and bleed-over contentiousness from first marriages. Compared to the virtual blank slate of a first marriage, remarriage can appear an Etch A Sketch on steroids. My second marriage has not been immune from some of these challenges.

If raising kids is the toughest job you could ever have, imagine stepping in as a relief pitcher in the seventh inning, when kids are entering and navigating adolescence as mine were, with all the challenges that raging hormones, establishing independent identities, questioning authority and fitting in with peers presents. A stepparent who adopts an authoritarian approach risks creating an environment of constant tension and turmoil.

On the matter of step-parenting, The Gottman Institute, which researches marriage and relationships, explains the disappointment a stepparent encounters in desiring reciprocal love from stepchildren that may fall short of expectations, and outlines a realistic role: The “role of the stepparent is one of an adult friend, mentor, and supporter rather than a disciplinarian,” says the Gottman Institute blog. “There’s no such thing as instant love. When stepparents feel unappreciated or disrespected by their stepchildren, they will have difficulty bonding with them – causing stress for the stepfamily.”

When a biological parent of the same gender as the stepparent is firmly involved in the family picture and the children’s lives, even when not living with them full-time, it may be unrealistic to expect of the children to show equal respect, appreciation and love to each parental figure. A stepparent who keeps score in such ways is setting himself or herself up for disappointment, corrosive resentment and an emotional rollercoaster ride. Children of divorce do their best to cope with confusing and distressing situations and want nothing to do with choosing sides or participating in competitions for their attention and affection, even under the friendliest of circumstances.

Financial issues, which can be vexing in first marriages, can become even more complicated in second marriages. Sharing finances and deciding on financial priorities are aspects of marriage that can produce vulnerability and distrust. These feelings can be amplified in remarriage when one or both partners, often with decades of accumulated assets, debts and obligations, may have children for whom they are financially responsible, child support or alimony payment arrangements, pending college tuition and room and board costs, or property, equity and retirement investments.  My second wife married me at a time when I had years of kids’ college costs upcoming. In any remarriage, it would be fair to ask: What should be the new stepparent’s financial obligation toward the stepchildren’s college expenses, if any?

Remarriage is volatile. The odds of second marriages surviving are worse than first marriages. The National Stepfamily Resource Center cites a divorce rate among individuals who get remarried of 60 percent, while most measures of the divorce rate among first-timers hover around 50 percent.  Studies show those who have experienced divorce before are more likely to consider it again when marital struggles emerge.  Also, ex-spouse conflicts and new partners parachuting into often ill-defined parenting responsibilities add to the strain that pushes the remarriage divorce rate higher.

Yet those who have lost in love still want to take their mulligans, men more than women. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that adults who have been previously married are more likely than not to remarry: 57 percent of previously married 35-to-44-year-olds; 63 percent of 45-to-54-year-olds; and 67 percent of 55-to-64-year-olds had remarried. A Pew survey found that only 30 percent of previously married men did not want to remarry, while 54 percent of previously married women indicated they would prefer to remain single, reflecting men’s greater needs for the social and emotional support that marriage provides.

Perhaps more than anything, the high rates of remarriage show resiliency of spirit, faith in the institution and the innate desire of humans to connect on a deeper level and share lives, longings that outweigh the challenges of remarriage for many. Apparently, remarriage stands as the poster child for the trite cliché: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

 

Do the Limbo. Or, How to Be ‘Comfortable with Ambiguity’

I am in limbo. Complete and utter limbo.

However, the bar is not set low and I am not trying to shimmy under. The bar is high and I am aspiring to clear it like a Fosbury Flop.LimboDance

It’s not supposed to be like this as a 54-year-old, according to societal expectations. I’m supposed to be settled, stable, predictable, a rock, boring in my steadiness. I chose another path, paved with uncertainty. It’s come with a loss of income, stability and predictability. But I expect the payoff will come in the form of greater life and career satisfaction, and income growth ultimately will follow as I hopefully find passion in my work.

