In this episode, Peter McGraw speaks to Steve Ainslie, a remarkable Solo, about how Steve put his life back together after losing his wife.
Listen to Episode #170 here
A Widower Builds A Solo Life
Steve, what’d you have for breakfast?
The usual. Eggs, liver.
Did you wake up at 3:00 AM?
You got up at 2:00 AM?
I was up at 2:00 AM, yeah. I was a little early.
I’m going to say this kindly. Steve, you’re a freak.
My schedule is, for sure.
However, you get to set your schedule. You get to do whatever you want. If that means waking up at 2:00.
No one complains.
I’m sure your dog’s happy.
I’m here talking to Steve Ainslie, a 55-year-old member of the Solo Community, and resident of Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome, Steve.
These are my words. You have a tragic but uplifting story. Do you see it that way?
Yeah. I could say that. I see a little less tragedy now, but there are some hardships in there.
Let’s start from the beginning. It’s an unusual story. There are some twists and turns. We’re going to talk about that, then we’re going to talk about your present life, and then we’ll finish up talking a little bit about your involvement in the Solo Project and what it means to you.
First off, I want to thank you for inviting me. I’m flattered that you wanted me on the show. I’ve tuned in to every episode, and quite a few of them more than one time. I’m a big fan of the show. Can’t wait to get a copy of the book when it’s out. Excited to be here.
I appreciate that. I believe it’s important to have real people featured on the show. It’d be easy to go after celebrities and to try to get big names and all this stuff. Even to get people who have these profound stories. Everybody has a story within them. You have regular people that can connect to regular people. I’m happy to have you on here. Where should we begin, 21 years old? How about that?
I was 21 years old when I met my wife. I was working at Mail Boxes Etc. When I walked in for the interview, there was this beautiful woman behind the counter. She was so gorgeous that I couldn’t even make eye contact. I was amazed at how gorgeous she was and I thought, “I can’t believe I have a chance of working with her.
Is that as close to love at first sight as you’ve ever had?
Yes. I had a couple of long-term girlfriends in high school, 1 of them for 2 years. I would say I was in love twice in high school. My first girlfriend was when I was 16, and my second girlfriend for 3 years, through high school and early college, but this woman was something else. When I started working there, we became friends. She was a recently separated mother. She had two children, a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old.
We worked together and became friends. We then went out for lunch a couple of times. As it turns out, I was very attracted to her, but I didn’t think she was attracted to me because she was older than I was. I thought she was in her mid-30s. Again, I was 21. Turns out she was 39. The way we got together was, we had a Christmas party.
As these things tend to be back 25 to 30 years ago.
There was alcohol involved. I took a blind date because I wasn’t going to be the only person at the party without a date. I remember standing in the kitchen. We had all been drinking a little bit. I was holding my blind date’s hand, she was on one side and Ellen was on the other side. Ellen looked at me and said, “I can’t believe you brought a date,” because Ellen didn’t have a date. I said, “I can’t believe you didn’t bring a date. I wasn’t going to be the only person without a date.” She said, “I was hoping you weren’t going to bring a date.” I was like, “What an idiot.”
Steve is smacking his forehead right now.
I said, “If I thought I had any chance with you, I would’ve never brought a date.” She reached over and kissed me while I’m holding this other woman’s hand. That was the end of it. That was the only time I ever left somebody in the middle of a date. That was very out of character for me. As it turns out, my date ended up leaving with another guy, so it worked out perfectly. Fast forward, a month later, I’m moving in with Ellen and her kids. We started dating immediately. I was extremely attracted to her. She was super-hot. She was very classy, elegant, and worldly.
Also, clearly confident.
Very confident, yeah. Competent and intelligent. These were things that attracted me because the girls I had dated before were my age. They were teenagers, and we were all children. I was always an old soul. When I met Ellen, she talked about traveling. She was an ex-hippie. She talked about traveling all over Europe. She was college educated. She had already been married. She had been through bankruptcies. She had these two children that she was taking care of.
I saw the way she treated her children and I thought, “This is exactly where I belong.” Not because I wanted her to treat me like a child, but because of the love that she showed her children, the intelligence, and the way she listened. I ended up moving in with her and the kids. I became an instant stepfather and instant husband when I was 21 years old. I was completely unprepared for it.
I’ve been writing about 1960. In 1960, people were getting married. That was the average age of first marriage in the United States. They were having a kid about two years later, around 23 was the first birth. You were living that life at least partially, except in this blended household.
