Saturday, September 12, 2020

Being Broke Is Expensive, Part I

 

Being Broke Is Expensive, Part I

Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.

 Norman Vincent Peale

 “Were you born poor?” a friend asked me.

I’d never considered the question, but I suppose I was. As an abandoned baby from Turkey, I can only guess as to the economic situation of my birth mother and/or father. I was adopted seventeen months later by an American couple. He was in the Navy and they were stationed in Turkey and unable to have children at the time.[1]

In the military many needs are provided for the one who serves and for his or her dependents. This includes health care, housing, and reduced prices for goods and services. I remember at the age of ten my mom taking my brother and I to Saturday catechism classes and from there we would walk to the base theater and watch two movies for free until about 4:00. It was free childcare for my mom every Saturday. She might meet us before the movies and get us lunch at the base cafeteria. Popcorn was ten cents. Sodas and candy weren’t much more. I did this every Saturday for about a year. (To this day when I see movie credits, I want to have popcorn.)

Other services were provided for military dependents like art classes or sports and to my knowledge all of these activities were at a reduced price or free. When we moved to another military base, movie prices were an astronomical 25 cents. Yet as a kid almost everything in my life was doubly-provided for – first from my parents, then from the military.

Yet despite all this, something was rotten in paradise. My dad almost always worked two jobs. He would leave the house many nights to teach English to Japanese adults. When we left Japan and moved to California, both parents worked.  Between those two stops we lived in Indiana with my grandparents for a few months while my dad stayed free of charge in a small apartment called Bachelor Officer’s Quarters (BOQ). Yet despite both parents staying rent free, my mom felt the need to get a job for those few months. I also remember her complaining that her own parents wouldn’t give her gas from the gas tank they had on their farm and a depressing conversation about money troubles she was having. I don’t remember the details, but I remember how hopeless I felt.

There was another more significant sign. Every once in a while, after my parents gave me money or I had earned it, they would question me about where the money went. Most of the time, I didn’t know. Honestly. I really couldn’t recall where my money went. Sometimes I knew I had spent it on comic books, but most of the time I really couldn’t remember. These were often tense conversations. There were two underlying problems with these conversations:

·         first, I could not make an account of my spending; and,

·         second, though my parents berated me for wasting money, they never, not even once, told me how I should handle money.

I never heard words or phrases like “invest,” “delayed gratification,” or even “save.” They just told me I wasn’t good with money. So, then I would stop spending for a while or, amazingly, give away the things I had bought thinking that would undo what I had done, but eventually I would go back to my old habits.

If I had any philosophy about money at all…and I don’t think I did…it was, “If I have money, I can spend it. If I don’t, I can borrow it.”

I may have picked this up from my parents. They seemed to spend money when they had it and had lots of bills when they didn’t.  To be honest, I’m not sure. But I do know that birthdays and Christmases were often extravagant affairs. In addition, they had four strong, active, healthy boys, all of whom ate lots of food, drank lots of milk, and had lots of needs and wants. Of the four, I may have been the most ambitious. I mowed lawns, babysat, and delivered newspapers starting at the age of 13. When I turned 17, I got a job at McDonalds (though that didn’t work out so well; I was ambitious, but I could also take the path of least resistance, which isn’t a good trait in the fast-food industry…or any job). But from the age of 13, I never stopped working. I might also add that I’ve been very fortunate and have never been out of work for more than two-and-a-half weeks, unless it was by choice, for my entire life.

And yet, I have almost always been broke.

Even when I was married, there were financial struggles though we both had full-time jobs. Two people who are not good with money are not going to suddenly become one who is good with money. (More on this later.)

Here are some of the financial lowlights (not highlights) of my life:

·         defaulting on a student loan simply because I did not provide a change of address and paying thousands of extra dollars in penalties over a period of years

·         having to work fifty hours in one week just to be able to buy tires for a car that was almost as old as I was

·         having people I knew see me going through trash cans to get recyclables

·         constant stress with my kids over supplying basic needs and not-so-basic wants

·         always, always, ALWAYS having to look for sales, discounts, and bargains not out of thrift, but out of necessity

·         standing in a Wal-Mart wondering if I could afford a $2. mini tube of toothpaste

·         realizing I had not saved any money for my kids’ college

·         not being able to live where I wanted

·         not wanting to go to a college reunion from embarrassment that I was in worse financial shape than I was when I was in college (when I was also broke)

·         having the lack of money be a constant problem throughout my life no matter how much I earned

·         realizing that I was worth more dead than alive.

This blog and subsequent blogs will be about my financial journey. That journey has been largely an unhappy one and for the last three years it all culminated in one of the most difficult periods of my life. During those three times I would be filled with daily anxiety, fights with my kids, feelings of disappointment and worthlessness, fractured relationships, limited choices, and, at times, uncontrollable sobbing at how my life came to this point. In addition, even when I did my best, events seemed to conspire against me. This is not a pretty story and, as of this writing, it is an unfinished story. But hopefully it will be a helpful one.

Through it all and at this point, I have learned two things that help me to Get Started and Keep Going:

·         I survived this difficulty as I have survived many others, and

·         I can change myself and thus change my life.

 



[1] Shortly after adopting me, my mother got pregnant and had three more children over the next ten years.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

It's Not a Privilege


It’s Not a Privilege

“Dying young is hard to take”
Sylvester Stewart – Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin


It’s not a privilege to be pulled over by the police and not worry if I might end up in the hospital, in jail, or in the morgue.
            It’s not a privilege if I can buy a home in any neighborhood or that I don’t even know what redlining is.
It’s not a privilege to not have my home foreclosed unjustly because of my ZIP Code.
            It’s not a privilege if I don’t have to change my name on my resume to make it sound “less ethnic.”
            It’s not a privilege to not have to change my hair for a job interview to make it “less threatening.”
            It’s not a privilege to be hired for or not hired for a job based on anything other than my qualifications.
            It’s not a privilege that I don’t have any ancestors who were enslaved, lynched, forced to come to this country, or prevented from coming to this country.
            It’s not a privilege to know that none of my ancestors were placed on plantations, internment centers, or concentration camps.
            It’s not a privilege to live in neighborhoods that are not riddled with liquor stores, crime, potholes, and needles.
            It’s not a privilege if I have equal access to education, healthcare, or any other public resources.              
            It’s not a privilege to be able to vote without harassment or literacy tests.
            It’s not a privilege to know that an inordinate amount of people with my skin color are not imprisoned at a higher rate than others.
            It’s not a privilege to go through most of, if not all of, my life without being called an ethnic slur.
            It’s not a privilege to know that my skin color, ethnicity, or sexual identity is not a barrier to employment or to anything else.
            It’s not a privilege to wonder if I’m going to make it to adulthood and realize that there’s a strong possibility that I won’t.
            It’s not a privilege to not worry that I’m “not enough” because my parents were of different ancestries.
            It’s not a privilege to not be less than.
It’s not a privilege if I don’t have to say that my life matters.
            These are all basic, human rights, not privileges. Anyone and everyone should have them, And the fact that they are labeled as privileges says that we have to Get Started and Keep Going to make our country better.


Sunday, March 15, 2020

Unprecedented


 The country and perhaps even the world are in an unprecedented crisis – COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus. The latest origin story is that it came from bat soup served in China. That may or may not be true and it may be years before we all find out. What’s more urgent is what’s happening now. Italy has all but closed down and the United States may soon follow suit. In order to maintain “social distancing,” churches, schools (from pre-school to universities, professional sports, amusement parks (including Disneyland), bars, and restaurants have all closed or will close soon. People have been hoard-shopping, not for food, but for toilet paper, paper towels, and hand sanitizer. Things changed from concern to near panic in just the space of a few days, especially from Wednesday to Friday of this week.
            As stated above, the crisis is unprecedented. The closest comparisons are the Black Plague (1347-1351) which took the lives of up to 200 million people. The Spanish Flu (which actually started in a Kansas boot camp preparing recruits for World War I) killed up to 100 million people. As of this writing, the Coronavirus has taken the lives of 6000 people.. worldwide. So, at this point, in pure mathematical terms it is not that significant. What is significant is the panic and also, again this word, the unprecedented nature of this crisis. This is not to say the crisis is not real; it is.  But the fallout is creating more problems. The following have happened before in history, but not all at once and not like this:
·         Widespread hoarding despite no actual shortages
·         Truth and rumors together
·         Lack of (or refusal of) preparation on the part of the federal government, especially the White House
·         Quarantining of much of or entire countries

