Friday, September 21, 2012

My Top Ten Regrets about the USA Experience

Living in Mexico for over a month now has given me the gift of detachment. While it often means a sore homesickness, it is also the best time to reflect on the biggest mistakes I have made in my five years in the United States, hoping that the young, naïve international students that may happen to read this may not make them again in this new stage of their careers. Do not worry, there will soon be a section about my top ten triumphs, but for now let's talk about the downfalls.

10. NO EBAY SALES IN COLLEGE

A beautiful, perfectly-functioning Omega 321 chronograph I sold at age 18. Best watch I have ever owned!

At the tender age of 16, I set up an operation to buy vintage watches (mostly Omega) from poor countries in Asia and resell them to industrialized nations. Many times these came fully serviced, but other times I had to get them fixed at the local Omega expert. In any case, the product was exceptional, customers were happy and I made a healthy profit of $200 per piece. From there I moved into collectible firearms, where profit could exceed $400 per piece. One of my wacky customers even invited me to a $250 dinner in one of the best restaurants in Madrid as a tip. Much of the money I had saved derives from these sales, and lasted me well into 2012.

However, once I got into college, life became incredibly busy. At that time I was involved in several extracurricular activities that would have cleared some space for business if I had not been so fanatically dedicated. I did not know how to balance my sales with my education, and that really affected my checkbook once I found out eBay was not what it used to be prior to 2008. After resuming my eBay activity in 2011, I concentrated on Mercedes-Benz parts at a marginal profit, still not to the standards of guns or fine watches, two markets that had died during my hiatus.

9. NOT VISITING CERTAIN PLACES

May this map be the guideline for a future road trip in a few months/years...

I have traveled the US from coast to coast many times, but there are a few places of exceptional beauty that have not crossed my path. For that matter, I should have made the time to visit Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Washington State, Oregon, Montana, the Dakotas, Vermont, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, Puerto Rico –despite not being a State- and most of Canada, especially Montréal. Out of these, perhaps the ones who itch the most are Hawaii (for its remarkable native culture), Montréal (for being close to Rhode Island and just being plain cool) and Michigan (for being the cradle of the American auto industry). These places, however, will still be there when I return.

8. CONTRACTS WITH A(NY) PHONE COMPANY

First time, and last time. Not only that, they're raising their fees!
 For those wondering, the absolute best phone plan in America is the T-Mobile $100 pay-per-talk recharge, which enables you to 1,000 minutes, or 4-6 months of use. What makes it so great is not only the bang-for-the-buck factor, but the fact that you do not need to be subject to a contract.

Now, in my California home I was in such an odd location my only choice was to get internet through a 3G dongle hooked to a computer. I contracted this service from Sprint, with a very courteous seller who went above and beyond his duty to earn my trust. This service was reliable and quite fast, and even though it was a little bit pricey ($75 a month), I could take my computer and connect anywhere. The big downfall came when I no longer needed the service: as I handed back my device to the store in Wichita, KS, I was told there was a $180 cancellation fee. That's one-hundred and eighty dollars, or a month's worth of groceries. A FULL MONTH OF FOOD, or a fee that I could easily have avoided by forgetting about it after crossing the Mexican border. I did pay like a good citizen, but I learned to avoid subjecting myself to any kind of phone company contract.

7. DOING BUSINESS WITH BANK OF AMERICA

Not only customer service sucks, the customer base –whether in the office or ATM- is sketchy as heck.
I really do not know where to start, but as an innocent foreigner I thought that putting my money in Bank of America would be a good idea. "They are everywhere and they are big", I thought back then. Three and a half years of being treated like cattle, bankers who were not serious about my willingness to invest in stock, visibly unmotivated clerks and stupid fees that seemed to come out of nowhere, I moved on to Wells Fargo, and have been a happy customer since. I also opened a secondary account with a credit union (Meritrust), and the customer service is simply spectacular.

6. INSISTING ON LIVING ALONE

What?! I love self-reliance! Plus, this kind of home is easily defendable in a zombie apocalypse.
I have always been a loner, and I always do appreciate a quiet home that is up to my standards of cleanliness. After having my dormitory gather a healthy community of cockroaches due to a filthy roommate and an inept resident assistant back in the times when I lived in England, I swore to myself I would be solely responsible for the space I lived in. From 2007 to 2011, I locked myself in solitary confinement and life was great –at a cost: I could have saved between $100 and $400 a month if I was sharing the space with someone. Month my month it seems like a luxury that I would treat myself to, but over four years, the savings would have amounted to a hefty sum.