I was about ten years too late for the right generation. I fell real hard for her and I was committed. I always tell people we were married for 29 years. The truth is, we were married for nineteen years. For the first ten years, she wouldn’t marry me. First, she had to get divorced and there were complications that took about two years. She then didn’t want to marry me because she said, “I don’t want to ruin your life. I’m eighteen years older than you. Someday you’re going to wake up and look at me and see an old lady. You’re not going to want to be here. I’m not doing that to you.” It took me ten years to convince her that wasn’t going to be the case. It never was the case. I didn’t care about the age at all. It didn’t matter to me at all.
Even when I was 50 and she was 68, she didn’t look like the typical 68-year-old. She was a wonderful person. Instant stepfather. I had always assumed I would be married. I would’ve married my first girlfriend except we broke up. I would’ve married my long-term three-year high school girlfriend except we broke up. I would’ve married Ellen and we didn’t break up, so I did marry her. I always thought, “I’m going to have 2 kids, maybe 3, 2 big golden retrievers, a big mansion, a couple of Mercedes, and a bunch of other things.
You were going to live the American dream. You were going to play the game of life and you were going to play it well.
I was a poor White trash kid. I wanted a house in the suburbs. I wanted to have all those things. That’s not why I picked Ellen. She was a terrible choice for that. She was not wealthy. It wasn’t a great setup for that type of dream, but it’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately that I never really wanted kids. The only reason why I wanted to have those kids was because of things like The Brady Bunch, television shows I watched, and people that I saw that were my friends who had two parents.
My dad left when I was five and he pretty much disappeared from my life. It was me, my sister, and my mother. My mother remarried a guy and he was a little crazy. He moved 4 of his ex-wives and 23 of their children into our house over the next 10 years. It was wild. You can see why I would gravitate towards the Brady Bunch. I wanted a little bit of stability.
The happiness. A housekeeper.
Yes, and a split-level three-bedroom house. We ended up having all of that during our marriage. We were together for 29 years. After about 15 years, my wife started having health problems. The first thing she had was a bad back. That was something that was in her family, but she had to have this back surgery. I remember having to take off several weeks of work to nurse her through the recovery period for that.
There was another back injury, and then her hands started getting messed up. She ended up being diagnosed with fibromyalgia and some other chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic pain. During the first fifteen years of our marriage, we were broke and raising the kids. In the second 15 years, 1 kid had moved in with his father, the son had moved in with his father and our daughter went away to college. In the second fourteen years, my wife’s health declined.
You were an empty nester in your mid-30s?
In my early 30s, and it was great.
Now, you’re being a caregiver to your wife at this time.
Yeah, to some extent. She had a lot of health problems, but she was mobile. It’s not like I had to bathe her that she was an invalid. It’s just that her health issues were big and they consumed a lot of our time. I loved being an empty nester because we could go out for dinner every single night. We didn’t have to worry about babysitters. I didn’t like being a parent.
I can remember, I’d go to work very early in the morning and I’d leave work early in the afternoon so that I could pick up the kid from daycare or after-school care. Drive him home, get his clothes changed, take him out of the baseball practice, and do the baseball practice, which ended up being. Getting home at 6:30, then scrambling to make dinner, and then two and a half hours of homework. By the time the kids were put to bed, you do it all over again the next day.
It was not really rewarding. Playing baseball was fun, but all the running around wasn’t that rewarding. When we were empty nesters, all of a sudden, I could do things like progress in my career and my career trajectory. It just shot up. I worked a lot, made a lot of money, and was able to move up because I could stay at work until 6:00 or 8:00 at night. I could work on the weekends and didn’t have to worry about loads of laundry and all the other domestic things that go along with this.
You got into tech sales, is that correct?
I got into tech sales a little bit before the dot-com boom. During the dot-com boom, I started working for an internet company and we blew up where I was one of the early employees. We ended up having 500 people, 100 of them worked for me. I worked hard. I’m smart, but it was the right time and the right place.
Also, I can tell from the story and the little I’ve interacted with you, you’re highly conscientious. You’re highly responsible. You’re a friendly guy. I could see how you would thrive in that environment.
It was a lot of fun being in startups. I moved a lot. The kids’ father lived in Florida and he was very active in their life. We were living in Pittsburgh. At some point, I said to my wife, “Let’s move to Florida. I’ll find another job. I want to be somewhere warm.” We moved to Florida, and then she got sick again and wanted to go back to Pittsburgh for treatment. We left Florida and moved back to Pittsburgh. My stepdaughter died. She overdosed. She had an addiction to heroin. We didn’t know she had that when she was 18 or 19 years old. She went away to college, and then it progressed from there.
She overdosed before it was so common. We hear about it all the time now, but back then, people didn’t talk about it so much. After she died, we were in Pittsburgh at the time. My wife was distraught. We were both distraught, but it hit my wife hard. I knew what to do. I had to get her back to Florida so she could be near her son.
