On Being Elite

A few thoughts about the use of “elite” as some sort of slur.

The other day, I was accused by a troll on Twitter of being part of the “rich elite” because I owned a helicopter and went south for the winter.

I think I was supposed to be insulted. I wasn’t. You see, I’m not ashamed of what I am or what I do with my time and money. I earned all of my possessions and my lifestyle.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

The only things I had going for me at birth was that I was born in the United States, I was white, and I had a good brain.

My parents were not rich. In fact, when my father left us when I was about 13, my mother very nearly applied for welfare. Our financial situation qualified me for free lunch at school; every day, I’d go to the school office and retrieve a small kraft envelope with 65¢ in it — government money to pay for my cafeteria lunch. I’d spend as little as possible and save the rest. When I got home from school, I babysat my younger sister and baby brother while my mother worked as a waitress to put food — mostly hot dogs and pasta — on the table. My grandmother would bring us groceries once in a while and slip my mother a $20 bill to help out.

I started working at age 13 when I got a paper route. I delivered the Bergen Evening Record after school on weekdays and the Sunday Record before 7 AM on Sundays. There were 54 homes on my route, which I had to walk, and I netted 20¢ plus tips per week per house. In those days — the mid 1970s — 10¢ was considered a generous tip; many of the homes did not tip at all. Collection day — Wednesday — was unusually long since I had to stop at every single house to try to get paid. One Wednesday in September, which coincided with the first day of school, my mother used my collection money to pay for our school supplies because she wouldn’t have money until payday.

Our financial situation qualified me for a summer job working at the high school. With three other girls, all a year or two older than me, I scraped rust off an old chain link fence that ran between the school property and the railroad tracks. The wire brushes we used had to be replaced every few days because the bristles would fall out. The gloves they gave us did little to prevent huge blisters on our hands. When it rained, they let us into the school where we went from classroom to classroom, washing the venetian blinds. The wash water had to be changed every 30 minutes or so because the blinds had likely never been cleaned before.

My mother remarried and I won’t deny that my blue collar stepfather brought us quite a few steps up from our dismal financial situation. I got a chance to see some of the better things in life. He took us to museums and restaurants with real cloth napkins. I stayed in a hotel for the first time in my life at age 15. I was even able to accompany my grandparents on a trip to visit family in Germany. And, for the first time, I started thinking about college.

College was possible with two academic achievement scholarships, financial contributions from my parents (they each paid 1/3 of the net after scholarships were deducted from tuition), and a school loan. And work. At one point I held down three part-time jobs while handling a 15 or 18 credit load. I worked hard to maintain good grades and got a BBA with highest honors in Accounting in four years. I was the first person in my family to attend and graduate from college.

Within two weeks of graduation, I got my own apartment. I paid rent and utilities and furnished it with my own money. It was in a rough neighborhood and a few of my friends didn’t like to come visit. My mother bought me a sewing machine as a graduation gift and I used it to make about half the clothes that I wore to work, so I could look nice without spending a fortune.

I started my first job right away: an auditor with the New York City Comptrollers Office. In just two years, at the age of 22, I became the youngest person promoted to Field Audit Supervisor.  After five years with the city, I started a new job with ADP in New Jersey.  I did my time in the Audit Department before becoming a Senior Financial Analyst working on special projects directly for the CFO.

By the age of 29, I was earning more money per year than my father ever had. But that didn’t stop me from leaving my job to pursue an uncertain career that was more in line with what I wanted to do for a living: write. I built a career as a tech writer and computer trainer from the ground up. I was completely self-taught and worked without an agent. I wrote books and led hands-on computer training classes all over the country. I quickly learned that I needed to write a lot of books to make a living so that’s what I did. When I was on a book project, I’d work 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week. I wrote books and articles and eventually authored video training courses. I was very good at what I did and it paid off: within 10 years, I had two bestsellers; their periodic revisions were bestsellers, too.

By the age of 40, I was earning more money than I’d ever thought possible, but instead of pissing it away on a bigger house or fancier car, I socked money away for retirement and invested in rental properties: a condo, a house, a small apartment building. And between book projects, I learned how to fly helicopters.

