Ex, money

The latest, lowdown methods of grifting from friends and relatives…

Well, here we are, folks… the last week before Christmas. I’m amazed by how quickly the year has flown by. I’ve probably helped a few retailers make their sales goals this year. Last night, our neighbor hosted an outdoor gathering in her driveway, passing out Gluhwein for people in our cul-de-sac. It was really fun, except Arran threw a fit because he’s become so averse to being separated from us, even if we’re just outside the house.

As we were enjoying hot mulled wine, I realized that I hate my five year old parka. I’d been toying with the idea of buying a new one, but the one I liked was very expensive. I bought my current parka from Eddie Bauer some years ago, when we still lived near Stuttgart, and I needed it more. I never bothered to replace it, because it doesn’t often get that cold up here. This past week has been an exception. So, after getting pretty cold last night, we said goodnight to our neighbors and went into our house, where I promptly ordered a new parka from Woolrich. Woolrich used to be an American company, but it got sold a few years ago. Now, most of its physical stores are in Europe, and the US only has a few. I found a coat that, for me, was very expensive, but wasn’t anywhere near the most expensive parka on the site.

I felt a slight twinge as I put in my order, as it wasn’t so long ago that we were climbing out of what seemed to be insurmountable debt. But then I realized that I currently have plenty of money to pay the credit card bill. In fact, even if I’d chosen the most expensive parka on the site, I’d have more than enough money to pay for it. And it’s time I got a new coat. Bill really needs one, too. Maybe after Christmas, he’ll pull the trigger. I think he’s been wearing his coat for about ten years.

We’re still feeling the effects of having once been “poor”. When Bill and I first got married, we had little money. He was recovering from divorcing Ex, and the horrifying financial situations that resulted from that marriage. I was just out of graduate school, for which I’d taken out federal student loans. We both also had credit card debt, and Bill had child support to pay. Thankfully, our cars were mostly paid for. Still, there were months when we had just a few dollars in the bank before payday. I remember when Bill used to freak out when we’d spend $100 at the grocery store. And now, he doesn’t bat an eye when I spend $900 on a new coat.

Bill and I have worked very hard and diligently to secure our finances. From 2007 until 2014, we gradually chipped away from our debts. Then we moved to Germany, lived in a relatively inexpensive house, and Bill started getting military retirement pay, along with a salary. We knocked out our debts as quickly as possible. When we moved to Germany, I still owed about $40,000 on my student loans (originally about $57,000 for all three degrees), in spite of paying more than the minimum for years. But for the four years we lived in Stuttgart, we kept throwing money at that debt until it was finally gone, nine years ahead of time. I was shocked we were able to do that. I certainly wasn’t expecting it when we moved here.

We both know that the future is uncertain, and even though we’re now in a good place, there could be “rainy days” ahead. So I squirrel away money every month, and make a concerted effort to pay off debt as soon as possible. It’s a GREAT feeling to no longer owe anyone… especially Nelnet, the student loan servicer that bought my loans just a few months before I finished paying them off.

Yesterday, it became very obvious, yet again, that I am very different from Ex. I have an eye toward the future. Ex, on the other hand, lives in the present. And while I’m not sure exactly what is going on with her right now, I strongly suspect that she’s about to be a “free agent” again. Why do I suspect this? First off, she’s been making comments about her marriage on Twitter. She’s tweeted a couple of quips to the actors on The Outlander on how their characters’ examples could “save” her marriage. Secondly, she approached Bill’s stepmother for financial help, asked her to give her items that she might want to “pass down”, and even suggested that she move in with her in New Hampshire. We know that Ex has “hosted” other seniors in her house– her late mother (whom she apparently despised) and #3’s mother have both lived with her. Bill’s stepmom owns a home and has retirement income. Ex would no doubt love to get her hands on that money/equity. And now, something new has come to light…

Yesterday, Bill heard from his younger daughter, who told him that older daughter has now enrolled in graduate school. Older daughter is 31 years old and still lives with Ex. She doesn’t have a job, but spends her time taking care of her severely autistic younger brother. Ex doesn’t have a job, either, and in a recent crowdfunding plea, mentioned that she lives in a “one paycheck” household. It’s no doubt earned by #3, who gets paid by the hour.