We moved back to Florida. We stayed in Florida for maybe four years, and then we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina because I got a promotion, a new job, and a new position in the company. We stayed in Raleigh for a few years, left that company, and moved back to Florida again. I’ve moved up and down the East Coast a lot. I want to say I moved maybe 23 times in my life, so I’m used to moving.
After the last time we moved back down to Florida, I wanted to do it because my wife was getting older and she had had multiple bouts of chemotherapy. She had cancer. She had lymphoma. I thought we should go to Florida because she’s still able to do things and she can spend time with her son. He was talking about getting married and having a kid. My wife is great with kids and she loves babies. I said, “Let’s move back down to Florida.” We left Raleigh. We moved back down to Florida.
A year later, they found a lump in her lung. It was lung cancer. Eight months later, she died. Those eight months were awful. The treatments they were major surgery to remove a big section of her lung, and then they found the cancer had spread to other parts of her body. They did chemotherapy. It didn’t work, but it almost killed her. They did tests, scans, and radiation, and nothing worked. We probably spent 40 hours a week for nearly 8 months at the hospital. It was so time-consuming.
How old was she at the time?
She was 68 and she lasted exactly 8 months, which is exactly what the stats say. The doctors will never tell you that, but I dove into all the PubMed articles and read research from the UK and read research from the United States. They say nobody’s a statistic, but her progression was very statistical.
My father had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, diagnosed at 51 and died at 54. It spread to the liver and lungs. The last bit was completely terrible.
It’s so horrible. I would never go out like that. My wife though wanted to live for me and for her son.
It’s interesting you say this because having witnessed my dad, we’re both tall. He was 6’4. He was 125 pounds when he died. He was basically a skeleton. I’m 199 pounds and I’m like, “I won’t do it.” I understand her motivation, but I also understand yours.
When she died, it was awful. We had been together for 29 years. I would say it’s partly because I’m an introvert, partly because I like being alone and I spent a lot of time alone, even with her. We both had our own activities. She was a gardener. I wanted nothing to do with gardening. I’m an exerciser. She wanted nothing to do with exercising. We spent time together, but we spent a lot of time apart too. I was very content with that. Most of my friends were friends that I made in school or friends that I made at work. A lot of my work friends were friends when I worked there, but then I’d move or I’d switch jobs. I didn’t see them, so we weren’t friends anymore.
In the end, it was me, her, and her son to some extent. He was involved a lot during the last eight months. He saw her a lot during the last eight months, which was good. I didn’t count on him. He’s not someone for me to take care of. By this time, he was early 30s and an independent man. I never counted on him to take care of me.
After my wife died, I was just devastated. It wasn’t just that she had died. It was that I didn’t know what I was because I’d been a husband for 29 years. I’d been a caretaker for 29 years. I’d been the sole income provider. I had spent my life trying to build up this safety, security, this relationship, and this love. I wanted her to be comfortable and taken care of no matter what happened, and she was dead.
I had this big house in Florida. It was a three-bedroom house. It wasn’t a mansion, but it was big. Everything I looked at reminded me of her because it was all of the possessions we’d accumulated over our life. I started thinking, “What am I going to do?” One of my thoughts was, “I’ll just kill myself.” I didn’t want to do that because I had a dog that was counting on me and I didn’t want to do it to my stepson because his father died a few years earlier. His sister had died pretty tragically. Now his mother had died.
I didn’t want to put him through that, but I didn’t know what else to do. In the back of my head, I’d always thought, “Someday if I retire, what I want to do is try to live off-grid.” I used to tell my wife, “We’re going to retire to a trailer.” She was absolutely horrified. She came from money. Even if she didn’t have money when she met me, she came from money.
She liked nice things.
She did her hippie thing when she was young. She didn’t want to do her hippie thing again. I always thought, “We’ll get a big RV and we’ll travel all over the United States.” I had a friend who did that one summer and I thought that’d be really cool. I ended up doing a lot of research on how to live on the road cheaply. I bought a Tacoma truck, a small pickup truck, and I bought this micro trailer.
This micro trailer’s literally 8 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 3 feet high. It was all souped up for off-road. It had these special jacks and a special suspension system. You could take it through all kinds of mud pits. I decided, “I’m going to go live in this thing. I’m going to go out in the wilderness and be alone. Me, the dog, and the cats.” I had two cats at the time. “That’s where I’m going to heal. I got to get away from everything that reminds me of what is gone now.”
Go West, young man. The American West calls for you.
