Saturday, September 11, 2010

When Life Hands You an English Degree

When Tropical Storm Hermine dumped over 5 inches (13 cm) of rain on my vacation plans (mainly outdoor repairs and mowing) this week, it left me with a lot of time to think. It should have left me with a lot of time to write, but because I invested in thinking time now, I'm hoping to have a lot more writing time later.

I've worked many long hours, weekends and double-shifts since I was 15, living quite frugally and putting aside as much money as possible into very conservative accounts. Over the past dozen years, my goal has been to retire at 55.

What may interest most of you reading this is that I have made a living writing and editing since 1988 when I was hired to write catalog copy for a distributor of educational materials (which, I'm sure, helped hone my query-writing skills).

Before that, I was a vet tech for 7 years. For a good part of that time I worked days at a small animal clinic and was on call nights for an emergency hospital. I worked 7 days a week doing everything from cleaning cages to performing minor surgery (cat neuters, declaws, ear crops, dentistry, etc.), although laboratory work was my specialty.

Did I mention I was also going to college during this time? That bachelors degree was a long time coming. Not only because I couldn't squeeze in more than a couple of classes a semester, but mainly because I couldn't settle on what career I wanted and so took many more classes than necessary. I wound up majoring in English and minoring in biology, history and Greek. I went on to get a masters in English with a concentration in medieval studies. I crammed my masters into 2 years, working the graveyard shift at an airport in a tollbooth to pay my way.

I took that MA to Hollywood, got a job signing actors with a talent agency (well, working with them on their contracts) and reading scripts for the script agent, then quit when I found out that, while most of the agents were hard-working, reputable folk, the owner was a sleaze. That's when I started writing catalog copy.

When I moved back to Texas in 1989, I got a job with Radio Shack writing ad copy for software and computers. After I was laid off a few years later, I found work as a copywriter for a flooring retailer; as an instructional designer and software manual writer for a financial services provider; as a marketing manager for a technology provider; and as a freelance writer for Motorola, Verizon, and a handful of Internet startups. Then, 11 years ago, I contracted with a large IT services company to write and edit marketing collateral for 6 months. That freelance job turned permanent and eventually morphed into writing and editing proposal content, which is where I'm at today.

Putting pen to paper this week, I realized that it is indeed -- just -- possible for me to retire early. Not at 55 like I had originally targeted, but sooner. Perhaps as early as the end of this year.

I'm 51.

Yesterday, I paid off my mortgage. 25 years early. The house, the barns and the 27 acres are mine. I'm now debt free and, barring anything truly catastrophic -- or social security or medicare not being around in 13 years -- I should be able to maintain myself and my beasties until I'm 80 if I retire now. Longer, if I'm inclined to pick up the odd freelance opportunity or if I can sell a book or two.

I've budgeted money for more fencing, major house repairs, and car and tractor repairs/replacements as they're needed. Short-term, I'll be sacrificing my little dream of updating the bathrooms and kitchen, but wanting those updates should keep me motivated to earn a bit of extra money over the next couple of years to get them done.

So you see, an English degree and a career in writing -- even without risky investments -- can earn you enough to live and retire on in the US. That is, if you budget wisely, are willing to live modestly, and don't have money-sucking children draining your account with their pitiful cries of: "Feed me," "Clothe me," and "But all my friends have one!"

Of course -- just as in getting published -- talent, luck and a good economy go a long way toward making a general writing career worth pursuing. And really, you can't underestimate the part luck plays in either pursuit.

Is it scary? Yes. Very. But it's also exciting. I've embraced the option and have taken the first step toward making it a reality. Now all that's left is the follow-through.

Oh, and you coworkers who know my secret identity: Please don't let the boss know just yet, OK? :o)


AA said...

Wow. That's awesome. Congratulations.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I don't think much about retirement but mostly because I'm not the career kind. Yeah, I've got an actual employee job now and I've been there 3 1/2 years longer than I'd planned to already. Not planning on leaving any time soon either. I could conceivably think about actually retiring from somewhere and drawing a pension.

But I know what you mean by retiring - having enough money to see you through without working any more.

