Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Losing It

 When pushed past the edge of our ability to cope, some of us do some pretty crazy things. The last few news cycles have confirmed this.

Recently, an Ohio man facing foreclosure bulldozed his own home. I think it's important to note that Terry Hoskins tried to work with his bank. He owed $160,000 on a home valued at $350,000. He found a third party who offered $170,000 to pay off the house, but the bank refused, claiming that they would make more money through foreclosure! So Hoskins arranged to pay off his mortgage - and then some - but the bank realized they could make more money by throwing him out.

In the current laissez-faire financial market, many banks are able to make more money through foreclosure than by letting people keep their homes. Yes, you heard right. Right now, banks have a vested interest in throwing people out of their homes, and the government is doing nothing to prevent it from happening.

Was Hoskins' move foolish? Most people would say yes. Did the bank push Hoskins to the point of "losing it"? I'd say that's a yes, too.

The other story in this week's news is far more extreme. Joe Stack flew a small plane into the Austin, Texas IRS building because he felt screwed by the tax man. In fact, if you read his suicide note, you'll see that Joe felt screwed by a lot of factors — the same factors that are causing undue suffering for most Americans these days.

The difference is, most of us wouldn't go kamikaze to solve our problems. Stack was an unstable individual, so his ability to cope was minimal at best. It didn't take much of a push for Stack to "lose it".

These two stories illustrate the propensity of extremely stressed-out folks to lash OUT when they feel wronged. For each of these stories, there are scores of  other stories that don't get the big headlines: the people who "lash IN" and take out their frustrations on themselves. Back in 2008, author Barbara Ehrenreich reported that many people facing foreclosure are taking their own lives.

Sadly, those seem like the two primary choices for those unfortunate souls who lose it because they can't cope with financial calamity: either point the gun at someone else or point the gun at themselves. We should fault these people for their actions, but it would be short-sighted to blame them completely.

Since the dawn of society, there have been people who are down on their luck, old or infirm, less capable of solving their problems, less able to adapt or cope. In the societal model of the village, people collectively created a social safety net to care for the less fortunate among them.

When our country fell into the Great Depression, it was obvious that our country lacked the kind of social safety need we needed to care for the least of our brethren during difficult times. And in the case of the Great Depression, "the least of our brethren" amounted to nearly 1/3rd of the population.

Thanks to the policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a robust social safety net was created. Among a myriad of programs that helped Americans help themselves, Social Security was established, which contrary to right-wing claims, is not simply a retirement account for seniors. It is a program that also helps the injured and infirm. In other words, it is a plan that cares for the least fortunate among us.

As these programs endured, our country experienced a growing middle class and increased prosperity. There were no beggars on highway offramps in the 1960s. We still had our share of problems, but the majority of those in need found assistance.

That shifted in 1980 when Reagan was elected president. My mom voted for Reagan. All she cared about was that my father's mason contractor business improved. Business did improve, because  Reagan gutted many social programs that cared for the physically and mentally ill in an effort to induce a false, short-term prosperity.

About 6-9 months into Reagan's first term, my mom approached me saying, "I don't feel safe going to the grocery store. Suddenly, there are all these 'weirdies' hanging out in front of the store. They ask me for change when I'm going in and out. What's going on?"

I knew exactly what was going on: Reaganomics robbed the very poor and gave to the rich - and to some extent, the middle class. For the middle class, quality of life seemed to be improving - so they didn't stop to notice that their prosperity came at the expense of the poorest among us.

"Mom", I said, "Those 'weirdies' you speak of once had social programs that took care of them. They had places to live, places to get the help they need. Reagan threw them out onto the street to fend for themselves. You voted for Reagan, so they're YOUR 'weirdies' now. Enjoy!"

Unfortunately, every president since Reagan has been building on the same policies, including Clinton, who I will never forgive for creating the global trade policies that eliminated a decent living for working-class Americans.

In the 1960s, many Americans - my parents included - could own and sustain a home with one income. Now, we are hard-pressed to maintain a household on two incomes - even when both parents work more than one job. The government deregulated the financial industry, making it all to tempting for Americans to go into debt in an attempt to hold on to their standard of living.

