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Friday, October 30, 2009

Don't Be Afraid

With Halloween upon us and goblins about it seemed apropos to talk about fear.  What are you afraid of?  The dark, spiders, bats, the unknown, the future, another Republican president, Nancy Pelosi, socialism, healthcare reform, rejection, being judged, your own thoughts, death?

Tom Petty sang in the song Crawling Back To You, "Most things I worry about, never happen anyway."  Whenever I hear the song those lyrics call out to me and remind me how much time people spend thinking about the 'what ifs' in life.  There's a difference between being prudent and planning for the future and needless, mind and time consuming worry.  I know too many people who spend too much of their mental energy thinking about things over which they either have no control or that are the remotest of possibilities.  Driving in the car, in the shower, doing errands, in meetings, or even in the middle of a conversation their minds reel with thoughts about everything from what someone really meant when they said something to what people will think if they say something.  They worry about how something they do today will impact their lives in 15 years without giving a moment's thought about all the other things that won't happen.  Or they contrive every possible scenario and worry about each of them.   Their minds quickly drift from the present moment thus depriving them of enjoying the only thing that is real:  NOW.

A long time ago, as a teenager, I was given advice that has guided me through all the challenges I've since faced.  It goes something like this:  If you have a problem, challenge, or a difficult situation that's ONE problem.  If you're over thinking or obsessing about it you now have TWO problems.  Why add a problem to the problem?  Best to just focus on the issue itself and leave the worrying out of it.  I know this is easier said than done, but if you take this advice to heart, I guarantee you that the tightness in your chest will lessen and you'll see things more clearly.  There's a reason that books like Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and It's All Small Stuff sell millions. It's because there's multiple millions of people that are sweating small stuff all the time.  And ironically they are also sweating the fact that they are sweating the small stuff!

Think about how controlling and powerful an emotion fear is.  They say that sex sells (and of course it does), but fear surrounds us all day long.  From the 3AM phone call to the current debate over healthcare reform, instilling fear of the unknown or change is about the most compelling technique available.  Fear is a mainstay of marketing.  Just watch the network evening news ads.   Do you go to the bathroom at night, do you suffer from allergies, are you old?  Nothing as honorable as scaring old people. (I am often more scared of the potential side effects.  Anyone ever experience spontaneous stomach bleeding?)  Advertisers want to make you feel inferior, stupid, and ignorant. They are trying to scare you.  If you don't have the gadget or aren't up with the latest trend, you're on the outside looking in.  Fear of being different is a motivator for many to become another sheep in the flock.  In religion fear is too often used to compel parishioners to conform to religious dogma and in extreme cases to blow themselves and innocents up. Fear fills the coffers of insurance companies everyday and it's made the makers of Ambien very, very rich.

Fear is a natural emotion.  It is a psychological and physiological condition.  Sweating before a job interview or public speech.  Butterflies in your stomach before a big game.  Downright terror at the top of treacherous black diamond ski slope.  Fear can sharpen our vision, heighten our hearing, and focus our attention.  It's not such a a paradox that we often seek out the rush of adrenaline brought on by fear.  Race car drivers, skydivers, and daredevils all thrive on it.  Hollywood makes a mint on fear, especially around Halloween, causing many of us to lie awake at night wondering what that bump in the night was.  I can still viscerally recall the deep seeded fear I had of falling asleep after I saw the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland.  I checked for pods under my bed for months afterward.

While fear is useful, an involuntary mechanism for self-defense, and can protect us, it's wise to be vigilant and know when you're employing fear for your own benefit versus when it's being used to manipulate you.  And to enjoy life to its fullest it's imperative that you be self aware of when your fears are chimerical, unnecessary, unhealthy, and consequently wasteful.   Needless worry consumes your valuable time and energy; it takes you away from the present and brings your mind into a future that is unknowable, unlikely, and by definition imagined.  Stop over thinking it.  Don't be afraid of what might happen - and almost certainly won't.  Be hyper aware of when fear is being used to induce you into making a decision.  ("This sale ends today and you don't want to miss out on the savings." Yes, that's using fear.  They are trying to capitalize on you being afraid of missing out on 'savings.'  But really they are afraid of losing a sale.)

So this Halloween enjoy the scary ghosts and ghouls, but relish in the knowledge that the fright in the night is as contrived as the fear promulgated everyday on television, the internet, and in the media.  And most importantly, be self aware when you're generating and feeding fear and worry in your own mind.  You have to be cognizant that you're doing it to stop.

Now if you want to see something scary, watch what happens to this ship.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bonjour Québec

Some time ago, my wife (hereafter referred to as Véronique) and I planned a combined 40th birthday getaway (I guess that would be an 80th birthday getaway), sans child.  Véronique turned forty in August and I turn in December so we thought we'd split the difference and go in October.  We both like to travel, but since the arrival of our son, Rémy (his French Canadian name), traveling hasn't been the same.  That isn't to say it hasn't been enjoyable, but sleeping in doesn't generally happen and neither does going out much past 8pm.  Since both Véronique and I have traveled to and enjoy Europe we elected to go to Canada.  Pourquoi?  Because it was much, much easier to drive to Europe these days than to fly - cheaper, too.

For those that haven't been to the Europe of Canada, I have one word for you:  Go.  I also have another word if you go this time of year:  Jacket.

The drive from Connecticut to Québec is about 8 hours and we elected to shoot straight up through Vermont on Rt. 91.  We stopped in Brattleboro for lunch and were lucky to have found Amy's Bakery Arts Cafe, which overlooks the Connecticut River, makes their own delicious artisanal bread, and has the requisite crunchy Vermont vibe.  The drive north through Vermont was gorgeous and though the leaves were a tad past peak, the hills didn't lose any of their majesty when the leaves started to brown.

Arriving in Québec by early evening, we checked into the Manoir Sur-le-Cap hotel, a stone's throw from the more famous and certainly more visually impressive Fairmont Le Château Frontenac.  Yet for price and location, Véronique and I were very quite satisfied with our hotel. After settling in we ambled around the old city in search of dinner.  The Old City is the heart of the tourist center of Québec and there were no shortage of restaurants competing for diners.  After surveying several restaurants on both Rue St-Louis and Rue St-Jean we landed in Le Patriarche, just off Rue St-Jean on Rue St-Stanislas.  The restaurant's gimmick was to serve things in threes so that if you ordered an item you got a three different tastes of it.  Since Véronique and I are almost vegetarians, we didn't partake in the restaurants local game specialties, but did enjoy their creamy butternut squash soup and a scallop appetizer.  I enjoyed a main course of fish (halibut, monk, and shrimp), but Véronique thought her vegetarian (risotto, ratatouille, pomme au gratin) main course was just okay.  My favorite part of dining here is that I was completely underdressed for the pretentious atmosphere.  It made me feel very famous and aloof.

The next day we awoke to snow! Unusual even for Québec in October it was nonetheless a genuine winter storm.  The winds blew fiercely and the freezing rain and snow pelted us throughout the day.  But since vacations are rare for us, we braved the elements and wandered the Old City in precipitation- obscured daylight.  We traipsed both haute-ville and basse-ville, the upper and lower tiers of the city.  The upper part of the city sits atop a 200 foot cliff overlooking the Saint Lawrence River and one can easily see how its vantage offered quite the military advantage.

