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Bootstraps, “You Didn’t Build That”, Victims, and Miracles

A while back, like last July, there was a great deal of hoopla about President Obama’s comment, “If you’ve got a business,  you didn’t build that.” Okay, I can see how the hardworking business people of this country could get really sideways about that, but reading the entire comment in context it completely makes sense. After all, in context, what Obama was really saying is that others have paved the way to make us successful…no man or woman or business person is an island.

I’ve recently heard people, friends and colleagues, espousing the ideal of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps”.  I have been thinking about this a great deal lately, in conjunction with President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” statement.  I have a lot of questions.  I mean, I love the idea of rugged strength and determination overcoming all obstacles, but…I wonder…what if the bootstraps were to break?  Who’s wearing the boots?  If I’m wearing the boots, who’s supporting the ground the boots are supposedly firmly grounded on while I do my own bootstrap pulling up activities?  I don’t know.  Kind of makes me wonder.

So often people experiencing hard times are accused of taking the victim mentality just because they are experiencing hard times.  Yes, I know.  There are people out there who are making choices that lead them to a place of dependency on others’ good graces, whatever form those good graces come in.  There are many who appear content to live this way.    They milk the kindness of other people and “the system” for their benefit all the while escaping the responsibility of every citizen to give back and help pay for the freedoms and luxuries our great country affords us.  They do this, in spite of the fact that they are able to do more for themselves.  For them, it is a lifestyle choice rather than a helping hand in a time of need. We could accuse them of being lazy.  We could say it is the system’s fault.  We could point fingers at a number of different reasons why this is the case, and all of it, to some degree, will be valid.  All of it, to some degree, will also be bunk.  I know of people who have received more in food stamps than I, as a working professional and single mother of four children, can ever afford to pay for groceries.  It is these very same people who sell their food stamps for money.  This should not be.  I agree.  But not every person who is a victim has a victim mentality.  And not every person who needs assistance at some time or another requires it forever.  Not everyone collecting welfare is a victim.  And not everyone, experiencing hard times is able to get themselves out of their hard times on their own.  Sometimes, even the most stalwart need a helping hand….or a miracle.

I, myself, have been a “bootstraps” person for most of my life.  I figured if I just set my mind to it, I could make it happen.  And…generally…that was the case…when I was younger…and prettier. Two divorces and four children later and, try as I might, no matter how hard I work, or how hard I try, or how much effort and genius I put into things, I can’t catch a break financially these days. Well, okay, I lied.  My water bill was half what it was last month and I’ve paid off the surgeon that did my cancer surgeries this year.  Wow.  Big deal.  I’m still pretty, but the wrinkles are beginning to be obvious.  No one has a clue what my age is unless I tell them (they often guess I’m in my mid-30’s, I’m not).  Wow. Big deal. I have worked hard to pay off debt that belonged to me only because an ex-spouse incurred it.  I have experienced drama and demise of one disaster after another none of which I was responsible for. Try as I might, I can’t seem to catch a break.  I really am trying.  I’m not taking handouts.  I’m working extra hours.  I pay my taxes, my insurance, my bills. I’m not getting ahead.  When I am able to get a little bit together, something unexpected and totally out of my control descends upon my life to evaporate the savings as quickly as I deposited it. I mean seriously.  I couldn’t control my getting cancer.  I had no say in the decision about health insurance costs and premiums and deductibles. I have no control over my daughter, one very normal Sunday morning, getting into an accident that meant yet another cost ($500 deductible) and stress (What the hell are we going to do for transportation now?).

I have changed my opinion about the bootstraps thing.  I mean, sure, people can have an amazing impact on the course of their own lives.  A child from poverty can go to school, do well, make plans and achieve great things.  A child from wealth can squander all the benefit he/she started out with and end up being pretty much nothing.  We all have great power to do great things with the energy and intelligence we’ve been given, in spite of our circumstances.  I still firmly believe this.  Sometimes, there are things that happen that are just beyond our control.  Sometimes these things are so monumental or so continual that we can’t, no matter how hard we try, change our circumstances.  We are, in essence, pulling as hard as we can on our bootstraps, making progress even, but someone, something cut the bootstrap just a little higher up.  I know.  This is tough for people who’ve never really known hardship to fathom.  If life has always been pretty easy for you, it is difficult to imagine others’ struggles.