That was my plan. Everything that I read on the road was, “You go West,” because there’s a lot of BLM land out there and a lot of national forest land out there. It’s free camping. There are things you have to do. You have to move around a little bit, but it seemed like I could do this. I’d watched a bunch of videos online. I ended up spending about two months getting outfitted for this. One thing is to go from a three-bedroom house to a micro camper and a pickup truck with a 4×6 bed, you got to get rid of a lot of stuff.
You sold everything.
I gave it all away. I sold nothing. I couldn’t bear to talk to people. I couldn’t bear to go through the negotiation. Fortunately, it made me feel good. I gave a lot of stuff away to her son. We had antiques that she had inherited. We had nice furniture that we had accumulated over the years. She had expensive jewelry. I gave all of that stuff to him. Anything that he didn’t want or didn’t fit in his apartment, I gave away. I had neighbors that had college kids. I put stuff out on the street and put big free signs on it. I did the Craigslist curbside pickup. Looking back, I could have definitely made some money, but I was completely out of my mind.
I outfitted the camper with solar power. I had a neighbor who, when he found out what I was doing, came down and spent about a week helping me get the camper completely rigged up. He was a genius mechanic. He was so nice. Another friend convinced me I had to get rid of the cats. He said, “You can’t take the cats out into the middle of the wilderness. They’re going to escape, they’re going to be miserable, and they’re going to get eaten.” I ended up giving one cat to my stepson and I gave another cat to a friend of that mechanic.
As I look back on giving away everything, it was impulsive. It wasn’t the best decision. I wish I would’ve kept some of the artwork and the cats. Having been out in a desert, I realized there was no way I could have taken the cats out to the desert. My plan was to go out and do this forever. Not for a month, not for two months, not for a year.
My friends thought I was insane. They said, “Give yourself a deadline. Just plan to do it for a year.” I thought, “No way.” My plan was to drive completely around the United States and go to all the places I always wanted to see. The Arizona desert, New Mexico, the mountains in Colorado, all through California, all through the Napa Valley, up to the Pacific Northwest, and then maybe across Canada, come back down through the New England states, and then do that over and over.
Chase the weather. You outfit this. You are emotionally and psychologically not at your best. You’re getting this ready, and then one day you start heading out West.
Head out West, and camp in a bunch of national forests on the way out West. It was okay. It was nice. Then I ended up in New Mexico in April. I thought it was going to be nice and warm in New Mexico. It was freezing.
I had a New Mexico spring break, mountain biking that ended up being camping in the snow at 8,000 feet. As a Jersey boy, it caught me by surprise. I can imagine that feeling.
I thought the desert was going to be warm, but I did end up getting to the Phoenix area. I’d say the Phoenix area. I went to these little tiny places outside of Phoenix. That was nice and warm. At some point, I started driving all over the place looking for good campsites. I wanted a place that was level where I didn’t see any coyotes because I had a little tiny dog and I didn’t want her to get killed and eaten by the coyotes.
I wanted to be alone. I thought I wanted to be alone. I remember camping outside a tombstone and I was in this place where I was completely alone at the base of these mountains. It was absolutely beautiful. I was there for three days. I hiked up in the mountains. After three days, I was so lonely. I couldn’t believe it.
All this time I had traveled thousands of miles, spent weeks in the camper, and finally found a great place to be all alone. After three days, I was craving human companionship. After camping in some of the warm places, I decided to go to Flagstaff because I had heard many good things about Flagstaff. It was June. I’d been on the road for almost two months. I drove up to the Coconino National Forest outside of Flagstaff, Arizona and it was wonderful. Pine trees. It smelled great. It was maybe 50 degrees in the evening and mid-70s during the day. It was fantastic. I stayed there for a couple of days, and then I left.
I remember very distinctly. It was June 3rd when I came back to camp in the same area outside of Flagstaff. The weather was predicting rain. It started to rain and these horrendous thunderstorms came down. I’m huddled inside my little tiny micro camper. Can’t stand up. I’m just seated over, waiting out the rain. It rained for 24 hours straight, so there was nothing I could do.
I could go outside the camper, go to the bathroom, let my dog out, and then jump back in the camper, and huddle up. When I woke up the next day, there were 6 inches of snow on the ground. It was June 3rd. I’m from Florida and Pittsburgh. It doesn’t snow in June. It never snows in Florida and it doesn’t snow in June in Pittsburgh. I couldn’t freaking believe it.
I thought, “I got to get out of here.” I was losing my mind. I’d been huddled in this camper for so long. My camper had no heat, so I was freezing. I got out. I packed my whole camp up, which is a nightmare mess with this snow and sleet coming down. I’m soaking wet. I’ve got inches of muck on my boots. There’s dirt everywhere. I threw the dog in the truck and turned the heat up so she didn’t freeze to death. I finally get everything packed up and I start driving out of this campsite. It’s on an old mud road and it’s pretty muddy, but I have a four-wheel drive. I drive out and the camper starts sliding sideways. It slid into a rut. The rut had to be maybe 2 feet deep and 1 foot wide, and my tires started spinning.