And yes, I did buy a helicopter. Why not? It was my money that I had earned through my efforts. I had covered all my other financial responsibilities and set aside enough money for my future. Why shouldn’t I invest in something that would make me happy?

I flew as often as I could and started a helicopter business to help bring in some extra revenue to cover costs. I managed the fuel concession at the local airport. I became an aeronautical chart dealer and ran a small pilot shop. I worked for a season as a pilot for a Grand Canyon tour operator. I sold that first helicopter and bought a slightly larger one. I jumped through hoops with the FAA to get required certifications for charter work. I created advertising material, maintained a website, handled social networking needs, did all the accounting, met with clients, did local and long distance flights. I networked with other pilots about other flying jobs.

All while still writing up to 10 books and dozens of articles a year for my publishers.

When tech publishing went into decline, I ramped up my flying work. I got contracts to do agricultural work in Washington state during the summer. I’d live in a trailer, working on various book projects, waiting for a call to fly, for two to three months every summer. Over the years, I built up the number of contracts I had until I couldn’t handle them all alone; then I brought in other pilots with helicopters to help me, managing work and billing for as many as four subcontactors every season.

I was 52 when the man I’d spent more than half my life with decided he needed a mommy to hold his hand while he watched TV every night more than a life partner to actually enjoy life with. He tried to take half of everything I owned in our divorce, but I fought back to keep what was rightfully mine, what I’d earned through my own efforts while he floundered, failing at one job after another. I went into the fight with a war chest of cash I’d saved while he was pissing his money away on a plane he never flew, a Mercedes he didn’t need, and a condo that was sucking him dry financially. His greed, harassment, and courtroom lies didn’t score many points with the judge and he wound up paying me and his lawyers far more than he could have spent if he’d settled for my offer. His downfall is a great example of someone getting what he deserves.

I’ve spent the last four and a half years rebuilding my life in a new place, working hard to build my flying business, expanding into other work in California and now possibly Arizona. I don’t write much anymore, but I make a good living with the helicopter the Twitter troll I mentioned at the top of this piece criticized. I’ve learned how to take my skills and assets and turn them into money. And unlike so many other people, I live within my means. Yes, I go south for the winter, but it’s not as if I’m living it up in some fancy condo or hotel. I’m roughing it in an RV often parked out in the desert. 

It's Mine
Just about everything I own was bought and paid for with money that I earned through my efforts. Why shouldn’t I be proud of that?

I worked hard and smart and I succeeded. Is there any reason I should be ashamed of that?

So yeah, if making a good living and owning a helicopter and wintering in the south makes me part of the “rich elite,” I’m okay with that. I earned it.

And to the people who troll me with their jealousy-driven comments: What’s your excuse for being a loser?

What’s Wrong with Being an Artist?

My reaction to a Wells Fargo ad that has my creative friends outraged.

One of my creative friends on Facebook posted the following ad image:

Wells Fargo Ad

His comment: “Oh, Wells Fargo, fuck off.”

His friends had similar comments voicing similar outrage.

Now if you were born and raised on the east coast — as I was — you might not understand the problem. I think east coasters are raised with a different set of values than the rest of the country. I suspect the person who created the ad and the one who approved it didn’t get it because if they did, it never would have appeared. While it plays to a certain group of people, it’s downright offensive to others.

I get both sides and want to explore them briefly here.

Career-Focused Parents

The ad creators were likely tapping into the hopes and dreams of parents who simply want their kids to achieve on a career path that they can be proud of. Back east, at least in the household I grew up in, that meant having a job title that could be equated with a good living. In other words, money.

I get this, possibly a lot more than women in my age group do. When I was in high school and was good in math and showed an interest in accounting, it was a given that I’d go to college and eventually be a CPA. My (lower) middle class family was all over that idea. They saw a CPA as someone who makes a lot of money. There was even talk of me eventually becoming an actuary — the folks with accounting degrees who made even more money.