This bootstrap cutting from higher up has been my life this year.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t catch a break.  I worked extra hours, I cut back on expenses, I even moved and made colossal changes in lifestyle to try to get ahead.  Under normal circumstances, the efforts I’ve expended would have paid off.  What I didn’t account for was the stuff in life that no one can really ever account for.  Early this year, I knew it was going to be bad when the biopsy came back with results that required surgeries, radiation and additional out-of-pocket medical bills that I could not have planned for. (Remember, I’m a divorced, single female trying to support four children on my own salary which is decent, but not what someone with a graduate degree in a professional position should be earning.)  I also filed for bankruptcy, and that has not gone well.  I was assigned a trustee who is Evil Incarnate and completely non-communicative, so I couldn’t plan for the surprise billing she threw on me in late September. A billing of over $738.  In spite of all my attempts, and my attorney’s attempts earlier this year to avoid this scenario, it happened and it is beyond my control.  To add insult to injury, my daughter recently was involved in a fender bender.  She rear-ended someone.  No big deal, but the deductible is $500.  Since I just paid $817 on this vehicle to service the transmission and replace brakes, rotors and all just a month prior, I have absolutely no discretionary spending or savings to get this vehicle repaired.  It isn’t because I haven’t tried.  The point I am trying to make is this:  From cancer costs, to Evil Incarnate Trustee, to daughter wrecking car, to insurance deductible, to unexpected but required car repairs, none of this was in my control.

What the bootstraps people don’t seem to take in to consideration (and what I didn’t consider for years) is the fact that sometime shit just happens.  Sometimes that shit can be dealt with quickly, and other times the shit just keeps coming and you can’t recover before the next load drops.  Such has been my life this year, which gives me a greater appreciation for the words President Obama uttered when he said, “You didn’t build that.”  I understand the value of having others around to collaborate with and to support you in your efforts.  No man or woman is an island.  Though success does require our own initiative and efforts.  Our own initiative and efforts can’t always guarantee success.  There’s just too much out there that we can’t plan on, budget for, or anticipate.  Sometimes the bad fortune rains heavily on the parade we are trying to conduct in life. These days, I can’t catch a freaking break because the shit just keeps dropping.  It keeps dropping in spite of my good choices, in spite of my efforts to be a responsible, contributing, law-abiding citizen of this great country. Sometimes, the bootstraps don’t help.  Sometimes, your success is predicated on the kindness or efforts of others, whether you are willing to admit this or not.  Sometimes it is just complete chance or fortune. Sometimes it’s a miracle.

Last month, as I endured the worst month ever since my divorce and trying to feed a  family of four on $350 for an entire month, I needed a windfall.  I even whispered the prayer, “God, I know you’ve done miracles for other people.  I’ve tried.  I worked.  I couldn’t plan on the demand from the BK attorney.  I need help.  I need a windfall.  And not a $500 or $1,000 windfall either.  I’m not asking to win the lottery, but I need help with the car and Christmas.”  Okay, sometimes in desperation, we beg for the miracle.

****

Call was at 12:30.  My daughter had stressed how important it was to be on time to the call for her show, so I made sure I was ready. !2:15.  12:30.  She drove up in my Durango at 12:45.  I didn’t wait.  I hurried out, locked up the house and turned to climb into our beloved SUV that we  affectionately dubbed, “Rango.”  I glanced in the window and panic shot through my psyche.  My daughter was in tears, her eye makeup streaming down her face.  My daughter is not prone to obvious displays of emotion. I was alarmed.

“What happened?” I asked.  “Are you okay?”

She sputtered and sobbed and finally got the words out. “I was in an accident.  My phone vibrated.  The sound startled me.  I looked down.  I hit the car in front of me.”

Every mother’s nightmare.

My daughter, who is usually so very careful and cautious behind the wheel had rear-ended an F-350 which tore out the fog light on our vehicle, leaving a gaping hole.  The Durango, otherwise, seemed unharmed.

As insurance issues tend to do, this one unfolded in slow motion, as did my understanding of exactly what was going on.

“Oh no,”  I thought.  “Another at-fault accident on our insurance and a $500 deductible to fix. Great.  How’s this going to work.”

Remember, I had $350 to my name and I had to feed my family with this and I still had most of the month left.  I drug my feet for a week getting my car into a body shop to get an estimate.

****

“I’d like to take your car back to my tech to have a look at this,” the young handsome adjuster said.  He was getting to know me by name.  This was the second time this year my vehicle had reported to his shop for repairs.

Before he took the car to the garage, I asked, “So, what are the chances that this vehicle is actually totaled?”  He smiled, “I’m not sure, but that frame is bent pretty far back there.”

