In 2006 we were stupid kids. We bought a house we couldn’t afford. I was 22 and my wife, Meg, was 24. I hadn’t graduated college yet. Meg had, but hadn’t found much in terms of a career. We were both working as interns at a church outside of Milwaukee and increasing in restlessness as we started learning the ins and outs of how life works, how large churches work, and the disconnect between the two.
We have never set out to do anything important or interesting. We have never tried to push an agenda or convince anyone that the way we think or act is any better or worse that what someone else thinks or feels. I would say that we both are more inclined to look at a problem and attempt to solve it without forethought on what conventional approaches might have to offer in terms of guidance. Neither of us really care about best practices a lot of times, because those best practices were probably new and innovative at one point and we would rather be on the forefront of whatever the new next best practice is. We would rather already be doing the thing that other people haven’t realized is the next big thing. We would rather be the earliest of early adopters.
We are stubborn and principaled. For some reason we would rather forego enjoying the financial fruits of our labor and invest it in the next property or financial goal we are trying to meet, like buying the next rental property. Right now we own four paid for houses, two of which are fully rented and net about two grand a month between the two of them. The third house we live in and the fourth house is going to undergo a renovation starting in a few months. We have four houses and I own one pair of blue jeans. My truck has an exhaust leak that requires me to toggle back and forth between setting the heat to recirculate and then to defrost and back over and over to keep the windows and windshield from fogging up. I could pay to have it fixed, but I’ll fix it myself, once I get the time. I don’t know if that means we are frugal or cheap, maybe just stubborn and principaled.
We treat people fairly and we hold ourselves to a higher standard of accountability even if it is the lousier financial decision. I would rather a rental property sit empty than have someone rent it that I think might be a hassle. I would rather make a strong attempt to work with a tenant in hopes of growing their skills in a way that allows them to make better financial decisions than kick them out for not paying rent. I would also rather remove a tenant for not owning up to something they did that was wrong than keep them around regardless of if they pay on time or not.
We work hard.
I am now days away from completing my third whole house renovation while working full time. I am not talking painting and curtains. I have moved kitchens and stairwells, converted from radiator to forced air heat, built a huge ass garage, redone the plumbing and electrical in all three houses, moved half a dozen rooms, put two roofs on, resided one of the houses, built a porch, installed a couple of furnaces, run gas lines, installed a fence, installed laminate flooring, refinished hardwoods, installed hundreds of feet of trim, repaired water damaged joists, redesigned every aspect of bathrooms, jacked up walls, built an archway to match an existing one, installed ductwork and water heaters, repaired barely reparable doors, converted exterior doors to different sizes, fixed other peoples shitty repairs, cleaned up entire houses full of trash, emptied a garage packed full of stuff covered in cat piss, landscaped, closed off windows and added windows. Besides my dad or other family helping out I have done it all by myself. When a project needs to get done, I start working on it until I figure it out. I am the type of person that would rather end the day exhausted than bored.
Meg isn’t as extreme, but is far from being a slouch. She has run her own web design business for the last 7 years. She turned a skill learned at one class at a community college into a highly successful small business while almost never sacrificing time with the kids. She gets up early to do yoga and journal and then starts work at 6 so she can pick the kids up from school every day. Because I am always working she does more than her share of household chores. She cooks and cleans and does the laundry and vacuums multiple times a day to pick up the hair from her Husky. She listens to more podcasts, npr, and books on tape (whatever you call a book that you listen to on Audible) than anyone I know, and she is too humble to even realize she does all of this. She runs, goes to spin classes, and does hot yoga. One day a few years ago she decided she wanted to lose weight and then just did it. I think the best thing about her, though, is how she raises our kids. She has taught them to love reading. She has taught them how to be kind. She has been teaching my nine year old daughter since she was six what it means to be an introvert and how to cope with being around people all day long. I find the last point especially impressive since there was a time not that long ago that she didn’t even know what an introvert was.
We work hard, we try to make decisions based on principals, not how we are feeling at a given moment, and we try to set ourselves up to be pushed naturally or even systematically. I couldn’t have articulated it very well back in 2006, but I do remember thinking through the implications of moving into the inner city. I knew it was going to push us. I knew to expect to be irritated some times. I knew it wasn’t going to be sunshine and rainbows every day. I actually thought it was going to be a lot worse than it has been. I never thought I was going to be murdered or anything like that. I just assumed it was going to be harder. The hardest part might be that it isn’t that hard. It is actually pretty normal. It is just a shade off of living in a suburb. Sure, there are things I don’t like about it, but the level of irritation that I experience is only slightly higher than what I would have living in a suburb. I think that is the hardest part – coming to terms with the fact that it isn’t really all that bad here. I might be weird, but I kind of like living here now. Both Meg and I don’t really want to move. We have chances to get out or take our lives in a different directions and keep choosing not to.
Being an upper middle class white family in a poor almost all black neighborhood just seems normal now. I went about 10 years without telling people where we lived, mostly because it seemed so basic and uninteresting to us. Answering the question where do you live was about the same as saying what I had for lunch. It was nothing special and I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. Then, when I started telling people one of two things would happen. They wouldn’t believe me or they would just stare at me and not say anything.
I am terrible at seeing anything I have accomplished or done with my life in a context other than just some goal I met. All of the home renovations were just one long list of things that had to get done, so I did them. Similarly, living here is just a thing we do now. I don’t see it for anything more than that. People’s disbelief and blank stares are the only sign that we might have a story worth telling or at the very least, we have a perspective unique and interesting enough to one day be the new normal.