I just want to shout out loud, I am officially debt free!!!
The only loan I've ever taken out was for a Subaru Outback, which I bought with my soon-to-be-ex husband 3 years ago. I don't know what we were thinking. Even though we could afford the payments and the interest rate was ridiculously low, it was clearly more car than we should have paid for ($28,000 plus interest). I guess we got caught up in the adventure-mobile fantasy and had dreams of driving cross-country and visiting all the national parks, sleeping in the back.
While it was a nice idea, it never happened. Jobs got busy, and then we decided to get divorced. So then we were stuck with a car that was difficult to split until the loan had been paid off (or refinanced). I own an old, somewhat grubby but still perfectly functional Toyota Corolla, while my husband drove the Subaru. He wanted to keep the car, which was fine by me, but I wanted to get my name off the loan asap.
Well after months of heel dragging, per our agreement (which we worked out privately, without lawyers), he finally paid off the remaining $5000 on the loan and will be sending me payments over the next several months to buy my half of the car. Once that's done, I'll sign the title over. But while getting a little extra cash is nice, I'm mostly just pleased to be off that stupid loan and officially debt free! This is going to make buying a house just a little easier now and that's one of my major goals for the next year (a very modest house near the local university where I can be sure to find a roommate).
So if I'm debt free, what happened to my student loans? Well, I never had any. My parents were always very up front with me about the fact that they didn't make enough money to send me to college. I knew I would be paying for most of it myself, which meant either staying in state (a great option) or earning a scholarship. Well, at the time I didn't want to stay in state if I could avoid it (ironically I went there for my Ph.D.), so I worked my ass off in high school. I didn't have much fun then. No parties, no boyfriends. All I did was study to make the grades, and then study some more to get good SAT scores. My major memory of high school is of sitting at my desk in the dark, studying under my reading lamp. And I did that night after night for hours. When it came time to actually apply for colleges, I applied to my dream school (NYU), but the rest of my applications were to colleges that were slightly lower-tier (at least reputationally) but well known to be generous with scholarships and merit-aid (because my parents fit firmly into that section of the middle class that made too much money to qualify for need-based aid, but didn't make enough to actually afford a $40,000 a year tuition, especially with my brother only two years behind me in school.) I also applied to every scholarship I could find and I was lucky enough to get one at Tulane University that was virtually a full ride. So even though I got into my dream school, I turned it down for the money.
So I that's how I got past the undergraduate level without any loans. Then I went to graduate school in Chemistry where they actually pay you because you're really more of an employee than you are student. It's basically a low-paid apprenticeship that's not much more than minimum wage. But I did get a fellowship from the Department of Energy that paid slightly better for my last three years, which really helped me focus on my research rather than having to teach undergrads at the same time.
So that's how I did it, and let me tell you, there are pros and cons to this method. Pros: it put me in the great position of being debt free after receiving a very substantial and excellent education. Cons: I had to sacrifice what I really wanted to do in my heart of hearts (get an MFA) and settle for less acclaimed schools. BUT, I am extremely happy that I'm not 180K in debt for a degree in the arts, which no matter how much I would have enjoyed - let's face it, is not very employable.
Sure, sometimes I've felt a little held back because not only did I not go to a high-level undergrad or graduate school, I didn't even try. I'm pretty sure I could have gotten in somewhere if I had been willing to swallow those student loans. But I just didn't see how I would be able to pay back some $150,000. That's like buying 4 luxury cars over a period of 4 years! Insane! It just didn't seem possible, so I didn't do it. And so it goes. I don't have the ivy league education or the arts degree I really wanted, but I'm not doing too bad, and I don't have any loans, which leaves me in a better position to do more creative work now.
I'm not sure where that fear of debt left me when I co-signed for that car with my husband, but I guess I thought we were on stable ground and building toward a life together. And sometimes that means you need to replace a broken down car and you don't necessarily have the cash for the new one. So I don't regret it exactly, but I probably would have done things differently, like buy a cheaper car, if I had to do them over again. Live and learn. Avoid debt or minimize it wherever possible.
Man, I'm beat. I was going to write a review of Beartown today, but there's just no way. My mother is a beekeeper and we spent a good chunk of today extracting 4 GALLONS of honey. It's not a fun job. First you have to collect all the frames from the hives. Then you slice open the wax cells with a heated knife. And then you spin the oozing frames in a hand-cranked centrifuge. The honey collects at the bottom and gets drained and filtered into a bucket. Cranking the extractor is so physically grueling. I ate two bags of popcorn afterwards to regain even some of my energy, and I can tell I'm going to be sore tomorrow.