Trouble is - my grandmother was 101 when she died. Means I'll still be working for quite some time to come. I've got a long haul to prepare for and my mom in the mix. When she hits that 100 mark, I'll be nearly 80.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Mucho congrats on the debt free part. Looking forward to getting there myself one day. Need to stop picking up these $10K in medical costs animals.

fairyhedgehog said...

This is cool. I'm glad you've managed to make it work for you!

Phoenix said...

Thanks AA and FHH!

Sarah: I hope I'm budgeting generously for the beasties since I plan to invite more in and want them to be of the unwanted variety. But I know vet bills can quickly skyrocket :o(

Having dependents in the equation really does throw a wrench into any plans. Yay for your long-lived family! But, yeah, if you're responsible for your mom's medical and housing, that's a huge cost, especially if she winds up needing either in-home care or to stay in a retirement home. I was paying $7000 a month for my dad's in-home care and was quoted about $3300 for keeping him in a nursing facility.

Once I hit 80, I'll have two options: a reverse mortgage to add to my social security and tiny pension income or, as I may well not be able to keep this place up any longer, sell and downsize.

What I discovered with Dad is that there are plenty of options to help you if your assets and income are low and you need medical and housing, but no help at all if you were a good steward of your money and sacrificed all your life to save enough to retire on. The system's skewed. I'd like to see it unskewed by the time I need it, and I hope to be prepared either way for it.

Here's hoping your next bundle of fur comes with only normal and wear-and-tear!

Sarah Laurenson said...

My mom's got 5.5 acres and is considering downsizing. She can mow still - riding mower and the back half of the lot is left alone - but it's the lack of time to weed that's hard for her. She loves to weed. I know. Strange woman.

She's 71 now. Her next door neighbor is set to buy her place whenever she's ready. And I think she's done with the heat of the south. It's a matter of figuring out where she wants to go next and when. My brother still lives near her, but is possibly moving far away very soon - like next month.

Her mother lived by herself until she was in her early 90's. But she was sort of adopted by a local woman and had her best friend's daughter getting her groceries.

I'd like it if she moved a comfortable driving distance from me (or my brother). There are places here that are cheap enough. Taxes are through the roof though.

It's a lot to consider.

As for the babies - my wife said she gets to pick the next one and I get veto power only. I'm good at picking out those who need extreme medical care.

When we finally had to put my grandmother in a nursing home (at 100.5+), I saw first hand how badly the patients were treated - like they weren't human. We believe it was their fault she died. They ignored the symptoms she was having. But try and prove that when the patient is that old and in frail health. I'm not fond of nursing homes.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Here's my best advice, save your money like you'll live to be a hundred but also live like you have 10 days left. (Enjoy it!) Eat your veggies. Ride an elephant and get photos. Something great to leave behind. Quit worrying. If it helped, worry, but it doesn't so scratch that off your list. Drink lots of water. Help everyone, every creature you can, the one's you can't say a prayer over. Be kind and be funny. Know you'll find your way. Enjoy the hummingbirds while you can. Once in a while eat a ton of garlic - then breathe on everyone you meet that day you don't care for. Your own private joke on the world.
Best you guys,

Phoenix said...

Sarah: I hope you can convince your mom to move close by. Sounds like it would be good for both of you!

Bibi: When are you going to start blogging? You have such great insight and so many wonderful stories to share!

Robin B. said...

This is so amazing. Serious cool stuff - freedom in the real sense.

Anonymous said...

Okay Divine Miss Phoenix, TERROR strikes me every time I even think of blogging. My left eye twitches, my feet sweat. I have blood curdling nightmares the bloggyman is going to get me - really get me. By the throat, he has long curved teeth and ugly yellow thickened toenails that curl the wrong way. His tail sticks out of his drawers - trident ended. And he smells. Rotting putrid green smell.
So my dear Miss P. I will try to be brave and face this fictional demon (who I know is waiting, lurking for me in cyberspace)and gird myself with my stories of elephant and mango rice and banana that looks like fried bacon (no guff) and stare into his face and stare that sucker down! Whew. I'm feeling braver getting that off my chest. Ive tried so many times and gotten all the way to finish or whatever it says and I fold. A 3'6" jump on an hysterical youngster is way easier for me. But I get your point. Thanks for the soft reminder time's awasting.
I would like to share some of my most amazing moments with the Dream Team here. And you know I have a couple up my sleeve. I think I would hate to be boring - or worse, foolish. So you know my innermost, darkest fear.

