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1:46 am EDT        75°F (24°C) in Jackson, GA

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Many moons ago, in an update far, far away, I promised to tell the story of my financial free-fall that lasted from 1998 to 2004 and really forced me into the position I'm in today. Other things have been taking up my journaling time in the last 2½ months, though, so I haven't yet been able to get around to it. That's going to change, starting right now.

In September 1998, I began my enrollment at the University of Michigan, and moved into a dorm on campus. For a couple of reasons, I couldn't continue working my summer job in the gift shop at Greenfield Village — an 80-mile round-trip commute would have been impractical for a minimum-wage job, and Greenfield Village is only open seasonally. Everybody has little necessities of life — things like soap, shampoo, razors, toothpaste, etc. — that they must purchase on a semi-regular basis, and it should go without saying that money is required to purchase those things.

For whatever reason, though, I couldn't get my parents to admit, much less even see, this reality. They had arranged for me to have a credit card of my own that was tied into one of their accounts, but I distinctly remember being told, repeatedly and explicitly, that I was only permitted to make use of that card "in emergencies" — and the regular purchase of daily necessities did not constitute an "emergency" in their book. I proceeded to ask if they would be willing to provide me a reasonable weekly stipend of perhaps $40 to $50 for the purchase of such items, but I was told something to the effect of, "we don't really have the money for that — your father's income still has to feed three mouths around here, you know." Fair enough; I really didn't feel like demanding something that would put them in dire straits, and I left it at that.

At this point, I was down to one option: get a job. There are two competing running-shoe stores in Ann Arbor, and I proceeded to spend the fall 1998 term working for both of them. I was doing quite well financially, but the bomb was falling in my direction and would explode in late December 1998: the kid who consistently achieved grade-point averages above 4.00 in high school was now on academic probation with a 1.96 GPA. To say that my parents were not pleased would be an understatement of gigantic proportions, and I was told that I must not work during the winter 1999 term that immediately followed.

At the start of the winter 1999 term, I had exactly one credit card, and I was paying that off in full every month (if I had even used it). Let's fast-forward to the end of April 1999: I managed a 2.6 term GPA, getting myself off probation, but I was up to three credit cards, all of which were maxed out or close to it. I recall repeating my earlier request for some kind of regular stipend over that 1998-99 Christmas break, but I was again rebuffed.

I came to realize that not having any source of income was not going to work at all, and as you can see in many of my April through June 1999 entries here, I learned about (and later secured) a job driving the campus buses at U-M. I thought I could get things under control again starting in fall 1999, but another issue was rearing its head around that time.

My father purchased an HP Pavilion desktop computer in November 1995; technically speaking, it was for the family's use, but I had heard the horror stories about residence hall computer labs, and eventually managed to convince my folks to let me take it with me to Ann Arbor. Of course, for much of the time I had it out there, I got to endure a ton of bitching and whining about how they no longer had a computer, and how I was being selfish to keep it at school. Between that and some severe hardware problems that machine suffered in summer 1999, I knew I had to get a new computer of my own. As I'm sure you guessed, no money was forthcoming from my folks for this, so I was left with only one option — buying it on credit. I spent $1,900 to buy a less-than top-of-the-line (although not bare-bones, either) machine from Gateway, and I had to establish a credit account with Gateway to do this. (As an aside, it shows you how far computers have come in six years that a 450 MHz Pentium III was almost top-of-the-line at that time.)

Now well in the hole, I started pulling 30-hour weeks (the most allowed for students) driving the buses, in addition to my classes. I was staying afloat money-wise, but I hardly had any time to devote to my class work, and Doomsday would strike in late December 1999: I ended up completely flunking all but one of my classes, and managed to pull a D in the other one, for a 0.4 term GPA. I went almost two days without speaking to my parents, despite the fact that I was staying with them over the break, after the way they reacted to that news — they went absolutely nuclear on me.

It was largely because of the way they treated me over that 1999-2000 Christmas break that I decided I was going to live on my own during the summer of 2000 — two weeks of that shit was bad enough, and I wasn't about to subject myself to four months of it. My March 10, 2000 update here does a far better job of explaining the financial ramifications of this, but the effect was that I ended up spending $350 "per month" to live in campus housing for the summer. Given that I was driving at least 30 hours per week, and sometimes quite a bit more, over that summer, I was able to not only afford this housing expense, but also make a little bit of headway against my credit-card and computer debt. The grades for the winter 2000 term were somewhat improved, but I was still in fairly big academic trouble.

Of course, that was all going to come to a crashing halt on October 9, 2000, when I was fired from the bus-driving job for things that had nothing to do with my safety or on-duty job performance. Needless to say, I had to start racking up a good bit of credit card debt again; my December 1, 2000 update tells the story of a fight with my parents that was caused by that. Having been fired, combined with the way my parents were acting in response to my coming out to them in August 2000, sent me spiraling down into a suicidal depression; because of that, I more or less completely gave up on my classes — I didn't have the energy or desire to keep going. At the end of the fall 2000 term, I had been on academic probation for three consecutive terms; U-M has a policy under which, after three consecutive semesters of probation, you are required to sit out one term. I had no choice but to leave school just before Christmas 2000.

It would be February 2001 before I would get another decent job, and I thought I could start to turn things around with that job, until my father stepped in and completely fucked things up (more so by not thinking all the way through the situation, rather than because of any sinister intent). As the registered owner of the 1990 Buick Regal that had been bought in 1997 with the understanding that it was for MY use, he (and by extension, my mother) had the power to decide who was going to get to use it, and for what. Since my sister had turned 16 the previous fall, they somehow came to conclude that the kid who should be dropped off by them was not my sister at her high school, but rather me at a professional job. I worked a highly irregular schedule, with shifts starting at all hours of the early morning into the afternoon, and my folks weren't always willing or able to run me to work when I needed to be there — yet my sister was still getting the Buick quite a bit.

All of this, combined with my father's threats to sell the Buick after a couple of large repair bills, meant that I had to get a car of my own, pronto. Given my not-so-great credit situation, I couldn't get financing without a co-signer, and I obviously didn't have three grand stashed away to just buy something outright. My father kept going on and on about "When you buy a used car, you're just getting somebody else's problem," and more or less refused to co-sign for anything but a new car — and he wasn't even all that willing to do that. (It was largely because the dealership had pulled the old "you qualify on your own! but wait a minute, no you don't" trick on me that he ended up co-signing — he was in a position where he didn't have much choice.)

There was only one slight problem with that: a new car comes with a $290 monthly loan payment, and a monthly insurance payment of around $200. Add in my mother's dictum of "you will move out of this house by July 1" and a lot of instability in my job situation, which admittedly was largely my own fault, and it should be pretty clear why my Titanic was about to hit its proverbial iceberg. I mean, how is one supposed to be able to pay a $400 rent and almost $500 in car-related expenses each month, not to mention food and other vital necessities, on a total income of maybe $700 per month? I ended up eating only once a day most days, and there were long periods of time during which I was effectively driving my new car around uninsured — sure, I had a current proof of insurance in the car, so I couldn't have been ticketed, but in the event of an accident, the insurance company wouldn't have paid anybody a dime.

If I'm remembering the story right — and who knows, considering the top-secret classified nature of most of what's ever happened on my father's side of the family — my grandfather came up with an ingenious plan to save my father from car-loan-related disaster back in the mid-1970s. Fresh out of college, my father bought a 1973 Dodge Dart Swinger, a red-and-black one with a 318 small-block under the hood. Again, if I've been told the story correctly, he ran into some hard financial times of his own over 1973 and 1974, and was falling behind on that car loan. My grandfather offered him a deal that I think was quite fair — it wasn't a bail-out, far from it, but it did prevent a repossession of the Dart.

It worked like this: my grandfather took over the monthly payments from my father, preventing default on the loan, but he also told my father, "You're parking it here and you're giving me all copies of the keys" — in effect saying, if you can't pay for it, you can't drive it. Like I said, not only did this avert a default situation on the loan, but it did something more important: it bought my father some time to find a decent job and start to get his financial shit in order. By some point in 1976, if memory serves, he had caught back up on the car and got to start using it again, and two years later (at 28 years old), he had good enough credit to buy the house that they have lived in ever since. (It would be 15 months after the purchase of that house that I would enter the picture.)

See, my grandfather made a deal with my father that, while still forcing him to accept the responsibility he had taken on and also teaching him an important lesson about rights vs. responsibilities, allowed him a window of time to improve his situation, and also kept him from having to suffer the disastrous credit-rating effects of a repossession. As I said, I think it was a stroke of genius on my grandfather's part. I also have to give my father credit for doing his part in improving his situation by locating and securing a much better-paying job; I mean, had he not done that, who knows how long it would have taken him to get things back on track. However, it is quite bewildering to me that my father, seeing his own son in a very similar situation to the one he was in 27 years earlier, would not think to offer a similar remedy — especially since, unlike my grandfather in his case, he had accepted legal responsibility to do so by co-signing a loan for me.

During this period, I was more or less begging my parents for help, and to their credit, they did offer me a few loans, but even those weren't enough to hold serious troubles at bay. It was all I could do to barely scrape by from summer 2001 until at least fall 2003, despite the fact that I was working for the vast majority of this time period, and I couldn't even do anything about my huge debts. The car was repossessed in July 2002, and collection agencies were calling me left and right. I ended up getting more than a year's worth of "free" rent at another house — I couldn't even afford $200 a month for the room, but fortunately, the 50-something man who owned the house never really moved to evict me for non-payment, as we sort of developed a "mentor-mentee" relationship over time. One of these days, if I ever achieve some financial success, I'll track him down and hand him a check for the roughly $2,500 I still technically owe him (even though he's never bothered to try to collect).

I really didn't have a whole lot of choice except to ignore my debt and evade collectors as best I could, and for a while that worked — but in February 2004, I received notice that I was being sued by one of the credit-card companies. I realized I needed to file for bankruptcy, and I set into motion a chain of events that would culminate with my receiving a letter of discharge last October. Finally, I could say that the disasters of 1999 were behind me.