I knew what that meant. I’d done enough research and watched videos online. Once your tires start spinning, you’re done. If it’s muddy, you’re just going to sink. What you do is wait until it dries. The forecast was calling for rain for a couple more days. I was two miles off of a major highway and I was stuck. It was 6:00 AM. I was freezing. My off-road camper was stuck. I’d been doing this for 60 days. I stayed in Walmart parking lots. I had stayed in deserts. It was cold. I never met anybody I could hang out with. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t enjoying life.
I had given away everything that mattered to me, including my cats. I abandoned my stepson. Here I am out in the middle of the freaking mud pit. I just lost it. I broke down. I was shaking. I was thinking maybe it’s time for me to just kill myself. For whatever reason, I called my mom. I called her, I was crying, and I was saying, “I give away everything and I lost everything.” It wasn’t better. Nothing was better.
It didn’t solve the problem that you were facing.
I still didn’t know what was I. A failure. What was I? I’m not a husband. I’m not a provider. I’m an idiot stuck in a ditch. I was going to have to wait a week for it to dry out for them to be able to get a wrecker down there to pull me out. My mom helped. She said, “Steve, you know how to drive in the snow. Why don’t you try to use the skills you know how to drive with and get out.” I remember thinking, “You don’t understand. This isn’t snow. This is snow on top of the mud. I’ve tried everything.” She said, “You should get off the phone. You should try to work your way out of this. You’ve been driving in the snow your entire life.” We had lots of snow in Pittsburgh.
I got off the phone, and I thought, “The one thing I didn’t try was backing up,” even though I know it’s not going to work. I backed up and I got a little bit of traction. I went forward and I got a little bit of traction. I backed up and I got a little bit of traction. I went forward and I got out of the wreck. I drove up this road. When I got off the mud road and was near the highway, I thought, “I’m done. I don’t belong out here. I don’t belong off grid pooping in holes in the ground, taking showers from bottles, not being around any human beings.”
Pulling porcupine spines out of your dog’s behind.
This is not where I belong. I belong in society. I called one of my friends who just two days earlier he had said, “You need to think about when you’re going to be wrapping your trip up.” I remember telling him, “I’m not wrapping this trip up. You’re crazy.”
Sometimes your friends know you better than you know yourself.
I said, “I’m done. I’m ready to go back to society. What do you think of that?” He said, “How do you feel?” I said, “I feel pretty good about that.” That was the epiphany. I had to get to this level of losing all these comforts I had taken for granted my whole life like plumbing, electricity, shelter from wind and rain, bed, neighbors, society, and grocery stores. I had to get rid of all of that to be able to say that’s what I want. I didn’t end my trip then. I ended the trip about a week later. A week later, I’m in California, had a terrible sucky camping thing where I got lost again.
I decided to drive back to the East Coast. I’m going to move to either Florida because I like Florida, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh because that’s where I’m from, or Raleigh because Raleigh was my favorite place that we ever lived. I looked on some real estate websites and Raleigh looked the best. I called my old realtor in Raleigh and said, “I’m looking for a house like this. I’ll be there in three days. Can you show me some houses? I literally drove across the country in three days. He showed me three houses. I picked 1 and bought 1 a week later.
What a wonderful gift your mother gave you by believing in you in a moment where you didn’t believe in yourself.
My mother and I have talked a lot, but we haven’t always been real close. She’s not a very nurturing person. She worked all the time. She wasn’t very nurturing when I was a child. She’s not very nurturing as me being an adult. When my wife died, my mother stepped up in a way that I needed. I could call her and just cry. She would listen. When I called her, she didn’t know that I was going to shoot myself when I was in a rut, but she said the exact right thing and I’ll be forever grateful for that.
I got back to Raleigh, bought a house, and decided, “Now I need to build a life. It’s time for me to build a life.” I knew what I liked by this time. I knew I didn’t need a lot of furniture. I knew I didn’t need a lot of stuff. I was living out of my truck and I didn’t even use half the stuff I took with me. I moved into this house and put in new floors because I hate carpet. I did some things on the house that I know how to do on houses, like changing fixtures and things like that. I made it a house that I wanted to have. I totally enjoyed it.
How long ago was this?
This was almost four years ago.
I remember being a graduate student. I was living on $13,000 a year very frugally. I actually took a trip to India. Any complaints I had evaporated after that trip because I had this magical invention where I could turn a faucet and get as much hot water as I wanted and as I needed any time of day every single day. You have to take yourself sometimes out of your comfort to recognize how fortunate that you can be.