We waited.  My daughter cried.  I waited.  As I waited it dawned on me.  If the vehicle is totaled, then there will have to be some sort of cash settlement.  I glanced over at my daughter and whispered, “Honey, don’t despair.  This could be a blessing in disguise.”

****

Three weeks later, and I am I going to pick up my 2012 Nissan Altima tomorrow (today).  Never in a million years would I have anticipated ever driving, let alone being able to afford a recent model anything, let alone a vehicle which is fuel-efficient, comfortable, reliable, has low miles on it and is absolutely luxurious in a color I like!  I would love to sit down and detail all the ups and downs between then and now, but it would be tedious for you though it was an exciting ride for me.  The insurance settlement came in much higher than I dared hope.  It provided a substantial down on this new car, and will replace the money that Evil Incarnate took out of our Christmas/Emergency Fund coffers.  In addition, it will allow me to pay off the rest of my medical bills and pay down my credit cards. It is an amazing windfall, and not a little one either.  And one further thing…there was nothing I could do to make it happen.  It just did.  I’m grateful, but I’m fully aware that, “I didn’t build that.”

Sometimes bootstraps and strength alone are simply not enough.  Sometimes we all need a little good fortune or a helping hand.  I got an  assist through some bad/good luck and a bunch of events that were beyond my control which happened to turn out well. They could just have easily turned out badly, leaving me without transportation at all.  I’m really grateful for how things turned out, but I did nothing other than make my insurance payment to deserve this. I didn’t do any of this on my own, but all of it seems to be the turning point for my little family as the savings in gas costs and repair costs will far outweigh the new car payment, plus it will put money in the bank for us. I just wonder, does this make me a victim or does it mean I’m able to recognize that I am not all-sufficient.  I can appreciate the miracles in my life, even when they walk in clothed in disaster.

Irony

It isn’t supposed to work this way. Life isn’t supposed to be bad, really, really bad, so-bad-it-sucks bad and still be enjoyable.

So, go figure. My finances suck. We’ve been over that. My love life is non-existent. I just had a guy I supported walk out on me after two years. He gave me three days’ notice and he was gone. Haven’t heard a word from him since. After my two epic fails at marriage, I don’t know which hurt worse, to have the marriages end, or him walk out after I invested so much financially and emotionally for two.fucking.years. It is now all water under the bridge, but at times, it still stings.

I’m at an age and in a demographic where there isn’t much dating action, and if there is, it isn’t serious, nor is it even remotely authentic. Face it, after 45, there are so many obstacles to overcome, so much history to wade through, so many people’s scrutiny you have to undergo before a relationship can even be viable, let alone long term. I’ve given up on that area of my life ever being a source of pleasure or happiness. People who really know me, will know what a big deal that is. Most people tend to understand that it is the nature of the beast these days. Dating after divorce is, at best, a difficult thing, and unlike wine, this does not improve with age. Oh, to be 35 again. Before the wrinkles. Before the mistakes. Before the calendar reveals the stigmatizing number of years you’ve been on this planet (because you cannot lie about that).

In spite of all that, the little surprise I’m experiencing is this: I’m actually having fun. I’m enjoying life more than I ever have. I’m happy, in spite of the fact that nothing (except my delightful children) is as I would have expected it and most of it reeks of pathetically miserable failure. I can’t keep a relationship. I can’t catch a break financially. I rent, on purpose, instead of owning. My car is ready to self destruct at any moment. I should sell the thing and try, if possible, to get some money out of it to put down on a more reliable car. But…how to do that? It’s crazy. I have more problems facing me than solutions. I have experienced more endings in the last year than beginnings. I have more reason than ever to despair, instead of hope. Read the rest of this entry

Surviving Difficulty in 20 Not-So-Easy Steps

Yes, I’ve bemoaned my pitiful luck this month here on several occasions.

No, this is not going to be another down-in-the-mouth, woe-is-me bitch session.

I’m actually going to be positive for a change and since I have only small change, I guess that’s a good thing.

I’ve bemoaned my financial fate of late and poured out my misery as to how deplorable and desperate I really am…economically…right now.

I’d like to make the following observations of the data of my financial life this month:

1. I began the month by ending last month in the negative numbers…oh…about $300. (This is NOT normal for me…at least not since those first few months after leaving The Evil Ex.)

2.  At the end of last month, in addition to the negative bank balance, I had to post-date two checks to my mechanic one for last month and one for May for the water pump that broke.