My limbo status is largely of my own design and in small part due to the bugaboo of bureaucracy.

I have 11 days left until my second summer teaching tennis at the Sea Colony resort in Bethany Beach, DE runs out on Labor Day and I return home, jobless and anxious but optimistic. I have spent nearly two years in the Gig Economy, ever since a non-amicable parting with a former employer allowed me to place more focus on a master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling and the two years of internships required to complete it, as part of a midlife career transition from public relations to counseling. I have been scrambling to piece together part-time, temporary and contractual jobs since I dropped out of the routine 9-to-5 world.

I graduated in May 2017, and expected that tennis teaching for 3 ½ months would provide the perfect bridge to the new career, allowing enough time for me to obtain the state license I need to be eligible to practice, get hired and begin work. But bureaucracy has brought that plan to a grinding halt, possibly leading me to the unemployment office rather than a counseling office, at least temporarily.

A long waiting period to get access to my “official verified” National Counselor Exam report has left my state license applications – and thus job prospects – in limbo, even though I have already been notified that I passed the exam. The blood pressure ticked a little higher each day over the last six weeks as I awaited an email notification from the national counselor certification body that my school transcript met all requirements, along with my exam score, for certification.

One former boss wrote in my annual performance review that I needed to be “comfortable with ambiguity.” That was corporate speak for an organization refusing to accept accountability for its disorganization, poor leadership and incoherent, vacillating strategy. Ironically, now that I’ve left that organization, the advice applies.

My immediate future is ambiguous. I don’t know where I’ll be working as a counselor, or when. I don’t know how long it will take state licensing boards to review my applications and grant a license. I don’t even know what state I will be living in, as I have applied for license in Maryland and South Carolina.

So, what have I learned about being “comfortable with ambiguity?”

  • Take things one day at a time, as cliché as that may sound. Thinking too much about unknowns in the future produces excessive worry but no solutions.
  • Pursue aggressive actions whenever possible to address things over which you do have control, such as making networking contacts, applying to jobs and following up on leads. Taking action tends to boost motivation, confidence and attitude.
  • Detach from the cell phone and computer for periods of time. It’s tempting when living with job and income uncertainty to obsessively check for email and phone contacts, which increases anxiety each time none have come through.
  • Have faith that putting what you want to attract into the universe ultimately will materialize for you, with persistence, patience and a positive outlook.
  • Continue doing things you like to do (that are free or low-cost) to keep your spirits high and take your mind off worries.
  • Squirrel away your nuts (money). Live cheaply (the Minimalist lifestyle) while dealing with ambiguity, to reduce financial pressures.

Limbo is not a comfortable place to be when you have financial and family obligations, when you feel like you should be occupying a certain status and you’re not, and when you like to plan and predict your life with a high degree of certainty. But for me, my current state of limbo is a necessary part of the process of getting where I want to be, just another stage of the journey, another bar to traverse.

Father Knows Best: A Tale of Political Nepotism & Campaign Finance Chicanery

My first-person account of my run for public office — the narrative nonfiction book Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics — is replete with examples of corruption, malfeasance, deception, power plays, lust, shenanigans, shell games and other mechanisms that help office holders keep their buckets full and padlock the iron gates against intruders.

Here’s another political power tale that didn’t make the cut for the book from Sirenian Publishing, but includes some of the elements and may be added:

[NOTE: Names have been changed. Facts haven’t]

Shenanigans Galore

For a campaign story that contains multiple political shenanigans rolled into one endeavor — nepotism, cronyism, money shell games, political dynasties and bosses, powerful slates created to enrich one candidate, muddled, misdirected or deceptive fundraising requests, fatherknowsbestcoyness about poorly concealed political intentions – look no further than the Orlovski family from Dundalk, a blue-collar community neighboring Baltimore known for its brick row houses and supplying labor to the once-thriving, now defunct Bethlehem Steel plant and shipbuilding yard. Dundalk’s population decreased 27 percent over a 30-year period, tracking the decline of its lifeblood industries.