Then came the mortgage hornswoggle at the beginning of the millennium. Bush hopped in front of the TV cameras and touted new policies that would enable the poorest among us to own their own homes. It was a big lie - a ponzi scheme of the highest order, and now as it collapses, millions of Americans are losing their homes in record numbers.

Health care has also been dismantled. Industry deregulation has allowed health insurance companies to create state-wide monopolies, and jack up their premiums sky high whenever they feel like it. Recently, Anthem Blue Cross announced they would be raising rates 39% for their customers in California. Between 2007 and 2008, Blue Cross of North Carolina increased my premiums a total of 59%, forcing me to downgrade to a high-deductible health savings account.

Remember my Reagan-voting mother? She and my father live on social security in a subsidized apartment complex for seniors, but they still can't make ends meet. Their health care needs forced them into bankruptcy years ago. Luckily, there are a few doctors who will treat them even when Medicare won't cover their bills. The remaining health care bills eat into their food budget, so I send them a little extra every month to help out.

In 1980, my parents owned a spacious suburban home. Now, I'm surprised they aren't out in front of the supermarket begging for coins, just like the 'weirdies' that freaked out my mom 3 decades ago. That's what Reaganomics has done for them.

Let's face facts: we no longer have a social safety net in this country. When the Republicans run the government, they dismantle the social safety net a little further. When the Democrats run the government, they sit back and let the Republicans dismantle the social safety net a little further.

Americans are squeezed on all sides, and have nowhere to turn for relief. Like a human body attacked by disease, symptoms are emerging. Those symptoms are people like Bulldozer Hoskins and Kamikaze Joe Stack, who feel they have no other recourse than resort to destruction and violence perpetrated on themselves, others, or both.

We can't afford to waste our time demonizing the people who make the headlines when they "lose it". We need to eliminate the factors that pushed these people over the edge. Unless we want to see more people take some twisted sense of justice into their own hands, we need to change the system now.

It's time to ignore labels like Democrat and Republican. We need to throw out every politician who favors corporations over human beings. We need to elect new lawmakers whose policies provide the opportunity to live healthy, prosperous lives.

And though we need to fight for change in our own government, we need to create change in our own neighborhoods, too. When Bush spoke of "ownership society", what he really meant was "every man for himself". It was another tactic the rich and powerful used to divide and conquer.

When a neighbor falls, the right-wing responds by saying, "What a loser! He brought it on himself. Let him rot!" But when we buy into that way of thinking, the banksters win.

When a neighbor falls, we need to help him up. We need to create our own local organizations to help each other so we aren't so devastated when the government drops the ball. If we all band together, we will be strong enough to rebuild our social safety net - and can then demand that our government take part in the process.

When people like Terry Hoskins and Joe Stack "lose it", they are merely symptoms of a greater disease. Stop blaming the symptoms. It's time to start treating the disease.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Who's At Fault?

The Economic Elite Have Engineered an Extraordinary Coup, Threatening the Very Existence of the Middle Class

The economic elite have robbed us all. The amount of suffering in the United States of America is literally a crime against humanity. 

So begins a very compelling article by David DeGraw. This is part one, which is available on

The case can easily be made that the economic elite has been slowly eroding quality of life for the average citizen. The campaign to downgrade the average American's quality of life is as obvious as it is ubiquitous. Anyone who was alive in the mid-70s can chronicle the demise of the middle class, which picked up steam with the election of Ronald Reagan and has continued unabated through present day.

In the mid-1970s, many Americans could still maintain a household on a single salary. Most real estate was a great investment. In the mid-1970s, most Americans still had reasonable access to health care, affordable insurance, affordable food (which contained more nutrients). Most Americans could take some sort of vacation each year. Those days are long gone.

 So who's to blame?

If you listen to the right-wing noise machine, anyone who was stupid enough to sign onto a sub-prime loan deserved what they got. Tough luck, suckers. They should have been able to read the reams of fine print and understood what they were getting into.They should have been able to see through the 2002 disinformation campaign delivered by George W. Bush himself. "A Home of Your Own"was designed encourage low-income families to enter into the mortgage game and lead them to believe they could afford a home - though in reality, many couldn't.

 I think there's a good case to be made that the financial deck has been stacked against the American people. And I think that we need to work diligently to reverse this horrible trend.

However, I also believe what many business and life coaches assert: that we are each completely responsible for our own lives, and when we fail to assume that responsibility, we relegate ourselves to the role of victim and surrender our power.

My fiancee and grow a lot of the food we eat - the rest we buy as locally as possible. We try to reduce our carbon footprint a little more each year. Still, there are some concessions that seem nearly impossible to make. We limit the amount of driving we do, but lacking decent mass transportation, giving up our cars completely would severely compromise our lives and take a huge divot out of our current income. We want to live more independently, but it doesn't seem possible.

So how can we balance personal responsibility with forces well outside our control, like the lack of mass transportation or the financial meltdown we're currently experiencing? How can we completely avoid the corporations who produce the very products we need to survive?

What if someone we knew had died from eating lettuce tainted with e-coli bacteria, and his spouse said, "Well, it was our fault for being hungry all the time"? We'd send her to an assertiveness training seminar and a good lawyer - and maybe even a psychiatrist.

I decided to call up a Coach and Trainer I have worked with for years, Behnam Bakhshandeh of Primeco Education. I asked him what we should do when assuming total personal responsibility is still not enough to protect us from problems caused by corrupt corporations and governments.

Behnam asked, "If you lose your home, can you put all the blame on the mortgage company? What if your ego convinced you that you needed the prestige of a 6-bedroom house when you could live just as comfortably (and probably more happily), in a 2-bedroom apartment?" Our ego's needs are largely emotional, not practical.

That got me thinking: I had a large office for most of my career. I thought a spacious, trendy office was necessary to project success because that was the way to attract success. If I worked at home, potential clients wouldn't take me seriously, and I couldn't charge as much money. However, by the mid-1990s, I did most of my business over the internet, and very few people actually visited me at my office. My impressive office no longer had anyone to impress! At that point, I must admit, my office served to boost my ego more than it served to attract customers. I paid a lot of money to satisfy my emotional needs more than my practical needs. As a result, I didn't have enough of a nest egg to weather the financial storm.

Behnam pondered for a second. "We also make a lot of purchases based on our need to fit in." We want to be accepted by those around us, so we work long hours to pay for deluxe homes, offices, cars and toys - not necessarily because we need or want these things, but because we think we'll win approval by having them. In this case, we're buying stuff to satisfy someone else - someone else who is so involved dealing with their own life, they probably won't even notice!

So what about my house? I made the decision to buy out my ex-wife when we split, because we had bought the house together only 18 months before. It seemed to me that one of us should keep the place for at least a few more years to preserve the initial investment - a totally practical decision, right?

The mortgage was daunting, but I could swing it if my earning power, which had remained consistent for over 2 decades, didn't drop more than 25% - a safe bet at the time. Real estate had been appreciating by 15+% a year. I had done my homework and knew the economy was due to slow somewhat. I estimated that even if the market slowed and the value of the home only rose by 5% a year, I would still do well if I kept the house for 3-4 years and then sold it.

My projections seemed conservative and reasonable at the time. But it wasn't 9 months before the financial bubble burst, the home's value plummeted, and my workload dropped by more than half.

I started reading news stories about how the big banks had intentionally sold bad mortgages as investments to Wall Street, which artificially inflated the market, creating a precarious bubble. The bubble burst and the collapse bled into the overall economy, leaving me unable to pay the mortgage which was now more than the house was worth.

I had been responsible: I had done my homework, I had crunched the numbers. I had made a sound, calculated financial decision. I had done everything right, and the bank screwed me.


Then, I thought about how Behnam cautioned against making purchases based on our emotional needs. Had I examined all the reasons I bought that house?

Well, it's certainly true that the banks made my situation more challenging. But I have to face the truth: when I bought that house, I neglected to ask myself a few very important questions:

First, why was a bank suddenly willing to loan me $260K when just 4 years previously, I barely qualified for a $100K mortgage? My income had not increased during those 4 years. Something was rotten, and I didn't bother to sniff. Instead, I thought to myself, "the banks wouldn't lend me the money if I they didn't think I could pay them back, would they?"

