As it turns out, almost everything Mehl Renner needed to start over was already within reach when he lost his job in 2009 with the City of Charlotte.
First, the handyman skills he acquired as a teen helping his dad build a 30-foot houseboat in the basement and, later, as a jet engine mechanic in the Navy.
Second, after two divorces, he met his soul mate, the Caldecott-winning childrens writer and illustrator Gail Haley, who grew up in the Shuffletown community in northwest Charlotte, traveled the world and was ready in 2001 to become Renners creative co-conspirator.
Third, in 2007, he spent a life-altering week in an ancient Nevada lake bed with 50,000 other counter-culturists, jolting his creative juices.
The theme of the Burning Man event that year was the Green Man, a mythical forest lord about whom Haley had already published a childrens book.
Renner, whos 67, found that the only barrier to enjoying his forced retirement was money.
I spent the first year making a job of trying to hang onto my life, he says.
That included appealing for the unemployment benefits he says he was denied when he was laid off, securing a mortgage loan modification and filing for bankruptcy.
Only then did he give himself over to something he now considers more important than a paycheck: building giant fantasy figures in his garage.
A dragon that blows nostril smoke from an interior fire extinguisher nestled in a baby stroller. Renner fashioned the bones of the dragons head from PVC pipes. For nostrils, plastic cups. For eyes, plastic bowls. For ribs, hula hoops.
A steampunk zeppelin model created from two popcorn tins, a huge plastic funnel, a Jell-O mold and an aluminum water bottle.
Under construction is a 10-foot totem pole fashioned from cardboard tubes. Renners great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee.
Not to be overlooked is the 1975 Shasta camper trailer he and Haley restored last summer and decorated with a lit-up Green Man face.
From rolling stock to free spirit
Outwardly, the Mehl Renner you see today barely resembles the Mehl Renner who for 12 years worked as a purchasing agent for the city.
That Mehl Renner rose at 5 a.m., wore a coat and tie, shaved, brushed his hair. At work, he was the guru of rolling stock, buying everything on wheels, from fire engines to back hoes.
This Mehl Renner often sleeps past 8, sports a tangle of white curls and a beard captured at chin level in two short pigtails.
Yet, for years, there were clues that this Georgia native who served in Vietnam on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, didnt exactly roll off the assembly line.
For one, while working in Gainesville, Ga., he spent 14 years of his spare time directing the Misty Mountain Cloggers, a team that represented the States in a worldwide childrens folk festival in Japan.
Later, working for the City of Gainesville, he followed in his fathers footsteps as a humanist atheist and helped charter the first Unitarian Universalist church in the area.
And, in 1997, when his job with the City of Gainesville was abolished, Renner relaxed at a nearby nudist resort. It was the greatest stress reliever Ive ever experienced, he says.
That same year, Renner took the job in Charlotte, where he joined (and later served as president of) the Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church. Hes also a member of the Socrates Cafe, a discussion group Renner describes as not afraid to question anything and everything. (Interested? Contact Sam Berkowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org).
So given Renners wide-ranging interests, its hardly surprising that in 2007, when he and Haley learned Burning Mans theme was to be the Green Man, they transformed a six-man military tent into a Green Man shelter, complete with flashing eyes and a childs pink plastic sliding board as a tongue.
Off they went to Nevada, tent in tow. Renner says that week in the desert changed their lives.
So what exactly is Burning Man?
You could say its 50,000 people in campers and tents trying to survive in the blister of 107-degree temperatures while they breathe art.
One of its principles is radical self-reliance discovering, exercising and relying on inner strength. Another is seeking to overcome barriers that stand between the individual and his or her inner self.
Ive always been eccentric and strange, Haley said. I really kept it down for the general public. But out there you dont have to do that because youre dealing with the other three percent who dont have to keep it down.
Burning Man set Renner and Haley on creative fire. Back home, they asked: How can we maintain that awesome feeling?
They soon discovered regional burn events: Transformus in Asheville and Alchemy in LaFayette, Ga. Both events, they say, have kept them creatively stoked.
To hear Renner talk, you might think its ideal to be laid off and to throw yourself into your bliss 24-7. Thats not necessarily so, he says.
Money is still tight, he says. Mostly, its gas, groceries and a few essentials. And he believes his experiences and credentials would still make him valuable in the workplace.
Haley sees it another way: Not working has freed him, she says. Hes not as buttoned down. Hes stopped worrying about what the rest of the world thinks.
Keep your eyes peeled. One day you might see Renners camper rolling down the road toward a burn event. Youll recognize it by the bumper sticker: Working on my Bucket List.