Dundalk is the type of place known for spawning old-style, pro-labor Chicago-like political bosses who dominate the landscape, strangle power like a World Wrestling Entertainment chokehold and determine who will rise to join the elite club, one that apparently commonly includes members with the “Jr.” suffix. After a half-century of rule, octogenarian Maryland Senator Marvin Rockledge, Jr. of Dundalk announced in 2013 it was time to leave the state legislature after 52 years and 13 consecutive terms. A media report said Rockledge rose to power after joining a local Democratic political club and getting a request (or a non-negotiable order?) from a club political boss known as “Iron Mike” to run for state delegate.

Family Dynasty

Rockledge didn’t leave the legislature empty-handed; he descended from the throne holding hands with Jimmy Orlovski, Jr., throwing his support to his hoped-for successor at Orlovski’s fundraiser and Senate announcement event the day after Rockledge made his retirement intentions known.

Orlovski, Jr. had a valuable political boss in his corner: his father, Jimmy Orlovski, Sr., a four-term Baltimore County Council member. Certainly, the senior Orlovski’s status as the east-side’s leader in the 800,000-population county surrounding Baltimore had something to do with Jimmy Orlovski, Jr. being appointed in 2006 to fill a vacated Maryland delegate seat at the tender age of 23, a year after starting a teaching career.

Later that year, young Jimmy won election to the Maryland House in his own right, and was re-elected in 2010. As it became clear that the aging Rockledge was on his last legs as Eastern Baltimore County’s state senator, the money shell game involving new political slates with altruistic-sounding monikers and influential, well-heeled politicians began.

Money Shell Game

First, Baltimore County Executive and rumored 2018 Maryland governor candidate David Denison transferred more than $100,000 from his campaign account to A Better Baltimore County Slate in early 2013. Members of that slate included Denison, Jimmy Orlovski, Sr. and two other local politicians.

Around the same time, another similar-sounding slate – Baltimore County Leadership Fund Slate – was established. That slate was comprised of the Orlovski father-son duo and three other local candidates.

Then, in early 2014, A Better Baltimore County Slate transferred $90,000 to the campaign account of Orlovski, Sr., even though he had announced he was retiring from the Baltimore County Council. So, in essence, Denison had given Orlovski, Sr., who had previously campaigned for Denison, a huge pot with which to play kingmaker by redistributing to other preferred candidates on his way out of office.

For some reason, Orlovski, Sr. held on to that $90,000 gift, which, when combined with his existing campaign fund, armed him with nearly $200,000 heading into an election in which he was not running. He gave sparingly to several Baltimore County Leadership Fund candidates during the 2014 election cycle, keeping his own account stout.

Perhaps that was because son Jimmy Orlovski, Jr. already was flush with cash and was running against a pauper Republican candidate that the political news outlet Center Maryland called a “non-entity” in a Democrat-dominated district that had elected the same Democrat to the state Senate since the 1960s.

Perhaps it was overconfidence – or a case of political hubris. But there must have seemed no way Billy Roy Townley, a former steel worker for more than 30 years with no political experience whose bio said only “attended” – not graduated – high school could defeat the two-term delegate Orlovski, Jr., an educator pursuing his doctorate in public policy who had already risen to chairman of Baltimore County’s House Delegation in the Maryland legislature and whose father was the widely-known, influential politician at the county level.

Money No Match for Anger

Jimmy Jr. outspent Townley by 20 to 1 in the election year — $242,000 to $12,000 – and, stunningly, lost, apparently the victim of the region’s shrinking Democratic labor vote and the trend of struggling, angry white working class voters bucking The Establishment and changing allegiances, the kind of surge that two years later powered Republican Donald Trump to the presidency.

Orlovski, Jr. “ran into a buzz saw of discontent in Dundalk, where voters were apparently sick of the three Os: the Orlovskis, [Maryland Governor Martin] O’Malley and Obama,” the Baltimore Sun analyzed.