Even as I was working on getting the bankruptcy proceedings going, my parents continued to insist that they had nothing to do with my problems, and that it was my own selfishness that was what screwed me. On the one hand, I know they're basically full of shit on that, but on the other, it's not worth my time to argue the point; there's not going to be any changing their minds. I learned how to take a "whatever" attitude toward them, and as part of that, I have been focusing on how to position myself so that I don't need them for anything. Looking back on it, I honestly don't know what the fuck I was thinking trying to involve my father in my recent car-buying process — thankfully, I came to my senses after our April 30 discussion and did my own thing, and if he wants to bitch and moan about that, hey, what fucking ever, I don't care.

There are two rather galling (to me) twists to all of this, one of them being that when my sister started at U-M in September 2002, they included all of her basic needs in their weekly grocery shopping! At first they kept it pretty well hidden from me, but later on they weren't even all that secretive about it. This from the same people who turned down my very same request in 1998, and in so doing, started the chain of events that seriously fucked up my life for several years?

As if that wasn't enough, they demonstrated this past January that they would be more quick to jump to the monetary aid of my sister's fiancé than they ever really were to help me. He had been fired from a good-paying job during the summer of 2004, and held out as long as he could on the savings he had amassed while working there, but toward the end of last year, he was beginning to run out. The big issue was that he was not going to be able to come up with roughly $2,500 to cover tuition for what could have been his last full-time term, and my sister was obviously concerned with that. (His parents flatly refuse to pay a dime for the schooling of all four of their children, and that's their right, but why, I ask, is that our problem? No disrespect to him, and I do want him to have every opportunity to succeed, but he's merely a future son-in-law to my folks, not their own flesh-and-blood child.) She and my mother worked out a plan under which my mother would co-sign for a student loan from a bank for him; however, the one fly in that ointment was that the whole disaster involving the repossession of my car had sufficiently wrecked my parents' credit rating to the point where the bank refused to make the loan.

I do have to be fair and emphasize that he was already very close to completing his degree, and that my mother was more or less trying to ensure that he didn't get so close only to be unable to finish it off. It was a noble intention, and I can respect that, but I do have to say this about my car situation and his tuition situation: that I had to fight like hell for over two months, and even then only truly "convinced" my father once the dealership had pulled its stunt and more or less taken the choice away from him, while they almost immediately jumped to the aid of my sister's fiancé — even going so far as to ask me to help him out, which I was willing to do after some deliberation, if given an arrangement that would also benefit me — speaks volumes to me. (Oh, but then again, I guess I'm just so selfish for thinking that, right? </parents' voice>)

I also have to emphasize that I'm well aware that my folks are not 100% to blame for all of my troubles — believe you me, I've made dozens of colossal, disastrous mistakes myself, of which (looking back) that Gateway computer was, from a financial standpoint, the first and one of the worst — but I am going to call a spade a spade and assign blame where it belongs. I will take it for those things that have been of my doing (or omission), and I won't take it for things that were not within my control — it's as simple as that.

However, I do have to wonder in bewilderment why my father seems to think I'm intentionally stalling the process of getting back to school, and keeps insisting that I can go back any time I want (ignoring almost all other aspects of my life situation). For example, unless I were to attend school in a place like New York or Chicago where mass transit is literally everywhere all the time, just what am I supposed to do to get around? (I know that's been a moot point since late May, when I got my car, but prior to then, it was a very salient point that he pretty much ignored.) Where am I going to live, and how am I going to pay for it? (Five days here and there with them usually isn't a big problem, but I absolutely will not live with them as a permanent solution.) Considering that, in effect, I blew through $30,000 that my paternal grandfather had set aside for my schooling to earn maybe 40 credit hours during my first "old college try," shouldn't I try to save a decent chunk of cash before I attempt part deux? All of these are things that must be considered, but he has yet to offer any kind of reasonable, comprehensive plan for my life. (Not that I want him to, anyway — I'm not going to put myself in a position where I'm not calling 100% of the shots — but this just shows that while he talks the talk, he won't walk the walk.)

I mean, I don't think my father has any sinister motives in continually pushing me to go back to school right now and immediately, but he is ignoring the fact that I can't ignore every other aspect of my life to focus completely on that particular one. A true maestro of the orchestra must keep his ear open to each and every musician's part even while he focuses on one particular part, or else the symphony won't be, well, symphonic. Life is much the same: you must have harmony, and you cannot restrict your focus to just one thing. It's going to take time to get my shit straight enough to try college again, and although my father isn't exactly young anymore, I must admonish him, "Patience, young Jedi." smile

Some of my old high school friends and classmates, should they visit this site, would no doubt be surprised at the fact that the guy they knew as a brainy nerd now finds himself working in the field that is renowned for perhaps the lowest average IQ in the entire working world. Well, the last God-knows-how-many paragraphs will fill in a large part of the puzzle for them. That said, it's time to call it a night here.