Now… I happen to know that student loans can be a temporary lifesaver in terms of living expenses. When I was a graduate student, I got federal loans. I was also a graduate assistant for all but one semester of my time in school. Being a G.A. drastically knocked my tuition costs down, which allowed me to pay rent and other bills with my loans. I also had a part time job, and got paid a very small stipend for being a G.A. It was a Godsend to have that assistantship. If I hadn’t had it, I don’t know how I would have survived, since I was an out of state student. I probably would have had to become a South Carolina resident. I also would have needed private loans.

Older daughter went to a private college for her bachelor’s degree. Younger daughter has told us that both she and older daughter went to college, and Ex would siphon the extra money from their student loans into the household… and her many impulses to buy junk on the Internet, food that would rot in the fridge, or anything else that struck her fancy and might “fill the void”. Younger daughter eventually dropped out of college and paid back her loans. Older daughter, on the other hand, seems to be following her mother’s lead.

The program older daughter is pursuing actually sounds very interesting. I don’t know how employable she’ll be at the end of it, or even if she intends to find employment. Ex supposedly got a graduate degree, but she doesn’t use it. She has claimed that her loans have been “paid off”. My guess is that she used money from her children’s loans to take care of that debt, if, in fact, she’s being truthful about paying off her loans. We also happen to know that Ex doesn’t have a great record of paying off debts. She has declared bankruptcy more than once.

Last night, Bill looked up the program older daughter is studying. We don’t know which school she’s attending, but the one closest to where she lives is at a private university, takes about three years to complete, and costs about $75,000 (total, not per year). But it does offer a “low residency” option, which means she can do a lot of it online, which will suit Ex just fine. Ex doesn’t care if older daughter actually finishes the degree, after all. She just wants the influx of loan money to keep her going. And she definitely needs older daughter around to take care of Ex’s son… and do the housework. Younger daughter has said that her older sister struggles in school. She has dyslexia, doesn’t drive much, and has other challenges that make school difficult for her. So there’s a good chance that this stab at higher education may do nothing more than plunge her further into debt.

Now… none of this is any of my business. And, for all I know, this could turn out to be a great thing for older daughter. Maybe she’ll meet someone special in school… either a love interest, or a mentor who can help her escape Ex’s clutches. Maybe she’ll succeed beyond her wildest dreams. She legitimately is a very talented artist, and this graduate program would use those talents. But… I have my doubts about this plan, and since I’m not LDS, I don’t subscribe to the “doubt your doubts” mindset. Common sense is telling me that this graduate school plan is likely going to explode in their faces. Or, it will not be so good for older daughter, anyway… since the loans it will take to pay for school will be in her name, not Ex’s. Student loans, by and large, can’t be discharged in a bankruptcy.

I was fortunate in that all of my loans were Stafford or Perkins. When I got out of school in 2002, I took advantage of a very low fixed interest rate of about 3% and consolidated all of my loans at that rate. I see that currently, Stafford loans for graduate students is at 6.54%. I’m pretty sure older daughter still has loans to repay, although COVID has stalled payments and Joe Biden has been trying to give students a break. She wouldn’t have to pay on any government loans when she’s in school, although I have no idea if she took out any private loans to fund her undergrad education. I know from personal experience that even with a low interest rate, paying back big loans is onerous. And even if she just gets government loans, it’s going to be hard to retire that debt.

Now that I think about it… I kind of wonder if Ex has taken out life insurance on anyone in her sphere… Seriously, I wouldn’t put it past her. Well, it’s not my problem. But it’s sure sad to observe. I hope it works out for older daughter. And I wish Ex would get the karma she so richly deserves.

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family, money, musings, work

Repost: You’ll never make more than minimum wage…

Here’s a repost from January 16, 2016. I am reposting it because it sort of relates to today’s fresh content, right down to my sharing of Ron Block’s beautiful song, “Someone”.

Today’s post is going to be some personal, self-indulgent, introspective drivel that may not interest everyone…  apologies in advance.

Yesterday, a guy I used to work with who is now a Facebook friend posted a tribute to a retired Air Force colonel who recently died.  The colonel, whose name was Luke, had been a manager at the restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia where my friend and I used to work.  I never knew Luke, but I heard many stories about him.  He was one of those people who became legendary everywhere he went. 