Jimmy Jr., an acknowledged rising star among Democrats with all the insider connections, was unceremoniously tossed out, replaced by a political nobody, an outsider whose only listed credentials included membership in United Steel Workers of America and the Dundalk Moose Lodge, and service as a deacon and choir singer at the local Baptist church.

I can only imagine the Orlovskis incredulity at the family dinner table. The burgeoning family political dynasty upended by a career lunch-bucket steelworker who might not even have held his high school General Equivalency Diploma (GED)? Perhaps Pops should have slid Sonny an extra $100,000 through a slate financing scheme before the election so Jimmy Jr. could have enjoyed a 30 to 1 spending advantage. But in politics, as in baseball, there’s always next year.

Follow the Bouncing Dollar Bill

It didn’t take long for the Orlovskis to jump-start a revival for Jimmy Jr.’s now-moribund political career. A month after the November 2014 election fiasco, the Orlovski duo began fueling the family’s political rebirth. Just follow the bouncing dollar bill:

Jimmy Sr. transferred $130,000 from his own campaign account to the Baltimore County Leadership Fund Slate, whose five-candidate membership included both Orlovskis.

Two days after that transfer, the Baltimore County Leadership Fund Slate wrote a $130,000 check to Friends of Jimmy Orlovski, Jr., easily avoiding the law that limits transfers between candidates’ campaign accounts to $6,000 in an election cycle. Maryland slates are permitted to transfer unlimited amounts to the campaign accounts of individual members of the slate.

So, let’s review, diagram and simplify. Essentially, County Executive Denison gave a boatload of his cash to a slate comprised of a handful of candidates with the philanthropic-sounding goal of improving the community, A Better Baltimore County.

That slate gave $90,000 of the county executive’s cash to a politician who was retiring, thus had no need for campaign money, Orlovski, Sr. Senior funneled the county executive’s money, plus some of his own, through a second slate, the Leadership Fund, to which he belonged.

The cash sat in the Leadership Fund just long enough for the check to clear before that second slate dumped the whole lump sum of $130,000 into Orlovski, Jr.’s coffers.

Within nine months, the Leadership Fund Slate was shuttered, its apparent primary purpose of enriching and regenerating the Orlovskis political endeavors having been served.

Convoluted Political Resurrection

Like many ousted politicians, Orlovski, Jr. promptly signed up for a $90,000 lobbying gig with Baltimore City’s transportation department in 2015, where he could take advantage of fresh ties to influence former legislative colleagues.

Soon after, Orlovski, Jr. launched his political resuscitation, in convoluted fashion. In 2016, Orlovski, Jr. formed something called “Better Baltimore County,” not to be confused with A Better Baltimore County Slate, which was closed in January 2016. The website for Better Baltimore County described it as an organization created to “tell the stories of…unsung heroes and to inspire creative new partnerships.”

The Better Baltimore County website also included an authority line (Authority: Friends of Jimmy Orlovski, Jr., Ken Brandt, Treasurer) indicating it was tied to Orlovski, Jr.’s ongoing political campaign committee, designating the website as political marketing material. The same authority line appeared on Orlovski, Jr.’s personal website, which did little more in 2016 than promote Orlovski, Jr.’s Better Baltimore County and his career and personal background without announcing any particular political aim or office.

Orlovski, Jr. sponsored a fundraiser in August 2016 that the Dundalk Eagle said fueled speculation that he was considering a campaign for public office. Center Maryland reported earlier in the year that Orlovski, Jr. was one of three Democrats mobilizing to replace County Executive Denison, whose term would expire in 2018.

But Orlovski, Jr. remained coy, according to the Eagle, claiming that the money raised would fund his new creation, Better Baltimore County, giving only a vague nod that he was “keeping an open mind about 2018.”