Anonymous said...

A story. I went to Ayudyha, the ancient capitol of Siam and played with an 80 year old girl. She was a grand lady. Friendly, kind, so happy. A lovely elephant, a family heirloom. I went to Hua Hin a few weeks later, and saw a 75 year old elephant. The 75 year old is not long for this world, no teeth, low body weight, she can't eat without teeth. She is younger in years but maybe they can hang on to her for a few more months. These two ladies had very different lives - like you and me. The 80 year old so full of life, the 75 year old was so tired. Without being able to chew, like horses, they get bloated with gas, they groan. They start to shut down. The 75 year old was in the mahouts house. IN THE HOUSE. Swaying, groaning, the family were kneeling around her. Feeding her the best of food she didn't have to chew. What will happen? The vet will come and put a merciful end to her suffering. They will dig a large hole and will call the monks who will pray over as she is injected. She will lay down slowly and her family will stroke and pet her until her heart stops. The other elephants wil mourn and cry for a whlle through the night. And that is what happens to a dear sweet old lady who spent her life supporting maybe 30 people.
She's leaving us too soon in very poor condition.
So I weep for the elephants of Thailand. They built this country. Many of the rescued ones need months to come down off of the "speed" they've been fed so they will work 24/7. How is this possible.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I love elephants. They are amazing, intelligent, emotional, beautiful. There was one I used to visit at the zoo when I was in college. Shirley had been a circus elephant until one of the bulls broke her back leg. I felt sorry for her stuck in that enclosure by herself. She didn't loook happy.

She was at that zoo for 20+ years when they decided to retire her to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

I was flipping channels one day and saw the PBS special about her transfer to the sanctuary and the younger elephant who ahd been in the same circus with Shirley and was already at the sanctuary. They weren't sure if these two would remember each other.

They bent the bars between them trying to get closer to each other and were inseparable until the day Jenny suddenly died.

Shirley's still at the sanctuary and her history is a long one including being in a boat fire in Canada and the town there thinking she'd been killed all those years.

I was happy to see she can use that back leg to some extent. She never did at the zoo.

Phoenix said...

Bibi and Sarah, y'all made me tear up.

These stories (and I'm including your other comments today, too, Bibi!)shouldn't be buried in the comments of some obscure blog. Ya'll need to be posting these kinds of stories on the "front page" of your blogs where even people just googling "elephant" or "Thailand" can find them. Serendipity at its finest.

I am truly honored you guys chose to share these beautiful tributes here.

Anonymous said...

Dear Phoenx, thank you for allowing this little to post on your blog. Sarah, these are grand creatures who need each other and truly just want to be close. To their own kind and us. Grammas, aunts, sisters, cousins, they are tactile and kind and so gentle. When I played with the lovely 80 year old I swear she was SMILING at me. She KNEW I wasn't afraid of her - and she liked that - a lot. She did everything but shake a paw. Her mahout just stood way back and took pleasure in this white devil enjoying his family pet so much. He grinned as wide as she did. He said "All afraid. No scared. You, why?"
I grinnned at him as I folded myself around her and ear and said "What's to be afraid of?" There's a connection. You are truly blessed as I have been if you have it, get it and use it.
Even that little gray pony boy felt good with me handling him - but I felt better.
Cyber hug to the Dream Team. I have set a date to BLOG.
Quaking and getting the vapors, but I promise I will. Soon.
I think I'll name it Elephants, Thailand, China and Teaching. Or something like that.

_*rachel*_ said...


And, speaking as someone who was recently one of those hypothetical kids, so true. At least there's no mortgage.

My 80+ year old grandma still gardens and mows her lawn.

Phoenix said...

Good for your grandmother, Rachel! Women are a hardy stock.

As for your having recently been a hypothetical child, so glad you've outgrown that phase.

sylvia said...

WOOHOO! Well done! That's serious dedication; I'm so glad you are taking the chance to reap the rewards.