I never realized it because again, I grew up in poverty. I had a scarcity mentality most of my life.
I don’t know. I never thought about things like heat, water, and electricity as something desirable, but I loved it now. I want to say that’s around when I found solar. I’m not sure of the exact timeline, but that’s when I started looking because I thought I need to learn how to live as a single man. I don’t know how to live as a single man. I started looking for solo podcasts, books, and things to read.
There’s not a lot out there. This project was started for someone like you. How do you do middle age as a bachelor and do it well? That was the initial thought with this project.
I didn’t know. I have a friend who’s a bachelor and he’s been a bachelor. He’s had a couple of long-term relationships, but he’s been a bachelor for his whole life. I would ask him for advice, but he and I were so different. He was like a Special Forces ranger and a motorcycle guy who had traveled all over the country before. Clearly, that’s not me.
I was going to say he should be the one with the camper.
He gave me a lot of good advice, but the best advice he gave me was probably, “You should end your trip.”
That’s funny. You started looking and you didn’t find much, but you found me.
I did my usual show thing. I read the most recent episode to see if there’s anything in there at all that’s the least bit interesting. It was somewhere after episode 100. I can’t remember exactly what that first episode was. I then go back to the beginning and read all of the episodes. What attracted me the most to the Solo Project was all these cool people that you were talking to, all these interesting people like Julie and like the woman who’s the nurse. She might also be like a mountain biker.
Jill Cohen. That’s right.
I was a couple of months in and you were talking to this woman who had grown up in a small town, and then she moved over to Europe, and then she moved to Colorado, and then she moved somewhere else. She grew up in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, which is the same 7,000-person town that I grew up in until I was 5 years old. She got me to join the forum because I thought, “I have to contact her. I can’t believe she even knows the name Tamaqua of all the places.” We went back and forth in Slack DMs for a little while.
I thought from the Solo Project, “Maybe I’ll date at some point. I had no interest in dating when I started this. As far as I was concerned, I still felt like I was married and I had no interest in dating. I did date a little bit. I probably would’ve dated two years in except for COVID. That put a damper on everything. I did not like dating at all.
I have never online dated before. I dated exactly thirteen women. They were very accomplished women. I was so super impressed. One was a robotics engineer. One was a global counsel for some big corporation. Another one was a physician. Another one worked in this dental practice. I had never met women like this in my life because I came from a traditional White male hierarchy background. I was so impressed with these women, but I did not like the online dating experience at all. I thought I would. I liked dating before I met my wife and when I was with my wife, but that was a long time ago too.
It’s a different world out there. I understand.
I’m a loner now and I like it that way. Before COVID hit, I ended up getting another dog because I had my little dog with me. She was old. She couldn’t walk much anymore and do a whole lot of things, so I went and got a puppy. She became my walking companion. I love to walk. I like to walk in the mountains. I like to walk in the parks. I like to walk in the neighborhood. I like my nature in small doses of about 45 minutes. That works out great.
I started swimming. I hadn’t worked since before my wife died. I had been laid off from my last tech job and I was doing freelance for about a year. It was fun. I was doing pretty well. I liked that, but then I stopped when she was going through all of her treatments because there wasn’t enough time in the day and I couldn’t focus on work. I’d been living here for about a year. I was talking to a friend of mine. I said, “People always ask what I do and I say. I was a consultant and I’m going to go back and do something.” He said, “Steve, you’re living off of savings and you’re not going back to work. You’re retired.”
That’s what they call it. When you can do whatever you want, you’re retired.
It took me about two years to get comfortable with that. I’d say it took me 2 years to get comfortable with being retired and 3 years to get comfortable with being single. I thought, “I am retired. What am I going to do with all this time now?” I have time once I got the house. In building this new retired life, I’ve always been a pretty regimented guy. It’s one of the reasons why I was successful at work and at school. I established a routine. I get up in the morning, walk the dogs, do whatever chores I need to do, and work out for a couple of hours. I started swimming again after a 30-year break. I love to lap swim in the same place, same swimming, every day. Come home, walk the dog, then I had these free afternoons.
I gave away all of my artwork. It’s the artwork and the cats that I feel bad about giving away. The cats went to a good home. Some of the artwork went to my stepson. Some of it went elsewhere, but I needed artwork for my house. I started looking for art. I didn’t like any of it, or it was too expensive. I thought, “I always wanted to learn how to paint.” I started watching YouTube videos and I learned how to paint. I started painting impressionistic paintings with oil paint on canvas.
