Laura's Lemonade Stand

the sour, transmogrified

The Dow-Jones Industrial Average is Irrelevant, Which is Why It Matters

The graph below, from Huffington Post last week, says most of what I want to say:

Dow and Wage Stagnation

But the graph’s title is wrong.

In fact, there is a direct, casual connection between the Dow’s upward progress and our flat earnings. Let’s remember that the purpose of a company, in corporate capitalism, is to produce profits for share-holders. In simple terms, it accomplishes that goal by selling as many widgets as possible, for more than it costs to produce them.

The hidden complexity of 21st Century corporate capitalism is that the mathematical difference described above is accomplished by having as much liquidity, relative to borrowing potential, as possible. How do companies accomplish that? They hold onto their pennies. They don’t hire. They keep wages flat. They find creative ways to eviscerate benefits. They outsource as much work as possible to “temporary” or “independent” workers. They avoid keeping much inventory. They avoid investing in future infrastructure. These tactics are collectively and blandly called “keeping costs down.” In case you did not realize it, you are a “cost.”

I remember that at the start of the Great Recession, financial pundits explained to the public, patiently, and with small words, that these prudent but temporary tactics would help companies to stay solvent. We were told that they were trying to reduce their precarious debt loads. We were told that companies would begin reinvesting in infrastructure once their debts were down. Or the stock market re-stabilized. Or consumers started buying again.

All of which has, um, happened. Several quarters ago. But hiring remains sluggish and wages are “stagnant”, which is term, let’s not forget, that really means wages are going down, relative to living costs.

So. I have been astonished and moderately nauseated by the spittle-punctuated announcements of the financial media in the last week that everything is great again(!!!)

For the captains and share-holders of the businesses in the Dow index, things ARE pretty great. The index is an indicator that post-consumer capitalism has been created: profits are now tethered to secret, ethereal, and self-referential formulations of value made by and for the stock market. A society of free, educated, and adequately paid workers, with the buying power to afford a company’s widgets is a former necessity that has now been removed from the core of this economic model.

The Dow is up not in spite of flat wages, but BECAUSE of flat wages (among other factors.)

Here is a small example from my own experience- not of flat wages, but of a big bank’s successful effort to increase its profit by excoriating my household budget for as long as it could.

I had a mortgage with one of those Too Big To Fail Banks that helped to create the Great Recession.

In August, 2012, my ex-husband agreed to take over the house that we still jointly owned, three years after our split, because The Bank would never refinance the original loan in just my name- they told me that I did not qualify for a lower monthly payment: essentially, that I was too poor to pay less.

I offered my ex-husband a sweet deal: our beautiful home, below market value. Once the refinance was completed, he would be paying a mortgage that approximately equaled his monthly rent. He wouldn’t have to shell out a new down payment. And with the house, he would have the entirety of our marriage’s assets. I would walk away with nothing to show for my investments into either the ten year marriage or the home.

I wanted to make that deal. If I could walk away, I would be free. I would be avoiding the burden of a house that no longer fit my life and the shadow of insolvency and bankruptcy that had been following me around.

In September, 2012, we filed papers with The Bank, stating our joint intentions to remove me from the loan and deed, and to provide my ex-husband with a much lower interest rate than we had on the original loan.

We were told the process would take “30-45 days, tops.”

The loan finally closed on January 30th, 2013 (139 days.)

If you wonder how such a big bank could lack the competence to process the refinance in the promised timeframe, you’re asking the wrong question. I believe that the right question is: what did The Bank gain by stringing us along for three times the maximum estimated timeframe?

Profit, of course.

They kept us locked at the old, higher interest rate for longer. They continued to have more of my money to use for their own investments.

If you believed that consumer capitalism was at the core of The Bank’s business model, you would have expected them to expedite the refinance process because:

1. If they made my ex-husband and me happy, we would each remain loyal customers. We would use their other “financial products” in the future. All of my dealings with this bank have made it clear to me that they have no interest in servicing my present debts or my future wealth.

2. If we were each relieved of the overly expensive original loan, we would have more money to invest (one assumes they would want us to invest it with them) and more money to circulate through the larger economy.

But the bank dragged its figurative feet because… well… I feel compelled to borrow a phrase from chick lit, which is something I never do, but here I can’t help it: they’re just not that into us.

Here at Laura’s Lemonade Stand, as I make tart observations (ha!) about money and family life in America, my aims are to become clear and to get financially strong again.

I share my observations- mostly personal stories, hunches, and riffs on things I’ve seen in the media- because I think they might resonate with you. And I wonder what would happen if a lot of us got clear about the load of goods we’re being sold? Could we nudge the flat, teal line at the bottom of that graph into a more vertical slope? Could we flip that graph on its head?

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For Lent, I Gave Up Nothing

Ok. I swear I’m almost done grumbling about the unrigorous, unhelpful, and *possibly* even insincere nonsense that gets passed off as financial advice for the likes of you and me.

Actually, that’s a lie. I’ll continue to have opinions about these things for as long as the mainstream media insists on trotting out this nonsense.

Which means that my epitaph, someday, will probably include a reference to this activity. Space on the epitaph with be divided equally between: her devotion to family, her stoic beauty (ha!), and her cranky grumbling.

For today, I will limit myself to this pithy nugget of money smarts, which I found while listlessly staring at my desktop’s MSNBC launch page, in order to delay the rejection that happens whenever I do my job (selling ads for a magazine that I help create.)

The advice was sheathed in religious allusions because it was Ash Wednesday (Clever. Timely.) A brief slideshow outlined five “money vices” you should give up for 40 days, thereby reaping spiritual rewards along with your newfound heaps of cash.