For the record, none of that talk came from me. I didn’t want to be an actuary and, as my college time progressed, I didn’t want to be a CPA, either. I admitted to myself, in my junior year, that what I really wanted to be was a writer. (I’d been writing since I was 13 and still have those notebooks.) That’s when I got up the nerve to phone home and tell my mother I wanted to change my major to journalism. I’m sure seismologists are still talking about the minor quake caused by the fit she threw at me over the phone that day. Writers don’t make money, she told me. Do you want to be poor for the rest of your life?

Of course I didn’t — I’d had a good taste of that life when my father left us and we were trying to survive on my mother’s waitressing pay. So I stuck with accounting. Two years later, was working at the first of three jobs in auditing that made my first eight years out of college the nine-to-five grind I grew to despise.

I should point out that a lot of women my age were never pushed into careers the way I was. Although the ones with financial resources did go to college, it was understood that they were there for an “MRS degree.” (That was the big joke around campus.) So many of the ones I knew in the very expensive private university I went to — Hofstra on Long Island, if you must know; I got scholarships — hooked up with a male counterpart on a solid career track, got married, and put their BA or BBA or BS degree aside, never to be used. It was a given in the 70s and 80s that women got married, had children, and let their husbands take care of the finances. But my family never pushed me that way and when I was old enough to think for myself, I knew it wasn’t for me.

Neither was being a CPA.

My mother freaked out again when I left the last of those three jobs — where I was a financial analyst for a Fortune 100 company making more money at age 28 than my father ever made — to start a freelance writing career. But within a few years, I was making a good living and a few years after that, I was making an incredible (even to me) living. Doing what I wanted to do, building my own unique career path, making my own life outside corporate America.

But you see, the parents the Wells Fargo ad are appealing to don’t care what their kids want to do with their lives. Like my mother, they just want their kids to have potentially lucrative careers that they can brag to their friends about. After all, which sounds better:

  • Maria’s article about the new zika virus prevention measures being tested in Florida was just published in the New York Times.
  • Maria was just promoted to Director of Auditing at Wells Fargo Bank.

What I don’t think my mother counted on was my ability to succeed as a writer. I suspect “Maria just published her fiftieth book” satisfied her need to brag. And I don’t think “Maria just bought a helicopter” hurt either. Touché.

From the Creatives’ Point of View

To be fair, this Wells Fargo ad seems to take a slightly different tack. They’re pushing careers in science. It’s as if they’re saying to parents, “Sure, your kid might want to be a ballerina or actor now, but we can help you get him or her on the right track to a great career in the sciences.” It doesn’t take much to walk away with the message that a career in the sciences is much better than a career in the arts.

And that’s what’s offending my creative friends.

What’s wrong with wanting to be a ballerina or an actor? Or a writer? Or an artist?

In my opinion, if a kid has a real natural talent for dancing or acting or writing or painting or any other creative thing and loves to do it, he or she should be encouraged at every step. Nurture that love. Provide lessons and moral support. Help him or her succeed in doing something he or she loves.

Sure, a lot of kids will “grow out of” their love for a creative endeavor. But what about the kids who don’t?

Kids like me? I began writing stories when I was 13 and did it until I was deep into my 40s. Writing is in my blood, as it is with most writers. Blogging is an outshoot of this, a creative outlet for me — even though the stories I tell here are deeply rooted in fact and/or opinion. I never grew out of my love for writing. I was just smart enough to jump the tracks when I realized my career train was taking me in a direction I didn’t want to go. How many other people aren’t brave enough to do this? And get stuck with a career and possibly a life that they really don’t like?

Why would you pull a kid away from something he or she loved doing — and might actually be good at — and push him or her into a career they might not like? A career that would leave him or her feeling unfulfilled? Always wondering what life had been like if they’d stuck with the thing they really loved?

Imagine if the world’s great creatives had been pushed into “practical” careers and stayed there: Fred Astaire, Martha Graham, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut? And countless others? Can you imagine how dull and empty our world would be without the creatives that make us think and wonder? Who entertain and enlighten us?

Are any of these people worth less than an engineer or botanist?

Success Trumps Happiness?

To me, the Wells Fargo ad represents a sad truth about today’s American society: It’s more important to be successful than to be happy. And sadly, success is measured by what you do, what you earn, and what you own.

