The big chill — net worth versus self-worth

By Hal Walter

A friend once suggested I write myself a check for $50,000, $75,000, or something like that, and just tape it to the refrigerator as a payment to myself for this grand lifestyle I’ve chosen.

Perhaps I should just make it an even, cool $1 million.

It may be true that at both ends of the socioeconomic continuum there exists a “leisure class,” but for those of us who find ourselves a little ways in from either end, life may not be so leisurely, and a check to yourself won’t pay a mortgage or buy any groceries. Moreover, if you’re nearing age 50, I suppose you pretty much are where you are on this continuum.

Recently, after an hour hike into the Goodwin beaver ponds with my son Harrison riding one of our burros, I opened my fly rod case and found one of the four pieces — the one with the reel seat — missing. Suddenly I remembered seeing a fly rod section in the bathroom before leaving on the outing. I had thought it was a piece to another old rod that Harrison had gotten out of the closet in his excitement about the trip. Apparently I had half of that right. He was excited about the trip, but had removed the piece to my new fly rod from its case, then zipped it shut.

I could only laugh. You could chalk it up to autism, but then plenty of parents of neurotypical children have stories just like this. I had spied a number of fair-sized brookies in the creek along the trail, so naturally I was disappointed. However, during the hike I realized I’d also forgotten my reading glasses back in the truck and that knotting a fly onto a light leader was going to be tricky. I wondered, in fact, if I would be able to do it at all. When I hit 45 the near vision went, and now that I’m 49 I need glasses for reading or doing any up-close detail work.

Clearly we weren’t going to do any fishing on this trip. I told Harrison that it was OK — we’d come back next week.


On the Macy trail. — photo by Sam Green
On the Macy trail. — photo by Sam Green.


A week before I had entertained an old high school buddy, Eric, and his son Sam. They were here four days and we had taken a similar trip into the Swift Creek beaver ponds. Harrison has been on fishing excursions before and has been present while fish were caught. But it was on this trip that for the first time I knew he “got it” when I hooked into a fair-sized cutthroat and he held the fly rod while I scrambled down the bank to release it. We caught a couple more fish after that and I could see the interest level setting in.

The visit with Eric was an interesting milestone. I had not seen him in 23 years. We grew up together in Northern Virginia, attending Lake Braddock High School. Eric was a next-door neighbor and our parents all commuted to work in Washington, D.C. Together we explored our growing independence as teenagers and pondered our futures.

Eric was two years ahead of me in school, and light years ahead of me academically. He was perhaps best known at Lake Braddock for his yearbook photography and besides that everyone knew that he was just really damn smart. And it’s true he went on to get a Ph.D. in economics and to work for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the Federal Reserve Board and The Brookings Institution before settling into a position as a professor at Indiana University.

I moved to Colorado with my parents between my junior and senior years of high school and immediately pursued a career in flyfishing followed by another in journalism. At this point I have come to realize which skill is more useful. Somehow Eric and I stayed loosely in touch. Regardless of the time between our communications, there always seems to be a comfort level there, and the private jokes are still relevant and funny. But zooming 23 years ahead suddenly brought into focus that Eric is a successful career man, a professor of economics and an adviser to banks worldwide. He lectures around the globe and has published research papers. Money? Well, multiply what I make by 1.5, then add a zero to the end.

Now he was coming here to see my lifestyle, at a point in time when I am struggling to regain my feet after being laid off from my job as a copy-editor for the Pueblo Chieftain — not exactly the cutting edge of journalism — and trying to face the challenges of parenting a 5-year-old son with autism.

I live a relatively rustic life here in the Wet Mountains, caretaking a neighboring ranch, piecing together odd editing and writing jobs for other income, and racing burros. My wife Mary, a registered nurse, has boosted her weekly work hours to 30 to take up some of the slack. We do actually have two pots to piss in, but beyond that it’s often week to week.

In retrospect it was perhaps a mistake for me to have gone back to work at the Chieftain in 2004 when Harrison was born. I previously had been working for a company that was sold to venture capitalists and things were going South in a hurry. I thought the opportunity to get back into the newspaper business was a good choice. Except for friendships gained and renewed, the job turned out to be a five-year dead end.

Since then I’ve been editing and designing books, editing marketing copy and being thankful that there are horses and vacation homes in the neighborhood that need attention. It’s not exactly what I’d call a career, but then I’ve chosen to live in an area that does not support life unless you came here with a nest egg or a retirement check.

I fetched Eric and his son Sam from the Colorado Springs airport and after a brief stop for groceries we drove on back to my humble abode in Custer County. Sam’s main interest in the trip was the chance to fire guns, and before Eric and I could even get reacquainted he was asking about when we would shoot. After a little questioning I learned that Sam had never touched a firearm, and so I suggested that we start out with a pellet rifle, and work our way up from there. Let’s just say this did not make me popular with Sam, who I suppose thought we’d start off with automatic high-powered weaponry like he’s seen on television.