We eschewed the traditional inclement weather destinations like the museums and instead ducked frequently into cafés for shelter, sustenance and alcohol.  Despite the poor weather, the city's many charms were readily evident.  Thanks to its French heritage, landscape, and history, there were numerous buildings, streets, and vantages that compelled me many a time to exclaim, "I feel like I'm in Europe."  I said this so often it became my comedic refrain much to my darling Véronique's eventual forced amusement.  By afternoon's end, we climbed the so-called 'breakneck' stairs and sought shelter in the famed bar of Le Château Frontenac.

We sat ourselves at the circular bar where I enjoyed a generously poured vodka martini and Véronique sipped on a bloody mary.  Véronique raved over her caesar salad and I was reasonably pleased with my smoked salmon sandwich.  Véronique followed her salad with a South African chardonnay and thereafter we crossed a snowy and windblown Jardin des Gouverneurs Parc‎ to our hotel.  Tired from the days excursion, we took to bed and promptly fell asleep for the next two hours -  the possible highlight of our trip.

Still mostly full from our late lunch, but vacation guilted into not skipping meals, we opted to for a light and unassuming dinner.  By the time we roused ourselves from our nap and showered, it was a bit later than the usual dinner hour.  As we wandered around we found many restaurants quiet.  We chose Pizzeria d'Youville and were impressed with a really nice Greek salad, the cheesy pizza pie. and our waiter, a skinny Rafael Nadal look alike.  Sated and tired, we trekked up the hill, past the Frontenac, and settled in for the night.

With the promise of sunny weather, Véronique and I woke before 7 to see the sunrise over Lévis, the city across the river to the east.  It was a frigid 23 degrees, but it was clear outside and as the sun rose we were treated to a glorious view of the Saint Lawrence River, Le Château Frontenac, and even a brave hot air balloonist (insert Heene reference here).  Determined to make the most of what was to be our only sunny day, we walked up the hill behind our hotel and ventured over to the Citadelle and then wound our way downhill to what was one of our favorite sites in Québec, the food market called, Le Marché du Vieux-Port.  The market showcases a multitude of local produce, wines, cheeses, and other specialty foods from the Québec region.  The bounty was impressive and hunger inducing.  We settled on a bit of produce to go along with some delicious cheeses, bread, and local wine.  The market is open everyday from 9 until 5 and it's well worth a stop.  We made two!

I am growing bored with the play by play of our trip which means you stopped reading several paragraphs ago.   I do want to mention a few other highlights of our trip and here they are in short order.  Café du Monde - traditional French bistro right on the Saint Lawrence River.  Restaurant L'Astral Hotel Loews Le Concorde, which is a rotating restaurant high atop the city from where we enjoyed the view and a very expensive glass of champagne.  Also, go beyond the Old City walls and check out Rue St-Jean west of Place D'Youville.  We found many interesting stores, especially those with an "epicerie" focus.

After four days in a foreign land, Véronique and I departed for home for États-Unis.  We missed Rémy very much and were, like many weary travelers, looking forward to sleeping in our bed.  Québec has much to offer and is well worth a visit (or two).  With its rich history, architecture, landscape, European feel, fine food, and easily navigated streets, I heartily recommend a Québec.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Baystate Marathon - Recap

The alarm was set for 5am, but I was lying awake in the dark of my hotel room at 4:18am.  The anticipation of my first marathon was too much for my mind to allow me to go back to sleep.  This was the day marked on the calendar long before I'd even begun to actually train for it.  When I signed up for the race many months ago, I could have hardly imagined the personal significance it would hold.  And while I tried to block out the forecasted Nor'easter, I couldn't help but wonder how the weather would impact my long awaited marathon debut.

For many years I toyed with the idea of running a marathon.  Through running with the North Shore Striders I'd often been party to conversations about those long training miles and challenging race conditions.  In the training for previous half marathons, I'd contemplate doing a marathon, but by mile 12 of that race I'd summarily dismiss the notion as insanity.  After my wife and I adopted our son (at birth), Max, in late 2007 my running routines went out with the proverbial bath water for basically all of 2008.  Tired from waking up early every day, I'd opt to stay in bed, play with Max, or really do anything but commit myself to a running regimen.  As the weeks became months I fell into worse and worse shape such that the prospect of getting back into shape became all the more daunting.  Every couple of months I'd go running for a few painful miles, be reminded of how far I'd fallen out of shape, and I'd hang my sneakers up until guilt induced time came.  Running a marathon seemed an ever vanishing mirage.

In late 2008, my wife and I found out that we were pregnant.  It was a magnificent surprise as we hadn't had any success in that regard, despite numerous fertility treatments in the past.  Our inability to get pregnant led us to adoption, but because there was no medical reason found why we weren't getting pregnant, we hoped that one day it would happen for us.  We were of course elated and were excited to grow our family. The dormant runner in me also feared that with a new baby my running would be permanently relegated to best intentions.  But because running was really the only exercise I could both do easily and enjoy, I vowed to change the status quo.  My wife bought me a Garmin Forerunner on the condition that I make ample use of it.  In December 2008, just after Christmas, I took a short and slow jog in San Antonio with my wife and sister.  It would mark the beginning of my comeback.

I knew myself well enough to know that I needed a race - a date on the calendar - to focus my attention on running, to keep me honest.  Fear of a painful run is a great motivator for me.  And knowing that I also needed some specific goals to keep me motivated continuously throughout the year, I elected to attempt the US Track and Field New England Grand Prix, a series of seven races beginning in February with a 10 miler in Amherst, MA and culminating with the Baystate Marathon in Lowell.  If one completed all the races, he or she earned the title Ironrunner and got a jacket to prove it!  I was in no shape to run that first 10-miler, but I knew if I didn't participate in that race, I wouldn't be motivated to do the others.  I slogged my way through the hills of Amherst, slipped on the icy dirt roads, and was thankful just to finish.  As each race came and went, I grew stronger and more confident.  I ran three or four days a week without fail (save a 3-week stint on injury reserve).  In the spring, I joined my fellow North Shore Striders on the Peabody High School Track for weekly workouts with Coach Fernando Braz.  Coach Braz surveyed our running past, goals, and amount of running we could commit to.  Based on our answers he assigned us to workout groups and for those of us planning on running a marathon, wrote up a detailed week by week training plan.  I was at the track nearly every Thursday evening and on the days I couldn't make it I got the workout from Coach Braz and completed it on my own.

On a warm June day, I traveled to Rhode Island for the Rhody 5K.  We looped around the Twin Rivers Casino grounds on what was to be the last Grand Prix Race of the summer.  The next race in the series wasn't until early September.  My training was going well and I was looking forward to having several summer weeks off from racing to just enjoy my runs without having to focus on a race.  There were a lot of other things going on in my life, too, that were keeping me busy.  I'd been unemployed since December and planning for our family's financial stability was proving to be a challenge.  We were also edging closer to committing to moving from Salem, MA to Connecticut and there was much to think about and plan for if it was to happen.  And of course, we were expecting a baby in August.  We were taking weekly birthing classes and making plans to welcome a younger brother or sister for Max.  In July, we looked forward to the arrival of my sister and family who come up for several weeks from Texas each summer.  I was also searching the North Shore for a 'new' used car.  We were busy, burdened even, but happy.  Happiness can be all to fleeting....