Parents should want just two career-related things for their children’s futures:

  • The importance (to me) of financial security

    Because of my past, financial security is very important to me. I don’t want to be poor, I don’t want to move back to my mother’s home — even if it were possible. And I take great pride — which fuels my happiness — in my ability to make a decent living in my current career as a pilot. My financial security also helped me in my costly divorce battle, making it very easy to rebuild my life alone.

    I’m also very happy with the life I’ve made for myself, especially these past few years. I’m happy with my work and the amount of time I have to travel and play and spend with friends.

    None of this was handed to me; I worked hard to get where I am. The feeling of achievement I get almost every day also adds to my overall feelings of happiness and well-being, as I blogged in July.

    My parents should be satisfied, even though I never became the CPA they wanted me to become.

    Financial security. Can they support themselves, especially as they get older? No parent who cares about a child really wants that child living at home because they can’t support themselves. But under no circumstances should a child be pushed into a career because its earning potential is greater than the career that child wants.

  • Happiness. The way I see it, if you can wake up every morning — or nearly every morning — looking forward to that day, you’re happy. (I’m there now, but I certainly wasn’t there when the alarm went off at 7 AM and had to make a 30-mile commute to a job I hated. The memory of those mornings has scarred me for life.)

Note that is a bulleted list, not a numbered list. That means you can take those two points in any order. I guess the order you take them in determines, in part, the kind of parent you are.

Now where’s the Wells Fargo ad promoting careers as dancers or actors? You know, you can send a kid to a costly school for that, too.

Making It Happen

You can do it if you try hard enough and stop making excuses.

Yesterday evening, when I got home from a charter flight, it was a wee bit too windy to land on the platform I use to roll the helicopter into the garage. The platform sits in a rather confined area and there’s little room for error. A gusty tailwind could make for an ugly landing and I simply didn’t want to deal with it. So I did what I’ve done on a few other occasions: I landed in the side yard.

The wind didn’t die down before nightfall, so I left the helicopter out there overnight. It was supposed to rain today anyway and I figured I’d just put it on the platform after any cherry drying flights I had to do. I do my best to limit the number of times I have to start or shut down the helicopter on my property so as not to bother the few petulant neighbors who, in the past, have complained — to others; not me — about it.

But this morning dawned bright and mostly sunny. I checked the forecast and, sure enough, it had changed. Apparently, the big rain would be on Sunday — unless the forecast changed again.

Of course, the beautiful — and I really do mean beautiful — morning light gave me an excellent opportunity to take a few new pictures of the helicopter. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you likely know how much I value Golden Hour light. And I never get tired of the view from my property.

N630ML at First Light
Flashy lawn ornament at first light.

My Prized Possession — for a Reason

As you might imagine, my helicopter is one of my prized possessions. (My new home is the other one.) Not only did it cost a huge amount of money to buy — and yes, I do own it outright — but it represents a series of achievements in my life:

  • writing a few best-selling computer books that eventually funded its purchase,
  • building skills to fly it safely as needed for the kinds of flying I do,
  • jumping hurdles set up by the FAA to operate it for Part 135 charter flights,
  • winning the right to keep it and my other business assets in my ugly divorce,
  • building a solid business around agricultural contracts in Washington and California, and
  • continuing to operate it as a primary source of income in my third career as a helicopter pilot.

It’s been a long road that started way back in 1997 when I took my first helicopter lesson and won’t end until I retire from flying and sell it to its next owner.

I often think about an airline pilot I was once friends with. He questioned why I would even bother learning to fly helicopters at my age — I was 36 when I started. “You’ll never make any money as a helicopter pilot,” he told me. Although I didn’t intend to make a living as a pilot back then, he turned out to be dead wrong. And I’m glad that I no longer have negative people like him in my life.

But think about how easy it would have been to accept his “expert opinion” and not try to move forward with any kind of career as a pilot. It was a built-in excuse for failure. Why try if this guy who knows the industry better than me says it’s impossible?

How many people do that? How many people simply don’t try because they think the odds are stacked up too high against them?

