Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Consider Yourself Lucky

Life gets me down sometimes. It probably has sometime for everyone reading this…and everyone you may know. I get tired of the drag. I grow weary of the struggle, the scraping, the uphill battle to succeed; because that’s what it is all about, success and happiness. They seem intrinsically bonded together in this life, as you can’t have one without the other—or so we’re led to believe. But it is life as a whole—the big picture—that seems so dreary at times.

Life is always hard, unfair, silly, sometimes pointless and most times quite pedestrian. We spend all our times eking out fame, fortune or fortitude and spend so little time with the rewards. The good guy doesn’t always win; nice guys don’t finish first; politeness, integrity, chivalry, courtesy… all anachronisms, antiques of a fictionalized society we’re led to believe existed in some previous generation before we were alive. But it was just like it is today as it was yesterday: Nothing changes but the names and our access to the information. If you think about it too much, the toiling through the days, months and years, justifying the heartaches and hustle in spite of the happy moments and cherished rewards, it can be down right depressing.

The moment we are born, they say, we begin to die. Our time here is fleeting, only for a brief moment are we on this earth to make an impact, change its face for the betterment of those to follow. We live so that our children can live. But why? What for? Where will it lead, and when will it end?

It’s the human condition, I’m told, to survive and persevere through life’s many, many obstacles on our way to that mysterious fruitful reward. We don’t know what it is, but we have been taught since early childhood that it will be good to those that have earned it.

That is why life is hard.

But really? Is it? If you look around at your life, what you have, what you could have had and what you may get sometime, is it that tough? Did you have to kill your dinner today? Was there any part of your morning where you thought you might die? Was there a physical struggle for survival in the elevator to your office? Did you get a flat tire, the fax machine quit working, the button on your favorite jacket rip, or are you a little under the weather? Does that make life hard?

Have you ever really taken a close look at your life, at the one thing beyond it all, the root of your life? If you do, you might see something I just discovered.

I consider myself lucky.

Damn lucky, really… and every day I take that stroke of luck for granted. My one great instance of luck, and that is all I can call it, pure luck, is the one greatest thing that may ever happen in my life, something that has laid the foundation for my entire existence on this planet and maybe beyond.

And I had nothing to do with it. I’m lucky that I was born me.

In the face of a shrinking planet, where I can witness the lifestyles of people across the globe on a whim via the Internet, we are constantly barraged with information about the world around us. News stories of wars, famines, atrocities, poverty, heart-breaking accounts of suffering and indignities any previous generation before us could never be able to witness the way we have to flood us each and every day. The news tells us about a school getting bombed in the Gaza Strip. YouTube shows us the first account video of refugee camps in Africa. Flickr gives us personal pictures of the slums of Rio. You can’t get away from it.

Look around too hard and all you see is hate and crime and drama, life unfolding before our eyes in the most horrible of ways. It can be psychologically scarring to be objected to these things time and time again. What good is knowing about the man in LaHabra tonight who killed his entire family because he lost his job? Does that make me a better person?

I decided to go to bed early tonight, which is never a good idea because I always lay there for a couple of hours thinking too much about everything… if that’s possible. And it dawned on me like a truly epiphanical moment, where a staff of light broke through the ceiling and filled the room with clarity: I take my own life for granted… literally; I’ve ignored the hidden fortunes my life has given me, basically everything about me for the last 35 years. And here I am, lucky as can be, not appreciating who I am, what I am, where I am and what brought me here.

I could have, very easily, been somebody else, somebody completely different than who I am.

In the broadest of strokes, I’m lucky for being born. I’m lucky to be alive. I could have ended up in a bio-waste bag at an abortion clinic. I could have died from a rare disease before emerging from the womb. I could have had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck and choked to death before taking my first breath. My mother could have smoked, drank, did drugs or got into an accident while she was pregnant. Any number of things could have happened and do happen every day to mothers and babies all over the world.

I’m lucky to have been born in the United States. Say what you will about it, it is still one of the greatest nations on earth, the land of opportunity and the candle holder to democracy and freedom. It is a world superpower that leads in industry, economy (well, now not so much) and prosperity. What are the chances I would have been born anywhere else? There are almost seven billion people on this planet, but only 300 million of them live in this country. The odds that I could have even been born here are small, only about 1 in 50, but here I am.

I’m lucky that I was born to caring parents. I could have ended up in foster care. I could have been sold on the black market in India. I could have been dumped in the toilet of a high school locker room (we’ve all heard the stories). I could have been abandoned on the steps of a church. Or, like a lot of people, I could have been born into a family that despised each other and everything else…what damage does an environment like that do to an impressionable mind?

I’m lucky I was born in California. This isn’t to be disparaging to anyone born anywhere else in the country, but I say this because I could have been born in Appalachia in the 1850s. I could have been born in a covered wagon in the 1870s. I could have been born in the slums of Detroit in the 1960s. Instead, I was born in the Land of Sunshine, in the state that most people envy during the winter and that’s lots of people strive to visit or to live. I can surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon (if I did either of those things). The end result of Manifest Destiny, we introduced hundreds of items into mainstream culture, from the birth of the movie industry to the mainstay of many agricultural products that can only be found in California. If the United States is the land of opportunity, then California is the state of opportunity.

I’m lucky that I had a good childhood. Any number of things could have happened to me in the first years of my life. I received a good education. I played sports, learned to swim, had grandparents, and joined the Boy Scouts. I went to college. My home life was excellent. I was nurtured, encouraged, praised, taught, formed and shaped into a person of value to this society. I had friends growing up. I am mentally stable, normal, almost typical.

I’m lucky that was born in the 20th Century. Imaging living in the Colonial times. Imagine threshing wheat or having to read by candle light. Imagine working in a textile factory at the age of eight or in a coal mine, or having to give up grade school because you’re needed on the farm. Imagine being born in a gold mining camp, without medicine or modern science. Two years ago, Natalie contracted Scarlet Fever… a hundred years ago, it would have killed her.

All of these things add up to me, and not only am I lucky that they did, but I’m grateful too. Does that make me an elitist or overly arrogant that I wouldn’t have had a good life if I were born in a Bosnian concentration camp or to alcoholic parents in the Ukraine? What would life be like for me if I were born a Somalian in the slums of Mogadishu, or if I was the unwanted bastard child of a teenage prostitute in Thailand? I didn’t live an uneducated life in the backwoods of 1920s Tennessee, and I wasn’t subjected to the constant life and death struggles most kids face in third world countries. Of course, it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have grown up to be a happy productive person… I just wouldn’t have been the me you all know.

I am me.

The seemingly insurmountable odds were stacked against me becoming me, but here I am, an American in the 21st Century with all the opportunities and benefits that comes with it. I have a beautiful wife, two great kids, a house, cars, a good paying job (so far), friends and family. We’re not living during a crushing depression (yet) or a demobilizing war. No armies are poised to attack our cities and I don’t fear for my life when I leave my front door. I enjoy order, civilization, a society that, overall, respects each other and our individual goals and ambitions.

However, with my epiphany comes the sorrow I feel for all those people around me that not only take their lives for granted, but for the ones that waste them.

Feel lucky that you are you. You might not know how good you have it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Economy, Hitting Home

You hear of nothing on the news and read of nothing else in the paper (online, that is) but how hard the economy is, how many people are out of work and how much of the country is spinning out of control. Car companies are bottoming out, housing prices continue to plummet and the unemployment rate is the highest its been since the early 80s.

My main client, which accounts for 95 percent of my income, has tightened up their drawstrings, and the trickle down has now affected every contractor on my level including me. Our contracts changed drastically this year which means I will be earning less than I did last year unless I work twice as hard. It is as if the small raise I got last year never happened. In addition, accountability has risen to ensure that every penny they spend is earmarked to a specific step of a specific project.

It was the last straw for me and our current way of living. I had had enough of seeing our money blow out the window every time someone opens the front door.

Even before this came down the pike, I promised that the year 2009 would be a tight year. The writing on the wall is that the world’s economy isn’t done scraping the bottom of the barrel yet and that it will get worse. I’m not sure what that means or where it will go, but I for one don’t want to get stuck out in the cold for not preparing. Our savings accounts are at the lowest they’ve been in a couple of years and I’d like to build those back up as quickly as possible.

I heard interest rates were extremely low, so I called a trusted mortgage broker who told me that I couldn’t refinance my house because it is worth less than what I owe. How depressing that my house is worth half of what I paid for it…but at least it is only on paper. Unlike a lot of people, I’m making my payments, which seems to not be doing me any favors. I called the bank that handles my mortgage a couple of weeks ago to see about modifying my loan to get a more favorable rate or a lower payment with a different program, and I was told that as long as I’m able to make my payments, they won’t help me. Which, if you think about it, is wrong. I’m one of the ones that is preparing for the worst and they won’t even talk to me until I start skipping payments.

Sometimes it is frustrating to be responsible, and I wonder why is it worth it and what’s the reward? My FICO score is at the top one percent of the country and I can’t be considered for a loan now because all of the dumb asses at the bottom of the list didn’t understand their mortgage contracts and have screwed it up for the rest of us. Everyone blames the greedy unscrupulous corporations for taking advantage of the little guy, and that maybe partly true, but if you’re signing your name to a 50-page document that’s in a language you don’t read and you really don’t know what it is you’re signing, you deserve what you get. I have little sympathy for shortsightedness and blind trust of strangers who will make money on your signature.

Anyways, for the last couple of years, spending at this house has been on par with the government. If we had it, we spent it and we asked for more. We even over spent into a deficit using the American Express card. Sure, we have a host of savings plans that I’ve instituted, from a dollar a day going each of the kids’ savings accounts and five dollars a day going to one for Kara and I (along with some automatic mutual fund payments each month) but every other dollar in the checking account was fair game for anyone to take and do what they like with it. I saved what I need to make the property taxes and I try to squirrel away as much in savings as possible, but most times it was very little.

We irresponsibly sucked too much of it away with little or nothing to show for it.

Do you want to buy an insulator collection and then not know what to do with it? Sure, go ahead. Do you really need a dozen new books to add to the 1500 you already have? Why not? Let’s go out to eat for the fourth time this week; it’s only $50 for a family of our size. New shoes, shirts, 15th pair of jeans, telescope, tires/wheels for the truck, toys, games, wine—my God the wine—and who knows what else?

One night, as the year drew to a close, I got to wondering what 2008 looked like from a financial perspective. Impartially, as an amateur accountant, what did we spend and where did we spend it? I built an Excel spreadsheet and dragged out the bank statements, the bills, the receipts and our online spending accounts and added them all up.

It took me two days to calculate and I was floored at the results.

I’m running a small country here. Last year, it cost us $97,000 to run this house. That is equal to 18 cents a minute. Every minute that went by, all 525,600 of them in 2008, cost me 18 cents.

Twenty-five thousand dollars of that went to groceries, Target, WalMart, Trader Joes, haircuts, PTA dues, party supplies, clothes, trips to Disneyland. We spent $600 at amusement parks last year (not including our Disney passes, which was another $700). We spent $2379 eating out at restaurants, $1693 on clothes, $497 at WalMart, $1037 on camping supplies, $2350 in ATM withdrawals.

What have to show for it? Pictures that we rarely look at? Souvenirs we’ve misplaced or lost interest in? What a waste.

This year will be different. Kara and I have banded together and put our collective foot down to stop the hemorrhaging.

We’re not going to spend $425 on party supplies or $276 at Toys-R-Us. We’re not going to spend any of it because we don’t have to. Those things aren’t necessary. The kids have enough toys, and gifts will only be dispensed on holidays and birthdays. No more will treats be purchased merely because they really, really want them or that they’ve been extra good. When I was a kid and wanted something, I never got it. My parents always said, “We can’t afford it,” or a simple “no.” That’s not to say it paid off at Christmas time, because it did, but that’s what makes those holidays so special. You wait all year to get the things you been wanting to get, instead of having a steady flow of new prizes and gifts and toys each month.

My new mantra isn’t “I can’t afford it” because that would be lying. It’s “I don’t want to afford it.” I don’t want to spend $12 on another stuffed animal for Matthew because he doesn’t know where the other 25 of them are, and I don’t want to fork out $15 for a doll for Natalie because she is still in the flavor-of-the-month mentality when it comes to her possessions. She has some favorites, but there is just too much already for her to play with that I’m sure it is overwhelming her. There are toys in her room she hasn’t seen since she got them, I’m sure.

I have enough socks and shoes. I have four pairs of jeans and a closet full of clothes, which is more than enough. I’m not into fashion, so why should I pay for it? We don’t need random office supplies, as I avoid printing anything and try to cut down on postage, if at all. We don’t need CDs and books (spent $286 on those last year), as you can find most music for free online. We certainly don’t need to go on any trips, as the monthly excursions with the trailer is enough (add them all together and it is as if we went on a two-week vacation!).

The State of California is cutting down its spending by 10 percent (yeah, right), and I’m going to aim for 25 percent. At the end of the month, I want to see 25 percent of our income still in the bank. I don’t think that is too much to ask.

We work too hard to waste our money on things we don’t need, and I’m sure it isn’t just me. American society seems to be that way. We are judged on our performance on Black Friday or the Christmas season’s spending. Why? Is it because we are guilted into buying stuff in the ploy that it helps the economy? Maybe we should stop importing crap from China so we don’t feel compelled to buy it for the good of the world’s economy. If you have to buy something, buy it locally, buy it from Americans, and above all else, buy quality (which isn’t always American, sadly).

Then there’s money spent on running the house that is a must, without it, there would be no house. This includes, the mortgage, insurance, property taxes, car registration, phones, gas, electricity, the trailer, etc. This is the bulk of what we pay each month/year, money that we can’t get out of paying unless we drastically change our lifestyle. And that isn’t too likely.

Now, what about the things that we do need and the things that we have gotten used to needing? Groceries for one is an obvious necessity. In 2008, we spent $4149 at Albertsons, $2036 at Sam’s Club, and $1003 at Trader Joes. That’s $7188 on food, or roughly $138 a week. And there’s never anything for me to eat in the house… if there is, it doesn’t last long.

We have fancy cell phones and a high-speed Internet connection, access to Netflix and a decent satellite package for our TVs. I’m quite used to having those things and I don’t think I’d like to do without them. Sure, we could drop our Netflix down to one movie at a time and save four dollars a month and I don’t really need a cell phone—as nobody calls me but Kara—but we’ve had them for so long, picking up my keys and wallet without grabbing my cell phone would feel weird.

I’ve got a guy that prepares my taxes for me and I’ve got a guy that tells me how to prepare for retirement (like that will ever happen), but other than that, I don’t need a gardener or a maid or a cleaning lady or a nanny. We don’t hire someone to clean our carpets and I don’t take many things to the dry cleaners. Nothing gets delivered regularly like bottled water or propane, and there’s nothing at the house that needs service, like a soft water system or a pool. I’m happy for this. We don’t have car payments or student loans to pay off. We have no revolving debt or high-interest credit cards hanging over our heads. We worked hard over the years to get rid of all these things in our lives, and I’m proud that we don’t.

The only service we have is a pest control guy who sprays for spiders, and as soon as the mid-year is up, I’m going to cancel it. Last time the guy was here, he told me that the chemicals he uses are the same as the those you can buy at Home Depot. The only difference is the staying power. Theirs lasts three times as long.

For the last six months or so, I’ve noticed a steady influx of crab grass and dandelions sprouting up on my front and back lawn (it doesn’t help that the kids like to blow the “bubble flowers”). It’s been bothering me for the sole reason that I want my lawn to look nice. It’s still green, which is better than some of the dead lawns in front of a couple foreclosed houses in the neighborhood, but it isn’t lush and nice. I mow it regularly and that’s about it aside from sprinkling some fertilizer on it now and again. I don’t pretend to be a good gardener. A salesman came to the door from TruGreen yesterday, one of those fertilizer services that, for $40 each visit—every six weeks or 10 times a year—they would make sure our lawn is the best it can be. He told me that I have good grass but it is just sick and need some help.

I was frank with him. I told him it would have been a service that I probably would have taken advantage of a year ago, but now that the economy being the way it is, I consider lush green grass a luxury. I was happy with its current hue and that digging out dandelions isn’t that big a deal. Plus, the healthier it is, the more often I’d have to mow it! I was surprised, but he understood and left.

What it comes down to is that we’re consumers and I’m tired of it. We buy produced goods and use them, wear them out and buy new ones…or buy new ones because the old ones don’t look as nice as the new ones. For example, my hair brush. I had this red hair brush for years. It had chew marks on it from the dog, the bristles were kind of frayed at the ends and I throw it in with the wash when it needs cleaning. I liked it. It worked well, and I only used it when my hair got to a certain length, which is usually a couple of days before I get it cut. But I decided that I needed a new one, so I had Kara get one for me when she was last at Target. It’s by ConAir, if that means anything to anyone, but it isn’t as good as my last one. Every time I use it, I feel like I’m brushing my head with a horse brush. The bristles are fine and really close together, parting each hair away from one another on my head. I don’t like it, so I rarely use it, and when I do, I wish for my old one back.

It is things like this that will change for 2009.

We’re going back to the motto of our grandparents of the Great Depression: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Mostly, I plan on doing without.

Wish us luck.

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