Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Pulling the plug - part 1

Well, it's done. I have "officially" declared to the legal system and to the world that I am worth less than nothing. Papers were filed, documents signed - it was all very neat and impersonal. And a bit surreal as well. Oh, and it cost several thousand dollars, too. Funny how "going broke" can be quite costly.

You see, I had made it. Despite being a high-school dropout stoner loser malcontent who much preferred playing my guitar with friends to attending school or following up on my commitment to the military (a fine tale of intrigue for another day), I found myself living the American Dream!
Had the house in the 'burbs (on a cul du sac even!!), the 2 cars, the motorcycles and the cell phone with a cool ring tone (I switch between Jimi Hendrix doing "Machine Gun" and SRV's "Lenny"). My incredible wife, who also bailed on school early, set her sights on a position with a major corporation headquartered in town and wound up landing a gig within Corporate Legal that had great pay and benefits, so I could stay home with the kids and maybe create something in my spare time. O. K., so we drove 15 year old cars and didn't watch T.V. or go on vacations, but we lived in one of the best neighborhoods in the state and our kids would be going to school with the children of our politicians and Captains of industry. Man, I had it going on!

Then I didn't. You see, it was all a mirage. Illusion, even. All predicated on the assumption that everything would not only stay the same, but continue to get better and better as we went along. Good times were here, baby! And then they weren't.

And it is all my fault. Not because I am one of those losers who continually used their home as an ATM ( I didn't until the very end, and only to bridge a gap while carrying 2 mortgages until our first house sold), or because I engaged in an orgy of materialistic indulgence (not much, anyway - I admit I bought some shit I didn't "need", but whatever). It is my fault because I ignored the advice I was getting. Not the advice from the bankers or realty people or my relatives, but from that part located somewhere deep inside my guts that never, EVER bullshits me. I knew better on some level, but went ahead and ignored my intuition.

We were living in the 'hood. We had been there for 10 years and had watched all the old blue-collar folks who had been our neighbors move on or die off, and had seen the influx of property management run shitholes and real- estate flippers. Our kids were vulnerable, the gunfire was intensifying and getting nearer, and a rich relative was willing to help us make a transition to a better neighborhood. It was all laid out nice and neat so off we went, assured that all would be well and that we'd do better than break even after it all settled out.

The 140K that our previous home was valued at when the HELOC was initiated quickly went down to the 60K that that the bank bought it for (from themselves) when the foreclosure auction was held. This took less than 2 years. The approximately 80k represented in that swing is only about 5k less than the amount of debt that the bankruptcy will erase, so I guess it all washes out in the end somehow, but it was amazing to watch our old neighborhood crash hard. Houses on my block that had been 175K 3 years prior were not moving for way less than 1/2 that amount. A nice home on my block sold for 20k the summer we were foreclosed on. And then the copper bandits moved in and the boards started going up. But why did this happen? What mechanism can make such radical changes in "value" take place within such a short span? Must be all those low-income losers who got in over their heads after the Democrats forced the poor banks to lower their lending standards and allowed the poor folks to play the real estate game. That'll teach us to never let poor people, and especially minority poor people, play the game. The poor banks never had a chance, did they? All I know is that lots of rationally sized, well-built homes 5 minutes from downtown Minneapolis got snatched up for pennies on the dollar, and are sitting empty waiting for.......................

Yeah, I'm part of the problem. The debt collectors liked to remind me of that all the time. They'd remind me that I had an obligation to Citibank (or Wells Fargo, or B of A and whoever else was hiring these clowns to call me up and offer me all kinds of impossible solutions to my problem), and that I was a loser for not being able to keep my end of the deal. There was little understanding of how it was that I was unable or unwilling to commit to a "new" repayment plan authorized by the creditor to settle for 1/2 of the total amount - as long as it was forked over in the next 10 days. "Gee, I'm sorry I can't make the minimum payment, but I'll just reach into my back pocket and pay you several thousand dollars (or at least promise to do so) to get this settled. You guys are sooo understanding and cool!".

When you see your credit card rates go up, that's my fault. When your taxes are raised to restore the health of the financial entities who were kind enough to lend a deadbeat like me $$, that would also be my doing. I fucked up the whole thing for ALL of us, and now I'm going to walk away from it all wearing the shame of a foreclosure, a bankruptcy, and tattered credit for years to come.

And frankly, I really don't give a shit anymore. Nothing I have that is of any "value" in the conventional sense was going to stay with me anyhow. Take it all! It's only stuff. Most of the really cool stuff I have was given to me anyways - it almost literally fell from the sky. That '72 Les Paul Goldtop that is the most expensive thing I own? A gift from my dad on my 18th birthday. My Triumph? My wife's Harley? Gifts via inheritance. I didn't earn it, I just had a birthday or someone died and left me something. Easy come, easy go. I know I needed to get a better grip on my guitar collection, and now that will be done for me. Hey, everyone knows that motorcycles are dangerous, so when they come to take them away I should be thankful. Can't exempt the kid's musical instruments so they will be taken, too? Hell, they don't need to mess with that stuff anyways, right? They might end up like ME!

I'm not bitter. Really. Honestly. I'm blowing off steam today, but I knew today was coming. Much of the change coming at me is needed, and I figure if I don't initiate change myself, it will be seen to eventually by other means. Coming out the other side of this means that my next moves will not be determined by the potential exposure to the vultures that have been circling overhead for a couple years now. By saying to the world, "I messed up bad and violated your rules, so come punish me for it so I can get on with things", the future opens up with unlimited potential. If we are stripped down to the basic means of day-to-day survival (which in this case is pretty silly - I'll still live in a big house in the 'burbs and have my tools at hand), then maybe we will learn where real wealth lies. And I contend that I am still a very wealthy man. Love is still here, and it does not appear to be affected by the size of my bank account, or any other measures that American society uses to size a man up. I am faithful. I am as honest as I can possibly be. I played the game by the rules and lost on a technicality. But it is not game over. I didn't know the rules and ignored the advice of my best coach, and got battered a bit, in a manner that many would see as a horrible blow. I am left grateful.

Because now I see. I see how the game is rigged. I see that NONE of this is an accident, and that by participating in this system I help feed it and allow it to continue to rule my life and by extension, the lives of people all over the world. Now that the mask has been ripped off, it is my mission to unplug completely from this crappy excuse for an existence and do what people keep telling me is foolish, irresponsible, and possible abusive to my kids. Self-determination leads only to self destruction, or so I'm told. You can't do it on your own, they say ( I agree. I will find my tribe. Count on it). You don't want to give up the safety and security of that great job! (what a fucking joke). By telling me I'm a loser and that I can't play the game anymore, you have set me free to create my own, or at least see clearly the consequences of trying to "get ahead" here.

Look, I've made it once and I can do it again. My wife and I, 2 dropout dreamers with no college degrees or trust funds, have become completely average Americans. We live in an average house price-wise, our income is just about exactly average, we have average debt and a couple kids that, when evaluated by prevailing means and balanced against each other end up........average. I know this drill, now. I have been there, done that. And if my next plan (or the one after that, or after however many tries it takes) fails, I have proven that I can jump in and become quite average all over again should the desire to do so arise.

Now the challenge is greater, because we venture into unknown territory. Some would say hostile territory even. We will try to swim against the current, and ignore the rules that prevail (or at least try). Hell, I have always thought of myself as a bit out of place here, and railed against convention for as long as I can recall. Let's see how truly "out there" we can get. And maybe by sharing this process and all the challenges and triumphs, others will see another way to do it. It begins in earnest, or to quote G.W. Bush, "Bring it on"

Z