For example, you could stop smoking like a goddamned chimney (and save $248.) I left aside the fact that there are far more cogent reasons to give up cigarettes than to save $248. Or that, if you plan to light one up at the first rays of dawn on the day He Is Risen, you haven’t accomplished a whole bunch of anything.

I decided to give this show a chance, and I appreciated the fact that it was eating three-to-five minutes of time in which I would otherwise be enjoying the rejection of some business that doesn’t want to advertise in my magazine, and insinuates that I am some kind of greasy shill.

The second slide said: if you would just stop eating out and buying those $4 lattes at Starbucks…

As I read this, I noticed a faint tingling in my spine, a sensation that accompanies dejavu. Where had I heard this before? Oh yeah, in, like, 1998, when (allegedly) we were all pissing away our dot-com millions on designer coffee and handbags. Right, I thought: I’m going to implement that brilliant chunk of advice today.

It was a convenient day to do it, because I wasn’t planning to eat out. Because I didn’t have any money for restaurants, or, um, fuel, until my next pay day. So that worked out.

Next I learned that if I would just stop ignoring my savings… I confess that I objected this piece of advice. It’s not so much me “ignoring” savings as frequently plundering savings for notions and whims, like tires. Or medical treatment. I am frivolous that way.

But things took a turn for the worse at slide four: the author suggested that if I would just lay off the sauce for 40 days, I would save $40. This is where things got personal, and also where I firmly retracted that tender offer of respect that I had previously extended to the author of the slide show.

For a piffling return fo $40, the author wanted me to relinquish one of the few, and frankly modest, pleasures available to a person of my financial station.

When I write my best-selling financial advice book (the one I discuss in the last post, which will include copious and wholly gratuitous allusions to my brief encounter with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, when I was twenty) I’m going to give the opposite advice. I’m going to say: whatever you do, DON’T give up those few sensory indulgences that provide you with exponential returns.

Each of us has them, though we may not have been in the financial straits necessary to shave our luxuries down to the three or four critical things. If not, consider the old “On a desert island” exercise and you will find yours.

Come to think of it, financial struggle IS a desert island: you’ve got your desolation, your isolation, your helplessness, and the disturbing desire, on occasion, to murder your companions in fate. Anyway. We were talking about those few, small luxuries that provide big returns.

I know mine. I have known them for several years, because these are the items that, when I do exclude them from my purchases, create noticeable longing and heartache. They are (in no particular order): olives (not the rubbery discs that come in cans- I mean the good kind), black oiled sunflower seeds to feed to the wild birds, and red wine.

I know from experience that I can get by without many things. Before I had children, I loved to backpack. That’s a desert-island activity if ever there was one. You quickly discover your inner MacGuiver, and you happily forget about the vast, burdensome pile of stuff that otherwise seems “necessary.”

For me, there is something about a few olives in a bowl, maybe with a celery stick or a couple of crackers, around 4 PM, that assures me that all will be well. No other food accomplishes this feeling. I’m not sure why. It could be that the chronic stress of worrying about money has exhausted my adrenal glands, and so I crave salt. It could be that I associate a nice bowl of olives with the lives of wealthy, sophisticated people, whom I encountered when I went to a fancy college. Or it could be that olives are just really good and they’re only costing me about $5 a week, so shut up.

The sunflower seeds feed my eyes. I’m a nerdy old dowager, trapped in the body of a thirty-something woman, and I really like watching wild birds. There have been times that the escalating price of birdseed crashed into my slim budget, and I’ve had to leave the store without a bag of seed.

And this is after I’ve done everything I could to wratchet down the cost of my dogs’ food. They are lazy assholes, and really, if they’re as loyal as they claim, they should be willing to make sacrifices right along with me.

But when I look outside at the adorable feeders that my husband made me a few years ago- a miniature log house, complete with a miniature deer antler over the “door”, and a “chimney” that is actually the hollowed-out aspen branch in which one deposits the bird seed, and there’s no seed in there and therefore, no birds? That’s the moment I have completely failed as a human being. I think of the hundreds of beady little bird eyes staring at me from the among the trees, waiting for me to refill the feeders. Hungry and cold. And also fluffy and cute. It kills me.

Conversely, when the birds are twittering happily (or bullying each other and aggressively guarding resources) I get that all-will-be-well sensation.

Do I really need to explain to you the inordinant pleasure that comes from one glass of (cheap, faintly yeasty) box-wine, sitting on the countertop while one is preparing dinner/assisting with homework/breaking up sibling fights/wiping mud off of floors when the dogs burst in the door uninvited? It’s the witching hour, people, and a glass of red wine is my wooden cross.

What strikes me about phony “advice” like the stuff I detail above is that it’s a ruse designed to distract us from very real, very serious, and very imminent threats to our financial wellbeing: wage stagnation, inflation of food and fuel and insurance and healthcare and just about everything else costs, disturbingly unequal (and unprecedented) distributions of wealth in our country…

But.

Iif you would only tighten your belt a little and forgo that small “vice” that your tender body loves, like a good little Christian? All will be well.

The Innocent: An Honest (Really, Not Bitter!) Review of Another Financial Advice Book)

I am reading “It’s Not About the Money” by Brent Kessel. It’s part of my “Total Money Makeover” (by Dave Ramsey) to read a couple of money books each year.

Brent and I are off to a rough start- I take umbrage at the title: it actually IS about the money, Brent. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be reading your book. It’s only not about the money if you have plenty of money. I am suspicious that this Brent fellow is preaching from the mountaintop, so to speak- from the top of his mountain of money. That’s a comfortable position from which to tell me that my money struggles have nothing to do with money, but it’s unlikely to make for effective advice. At least not for people who actually struggle with money.