This was actually my first time helping with the honey extraction process. For years, my mom has asked if I want to help her with the hives, and I've always said no. Messing around with angry bees just doesn't appeal to me. And they are so difficult to take care of (and somehow completely incapable of taking care of themselves). The few times I have gotten into a bee suit to lend her a hand has been an exercise in self-control. Because when a bee is angrily slamming into your veil, over and over again, determined to get you, it can be very hard not to scream and swat it away while you're holding a frame containing thousands of her sisters.
Anyway, I think beekeeping sounds more romantic than it really is, though my mother says she loves it. I hope I don't look back later in my life wishing I had learned to keep bees from her when I had the chance. Somehow, I doubt that will happen, but you never know. To this day, I still kick myself for brushing off my grandmother when she tried to teach me how to sew clothes. So we'll see.
But if anyone's thinking about getting into beekeeping, my advice is to help a beekeeper friend for at least two years before you get any of your own. They are so much more work than you'd ever think.
Sorry for the delayed post this week. I'm kind of struggling right now.
I'm not a religious person, but I think we all possess some degree of a gut-level belief system. What some people call prayer, I think of as good thoughts and positive energy. Even if at a logical level, I believe such thoughts can have no effect on a rudderless universe, I still appreciate them for what they are. Good intentions I guess. Compassion. Empathy. These are valuable regardless of their effect because they bring us closer together.
These are the kinds of things I've been reading about in The Book of Joy, which I've been finding helpful, given the circumstances. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu basically say it again and again, but a joyful life doesn't mean an absence of suffering or sadness, it's the continued aim to love and connect with others. It's to be generous in all ways, giving yourself whole-heartedly to someone else. It's to feel yourself be part of a community you care for and vice versa.
I would recommend this book to everyone, not just those who are struggling with some kind of loss. It discusses big ideas without getting too abstract. It's very readable and relatable. It's also a good daily reminder to think about myself less, even if that feels hard right now.
I can play the piano. So can my Dad. When I was growing up, he would critique my playing while I practiced, which was every. single. day. Let your imagination run wild on how well that worked for our father-daughter relationship (and then imagine how much everything improved when he finally stopped trying to teach me, because that's how that story ultimately ended).
But when it was still happening, it would generally go like this:
"You're timing's not right in this measure. Play it this way."
Just saying those words was usually enough to start a fight, because there was nothing that infuriated my Dad more than an attitude of "I can't." In our house, you got in less trouble for letting a swear word slip than saying "I can't."
Yeah, it was extreme, but there was a grain of truth to it. There was no physical reason I couldn't play a note a certain way. And I certainly understood what to do. Saying "I can't" was just a defeatist attitude that did nothing to help me.
I wish my Dad had taught me not to say or think "I can't" in a nicer way (he has a temper, so do I, it wasn't pretty), but now that we're past all that fighting, I'm sort of grateful he made an effort to excise that phrase from my vocabulary. Honestly, I don't think I say "I can't" much if ever when it comes to trying to achieve something. I know I can, in theory, it's just a matter of learning how, working hard, and having a little luck roll in my favor.
So I don't say "I can't" anymore.
But you know what I do say a lot?
"I worry that..."
I think I say this phrase at least once a week, and that's being generous. It's probably a lot more often. It's this constant refrain in my head: vocalizing worries.
And it helps nothing. It's as bad an attitude if not worse than "I can't."
So I'm trying to stop saying or thinking it, because I wonder if it will have the same effect as getting rid of the phrase "I can't" from my vocabulary. Maybe I can stop worrying so much if I stop using the words that make it possible to do that.
Because the worries are driving me crazy, and yet I have this suspicion that I can control this if I make the effort. I'm pretty sure I can, and I think I'll be a lot happier if I do.
The other day my husband and I were debating what invention constituted the greatest scientific achievement. I said that besides electric power, the birth control pill was definitely the most significant. My husband disagrees, but think about it - being able to reliably control how many kids you have impacts the most fundamental ways a society functions and organizes. For instance, there's no way women could achieve equal status to men without some form of birth control.
It's kind of interesting that we even get to ask ourselves whether or not we want to have kids. This wasn't a question women could lightly toss around prior to the pill's invention. By all accounts, Jane Austen didn't get married because she knew that the work of raising a family and perhaps the disapproval of her husband would prevent her from writing. But today, I can be married, write, and dilly-dally about having children pretty much to my heart's content. What a privilege that is.
