The Realm of Hungry Ghosts – part 4 of my life story
It’s been a while since we left off here…
The story of my life: like a slow-motion train wreck, coming in bits and pieces to a blog near you.
With a certain amount of philosophy.
Because as I mentioned in my superhero prequel, back on the ranch I’d discovered Buddhism.
It went pretty well for a while.
I meditated. I had revelations. I laughed at death on trains and cried at violin solos in cars. It was quite a time.
Only much later did I realize that basing your 21st-century life on a bad translation of some Iron Age wisdom is more difficult than it might seem.
(Take note, ye worshippers of crucified hippies.)
Anyway, back to the Four Noble Truths – or at least the first two.
A better translation than I had access to when I was a teenager would be:
- To live is to suffer.
- The root of suffering is attachment.
Of course, you can still find books out there saying that #1 should be more like “the universe is full of suffering, pain, misery and death”. Or even “existence is essentially unsatisfying”.
That’s the danger of taking translations of ancient languages literally.
My knowledge of Sanskrit isn’t nearly good enough to know what Buddha really “meant”.
So I’m stuck with the translation.
Also, #2 is a bit tricky as well. Is samudaya supposed to be desire? Attachment? Clinging? Pining?
Or is it just – as Morena suggests – the people around you?
(“Hell is other people”, in the famously infamous words of my dogg J.P. Sartre.)
I don’t know. Sanskrit can be pretty damn ambiguous.
In any case, in this chapter we’ll see my journey through the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
Welcome to Buddhist hell.
Moving to the North of Madrid
The Spanish economy collapsed around 2009, when everyone else’s did.
I guess I’m part of a demographic now.
Historians will look back on those unlucky souls who spent the first several years of their “careers” in the middle of the great recession, and were condemned forever after to lives of hopelessness and misery, earning significantly less than other generations.
In a couple of decades, they’ll write heartfelt essays about it – about me – hoping to get extra points toward their post-grad whatevers.
Anyway, hopelessness and misery isn’t what this story’s about.
Not yet, anyway…
After the economy collapsed, in any case, my friends started telling me things like: “My landlord called me up last night and lowered my rent. He’s says he’s happy to have someone there at all, and is willing to take a pay cut.”
My flatmate and I had just had the 3rd roommate from hell – a girl who’d scream obscenities into Skype late at night and who generally ruined the vibe in all kinds of unsubtle ways.
When she left, we waited for the landlord to call and lower our rent.
We waited. And waited.
He never called.
So (months later) we called him. We sat him down and tried to renegotiate – apparently he hadn’t heard about the economic collapse or anything, because he insisted that rent prices were the same as always.
People were practically begging you to rent their place at that point, and it seemed like many were about to default on their mortgages and go back to live with Mom and Dad.
My geriatric downstairs neighbor, during the worst part of the crisis, tried to rent me her daughter’s flat down the street for 380€ a month – daughter having actually moved in with mom (despite being in her fifties) due to the whole economic situation.
After the sit-down, our landlord grudgingly lowered our rent by a few bucks, then proceeded to call us up with extra expenses we were supposed to pay every few weeks.
I suspect he was making all the extras up, because he got pretty threatening when we demanded to see some sort of bill.
Eventually, we were fed up. My flatmate went to Germany to be with his girlfriend, and I went up to Tetuán.
Why Tetuán, you ask?
Well, even with the ebook royalties coming in every month, I couldn’t exactly afford a luxury penthouse in Madrid’s finest neighborhood.
Tetuán was cheap, closer to work, and about as central as I could afford – only 20 minutes from Puerta del Sol.
So I made the move. After 7 years in Vallecas, I packed my stuff in a suitcase and a bunch of plastic shopping bags and went north.
The night we gave the keys back to the old landlord, he came in shouting and insulting us. I guess he really needed that 45€ for the garbage tax. I told his wife, “If you can’t get him to calm down, we’ll walk out right now.”
He kept yelling.
We ended up walking out.
What else is there to say?
Not much. Tetuán was a change. A slight step up.
In Vallecas, people would call me “chico”.