In late July the worst thing that could ever happened to us did. On July 17th my wife grew nervous as she hadn't felt the baby move for what she thought was a day.  She thought she'd go into the hospital where they would check on the baby, tell her everything was okay and send her on her way.  She thought she was just being paranoid and didn't even mention to me that she was going in before she went. Everything wasn't okay.  Everything was far from okay.  I got a call from her.  She told me to come to the hospital, that something was wrong with the baby.  I insisted that she tell me what was the matter.  "They can't find the heartbeat."  The cliché is to say that you can't imagine what that was like, but I disagree.  I think most anyone can imagine what it's like and it's not far from what you would think.  It's the most awful, sinking, horrible, and incomprehensible feeling you can envision.  For the next three days we not only had to deal with this news, but with the practical and mind numbing realities. We had to stay in the hospital for the baby to be induced and that took several days.  And while we waited for the inevitable, we had to face the facts that THIS was now our new world.  On July 20th, we delivered Leonardo Mathewson Ring.  We were able to spend several hours with him and share him with our families. A few long days later we found ourselves going to the funeral home to retrieve his ashes.  I share this with you not to engender your sympathy (though I know I likely have), but to frame the context in which I completed the remainder of my marathon training.  What had begun as a way to stay fit and to achieve a near 40th birthday milestone was now a primary and necessary source of healing solace.  Running became my escape, my meditation, and my therapy.

I obviously had taken a few days off from running in late July, but as much as I had wanted to run before our baby was to be born, I now knew that if I didn't have some kind of running routine, I'd go stir crazy.  I went to track practice the very next week and I scrupulously followed Coach Braz's marathon training schedule.  I told some of my fellow runners about Leo in advance of seeing them; I received their heartfelt condolences, but quickly changed the subject back toward running.  For those hours, on the track or on the quiet roads of the North Shore, I didn't have to do anything but put one foot in front of the other.  I didn't have to think about anything much more complicated than pace times and miles to completion.  I improved my fitness, lost a few more pounds, and cleared my head.

I went on to complete the next two USTAF races, The Ollie 5 Miler in South Boston and the Lone Gull 10K in Gloucester.  Now all that was left to become a US Track and Field Ironrunner was the looming Baystate Marathon.  Throughout late August and September, I'd increased my long runs from 12 miles to 14 to 16 to 18 to 20, and 22+.  They didn't all go smoothly. On a very hot and humid day in August, I failed in my first attempt to run 16, which would have been my longest run to date.  But a few weeks later, on a cooler, rainy day in September I surpassed 20 with comparative 'ease.'  After moving to Connecticut I was further challenged by the far more hilly terrain and had both success (22 miles) and failures (a scheduled 16 miles that ended depressingly at 14).  I was also developing some needling injuries that didn't preclude running but did make it far more uncomfortable.  My right hip hurt pretty much all the time; indeed my whole right leg often felt out of sorts, from the shin, through the IT band, the hamstrings, and up to the butt.  I iced after runs, took plenty of ibuprofen, and resolved to endure.  I needed to to complete this race and I desperately yearned to finish the Grand Prix series.  It had now long ceased to be about personal fitness goals.  I was striving for some kind of purgatorial release. On my longer training runs, especially when I began to run them alone, I often used the time to think.  I thought a lot about our lost son Leo.  I often said his name, sometimes in my head, sometimes out loud on my exhalations.  "Leo.  Leo.  Leo." I imagined his presence in the nature that surrounded me.  And I often sought to gain strength and energy from him.  In the weeks preceding the marathon I thought about writing his name on my shirt, to hear people say "Go Leo," but in the end, I opted not, preferring instead to invoke his name only when I felt the need.

All this and more flitted in my head as I lay in that Lowell Marriott hotel room in the pre-dawn hours before the marathon.  I had much more than just the race in my head.  And though that was the case, I did still need to mentally prepare for the most physically challenging effort of my life.  I tried to keep the weather forecast out of my mind, but there were practical considerations.  The weather forecast said low 40s, rain, and wind - a goddamn Nor'easter!  I had solicited input from experienced marathoners in the Striders and from the internet about appropriate attire.  There was no consensus, people given to their own unique running predilections.  And I had my own, too.  I elected to run in a technical long sleeve shirt and our Striders singlet on over it, shorts, a baseball style running hat (with a UConn "C"), and gloves.  I thought that as I warmed up, I'd lose the gloves and unzip the long sleeve shirt.  Warming up was to be short lived.  At 5:15am I rose from my cozy bed; I got changed, had a cup of coffee and a toasted bagel with jelly - my traditional pre long run meal.  I gathered my things, went to the lobby to wait with the other solemn (or maybe just sleepy) runners and took a 6am shuttle from the hotel to the Tsongas Arena.  We hotel shuttlers were amongst the first to arrive and worked our way past the assembling volunteers (hats off the them!).  I had about an hour and a half to kill until the 8am start.  I filled the time by walking circles inside the arena, going the bathroom (several times), stretching, and watching the Zamboni clean the ice rink.  Finally as 745am approached I donned a trash bag in hopes of staying dry until the last possible moment.

Just as I headed out the arena doors to walk the several blocks to the start the rain began to sprinkle.  It wasn't freezing cold just yet, but the thick clouds and increasing breeze made it clear it would be.  At 7:55, I stood in line at the port-a-potties for one last pre-race pee.  Though nervous about the waning minutes until the start, I was more eager to empty the bladder so as to not have to stop during the race.  I exited the port-a-potty at 7:59 and made it to the rear of the marathon start chute which was right next to the half marathon start chute.  I actually had to scale the metal fence to get in to my start area.  After some thank yous from the race organizers (to the volunteers, sponsors, the mayor) they played the National Anthem; we all took off our hats.  The start was upon us. But just before the start -  and despite the fact we were tucked between two tall brick buildings, a cold, stiff gust of wind knifed through us as if to say, "are you sure you're really ready?"  It didn't matter because before I had a moment to consider the question we were off.

The first mile, typical of any large race, was slow.  The combined mass of both the half and full marathoners - several thousand of us - were packed in tight and more than running, one is really just making sure that you don't trip on the feet in front of you.  My goal was to run the first few miles between a 9:40-9:20 per mile pace.  I was hoping to run this marathon in something under 4 hours and 20 minutes, which meant running 26.2 miles at under an average 9:55 per mile pace.  In all my long training runs, I generally settled in at a 9:45ish pace, but didn't know how the race adrenalin, weather, and extra few miles of a marathon would effect me.  After the first couple of miles, I found some running room and tried to relax and just see what felt right.  It usually takes me three or four miles to iron out the stiffness, but I was so distracted during those miles that I barely noticed myself warming up.  The rain drops were falling a bit more frequently, but it wasn't raining hard - yet.  By the 5th or 6th mile, I found that I was running closer to a 9:15 pace and it felt easy.  And while this would have put me far ahead of my goal, I was also nervous about what this pace might mean for my pace at mile 15 or mile 25.  There was a long way to go.  I tried to dial it back a bit, but without thinking would drift back to the faster pace.  I ran into my fellow North Shore Strider and training mate, Tom, somewhere around this time.  Amongst the thousands of runners, I was happy to finally see one familiar face.  But we were each running our own race strategy so after a few pleasantries, we drifted apart and ran the course on our own.   As I neared the 8 mile mark, where we cross the Merrimack River at Rt. 113 in Tyngsboro, the rain began in earnest and with it, the more acute sensation of it being cold.  And though I'd warmed up prior to that, it was from this point forward that the weather began to impose its will.  Instead of thawing out more as the race wore on, I ran the rest in a clothes-soaking, bone-chilling, hand-numbing, wind-driven rain.  My extremities chilled by mile by mile.

Marathon Route Map

I ran east back toward Lowell on the north side of the river along Pawtucket Blvd. and despite the chill, I still felt strong.  I even began to run somewhat faster - under a 9 minute/mile pace.  I tried not to look at my pace watch and just go by how I felt, but I couldn't help but fear that it might be a painful mistake.  Around mile 9, I heard someone calling my name.  Without my glasses and with my iPod in my ears, it was hard to tell, but I was almost certain it was Coach Braz cheering me on (I later confirmed it was).  He was the first - and only person - I'd see who I knew until the finish approached.  I leaned up the slight, but long incline to mile 13 where we crossed the Merrimack at the Rourke Bridge and retraced about 5 miles west back toward our first crossing point.  By this point it was raining quite steadily and it felt as if the temperature was dropping  (And I was right - see the weather here).  Instead of my hands growing warmer as the race wore on, they grew ever colder.  My gloves had helped me at the outset, but now they seemed to isolate the chill around my fingers; I didn't dare remove them for fear of it being worse without them.  I let my arms hang lower in hopes of draining some blood into my fingers.  I opened and closed my fists to stimulate circulation; if it helped, I couldn't feel enough to tell.  I was taking my Gu gel supplements beginning at mile 13, every 3 miles, but by mile 16, it was already becoming difficult to pull the packets out, let alone manipulate them to my mouth.  By mile 19, I could hold the packet in my hand, but couldn't squeeze the Gu out (after having to have used my teeth to tear the packet open).  I shoved the whole pack in my mouth and tried to chew the Gu out.  It worked enough.  By mile 22, I really felt as though I had two frozen blocks on the ends of my arms.  On the plus side, my right hip and leg were posing none of the anticipated aches I'd feared.   As I ran the last 8 miles fatigue began to creep into my stride.   My average pace crept up from 9:14 for mile 18 to 9:34 for mile 19.  The cold and the distance were beginning to make themselves felt.  It didn't help that while the overall course was flat, there was a steady incline on these last miles which were further complicated by a headwind.  It wasn't the 20 MPH winds forecasted, but it was consistent.  I lowered my head and chest into it.  On Coach Braz's training schedule the only thing he had written for October 18th was "Tunnel Vision."  I now knew what he meant; I took it to heart and zeroed in on the road in front of me.

Around mile 20, I began to feel that I was really going to be able to finish the race.  I knew there were very challenging miles ahead, but I knew in my core that there was no doubt that I would make it - that we would make it.  It wasn't especially graceful running, but it was determined forward progress.  Sometimes a stiff breeze or bit of uneven road would tilt me to one side or the other and I noticed that my legs didn't right me as quickly as they otherwise might have.  I kept running.  I began to pass people that were truly laboring.  They were wet, cold, massaging cramped muscles, or just needed to walk for a bit.  Few - if any - looked happy.  I trudged on.  Indeed the only time I walked at all during the race was to focus on opening the second to last Gu at around mile 22.5.  I simply had to concentrate all my dexterity into opening that tiny packet of carbohydrate energy.  By around mile 24 I'd slowed to that 9:55 pace and my 25th mile was really hard work, slowing to a 10:34 pace.  But I was almost there and my Garmin was telling me that my overall average pace was still excellent and several minutes ahead of my goal.  I picked up the pace again and willed myself toward the finish.  I crossed the river one last time at Aiken Street and made my way around the final bend that led into Lelacheur Park, home to the Lowell Spinners baseball team and the race's finish.  I heard my name and was deeply heartened to see my wife and son as well as my best friend and his daughter.  I finished strong, running the uneven outfield perimeter to the finish chute.  As I approached the end my friend and training partner, Linda, yelled my name and gave me a high five (due to injury she was unable to run the race).

I looked ahead to the last few steps to the sign that said, "Finish."  A very brief, but intense wave of cathartic emotion passed quickly through me - a quick shudder that somehow encompassed everything this meant to me.  This race began as a notion to keep fit.  It became something that sustained me through the most difficult months of my life.  The weather for the race, as inhospitable as it was, seemed apropos and was an almost welcome symbolic representation of the challenges I felt I faced all year long.  I finished in 4 hours, 8 minutes, and 3 seconds - well ahead of my goal.  I know the conditions were not ideal, but to me, it was the most beautiful day I've had in a long time.

I want to append a few special thank yous to this note.  To my fellow North Shore Striders, and in particular my regular North Shore Striders running partners: Linda, Dennis, Vicky, Giuseppe, Tom, Annajean, and President Mike Pelletier -  thank you for your companionship, encouragement, and friendship.  To Coach Braz, I couldn't have been more pleased with your training regimen, constant support, and running expertise. And most importantly, I offer my humble and heartfelt gratitude to my amazing wife, Linda.  Thank you, my dear, for supporting me in this effort, for trailing after our tireless toddler during all those long hours I ran, and for diagnosing all the aches and pains along the way.  I want to acknowledge the many sacrifices you made in order to help me complete this race.  My finishing is most definitely our achievement.

Official Results

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hours in a Day

It embarrasses me that I am not writing more frequently.  After all, this is my 'job' these days.  It's been nearly a week since I last wrote and I wonder how that happened, beat myself up for allowing it to happen.

I reflected on what I did instead and not surprisingly, and not unlike the rest of you, the hours just sailed by.  I wasn't wasting my time, wasn't surfing the web, twiddling my thumbs, and wasn't in a vegetative coma.  I was busy doing other things.

Linda went out of town last weekend so I was left to watch Max (with help from my mom and aunt).  I had some marathon training runs to fit in.  I managed to stain and polyurethane a new door to the basement.  (I even managed to accurately chisel the relief for the hinges so that the door fits, opens, and closes properly!)  On Monday Linda started her new job, but Max got a case of conjunctivitis and was banned from daycare, leaving me home to care for him.  All of you who have or had a toddler know that this is full time work that leaves little time for errands or chores, to say nothing of tending to personal hygiene.

And so here it is, nearly a week later and I am just now getting back to business.  As a 'house spouse'  I am quickly learning what housewives have long known:  there simply aren't enough hours in the day.  If you tally up all the tasks and goals for a given day, one is lucky to cross half the items off the list. And ironically if one is trying to adopt a simpler lifestyle, it only seems to get more complicated.

To wit:  We want to eat healthy, unprocessed foods.  To do that, we have to go shopping for those foods more frequently, prepare the meals, and wash those dishes - for each and every meal.  (We are not always successful.) There is of course the house cleaning, the bill paying, the cleaning up after the toddler, emptying the kitty litter - the mundanity of daily living.  I know that we could do a better job planning ahead to save time later, but it's hard to find the time to make time to save time.  I know we're not alone in that regard.  Housework aside, there's all the other things I want to do to enrich my life.

I also want to make time to read.  I want to read about current events so I can be well informed about the world in which I live.  I just got a subscription to The Economist using some frequent flyer miles.  When the F am I going to find time to read that on a weekly basis?  I actually had to let my subscription to The New Yorker lapse as I simply couldn't keep up.  Each week it arrived it felt more like homework than leisure. I want to read my book about organic gardening (and also need to find time to turn over last years garden, while also finding time to prepare some new beds NOW for the spring).  I want to read The River of Doubt about Theodore Roosevelt's ill fated trip into the Brazilian Amazon.  And all that reading doesn't factor in the ceaseless and voluminous writings to be found - and enjoyed online.  It's simply too much.