I like kids. I like hanging out with them. I have childish tastes. I wouldn't mind having someone else in our family to love unconditionally and be loved back. I like the idea of watching my child grow up and teaching them things.
But I'm also selfish. I want to write books and live in interesting places. I get overwhelmed and resentful when I don't get to work on my own projects. I get irritable and snap.
Not long after I started writing more seriously, we got a dog. My uncle's German Shepherds had puppies, and my husband and I couldn't resist. We chose Hammie (aka "Miss Virginia Ham") who's the second puppy on the left in the image below, peaking out from beneath her brothers.
We fell in love. She was (and still is) the smartest and sweetest little girl. She was my first dog, and it was just incredible to have this little creature in the house following us around everywhere.
Those first few weeks were hard though, especially because we were so sleep deprived from having to get up once or twice each night to take her outside to pee. And if I'm being honest, despite all the love I felt, I also remember thinking that getting a puppy was probably a bad idea if I wanted to write and publish a novel.
But you know what? I wouldn't go back and change it. Sure, for a few months I did write less, but then she grew up and could sleep through the night, and slowly the writing returned.
I imagine it would be similar for children, only more intense and for a longer period of time. Maybe I wouldn't get back to writing for several years, but I know that eventually I would.
On the other hand, if we didn't have children, it would be easier to travel. We wouldn't be so stretched for money. We'd have more time to focus on each other and on our goals and projects. We'd pour our love into dogs and cats, no doubt. Play auntie and uncle. Be a Piggle-Wiggle woman. It would be nice, I admit it.
But I thought about it, and I realized that if I could do it either way, kids or no kids, then I should probably try to have a kid. And if doesn't work out, well, I'll know I tried, and then I can lead my child-free life without regrets.
So I think we're going to try, maybe not for another year, but sometime soon. And that makes me happy, which makes me think it's the right choice.
Did you debate whether or not to have kids? What was your thinking?
Ever have one of those weeks when you're confronted with about a dozen, fairly serious problems? I guess the Universe decided that this would be my week.
Here are just a few of the things I've had to deal with:
1) A distantly related cousin of mine decided to use my email address as a throw-away account for her Match.com profile. On Saturday night I began to receive email after email from Match.com, all addressed to this person I've never actually met. She's done this in the past, giving my email to insurance agencies (why?!), American Eagle, and DeSales University. And each time I think someone's stolen my identity, but no, it's just this random woman who thinks my email address is her "secondary email" (her words). I finally managed to get in touch with her through Facebook (after she's spent years ignoring my polite requests to stop using my email). She wasn't even remotely apologetic either, just begrudgingly agreed to change it. Frankly, I don't think she understands email if she believes she can just use a random account for her internet life (an account she can't even access, because it's MINE).
2) Dishwasher broke. Spent the week dealing with the landlord, handymen, and an electrician who finally diagnosed the problem as some faulty wiring under the house. ("Not sure how it ever worked," he told me). But in order to get to that point, we had to rule out all other possibilities by replacing the circuit breaker, the dishwasher, the wire connecting the dishwasher to the circuit, all of which required my pantry shelves to be taken apart TWICE in order to get access to the stupid circuit box (whoever built those shelves around a major piece of electrical equipment weren't too bright). Silver lining, it gave me an excuse to throw away a lot of expired food and spices, and to purchase these neat pantry organizing tools and this awesome Japanese rice storage container to bring some much needed order back into my life. And I got a new dishwasher out of the deal, so there's that.
3) My phone suddenly stopped being able to make or receive phone calls. Just bam, out of nowhere, I started getting this error message saying that Verizon didn't recognize my phone on their network. So I called 611 (Verizon's phone support line), and they fixed the issue in a matter of minutes. So major shout out to Verizon. Thank you for being the only problem I had this week that was quickly and easily fixed.
4) My car insurance and registration disappeared! Went to get my car inspected at Jiffy Lube. They asked for my registration, but it was nowhere to be found in my glove box (nor my insurance card as I later discovered...). How long have I been driving my car without proof of registration or insurance? Luckily, they were able to inspect my car anyway, and I got a new registration certificate in the mail a few days later. I also think my insurance renews fairly soon, so I should be getting a new card in the mail anyway (but I guess this problem is only partially resolved since I should probably call and get a new one now rather than wait).
