Monday, March 22, 2010

A Second Set of Parents

There are four Sirianni offspring born to Joe and Agnes: Rich, Bobbie, me and Johnny. John and I are the only one's left; our dad died in 1991, our mom in 1999, our sister in 2001, our brother just last year.

I remember feeling as if one of the training wheels came off my bike when my dad died. Life felt wobbley. By the time my mom went, I knew I was riding on my own. I didn't feel scared. In a way, it was empowering; I felt grown up.

Losing siblings is another story. The saving grace was that Rich was 12 years older than me, and Bobbie 10. They were almost like a second set of parents. Almost, but they weren't around much.

When I was two years old, Rich was sent to live with my aunt and uncle on their chicken ranch in Santa Rosa. According to family lore, he was 14 and heading down the road to juvenile delinquency. I guess my father, who had quit going to school entirely around the 8th grade, didn't want the acorn to fall far from the tree. My parents were convinced that living with relatives who were upstanding, church-going farmers, with three sons around Rich's age, would turn him around. It seemed to have worked.

Rich returned home to graduate with his class at Jefferson High School. I must have been in kindergarten or first grade. A young family had moved next door to us, a successful mortgage broker, his wife, and young children. The mortgage broker took a liking to Rich and decided to mentor him. He suggested that Rich go into the Army and get the two years of mandatory service behind him. Rich did that and was stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas. He luckily had missed the Korean War entirely.

When Rich got out of the service, he returned home. By then, he was a young "stud muffin," dating lots of pretty women, and he wasn't around home much. He had begun his career in the mortgage loan business and was doing well. He was my hero, my father of choice. (We'll broach that topic another time.)

When Bobbie was 19 years old, she had her first manic-depressive episode, a condition that lasted until she died at age 64. I was 9 years old when Bobbie got sick that first time. I didn't understand why my big sis was acting so strangely, why she didn't sleep, why her personality changed so drastically, why my parents were so upset. I thought all she needed was a good spanking because she was misbehaving so badly! Bobbie was hospitalized for two years then, and treatment involved electro-shock treatment. I visited her there with the family and I simply didn't understand.

Not long after Bobbie was released from the hospital, Rich married his first wife. It was 1959 and I was 12 years old. They had a lovely, large wedding at Mission Carmel; I remember I cried and cried. Soon after that, and against doctor's advice, Bobbie married the brother of one of her co-patients. They moved to Eureka where his family lived; she was gone again, too.

In February, 1962, Bobbie's daughter was born. Bobbie's doctors had also strongly advised that she not get pregnant or do anything life-changing to upset her precarious recovery. Soon after Jill was born, Bobbie had another manic episode and was hospitalized again. The disastrous marriage soon ended and Bobbie and Jill eventually moved into the family home.

I guess, in retrospect, my older siblings weren't even "almost" a second set of parents. And, although I wish they'd been around more, it wouldn't have been fair to them. Johnny and I weren't their children, after all.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Debtor's Deadly Denial

This month's Macy's account statement arrived in yesterday's mail. Conforming to the law recently passed and enacted this month, the invoice contains the requisite payment information, i.e., "if you make the minimum payment, you will pay off the balance in X amount of time."

Up until a few years ago, I lived the life of a fiscally irresponsible fool. A Scarlett O'Hara wannabe, I embraced the mantra, "Fiddle-dee-dee. I'll think about it tomorrow!" with regard the handling of my finances. If I wanted something material, damnit--I deserved it! and I purchased it on credit. I perceived a bank card's credit limit as cash in my greedy little pocket.

This eventually had me drowning in an abyss of despair and led me to the denial-smashing realization that I would never be able to pay off the sum of my debt in my lifetime. With a great amount of shame, I filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2003, concurrent with being laid off from a well-paying hi-tech job. ("Concurrent" meaning that I had begun the filing process before losing my job.)

What happens after one is granted a bankruptcy is criminal. The credit card companies begin an onslaught of offers for a new line of credit. The credit limit being offered is low and the interest rate astronomical. For someone as sick with Scarlett fever as I was, I jumped at the chance to continue the greedy game of instant gratification. I did not in any way change my lifestyle after I lost my job, by the way. I didn't move from the too-large, too-costly condo I was renting. I didn't stop going to lunch and dinner with friends. Instead, for almost three years after that layoff, I lived on sold stock, cashed out 401K funds, unemployment payments, and credit.

When all of that ran out, I hit a brick wall so hard it almost led me to picking up a drink after 18 years of sobriety. There was no one to blame but myself. Miraculously, I didn't drink, and a chain of events occurred that led me to Consumer Credit Counseling Services (now Surepath), and to a book entitled, "Money Drunk, Money Sober." Right around the same time, I was rehired by the hi-tech firm that had laid me off all those years before. (The Universe always cooperates when we take that first step toward taking responsibility for our problems.)

I turned over the six--count 'em: SIX!--bank cards to CCCS (debt totalling $18K after bankruptcy). They negoiated with the credit card companies to get the interest rate down (and some aren't very liberal about lowering the percentages). I began paying CCCS $509 per month via electronic fund transfer from my checking account. I moved into an apartment so small that it necessitated storing my dining room furniture and other items not needed day-to-day, and I began working the program outlined in the book, "Money Drunk..." My journey on the road to fiscal accountability was on.

This month, I made my last $509 payment to Surepath, having paid a total of $24K over their four-year program (yes, there are fees, but who cares? I was able to clear the debt in four years!). In those same four years, I've been tracking every cent I spend, daily, then, at the end of four weeks, I map out those expenditures by category. I now know exactly where I'm spending money, and where I need to pull back (one month, I discovered that I had spent $450 eating in restaurants!).

My Scarlett fever isn't cured completely. I kept two department store credit cards off the bankruptcy and the debt-consolidation lists. I decided that I wouldn't be too prudent about those purchases, and I'd pay a standing $150 a month toward the ongoing balances, budgeting the $300 paid monthly as a "clothing" expense.

Back to this month's Macy's statement: My balance is $1170. If I make the minimum payment of $39, the balance would be paid off in 17 years! If I pay $46 a month, the balance would be paid off in 3 years. I am grateful beyond words that those six bank cards have been paid in full, and the requests to close the accounts were mailed just this past Monday! Now that the $506 monthly payment to CCCS/Surepath are done, I'll have those two department store balances cleared in no time.

My concern is for other debtors as sick as me (past and present). I know that many suicides are motivated by financial woes. I keep envisioning someone with a family to support, who is unemployed and up to their ears in debt, opening their credit card statements this month and feeling utter despair and hopelessness. What of them?

Included below the payment information box, the credit card company this note: If you are experiencing financial difficulty and would like information about credit counseling or debt management services, you may call 1-877-337-8187. Curious, I dialed the number. There was a recording listing names of debt counseling and debt management agencies that offer help. How many will call that number? How many will jump off the Golden Gate Bridge?

What I know for sure is this: The disclosure of payment information is going to yank debtors out of deadly denial, and the game that's been played by these legitimate loan-sharks called credit card companies is going to change. Drastically. Mark my words.