Second, with my wife out of the picture, was a 3-bedroom, 2 bath house the right fit for me? As it turned out, it was much more house than I needed.  But I didn't want to downgrade my living situation after the divorce - I would have felt like my ex got the best of me. I wanted people to see me as having survived the split-up unscathed. I was also exhausted from the aftermath of an emotionally-taxing marriage, and simply didn't have the energy to uproot my life again, especially after having just done so 18 months prior.

Being the insightful coach that he is, Behnam helped me see that my decision to keep the home was largely based on emotion, which blinded me to the other factors I should not have ignored.

Trusting the banks was another huge error. I hadn't done my homework from their side of the equation. With the current lack of financial regulation, mortgage banks only need to have as little as 4¢ in holdings for every dollar they loan. Where does the other 96¢ come from? They create it out of thin air every time they write a mortgage! When my mortgage was written, I put up a 20% down payment and the bank only put up 4%. The banks further increased their profits by misleadingly repackaging their mortgages as low-risk investments and sold them on Wall Street. The banks deliberately sold home loans to people they knew wouldn't be able to pay them back. I may have been one of them. It didn't matter to them. Even if the loans resulted in massive default, the banks would still make plenty of money.

Are the "banksters" scoundrels who deserve to spend time in prison? Yes. Have their greed and corruption contributed to a great deal of our nation's financial misery? Yes. Am I going to blame them for all my financial problems? No. I think the best way to put it is: 1) Yes, the banks screwed me, but 2) it was my fault for trusting them in the first place. Caveat emptor, baby.

If I play the victim card, then I am basically saying that I am helpless and the big bad banks have total control over my life. I don't want to go there.

I am responsible for my decisions - financial and otherwise. Taking responsibility also means taking back my power. And I'm working diligently to change my behavior, because I don't want to go through this again if I can help it.

That's the key phrase here: "If I can help it." I can dramatically curtail my spending and live as simply as is practical, but I'll still be dependent on employment, healthy food, decent shelter, clothing and heat. So I can't completely control everything that happens to me, can I? I've been studying some Buddhist philosophy lately, and I'm realizing that the best way to proceed is: "work toward change, but let go of the outcome".

Can I reform the banks and the insurance industry? No. At least not single-handedly. And not right away. Can I change this situation by voting? No. Sadly, that no longer seems to change anything.

Can I control the cost of water? of food? of electricity? No. It's been proven that Wall Street speculators manipulate those numbers every day - prices are no longer related to supply and demand.

So taking total responsibility for my life means:
• Picking myself up when I fail and continuing on
• Educating myself
• Challenging the forces that are working against my (our) welfare
• Working to change this destructive dynamic
• Working to help others do the same
• And lastly, letting go of any expectations regarding the result.
That's what I must do so I can face myself in the mirror each day and respect myself.

It helps to remember that I am not alone in this. I am a member of society, and as such, I am also responsible for helping those around me. If we all assume responsibility, we can collectively repeal the injustices that we cannot change as individuals. I'll save that can of worms for another blog post.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Love Will Get You Through Times of No Money Better Than Money Will Get You Through Times of No Love

Though it's close to Valentine's Day, the morning sky outside looks more like it's emitting the kind of light common around Thanksgiving. That seems appropriate, because I feel like being grateful for the love I have in my life.

Before I moved to Asheville, NC, I lived in a tiny cottage in Laurel Canyon, a small stretch of ridgeline separating Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. My hillside oasis was perched high enough to catch the ocean breeze, and I could hide out there, pretending that I didn't really live in LA, trying to forget that romance had so far been a failure for me. So I focused on my domicile: I had a granite block fireplace, trees all around me, a secret front garden, and a cozy loft I used as a computer room. I had almost everything I wanted: comfort, music, a pocket of nature full of birds, squirrels and the occasional raccoon.

I also had plenty of  work - at least 70 hours a week's worth. That was the price of maintaining my artsy design studio in Culver City and my Laurel Canyon retreat. My life consisted of long days (including many evenings and weekends), at the studio, followed by the few evening and morning hours I could cobble together in my canyon cottage. I distinctly remember gazing out the little loft window and sobbing on more than one occasion. The view was idyllic, but my soul knew something important was missing. I often exacerbated the situation by heading out to buy myself some extravagant trinket in an attempt to ease the ache, fill the void.

