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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I found happiness, once.

I know this immediately sounds like a false claim, but it's entirely true. For about 2 years I was completely happy. In 1998 I had constructed a life that made me happy every single day.  Quite surprisingly, I was doing the things I wanted to do, being creative, pitting my body against nature, and feeling very complete. What was even more amazing was the fact that it was all not by accident. I had purposefully created what was for me, the perfect life.  Obviously, you can tell by my frequent use of the past tense, that this all proved fleeting. I have spent the past 12 years trying to recapture that life.  This blog is a piece of that elusive puzzle. Hopefully, through it, I can finally sort out the missing pieces.

    So what was it like to be happy? I suppose that happiness, like many other things, is a relative term. I will have to back up 2 years to more fully explain how I found happiness in 1998. For the five years prior to that, I was working full time as a home care physical therapist. Full time was an understatement. I was working some 80 to 90 hours a week treating patients in their homes in the Tampa Bay area. This meant working 6 and 7 days a week seeing 10-14 hip replacement and stroke patients a day, plus all the office time and paperwork time a physical therapist is never really paid for. I was married (and still am). I owned a home we had built in one of the more exclusive parts of the Tampa area. We hardly took any vacations. We had spent the past couple of years building then decorating our first home together. My wife is also a therapist and together we worked away all our hours. Why? Someone had told me the key to happiness was to own your home outright. So I was meeting this goal. I had put down more that 60% on this home. We had paid off everything but the last 10%. We had almost reached this lofty goal at the very young age of  28. We had savings, a 401K, 2 paid for cars, and we had very nearly reached our goal of paying off our home. Within a year we would be able to coast for the rest of our adult lives.  Thinking back to this time in my life, I was more unhappy than I had ever been, although I didn’t quite know it yet. What really opened my eyes was a simple 2 week vacation.


   My wife had a cousin who lived in Hawaii. My wife often spoke of her cousin Amy’s adventures in Hawaii, the amazing life she had, all the outdoor things she did. It just never seemed real to me. I worked day and night. Everyone I met in Tampa worked. Their lives centered around jobs and family. But Amy’s life centered around other things like hiking, art, canoe paddling, and friends. This offended me. I know it shouldn’t have, but it did at the time. It seemed to fly in the face of everything I believed holy. Despite this, there was one thing Amy talked about that interested me. I had always considered myself an outdoors kind of guy. I loved hiking, camping, and swimming. I always yearned to go into the wild. I had a few adventures; some backpacking in Oregon, mountain climbing in Washington State, and once my wife and I had hiked all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, along the Colorado, and back up the Bright Angel trail in a single day. But Amy spoke of something else. She talked about a mythical valley called Kalalau. Accessible only by a harrowing 11 mile trail that would take two days to negotiate. She talked about a valley of impossible beauty and adventure. She described a perfect place.

So in 1996, we went. What I found there in that valley was even more than what cousin Amy described. It is something I will have to write about in more detail later. But suffice to say, it floored me. It made me realize for the first time, that there was more to the world than I knew. And when I returned to our life of hard labor in Tampa, I was a little less enthusiastic than before. Work was somehow a bit harder.   Life was a little more empty. So we took a second trip, this time to Oahu, the most populous island in Hawaii.

I did not hike to Kalalau this second trip. Instead, we visited Amy’s life. We met her friends. We visited her beaches. We hiked her favorite local trails. It was such a contrast with our lives in Tampa. Her world was centered around friends, not work. She traveled when she wanted. Work was a way of funding her adventures. Her friends were the same. I soon found that the island of Oahu was just teeming with people our age all doing the same thing, having fun. Living life. They surfed, hiked, paddled, and climbed their days away. Then they gathered in restaurants at night to talk about their sports and adventures. It was such a shock to us. People in Tampa talked about work. They talked about promotions and stock options. Here was an ocean of smart young people our age talking about kite surfing and the finer points of canoe racing.  It was a perfect place. And I knew I did not want to live anywhere else.

So in 1998 we had sold everything  and became residents of the small town in Oahu known as Kailua. On a typical day, I woke at 4:00am. I traded stocks until 5:30. This was the late 90’s and as you may know, everyone was a stock market genius, even me. Then at 5:30 I met my buddy down at the ocean to paddle our one-man outrigger canoes in Kailua bay. We were always training for a race, so this was a very serious affair where we paddled our arms off for an hour and then lounged about our pickup trucks for another hour talking about how to paddle faster. From there,  I would head off to the gym for a nice workout, shower, and head off to work. I had taken a part time job at a home care agency in Honolulu. I worked from 10:00 until about 2:00. I drove all over the island seeing locals in need of physical therapy. I was home for a quick snack and  off for a nice run before canoe practice. I was then sitting in the first seat of a racing canoe with 5 other guys paddling our brains out until the sun went down. Afterward, we dragged the heavy fiberglass six outriggers back to their resting place on the beach. Then came the all important thirty minutes of discussing how to propel the canoe even faster through the water. I returned home at 7:00 to make dinner for my wife and cousin, who was now living with us. That was my perfect life and I am happy to say it continued for 2 years.  It did not involve paying off home loans or worrying about hurricanes or 401K balances.  It involved friends, sports, adventure, and living our lives. But it was not to be.

I have spent the past 12 years trying to find that life again. It has been a long journey. It involved moving back to Florida, having 2 children, and finding the courage to move back to Hawaii once again.  I have owned 3 businesses. One failed gloriously, the other two I continue to run.  I am back in my beloved Kailua but I work harder than ever. I have learned a lot along the way but I see that I have learned little. I hope to expand more on all of this and more in the coming months.