In Tetuán, for some reason, I was suddenly “caballero”.
I liked that a lot.
And suddenly I’m single…
I didn’t wake up that Sunday morning thinking “Today I’m going to dump Mariglia.”
It just sort of happened. We spent the day together. Went for a walk in the hills outside town. She got into her usual thing of strongly disagreeing with everything I said, for absolutely no reason.
Italians… You know.
Lots of opinionated hand-waving and conversational shouting.
I guess I should have gotten used to it by then. But suddenly, as she was shouting at me, I just had this feeling.
The feeling that I was done.
I sat there silently for a while, on the bus back to town, unable to come up with anything to say. And then at my place. Silence. I had nothing left.
Mariglia wanted to talk.
But if she’d wanted to listen to what I was saying, she’d had 6 years to do it.
I kicked her out of the house and felt a lot better. Relaxed, for the first time in a while.
She later told my friends I’d dumped her via text, but it was just another case of her not listening.
A couple weeks later, we had that awkward moment when she came back to pick up some of her stuff I had lying around. I gave her the bag. We hugged. She got a bit teary.
I just wanted it to be over.
Adios, Mariglia, and good riddance.
Time to move on.
Single life was a new adventure. I lay low for a while, not really interested in meeting girls.
I was living alone now, too. Suddenly I had the feeling that time was just so abundant. No girlfriend, no flatmates. Just me time on the weekends.
That summer was the World Cup, which might have been exciting to me if things had been different, but in 2014 I just wandered around thinking about life and ignoring the whole football thing.
Some good friends got together at the same time (and are now way past celebrating their 5th anniversary) so I guess I hadn’t done anything to reduce the overall amount of love in the world.
On the last day before summer vacation at the language school, I took one of my classes to the bar and told them the news. One girl who I’d always thought was sort of cute said “Good job, Daniel. Men are cowards. Usually it’s the woman who breaks things off.”
I’d never thought of it that way, but I guess I am kind of a specialist at tolerating annoying situations. Or a coward. Take your pick.
That summer I went on a tiny walking holiday in the Ávila province. Barco de Ávila. The town was old and dilapidated. Like going back to the 1940s, except all the cars were new and the people were walking around staring at their smartphones.
In other words: kind of a dump.
I did a few long walks in the blistering heat, and rubbed my inner thighs raw. Then, I’d go back to the restaurant at the hostel, have some protein and wine, and go up to bed.
Budget holidays for single guys.
Not much happened that’s worth mentioning.
Life at the Language School in Madrid
I’d been working at a language school in Puerta del Sol for several years by this point, but it was clear the place was going downhill.
In the first years of the crisis, we’d had hundreds of new students.
All the unemployed architects and engineers, trying to get their level of English high enough so they could move to The UK or Germany – or just passing the time and hoping the crisis would end, so they could stay in Spain.
In those days, it was pretty common for people who actually had jobs to say things like “My boss hasn’t paid me in 5 months”. Others received pay cuts while doing more work than ever.
This happened across almost all fields, as far as I can tell, except computer programming and English teaching. My flatmate was a dentist, and was paid sporadically for the better part of two years.
When the clinic went out of business, he brought home the microwave from the break room in lieu of 6 months’ back pay.
It was a nice microwave. But certainly not worth 13,000 euros.
With all that going down around me, I felt like I was doing pretty well. Same job as always, same money, paid on the 5th of every month.
As time passed, though, they started squeezing more classes into my schedule, so as not to have to pay more teachers. For some reason, there were fewer students, too.
More competition among low cost schools, I guess.
Management seemed to be intent on running things into the ground while doing exactly what had been working for them in the mid-80s.
No chance of anything changing.
Signing up new students, for example, required six secretaries and a lot of three-ring binders. The school’s one computer was used for printing out certificates and attendance sheets, which were put in more binders, which then lined the walls of various offices. Payday was an envelope full of 50s and 20s taken from a safe in a little locked room, because apparently the owners were cheating on taxes to an extent that they didn’t even want to accept credit cards.
And unfortunately, the type of people who teach English abroad wasn’t improving either.
