Cornered, Blessed, and Stressed

20 Dec 2010

Original Blogger tags: Personal Essays and Rants

So, ummm. Hello. What was I talking about again?

Tomorrow is the darkest day of the year, so as usual I’m spacey, teary, and easily overloaded by just about any stimulus more stimulating than sitting quietly with one child on my lap, practicing guitar, or reading in a corner. Naturally what I get is three of them having a screaming contest, or taking turns slamming doors.

This year has seen the Potts family go through a lot of stressful transitions.

We’ve moved from Ann Arbor to Saginaw. We bought a huge old house with good fundamentals (a sturdy foundation and roof) but lots of issues. Expensive issues. The initial round of home improvements went far over budget, but it was one of those situations where the damage was not all visible until everything was torn out.

We were blindsided with some emergency issues we had to dump money into, in order to avoid having our homeowner’s policy cancelled (and mortgage jeopardized).

I don’t have a figure for our December gas and electric bill, but I’m anticipating that it will be upwards of $750. We have most of our windows and one fireplace covered in plastic sheeting but we were really late in getting everything weatherized. We’re new to this. Maybe the January bill will be lower. Or maybe it won’t. Anyway, it’s freezing in here. We have the thermostats set at 56. I’m wearing layers and layers and fingerless gloves to keep my hands warm enough to type as I write this in my home office.

Speaking of home office, transitioning to working at home has been more difficult than I anticipated as well. In some ways it is great. In others it just feeds into my tendency to feel isolated, and the natural tendency towards isolation that comes when an introvert does programming work to begin with. Do it for enough days, and fail to leave the house in the evenings, and soon I become afraid to leave the house, almost paralyzed.

I know what major depression and anxiety and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder feel like; I’ve been on medications — several of them, a whole series and litany of them, years of them, with a whole checklist of disturbing side effects — in the past. Anxiety and depression have been pretty much my lifelong companions. A psychiatrist I worked with briefly said something that I will always remember: that in his experience, people don’t actually suffer from episodes of depression (unless they are actually bipolar, I suppose). Depressives are depressive. It’s just better or worse.

I know how it feels when it gets truly debilitating. I know what it’s like to spend nearly entire weekends sleeping, and what few hours I spent awake, crying.

I’m not there anymore, for which I am grateful. Nor am I hitting the whisky too hard; I want a glass of whisky now and then. Perhaps three nights a week, I’ll have one. Perhaps one night a week, I’ll have two. It takes the edge off a houseful of screaming kids and a to-do list I will die before finishing. If I start wanting one too badly I decide that I’d better not have one, and so I’ve managed to avoid actually “needing” a scotch. I’ve emptied three bottles since I moved up here the last day of May. Only three bottles.

I know what helps: quiet socializing. Writing. Playing music. Reading. Socializing. Usually it’s the thing I feel least like doing. Exercising. Which I also don’t feel like doing. But I’ve gradually learned to make myself do the things I don’t want to do. Because it helps.

None of my friends have come to visit us in our new home. Actually, that’s not quite true. One did, but then he decided he was angry at me because I didn’t get a message that he had called, and told me I was never to speak to him again.

Grace has been going to school to get her Montessori certification. I’m happy and excited about that. It means he’s gone every other weekend, but I can do the Mister Mom thing and even enjoy it, at least with Isaac’s help. But what I don’t enjoy is when the checks go through, especially if she wrote some that she didn’t tell me about. I was blindsided this morning by $350 in checks that I had not planned for.

It’s the Monday before Christmas and our bank balance is a big negative. I get paid again in a few days. I’ve dumped every bit of our savings into our checking account but we’ll still hit our line of credit for almost the last remaining available balance. Our credit cards are in the freezer. They are both quite small as credit cards go, and we’ve been paying down modest balances of perhaps $2500 in total. There’s a loan against my 401K. We have to finish paying off the no-interest loan on the flooring. And we have a line of credit against our checking account that has crept up to about $3,000.

There’s really nothing else. So we’re going to be starting 2011 without a net. I’ll be suspending all retirement contributions. We don’t want to take out a home equity line, not six months after moving, but if we want to get on top of some issues like a refrigerator that is failing, we may have to.

My mother-in-law’s furnace broke and she was without heat. Her prescription health care policy was cancelled and she had to start rationing her heart medication while they scrambled to find some other kind of drug coverage. She had another heart attack and wound up in the hospital, and had to come home to a cold apartment. She asked us if we could help her pay for a new furnace. We couldn’t. I’m expecting at some point she will also need help for this latest round of medical bills what haven’t even been billed yet. They will be astronomical. I think we’re already helping pay down, very slowly, some of her bills from a previous hospital visit. I don’t think we’ll be able to help any more than we are.

My paycheck deduction to my work-provided health care plan is going up, at the same time that they are migrating to a cheaper plan. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan announced that premiums on our old plan are going up 41%. Five years ago, when I started this job, there was no paycheck deduction; it was fully covered by my employer. Now, we will be paying more, our co-pays are going up, and fewer services will be covered. Welcome to health care reform. It sure is great that we got that bill passed. Thank God we don’t have a single payer system, like all those other countries where it doesn’t work.

Everything is going up, except I haven’t had a cost-of-living increase or raise of any kind in five years.