Unfortunately, Brent confirms my suspicion on page 4 that he is ungrounded in financial suffering and therefore unlikely to have any advice that would be useful to most people. He says, “You may have to choose between paying your heating bill and your car insurance, or hesitate about investing in real estate for fear of not being able to pay the property taxes. If you face this kind of dilemma, I acknowledge that you are in a very difficult position, one that my own experience with finances makes it difficult for me to fathom.”

I am tempted to return the book to the library, right at the end of that sentence. He goes on to make a case for why “everyone” needs to read this book. And I admit that I remain curious if only because he claims to be some kind of serious meditation practitioner, which is a unique angle within the financial-advice industry. Also, the cover of the book is my favorite shade of blue. This particular blue (a kind of robin’s egg blue) causes me to pick up objects in which I would otherwise have no interest… it’s my Pavlovian Color, if you will.

I then learn that he has met His Holiness, the Dalai Lama!

I did not know that meeting His Holiness constituted a platform from which to hustle a book. I too have met the Dalai Lama. I make a note to insert that information into my book proposal. Which will be a collection of my bitter experiences with all these financial advice books, along with my equally bitter nuggets of financial “advice” for those who find themselves in financial difficulties, because, so far as I can tell, I’d be the only person in the financial advice market who has actually dealt with real money difficulties. Except for Dave Ramsey, I guess, because he says he lost everything when he overleveraged himself in a hot real estate market… and he had to sell his jag! So yeah, I guess Dave Ramsey has suffered too.

But I digress…

Moving on, I learn that I have a Core Story about money. (So do you.) It comes from a Core Wound about money, which is lodged deep in the Unconscious Mind. There sits my Core Story, silently pulling-the-strings on my financial decisions like some nefarious brain-Oz. The trick, says Brent, is for me to figure out my Core Story, and gradually heal it through meditative awareness ‘n stuff.

Brent says he learned about Core Stories and Core Wounds from decades of meditation and talking to lots of meditation teachers. Which is odd to me because all this business about the unconscious and childhood psychic trauma is straight out of Freudian psychoanalysis. Theories of mind in Eastern religions rely to neither of these ideas.

But I’m going to walk myself back from the flaming geek-out I was about to have about Buddhist and Hindu theories of mind. Because Brent and I are here to talk about money. Specifically, why a nice girl like me doesn’t have any.

I strain really hard to come up with a Core Story. The thing is, my parents got it right. They saved some and spent some. They worked hard at meaningful careers, and they used a lot of their money to create happy memories: skiing, fishing in Alaska, a trip to Europe. We were always one of the first families on the block to adopt new technologies (VHS! Apple 2C!) yet my parents always managed to reign in their spending so there was a cushion between us and financial danger. They rode a wave of rising property values and easy credit to constantly refinance debt. They were generous with everyone they knew. In my neighborhood, there were families with more money, fancier cars, and flashier clothes, but I was a happy kid.

If there’s a “wound” in there, it’s that my parents’ Core Story turned out not to be my story. I expected to get to stay home with my babies, without financial concerns. And also to take them travelling. And to make loads of money eventually refinancing and/or selling the house in which I raised them. And lots of other things that didn’t happen, I am pretty sure, because the whole world changed. It really had fuck-all to do with me or my wounds.

But I’m a very trusting person, and also stubborn. So I stick with Brent for a few more chapters. His other Big Idea is that we all have, deep inside us, these Money Archetypes. Brent says that there are eight. A perfectly balanced person would exhibit traits of them all. Our troubles issue, (in reaction to that Core Wound from our childhood, when Daddy was a gambler and sold our Legos to pay his debts) from an imbalanced expression of two or three archetypes. For example, we might be anxious, penny pinching savers. Or flamboyant, pleasure-seeking spendthrifts.

I admit that I’ve started skimming at this point in the book.

Until I get to a chapter called “The Innocent.” Which is like turning the page of a book and unexpectedly finding a mirror.

“The Innocent” may have had things pretty good in their younger life. And, with the heart of an optimist, they’ve pursued skills and talents that our world does not financially reward. Unless someone is around to take care of them, they can suffer quite a bit with money. When they don’t have enough, they take it is a personal failure, and yet they try not to look too closely at money, because it hurts.

And so. Yes, Brent, you do have a useful point to make, even if your exuberance about change-from-within sounds a little tinny in the post-Recession atmosphere (note to self- only read money books that were written after 2009.) I have to admit that I’m pretty strong in this archetype: there was my choice of college majors… Medieval Asian Religion and History! Also, there is my compulsive tendency toward poesy (trying to recover, but it’s One Day at a Time), and my knack for facilitating children’s crafts. Also, animals trust me. And I’m good at raising chicken… So yeah: my skill-set is pretty fierce.

It occurs to me that I would have made a very good upper class British eccentric.

As I don’t find myself living at the comfortable pinnacle of Edwardian society, I have to adapt.

Brent’s recommendations for someone like me are reasonable: save some money, for chrissakes. And try to do something financially lucrative for once in your life.

And for a while, I’m kind of in thrall with Brent’s idea about archetypes and whatnot: it’s so seductive to be understood.

But then I remember that many of my deeply practical friends have also been struggling and suffering and failing financially.

So I’m kind of back to square one, in terms of money advice. Except that now I know that whatever advice turns out to be a winner, it’s definitely got to name-drop a couple of saints. And be that lovely shade of robin’s egg blue.

That Intractable Problem

Recently, I was talking with an old friend about the memoir he wants to get published. The story covers part of his young adulthood, and one of its themes is his fraught relationships with women. “Some things never change,” he snorted.