Many of the places I have lived in by myself have been charming lofts or dreamlike cottages in the woods. However, two out of my five years in the US I lived in a basement room and that had a severe impact on my morale and my energy. The space couldn't be gloomier. That, combined with some strong personal circumstances at the time, made me slide into deep depression.

In the living situation that I had in Kansas (a $150-per-month, sunny room with its own bathroom) I shared the rest of the house with a good friend, a quiet roommate who was outside for most of the time and a friendly labradoodle called Dino. It was the perfect balance of privacy and social life.
 
5. BEING TOO BUSY TO LEARN NEW SKILLS

Drool and cry: while I saw these machines pretty often, I never learned how to use them!
Being at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) gave me access to one of the coolest Industrial Design and sculpture facilities in New England. In those departments they use very specialized tools for metal work (welding, folding, shaping, casting), woodworking (cut, assembly, layering) and glass (blowing, cold working, carving)... all of which I never had enough time to dare use. However, signing up for a labor-intensive class at RISD always means having to sacrifice grades, performance, social life and any trace of the outside world.

Added to my sin is the fact that Brown University was two blocks from campus. I did a lot of work for two of their publications and their TV station, but never had the chance to take a single class due to reason #1. Brown offers a wide varieties on language courses and specialized topics –such as engineering– that I may have had taken good advantage of, and maybe minored in.

4. MATCHING THOSE WEALTHIER THAN ME

Sometimes this is a fight you have to let go... especially when you make 15k a year.
Don't ask me how, but I have the magic tendency to end up in environments where people are moderately to substantially wealthier than me. As someone who tries very hard to be generous and fair, I like to take the bill or invite people to things for no apparent reason. However, I do so in complete disregard to the fact that I have little to no income, and some savings inherited from my grandfather and my glorious eBay days. I was raised in the fashion that my grandfather raised the family: with grandeur, and dedicated attention to details and interpersonal relationships that are paved with presents. As a result, I keep getting run over financially at a pace that does not belong to my actual financial situation. This happened to me in school, with my wealthier friends, and during my stay in Kansas with the expenses of the online series, where I did not have a stable source of income other than a few hundred dollars worth of eBay sales and car transport gigs.

For the next time I have learned to stand my ground and say "no" when my pocketbook aches. My foolishness in following the pace of others has almost gotten me under, and forced me to sell Newport the 300TD, the vessel of that first eye-opening experience across the USA.

3. MY PROMISCUITY WITH AUTOMOBILES

At one point I owned this European model 380SLC, which I wanted to convert to diesel.
Not all automobiles are money pits; however, any newish automobile bought off a dealer is assured to never appreciate. In the five years I have lived in the US, I have owned the following: a 1971 Volvo P1800, a 1991 Lexus LS400, a 2000 Lexus LS400, a 1979 Mercedes 300TD, a 1980 Mercedes 380SLC, a 1982 Mercedes 300TD, a 1987 Mercedes 300TD, a 1970 Volvo P1800, a 1990 Lexus LS400, a 2000 Subaru Outback, a 1990 Range Rover Classic, a 1984 Mercedes 300TD, a 1994 Toyota LandCruiser and a 1981 Mercedes 300TD. Fourteen cars in total, most of them Mercedes diesel wagons. Usually, the classics or quasi-classics on this list have made me money or have had a zero loss. On the newer ones I have lost from $100 to $3000 on average.

Making money flipping cars sales is very hard. I have had very limited success and that has cost me close to $6,000 in losses, despite the many punctual successes with the older models.

After being burned by many of these fine automobiles, I have gotten to the conclusion that the best car is bought cheap enough to be worth parting in the event something goes horribly wrong, it is in decent order of maintenance to start with, it has no rust, it is bought from its owner and not a dealer, and has the chance to appreciate as a future classic. As an example, the $4,200 purchase of the 1971 Volvo P1800, despite having severe issues inherited from the previous owner, was a quick sale and a complete breakeven, as it had appreciated a lot during my ownership. The $1,200 1984 Mercedes 300TD, surprisingly, made close to $700 in profit as a parts car. The 1987 300TD was a complete blessing and had been taken care of, but a seized AC compressor reduced the profit to $500 after all the work and parts I put into it. Not bad for four months of free commuting! I would stay out of anything Japanese, as it never ages well or appreciates in value.

If after having read that I have owned an average of 2.8 cars a year in the US you think I am a spoiled brat, think again: 70% of these purchases were intended to make money, the other 30% were daily drivers that were substituted for something I thought I would keep forever. So far, I am extremely happy with the W123 Mercedes 300TD as an excellent compromise of ease of maintenance, durability, reliability, safety, engineering integrity, fuel economy and looks.