5) Since we came back from the British Virgin Islands (post on that later plus my vacation reading summary as soon as I can get the pictures from my husband's phone), my glands have been feeling really swollen, which I know is a sign of infection. But honestly, I felt otherwise fine. Things came to a head yesterday when my head, nose, eye, ear, and teeth all started to ache on one side of my face. Turns out a cold I was dealing with a few weeks ago never really went away (which I sensed even on vacation, I just felt kind of "clogged up" the entire time), and it developed into a sinus infection. Major shout out to the UNC Health Center for seeing me quickly and prescribing me antibiotics. I've only been on them for one day, but already the swelling in my throat has gone down.
6) But the antibiotics have done a number on my stomach. Got dinner with my husband last night, but that was something of a mistake. Antibiotics + Mexican food = trouble. Not to get to graphic, but I had to run to the bathroom at the end of dinner. And then if that wasn't bad enough, I also managed to lose my pedometer in the toilet...(I am just a fucking mess this week).
Strangely though, losing the pedometer, even under those circumstances felt very freeing. Even though it was a great pedometer, and it really helped me to stay active, hitting those 10,000 steps had become something of a chore; an item I have to check off my list every day. Compulsions like that (as if 10,000 is some kind of magical number) get stressful, and I really need to be doing LESS each day, not more. So saying goodbye to that pedometer was like the Universe telling me, "Hey, it's ok. You got this." I can stay active without obsessing about numbers. This also means I can get rid of my little notebook where I keep track of this kind of stuff. In theory, keeping records is fine, but when it becomes an added stress at the end of day (climbing into bed, then realizing I haven't written down my step numbers, my word counts, whether I ate generally well or poorly that day, etc.), then I think it's time to reassess whether this is a habit I want to keep in my life. And sitting in the bathroom at our local Mexican joint, I thought, "Enough. I'm good." Time to simplify, subtract, and only add when the habit or item adds distinct value to my life.
The funny theme to this week? A lot of problems also inadvertently led to solutions. An old dishwasher got updated (and outdoor light got fixed in the process). A pantry got a much needed cleaning and reorganization. I decided to get rid of some "healthy" habits that were starting to become unhealthy and a needless source of added stress. And getting spammed with Match.com emails about people looking at "my" profile finally gave me the motivation to track down that distant relative to avoid future email snafus.
So it was kind of slog of a week, but a positive one in the end.
How's yours going?
I think a lot of people take stock of their lives around this time of year. Maybe you're in the middle of trying to figure out what you really want or what you want to do with the rest of your life. Maybe you're debating whether or not to go back to school. But what degree? And at what cost?
When I was growing up, there were two competing messages:
But they're both bull shit.
Do what you love? Yeah, have fun figuring out how you're going to pay $200k in student loans with a fine arts degree. I almost did that. I got into NYU and for about a week, I was so sure I was going to go to film school. I would have loved doing that - but it just wasn't a good idea, and I'm so glad I didn't. Can you imagine? $200K to probably never make a movie? I can never make a movie for free.
Do what makes money? I have a lot of friends and some family that have done this, and they seem to be uniformly miserable. How do I know this? They freely admit it. They make tons of money, but they never to get to use it. Plus, they seem stuck. Like they know what they're doing sucks, but they can't bear the idea of making less money, so they have to keep going. No thank you.
So if those two options are no good, how the heck do you figure out what do with yourself?
I'm only 30 years old, but if I had any advice to give it would be to do what you're good at.
What's the one thing you can do better than anyone else? Don't get judgemental, just be honest. What do people complement you for? What have they offered to pay you to do?
For me, it was editing. Starting in the 5th grade, my teachers would have me help other students with their writing. Friends asked me to edit their college essays. In graduate school, editing was practically my second job.
But it took me 30 years before I figured out that I should probably take this talent a step further and turn it into a career. And once I did, everything kind of worked out. I made just as much money freelance editing this year as I had at my old full-time job, and I was able to do that because I'm good at it (although please excuse any typos in this post, I'm writing quickly).
It wasn't what I wanted to be good at. I wanted to be a cartoonist, but I think I correctly concluded that my drawing skills weren't ever going to be strong enough. Then I wanted to be a scientist, but I was never that good at asking the right questions, and I think that's because I was never curious enough. I liked using my brain analytically, but I didn't read about science in free time. It didn't interest me as much as it should have if I wanted to make a life-long career of it. But I did it because it was challenging , it helped other people, the money wasn't terrible (it was never that great, though), and it was certainly socially acceptable. To be honest, that last reason was a big factor in my decision to get a Ph.D.
But I wasn't that great at science. I mean I was ok. I got results, I published, but it was always a struggle.
Editing doesn't feel like a struggle. It's hard, but it feels natural. That should have been my hint that editing was a good career track for me. But nobody taught me to think that way.
