Have You Ever Felt Like a Prisoner in Paradise?

Aerial view of Panama City, Panama in 1958 – twenty years before I was to live there.  Photo courtesy Kennedy M Crockett.

In my first blog post I told you the story of how the name Cucamoca came to be.  I gave you a little glimpse into my very early life in Guatemala, and I described the impact my father’s nicknames had on my life.  In this my second blog post I’d like to jump way ahead and skip over a number of years since that time, which I will come back to at some point in other posts as I weave back and forth to tell my story.  The topic I’d like to jump to now is the story of how it was that we decided to leave our corporate careers and embark on this life of freedom we are currently enjoying.

Let me start by first explaining how it was that I got into my career to begin with.  When I came back to live and work in the States in 1980, I arrived from Panama with a 7-month old baby, one suitcase, and $100 to my name.  What was I doing in Panama, and how was it that I found myself in these circumstances?  This is another story that I may share at some point, but for now suffice it to say that I was pretty clueless about my new city of residence, San Diego, California.  At the time of my arrival, downtown San Diego was a dusty, trashy and deserted place only frequented by lonely sailors or Greyhound bus passengers – a far cry from the beautiful city it has become today, which some affectionately refer to as paradise.  All I knew then was that my father and my oldest sister lived in the suburbs, and this city was really the only place to which I could imagine moving under my circumstances.  As providence would have it, I was to meet Gene there later that very same year.

At the time, I had not yet graduated from high school, I had very few developed skills that could be used in the workplace, and I had no understanding of minimum wage relative to estimated living expenses.  What I lacked in preparation I made up for with a willingness to learn and to work hard.  I went to night school and got my high school diploma.  My father generously offered to help me with further schooling, if I was really serious about making a go of it.  I checked out a business college one of my sisters had attended and brought home the course catalogue.  They offered a certificate in Computer Science, something I had never really heard of before, but the salary potential was impressive.  I passed the aptitude test, enrolled in the nearly yearlong certificate program, and shortly after graduation landed my first professional job as a business software applications programmer.  My starting salary in 1982 was $6 an hour.  I was pretty excited.

Within a couple years things had fallen into place for me, and I was excelling at my newfound career.  The first firms I worked for were small startup software houses where I was able to wear many hats – customer liaison, needs assessment, project estimation, design, development, implementation, and on-going maintenance and support.  This broad experience served me well for many years.  There were other larger firms in my future, and my scope of responsibility and my salary steadily increased.  I moved into management.  I went back to school and got both my bachelors and my masters degrees.  I was on fire, on top of the world, and I really could see no end to the opportunities.  I rejected the notion of age discrimination, and I did not believe for a minute that I would ever be affected by outsourcing or offshoring.

Fast forward to a day 28 years after starting that first professional job, when quite unexpectedly, after nearly three decades of gapless employment, it happened.  I arrived at work early, decked out in my business suit ready to present to senior management.  Thirty minutes before the presentation my team and I received a meeting cancellation; the presentation was off.  Shortly afterwards the boss called me into their office distressed – they had just received a call from the CFO informing them they were being let go.  Soon after I saw the CIO come into a small fishbowl conference room near my office with a pile of blue folders.  Boxes were being delivered to every floor of the building.  As the line of colleagues entering the fishbowl and exiting with their blue folder progressed, I was eventually called into my fishbowl meeting to receive my own termination packet.  The CIO was practically in tears as they delivered the message.

For me though, it was one of the happiest moments in my life.  The sense of total liberation was exhilarating.  I practically danced as I carried my box of personal belongings to my car and drove out of the parking lot that morning.  After all, my car had been the last, or nearly the last, to leave the parking lot every evening for many months prior.  The post-reorg confusion and chaos, competing priorities, constant demands, limited resources, and lack of a clear plan had finally taken their toll on me and my shiny career was starting to tarnish.  I needed to rejoice in this defining moment.  As I left the parking lot that morning, I drove straight to La Jolla Shores, kicked my shoes off, and walked along the beach until I came to the rocks on the north end.  There I sat for a good long while, allowing the breeze to blow through my hair, gazing out on the magnificent Pacific Ocean, basking in my good fortune, and trying to imagine what my future would hold.

In the days to follow, however, that feeling of joy and the immense sense of freedom would dissipate.  I learned that over half of our IT leadership team had been let go, along with many other employees across the organization.  Gene and I had a large mortgage to pay, and I would need to get back to work.  We were in no position to be a one-income household.  As I put myself back into the job market, went on interviews, and competed within a small pool of available jobs, I was increasingly disappointed.  Something had shifted.  The excitement I had for my career was waning.  I felt stuck.  I did manage to eventually land a job, and while it met our financial needs, the new organization was in even greater chaos than the last.  My need for personal introspection and reevaluation reigned.  I journaled.  I prayed and asked for guidance.  I asked myself what I really wanted to do.  I assessed all my gifts and talents.  I became acutely aware that this was a wakeup call.  It could not be ignored.

At the same time, I became increasingly aware of what was happening to Gene in his career.  He seemed to be aging right before my very eyes.  The multi-million-dollar projects he managed for his firm as a Department of Defense contractor appeared to be deliberately set up to fail.  The projects were given unrealistic deadlines, and were not provided the resources needed to succeed.  None the less, Gene was held accountable for their successful completion.  I watched as he worked incredibly long hours and somehow became this magician who always pulled the rabbit out of the hat at just the right moment to save the project milestones and achieve the project deliverables, in spite of everything seeming to work against him.  There was a voice in my head, in my heart, in my soul.  It constantly pressed me and said, “Do something.”

It was about that time that I came across a copy of International Living.  I devoured every word as I read stories of people in my age group who had gone through similar experiences and had found a way out.  I read about Paul and Gloria Yeatman of retireforlessincostarica.com, who publish their cost of living expenses on a monthly basis and provide practical guidance for anyone seeking to retire in a place where money will stretch further.  As I pored through their blog, the pieces started to fit together.  We just might be able to pull this off.

The first major obstacle I encountered though was how to break this idea to Gene.  I knew it was not going to be easy.  About five years prior we had purchased a fixer-upper in a high end neighborhood in the Golden Triangle area of San Diego, five miles from La Jolla Shores, just south of University Town Center and the La Jolla tech hub.  We had completely remodeled the kitchen and two and a half baths with granite countertops, upgraded cabinets and new flooring.  There were many other improvements we had made as well, just in time for the bubble to burst on the real estate market.  We were slightly under water and it was not a good time to even think about selling.  I felt like a prisoner in paradise.  But the voice continued to press me.  I had to do something.  A change was coming and we needed to be ready for it.

I remember very clearly the evening I was finally able to stammer out the scary words to Gene: We could retire.  “What?!” he practically shouted back at me.  I was the focus of all his anger as he belted these words from the bottom of his being: “The day I retire is the day I die!”  I guess these are pretty typical macho words, and I did marry a macho man.  I had my work cut out for me, but gradually, over time, Gene could actually listen to me talk about it without getting red in the face.  Eventually, I thought he might actually be starting to warm up to the idea, but there were still so many questions to be answered.  Could we really afford to retire early?  Where would we live?  What would we do?

I look forward to writing more about how we answered these questions in future blog posts, as substantial research and preparation were involved along the way.  The process of transitioning out of our corporate careers took about five years, from the time I was first acutely aware of my personal wakeup call, to the time that we tendered our resignations.  We were able to sell our house, and the market had rebounded enough that we made a good profit.  And you remember the voice that pressed me urging me to “Do something” as I desperately watched Gene fade before my eyes?  Well about two weeks after Gene announced to his employer that he would be retiring within 30 days, he was laid off.  We received the news with mixed emotion – certainly the separation package helped to seed our upcoming cross-country RV expedition – but we were also haunted by the idea that he may have been on the list all the while.  What would have become of us had we not been prepared for this moment?  What would this have been like if we were still saddled with the large mortgage, and no plan in place?

You ask if I believe in Divine intervention?  Absolutely.  For me, this story is ample proof that it exists and is actively at work in our lives.  I could never have imagined how my life was to unfold as I disembarked that airplane and walked onto the tarmac at the old San Diego airport all those years before.  I am eternally grateful for all the blessings that have been bestowed on me, for having Gene as my partner in life, and I am beyond excited to meet the adventures that still lie ahead.  Best of all, we are no longer prisoners in paradise.

View of San Diego, California from Coronado Island.  Photo courtesy Gene Esquivel (2009).