3. I am still trying to pay off utility bills for the rental unit (aka, my old house that I am walking away from).

4. I started my month with about $200 to pay over a thousand dollars worth of bills.  (That was after I paid some of the other bills first.  I don’t just have a $1,000 overhead.)

5. I was looking forward to a $3300 tax return, the first in 5 years, which would have been a nice windfall, allowing me to get caught up and all and I was required to turn this over to the bankruptcy court trustee.  Thanks to Ms. Trustee, I was allowed to keep the money I received from my partial rent payment I recieved.

6. I put everything possible up for sale on Craigslist.

7. I did have to write one post-dated check to The Good Ex for a hundred bucks to get through this week after the cat started oozing mysterious pus last Friday night. (Please, do not tell me I should have let the poor cat die.)

8. I sold nearly everything I put up on sale, except the stupid juicer, and paid all but two bills, small ones, which I will double pay tomorrow because it is payday in exactly 10 minutes.  At midnight that paycheck will dump in and I can start over for another month. The bills were the water and garbage and I’m writing the checks now for double the amounts.

9. I just checked my bank balances.  I have exactly $7.49. 83 cents of that is my savings.

10.  I have no credit cards.

11.  I have 83 cents in savings.

12. I am NOT overdrawn, in spite of this nightmare of a month.

13. Someone just called about a coffee table I had advertised on Craigslist.  20 minutes after answering that call, I now have $27.49 to my name.

14. I still have a $200 post-dated check that my mechanic will cash on the first and a $100 check that The Good Ex will cash tomorrow coming out of tomorrow’s paycheck, but…

15. I’m not overdrawn!!!!!!!!

This, in and of itself, is a huge step forward for me financially. It is small, but very definite, progress.

16.  I have not had an unexpected car repair this month…and I won’t because the car is parked and I’m not going anywhere tonight.  If it breaks down tomorrow that will come out of next month’s pay.  Let’s hope it does not break down.

17.  I had to pay $150 to an attorney last week on top of having to pay bills, put gas in two large gas-sucking vehicles, and feed a family of five, two of whom are teenagers.

18.  I got all my paper work in to the District Attorney’s office in response to The Evil Ex’s request to review the child support order. I feel better now.

19. I made a decision about what to do about the tenants in my house. I’m terminating the agreement, because I can.  The money and the stress are not worth it.  I feel even better now.

20.  I paid my bills, didn’t go into the red again, and I survived this month.

April 2012 was, by far, the most financially stressful month I’ve had in four years and I made it.

I can, for the first time all month, breathe deep, relax…and feel very, very good about being very, very strong.  Lesser people would’ve slit their wrists or swung from rafters if they faced my difficulties. (They do this because they have life insurance.  I do not have life insurance because I cannot afford it…yet.)

Craigslist To The Rescue

They say money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s been said that money isn’t everything. I would agree. Happiness has to come from within and there are things far more important in life than one’s net worth. In the movie, Becoming Jane Reverend Austen makes a much more accurate statement:

Nothing destroys spirit like poverty.

I have to agree. Money isn’t everything until you don’t have any of it. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but I’d rather be crying in my mansion with the Lamborghini in the garage as I’m packing for a shopping excursion in Europe.

I’m sick of always scraping by. I’m tired of alternating which bills I pay this month in order to catch up on the bills I didn’t get paid last month. I’m still really unhappy that I had to turn over my tax return. I’m certain my bankruptcy attorney could have communicated and timed things a bit better so that things didn’t go the way they did; costing me even more money than I had and requiring me to forfeit what I had coming in tax returns.

My divorce attorney got back with me about dealing with the child support review. It is going to cost $150 for an hour, which isn’t bad, and my attorney is definitely worth all that. It’s just that I don’t have the money. I’m tired of not having the money.

I scraped together the money, this time without having to dig into the family grocery and gas money. I did what I have done for a while now: when things get tight, I sell something on Craigslist. I was fortunate this time, in that I actually had a few things I could get rid of. So far, it all added up to $170, just a little more than I needed for the attorney. That definitely helps. I’m just weary with having to operate like this. Pretty soon, I’m not going to have anything left to sell on Craigslist. Then what?

Hopefully, by then, I will have this little season of difficulty behind me. The Hesitant Boyfriend is actually working and making some decent money. Even though it is only for a few months and he won’t see any of it until next month, it will help. Things will get better. I hope.