I wish somebody had. Then I would have spent less time trying to force myself into a role and a career that was never going to be a great long-term fit. I wasn't thinking about what career I would be really good at. I was worried about what other people thought of me and the sort job I should have to make them proud, comfortable, even envious.
Fuck all of that. Who cares what other people think. It's your life. Do the thing you're good at, work hard, and success will follow. I really believe this.
It sucks if what you're good at isn't the thing you love, but at least it will provide support so you can do the thing you love in your free time. Also, do you really want to turn your favorite activity into work? That would kind of suck.
Anyway, just my two cents, as always. Do what you're good at.
I've never had much success with New Year's resolutions...except for one.
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to feel more "put together." I wanted to feel better in my clothing (this is along-standing issue I've had about dressing sloppily).
But instead of resolving to "dress better," I decided I would make one very small change: to always wear matching underwear. Nothing fancy. But my top and bottom would match.
I achieved this by throwing out all the random underwear I owned, especially the ones with goofy patterns and colors from Victoria's Secret, and then I went to Macy's and bought 5 pairs of black underwear and 5 pairs of nude at one of those sales they periodically run. I already owned two black bras and two nude bras. Then when I got dressed each morning, it was a snap to either choose a matching black or nude "set."
5+ years later, my underwear still matches using this same system, and even though no one else can tell, it does make me feel slightly more polished.
I think what made this "resolution" succesful was that I framed it as a small, concrete change that I could make in my life fairly easily. Apparently, making a decision as convenient as possible is one of the best strategies for establishing a habit.
So this year I'm going to try the same thing.
Instead of "I will lose weight," I'm going to:
Instead of "I will save/make more money," I'm going to:
Instead of "I will write more," I'm going to:
I might add more little changes as I think of them and write them here so I can come back to this list if I'm feeling off-track.
None of these things are ground-breaking, but I think they will add up and help me achieve several goals I have for the year, which include:
There may be more, but this is what comes to mind right now.
What are your goals for this year? What small, easy changes can you make to achieve them?
Ah, where did December go! Happy New Year, rabbit rabbit, and all that! Make sure you eat fish today so the money will swim to you all year! (And avoid chicken at all costs so you don't end up scratching for your money.)
Sorry for disappearing for a few weeks. I actually half-wrote several blog-posts, but never had the time to finish them. Oh well. Family time is more important, especially when we don't get to see our parents and siblings that often. I'll get those posts out at some point. I have lots of thoughts, as always!
Christmas was great, although I think everyone is starting to feel a little old for the whole gift exchange thing. Personally, I think Christmas is more fun with kids around. So it was really exciting to hear that my brother-in-law and his new wife are expecting a little girl! This will be the first grandchild in my husband's family, and there are no grandchildren in my family either, so we're super happy. I can't wait to meet her and be an auntie at last!
I guess I'll hold off on discussing my thoughts on New Year's resolutions until later (or more accurately, the small changes I'd like to make this year), because I want to spend this last night off with my husband before we have to get back to work tomorrow. But I did want to do a very brief year in review, because I find it helpful for myself to read these posts later.
2016 was a big year of changes for me. I finally decided to quit my old job and start my own editing business, and I can honestly say it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. It didn't solve all my problems, I'm still not writing as much as I would like, but it did solve a lot of them - and frankly, I have been writing and publishing more than I ever have before. So I'm going to give myself a pat on the back about all that.
I read a bunch. About 19 books, some of them fairly long. I also read a ton of individual short stories and New Yorker articles. So I feel like I did pretty well in that respect, although I don't really care to get competative about it. I'm sure plenty of people have read a lot more than I did this year, but I read books I enjoyed (for the most part), and I'm good with that.
My husband and I got along much better this year, I think because both of us made a greater effort to spend time together, listen more, and help each other out as much as we could. I'm really happy with the way we spent 2016. It was a much happier year than 2015, that's for sure.
So there were a lot of great things that happened over the last 12 months, though 2016 was also a disapointing year politically, and it was a terrible year for mass shootings, terrorism, and war. Maybe I'm just naive, but I still believe that despite everything we're going to be ok. I know in my heart that good people far outnumber the bad. We'll prevail as long as we still care. I know I'm going to make a greater effort to turn how much I care into concrete action in 2017.
I hope you had a good year as well, and I hope the best for the upcoming. Let's do this.
Writing Streak: 3 days
My Books on Amazon:
Waking Lions by Avelet Gundar-Goshen
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro