Monday, January 14, 2013

Glass Half-Full (of tap water)

In August of 2001 I visited a “debt consolidation service”. I was getting by, but not prospering, and some 5-year old corporate debt was the cause of the situation. I wasn’t spending beyond my means though; I used the credit cards to get me out of an emergency back in 1996, and hadn’t added any charges since then.
But I also hadn't paid 'em down.
I presented my paper trail to the lady behind the desk and she asked a bunch of questions and ran a bunch of numbers. The results were encouraging: They could whittle my $400.00 of monthly minimum payments down to $150.00, payable in one lump sum to the debt service each month.
"Livingroom/Office alcove with bed above.
In the little studio, 1999-2000.
Then they ran some more budget numbers on my overall budget. And then they turned me down for their service. Why? Because, according to the actuarial tables, I couldn’t afford the $150.00 a month. 

I explained (quite patiently I thought), that I could certainly afford that, because I was already spending $400.00 a month. They didn’t listen. They couldn’t listen. The spreadsheet had spoken and I didn’t exist. My lifestyle was impossible, and my budget defied the laws of the physical world. What was funny (strange) about this incredible situation was that I thought it was funny (ha-ha). The fact that the lady behind the desk didn’t find any humor in it only made it more amusing to me. 

View from the bed. Altar on left. "Kitchen" inside the
closet. One of the things I did away with during this
period was film, so these are the only pics I have.
Here I was, at the end of five years of brutal austerity, desperately poor but with a clean credit report. I turn in my homework to the grown-ups and am summarily smited for my efforts.
So I turned to other sources: some physical, some ‘meta’, and my own bootstraps and forthwith got a raise, then a better job, and then the mountain of debt slowly but surely started to erode. Yay!
What strikes me now about those five years of poverty is that although I was poor – I didn’t feel poorly. I can look back at almost every segment of my 40-odd years and declare them ‘good times’ and my time in the poor box is no different.
Livingroom/Offce/bed in the larger studio. You stepped from the chair,
to the homemade desk, to the speaker and on up to the bed.
That's a hospital overbed table that is hosting the lego sculpture.
In fact I am only reminded how poor I was by oblique references. When someone mentions TV shows or movies or best-selling books or any consumer product from 1996 - 2001 I just draw a blank. I didn’t have any of those things then. And frankly, I didn’t miss them. 

My books were bought (and sold) used, my evening entertainment was video games (still the best bet for your entertainment dollar) and my computer was an older model. My world just became necessarily small. And because I had no choice, I didn’t beat myself up about it.
Self-portrait in the larger studio.
Only pic I have of the bathroom/kitchen sink combo. 
I had to move from a 3 bedroom house to a studio that was less than 5 yards across and shared a bathroom: down a short hall was the toilet on the left and the shower on the right. The studio also had no kitchen: In the closet I stacked a dorm fridge, a microwave and toaster oven. The sink in the room was both the kitchen and bathroom sink. (Think about that: Why do we have two? One works perfectly well.)
The dish drainer was my 'kitchen' cabinet. My dishes never got 'put away'. There was nowhere for them to go. Once they were washed and in the drainer they WERE put away. And when I needed them again I just picked 'em up from there. I loved that part.
All of my possessions, 2001.
So I got rid of a metric buttload of crrrrrrap that I don’t miss at all. I did one load of laundry once a week, balancing a duffel bag on my bicycle to the laundromat, and was thankful for the exercise. I had lots of friends, and as hoary Hallmark as this sounds, they really are the greatest treasure in anyone’s life.
I wanted to become a columnist during that spell, but I couldn’t afford the classes at my local community college. So I biked to a fast food restaurant every Saturday, had an all-you-can-eat salad and wrote a column. Then I had some more salad and re-wrote it. At the end of a year I had 40 columns, some good, some so-so, but I was well on my way to being a decent wordjockey.
In the second, larger studio. Note drums and legos.
I got creative. I learned how to fix things myself. I made my own music. I made rice in my toaster oven (in the closet) and experimented with different spice mixtures. I picked black berries and pulled fruit straight from trees. I didn’t buy any clothes. I got seriously organized. I learned how to budget. I made do. I did without. It was quite easy to make decisions when I had no choices. And what I missed I really didn’t miss at all.

About two things though I found I just would not compromise: 1) Apple Computer, or none at all. As poor as I was, the idea of getting a cheaper PC never entered my mind. And 2) I would not buy sub-standard musical instruments. If I needed something I would either make it myself or save for the best sound/quality available.
Once Karen and I started dating the bed and the drums
quickly switched places. (ahem)
By the time I met Admiral Karen I had moved into the larger studio at the other end of the hall, which was double the size of the smaller one: 10 square yards. Oooh-Aaah. What did I do with all of the extra footage? Well I set up my old drumset, of COURSE. Duh.
Our first date featured a long walk on the beach and a several spirited games of airhockey at the Boardwalk arcade. Then she gave me a ride back to my studio. Priceless.
Angus McMahan


  1. Over 20 years ago I left my ex-wife. We had a house and all the trimmings. I left her almost everything and began life as a bachelor at 27. It was rough. Small studio, air mattress for bed, dishes and linens from Goodwill, and a boombox. Can't be without music!

