Subcontinental Divide - 2018


Sage Advice from a Grumpy Guy

By Ahsen Jillani

Well, turn the TV off and they won't come. My multi-year plan to find eternal peace may actually be the death of me. I have lived the last three years like a bushman with a machete, slicing and dicing stress and anxieties into a mystery salad of nirvana. My goal was to redefine myself for my remaining years and emerge mentally and physically healthy—and to smile, perhaps for the first time in my life…

One of the stellar achievements of my 40s was to stop blaming the world for my problems; to let go of the anger. Since college, I had been waking up angry: the professors were pushing me, friends wanted my time, the ladies wanted to walk in the park, and the landlord wanted his money. Then came the bosses. Every one of them had an excuse. The company was about the go bankrupt. Raises and bonuses would come—but not this year. The economy was tough; it was practically the great depression through Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama. But the bosses loved me and I needed the love.

A quarter century into the job market in 2005, while dialed into work at Dubai airport on my third two-week vacation in decades, I realized what was eating me: Anger. My well-being was dependent on 10 cups of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, half a can of paan masala, chewing tobacco, two deadly burger meals and a few beers daily. Mind you, I still woke up with nausea, heartburn, breathing problems, upset stomach, dry eyes, and a cough that would not go away.

Everybody said to exercise. At age 43, I started that as compulsively as I do everything else. It became a terror for me throughout the day and I hated to even go home because of the dreaded six mile bicycle ride. I felt worse and my anxiety problems got worse until I ended up in the ER thrice during one busy work season in 2007. And actually, I had taken a positive step to hold the hot potato in my own hands—started my own business. In reality, the 12 hour shifts had turned into 18 hour shifts while I tried to work a day job and build a home business.

So, here I am, a decade out from that period when I thought I would finally have a savings account or a retirement plan and find peace and solace going into my twilight years. Well, there's always an issue: the fridge blew up, then the washing machine, then the dryer, then the kids needed a dentist, then two of the cars had check engine lights on, then I needed a dentist…and so on and so forth. A savings account was not an easy task. And the bosses, and the clients….

In early 2017, I took the plunge and quit my day job after working for The Man for 35 years (these are millionaires always on the verge of bankruptcy when you ask for a raise). I thought I had just made the most empowering decision of my life: joining the world of small business, the lifeline of the American economy. Nothing was farther from the truth. Now The Man came in the form of the client/customer. 2:30am: “Working hard? Good, always better to have the business." 5:30am: “Sleeping late this morning? Always nice to have the business; which reminds me, I need a project at 8am for a meeting." I simply stopped sleeping.

It was approaching Thanksgiving of 2017 when the lightbulb went on in my wimpy little brain: No, it's not good to have more business. I got on Quickbooks and quickly realized that I was living like billions of suckers on this planet—grinding my gears sitting in the same place. After expenses, deliveries, supplies, conference calls, and a lot of headaches and beers and tobacco and coffee, I was making about what I would at Taco Bell.

America, this last bastion of economic success, has a model that borders on a Third World country. My first job here in 1979 paid $10/hour and it has not changed for most of the labor force I talk to. The general attitude from the companies has been consistent: “You're lucky to have a job. Thank Jesus." NOT! Regardless of the vile smelling bull out of Washington, the labor force does not benefit from skyrocketing stock prices and wild dividends. I employ delivery people and mailroom people and pay them generously. These people go from one petty job to another on a daily basis and have about a zero percent chance of breaking out of the rut they are in for life.

We all read those success stories that seem all-American to us. You arrive with a suitcase, you work hard 23 hours a day. Your second generation goes to Harvard and becomes millionaires. Your kids are featured on the cover of Fortune magazine. The politicians name you on stage during their sham rallies; the family is frustrated with your frustration but you are all they have; the boss gives you a Timex watch at retirement and tells you that you were lucky to have a job (then he leaves for his beach house).

I remain square in the middle of the middle class, and will die here. On December 7, 2017, I woke up and decided to fight back. I didn't respond to 5:30am texts, the 6am emails, and the 7am frantic calls for the 8am project some idiot Congressman should have started a week earlier. I stayed in my pajamas and read articles about pleasant and interesting things—birds, space exploration, medical breakthroughs. I took a leisurely 2-hour lunch. At 5pm, for the first time in 39 years in the workforce, I turned the phone off.

Okay. I lost clients. My anger dissipated quickly as I started telling political campaign folks that I really didn't want to work with their clients because they were criminals and liars. By Christmas, I had lost 20 pounds, was eating a healthy vegetarian diet, was free of heartburn and addictions, and was sleeping 7-9 hours. Today in mid-January, I am 38 pounds lighter. “Good to have the business!" No thanks! We cut expenses (addictions alone eat cash) and the cash flow is about the same as before. Today I don't care about that Timex sitting on my chest in a coffin, or a one-sentence statement by a Congressman about what an efficient piece of blue collar garbage I was when I served them 24/7. Today, I am in control. I am Ahsen Jillani, a grumpy but healthier 57-year-old making a cup of tea.