I wondered why this struggle of his should be so intractable, and also why I have certain stubbornly unyielding struggles. As do all of my friends. Luckily, they are not the same problems, so we can give each other advice.

These friends of mine are smart and creative and talented, funny, thoughtful, educated, kind… they’re the kind of people that one loves to have as friends, of course. But they’ve each got maybe one or two problems that refuse to just solve themselves already: excess weight, or an unhappy marriage, or a desire to get married but relationships keep fading out, or a revolving pattern of addiction, et cetera, et cetera.

I have taken up this phenomenon as an existential worry stone: Why do so many people (seemingly) have a great difficulty that they are unable to resolve for years or decades? Is the problem meant to be the grit around which we form some pearl-o-wisdom? Or, are each of us just blind to habits that are keeping us locked up with our problem, and if we change our habits, we’ll dissolve it?

My problem (I think) is with money. More precisely, it’s to discover the intersection between the work I am good at and know how to do, and reasonable, steady income. So far, the Ven Diagram of that intersection equals zero. On the other hand, my problem might be that I have irreconcilable beliefs about work and money that preventing me from enjoying what I currently have. Or, the problem could be my tendency to pick away at issues until I put myself into existential free fall… Um. Anyway.

I want to believe that long-standing problems can be resolved by changing attitudes and behaviors… That is why I’m submitting myself to Dave Ramsey’s Money Makeover process, though I never manage to get beyond Step One, even when I pledge to make myself dumb (see entry below.)

Today I had myself an “Aha” that I think I could apply to my Problem.

It came from running, as so many “Aha’s” do. I have been off my running habit for a while. For, like, three years. When life gets to moving too fast for my comfort, I freeze up. Then I read a book about the effects of high-intensity exercise on the brain. If you want to read the book, it’s called Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey . If not, all you need to know is that exercise keeps the brain young and happy. It renders out the mental grease, so to speak, of bad patterns like anxiety and depression.

The effects of running on my brain have been immediate and powerful. I wondered (like I always do when I return to running after a lapse) how I managed to survive without it.
I have been back into the habit for a few months, but I’ve noticed that I’m not really getting stronger. Nor are certain zones of my body that I would like to lift along with my mood really doing any lifting. So today, I drove the road where most of my running happens, to see how far I’m going.

Two stinking miles.

The road is steep- it winds up toward a mountain pass. But still. Two miles? Feeble.

I kept driving until I reached a point that would yield a five mile round trip run. And I was scared. It seemed really, really far.

When I started, I told myself that really, I only had to make about 2.5 miles of effort- the homeward direction is an easy downhill cruise.

That mental trick made all the difference- I managed the run easily. And wondered whether I might get a little traction with my intractable problem if I just keep going a little longer than I thought I could.

Step One: Become Dumb

In case you were wondering, I have figured out the problem: I am too smart. Because of my breathtaking mental gifts, it is hard for me to follow programs, directions, or advice of any kind.

(If you have trouble following programs, directions, or advice, it’s because you too are a genius.)

I’m one of those people who cannot follow a recipe. Ever. Recipes and I are a pair of like magnets, obligated by the laws of the universe to bounce away from one another. I might tell myself that I’m going to follow a recipe, but early in the process, a voice whispers:

This recipe would be a lot better with paprika.

The failure to include paprika in this recipe is a failure of the imagination.

The author of this recipe in a lumpen moutbreather.

I will now improve this recipe with paprika. And curry sauce. And an extra hour of braising.

This is fine when you’re making stew. It’s even occasionally delicious. But it doesn’t work when precision is required. It’s a downright bad idea when it comes to baking, for example.

Or my personal finances.

Last May, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. He’s one of just two financial advice-mongers I’ve read that seem to grasp the money challenges that most Americans are currently facing. His makeover happens in a series of small, reasonable “baby steps.” Follow the formula, says Ramsey, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to make progress toward financial security and freedom from debt.

I dove in immediately: I made a personalized budget form to use each month and nifty colored charts depicting all of my debts. I plastered a wall of my office with encouraging slogans.

Eight months later, I’m still trying to make my way to Baby Step 2 of my Total Money Makeover. It would be easy for me to point to the astonishing turn of events that immediately followed my commitment to the makeover: my husband got the opportunity to return to cowboy work, we moved away from our home and our former business to start over in a new community, and the remainder of the year was taken up with related activities.

But it’s also true that I have been “too smart” to just follow the steps. I can’t resist tweaking and critiquing as I go.

As I faced the New Year with the same old financial muck, something potentially important dawned on me: I keep messing with this program because it’s actually really hard. Each step is simple, but requires commitment, focus, personal honesty, and a steaming heap of “No.”

As in, “No, I can’t go skiing this weekend in all that glorious new powder. I’m getting out of debt.”

Or, “No, I can’t go to that concert featuring my two favorite bands. I’m getting out of debt.”

And, much more painfully, “No, I can’t pay for my kid to do that enrichment activity that is sure to uncover a talent that will get them a full scholarship to the college of their choice. I’m getting out of debt.”

Saying “no” over and over to the things I most want is hard work. And it’s fucking depressing. While it’s busy being depressing, the money makeover process is taking its sweet time about improving things. So my mind gets clever. It looks for some way I don’t have to say “no” all the damned time. The answer is obvious: I can just say “YES.”

I continue to make no progress. That wouldn’t really matter if my goal was thinner thighs. Life goes on regardless of their circumference because their circumference doesn’t matter.

Money does matter. It’s the juice, the grease, and the essence. It’s certainly not God, but it’s the stuff that imbues your material circumstances with whatever qualities they possess (opportunity and movement, or stagnation and paralysis.) The health of one’s finances is as essential to a good life as the health of one’s body and one’s relationships.