The fundraiser was advertised on Orlovski, Jr.’s personal website, which makes no mention of Orlovski, Jr. being a candidate for any political office. So, what was the money contributed really for, Orlovski, Jr. the politician or some nebulous conception to promote people, businesses and organizations of Orlovski, Jr.’s choice through Better Baltimore County, honorees who, of course, could return the favor and assist Orlovski, Jr. in the event of a future Orlovski, Jr. candidacy?

Which begs the question: Was the benevolent, business-oriented Better Baltimore County and Orlovski, Jr.’s political quest one and the same, just an extension of an ambitious man’s ambiguous political campaign, as intertwined as the two entities were?

Nowhere on the Better Baltimore County website did it indicate that the group was registered as an official nonprofit organization or that it had any director, staff or supervisory board. In other words, it appeared accountable only to Orlovski, Jr. Apparently, Better Baltimore County was Orlovski, Jr. and Orlovski, Jr. was Better Baltimore County.

Was the organizational creation with the noble-sounding name, Better Baltimore County, just an ornamental tool used as a smokescreen to generate money for the real purpose: to help Orlovski, Jr. return to public office?

Orlovski, Jr.’s intention to highlight positive community works and foster collaboration may have been pure. But as an outsider looking in, Better Baltimore County and Orlovski, Jr., the overthrown politician, seem so enmeshed that I can’t help but think there is something concealed going on, if not downright disingenuous.

But it is not surprising, nor unusual. It is just part of the tangled web of politics that is best and most readily, expediently and successfully spun by insiders, for their advantage, to feed what often grows to an insatiable desire to wield influence, attract followers, bask in the limelight and gratify ego – and for many, Orlovski, Jr. certainly possibly included, to also advocate for their notion of the public good in the process.

Living on the Cheap

Since I left my full-time, public relations job last October to focus on my unpaid counseling internship and a full-time course load as a master’s degree candidate in pastoral counseling, I’ve adapted to living on the cheap.

I can’t say I’m living a deprived life or even struggling. I have everything I need and much more. I can’t say I have any idea what it’s like to live day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, wondering where the next meal will come from or worrying about losing my shelter. Comparatively, I’m well-off, not one of the “1 percenters” but probably closer to that than the bottom 75 percent.

But I am more aware of, and closely monitoring, my discretionary spending, much morePennies_cheap than when I knew my bank account would be replenished with an equal amount every two weeks. I am subscribing to minimalism, at least to some extent, as described in the book, Everything That Remains by The Minimalists.

Still, just as I’m transitioning careers in midlife, I’ve hit a time of financial stress and challenges. In addition to my own graduate school tuition, I’ll have two children in college in the fall. Three simultaneous higher educations will blast a cannonball-sized hole in any family budget. I am not so many years away from typical retirement age – though with my new career, I plan to work as long as I want and don’t ever envision really retiring. And if the theory holds true that you will need $1 million in retirement to last, I have a long way to go. And I have an aging parent who could need financial help in the future.

Despite my income needs, I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t adeptly handle a full-time job, a part-time internship and graduate school classes, and perform any of them well and with full focus, without suffering from stress, exhaustion and dissatisfaction. Trying to handle them all might have doomed completion of the counseling master’s degree after a four-year investment.

Luckily, I have a wife with stable employment (though with a company known for frequent layoffs and restructurings) that has provided a financial anchor while I scramble to produce more erratic income from various sources.

That’s what brought me to the Sea Colony Tennis resort in Bethany Beach, DE to work as a seasonal tennis instructor for the summer. Though it required me to be away from home, it provided the greatest earning potential for the short period between internships and semesters.

I found the cheapest place I could rent, no easy feat along the shore, and am living with two roommates. One roommate is another tennis instructor who is living similarly frugally. He turned me on to the Dollar Store, where we’ve bought a lot of our food, toiletries, medications and household items at half the cost of the grocery store. We found the Atlantic Community Thrift Store, where I got a cool Old Navy bathing suit for $2 and he found a Pinehurst Golf jacket for pennies on the dollar and a desk chair for $3. My roommate has found a way to play several holes of golf for free by walking onto a course near our house after regular hours.