I try to read before I go to bed every night and I try to go to bed at a reasonable hour, knowing how important it is to get a good night's rest.  It's not long before the book slips from my hands as I nod off.  There's so many things that we ought to do that instead of feeling like you're rewarding yourself by leading 'a good life,' it becomes an onus and one begins to wonder why one does them all all.  Eat right.  Sleep well.  Oh, and exercise.

Of course I need to fit in the old exercise regimen.  I am currently training for a marathon which is this Sunday. I've been religious in following the training schedule and know that I'll need to implement a new one soon so that I won't slowly slide back into lazy complacence.  But don't I also deserve to watch an occasional movie or sporting event? Flipping the channels last night I was reminded how brilliant South Park still is.  Family Guy, too.

Then, of course, there's my wife and child (which I fully acknowledge and recognize should come at the top of my list not toward the end). There's planning for the today (register my car), tomorrow (drive to Salem), and retirement (10% of gross income goes toward that). The list goes on, endlessly, forever.  There's all this stuff and I haven't even mention the time I need to carve out to write.

I am keenly aware of how overwhelming the stuff of life is.  For me it's the same feeling I get when I go into a library or bookstore and know that I'll never, ever be able to read all the books I want to.  It's the sense of knowing all that will be absent.  So how will I manage?

One of the things I frequently consider, but have yet to do with any kind of consistency is some form of meditation.  I sometimes try to do it while running and do find moments of the stillness I crave, but then the brain charges in a new direction leaving me both mentally and physically breathless.  I want to try to find those 15 minutes each day to breathe deeply and I want to do it with regularity.  (I also want to wake up and do sets of push-up and sit-ups, but I haven't done that either.)

I've read Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle.  I follow Tony Robbins on Twitter.  Much of what they say and write resonates and makes sense to me.  And in many ways, I incorporate some of the principles they espouse into my days.  Yet, I know that I am not where I want to be while simultaneously recognizing that I don't actually need to 'go anywhere' - that I am already, patently, where I should be.  So as my mind starts to get crowded with all there is to do, all I want to do, should do, must do, I also know that the only thing I really need to do is be present in each and every moment.  It's a second by second effort, but one worth making.

Eric Cartman and Deepak Chopra in the same blog - I didn't see that coming.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On Television

This is where I make myself sound old.  When I grew up watching television, we had to get up to change the channel; we didn't have remote controls! We had rabbit ears to tune in stations.  We had about six channels to choose from, PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC on VHF, and a couple of UHF stations.  If you're under 30 years old you probably don't even know what that means.

As a child I loved watching television.  From Saturday morning cartoons - loved Super Friends - to sitcoms like Happy Days and Welcome Back Kotter.  I watched General Hospital after school and enjoyed watching the Love Boat and Fantasy Island on Saturday nights.  I was one of those millions who watched the last episode of M*A*S*H.  And because there were just a few stations, there were times when nothing was on.  Literally.  There was static, a screen full or colored bars, or a waving American flag.  I was so into television that at the age of 8 or so, I had over a year's worth of TV Guides in a collection.

(I was so proud of the weekly magazines, I wrote to TV Guide to try to sell them back to them.  They politely replied that while appreciative of my youthful enthusiasm they actually already had them all.  Years later, I was quite distressed when my mother discarded what she thought was a box of my old junk.  I was somewhat pained when I went into a comic book store last year and saw them selling cellphone wrapped TV Guide issues from that same era for between $2-4 per issue.)

As cable television grew in the 1980s, there were more stations and a cost to watch them.  The business model was simple - and still is.  Provide exclusive television programming and people will pay for it.  And we do.  Cable companies have grown, diversified and while their executives grow wealthy we continue to pay more and more for television programming.

I have a love/hate relationship with television.  On the one hand, it's so easy to plop on the couch, grab that remote, and find something to entertain you.  On the other hand, it's so easy that doing anything else - even things you enjoy - seems arduous.  Watching TV is physically passive (and more and more mentally passive as well).  If I'm watching TV, I am not reading.  I am not gardening.  I am not exercising, cooking, cleaning, going for a drive in the country, playing in the snow, or actually living my life in any sort of present and engaged manner.  If I am watching television, I am lucky if I am even absorbing it.  Much on television is consumed, but like candy, provide no nutritional content.  To be fair there's some great television on - educational programming, smartly written comedies and dramas, well made movies, and, my favorite - the original reality show: sports.

Over the years, I've gone full bore with TV: the full cable line up, a home theater system with a DVR.  I've also gone cold turkey  - no TV at all.  Or  sometimes it was just getting the only stations that came through the antenna (now a thing entirely of the past).  For many years the compromise was no cable TV, but Netflix (from which we'd sometimes also rent TV series like Sopranos, Lost, or Ricky Gervais' The Office).  Then we got the basic stations - about the same ones I got growing up (plus those 'free' shopping channels).  It turned out that my cable bill basic cable was just $3 more with my internet package.  For $3 it seemed worth it to be able to watch The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and some weekend sports on the major networks.

When we didn't have cable and just watched Netflix, I loved not having to watch commercials - now many more minutes per/hour than ever, coupled with the louder volume they play them at.  I know the arguments about using a Digital Video Recorder - no commercials, record the shows you want to watch to watch whenever you want, pause live TV.  I know.  I had one in the past.  But the point was (is?) that I didn't need help watching MORE television.  I wanted to watch less of it.  Something happened between the 40+ hours of TV of my youth and the 40+ hour work week of adulthood.  TV distracts. Sometimes I don't even know from what I am being distracted from, but I know it all the same.  It's now to the point where I sometimes have trouble - many times - relaxing in front of the TV.  It's as if I can't shake the feeling that by watching whatever I am (with the exception of good for you television and major sporting events - my acknowledge weakness) I am not doing something I ought to be doing.  (And I don't even know from where that feeling of ought comes from.)

Here's the other thing that grates me about TV:  it's expensive.  I am frugal by nature so paying money from something I know is bad for me is irksome.  It's the same reason I don't smoke or drink too much - not because those things aren't enjoyable, it's because of the associated cost.  Something about paying for something that's detrimental seems, well, more than imprudent.  I really try not to piss away money.  For example during our recent move while were were thinning out our possessions, I realized I was ridding my closet of shirts I'd had for for more than 20 years.  Once upon a time watching television was as expensive as the set you bought, the antenna, and the electricity.  At first when cable cost only twenty some odd dollars it seemed tolerable.  Now, you're lucky to get cable or satellite TV for less than $75 a month - or nearly $1000 a year!  $1000 to rot your brain and thicken your waistline.  And for what?  To see which fat person can lose the most weight?  To watch Kate and Jon Plus 8 and then watch Access Hollywood to watch more about them!  I know not everyone is watching that, but clearly by watching - or reading -  the "news" and seeing what's on TV, millions are.

And now for the part of where you realize I am a total hypocrite.

When we moved to Connecticut last month we brought our 6 year-old TV - a 27" Sony Wega which though it had a flat screen was also really fat in depth.  In our new home there wasn't really a good space for it.  It seemed obvious to all - and especially my generous in-laws - that a flat panel TV was in order.  My in-laws surprised us about a week ago by pulling up to the back door with a 40" HDTV loaded in the back of their pickup.  And while I was hesitant about receiving this new TV, there's absolutely no denying its beauty.  The picture is simply gorgeous - a small theater in my smaller living room.  For all my pontificating about the evils of television, I am very much enamored with this TV.  I spent hours reading the manual, playing with every setting on the menu and if there's a more phallic remote, I have yet to see  - or hold it.