2. PAYING ALMOST $200,000 IN TUITION

Welcome to the real world: you'll need those gloves.
My grandfather died believing that education was the most precious treasure you could own: the only possession that could never be taken away from you. For that reason, he locked up a hefty amount to be destined exclusively to the education of his descendents. After a year of uninspiring university in Spain, I went the extra mile and worked 110% to get admitted into the most reputable art school there was, the Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD. I was beyond excited about the prospects of taking part in the best education available, without the pressure of student loans.

Looking back, I remember all the outstanding friends and acquaintances I made there, but really can think of a better way of putting $200,000 to work other than an overrated piece of paper. With the burst of the housing bubble at the start of my American education, I should have created my own LLC in the US and invested in real estate in the name of the company. That would not only have provided me with a monthly rent to live cheaply while I got education through a job,  but would also have allowed me to get a Green Card as an investor. Unfortunately I didn't know anything about investment or alternative immigration statuses. Why don't schools teach this?

The administration never bothered to give me any financial aid at all, despite my excellent grades or dedicated involvement in school life. They also refused to refund me for a semester that I spent doing nothing once I had completed all my credits, about $20,000 that I fought tooth and nail for to achieve nothing but a bland "It's in the statute" from the registrar. Never before I had seen education as such a ruthless business, especially with something as relative as art.

The kind of education I got at RISD turned me from an extremely motivated animator to an extremely jaded individual. The anything goes philosophy was extended so far into the realm of what is art and what is not, that straight out of school I resolved to become a mechanic to get the sense of right and wrong again in my life, of what works, and what doesn't.

In the end, I left RISD with $200,000 emptied from my family's bank account and an enormous hatred for all art, including the one I once loved to do. I did not have anything left but my car, my stuff, and the feeling there was a bigger world out there. I started writing this blog as a way of getting my life back on track, as a way of finding myself again after this heavy blow.

1. DATING ALTOGETHER

Romantic sunsets together are great, but it's nothing you couldn't do with the right friend.
I was raised with every single Hispanic notion of eternal love and self-completion through the perfect woman, plus the immense pressure to prove my manhood. However, I admit I am an introverted, world-traveling loner with a sub-zero libido. While I should have known myself better, I have gotten to the conclusion that, in my case, the expectations and demands from a romantic partner far outweigh the sheer pleasure of having the freedom to make drastic changes in one's life, to feel in complete control and assume responsibility for your own decisions –good or bad.

I loved my first partner beyond words. But that incandescent love, despite bringing the best out of myself towards others, made me blind to her main flaw: she had no sense of empathy. None. In 2009, a long and unfortunate chain of family deaths and accidents quickly allied with the stress from school, so I got a severe case of the blues. She had absolutely no regard for my situation other than a cold hand on my shoulder. She did not even bother to ask for someone else who could help if she felt it was too much on her plate. The more pain I felt, the more distant –and sometimes, flirtatious towards others– she became. When this relationship ended, I mourned her loss for the following two years. Yes, two years... about a gallon and a half of tears. I loved her that madly. This long depression made me lose two valuable years ($100,000) of schooling and demoralized me to such extent I had to rebuild myself practically from zero.

The next one was the sweetest girl one could ask for. We did not share some vital interests, but that was okay. We were together for a year, but I had to put an end to the relationship after enough bursts of anger towards my condition as a white man had suffocated any feelings towards her. I then moved to a close friend who is still a soul twin to me, but unfortunately she wanted kids –major "NO" for me–. The fact that our respective life paths were drawing us apart did not help either.

All these flaws, combined, were mixed in moderation in my fourth partner: the arrogance and sheltered nature of the first one (she could not understand what it is to be short on cash), the explosive anger of the second one, and the demand for kids of the third one; all seasoned with a touch of Latin drama. After breaking up with her three times in two months, I realized, in retrospective, how stupid I was to even consider having a girlfriend, given my priorities.

I'm just a humble human being who, just like his fellow men, requires affection and empathy. I have friends who are true soulmates to me, friends whom I cuddle with and talk to in the wee hours of the night; it's them whom I relentlessly love, for the thought of their warmth in the turbulence of my path is more precious than the most idyllic companionship, or the most elevating of orgasms.

1 comment:

  1. Don't be so hard on yourself Miguel ;

    You're young and have learned much whilst having a great adventure far beyond what most others will_ever_ have .

    The fact that you , like me , enjoy solitude and your own company , is a gift . treasure it .

    -Nate

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