In the early 1990s, I spent a weekend at a friend's cabin in the big mountains outside Lake Arrowhead. While there, I had a vivid dream that I was embracing a short, shapely brunette, who felt like she was melting into my arms. She felt like my soul mate. As I woke up, I tried to cling to the dream, not wanting to let it go. As my eyes opened, a crimson sunrise flooded the cabin with a surreal light. Just before the dream completely disappeared, my "dream woman" said, "I am out there. And you will find me."

That dream gave me the impetus to keep searching. During one disastrous attempt to connect with a Washington, DC-based woman I had met at a Santa Monica bar (a nugget of advice: never travel that far for a date, no matter how desperate you are!), I had this intuition as the airplane soared over the Appalachian mountains: a voice in my head whispered, "There's something down there for you."

As I trudged through my 30s, my career was still consuming me. I was out of balance. Every new attempt at romance failed more miserably than the previous go-round. I had been through personal growth seminars, years of therapy, new agey retreats. I had faced many of my personal demons head-on. I dealt with my adoption, searching and finding my birth parents. I was also changing hobbies. I transitioned from hang gliding (a very male-dominated sport), to playing traditional music, which afforded the opportunity to meet more women. Still, a romantic, intimate, enduring relationship kept eluding me, and each foray into the world of dating spanked me a little harder.

In 1997, I turned 39. It had been awhile since my last relationship, so long that the last woman I dated had since married one of my good friends. The first instant I saw the two of them together, I said to myself, "Wow! They fit." By then, I had resigned myself to the notion that there might never be a fit for me, and I should give up trying and get on with my life.

That summer, I traveled to Western North Carolina for an old-time music festival. Everything seemed to fall into place - I met a fellow graphic designer on the internet before the trip, who put me up for a few nights. It was a hot summer, and one day, the glue on my fiddle melted while in the car trunk, and my fiddle came apart. I panicked, but a luthier who lived 3 houses up the road repaired the instrument overnight! I took it as a sign. The same graphic designer who put me up helped me find a place to live, and by late September of 1997, I had moved to Asheville.

Within a year or so, I met Beth Molaro, a dance caller living in nearby Black Mountain, NC. She helped me get a few dance gigs, and at the dances, I gazed at her when I thought she wasn't looking. I didn't yet know anything about her, but I knew I was very attracted physically. Though I wanted to approach her, I held back, scolding myself for merely lusting after her. At the time, I hadn't yet realized that the perfect woman would be somebody I was attracted to both emotionally and physically (I guess the twisted Catholic dogma I had grown up with was still too ingrained at that point).

A few years later, Beth passed by my camp at a music festival in West Virginia. "Where are you headed?" I asked. "For a hike!" she responded. In a rare moment of bravery, I asked, "Would you like some company?"

Beth said yes, and we hiked to the top of the New River Gorge. We talked incessantly, made connection after connection. I didn't want the hike to end. Beth came by my camp a few more times during the festival, and we visited, though I didn't want to be too forward and scare her off. Besides, my band was playing at the next dance in Asheville, and I knew I would see her there. I would pace myself, though I couldn't wait to pick up where we left off.

The dance came, and afterward, I was stunned to see Beth in the arms of another dance caller. I was crestfallen. Had I imagined the connection we had had in West Virginia? How could I compete with another dance caller? (Dance was her world - I lived in the world of musicians.) Why hadn't she mentioned this guy during our hike? Rather than ask Beth these questions directly, I assumed that I had mistaken the signals. I turned away, in no mood to make another dashed expectation any worse than it already was.

A few years later, I got married to someone else. Did I mention all the personal growth and counseling I had gone through previously? Apparently, it wasn't enough, for I married a woman who was so much like my mother that I don't know how I could have missed the signs. My guess is that she felt familiar and comfortable (in a dysfunctional family sort of way).

It turned out to be another romantic disaster. After 4-5 years, it was obvious (even to my obtuse self), that the relationship was on a destructive, downward spiral, and it was time to move on. My wife and I separated.