What can be done when there is no model of what has been done before? The following advice may be helpful in this situation and perhaps in all others:
·         Take care of yourself – eat well, drink water, get plenty of rest, and exercise. If you feel ill, call the appropriate agencies in case the worst is happening.
·         Take care of those you love. Limit contact, especially with the elderly and with large groups of people (that number changed from 250 down to 50 today).
·         Be extra kind to everyone. Everyone is scared even if we don’t want to admit it, some of the disease, some of losing work while the economy slows down, (my oldest child lost their job this week because of this), and some of an apocalyptic future that suddenly seems to be upon us now.
·         Guard your intake…and output…of information. As with all crises, a lot of rumors are floating around. I define a rumor as information that may or may not be true but should be treated as false until verified. For this reason, I do not share things I have heard unless they are verified or have happened. I am also careful about what I believe.
·         Focus on today. Today is all I have. Yes, it helps to prepare for possible disasters and have enough food, water, and cash ready, but when shouldn’t I do that?  What can I do to make today good?  What can I plan for today? Today is all I have. “Tomorrow will take care of itself.” Jesus
·         Look for or create good in a difficult situation. I have created goals for each day and for the next three weeks (as well as for the rest of the year – a practice I started months ago). Now I have been given more time to work towards achieving those goals.
In other words I have an opportunity to Get Started and Keep Going, one that is unprecedented.

Monday, July 1, 2019

HAPPY Birthday


Today is my birthday, but I woke up a little depressed and anxious. There were some problems from the weekend that had not yet been resolved. I got up, made my coffee, and made a decision: I want to be happy – as much as possible and as long as possible. I qualify it because I know it is not possible to be happy all the time. I also know that the desire to be happy is suspect because it smacks of selfishness. Some assume (as some once did to me) that I will abandon everyone I love and do horrible things. What they failed to realize that if I did those things I would be unhappy.
            This is what I know about happiness:
·         The decision to be happy is exactly that – a decision, a constant and mindful decision.
·         It is a discipline. It takes work (and meaningful work often leads to happiness, but more on that later).
·         It requires analysis of my internal and external life.
·         It may require change and acceptance of what is at the same time.
·         It is an art and a science.
Interestingly, a lack of challenges doesn’t always create happiness. When I was 15, I lived with another family and away from my parents. I was extremely happy not only to be largely independent, but to have good friends, adults who loved me, very little stress, and some self-created challenges. I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to friends and playing Pyramid Solitaire. I tried my hand at drawing. All my needs were provided for. I had no financial struggles and no one to take care of. It was one of the few times in my life in which happiness was given to me. Now I have to create it.
These are the ways I can create happiness”
·         Setting and achieving goals.
·         Being with my Muse.
·         Having fun and meaningful times with my kids.
·         Serving others.
·         Working on something meaningful.
·         Teaching.
·         Learning
·         Exercising
·         Reading or listening to books about US Presidents.
·         Reaching new levels on Toon Blast.
Yes, that last one makes me happy. It’s good to have fun and even do something meaningless once in a while. I imagine my list differs from everyone else’s and that’s a good thing, but I think the principals are the same. I take care of others and I take care of myself. A meaningful combination of both makes me happy.
I’m also happy when I Get Started and Keep Going. I think that’s what I’ve been saying all along.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Just Another Blog after a Long, Long Time


This is just another blog after a long, long time because for the first time in a long time I am not dealing with a crisis. But the last three years or so have been little more than crises, shocks, and disappointments. Many of them have been huge, traumatic, and even life-altering. I no longer know what to believe and I no longer know what do – with this moment or with my life. Much of what I do currently and many of the choices I am making are responses or reactions to whatever crisis is occurring at the moment. I am trying to improve things, but I’m making choices to do that, not because I have an inherent love for any of the choices I’m making.
            Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, says that one needs a definiteness of purpose. I have none at this time. In the past few years I have worked on being a writer, a historian, a teacher (both Adult Ed and 7-12), and a better parent. I have been involved in local school district politics (and even won an election) and I’ve been involved in my church. All of these activities have taken a toll on me because they all came with unexpected twists and turns. Each area has brought me joy but also pain.
            So I’m sitting here with nothing to do, writing my first blog in months. I feel lost. I don’t know what to do, but what I’m doing. And I’m trying to do my best at that. I’m creating a new life, but I’m not sure how to do it and I’m not sure what my creation will look like when it’s done. I just know that I don’t want to be broke any longer.

            That was written three days ago. Since then I’ve been hit with circumstances and inspirations that have reminded me of what I love and what I need to do.
            The circumstances are my children and being made aware over and over again how much they need me.
The inspirations are finishing my third of three tests and now being eligible to teach every level from kindergarten to college. I also just finished teaching summer school and I was reminded of what a good teacher I am (and how I can improve).  I have rekindled my love for the subject of US Presidents and want to put more time into studying that. Finally, my Muse, whom I have not been giving enough attention to reminded me that I need to return to my love of writing even if nothing comes of it. This makes her happy and that’s enough for me.
Something I’ve often wished for is for God to come down and give me direction through a burning bush like He did for Moses or write letters on a wall like He did for Daniel or even speak to me through an animal like He did for Balaam. I’ve wanted, for years, for God to say to me, “This is the way. Walk in it,” like he did to Isaiah. But no mystical revelation seems to be forthcoming. So, all I can do is what’s put in front of me. But I think I can do it better and do it more purposefully. I can study more in order to be more knowledgeable about Presidents and parenting. I can listen to YouTube and audiobooks. I can go to lectures.
I can also write more, not because I think anything will come of this, but because I love writing. I lost my way with writing because I didn’t know who my audience was and I allowed some well-meaning critique derail me. My Muse is my audience – no one else.
If none of this makes any sense or doesn’t seem completely clear, that’s because this is just another blog after a long, long time and I’m a bit rusty. I’m also just walking one step at a time. Presidents and parenting. I’m also involved in my church and my union and I can deal with those activities as needed. But otherwise, Presidents and parenting. And writing for my Muse. And the consistent reminder to Get Started and to Keep Going

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Desert


Tonight I felt hopeless. It’s not the first time I’ve felt hopeless in the last year or so. I’ve been in an ongoing battle for hope for several months now. It’s been one disaster after another. My own mind doesn’t help matters. I recently learned that I struggle with anxiety. I’m not sure to what degree, but it explains a lot. In his book, The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich differentiates anxiety from fear, the latter being a response to a real event or danger. Anxiety is more free-floating and can be present when no actual threat is present. I think many of us might be anxious. Some anxiety may feel justified. As I’ve said, I’ve had several events in the last year and a half that have ranged from exhausting to traumatic. Some are ongoing. None have completely resolved and I have many things hanging over my head.
Lately I’ve had this fantasy in which I get up one morning, very early, pack a few things, and drive away while it’s still dark, telling no one, leaving everything and everyone behind, except that which I can put in my car. In my fantasy I drive to some small desert town and get a job as a janitor or as a convenience store clerk. In my spare time I read and live alone. I keep to myself and live out my days alone and quiet. I’m never seen again.
It’s a great fantasy. It’s the fantasy of someone who is emotionally exhausted. But it’s also a fantasy of a coward. I don’t have the luxury of running away. Nor do I truly have a desire to do so. What keeps me from acting out my fantasy? The first reason is that I have people l love and am committed to where I am. My Muse wants me here, not for my comfort, but for my growth. My children want me here, not for my comfort, but for their growth. I cannot be the man I am supposed to be in the wilderness. I cannot dessert to the desert.
The second reason I will not flee is because I am with me wherever I go. I created, directly and indirectly the life I have now, and I would just re-create it somewhere else because I would still be me. I would still be the man who loves his children and tries to do the right thing and tries to listen to his Muse. We keep creating and re-creating our problems until we truly solve them.
Finally, life, true life, requires courage. Paul Tillich says this: “Courage is strength of mind, capable of conquering whatever threatens the attainment of the highest good. It is united with wisdom, the virtue which represents the four cardinal virtues, (the two others being temperance and justice.”[1]   
Courage then, when used, brings with it wisdom, temperance, and justice.
These blogs almost always encourage the reader to Get Started and Keep Going. I’ve often said that Getting Started is the harder part. I was wrong. It’s often surprisingly easy to get started (but not always). To keep going, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year – that’s hard. These last several months have been the hardest of my life, not only because of the difficulties, but because of their severity, their frequency, and their seeming unending nature. I have sometimes felt that I am specially cursed by God for reasons I don’t understand and that my life will always be like this. Or maybe, just maybe, if I Keep Going, I will end up at the beach instead of the desert with my Muse and my children watching the waves from my house.