Anyway, as I snapped a few photos from every angle in that amazing first light of the day, I was thinking about this, thinking about what the helicopter means to me. Thinking about what it represents. Thinking about the series of actions I took to get from a 36-year-old who had only been in a helicopter twice to a 55-year-old — unlike other women, I don’t lie about my age — who makes a nice living as a pilot and has a helicopter parked in her side yard with that beautiful view behind it.

I’ve written about a lot of it here in my blog, and I don’t want to repeat it here. This blog has over 2,400 posts from the past 13 years. No shortage of things to read if you want to spend the time.

What I do want to touch on briefly here is the fact that just about all of us have it within our power to make things happen for ourselves.

I’m living proof of that. I’m from a lower middle class family where college wasn’t likely to be an option and got my first job — a paper route — when I was 13. I’ve been working pretty much nonstop since then — although my idea of work these days has little resemblance to the 9 to 5 grind most people deal with daily. (Hey, I was there for eight years and I know what you’re going through. The commute, the office politics, the meetings, the feeling that all you’re really doing is pushing paper. Ugh. Hope yours is better than mine was.)

Everyone dreams of doing or learning something special that’s important to them, but how many people do it? Some try but fail because they don’t realize from the get-go that achieving a difficult goal is a lot of hard work with very long hours and no guarantee of success. It takes planning, it takes funding, it takes the ability to work smart and have Plan B (or C or D) ready when things don’t work out as you expected. It’s easier to not try and to simply keep dreaming.

But do you really want to wake up one day when you’re 56 years old and realize that your life is more than half over and you haven’t achieved what you wanted to? (I think that’s what happened to my wasband; it pretty much caused him to lose his mind in a midlife crisis that went horribly wrong.) We only have one life. Why would you let it go by without at least trying to achieve your dreams?

The Psychology of “Success”

I was in college, in a Marketing class, when I first learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. From SimplyPsychology:

Maslow (1943) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fulfill the next one, and so on.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Wikipedia image by FireflySixtySevenOwn work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36551248

The earliest and most widespread version of Maslow’s (1943, 1954) hierarchy of needs includes five motivational needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

This five stage model can be divided into basic and psychological needs which ensure survival (e.g. physiological, safety, love, and esteem) and growth needs (self-actualization).

The deficiency, or basic needs are said to motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the need to fulfil [sic] such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food the more hungry they will become.

One must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. Once these needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization.

The SimplyPsychology page about Maslow goes on at some length, making it difficult to decide when to end the quote. If this interests you, I highly recommend that you read it for yourself. It’s in plain English and a lot easier to decipher than the Wikipedia entry.

Maslow’s Hierarchy stuck with me since I first learned it. It made so much sense. It almost provides a blueprint for a good and fulfilling life. We are motivated for obvious reasons to take care of our basic needs like food, water, shelter, rest, and safety. Once those have been dealt with, we can move on to psychological needs like friends, relationships, prestige, and a feeling of accomplishment. Once we feel secure psychologically, we can move on to the need for self-actualization: achieving our full potential and realizing our dreams.

I admit that I was a bit put out when I learned this — keeping in mind that I was only 17 at the time — by the notion my professor suggested that once we’d found self-actualization, there was nothing left to motivate us. But since then I’ve realized that self-actualization isn’t the achievement of one thing. It’s the achievement of as many things as we like.

Here’s an example from my life. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to write a book (and have it published). When I was 31, I achieved that goal. So what does that mean for me? Game over? Call it quits? No. There was another goal waiting in the wings to step forward when that had been achieved: to make a good living as a writer. And I had other goals throughout my 20s and 30s and beyond: learn to ride a motorcycle, visit all 50 states (still working on it; haven’t been to Minnesota yet), learn to fly helicopters, manage rental properties (what a mistake that was!) — the list goes on and on. As it should.

Some people think of these goals as “bucket lists.” I’m not a fan of that. I don’t believe in check lists of things that we put off until we’re ready to “kick the bucket.” I believe in doing things now, while we can really enjoy them and learn from them and possibly let them change our lives.

Flying is a good example. I wanted to learn how to fly helicopters since my first ride at age 7. I never dreamed I’d be able to do it, but when I had the time and money to learn, I did. Then I got hooked on flying. I bought a helicopter. I dreamed of being a Grand Canyon pilot and built the experience (measured in flight hours) to qualify. I did that for a season. And before I knew it, I had bought a bigger helicopter and was doing what had to be done with the FAA to build a charter business. Now flying is my primary source of income. Yet when I took my first lesson back in 1997, I never thought I’d fly for a living.