After a few days of watching this TV with my basic cable - and not long after realizing that I didn't get the channels that the Major League Baseball playoffs would be on, I felt a pit in my stomach.  I knew what I had to do, knew that I was no longer able stave off the inevitable.  Here was the beautiful television and it was being 'wasted' on PBS, Jeopardy, and the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.  I called Charter Cable and the next day - yesterday, in fact - the technician arrived to install Digital Cable, thus enabling my viewing of the HD Channels they offer.  He was a kindly man - originally from Ghana now by way of Rhode Island.  As he did the installation we talked about global affairs and the comparative stability of Ghana to other African nations (me wanting to show that I was far more well informed than the typical HDTV potatoes - 'see, I do more than watch Dancing with the Stars').  I joked that the gift of this television was like a gateway drug.  But it was no joke at all.  I said it as a joke to sugar coat its truth.  The TV was free, but here I was shelling out $69 for cable.  And since it was an HDTV and I'd just splurged on a Blu-ray DVD, I needed to pay $4 more to Netflix for Blu-Ray DVD access.  And already I am finding myself perusing the web for home theater audio system worthy of our new television and dvd player....

Last night, I had the Yankees/Twins game on and was also flipping channels to see exactly what I'd paid for.  I won't bore you with listing the television lineup, but suffice it to say there were all the shows, both good and bad - that I'd been avoiding:  reality shows a plenty, talking head news pundits, old movies that weren't that good when they were new, and sitcoms and dramas rife with those loud commercials.  My gut tells me that I am going to struggle with this television.  I'll have to be strong in order to not fritter away endless hours in front of the glow of that stellar quality picture.  And when I am not watching TV, I'll be beating myself up for paying Charter Cable for the privilege of being able to watch it when I so elect.  There's many things I think more important that watching TV:  time with family, being outside, household projects, reading, writing, exercise, listening to music to name a few.  But I'd be a big fat liar if I said I wasn't going to watch the Red Sox tonight....

Stay tuned.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bankruptcy! How did it come to this?!

I am not a shopaholic.  I am not financially disorganized.  I am not a huge risk taker.  In spite of these traits, my wife and I found ourselves in the Thomas P. O'Neill Federal Building last Thursday for a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy hearing.

How did I get here?  It might be useful to take a peek at my credit history.  It goes back to when I got my first credit card - sometime around 1988, an AT&T Universal Visa credit card which was offered to me, a college freshman, barely 18 years old.  Ironically I was already receiving Financial Aid in the form of some grants, student loans, and work study.  I think I earned about $4 or $5 an hour checking IDs at Boyden Gym at UMass.  I probably worked 16 hours a week.  Obviously I was a good candidate for credit....  And yet I got the card and charged items and paid, at least the minimum, without fail.  Alone, VISA wasn't making a ton off me, but as one of millions of college students, I am sure they were making out pretty well.  I parlayed my Visa account into an American Express and I think I had a Filene's and Sears charge card, too.  I never carried large balances, but a balance I always carried.

After college, I had a job that paid $18,000/year.  The year was 1991 and while not a lot of money, I didn't have that many expenses.  But my tastes still exceeded my salary and I continued to carry a small balance, probably a couple thousand dollars, for several years on end.  When I went back to graduate school and began to just work part-time again, my balances began to creep up and by the time I got my master's degree in 1996 I was carrying a balance closer to $5,000.  I wasn't a mathematician, but it was clear to me even then that paying the minimums or just a bit more wasn't going to bring that balance down significantly or anytime soon.  I just didn't want to think about it and it seemed to be the norm anyway.  I was 26 years-old.  Plenty of time to sort it all out, I thought.

Sometime in 1997 or '98, I attended a financial planning workshop at my job put on by who was then American Express Financial Advisors.  I met with a very kind and personable woman who, for the very first time in my life, taught me a bit about financial planning, long term investment, and monthly budgeting.  The concepts were not difficult, but presented to me as a strategy, it seemed very clear to me how credit had been siphoning my life blood.  I resolved to eliminate my debt, create an 'emergency fund', and contribute regularly and as sizably as I could to my retirement savings.  It was the watershed moment of my financial life.  No longer was I simply managing my monthly bills; I was planning both for any short term emergencies and long term savings.  I was taking control of my financial future.

I was so dedicated to the effort that I sold my car and bicycled or walked to work to save money and in a relatively short period of time, I had ZERO credit card debt, left only with my relatively inexpensive student loans.  It was one of the proudest moments of my life.  And I was amassing what was for me substantial retirement savings while maintaining a cash fund for both emergencies and desired, but budgeted amenities.  I was self-assured and self-righteous in my evaluation of both my finances and the poor state of others.

This was essentially my financial state of affairs for the next 6 or 7 years.  I  had a steady income so affording life was simply a calculation of my net income versus my fixed expenses.  Fast forward now to 2004.  My wife and I plan a modest wedding, but one that still required us to lay out more cash than we had.  Including our honeymoon costs and the soon to follow cross country move we were about $8,000 in the red.  We knew the proposition going in and had resolved to pay the debt off as quickly as we could.  And we did.  In about one year we were back to carrying a zero credit card balance.  It was then 2005 and it seems like the entire world is telling us we're idiots if we don't buy real estate.  The values are going up and up so what's the risk....

We found a pre-construction condominium unit in downtown Salem, MA that seemed attractive, well situated, and we were able to lock in a price and a loan (despite the fact that I had been self employed for only about a year and had little verifiable income).  We took advantage of the market and financed our condo 100%.  That's right, we laid out exactly $0 in exchange $365K condo and an adjustable rate mortgage.  Fear not, though.  We weren't the victims of a rate adjustment that doubled our monthly payment.  I had been shrewd enough to refinance for a 30 year fixed rate mortgage at the height of our condo's value.  Indeed the condo had 'appreciated' $40,000 in value from our purchase price.  We folded that $40K back into the mortgage such that we 'added' 10% equity.  I use the single quotes because we didn't see any of this money; it was all virtual.  And while we could certainly afford our monthly housing costs, I felt that we were still living on the 'red line.'  As I had been doing for years (and continue to do) I carefully monitored our monthly expenses, making sure we were contributing to our savings, and not over spending.  And even with (or perhaps because of?) my close eye on our funds, I felt nervous.  One emergency or a sudden loss of income could send us quickly off the financial cliff.  But for a couple of years, we survived, even thrived by some comparative measurements.  We kept our debts low; we didn't carry credit card debt; we kept up with our student loans, and as a result managed to nearly double our retirement savings.

Of course we all know what happened.  The economy went to shit - and fast!  Coinciding with the declining real estate market, my company was also doing some reorganization.  If I was to stay with them I would have had to accept a position which demanded weeks on end of long hours - this at a time when we'd just adopted our newborn son.  The job was a similar role and position I'd held in the past and one which I knew was incompatible - to say the least - with my current family life, career objectives, and gut instincts.  I endeavored to switch to a different role in the company, but with the economic signs pointing south and with what was for the company my comparably high salary, I was left without options.  Within a matter of months, our household income was nearly halved.  Here was that financial crises I had been dreading.