In an industry in which “native English speaker” is the only qualification you really need, the level of talent is usually pretty low.
Let’s be honest: some of my coworkers probably should have been institutionalized.
The most intelligent ones were the recent grads with student loans to pay back. They usually lasted about 6 months before doing the math and realizing they’d better go somewhere with higher salaries.
The rest were mostly no-accounts (perhaps like me?) who had figured out they could shirk adult responsibility indefinitely by living abroad and earning tax-free cash.
Together, we wasted our lives for 11 euros an hour, explaining the difference between present perfect and past simple…
…and mostly, trying to hook up with our students.
(I had tried that a few times myself, but found that teaching grammar to someone who you’d just seen naked two nights before was a bit awkward. Not worth the stress. Also, it wasn’t even 11€ an hour. It was 10 and change.)
Anyway, the labor market didn’t seem too promising. So for the moment, I stayed at the language school…
Adventures with Online Dating
After a few months of single life, I started to think about finding new girls.
I set up an OK Cupid profile and started sending out messages.
God knows what I said on my profile, but I’m sure it wasn’t too clever… And of course, I’m not the most photogenic of bearded ginger guys. But the whole thing wasn’t that difficult, actually.
I guess you could say that my whole dating strategy consists of two parts:
- Invite a girl to go somewhere.
- When she shows up, act normal.
If that last one is too difficult for you, try substituting “don’t be actively weird”.
Anyway, it seemed to work for me – at least part of the time. And I bet it could work for you.
In a way, online dating was a bit like searching for a flat: you saw some photos on a website and made your advances…
But when you got to see the person (or flat) face to face, you realized that photos can be deceiving – for better or for worse.
My first date was with a woman who in person seemed much older than her reported age, and just looked sort of tired. I bought her a courtesy beer and sent her on her way.
The second date was with a Latin girl. We met at Templo de Debod. She came in a little pink dress and bright red lipstick.
She was cuter than her pictures suggested.
Let’s call her Latina.
She wanted to get ice-cream, but let hers melt while telling me her whole life story. When she saw her ice-cream was melted, she drank it. Ice-cream soup.
Then she went right on telling me everything about herself.
After the outpouring of emotion, and a couple hours walking around in the heat, I said “I have some water at home. Wanna go back to my place and drink some water?”
It was hot. We were thirsty. She accepted.
Back at my place, we drank some water, then made out on my sofa.
At one point she looked up at me with her dark eyes and said “why doesn’t a guy like you already have a girlfriend?”
Well, that’s a long story, I guess.
I led her to the bedroom, where we had hot sex.
And I discovered that in the time I’d been in a relationship, laser hair removal technology had improved considerably.
After sex, we went for sushi. I still wasn’t sure if I actually liked her or not.
But it wasn’t a bad night, all in all.
And what happened next in the life of Mr Chorizo?
After that, there were a series of online dates…
Kind of a long series.
There was an Israeli girl who wore really ugly heels.
A French girl who came over just for gin and sex. We listened to Lana del Rey while we “did it” – her idea.
A couple of Spanish girls who don’t seem to have left a big impression.
In any case, I discovered that there are a lot of very intelligent women looking for “love” online.
And also some who were kind of weird.
Also, some overlap between weirdness and intelligence. We could draw a Venn diagram, but it’s easier if you just imagine it. Some weird, some not, some intelligent, some not. Some weird and intelligent, etc.
You get the idea.
I guess in my “normal” life before online dating, I met people who generally hung out in the same places as me, and had (somewhat) similar outlooks. All teachers, or students, or something.
With online dating, I ended up on awkward dates with girls I wouldn’t have had a 3-minute conversation with otherwise. Girls without a huge amount of depth or ambition, let’s say.
It was weird and exciting and a lot of fun – at least for the first several months. After a while, it got a bit repetitive, and I might have slept with a couple of the “wrong” girls out of sheer boredom.
(Let’s not talk about it.)
In the midst of all the chaos, Latina was around for a couple of years, off and on. Eventually, I decided that I liked her. Then that I loved her. The sex was always great. And the fact that she’d ghost me for a few months at a time before coming back for more didn’t seem to bother my younger self.
Other girls stuck around for hours, days or weeks. Good times were had by most – but not all.
But let’s not talk about my sex life too much. Let’s just say: online dating is great, and laser hair removal is even greater.
Buddha bless technology.
A day in the life of a guy with 3 jobs
All this time, while I was dating a combination of the right and wrong girls, I was also building up my online empire. I went from blog posts to ebooks to online courses, raising prices in the process.
Every time I raised prices, my life got better. But it was horrifying for that moment I clicked “send” on the massive email campaigns.
(Who am I kidding? It was horrifying for weeks before I hit send. The self-doubt and the questions in my head: Do I really deserve this much money for something I’ve made here at home on my laptop? At the time, we were talking $17 for an online course… but still, it was horrifying.)
I had a kind of routine worked out in which I’d work on the books or courses or blog in the morning, go to my first class at 1pm, teach until 2, come home, do pushups, have lunch and then go to my other job at 4:30.
I had about 5 hours a day of active teaching, and I spent another several hours on my business – although I probably wouldn’t have used the word “business” at the time.
All told, with the three “jobs”, I made enough to pay my rent while living alone, and save some money every month – all of which seemed like quite an accomplishment for a guy who was 31 years old in the middle of the Great Spanish Recession.
(Note: things in Spain are different. Here, if you’re 31 years old and manage to hold down an unpaid internship or a rented room in a flatshare, people will be pretty impressed. Thirty is the new 18. At least here.)
Then I quit the language school.
“More work, same money” was depressing me, and I figured it was time to set out for greener pastures.
Also, the fact that there was no incentive for competence (or even, really, for showing up to work regularly) at that place was eating into my soul.
Spanish labor laws made it too expensive to fire the oldest employees, so the oldest employees were continually late, absent or drunk. And a significant number of the others were just idiots who’d been hired because they were born in some English (or semi-English) speaking country.
Not a good environment for us newbies.
(I wasn’t technically new, but because of “visa problems” my contract was. In fact, I spent my first several years in Spain working completely under the table… Oops.)
So just before Christmas in 2014 I went off to find a new gig – a process which took about 4 days. I asked some friends, got a recommendation and was in like Flynn… whoever Flynn was.
A couple of days later, I signed the contract at a professional-sounding place, and agreed to start right after the new year.
After signing, I went to Brussels and Amsterdam for the holidays, to meet up with a girl I knew from years before.
It was awesome.
Sex, drugs and bland Northern European cuisine, all surrounded by freezing rainy weather.
(Turns out, in The Netherlands they consider Heineken to be a “good” beer. Go figure. Anyway, the weed was great… Not that I know anything about such things.)
Then, back to Madrid.
It was around this time that I met Esther, a YouTube groupie who wrote me a message one day. I forget exactly what she said in the email, but I figured from the tone that I should ask her out.
We got together. She had some excellent physical proportions, and an air of quiet mystery.
We went out for a bit. Sparks flew. Sparks were flying. Sparks every which way. You know. The whole routine. Sparks!
Our relationship went (seemingly) well for a couple of months.
Then she dumped me.
Months before, the Latin girl I met from OKCupid had lamented that a lot of good guys, myself included, had been “ruined by bitches”…
That was her expression. And I didn’t see it at the time. I was just feeling a bit cynical and worn out after 6 years with Mariglia. I was doing online dating, but not particularly excited about getting into a new relationship. And to Latina, that meant I’d been “ruined by bitches” – not wanting to commit, so as to avoid future heartbreak.
Well, I’m pretty sure (though not 100% certain) that Esther wasn’t a bitch… but I guess you could say she ruined me. After she dumped me, I was a wreck, for an embarrassingly long time.
You can learn a lesson from any situation, no matter how embarrassing or painful.
From the whole Esther thing, I learned that despite being a gentleman of a certain age, who apparently had his shit together, I was still capable of some truly pathetic teenage stupidity.