Good thing I didn’t wait until I was collecting social security to take that first lesson, huh?

A side note here: 36 is older than usual to start flying, but not too old. Two of the helicopter pilots who flew with me this season also got late starts as pilots. One of them co-owns a helicopter flight school that has two locations and a bunch of helicopters and employees. The other works for him and just this week has built the 1,000 hours of flight time he needs to get his first commercial pilot job. Both men are in their 40s and have been flying for less than 10 years.

Make It Happen

As usual, I’ve wandered away from my original point. I have so much to say that it’s difficult sometimes to stay focused.

My point is this: we all have the power within us to make it happen.

Inspired Pilot

Back in March 2015, I was interviewed for the Inspired Pilot podcast. This is the brainchild of Marvyn Robinson, a UK-based pilot and IT guy, who interviews pilots with the goal of having them provide inspirational thoughts and information for people who want to learn to fly. It was a real pleasure to share my story. If you’re interested in the path other pilots took, I highly recommend it.

Take care of the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Don’t piss away your money trying to satisfy higher level needs until the lower-level ones are satisfied. (Do you really need a Mercedes when a used Honda will do? Prestige is better earned through actions than flashy, expensive possessions, despite what advertisers tell us.) Get and stay out of debt so you don’t need to be a slave to a job or lifestyle you hate. Think about what you really want in your life: a skill, a dream job, a business doing something you love? Do your homework — find out what it takes to meet your goals.

And then turn off the television, get your head out of your phone, and stop wasting time whining and complaining and making excuses for why you can’t succeed. Work hard and smart, keep your eyes on the goal and what you need to do to reach it. You can do it.

The Video

I started this post by explaining why my helicopter was parked in my side yard and what I was thinking and feeling about it as I photographed it from various angles. What I didn’t mention is that I made a video, too.

I tried to put into words what I was thinking and feeling. I always feel a bit awkward about showing off the helicopter. It’s one thing to put a picture of it in action or parked at a landing zone online, but it’s another to actively brag about it and what it means to me. I know that owning a helicopter is beyond the wildest dreams of most people. But I also know that it was once beyond my wildest dreams — go figure, huh? Maybe anything is possible.

The video does get a little personal. I mention my wasband and how sorry I feel for him. I wish I could have done a better job motivating him to achieve his goals, but in all honesty, I could never understand why he would need motivation from me. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy? I’ve come to realize that I’m more driven than the average person to reach the top of his pyramid, but I didn’t know it back then. To me, the man I spent more than half my life with was intelligent and had or could build the skills he needed to succeed in one or more of his many life goals. I could never understand why he didn’t even try — or why he gave up so quickly when he did. Instead, when I prodded him to work toward a goal — for example, flying more often so he could get the hours he needed to achieve his goal of becoming a flight instructor — he countered with excuses. After a while, I gave up with frustration. I now realize that not everyone is as driven as I am. He definitely isn’t.

Hindsight is 20-20.

Yes, I know that this blog post is addressing a first world problem.

Here in the United States, most people don’t have to worry about getting food or shelter or meeting other basic needs. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to help those in other nations who are less fortunate than we are. I can only recognize that they are struggling and hope that things get better for them.

That said, please don’t lecture me (or others) here about insensitivity to those less fortunate than we are. Read the Site Comment Policy for more advice about sharing your thoughts here.

The video also assures viewers that we all have it within ourselves to achieve our goals. Maybe I’m being too optimistic? I heard on the radio just yesterday that people in Argentina are starving right now because they can’t get food. And what of the millions of refugees in the Middle East and Africa? Can these unfortunate people ever achieve their dreams? I don’t know. They need to take care of the bottom of the pyramid first. So many people in today’s crazy world do.

But for the rest of us — like the dozens of people who have told me, during flights, that they’ve always wanted to be a pilot but never learned — what are you waiting for? Make it happen!

I did — and I continue to do it every day.