My friend’s tribute to Luke was very moving and inspiring.  Luke knew my friend when he was very young and broke.  He stood up for my friend when others were against him.  He helped him become who he is today.  Luke was a few years younger than my dad and may have even run in the same circles with him a time or two.  He retired from the Air Force six years after my dad did; but he was a full colonel, while my dad retired as a lieutenant colonel.

The restaurant where my friend and I used to work was notorious in Williamsburg.  It had a great reputation as a place to eat, and a horrible reputation as a place to work.  The chef, who was also one of the owners, was rather famous because he’d been on television and written a lot of cookbooks.  He was also a Marine.  Having worked in his restaurant, I definitely picked up the military style that was used there to keep things running.  That didn’t mean there wasn’t chaos from time to time.  In fact, when I worked at that restaurant, my life felt like it was totally chaotic.  I was suffering from depression and anxiety and felt like I’d never amount to anything.  At that time, I was also living with my parents.  I was in my mid 20s and had a college degree and international work experience.  But I still felt like a big loser and was unable to find work that would help me launch. 

I remember the day in March 1998 that I decided to apply to work at that restaurant.  I’d had a huge fight with my father.  He told me he thought I was a very arrogant person and that I’d never succeed at anything in life.  He said, “You’ll never make more than minimum wage!”  At the same time, he and my mother were putting tremendous pressure on me to move out on my own.  I was paralyzed by depression and anxiety at the time, and their demands made me feel panicky, helpless, and hopeless.  I was also very angry about a lot of things, particularly that my parents seemed to be ashamed of me and didn’t seem to recognize that I really was trying to become a full fledged adult.

Immediately prior to working at the restaurant, I had been temping at the College of William & Mary.  I was there for several weeks, working in their admissions office, as well as several other places on campus.  I spent the longest time at the admissions office, where I filed away report cards, SAT scores, personal essays, and all of the other stuff hopeful high school kids sent with their bids to achieve admittance.  Having worked in the admissions office and in other places around the campus, I could see why people wanted to go there.  It’s an excellent and prestigious school.  Looking at all the stellar academic records and flawless personal statements written by potential students, I felt a bit sad for myself.  I was a college graduate working as a temp, filing endless reams of papers.  It was mind numbing work that didn’t pay well.

My sister is a William & Mary graduate.  She’s done very well for herself.  They never would have accepted me.  I didn’t measure up to my sister’s greatness, although I do have some things in common with her.  We are both returned Peace Corps Volunteers; we both have advanced degrees in public health; and we both worked at that same restaurant in Williamsburg.  She worked there when it first opened, and I worked there eighteen years later, when I decided I would make more than minimum wage and get on with my life. 

I remember being very determined on that day in March when I applied for the job at the restaurant.  It was my first time waiting tables, though I had worked with food in other capacities.  I had even been a cook.  I enjoyed working with food and thought I could be successful.  It also wasn’t lost on me that the skills one learns waiting tables can be applied to many of life’s trials.

As I sat for the interview, I thought of my dad and how pissed off he made me… and how much I wanted to get out from under his thumb.  It was my second attempt at getting a job at that restaurant.  I didn’t mention my initial unsuccessful attempt to the captain or the manager who interviewed me.  I knew if I got hired, I’d make money and be able to get away from my dad and his belittling comments.  I would someday prove myself.  I set my mind to it and got the job.  I’m still friends with the man who hired me.

Working at that restaurant was one of the most difficult experiences of my life.  It was even harder than being a Peace Corps Volunteer.  The work itself was very demanding and stressful.  It was physically and mentally challenging.  I remember coming in every day, when I first started working there, and feeling like I was going to throw up.  I lost a lot of weight and learned how to wait tables.  I made good money.  I was also sick a lot during those 18 months.  I saw a lot of people quit and a lot of people get fired.  I was incompetent as hell at first and worried that I, too, would get fired.  One time, I accidentally spilled beer on a customer.  My dad sneered when he heard about it and asked if I still had a job.  I did.  I learned that if you were reliable, worked hard, and were honest, you wouldn’t get fired.  And eventually, I became competent and even good at the job.   

I was promoted a couple of times and made enough money to cover all my bills.  Living with my parents allowed me to save up for the next step I needed to take.  I sought help for the anxiety and depression I had been suffering from my whole life.  That process, too, was very difficult for me.  I came to some tough realizations about people I cared about and trusted.  After a brush with insanity and suicidal ideation, I finally felt a lot better and made the decision to go back to school. I took the GRE and applied to graduate school and was accepted.  I haven’t had to look back.  It was my final escape from Gloucester County after several dramatic attempts, one of which being my decision to join the Peace Corps.

Going back to school was a life changing experience for me… as much as the Peace Corps was.  But, I have to admit, working at that restaurant with people who knew and loved Luke, was equally earth shattering in the grand scheme of things.  I never knew Luke, but seventeen years after quitting, I am still friends with many of the people I knew in the late 90s when I was working at that job.  I have read their tributes and comments about Luke.  I can see that they all think of him as a comrade or even family…  Maybe they even think of me that way.  I hated the job when I was doing it, but now I’m honored to be in that group of people.  We were the ones who didn’t quit and had achieved some success.

This morning over breakfast, I was talking to Bill about all this stuff on my mind.  I remembered how my dad had told me I’d never make more than minimum wage and would ultimately amount to nothing.  Back then, that comment was devastating to me.  I was in my 20s, and unsure of what to do with my life.  I felt like I was really struggling, even though others surely struggled more than I ever have.  I kept doing all of these things that I thought would help me succeed, yet nothing seemed to lead anywhere.  But now I think of my friend who wrote the tribute to Luke; he actually slept outside a couple of nights because he lived far so away from the restaurant and had to take buses to and from work.  He’d missed the last one and couldn’t afford a motel.  He did what he had to do to succeed in the job and survived.  Now he’s thriving, living in Washington, DC and enjoying what appears to be a very good life.

Thanks to my parents, I never had to sleep outside.  But I felt like I was never going to launch.  Now, I look back on what my dad said and realize that he had no reason to be ashamed of me.  While I may not be the highest achieving person on the planet, I’ve done alright.  And I have made more than minimum wage more than once.  Maybe I didn’t end up being as successful and awesome as my sisters have, but at least I found someone to love, who loves me back.  I haven’t done anything really shameful or embarrassing.  In fact, aside from being overeducated and too fat for my Dad’s tastes, I’m even living an enviable life.  Maybe that was part of his problem with me.  Maybe he felt like I didn’t deserve what I have.  He probably thought I wasn’t living up to his idea of what my potential was… or maybe he was just projecting some of his psychic shit on me.  Who knows? 

Anyway, though I can’t say working at that restaurant was a whole lot of fun most of the time, I did learn a lot and met some fine people.  The skills I picked up have served me well in life.  In fact, I’d say in many significant ways, I ended up rather rich.  Reading my friend’s tribute to Luke made me realize something important.  Ripple effects can be positive.  Luke inspired and influenced my friend and my friend, in turn, inspired and influenced me.  I’d say that’s worth as much or more than minimum wage.  And I don’t have to be “someone” to be worthwhile.

This isn’t the way I feel about my dad, but it is kind of how I feel about success…  This song is called “Someone”.  It’s by Ron Block, a musician who has earned my admiration and gratitude.  The words are very wise and meaningful to me.  I think this song could be a theme for my life. (And at the time I wrote this post, Ron hadn’t shared a video of “Someone”, so I made one myself.)

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Netflix, TV

We fell into Squid Game over the weekend…

In spite of the beautiful fall weather we had over the weekend, Bill and I ended up staying home on Saturday. I was sitting on the bed, flipping through Netflix, when I landed on Squid Game. I didn’t know much about it, although had seen a lot of press about it. I was initially kind of turned off by it, even not knowing anything about the story. I could see a lot of weird colors and settings in the photos and I had a feeling it was going to be bizarre.

The trailer…

But anyway, since we didn’t have anything else to do, I decided to press “play”. The show began, and Bill quickly joined me. It’s not that often that I land on something he really wants to watch. Bill is a typical guy, and he likes action and violence more than I do when he watches TV or a movie. We watched five episodes on Saturday and the remaining four last night. I thought I would have nightmares, like I did after I watched The Handmaid’s Tale. To my great surprise, no bad dreams haunted me last night or the night before, although I do remember that Saturday’s dreams were pretty busy and vivid.