I’m not big on resolutions; as soon as I make one, I’m looking for ways to break it. I’m looking for reasons I don’t actually need it, or opportunities to prove that I’m too clever for the goal in question. I know that this is nonsense and delusion, but knowing doesn’t make me any less likely to engage in my rebellion.

This New Year, I am taking a different tack. It’s the idea that I might outsmart my own “smart” by being… dumb. By which I mean, just following the program, step by boring, stupid, I-should-add-paprika-to-this, step.

Grief as a Gift

There’s this thing I do when tragedy happens: I focus on the details of how and why. It’s not out of morbid curiosity; I’m looking for a scrap of difference between myself and the victim(s)- a reassurance that the tragedy can’t happen to me.

I think I’m not the only one who does this. In the wake of my divorce, friends wanted—no, make that needed– to know certain things about how it had all gone down. They were listening for the ways that my marriage was different from their marriages. I now notice how this pointed curiosity appears around diagnoses of cancer and other dire illnesses. We just want to know that our unfortunate friend has at least one risk factor that we lack: maybe they used to smoke. Or they’re overly fond of cured meats. Or… there’s got to be something.

And here we are, reeling from the massacre at Sandy Hook. We are practically twitchy with collective hunger for a motive to be revealed. We need some scrap on which to hang the reassurance that such a thing can’t happen to our school, our community, our children. Or, that we can have enough information about enough salient matters to prevent another massacre. Eliminate violent video games. Or assault rifles. Or personality disorders. Right. Good luck with that.

We vow to improve school security, even while the detail emerges that Sandy Hook Elementary had strong security measures in place. We float the idea of arming teachers. Or students.

These are just the natural functions of our minds: we know how to codify information and apply it to our own preservation. So, when tragedies happen, we try to learn from them in order to prevent their recurrence.

But the fact is, we can never *know* enough to keep tragedy, illness, or senseless killings and deaths out of our lives completely.

The fact is, every one of us is visited at least once by at least one of these horrors.

The fact is, every one of us will someday meet our own ends, no matter how carefully we distinguish ourselves from the victims of other tragedies and misfortunes.

To those of us who can’t stop crying, who feel grief as if it were our own children who had been killed, I want to say: that’s because they are our own children. The tragedy happened to all of us. To you, and to me. We did not escape it, and there is no assemblage of details that will change the fact that it has already come to visit our very houses. It’s that understanding that I would want to see inform our collective conversation and our national and personal actions.

To believe otherwise is delusion. We are not separate from one another. When a child is killed, I should feel that pain. It’s right for us to grieve over Sandy Hook. When we cry, we are deepening our wisdom: the awareness that we are all connected.

I actually think that it is the delusion of separation that precipitates all violence. The murderer’s madness is his alienation from the feelings and humanity of his victims, whether he is an impenetrable loner or the collective consciousness of a society infected with genocidal mania.

Meanwhile, every time we allow empathy and connection to inform our choices, we prevent another Sandy Hook, uncountable millions of times.

Last night I went to the Holiday Concert at my children’s school. My son lip synced “Jingle Bell Rock” with little enthusiasm. My daughter pouted because I told her that ten is too young for mascara, no matter the occasion. But the concert felt sweeter than it otherwise would have, because I believed I was experiencing it on behalf of the moms and dads who won’t be enjoying any more squabbles or frustrations or bemusement over their children. Ever again.

I keep thinking about the Hindu creation myth of Indra’s net. In it, the god Indra weaves an infinite net and casts infinite jewels across the net’s infinite points of connection. The jewels themselves are faceted such that each one reflects all the others. The net is a spectacle of indescribable, interconnected beauty. The net is our universe. So. Let my tears and your tears be new jewels cast across its breadth.

What to Do When You Get Sudden Money

Sometimes a prayer gets answered with unnerving speed. In the case of my prayer yesterday: “Please. Help. Now.” the response was money from three sources, like wise men bearing their gifts to The Child, except that the gifts came via check and PayPal transfer. And also, the recipient was a miserable bumbler (yours truly) rather than the Son of God.

There I sat yesterday morning, no longer able to deny the silhouette of the Barbarian on my horizon: a mortgage payment. You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, those happen every month on the same day, so hopefully you weren’t too shocked about it.”

It is a little more complicated in this case: back in early September, when my ex-husband and I submitted a refinance proposal that would remove me from the loan and give him a better interest rate, mortgage broker had claimed that the process would take 30-45 days.

Now we’re inching toward 90 days. During all this time we’ve been yanked through anti-rational machinations in which it “made sense” to leave me on the loan. Until, finally, they *realized* that it didn’t. The mortgage broker was thrilled to give me the news that I would not have to remain on the loan! He said this as if he had come up with the idea himself. As if I had not been the one to contact him and make that exact proposal, back in early September. But who’s counting? If your hijacker says, “I’ve decided that I should let you go!” you just nod and agree with them.

The paranoid troll that lives in my brain is convinced that they dragged out the process just so that they could get a few more months out of me at the higher interest rate.

It doesn’t really matter, because, allegedly, the refinanced loan really will close next month, and this payment really will be my last. To be freed from this house has been my fever-dream for more than three years, so I am tentatively elated.

But in the very short term (where, much to my disappointment, my life actually happens) it’s didn’t matter. I was still faced with a bloated payment on a house that I don’t want, and which would yield me no reward except that by making the payment I’d continue to not-damage my credit score. yay. confetti.

Once I made that payment, I’d have no money left for Christmas or any of my other obligations. I was overcome with bitterness and impotent rage.