Almost as if on cue, I went to a music party and saw Beth. From across the room, Beth heard me talking to another friend. I uttered the phrase, "my soon-to-be ex-wife", and Beth's ears perked up. Later that evening, I couldn't help but notice Beth's big brown eyes beaming at me. It was hard to look away, but I tried to tell myself that it was too soon to think of such things.

A few days later, Beth invited me to go on a hike. I put her off for a few months while I dealt with the dissolution of my marriage - but I was afraid to put her off too long for fear the window of opportunity might close.

On our hike, Beth told me that years ago when we had gotten together in West Virginia, the relationship with the other dance caller was so bad at the time, she didn't even want to mention his name. Back then, she had thought to herself, "One like that. I want one like that!" Beth had even attended my wedding a few years later, thinking to herself, "I hope he's happy!"

When she heard I was splitting up with my wife, she thought "What?! He's not happy??" And that's when she made it plainly obvious to me (again, let me say that I can be quite obtuse in such matters), that she was interested.

Our subsequent dates got better and better. After a few get-togethers, we included her daughter Rebecca in our outings. The three of us got along instantly. On our first "family" date, I remember smiling while watching Rebecca turn consecutive somersaults in the grass, and then turning my gaze to Beth laying in the sun-washed grass while we picnicked on the homemade delicacies she had made to suit my food allergies. I began to realize I could have the "whole package": an incredible, talented woman who both thrilled me emotionally and made my loins ache.

Early in our relationship, Beth and I were holding each other, and I suddenly remembered that dream I had in the Lake Arrowhead cabin, 14 years previously. I even tracked down my journal entry describing it. I knew that Beth was the woman in that dream, and I was so overjoyed to have finally found her!

Fast forward 2 1/2 years, and Beth and I are engaged. She is showing me that our life can be sumptuous, even though my financial situation has changed dramatically since we first got together. Beth is patient, caring and nurturing, and reminds me constantly how much in love she is with me. Rebecca now calls me Daddy, and I melt a little bit every time she does.

I no longer work as hard as I did when I was younger. Good thing, because I would much rather spend my spare time devoted to Beth and Rebecca. Every day, I try to think of ways I can let them know how much I love them, too.

Valentine's Day is nigh, but you won't find us rushing to a store to find some commercial expression of our love for each other. Instead, we'll celebrate by preparing an extravagant, home-cooked meal together. We'll share kisses, love notes, lots of laughter, and emphatic embraces.

Years ago, when I yearned to find a mate, friends would caution me about idealizing romance, saying, "Relationships are work. There's always give and take, always conflicts to resolve. Just like being single, relationships have their pluses and minuses."

Now that I'm with Beth, I have no idea what they were talking about! We fit together so seamlessly that being together is as natural as breathing. We resolve the few disagreements we have almost instantly, because we immediately think about the other person's needs and defuse the situation before it escalates. Every day, we take time to stop what we're doing, look in each others' eyes, and remind each other how happy we are to be together.

This is love at its most luxurious. I don't know how I was so lucky to stumble onto it! It took almost 50 years to find, and I'm so grateful I finally did. Beth was well worth the wait.

Monday, February 8, 2010


After months of limiting my shopping to necessities (save the occasional squander on a used book), I'm quickly learning how much less "stuff" I really need.

The process of shedding material objects from my life has been much easier than I thought it would be. And I'm enjoying the spare time and the ebb of tension in my shoulders that are the fringe benefits of a  humbler lifestyle.

But there's still one aspect of the big downsize that is far more challenging than giving up all the material trinkets: rebuilding my self esteem.

In February of last year, Russian-born Dmitry Orlov (an engineer and writer now living in Boston), gave a humorous yet ominous lecture predicting the decline of the US as a superpower. Olrov spent a great deal of time in Russia in the 1990s and witnessed the meltdown of Russia's economy first-hand. (Orlov believes that all the factors that precipitated Russia's collapse are present right now in our country.) Orlov stated, "When times get really, especially — successful, middle-aged men, bread-winners, bastions of society — turn out to be especially vulnerable. And when they completely lose it, they become very tedious company."

Since the short sale of my home and the reduction of my business by 75%, I have tried my best to avoid completely losing it, though I'm certain there have been moments when the people close to me would have been charitable to describe my company as "tedious".