Our food expenses have gone up, and we can’t find decent meat that we feel comfortable feeding our children. We have to drive farther and pay more. We’ve been buying meat from sources we trust on our trips down to Ann Arbor. That’s not really sustainable.

The school we decided was acceptable for our oldest son is 16 miles away, so we’re driving an extra 64 miles a day. It now costs over $40 to fill the gas tank on the van. Between this and Grace’s twice-a-week travel, we’re spending at least $400 a month on gas. I could add it all up and figure it out, but I can’t bring myself to do it. When we put all the basic budget numbers together, based on what seems to me to be a not-terribly-luxurious lifestyle, it’s a little more than I take home.

I took the kids movies twice this fall; that felt like a luxury. Searching out eggs and meat that we feel we can safely eat does not feel like a luxury. We mostly cook at home from raw materials. When we do eat out, which is infrequently these days, it’s been the Chinese buffet lunch (four kids plus dad for under $25; the teenager can put away several plates, which at least slows him down).

We’ve had to put Sam on a gluten-free diet. A lot of are old standby dishes (pasta salads, for example) are now verboten and we are confused a bit about that. On the plus side, the reduction in carbs has been good. I’ve lost at least fifteen pounds since I moved up here. On the minus side, I’ve replaced some of the carbs with fats. My cholesterol probably isn’t up to any good.

We still have a Netflix subscription, but we never get time to watch our DVDs, so I’ll be cancelling that. We could do the streaming thing, but I’m afraid of having a computer anywhere near where the kids can reach it. We don’t have cable TV. We bought a small handful of DVDs on sale last month. I finally saw Star Wars Episode 3. Wow, was it ever horrible.

The DVDs feel like a luxury. Being able to give the kids a video to watch doesn’t; it feels like a way to have a few minutes of sanity. We don’t have cable, or want it, except for Internet, and sprung for high-speed; that’s so I can keep my build servers and code checkouts with work without taking days to bring down files. So: not a luxury, but part of the cost of working from home. Which was supposed to save us money.

I have bought one or two books a month that I probably shouldn’t have. I’m feeling really, really guilty about those Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks hardcovers I bought a few months ago, and even the Stephen King Dark Tower paperbacks look like a bad idea from my perspective today. Especially since Joshua climbed the bookcases, pulled them down, and half-destroyed them.

We do have two cars. They are seven and fifteen years old. Is that a luxury? Having a second car is part of the cost of working from home; on a given day, I might have to drive to one of the other offices, and can’t leave Grace unable to get the kids to and from school.

I have a home studio and a bunch of guitars. I’d consider selling some of them, but most of them I bought at very low prices, choosing somewhat rare instruments which have no real cash value now, in the hopes that they will eventually go for more than I paid for them. The market for used instruments is not good now. I’d wind up taking a big loss on them — if I was able to sell them at all. It would be heartbreaking to have to sell the ones that I play regularly. I wouldn’t be able to get much for them, but they have a lot of value to me. No one has any money. That’s what a recession is. That’s the biggest reason I was able to get most of them so cheap in the first place.

We’re going to have a new baby in April or so. I’ll probably have to pay quite a bit more out of pocket than I did for the previous two children. Out of the same take-home.

We had a big pile of cash on hand. We dumped almost all of it into the house. We knew it would be a money pit, and we’d thought we were pretty well-prepared. We weren’t quite well-prepared enough. I guess it’s a case of not quite believing it until you’ve experienced it.

I was saving up money to help an online friend come out from Scotland so we could collaborate on some music in person. I think we just blew that money. Maybe I can return some of it to savings and we can still make it happen somehow, but it is looking pretty doubtful.

I was saving up some money to finish putting up acoustic panels and foam in the studio room.

I was saving up some money to get the brakes fixed on the van. They aren’t dangerous yet but they need some major work in early 2011.

I’m blessed in many ways; we have food on the table; we have a marvelous place to live. I have a job. I earn a good living. Or what used to be a good living. It’s complicated. Inflation and increased expenses have made it barely a middle-class living, now. I don’t think there is much of a middle class anymore, is there? The “social contract” that I grew up with has had most of the air let out of it, it seems. Basic things, like being able to send your child on a bus to his or her school.

Our water bill is almost $90 a month, which I think is at least four or five times what we’d be paying per month in Ann Arbor. Most of that isn’t measured usage, it’s the regular monthly fees.

When we were planning this, we determined that our mortgage payments plus insurance and taxes, which are all rolled together, would be less than our monthly rent in Ann Arbor. That seemed promising. We were even talking about being able to pay extra principal-only payments to get our house paid off faster. Maybe we can get there, but we’re not talking about it right now. Not until we can get our burn rate way down.

I have a wonderful wife and four terrific children. We’re not buying them any Christmas presents, getting a tree, or decorating the house. I spent $25 on a whole bunch of candles, and we put them in the fireplace we can’t afford to buy wood for, or have inspected for safety. They are very pretty.

They burn out really, really fast.

Some friends were going to come over for dinner with their kids, and we made a bunch of fancy dishes from the food in our fridge and freezer. We were going to turn out the lights and watch the candles and let their kids play with our kids. They cancelled on us.

I have 232 friends on Facebook.

So why do I feel like such a lonely failure?

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