Now, my house has about 150 of them on the wall. I learned how to paint, and then I thought, “I used to play the drums back in high school. I haven’t played the drums in a long time. Maybe I should start playing the drums again.” I bought a drum set, started watching videos, took a couple of online classes, and started playing drums. As I’m doing these things, I’m tuning in to the show.
You’re one of only a handful of people who’ve read every single episode. I know that. You’re part of an elite group.
I’m surprised. The people in the Solo show do all kinds of cool things. I like that they do all kinds of cool things and they don’t care what anybody thinks of it at all.
I agree. I love it. People are like, “This is my life. I don’t care what you think.”
I remember listening to an episode you did with Donnie, a professor who’s a little bit older than me. He was describing his day and he said, “I get up at 3:00 in the morning. I drink a cup of coffee, do a very specific exercise routine, then I take my dog to the dog park, and spend time.” I don’t know whether he had 1 or 2 dogs. He then comes home and does something else that’s very specific. He then goes and does some work for a while. When he comes home, he goes to bed early and he said, “I have this very rigid routine.”
Whereas before in his life, he had talked about it. He had traveled all over the world. He had done a lot of cosmopolitan things, but he said, “That chapter’s closed for me. Now, this is the chapter that I’m in. I related to him because I realized that the stepfather, husband, hard-charging, ambitious worker chapter has closed for me. Now, it’s time for these new chapters of being solo and single. I’ve always been a pretty self-confident guy, but it was still good to hear that it’s okay for me to be completely weird because you had all these weird people on your show that I thought were cool. I might never hang out with them, but they were still cool.
Donnie’s a great story. I’ve got a lot of good feedback from that because one thing about Donnie is he’s living his best remarkable life. He owns it. He’s happy with it. It agrees with him. If he tried to live a different life, someone else’s, it would be less remarkable for him. That’s important for people to understand. I can’t tell you what time to go to bed. I can’t tell you what time to wake up.
If you’re happy going to bed at that time, if you’re happy waking up at that time, if it fits your biology, your psychology, and your emotions, and if it accommodates what you want to do with your day and you like to get your day going early. You had said to me that you enjoy the silence and the darkness in the morning. You get to see the sunrise every day. There are people who live in the world who never see a sunrise. You get to enjoy a sunrise whenever you want.
I like that. Now, I get up between 2:00 AM and 3:00 AM every day, and I go to bed around sundown usually. After dinner is a relaxing time for me. When I get tired, I go to bed. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks about it. The other thing about Donnie’s episode that stuck with me was he talked about relationships. He had a couple that maybe he could have ended up being married to, but he didn’t end up being married. He said, “It just didn’t work out that way.” It got me thinking the reason why I ended up being married for so long was it worked out that way.
If I think back, I was made to be solo. If that hadn’t worked out, I could have been very happy as a bachelor my entire life. I would’ve had to learn all those lessons in a different way, but you can’t go back and change the past. I would’ve had to learn other things. Maybe I would’ve always thought, “Maybe I should have gotten married. Maybe I should have had kids.” That’s a chapter that’s over for me now.
It’s useful for people to hear this. I always like to say there are many ways to live a remarkable life, but I think there are many ways to live a remarkable life within a person. I use this chapter metaphor a lot, too. There were times in life where this was the right thing for me. Now, that’s no longer the case and I’ve moved on. I also think that there are different Peters that could have existed in the world. I had some near misses too. I would’ve been a great dad and I would’ve been a good enough husband.
People are adaptable and there are many ways to extract the goodness out of life. You can pursue a remarkable life via meaning. Helping raise kids. You can pursue a remarkable life via achievement, building a business, or creating some notoriety, challenging yourself in succeeding. You can live a remarkable life as you are now. You have a very engaged life. You have these long days, but they’re filled with things that capture your attention.
You can live a remarkable life by having a life filled with positivity and enjoyment. The time you spend with your dogs, these little love machines that are such good company. It makes these moments more enjoyable there. The challenge of doing gymnastics and yoga, which you do, painting, or garnering a new skill. You’re never going to get rich selling your artwork, but you’re compelled to do it. I’m happy to hear you say that even though you may not want to switch jobs with Jill and be a full-time caregiver and a mountain biker, to be inspired by someone who chooses to do this and do it well is a nice takeaway for me to hear.
The guests that appeal to me the most are the ones who are doing switches. Where they had one career or life, like a relationship, and then they did something. They were 40, 50, or late 30s and they did something different. Take yourself for example where you were focused on teaching, and then business and humor, and then you stopped. Now, you have this other project that you’re focused on Solo and you set this ten-year deadline. I’m always amazed. I think, “Wow, ten years.” I haven’t done anything for ten years other than being married. I never worked somewhere for ten years. I never lived somewhere for ten years, but I like that you’ve got that cutoff point because you’re going to reinvent yourself again in ten years.
I figure I got two more in me. We’ll see. If I keep working out and keep eating well, I got a couple more in me. Steve, I have to tell you, I really got into doing the humor stuff. It was rewarding. It was challenging. It’s at least from an academic standpoint legacy-inducing, but I’m obsessed with this project. I was made to do this. I have been training my entire life for this ten-year project.
I’ll give you an example of this. I’m in the middle of writing this book. People who read frequently know that I was given a 90-day deadline to deliver the rough draft. On day 91, I delivered the rough draft. I worked every single day for 91 straight days on it. It was the main focus of my day. It wasn’t always easy and pleasant, but I was compelled. Not just the deadline, but I was compelled because I believe that some people will benefit from this book.
I had it off my plate for a short period of time because it was with the editor. She was writing a letter and she was structurally editing it. I turned my attention to things that had been lapsing. I was trying to get the show going again. It’s been languishing a little bit, but then I cracked open a secret project within the Solo Project.
Are you going to spill the beans?
Not yet. I spent three days on that. I was like, “I’m going to take a break. I’m going to get my life in order.” No. I worked for three days on the one-pager. One Sunday night, I knew I was getting the letter the next day. I was like, “I’m just going to take it easy tonight. I’m going to watch a movie. Maybe I’ll even go to the movies. I’m going to shut down.”
I’ll be damned to tell you this one. I have an idea for a talk that I want to give. I want to start developing. The talk is about what married people can learn from remarkable singles. Even when I want to take a day off, I can’t. This is not a complaint. It’s an observation. This is not because I’m doing it to survive like when I was younger. I’m just in that sweet spot right now. I’m like, “I’m going to ride this for as long as I can or until the ten years is up.”
The episode I tuned in to last time, I’m not sure when you recorded it, but you had a woman professor from the University of Florida.
About living a remarkably rich life.
I was going to say it was about fulfillment, but what struck me with that episode was both of you were talking about having a rich and fulfilling life, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy all the time, but you’re going to be challenged and you’re going to have those compulsions. That’s what I feel. Sometimes I’m really happy. Most of the time, I feel pretty fantastic, but it’s very rewarding for me to be challenged, frustrated, and pushed through things. I enjoy that. I’m addicted to learning now.
What you’re describing with the Solo Project, I’ve heard some of your ups and downs on different shows. Sometimes it’s hard and draining. I’m sure because you’ve said it, but solos thrive on that. Maybe non-solos do too, I don’t know, but I know I do. I know I thrive on it. It’s nice to hear from other solos who do the same.
Steve, thank you so much for being an active member of the community. For folks who like Steve, you can find him on the Slack channel. You can sign up for the community at PeterMcGraw.org/Solo. I have to say, the other thing is, I’m impressed with the people who joined that community. It’s a group of very thoughtful, bright, articulate people. I’m going through these solo love letters that people submitted for the book.
It’s very easy to feel alone living a single life. It’s very easy to feel alone living a single life when you think that the single life is for you because you may not know anyone else like you. It’s nice to hear these voices on the show or to be able to interact with the people in the community, to be inspired by them, to be supported by them, and to feel like they get you. I enjoy how unapologetic they are about pursuing their remarkable life.
If I can make a plug for the community, I’m an avid podcast fan. I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of the things I love about the community, which surprised me from the very beginning was that these stars that are on the podcast, they’re all on the Slack channel. You can interact with them after the podcast. You can ask them questions. I do a lot of lurking, I’ll read what people write.
Yeah, I do too.
I won’t always comment, but these are real people. I’ll use Amy Gahran. She was one of the first ones I remember. I couldn’t believe that she was on the Slack channel because I thought she was this famous writer person that you had interviewed. Maybe she is a famous writer person, but she’s also soliciting advice as recently as a week ago on the Slack channel and also sharing her experiences. It brings the community back. It doesn’t feel like social media. It feels like you’re connecting with real human beings.
I appreciate the plug. Steve, thank you for your time and I’ll see you on the channel.
Thanks, Peter. Appreciate the opportunity.
- Steve Ainslie
- Julie Nirvelli – Past Episode
- Jill Cohen – Past Episode
- Donnie Lichtenstein – Past Episode
- Amy Gahran – Past Episode
About Steve Ainslie
Steve Ainslie is a 54 year old widower who was married for 29 years. He’s a former tech sales guy who retired early at 50. His life is intentionally centered around fitness, minimalism, frugality and living alone. He lives in Raleigh, NC with 2 dogs and spends his days writing, swimming, working out, painting, drawing, drumming and attempting DIY home repair projects.