At the same time, I was also going through some personal meditations.  What kind of commute made sense to me?  What kind of job did I want?  What is the value of the rat race exactly?  What, in effect, was worth my time?  Both my wife and I don't place an extremely high value on material things, particularly when it comes with the cost of our personal time.  For me to accept a most any job in Boston meant commuting a couple hours a day.  And those hours were the prime time that I could be with Max - early morning and before bed.  Taking that city job meant missing my son and to me this was something I couldn't abide.  Put simply, I wasn't willing to make the compromises that would eat at my soul, but pay the mortgage.  And the jobs that would feed my soul didn't pay the mortgage which left me, well, unemployed.

I networked and brainstormed and after just a few months on unemployment I found a job in Salem, literally steps from our condo.  Aside from the gut punching 30% cut in salary, there was much that seemed perfect.  The job was close, posed no time in commuting and didn't require any cost to do so either.  I could eat lunch at home and worked normal hours.  I started the job in June of '08, but within a few months, came to the wrenching realization that the job (Interactive Services Account Management) wasn't anything I was truly passionate about.  And I seemed incapable of sticking it out or making it work.  I simply was - and am - at a point where I can't stomach a job that offers little in personal satisfaction, salary notwithstanding.  So here I am in this major pickle.  We have a monthly nut that requires a sizable salary.  Those salaries are, by the day, becoming fewer and far between as the financial market verges on global collapse.  The writing is on the wall.

In late 2008 I began contacting our mortgage company to discuss what I saw as the inevitable.  Soon, I knew, our ability to pay the mortgage was going to conflict with our cash flow to say nothing of our cash reserves.  With me soon to be on unemployment and the job prospects being weak, I was hoping to discuss options - for renegotiating our mortgage, for a short sale - for anything that might be a sustainable solution.  It took several calls and letters and submissions of financial info.  Weeks passed, months of no progress.  Finally, after much effort I learned this cold truth:  until you actually stop making your mortgage payment you are not a problem to them.  It actually makes sense when you think about it. As long as the cash keeps coming in to the bank, what's the problem for them?  From my point of view, it was just a matter of time before the cash crunch came and for me to make those payments would have required draining our savings and our retirement funds - permanently.  And for what?  All that would do is keep our payments current until we were in the same place:  short on funds and long on bills.

After much deliberation, consultation, and discussion, we elected to withhold our mortgage payment, putting the money aside in a separate savings account to at least be able to discuss our position with more leverage with the mortgage company.  When this finally happened, they basically said, 'but you still have funds available to pay your mortgage.'  To them, it made absolutely no difference that to pay this mortgage meant the depletion of all the money we'd worked years to diligently to save.  All they wanted was all the cash we had.  Their threat was this:  cease payments and risk foreclosure, a poor credit rating, bankruptcy.

So let me get this straight, I thought.  If we cease to pay our mortgage, we risk losing our overpriced, and now upside down condo - then about $60K upside down - which 1) we're not sure we want to live in anymore and 2) we didn't actually pay any physical equity into.  So what are we really risking here?  To my mind, we were risking our retirement savings and making a deal with the devil.  Their proposition was more or less in effect:  stay in the condo, work a meaningless job (assuming I could find one!), and wait 5 or 10 years until the market rebounds and the condo is worth at least what you owe - just to break even!  It didn't compute.  The "Why" just didn't equal the "What" and "How."

Our situation was also unique in that for some time Linda and I had been contemplating a move to Connecticut - to be closer to family and to eventually live on Linda's family property.  Linda is a physical therapist and it's extremely easy for her to find suitable employment (I love you, honey!)  The threats of a bad credit rating weren't as scary knowing that we already had our cars, could rent a property without too many hoops through which to jump, and that in the future event we needed to take out a mortgage or construction loan, it would be for something on the family property for which we could get our family to co-sign (we asked our family about this in advance, of course).

I don't make to make light of the situation and rest assured we grappled with the decision for several months.  Having never done anything like this, it seemed too simple a prospect.  We consulted friends who've gone through bankruptcy, others that have done short sales with lenders, and attorneys with vast and varied experience.  With each investigation and further probing we kept arriving at the same conclusion.  It makes no sense to deplete our savings to pay a bank.  It makes no sense to exist in some kind of financial purgatory, being an indentured servant of a bank and a financial market, until such time as we can sell our property and break even.  Sure it will mean that we've 'rented' a very expensive condo for a few years and that unlike many others who bought and sold earlier, we won't walk away with a profit.  But what it would mean is we won't be working for anyone other than ourselves and that was something that actually did feel right.

So, yes, we stopped paying our mortgage last December.  And yes, we lived off the money that would have gone to the bank (which I might also add has been a victim of its own greed).  And yes, we've abandoned a condo which will eventually be foreclosed upon.  (A side note is that since the first mortgage company went under, they sold the note to some other lender and that lender hasn't even begun to send any notices to us other than the bill.  According to the many stories we've heard, it will likely be many months before the new bank, located in Florida, does anything to address the property.)   We did have to pay a few thousand dollars in attorney and bankruptcy fees;  our credit rating is currently poor; we now don't have any credit cards at all.  (My wife and I enjoy exchanging knowing smiles when the cashiers say, "Would you like to save 10% by applying for a FILL IN THE BLANK RETAILER NAME credit card now?")  We live on a cash basis only and it feels GREAT.

So after a year's worth of machinations, there we were - sitting in Room 255-A in the Thomas P. O'Neill Building, along with about a dozen other people, waiting for the federal bankruptcy trustee to call our names.  When he did we sat down at the table next to our lawyer.  The trustee, a friendly man emitting no trace of personal judgement whatsoever, asked us a few questions related to our petition.  He was essentially verifying the information in our file.  After what was about 5 minutes of us confirming the details, he smiled and said, "Thank you. You're all set."  There is a two month waiting period in which creditors might come forward to challenge our application or make demands against our resources - something that is extremely unlikely to happen.  And after that.  Well, that's mostly up to us.

One bizarre side note.  The room in which we were sitting overlooked Causway St.  There was light post from which traffic signals were suspended.  As we took our seats and looked out the window a peregrine falcon was beginning to peck at a live pigeon.  The falcon was pecking away at the writhing pigeon much to the amusement and disgust of the gallery.  As we waited the pigeon ceased to wriggle and the tell-tale blood of the carnivore's efforts became clearly visible.  It was both off-putting and engrossing - a nature channel outside the window.  As I am watching this, I can't help but metaphorically relate it to our situation.  The carnivore falcon preying on the weaker pigeon.  The corporatocracy preying on the common man.  And here's the kicker.  IMMEDIATELY after the trustee tells us we're all set, the falcon which had been feasting not more than 20 feet from where we sat next to the window, spreads its wings and flies DIRECTLY at me, flaps its wings at the window, then turns and flies away.  W-E-I-R-D.

Surely there were lessons to be learned from this experience - lessons I am still learning, but not the ones you might expect.  To file bankruptcy you're required to take some financial education classes.  The material focuses a lot on budgeting, credit, financial organization, and responsibility.  Much of the class's substance was review and redundant.  They are things I've been doing for a decade.  But when I ponder the question of how we got to this point, I feel that I was mostly guilty of being swept up in the national tide and swell of homeownership.  From the media, to my peers, to our government, to the financial industry everyone was singing the same tune.  Buy real estate.  You can't lose.  You're an idiot if you don't.  We all know that this wasn't exactly true.  And while we escaped by the skin of our teeth, thanks to a set of circumstances not easily duplicated, millions of others are mired in debt.  They are losing the homes they love and hope to stay in.  They are signing new notes that stipulate that they'll pay whatever the bank says is fair in exchange for their promise that they'll pay their last cent no matter the personal and long-term cost. In spite of our recent challenges we are still the lucky ones.