Meanwhile, the best-laid budgets of mice and broke folks were once again obliterated by things beyond our control. As The Bank dithered, my main source of income was delayed by three weeks because of printing issues. I do not get paid until the publication hits the streets. I failed to imagine that the magazine would come out so late, because it never has before. Lesson: small bumps are only a crisis for those who have no cushion.

And so. The money for this mortgage payment that I didn’t want to make wasn’t even fully in my account.

Therefore, I prayed. A hard, staccato, angry prayer, in which I vaguely threatened the prayer’s Divine Object with my talent for holding a grudge.

It is a prodigious talent; I carve my Shit List in stone. Under the helpless rage was just helpless me, at the end of my rope.

Within three hours, money appeared from three sources. The first was my parents. I think I could be forgiven for confusing them with a higher power, given how constant and generous they’ve been. It goes way beyond money, but in the past three years, I’ve needed a lot of money, and they’ve given it without reservations, strings, or hesitation. It kills me to take money from them: they’re retired and they’re not rich and- goddammit!- I am an adult. But I’ve taken it when I had to take it, and I am grateful.

The second was a friend. I made the silly comment on her Facebook post about the Powerball drawing that I would be happy to settle for $245 dollars, much less the $245 million cash prize. Ten minutes later, she had transferred $255 to my bank account, via PayPal. $10 was to buy us lottery tickets, of course. We agreed to split the winnings. The $245 was for fun and just because I had intimated that it could be useful. I felt grateful and pained at once- I was reminded that I would like to be the one to give a gift now and then. But for the last three years, I’ve only been a recipient.

The third was our dear government, which finally and uncannily decided to relinquish my 2011 income tax refund. I had given up hope of ever seeing the check. I figured that I would dither back and forth with them for a few years, given the complexity of my filing.

Why is it that our troubles are sometimes so intractable, drilling into us without mercy for weeks-months-years? And then suddenly, in a single day, everything is changed? Is it the result of the Divine taking pity, like maybe S/He finally reached our supplication on Her/His Divine To-Do List? “Ah! Laura Thomas… 1974 was a pretty good year if I do say so myself… though I wish she would quit being such a potty mouth… It appears she’s had some money woes? Let’s just jiggle the ole’ money tree!”

Or is it that a myriad of random cogs within the indifferent machine of Time-and-Space happened to click into place yesterday to deliver several thousand dollars and the news that I was about to be freed from a massive debt?

I ask because I think the answer has implications for how I should disperse the money that appeared. Obviously, given my debts, and given all the desires for beautiful and useful things that I’ve been deferring because of my debts, I could spend the money ten times over. So I have to proceed strategically. What is most important? To at least partially dissolve the debts I have? To pay back people like my parents first because I am in relationship with them and human beings deserve compensation before non-moral, anti-human institutions like multinational banks? Or do I disperse the money evenly, because my honor is at stake even if the entity to which I am indebted is a monstrosity and a pirate?

Finally, what about all those deferred wants and needs for material things? My husband, K., is a cowboy. With a gaping hole in his cheap boots. He needs good boots. Those are $300, easy.

It kills me that my beautiful kids don’t have desks! H., the mad scientist, needs somewhere to spread out his inventions that he won’t have to clear off at dinnertime. Inventors require a space for tinkering. A. needs a space to draw her astonishing comics, and, probably, to compose secret love poems to her new crush. That’s not to mention the things I would like to have. For example, I’ve been doing without a smartphone for the past two years while attempting to make a living at one of those jobs that *actually* requires the use of a smartphone.

So here is my process, for what it’s worth to you, when the moment comes that you are suddenly freed from an interminable burden and find yourself in the position to make choices once again.

1. Holyshit, Thanks GOD! I’m just going to go ahead and get the gratitude out of the way. Seems prudent.

2. The ultimate list. Okay, I’m fully aware that I’m making a list that features “make a list” as one of its to-do items. I’m very listy. But I’m comforted by emptying my brain of its vague phantoms and rendering them concrete. For example: “I need eye glasses. Those are going to cost about $350 after the exam, prescription, and the low-end knock off specs that fall within my budget.” It helps to see it all on paper and know exactly what kind of dollars we’re talking about.

3. Marinate for a day with questions like: which uses of the money will make me sleep better at night? Will advance my ambition to get financially secure? Will help prevent us from getting back into this kind of situation in the future? Will create good karma and extinguish shitty karma?

4. Revisit the best self-help money guide I’ve found to date: Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover.” I got started with it last May. I started putting money into Step One: Create Emergency Fund. Then, with nearly comedic timing, K got the opportunity to return to the cowboy life, and we both left higher pay for higher happiness. But the move kicked us right back to the bottom of the money-hole, where we’ve been stuck ever since. I think of yesterday’s money as a rope thrown down that hole. Ramsey has very specific directives for the moment that we are in. I wonder what might happen if I shut up and follow the plan, instead of mentally editing, over-thinking, and circumventing it. Like I usually do, because I’m under the illusion that I’m too smart for xyz advice. My life has made so clear that I’m not.

I will let you know how this goes.

Twinkie Epitaph: “Because… greedy workers!”

Sometimes the power of denial is truly breathtaking. I say this with the authority that comes from observing myself, on so many occasions, float like Queen Nefertiti down that river in Egypt:

It’s so totally reasonable that I’m buying these shoes when I don’t have the money to cover my mortgage this month! I can’t afford to pass up this bargain on shoes.

So here we are America, bidding our collective wad on $100 Twinkies (because childhood!) I’m aware that it’s moderately dangerous to pop the bubble of denial in which our culture has wrapped itself on the occasion of the probable passing of the Hostess Corporation. It feels a little like waking the sleepwalker (noooooo!)