I don't want to be tedious. I want to be one of the people who is able to view these changes not so much as a failure, but as an opportunity to change, grow, maybe even become something better than I could have ever imagined. Such aspirations are very easy to tap out on a keyboard, but they're challenging to put into action.

There have been mornings when I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror half expecting to see the word "LOSER" or "INSOLVENT" tattooed on my forehead in some very bold font like Futura Black, 96 point, (easy to read from 10 feet away). When those moods arise, I tuck myself away, fearing other people might notice the tattoo, even though I know that it only exists in my the fatalistic portion of my imagination.

I think there's another factor that contributes to my social withdrawal: When I was a kid, if I didn't feel well enough to go to school, but later experienced one of those miraculous after-school rallies, my mother would lay down the law: "No school, no play." In other words, if you didn't do the work, you don't deserve to enjoy yourself afterward.

As a grownup, how can I reward a job well done when there's no jobs to be had? Therefore, I don't allow myself to go out, attend parties, take a hike in the woods, or do anything beyond watching a little TV at the end of the day. It's almost as if I have a strict inner parent who has grounded me for screwing up my finances.

So during the past year, I've hunkered down and licked my wounds - quietly, privately, out of sight. But the real truth is: all the material wealth I accrued during the past 23 years of career work is gone. I feel ashamed about it, and I'm hiding out.

I'm not blogging this because I want to continue pulling the lever on the virtual kicking machine whose steel toe is pointed directly at my psyche. I'm blogging this because I know there are other people out there going through the same challenges.

My hope is that if you are reading this post, and are going through the same struggle I am, you'll realize that you're not alone, and that the feelings you're having are perfectly natural. When I screw up, I retreat and hide out. Others kick the dog, yell at their family, binge drink, lose themselves in the latest season of Lost. Please don't do those things.

I hope that you'll realize that you're not alone in this - that we're not alone in this. Shame is a concrete wall that keeps us from moving forward. Reconnecting with friends and the resources we need for support are the wrecking ball that will bring it down.

For myself, Groundhog Day has come and gone. It's time I come out of my hole and face that pesky shadow.

Monday, February 1, 2010

My day in court

Bankruptcy Court.

For too many years, I had spent beyond my means, buying things I really didn't really need in the hopes they would somehow fill a void I felt within myself. It took a quarter century before I confronted my folly and began changing my behavior, but by then, it was too late. My only financial asset was my home, and by 2008, its value had sunk to less than the mortgage note. Then, my business declined dramatically as many of my long-standing clients went bankrupt themselves. Now, it was my turn.

I had gone to a credit counseling course the week before my court date, and the counselor told us not to fret: the Meeting of Creditors was a mere formality that would take 5-10 minutes, tops. My lawyer reassured me that at my level of debt, there would be no cut-throat lawyer from Citibank to grill me mercilessly about the fiddle strings I purchased in July of 2006.

Still, I spent the night before my court appearance tossing and turning, cobbling together 2-3 hours of sleep. The next morning, armed with a shower and with two double espressos spitting random sparks across my cerebral cortex, I approached the federal courthouse door.

I've passed through many doors my life, but this time it felt a bit like I was crossing the threshold into Shawshank Penitentiary. The stone facade of the courthouse enhanced the effect. Would they let me back out again after the court was finished with me? The double dose of espresso shifted my already overactive imagination into overdrive, and visions of a ten year stretch at a Halliburton work camp danced in my head.

After a few wrong turns (I now knew where all the restrooms were located), I found my way to the entrance to bankruptcy court. A short hallway lined with conference room doors and benches lead to the traditional-style courtroom, replete with wood trim and a Wopneresque judge's bench.

Outside the hallway, the day's schedule was posted on a clipboard. My name was many pages down the thick stack. I should have brought a book with me!

I took a seat in the courtroom gallery, as instructed. I quickly realized this is not the place to see and be seen. I never saw a group of fidgety folks trying so hard not to be seen, though if they'd thought about it for a minute, they'd realize that everyone around them was in the same boat. So who cares?

After 20 minutes, my lawyer popped his head in the door and announced to his clients that it would be at least another 90 minutes before his cases would be heard. He had two novels under his arm, so he obviously knew the drill. If only he had shared that knowledge with us! I should have brought a thick book with me!