I know that many are embarrassed by financial missteps - as if one's financial net worth is somehow equal to one's personal net worth, assets a calculation of human value, or a credit score a measurement of overall intelligence.  We know this not to be true and yet, we too often place too much value on these numbers.  I've learned a lot about personal finance in the past 15 years and was cocky enough to think that I'd gotten a pretty good handle on things.  But sometimes being humbled is the best thing that could ever happen.  And speaking of good things, I came across some videos on YouTube today which while having little to do with personal finance have everything to do with what's rewarding.  Check it out to lift your spirits.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Healthcare Reform - An Anecdote

When I was in first grade - or thereabouts, my mom found an ad in the local classified newspaper for some used ice skates.  She contacted the seller and by the end of day my sister and I had our own pairs.

The boy whose skates I acquired was my same age and we went to the same elementary school.  His parents were married, they lived in a single family home on a quiet cul-de-sac.  He had a basketball hoop in his driveway, a new bicycle in his garage and a soft, new leather baseball glove.  I had none of those things, but to us young boys the differences in our economic situations mattered little.  He became my best friend growing up and is still my friend today.

We did the things that many young boys do growing up in where we lived.  We explored the woods, played sports (me far more clumsily than he), and listened to music - record albums on his kick ass stereo with speakers taller than we.  Many of my firsts were his firsts - with many thanks to the generosity of his parents.  We went to see Def Leppard at the Hartford Civic Center.  We saw the Red Sox play at Fenway Park and the New England Patriots lose to the Kansas City Chiefs at Shaffer Stadium. We went to a concert at Radio City Music Hall (Flock of Seagulls).  We got arrested for vandalism at age 10 (a blog for another day). We snuck alcohol from a neighbor's cupboard and later I was present when he used the fake ID we got in New York City to buy our first six pack at a local package store:  Miller Genuine Draft.  At that time there was little that seemed significant enough to set our lives on different courses.

One winter day he went sledding in the woods behind his house.  He hit a rock and it sent him veering off course.  He slammed into a tree and ruptured his spleen.  The friend he was sledding with ran back to his house and thanks to both the quickness of his efforts and the expertise of the emergency responders, his life was saved. Though quite serious at the time, he recovered.  We all thought that he'd dodged the proverbial bullet.

Shortly afterward, though apparently not related to the accident, he was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes.  (Though the connection the his ruptured spleen and his diabetes isn't medical, they happened so closely that the two events are inseparable in my mind - the sledding accident a harbinger of his diabetes).  To say this was the end of his life as he knew it is putting it too tritely and mildly.  Far beyond no more sweets, sodas or sugar cereals, the psychological blow was - and still is - devastatingly omnipresent.  And practically speaking, he still has to face the facts of his diagnosis every waking moment.  Twice a day he fills a syringe with insulin and presses it into the folds of his stomach or thigh.  He must check his blood sugar several times a day.  In his youth he wasn't as careful as he should have been - few teens are.  His blood sugar would dip sharply and he'd have to find some candy to give it a quick boost.  Or he'd eat something too sugary and without the natural insulin to regulate it, he'd go into a hyperglycemic condition.  In his younger years, he'd flout the guidelines of healthy living.  He'd drink alcohol and eat poorly.  It was a poor decision, but somehow understandable.  It's hard for anyone to accept that they aren't able to do what their peers are and easy to see how one might attempt to.

Over the years, my friend and I grew up, moved apart, and took different paths.  I went away to college.  He didn't.  I traveled the world.  He didn't.  I married.  He didn't.  And while there are innumerable reasons for our divergent paths, I know that his life would have been far, far different had he not been diagnosed with diabetes.  Knowing that your life expectancy is reduced an average of 15 years because of a diagnosis can't be an easy thing to digest.  And while some might be able to use this information to propel them to live every moment to the fullest, they have a more rare special inner strength.  For too many others, the knowledge that your lifespan has been necessarily curtailed can cause a lifetime of prolonged and paralyzing depression.  Why should I bother is an all too frequent refrain.

Though we had a different set of life experiences, we have never failed to stay in regular contact.  He was at my college graduation and at my wedding.  When I used to come home to visit, I made sure to make time for him And this past spring when his father passed away, I made sure I was there for the funeral.  He is always amongst the first to wish me a happy birthday and I never, ever, forget his.  We don't have nearly as much in common as used to, but the common bond of our youth is unbreakable.  In many ways, his illness is a frequent reminder to me to be appreciative of all that I have - and thankful for what I don't.

In the last 10 years his health has steadily declined.  One of the most pronounced and consistent issue is with his eyes.  He has various vision troubles and it's very difficult - and dangerous - for him to drive at night.  Not only can't he see well, but the lack of confidence he has while driving further complicates the effort in doing so.  And while he's not legally blind, you wouldn't want him shooting an apple with an arrow off your head.  He can see just well enough to not qualify for disability.  After a period of prolonged health issues a couple of years ago he had to leave his job as he was unable to keep up with the responsibilities.  He was sick, frequently absent, and from the employers point of view, unreliable.  Because he can't work normal hours  - needing to drive only during daylight hours - and because he doesn't have a college degree finding a job, particularly one with medical benefits,  has proved near impossible.  He lives alone in a modest house, paid for by his family.

He has no health insurance.

Late this past summer, he awoke in the early morning nauseous and dizzy.  He made it to the bathroom but soon slumped on the floor, too weak and sick to his stomach to get up.  He rested there for 15 minutes before the fear of what was happening caused him to rally himself to get up.  He crawled back to the bedroom to his cell phone and called 911.  He took an ambulance to the hospital emergency room.  They found his blood pressure way out of whack, but soon stabilized him.  They ran several tests, but couldn't find anything specific to point to as the cause.  After several hours he felt somewhat better and they gave him some crackers to see if he could keep them down, which he did.  With his blood pressure back in a normal range and the nausea waning, they asked if he wanted to be admitted or go home.  He didn't exactly feel comfortable going home, not really knowing what had happened or if it would again, but with no health insurance the costs of staying were prohibitively expensive.  How's that for weighing your options?  He went to his mother's house to rest.

But later that same evening though his nausea returned - and with a vengeance.  His mother drove him back to the hospital, he toting a vomit bucket in his lap which he had to use often on the ride.  He was admitted to the hospital where he remained for the next five days for more tests and observation.  However, with the frequent blood tests and pressure checks, he wasn't able to get much rest and instead of feeling substantially better he now felt like he was suffering more from sleep depravation than from his original condition.  The doctors best guess was that the lining of his stomach was causing the nausea, apparently something that's not uncommon in diabetics as they age.  They sent him home.

He has no job.  He has no income.  He has no health insurance. He does have diabetes.  He does have to check his blood sugar four times a day (each test strip costing roughly seventy cents - over $1000/year - no subsidies there).  He does have to give himself daily insulin injections - as he has had to do for the past 30 years.  He also has a new blood pressure medicine to take, too.

And now, because of this recent bout with an undetermined complication arising from his diabetic condition, he has a hospital bill for $30,000.

What's more sad than my friend's story is that it's not unique.  His health struggle, now further complicated by a financial one, is the story of literally millions of Americans.  Could or should he have made some better decisions in his life?  Absolutely.  But he didn't choose to get Type I Diabetes; it chose him.  We are not all equally equipped to handle the health challenges that life presents, but we all ought to be equally cared for in the event they arise.