But come on, people. These are the facts:

1. Twinkies are gross. They are not even food. They are, instead, a cheerfully packaged and surprisingly profitable waste product generated by 20th century industrial agriculture. Mmmm: corn-type-eatishness.

2. Hostess is one of the horsemen of the Diabetes Apocalypse that currently afflicts my beloved country. Maybe it was cool when it was new… My grandmother went to her grave loving canned food and microwave dinners, because they freed her from the tyranny of the kitchen. Mainly, they freed her to dust her chotchkies and contemplate her perm, but that’s another story… Anyway, whatever I’ve learned about food, about cooking and baking, I’ve learned from old books and from my generational brethren who have mined the Old Ways, because the generations directly before us jettisoned tradition for the convenience of Hostess.

3. Cheap garbage-treats like Ho-Ho’s stood in for home-cooking during the decades when the American Dream went into demise and American parents began to work longer and longer hours so they could cling to it. Your afterschool snack was a Twinkie with a side of latch-key-kid, in case you forgot.

4. And WHY, you may ask, did that dream go into demise? Was it because American workers got greedy? Was it because the poor corporations were broken by the increasingly outrageous demands of the unions, rendering them incapable of competing in a Global Marketplace? Was it because for’ners came around and messed up the good thing we had going? Not so much. Actually, the demise of Hostess is a perfect exhibit of what did happened.

5. The bankruptcy of Hostess was precipitated by its debt load. It was saddled with this debt by the private equity firm Ripplewood Holdings that took it over in 2009, not by the compensation requirements of its workers. Here’s a good racket to get into, for the amoral among us: you find a company with a strong credit rating, but maybe it has a sluggish profit growth or some other weakness. You pay off the Board of Directors with delicious compensation packages. They enthusiastically give you the keys to the kingdom, and with that authority, you take out an assload of debt in the company’s name. You use that debt to pay yourself “management fees.” And when the cost of servicing that debt brings the company to its knees, you sell it off for scrap, and you keep most of the profit. This is what private equity firms DO. It sounds like a sick joke, but it’s legal. I mean, try to translate this scenario to a personal scale and see if it makes moral or fiscal sense: say you’ve got a stable income and a great credit score because you always pay your bills on time and you never borrow more than you can reasonably pay back. Along comes The Dread Pirate Roberts. He shows you his treasure chest full of gleaming jewels, and he drapes a string of pearls around your neck. Besotted by this display, you sign over power of attorney to the Dear Pirate. Who proceeds to, um, leverage your sterling credit to take out an obscene amount of debt in your name. Dear Pirate pays himself from the proceeds. And then the bills come due. And you discover that there’s no earthly way you’ll be able to pay the debts that were taken out in your name.

6. And here’s where the crazy, cruise-down-de-nile part happens: you love how that pirate gave you shiny stuff, so you’re reluctant to blame him for your troubles. Really that greedy Mexican gardener, Jose, is the problem! $100 a month just to keep your lawn green?? And what about the cost of milk these days? It’s robbery! How’s a person to feed their family? You have somehow forgotten that paying Jose, and paying for a gallon of milk- those are expected, normal parts of a family budget, and it’s the debt-load that’s killing you. But when the debt-load also gave you a pearl necklace, it feels… easier to blame other, more legitimate categories in your budget for your troubles.

7. Hostess is going down because of the debts they took on at the behest of a private equity firm. While their senior management enjoy the spoils of pirate capitalism (“bonuses for staying on during the transition!”) it’s the workers who get blamed. No matter what your palate, that sort of blatant, immoral criminality is bound to leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

A Reflection on the Passing of the Twinkie

Yesterday the FaceBookosphere was lit up with grief over the passing of the Twinkie and its ugly-sister confections from Hostess. Clearly, no one remembers what Twinkies are like. So I’ll tell you.

Twinkies played a starring role in my childhood. A not-insignificant percentage of my childhood bodily structures were surely comprised of “nutrients” my long-suffering digestive system mined from Twinkies.

This would be lunch, any given day, in fifth grade: First, the American Cheese and yellow mustard sandwich on Wonder Bread. Oh the wonder of it: flat, greasy imprints in the pattern of one’s fingers around the edges. I would stuff the gluey mix into my mouth and wash it down with Capri Sun Juice Drink, sucking the contents from the space-aged foil pack in a single breath. Juice is to Capri Sun as vermouth is to a good martini: it might be wafted over the surface of the drink, but it should only be present in trace amounts.

And then the obligatory wax-and-pesticide encased Red Delicious apple. The imprints of fingers also deep in its mealy, yielding flesh. It seemed like a shame to break the seal. Sometimes I would carve into the wax with my Capri Sun straw. And then I would practice my aim at the big metal trash can (already full of Red Delicious apples), hoping for the satisfying “thud” of a score.

So finally it would be just me and the Twinkie, in a moment I had created with that prodigeous ability of mine to delay gratification. I’ve read that the ability to delay gratification correlates strongly with financial success later in life. In my case, I seem to be, er, still delaying the gratification. ANYWAY. I would carefully peel back the greasy cellophane to reveal the glistening, uranium-yellow casket within. I liked to bite off one end and evacuate the sugary marrow in a single suction. It occurs to me now that this dessert is a direct representative, in sugar, of the marrow-filled bones that our ancestors liked to enjoy around the primordial fire…

And when the goo was gone- so soon!- I’d gobble the remains in two or three wistful bites. Wistful because it felt like the end of a party that I had anticipated just a bit too much: choosing my outfit days in advance, curling and teasing my hair into a preposterous froth. But when the lights went down on the skating rink, the boys invariably passed me by for the blonde girls whose bangs achieved superior architecture. And I’d be rolling my beige rental skate across the carpet, waiting for the love song to end so I could hear from the girl what it had been like to skate with the boy who was my secret crush.

