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Livin’ the Dream – Part 2: Making it Happen!

(DiverWire) Part I of Living The Dream concluded with my decision to leave corporate life in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. While that traumatic event was the final catalyst in my decision to rearrange my life and priorities, it was not the only factor.

During the 1990’s, many Boomers, and even younger workers, began sensing a change in their relationship with their corporate employers.  Boards of Directors, driven by a single-minded desire to please shareholders, began adopting a bottom-line, bean-counting mentality. They retained legions of consultants, who descended upon corporate workplaces like locusts in a cornfield, their goal to “re-engineer” the work flow. Of course, most of these “efficiency experts” were clueless about the businesses they were re-engineering. In their wake, re-organizations, downsizing and layoffs followed, along with dictums from corporate board rooms to “Do more with less.” However, “doing more with less” works for a year or two. After several years there is no more to do less with. The corporate knives did not just cut the fat; they continued slicing through muscle right down to the bone. Survivors of these blood-letting episodes often wondered who was luckier, they or those eliminated?

Realizing the rats were winning the rat-race, I began reflecting about what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life. On Caribbean vacations, while sitting under a coconut palm gazing out at an azure sea, I thought about the things that now gave me pleasure and satisfaction: watching a hawksbill turtle munch a sponge lunch while a pair of French angels nibbled floating crumbs; watching an eagle ray blot out the sun as it soared overhead like a B-2 bomber; drifting along a multi-colored coral and sponge-encrusted wall, looking down as the wall disappears into a thousand-foot abyss. I resolved that somehow I would make my vision become reality.

The 9/11 terrorist attack provided the impetus to action. However, one doesn’t leave the “real world” during peak earning years on a whim. It’s not a decision made lightly, certainly not during a rash moment or while “narced” at 120 feet.

THE PLAN:

Step one involved taking stock of “bread-and-butter” issues. Fortunately, I was at a stage of life where my children were finished with college, and almost “off my payroll.” Our house was paid off, and we were relatively debt-free. The final piece of the financial equation was that my wife still loved teaching and planned to work for several more years, when she could retire with an adequate public-sector pension. Saying good-bye to a regular salary meant taking a financial hit. However, I calculated that converting my 401K to an IRA would provide a modest pension. Unfortunately, that piece of my plan hit a major pot-hole during the 2008 financial meltdown. Oh well; back in 2002, who knew?

Step two involved discussions with my boss regarding my plans.  We enjoyed a good working relationship, and she understood my reasons for bailing out. We developed an exit strategy where I agreed to remain until we hired my replacement, in return for a modest separation package. That worked for me!

Step three was implementing The Dream. Walking away from corporate life on a bright, sunny, Friday afternoon in July 2002, I still wasn’t quite sure how I was going to make my dream of diving and writing happen. But sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and jump.

Since I was a pretty good business writer and I always enjoyed creative writing, I thought about writing an adventure novel, an undersea thriller; but I had no idea for a story. One thing I learned as a budding novelist was that you begin looking at everyday things differently.  You appreciate seeing a sunrise burst over a midnight-blue horizon, the kaleidoscope rays of a sunset pin-wheeling through clouds, or moon beams shimmering on the water. You start thinking about how you would describe the scene, how you would write about it. When you meet someone interesting you wonder how you might fit that character into your story. Hearing about an outrageous situation, you plan to work the details into your story. Some people say novelists are the biggest thieves in the world. Definitely true! We steal from life.

Several months after my exit from corporate life, I was enjoying my new-found free time in Cozumel diving with Alison, the instructor who had introduced me to scuba diving two years earlier.  I knew little of her background, but was curious about how an American woman became successful in a male-dominated culture. I learned she had left California about ten years earlier, in her twenty’s, to start her life over, though she never explained why. She had obtained a dive master/instructor position at a local resort and, because of her teaching and language skills, became a key part of their operation. Eventually, she left to start her own company, www.scubawithalison.com — a very bold accomplishment for a non-Mexican female. Soon, the idea for an undersea adventure story featuring a strong, independent female character began percolating through my brain.

Returning home, I began writing my first novel, Dangerous Waters. The real-life Alison became my fictional heroine, Terry Hunter, a young woman following a perilous journey of adventure and romance, from the California Pacific to the Mexican Caribbean. After three months I had a first draft ready to circulate for reviews. I needed to solicit opinions as far from friends and family as possible. Those who know you are reluctant to tell you where the warts are, but you really need to know. While polishing the manuscript I began fantasizing how large an advance I would get from major publishers, who I just knew would be fighting to get their hands on my literary masterpiece.

I soon learned the harsh reality of the publishing world: writing is the easy part. Getting fiction published (nearly impossible), and marketing (difficult, time-consuming, but necessary) are the grueling, and not so much fun, parts of the game. Scores of rejection letters from literary agents, the gate-keepers of the publishing world, forced me to make a choice: would I rather be self-published or non-published? Being a realist, I didn’t think I could wait twenty years to be discovered. So I bit the bullet and self-published my first book, Dangerous Waters.

After writing Dangerous Waters I feared being a “one-book wonder.” I wanted to write a sequel, but once again had no idea for a story. Fortunately, life, and diving, provided the answer. A year earlier diving in Bonaire I had met a woman from the Netherlands, who told me she regularly snorkeled and free-dived with humpback whales in the Dominican Republic’s Silver Bank. “You do what with whom?” I asked, incredulous. So while Dangerous Waters was in production, I journeyed to the Silver Bank and encountered mother humpbacks and their newborn calves. Those moving experiences, swimming eye-to-eye with the whales, resulted in my second book, Whales’ Angels, an anti-whaling novel, where scuba divers battling pirate whalers in a tale of international intrigue and murder.

The final piece to the puzzle required purchasing a place where I could spend more time Living The Dream, but less expensively than staying in hotels. I found that the Mexican Caribbean is more affordable than the eastern Caribbean. Consequently, I purchased a condo (not a timeshare) in Cozumel, Mexico. Cozumel had become a special place to me, not just for the spectacular diving, but because the people are consistently friendly and accepting.  The selection criteria involved finding something that would be easily rentable when I was not using it. I could not justify the purchase if the property could not at least pay for itself. In addition, I did not want to be tied down to diving in only one location.

Just to share the benefit of that experience, I recommend visiting your prospective slice of paradise frequently, staying for extended periods of time before making a financial commitment, and getting assistance from a trusted local source. Purchasing rental property in Mexico was an adventure in itself. As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

Next Week, the conclusion: Part III. What it’s like, Living the Dream