    Over the next 20 years I got into IT, had some properity, and slowly acquired the trapping of a first world adult. Furniture, TV, electronics, nice bed, etc.

    Then 3 years ago the bottom dropped out of my world. I lost my job and Amelia was just out of school. We moved from a LARGE apt in San Mateo to a small one in Oakland. MAJOR paring down. Then, 1.5 years later, we ran out of money (and broke up) and moved separately to new places. I left most of the houeshold stuff with her, pared down my stuff and moved in with friends (I didn't need the couch, TV/DVD, kitchen stuff, linens, etc.). Since then I have moved again, again I got rid of more stuff. I will be moving again soon and I will be getting rid of more stuff again. However, this time, I'm in a bit of a jam as I don't have a bed, or a microwave, almost no kitchen stuff, etc. But, Mom will help, so I'll be ok.

    Over 3 years I've done three rounds of paring down. For the most part, each time I have felt lighter, freer. Stuff weighs us down, causes stress. It's a fact. I don't think I'll ever go full-on ascetic, and I would like a nice bed and a microwave, maybe even cable TV again some day. But, I'm kind of good with not laboring under the need to have MORE STUFF. :)

    1. Yeppity yep yep. Coordinating two group yard sales every year keeps the Freaky TIki relatively free from clutter.

  2. Thank you for sharing your profound character. You are a gem, a virtual star in this amazing universe in which we all live. Thank you for this amazing perspective. I want to go home and declutter as much as possible. Minimal is a wonderful way to live. I am so happy that you and AK are thriving with what you have and give love and friendship so freely, knowing that even with so little, they are priceless gifts/treasures. Bless you, friend.

    1. Decluttering is like bring Peace of Mind from 11 different directions. The decision to 'go through' one of your fixtures, the action of doing it, cleaning the fixture, cleaning the items on it, deciding what needs to stay and what can go in storage/garage sale/recycling/some other fixture, putting the items back on the fixture in a new way, looking at what you accomplished (in a short amount of time), and then looking at it again in an hour/day/week. Maybe something needs to be put back on - maybe more can leave!
      (And thank you for the kind words. From one shining light to another!

  3. Sweet! Loved reading this. Favorite line: I made do. That's something I've had to do so much as a grown up and I will make do when we have to find a new rental in a couple months.

  4. It's a good phrase for the state of mind. You don't make a big deal about it, because really - what's the point? Wailing and tearing of hair isn't gonna change anything or solve the problem. So, you just carry on.

  5. Thank you for sharing! Most people these days are appalled at the thought of cramming into a tiny studio and not being able to afford to go to every new movie that comes out! I, too, lived the one room studio life. Though I never wanted to be there permanently, I loved the simplicity. I never bought new clothes or the latest of, well, anything. It was easier to see the beauty and enjoyment in the little things, like a walk on the beach. And I had to laugh about your debt situation! Went through that same thing too! Was paying off college, which I couldn't finish. On paper my living situation was impossible! When I'd go to financial advisers for help, they would shake their heads and say I wasn't being honest. There was no way I could afford what I was already paying. But somehow I got by regardless. Maybe it's like how bees can't logically fly with those tiny wings. Anyway, I commend you for getting through those struggles with a great attitude about it all!

    1. I left out the heated conversation I had with the Debt Consolidation Lady. First, dishonesty: I had no money for birthday gifts or Christmas presents? (Nope. I wrote stories for gifts, volunteered to watch their kids or mow their lawns. Really!) And Second, she had this spiel about me coming to my senses and stop charging things. The standard boilerplate message she gave to everyone. I pointed out that her Credit Report, that she had in her hands showed that I had not charged anything on any card in 4 years. So we got off to a bad start. :-)

  6. Good on ya! There are more important things to life than stuff. It's a little harder traveling light with kids, I've noticed. I want them to have a home, and that takes stuff, even if it is second-hand. But I think they are learning the value of love and relationships over things; so that's success.
    I got so much out of Dave Ramsey's class, too. Saved me a ton of money. I've always lived on the cheap, never had TV, avoided debt, etc. My weakness is my kids. Whenever I go over budget it's for their classes, books, or field trips, etc.

  7. Yeah, kids complicates things exponentially. I had no dependents, no kids - not even a plant - no room for one!