At first, I wasn’t sure that I’d be interested in Squid Game, even as the series began. But then I was intrigued by the very American sounding voices that were dubbed into the original Korean. And then, the actual premise hooked me, even as I was absolutely horrified by the violence and dark themes.

There they were, all of these Koreans, basically tricked to going to a hellhole, where they are forced to play children’s games. They were there because almost all of them desperately needed money to pay off debts they otherwise could never repay. The payoff for success is a huge pot of money, dumped into an enormous piggy bank that is suspended over the players. Not succeeding means death– quick and sure, with a single shot to the head or chest. It’s brutal and shocking, and ultimately kind of sad. But then there are interesting quirks and twists, and a few comic elements. Plus, there’s a lot of symbolism and uses of color to make the show even more visually appealing and intriguing.

I don’t want to get too much into the plot about this series, because I know a lot of people are still watching it or haven’t seen it. I don’t want to spoil the ending. Do I think you should watch it? Well, that all depends…

In some ways, I think Squid Game is as dark and dystopian as The Handmaid’s Tale is. It’s certainly very violent as it makes a point about the relentless pursuit of wealth. I had some flashes of depression and shock as I watched the players suffer and the tensions build as each one was dispatched, with no thought at all for the people left behind and the witnesses. With each death, a cheery female voice announces that the player has been eliminated. It’s jarring, and surreal.

But on the other hand, as the story progresses, some depth and wisdom emerges. The main character, who was kind of a careless loser at the beginning of the series, develops some decency and turns into a man. It wasn’t unlike the character of Zack Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman. He starts off as a callous jerk, who doesn’t care about anyone but himself. By the end of the film, he’s developed heart, courage, leadership, and decency. That part of the story appealed to my heart, even as it was broken watching all of the carnage.

Indeed, at the end of the series, we see that the game continues, with new players… not unlike officer’s training school continues in An Officer and a Gentleman, when Gunnery Sergeant Foley delivers his spiel to new recruits. The difference is, of course, most people either get through officer’s training just fine, or they decide to quit. Losers in Squid Game die. And it’s all for the mighty pursuit of money.

I had no idea how serious the debt problem in South Korea is. I suppose that’s another reason why so many Americans are drawn to this series. I think debt is a serious problem in the United States, too. It’s so easy to fall into it, and so hard to get out of it. I could see how some people would be attracted to play a game that would lead to their early deaths. Of course, there were a few times when I had to suspend disbelief. For instance, I wondered how the game could continue, when so many people played it and suddenly disappeared. Wouldn’t people wonder where hundreds of their friends and family members disappeared to with each new round?

Teasing is fun sometimes.

But I also know that people love a good fantasy… Squid Game is a good fantasy, I guess. Some of it is downright creepy and weird, and I marveled at how someone came up with this story, with its twists and turns and special effects. I also thought the actors were great. I found myself wanting to learn more about Korea. The series made it look like such a cool culture.

I was once offered a job teaching English in South Korea. I decided not to take it. There were a few reasons for that. I did kind of feel sad about turning down the job, since I thought it would be exciting and interesting. But I had student loans to pay, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it on what the school would pay me. Also, I didn’t know if I would appreciate the lifestyle in South Korea, or the culture. Now that I’ve watched Squid Game, I think I’d like to know more.

Anyway… I definitely think Squid Game is an interesting series. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is disturbed by gratuitous violence. I’m glad I watched it. I’m not sure if I would want to watch another season of it… I wouldn’t be surprised if one materializes, though, since I think it’s going to make Netflix a lot of money. But the creator has already said that if he does make another season, he would use other writers and directors. I’ve seen what happens when new people come in and change a show’s vision. It’s not always good. On the other hand, Bill told me the director lost six teeth making the first season. Teeth are a terrible thing to waste.

Now that I’ve seen Squid Game, I may have to learn more about that part of the world… I’ve already read a lot about North Korea. Maybe it’s time I read more about the southern part of the Korean peninsula. I still don’t know if I want to visit, though. I definitely wouldn’t want to be playing Squid Game myself. It’s amazing what’s coming out on television these days. I grew up in an era when we were all happy with cookie cutter sit-coms.

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