I’ve been here for 15 days, and have gone out for a meal only once, my first night. It’s tempting, with all the restaurants, seafood and pizza joints and junk food establishments at the beach, but I’ve held off so far. I question each expense to determine if it’s necessary, while still allowing certain indulgences like Dollar Store sale-priced Doritos and ice cream bars.

The tennis teaching season has started relatively slow, while school is still in session and most tennis-player vacations are planned for July and August. That’s when I’ll make my money and the investment to live away from home pay off. I’m conscious that going out for a beer and appetizer plus tip can wipe out the earnings of a one-hour tennis clinic, and what would be the point of that?

My one other indulgence was the clunky, antique, heavy-as-hell cash register I bought on a whim on my way to move to the beach at a roadside antique and junk shop. Even then, I bargained the proprietor down from $50 to $20. I have no idea its worth and it needs some refurbishing, but it looks retro-stylish. I think the guy just wanted to get rid of it, an indication it’s not worth much in its worn condition.

Living cheaply means living more simply. I like it. As long as I have enough income to meet my needs and preferably a few wants, I’m happy. It’s less stressful than trying to make more money so I can live bigger, have more and maintain more. Living cheaply, I can focus on the things that matter – relationships, pursuing fulfilling work, helping others and doing things I enjoy with my time, which will be more possible when my income needs are less.

Living on the cheap was brought about for me largely by necessity. But it is a lifestyle choice that I embrace.

A Full Pension But Half a Life?

What is of more value to you: Your money or your time?

I had an interesting, offhand discussion about this with a classmate in my counseling graduate program. She is in the engineering field, working for a power company, is probably in her mid- to late-50s, and has three grown children. So she is aiming to be a career-changer later in life, similar to my path, going from journalism to public relations to counseling.

The difference between us is that, after grinding through the counseling program at a slow pace for four years, I am now trying to make a stronger commitment to serving my internships, completing my degree and making the transition. My classmate, also proceeding slowly at one course per semester, said she is considering working for five more years at her company so she can get a full pension instead of two-thirds or more of the pension’s value if she leaves sooner.

We talked only briefly, but since we are in a counseling program, we are accustomed to talking about life issues that really matter. Essentially, I asked her whether, if counseling truly was a passion for her, was it worth trading five more years of her life doing something she was not passionate about to have a somewhat higher income in retirement or old age? Or could she figure out how to make do with a smaller pension as a tradeoff for making a complete transition sooner and bringing more joy and inspiration to her life?

She studied my line of questioning for a moment and seemed to re-evaluate her priorities. She offered that she knew a man at her company who stayed long enough to collect a full pension. Problem was, within a year of retiring, he died.

None of us know how much time we have. It would seem a shame to have a full pension but half a life.

In the few moments we had before class, I suggested an option that might reduce my classmates’ perceived need for a larger pension: minimalism. I had just read a book, Everything That Remains, by Joshua Fields Millburn, espousing the benefits of living a minimalist life. Essentially, that means getting rid of everything that in your life that does not have real value, does not improve your life and is not needed, which could mean material possessions, unnecessary living space, services, relationships, jobs and other things we imagine we cannot live without, when we really can, and better. Instead of arranging your finances to fit your lifestyle – the one you think you need – you imagine and create the lifestyle that will make you happy, and adapt your finances to fit that.

How many of us could live a downscaled lifestyle and fill it with things that really make us happy and inspired, if we only really examined what that would mean and took actions to make it happen? How many of us live with more stress and anxiety because of all the things we need to maintain and hold onto even when we don’t really want them, much of the time out of fear, and then compound the stress by feeling the need to make enough money to maintain the things that don’t really make us happy and free?

I don’t know what my classmate will decide to do. But I’m at the point in my life where I would gladly exchange some degree of financial security for the risk and reward of pursuing a passion – or at least something close to it – and creating a life that I can truly say that I want, not one I feel obligated to soldier through out of some sense of being secure or safe, or doing what I believe society expects me to do.

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