I spent an unreasonably long time heartbroken and pining for Esther, at one point breaking out into a cold sweat when I saw she’d updated her WhatsApp photo to her cuddling with some other dude on a beach.
That was a low point. It had been almost a year since we’d broken up. Objectively, my life was going pretty well.
But inside, I was a ruin.
Freelance and (sometimes) loving it
At about the time Esther was dumping me, I decided I wasn’t going to keep my other two jobs.
I’d been working hard on the marketing and on creating new products, and figured I could pretty much get by without the salary.
Plus, I’d been teaching for way too long.
You know those guys? The TEFL lifers? Hanging around the language school in their late 40s, bloated and badly dressed and miserable and without any sort of Plan B?
No savings and trying to make ends meet on not quite 11 euros an hour… Perhaps trying to support a family in the process. They cook rice and beans over the long weekend, in greasy, badly-lit kitchens, because they can’t afford to eat meat, or leave the house.
Well, I didn’t want to be one of those guys.
(Did I mention that my fancy-sounding new job was actually paying me less than the previous one? And for 5 times more transport? Yeah… that strange mix of company classes at 8AM and actually having to pay social security turned out to be even worse than the place that I’d escaped from.)
My plan B was to make it work as a blogger and author – and it “only” took me 5 years to pull it off.
On June 30th, 2015, I had my last class, cashed my severance check, and walked off into the sunset.
A couple of days later, I took a trip to Budapest and Zagreb. I had a great time trying (and failing) to hook up with waitresses. Later in the summer, I went back to Amsterdam for a fitness course.
More ambitious travels, but in all honesty, I was fighting a lot of inner demons due to the whole Esther thing.
It was fun… but I was sometimes feeling miserable as well.
When did I really get over her? And how?
I’m not sure… I just let the time pass.
Wounds heal. People change. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – or at least so they say.
Now I remember what happened.
I ran into her when I was having cañas with a friend, about 18 months after the big breakup, and saw she’d gained weight. A lot of it.
I looked the other way – she didn’t see me – and I was secretly relieved. Without the excellent proportions, she just wasn’t that enchanting. Just another girl who’d dumped me – no longer “the one” who’d gotten away.
Anyway, let’s leave it there for now.
I can pick up again with that summer of 2015.
But first, a brief message from our inner philosopher.
The Realm of Hungry Ghosts
Buddhist hell, or at least one level of it, is called the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
The ghosts are depicted as having tiny mouths, tiny necks, and big bellies – in hell, they eat and eat, but never feel satisfied.
Insatiable. Always present.
I’ve thought a lot about it, at this point: getting what you want.
We all want to get what we want.
But during this chapter of my life, I got pretty much everything I wanted.
My books were at #1 on Amazon several times. I reached some financial goals which would have seemed absurd not long before.
I was finally living alone, I quit the job that had been dragging me down, and I was suddenly having a lot more sex. I had a couple of girls I liked a lot – maybe even loved.
I should have been satisfied, but…
And that’s the big but.
One goal is reached, another springs up in its place. It’s never enough.
Don’t get me wrong – I think having goals is great. And achieving them is definitely a good feeling.
For a while.
(All things considered, achieving your goals is way better than throwing up your hands at the futility of it all and doing nothing.)
In any case, I got what I wanted, and then was cast out to wander – a hungry ghost, alone and unfulfilled.
Because such is the nature of life.
We eat, and our bellies are never full. We have sex, and soon after, we want more. We earn money or buy things, and never feel like it’s enough.
We accomplish, and later feel empty.
It’s enough to drive a guy to ruin. And the only solution, apparently, is to be present and to practice gratitude. All day, every day, forever.
Let’s be present, then.
Hungrily yours and grateful for your time,
P.S. It took me over a year to write this. Okay, scratch that. It took me over a year to grow the balls necessary to publish this. So I hope you like it. Let me know in the comments… Thanks!
P.P.S. Other parts of my life story are here, and freely available for your perusal: Days and Nights of Love, Wine and Cholesterol, Sex, Booze and Phrasal Verbs, and finally, Wherever you go, there you are (part 3). Enjoy.