That is a fucking Twinkie, my friends. And so. I say good riddance.

The Nest

Long before I was willing to put up a blog, I wrote this one. Eight months and another move later, I’m still reeling from the velocity of change in my life, and its deleterious effects on my efforts to build a nest. This musing was the source of the title “Laura’s Lemonade Stand.”
***
It was a chipmunk nest that really did it: triggered a spiral into despair which had nothing to do with chipmunks per se, but was all about my latest failure to attain a permanent nest for my family. It was the sort of moment for which the French would have a special word. They revel in mining existential funk. Unfortunately I don’t speak French. So I’m stuck with lengthy descriptions.
K was tearing out the floor of his workshop. The one he’d painstakingly installed, with the indispensable assistance of my father, and the utterly precious “help” of my four-year-old son, just eighteen months before. We had been so proud to convert the vast, dark horse barn into a furniture-building workshop. And K is so talented. I liked to perch on one of his big workbenches and watch him convert raw aspen logs into glossy beds and tables and dressers. One of the things I love about K is his mind’s ability to project spatial awareness onto as-yet-unwrought forms, and to actually create those forms. Our fields of knowledge and respective personal talents intersect very little.
We played dominos with houses. Or was it musical chairs? Or, robbing Peter to pay Paul? That might have been the most apt expression for our scheme. We put my house in town on a rent-to-own contract, and signed a rent-to-own contract on this country place with a barn that could be made into a workshop. We figured that two years would be enough time for everyone involved to get to the “own” phase of the contracts.
It turned out that five months was just enough time for everything to fall apart. It started at my place in town. A phone call from the wife. Something about drinking, and a fight. Something about how one of their sons got his whiffle ball bat because it was the first thing he saw when he woke up, and he came down the stairs to make daddy stop. Something about how the other son said he’d slept through it all, even though I find out later that none of the neighbors had.
Of course I let her out of the contract. I’d just lived through divorce myself. The breaking point was not quite so dramatic, but its effects were just as nuclear. Who can think about buying a house at such a time? A month later, she and the boys moved out. K and I had to cover the mortgage and our rent for one long summer, which devastated our efforts to build financial security… that elusive “nest-egg.”
Just five days after I got That Call about the couple in my house, we got essentially the same call from our landlords. Their marriage was ending. We soon figured out that their mortgage payments would be a casualty of an increasingly hostile post-marital war. We received a foreclosure notice, in triplicate, from the County Clerk. It was variously addressed to “tenants”, “occupants”, and “renters”, in case we were unable to identify ourselves in more than one of those terms.
If only our renters’ marriage hadn’t spontaneously combusted, they might have bought the house. If only our landlords’ marriage hadn’t spontaneously combusted, they might not have gotten their house foreclosed and defaulted on our contract. If only C, for whom K builds most of his furniture, hadn’t driven his prices down-down-down to levels that made the prospect of paying for the big house and the big shop increasingly unrealistic. If only I’d chosen some lucrative career over being home with my children, I might have been able to float us through all these tight straits. If only the economy, nationally and globally, had not tanked at such a vulnerable time in my personal life. If only I’d dusted off my crystal ball and been able to see that buying a house in town would not save my first marriage, even though it had rooms for both me and my husband, and what I had thought he needed was more space. If only a crystal ball had revealed to me that I was buying that house at the end of a marriage AND the top of the housing market!
So we come to the chipmunk nest, and how it materially precipitated another Existential Crisis. We had just arrived, one week prior, at an unhappily anticipated Day of Reckoning. We looked at my empty house in town. We looked at the revenue patterns from K’s furniture business. We looked at the foreclosure schedule for this house we were in. We looked at our wildly swinging bank account, and the strain it bore from all our expenses. We were out of time, schemes, and choices. We would have to move back to town. Immediately.
Goodbye to the workshop. To the companionship of our horses, who greeted us daily with plaintive chuckles from their grain-greedy bellies. To the orchestra of coyote pups, roosters, magpies, and wind which chime the hours of days and nights out in the country. To our insouciant sprawl of pets, toys, and unfinished projects, over 23 uncomplaining acres.
The chipmunk nest was in the precise center of the 1600 square foot floor of K’s beautiful workshop, contained tidily in a single framed square of 2×6 footing. Hundreds, or possibly thousands of pink strands of fiberglass insulation had been worried, like yarn, into a cozy and perfectly circular swaddling. In the north corner, just outside the nesting material, there was an outhouse: all the excrement was meticulously confined to that area. In the south corner, there was a pantry where, grain by grain, the residents had collected our careless leavings: horse oats, dog kibble, and chicken scratch.
K paused long enough in his demolition to show me this small marvel. Circumstances outside of the residents’ control had now led to the sudden, fatal compromise of their irreproachable nest.
Who wouldn’t regret this innocent casualty?
My kids are innocent enough, also enduring yet another move, yet another shift, yet another loss of small treasures collected along the way which I’ve failed to recognize or pack in this latest tsunami of entropy. Yet it’s the mute nest that really burns me. “We’ve fucked it up for you, and I’m sorry,” I tell the inert assemblage of materials. And then I burst into tears.
Nothing’s-constant-but-change chirps my inner Somethingorother. I’ve been getting that message for years, but it sounds dusty to me, and it fails to grapple with the real pain of the casualties that are created by change. I mean, saying that the sky-is-blue may be true, but it doesn’t soothe the pain of a wound that’s hurting while the sky is busy being blue.
And that’s what I’d like to know. How to actually heal these things. How to get to something that’s better. Lemons into lemonade. What I need is some spiritual sugar.