Sunday, November 6, 2011

How the Other Half Lives

Many months ago I started writing a series about how I escaped from the proverbial rat race. I fear I have gotten a bit distracted of late, so I now I want to get back on track. To read the series from the beginning, click here.

Here's the thing... I've had a hard time trying to figure out how to write about this particular chapter of my life without it turning into a total bitch session about my Ex. So here goes... and I promise I will try valiantly not to descend into total bitchdom.

When I was in my early twenties, I met a guy... we'll call him BeerMan. (I'll leave it up to your imagination to figure out why I chose that name.)

BeerMan and I played in a bluegrass band together. (For future reference, if you're thinking of starting a bluegrass band, it would be a really good idea if at least one person in the group knew something about bluegrass... just sayin'!)

At any rate, within a few months BeerMan and I were together. And even though we were never legally married, I call him my Ex, because from my perspective, once you've got a joint checking account, the rest is really just window dressing.

Looking back on it now, I can see that compared to the way most American's live, BeerMan was really not a hopeless spendthrift consumer, but given the fact that I was coming from the world of extreme frugality, his habits seemed excessive to me. He considered it normal to eat out 5-6 times per week, have a few beers with his buddies every day after work, and hoard (oh excuse me... I mean collect) stuff.... LOTS of stuff.

The truth is, we fought about money... and stuff... and alcohol pretty much constantly. And the convergence of it all was his beer can collection. Actually, it wasn't just beer cans... there were beer bottles, and beer bottle openers, and beer caps, and pop cans, and beer T-Shirts, and "collectible" T-shirts of all stripes, and beer signs, and... OK the list goes on, but you get the picture.

Anyhow, I consider myself fortunate to have escaped the whole BeerMan episode with only about $4000 in credit card debt - 
I promise I'll pay you back just as soon as my next paycheck comes in... but I've just gotta have those antique collectible glass insulators... and I really need new clothes for work... and new tennis shoes, and can't we just put the vacation on your credit card - I'll pay you back for my share, and I know the joint checking account is meant only for shared expenses and food, but beer is food... I mean what's the big deal... that's what credit cards are for, isn't it? 
Quite convenient it was that he didn't have a credit card of his own... perhaps the folks over at Visa knew something that I didn't! Grrrrr...

Hmm... I fear this post might be slipping dangerously close to the bitch session and that really isn't the point.

So what is the point? Well, I guess the whole little adventure with BeerMan gave me a few insights into how the "other half" lives, and also taught me some invaluable life lessons.

First of all, once BeerMan and I broke up and my father found out about the credit card debt, he sat me down, demanded to know how much the financial damage was, whipped out his checkbook, wrote me a check, made me swear I'd pay off the entire balance immediately, and pay him back whenever I could. You know... there's something very different about debt when it's not some nameless, faceless credit card company that is really encouraging you to borrow more, but your stern father who you know you're gonna have to face on a regular basis.

Suffice it to say I had him paid back within a year... not bad for someone making only about $13K annually!

I consider that to be a real lesson learned in terms of consumer debt. And to this day, I religiously pay off my entire balance in full every single month, even if it means taking money out of savings to do so. Seriously, what's losing a few pennies in savings interest compared to the 17-35% that most credit card companies will charge you. Plus, knowing that you're gonna have to sit down, look at the bill and pay the whole thing off at the end of the month really helps you temper your spending.

And the second and more important point is, well, more philosophical in nature. After I got over the anger - really, I AM over it - and once I paid off the debt, and processed it all a bit, it became clear to me that BeerMan wasn't really such a bad guy, he was just an escape artist.

You see, BeerMan had a lot of unprocessed feelings about his parents, about his ex-wife, about his young daughter, about himself... and his chosen methods of escape were drinking and collecting things. And I don't think that he is unique in trying to use things to get away from his feelings. I mean we live in a culture that relies much more heavily on emotional escape than emotional acceptance or expression.

For most people, the syndrome plays out by trying to be "successful" - which usually translates to painting a pretty picture filled with expensive cars, nice clothes, fancy gadgets, enormous houses and LOTS of debt. But when you come right down to it, on an emotional level, there's not a big difference between filling your life with beer cans vs. BMW's... you're still trying to use a physical thing to fill an emotional hole.

And no matter how hard you try, or how many "finds of a lifetime" you stuff into your basement, or how perfectly you paint your little picture of success, in the end you're still left with the exact same emotional issues that you started with. Only now, you've probably got a pile of debt and crap to dig out from under before you can even begin to start processing the feelings.

So all in all, I feel very lucky to have learned these lessons in a way that left me reasonably unscathed. That brief brush with the way the "other half" lives was enough to convince me that I didn't want any part of it.

Seems to me that we'd all be better off if we just dealt with the emotions head-on and skipped the entire whirlwind of stuff, debt and psychotically busy, crazy making lives. It may not solve all of our problems, but at least you'll be dealing with reality, and with any luck you will be working your way out of the hole instead of making it bigger.

That's my take anyhow.

Oh, and BTW - I still suck at Bluegrass!

For the next post in this series click here.


  1. I too find myself shocked and sometimes disgusted to the way the "other half lives". I am criticized by others when I bring up the rampant consumerism in our society & families as being too extreme. Sometimes it's "just a phase" as far as "they're" concerned. It's our lifestyle actually.

    I think that most of us can relate to your story (whether it be a coworker, family member or friend rather than an ex). I think that we all know someone who is dealing with their issues in the "wrong way"/via avenues that are simply treating their symptoms rather than addressing the cause. Much like our traditional health care system actually.

    I commend you for coming out & addressing it, since "we" are clearly not "the other half". It takes all kinds I suppose...

  2. Death by banjo sounds like fun though

  3. Actually, a very compassionate look at the subject, and not too cranky.

    Problems always start with a guy in a band... haha!

    I wouldn't be too self-critical about your bluegrass skills. Once Allison Krauss came on the scene, it's all been pretty downhill from there.

    Ever heard Allison Brown?

    I heard her live once. She's an interesting person. She went to Harvard Business School and worked as an investment banker for awhile. She likes to joke that when she told her folks she was quitting the rat race to play banjo, they thought she was nuts. Now that the economy has imploded they think she's a genius! She makes it look easy. She used to back Allison Krauss and she has her own label now.

  4. Kristin - I love the comparison to our health care system. Because, gee... if everybody took care of themselves, and dealt with their emotional baggage, it would be sooo much harder to sell them stuff, drugs and medical procedures!

    JNU - Down with Stuff! I fear I'm not exactly landing on the minimalist end of the scale, but once you've lived with someone on the other end of the spectrum, it does make you reconsider how much you really need.

    Janeen - I've actually met both Allison Krauss and Allison Brown back when they were playing together... the school where I used to work hosted them in concert once. I fear I just don't have the bluegrass gene though... I was the fiddle player in the band and I could literally hear my classical violin teacher rolling over in her grave with every hideous rendition of the Orange Blossom Special that I squeaked out.

    I also could never master the singing style... the only way I got close was by feigning a southern drawl when I sang. I've now switched to jazz standards and torch songs, which is much more my style.

  5. Yikes! A beer can collection. That's trouble, but you're right, it doesn't matter what it is, it's what it's covering up.
    BTW, love the picture of the dog with his head in the ground. Great post!

  6. Christine - It was trouble indeed... I remember the time he came home with a 6-pack of Pepsi. I reached for one and he nearly lost it. Apparently, that 6-pack wasn't intended for consumption because it had some stupid promotional BS printed on the cans... which made it a "collector's item." So nobody was allowed to drink it, or to remove the cans from the plastic rings because 50 years from now it would be "worth a fortune." Sigh.

    I'm over it... I'm OVER it... I'M OVER IT DAMMIT!!!

  7. LOL... Sunday night I was driving home and all I could tune in on NPR was "Simply Folk" and it was pretty bluegrassy stuff. Don't get me wrong, I like some of it (Ricky Scaggs -- in moderation; Allison Krauss; Nickel Creek and their various offshoots), but there was a bit too much twang for my taste. It was either that or a bunch of bad country music... eventually I just turned off the radio.

  8. Laughed so hard when I saw the Little Mermaid clip. Holy crud, how did I never think of it as hoarding? and "sanctioned by Disney" almost made me spit my water. That is priceless. And I don't mean in a save it for 50 years priceless kinda way. ;)

  9. Janeen - Oh the dreaded twang factor! I think twang is sort of like garlic, a little goes a long way! Have you ever heard of Pandora? It's an internet radio thing, only you basically build your own radio station. You tell it a few songs or artists that you like and it just starts playing songs that it thinks you will enjoy. You rate them as you go and it builds the play list accordingly. Well... apparently my diverse taste in music included one too many pedal steel guitars because pretty soon it had me down in Texas with a broke truck and a sweetheart who done left me. Sigh.

    Mary - To be honest, I have never see the Little Mermaid, so I fear part of the joke was lost on me. I still loved the graphic though!

  10. I am right in the process of learning not to fill voids with 'stuff'. It's very hard. I grew up with one spendthrift parent and one incredibly tight parent and now which style would I choose to take on as a girl who just wants to have fun eh?

    For me, the challenge and process of changing my ways requires professionals, patient partners, sometimes medication and always self reflection (which can be mistaken for self absorption). I am nowhere near mended. I can't trust myself to get a credit card but after 4 years of a hard slog I have learned to live within my means. I am just now weeks into learning how to save.

    I'm glad I never had a beerman though. I wouldn't have come out only $4,000 in debt you clearly have great strength of character!

    1. Hmmmm... I don't know if I'd call it "strength of character." In some ways the poor fellow was just a very convenient target for all of my pent up rage.

      You know, as a person with significant childhood "issues" I've sort of spent a lifetime waiting for the moment when I'd be "all better." And I'm coming to the conclusion that it's a mythical concept. I mean, I used to see it like I was "broken" and I needed to be "fixed." But the older I get the more I think that those are just idiotic constructs that really only serve as both excuses and traps for me.

      As CatMan always points out, life doesn't work that way. You just have to take it one moment at a time and the only thing you can do is deal with the decisions that are right in front of you. And at each moment you can either choose to be real... to accept and acknowledge all of the emotional "stuff" that's going on inside of you at the moment, or you can choose escape (whatever your chosen method of escape may be.)

      There are many, MANY times when escape seems like the attractive option, but I think I'm finally getting to the point where I can at least see that momentary escape really only gets you in deeper. I'm also coming to the realization that the childhood stuff and "uncomfortable emotions" never really go away, and that making them go away isn't really the goal. You can't chop off a chunk of emotions any more than you can surgically remove a vital organ and expect to function.

      It's still a challenge for me. But slowly I'm learning how to feel everything I feel without having to freak out about it.

  11. Well I agree with you. And a particularly valuable point is seeing ourselves as broken and needing to be fixed.

    I call myself a person who has trouble functioning as an adult, and seek help for things I feel are important enough to work in, but definitely embrace my boldness - because why should I function as an adult? Who's construct is that? Baaah whatever :)


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