[1] Tillich, Paul, The Courage to Be, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT and London, 2000.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Superheroes


In comic books there are different types of superheroes. (The same applies to supervillains, but I’d rather concentrate on the heroes.) One type of hero is the mutant. These characters are born with their powers. They have an extra advantage (or disadvantage as the case may be).  Examples of this type are Wolverine and the X-Men. For our purposes here, we will not discuss mutants. For the same reasons, we will not discuss magic-based characters such as Dr. Strange.
Another type of super-hero is the one who is an ordinary person but gains his or her powers through some fantastic event. Most superheroes fall into this category. Some are ordinary but have honed themselves to near perfection, like Batman, Hawkeye, or Black Widow. Others are powerful usually because of some scientific or biological discovery or mishap that created the character’s powers. Most characters fall into this category – the Black Panther, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America, the Flash, Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four. (Some characters also have a technological power like, again, Hawkeye, or Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and Iron Man.)
Finally, there is the hero who is not magical or mutant but is born with his or her power. The most well-known heroes of this type are Superman and Wonder Woman. As stated in Kill Bill 2, while Spider-Man is really Peter Parker in disguise and Batman is really Bruce Wayne in disguise, the reverse is true for Superman. He really is Superman. Clark Kent is his disguise. Diana Prince is Wonder Woman’s disguise.
Still, it is not disguise, but identity which is relevant here. Identity and power.
We all have identity and we all have power. Sadly, many people find neither or at least not enough to fully realize their full potential. But we all have identity and power. And realizing one helps us realize the other. It doesn’t matter which we find first because they go together. It doesn’t matter if our powers came to us one day through some fantastic or even tragic event. It doesn’t matter if we’re Superman and Clark Kent or Peter Parker and Spider-Man. There are two truths at play here. One: we can choose who we want to be. We can also choose how to think, how to spend our time, and how to behave towards others. We can choose to view problems as obstacles or opportunities. How we choose to think is part of our super power. How we choose to act is another power we have. Ultimately what defines most comic book characters is not their costumes or even their unique abilities, but how they face adversity.
Most superheroes are borne out of crisis or tragedy. Most non-powered heroes are, too. None of us is immune to tragedy, setbacks, heartbreaks, or disappointment. It’s how we deal with them that makes us heroes (or villains). It’s how we choose to Get Started and Keep Going or how we quit that makes us heroes, defining and determining our identity and power (or not).
I have seen in my own life in the last few months an unusual number of setbacks and disappointments. I think if I had the choice, I would have just stayed at my place and retreated forever. But the nature of my problems and the love I have for those in my life and the love they have for me does not allow a retreat.
In her book You Are a Badass at Making Money, Jen Sincero discusses how it is the subconscious, even more than the conscious than can determine our lives and allow us to tap into or, more commonly, limit our power and hide our identity from us. She calls the subconscious “the little prince” and his job is to keep us safe. When we are young, this is helpful. But when we become adults, this is often counterproductive and even harmful. We say we want to be wealthy, but our little prince does not like the inherent risk, so he sabotages us by making us late to appointments and getting us into fights with the people we love.
A superhero is different. He has power and knows who he is, so he faces danger. He doesn’t look for it because it’s always there anyway. And so he often goes towards it because he knows on the other side, there is a better life. He is rescuing himself so he can take care of those he loves. He or she Gets Started and Keeps Going because that’s what superheroes do.