The next day it was off to the mountains with the boys riding burros and the rest of us hiking to the Swift Creek beaver ponds. The fishing there is challenging because of the thick brush and trees. I finally located some trout and was able to get Harrison interested in catching them. On the way out, I was astonished to watch Harrison ride down the steep and rocky trail with complete comfort and confidence. In contrast Sam seemed a bit nervous, especially on the way back down. And I noted Eric had experienced some difficulties on the way up. This was a big outing for them, but something we might do on a whim.

Another thing Sam wanted to do was build a campfire. I have a fire ring near the house and so one night after dinner we lit a blaze. As the flames rose into the sky, a pack of coyotes let loose with barking and yapping from the surrounding landscape. It was just like in the movies . . . and just like every other night around here. The next day I let Sam shoot a .22 rifle and he seemed to enjoy finally firing a “real” gun. Eric and I had a few moments to talk, though it wasn’t nearly enough and it was mostly about the challenges of parenthood. I was struck by how gracious Eric was about the visit, and how complimentary he was about my lifestyle and parenting skills. He commented at least a couple times about how much I “know,” even though in his world the things I know would not be all that useful.

Despite Eric’s kind words, the visit brought up the old net-worth versus self-worth issue I’ve struggled with much of my life, and which at this point I realize I just have to let go. As someone recently told me, you haven’t sold out in 30 years, so I doubt you’re going to do so now.

However, in recent months I’ve caught myself cruising the Internet for editing jobs, and sending off resumés to places like Boulder and Los Alamos, N.M. I’ve considered moving nearer to a population center, perhaps Albuquerque or Tucson, with the notion I could handle the outskirts of some place with employment opportunity and a real grocery store. I’ve also entertained purchasing a local business. But the prospect of toiling harder and longer hours to not make that much more than I do now as a freelance worker just doesn’t make any sense.

Actually, nothing really seems to make any sense.

The next day, before putting Eric and Sam back on a plane to the Rust Belt, I brought out what must have seemed to Sam like the Holy Grail — a .410 shotgun. I watched as the father and son blasted cans and yogurt containers until they grew tired of it. I thought how rarely I take the opportunity to plink like this even though I could do it every day on my own property if I were so inclined, and if I could afford the ammo.

It was a couple weeks later I found myself laughing about the missing fly rod section at Goodwin. My son just wanted to fish but I had to explain that we couldn’t this time. We’d have to come back next week.

There was always next week, so long as we live here, like this. Maybe writing a check to myself isn’t such a bad idea.

8 thoughts on “The big chill — net worth versus self-worth

  1. I think your self-worth just vaulted a few points.. this is incredibly insightful and I’m sure I’m not the only person to read this with the thought that it’s just what I need to hear right about now! Thanks : )

  2. Hal, I’ve never commented here before, just lurked around once in a while, mostly when my friend and fellow Colorado Springs resident O’Grady puts in a word. However, this post warranted some appreciation in expressed form. I’m twenty-seven and struggling through the same things you speak of – net worth, self worth, where’s the balance, what makes sense. After 13 years in the bicycle industry as a mechanic – everything from shop rat to international race team wrench – I’m feeling pretty dead-ended. But no way am I interested in becoming part of the 9-5 suit-n-tie world… just not sure what’s next if the current big idea doesn’t work out! Thanks for writing something that reassures the anxious part of me and reinforces the stubborn, not-selling-out part of me. I have plenty of self worth. Net worth, well, I’ve never had much, but I’ve never had none, either. Looks like you’re still making a go of it. You’re an inspiration!

  3. Hal,

    As always, your writing is both inspired and inspiring. In my mind there has never been any doubt about your WORTH, even if there might be some lurking doubts in your mind about your self-worth.

    The irony is that for me the trip to your “humble abode” and our too-long-postponed reaquaintance, renewed in my mind the issues of self-worth and net worth, as well as lifestyle, health, and pleasure. The two worths are unquestionably uncorrelated. Net worth is a market-based notion and, even at that it is imperfect because the “value” for which the market compensates you is diffuse, with no necessary connection to anything most of us actually value.

    More to the point, net worth does not translate into happiness, a conceit that is so obvious that it bears repeating. Although we are conditioned to equate net worth to self worth, as you demonstrate, we can overcome our upbringings.

    The difference between us is not about net worth. It’s about lifestyle and interests. I have sacrificed lifestyle in order to pursue my interests. Your interests ARE your lifestyle. Our net worths are a sideshow.


  4. I enjoyed this read and I look forward to more. Thanks for your thoughtful take on the choices we all make in life . . . .

  5. Thanks for the good story. I just read The Burro Boy. I suspect a wasp or bee caused Spike to go berserk. I am sure you have had the same thought. When we enjoy our donkeys, we have to bear the risks. To me the risk is worth it.

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