Fear & Finances; Bankrupt But Wealthy

The days, months and the first few years immediately following my second divorce were, as I look back on it now, terrifying. To be honest, they were nothing compared to the angst and trauma I endured before deciding to seek a divorce from the nightmare that was my second marriage. I was terrified that I would not be able to survive on my own. I was even more concerned because I was responsible for four children, two dogs, a big mortgage on a small shack, a car payment, and student loans.

I soon learned that I did, indeed, have much to be frightened of. I didn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, have anything scary enough to keep me in that marriage as long as my fear kept me there. I should have gotten out earlier. Looking back, there are a number of things, I should have done differently. Isn’t that the way it is with life? We look back thinking what we should have done differently, but we look back with different eyes than the ones we viewed the situation with in the first place. We look back, older and wiser, hopefully, because we learned from the experience.

I remember agonizing over finances. The ex was irresponsible with money, and, among other things, routinely overdrafted the checking account we used to pay bills. This became a downward financial spiral of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Add to this, the fact that he was hard on things. For example, cars he owned somehow always wore out quickly due to negligence and abuse thus requiring costly repairs. He was just as careless when it came to our home. By the time the marriage ended, I was over my head in debts I could not on my own salary pay, and living in a house which had been damaged by his misguided attempts to “improve” it. I bought a house that was a fairly nice ranch home in a quiet neighborhood. Three years later, you almost wouldn’t recognize the place. It looked like something out of hoarders. It was one disastrous unfinished project after another. I was left to dealt with the debt and clean up the mess.

All of this went down in 2007, and by the time my divorce was final, I was also upside down in a house that I’d never have the capital or cash flow to improve, let alone sell for what I still owed. I should have called uncle then. Instead, I went on a debt repayment plan and for the following six years I struggled to pay off debt, had no credit, no savings and more bills to pay than income coming in. I also had four very hungry children, and because my income was $50 over the guidelines, my children couldn’t qualify for free and reduced meals or any other assistance. I was awake many a night wondering which food pantry or church I could hit up next.

During this time, I also experienced blown engines on three cars (obviously not all owned by me at the same time), a failed rear-differential that dropped right out of the vehicle as I was pulling a load of firewood gleaned from a friend’s property. Of course, there were also the normal maintenance repairs and things that come up. I remember being so destitute that when gas went up to well over $4 a gallon a few years ago, we ended up walking to the store. Were it not for the assistance of friends and the kindness of strangers, I would not have survived those years. (Note: I didn’t mention the help of family members…that’s because there was none, though my first ex and his wife were angels to me on numerous occasions.) I should have walked away from it all early, applied the financial atomic bomb of Chapter 7, and then moved on.

Six years later, I’m finally getting a clue. That bomb has been set to detonate and I look back now and wonder, what was I so afraid of and why didn’t I do that much earlier?

I fought to keep my home, now I’m surrendering it. Here’s the kicker, I moved into a place that is much larger and newer than that house, has all the modern amenities (the house needed updating in the worst way), and costs less than half the house payment. I thought that I’d be hit hard with taxes this year due to not being able to use the house as a write off, but because of having a child in college, it turns out I’m getting money back. And I have to wonder why didn’t I do this earlier? Why did I try to stick that nightmare out?

You could say that if I’d known better I would have made different choices. I don’t think that’s true. I knew better about the bankruptcy. I had good information about the pros and cons. I still hung on trying to repay debt that both was not mine and which I wouldn’t be able to repay in three more lifetimes at the rate I was going. I think the real thing holding me back all that time was fear. I was afraid of the stigma of having a bankruptcy on my record. I was so worried about what it would do to my FICO score. I was worried that I wouldn’t survive.

I ask myself why I didn’t do all this earlier? Sometimes I can beat myself up about it because, after all, I’m six years older and as you get older you begin to realize that both time and money are precious commodities, but time is more valuable. I forget, that I’m looking back with different eyes than the ones I viewed the situation with first. My eyes now see that in this economy, these days, sometimes bankruptcy is not only the only option, it’s a very smart financial move. My eyes now see that if you live on a cash only basis, you don’t need to be ruled by the FICO. More than anything my wiser vision recognizes the strength and courage born of enduring. I know I will survive.

Sure, there will probably be things that come up down the road that terrify me (the second ex seeking a modification in the child support order comes to mind as it seems to portend a costly and futile legal battle). I also know that there are certain things that just won’t ever scare me again. Things do always have a way of working out, they aren’t always disastrous, and somehow I will survive. I’m wealthy in ways that can’t be measured in currency.

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