I lingered in the main courtroom to listen to some of the early cases. There was no judge - a trustee from one of the local law firms rolled up his shirtsleeves and reviewed the paperwork, skimming through the pages quickly, asking a few pertinent questions about this asset and that. The bunkruptcy petitioners gave short, respectful answers and sure enough, within 5-10 minutes, it was over. If a facial expression exists that conveys the thought, "Wow, that was anti-climatic!", that would be the expression on peoples' faces as they left the counsel table. The tension in my shoulders released a notch, and I ducked out of the courtroom to stretch my legs.

With time to kill and the furrow easing from my brow, I considered that this would be the only opportunity in my life (hopefully!) to experience bankruptcy court, so I surveyed the area much as a reporter or writer would do. I took a seat on one of the benches in the hallway, and glanced around at some of my fellow debtors.

Most folks looked pretty tense. Lawyers flitted between the hallway and conference rooms, chuckling to each other about the latest anecdote they had to share. The lawyers' light-hearted demeanor only served to increase the anxiety of those around me. Coming to court was a day-to-day routine for our lawyers, and they were as relaxed as a trustafarian on a tropical vacation. To someone unaccustomed to courtrooms, however, a carefree lawyer seems like a lawyer who's not on the job. As if suddenly remembering this phenomenon, the lawyers then devoted a little time greeting and reassuring their clients.

The most obvious character in the waiting area was seated in the opposite corner with his wife. He was a jolly, portly fellow with a head of long white hair and a face adorned with a long white beard. He wore a green plaid shirt and red suspenders.

"You know times are tough when you see Santa Claus going broke", I thought to myself, hoping I wasn't thinking too loudly. I must have thought it too loudly, because a second later, the gentleman next to me leaned toward the bearded fellow and said, "Man, you know times are hard when you run into Santy Claus at the bankruptcy court!"

The Santa Claus man lit up with a chuckle and started talking a blue streak about how times would have to get a lot tougher before he'd stoop to doing the department store gig. He then launched into a litany of his physical maladies until interrupted by his wife, who grunted, "Shouldn't've got 'im started."

That conversation was the ice breaker we all needed. People relaxed into snippets of small talk. The woman next to me was writing poems, and shared one she had just written to our lawyer. The central theme was his late arrival, and its meter and rhyme was consistent.

Many of the folks around me were 10-20 years older than myself, and spoke of Asheville in the mid-1900s. They were surprised that a younger transplant like myself knew where the Woolsey Dip was located. I didn't know that it was the site of the Civil War Battle of Asheville. The most recent clash I knew of at that location had occurred a few years ago between a decrepit brick building and a compact car. The compact car won (see photo at right).

Reminiscing about the past seemed natural. I think we all wished we could be transported back to the halcyon days of financial prosperity.

A few hours later, I heard my name called in the courtroom, so I  grabbed my notebook and scurried in. I put my hand on the bible, though maybe I should have told them that that swearing on a book that didn't jive with my belief system was hardly an effective way to ensure my honesty. Maybe putting my hand on R. Crumb's illustrated Book of Genesis would have been more effective, given my reverence of Crumb's rendering skills.

The trustee asked that I furnish a few more bank statements, asked about real estate (I no longer own any), and about the monthly stipend that I send to my fixed-income parents.

"That's all", the trustee mumbled. I heard her, but I wasn't sure I heard correctly. I had barely been in the chair 45 seconds, if that. They should have loaded my chair with a spring, I was in and out of it so quickly. Every other case I saw took at least 5 minutes to review. Was I so destitute that the review of my cut-and-dry case didn't even allow me to warm the courtroom chair?  I turned to my lawyer with a quizzical look on my face.

"Yep, that's it", he said. "Talk to you later."

There was no judicial lecture, no lofty admonitions, no rap on my knuckles with a metal ruler. To be sure, my credit was hosed for a good many years. But given the recent behavior of most lenders, that's a blessing. Now, all I have to do is wait for the final discharge of debt.

I stepped out of the courtroom door and into the refreshing 20° air. Sure, bankruptcy would bring its share of challenges in the coming years, but I would sleep like a baby tonight.