Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Let me tell you who debt is. Debt is a guy a little more than average height who wears a bland expression to match his outdated JC Penny clothes, which are wrinkled and slightly soiled. Debt’s personal hygiene is not the best. You can tell he eats a lot of garlic because of the unpleasant, sour odor that comes through the pores of his skin, and his breath can fell a charging bull elephant at 100 paces. Debt has no conversation and is the worst company imaginable. However, he never, never leaves. Never. You wake up in the morning and there Debt is, sitting in a chair by your bed. He had been up all night, mute, unthinking yet vigilant, always watching you. You get up, Debt gets up. He lumbers after you to the bathroom and watches as you stand over the toilet. Glancing in the mirror while shaving, there’s Debt standing right behind you, his unblinking eyes betraying not the slightest trace of mental activity, the simian features of his face impassive, humorless. You feel his fetid breath hit your neck in rhythmic, malodorous waves.

Everywhere you go, there goes Debt. Often he stands close enough to touch, which makes your flesh crawl. Move away, he moves with you. Sit down, he sits with his thigh touching yours. Stand up again and your shoulders rub. Debt never, ever leaves you alone.

From fall of last year to the beginning of this month, I really got to know this fellow Debt pretty well. I don’t believe there has ever been a period in my life when I have worried about money more. It all began last October when, in a moment of terrible clarity, I understood the terms of our house’s mortgage and realized the deep hole we were in. I won’t go into the details, but for many nights I couldn’t go to bed expecting sleep to come easily.

It turned out we were never in any serious difficulty, but I didn’t know that then. The news on the radio and in the newspapers and on CNN was filled with saps just like me who unwittingly took out funky mortgages for houses they couldn’t really afford and were now losing their homes left and right. Like these poor victims of the economy, I tried repeatedly to refinance our house without success. Even the bank that held our mortgage, the bank which would suffer most if we defaulted, wouldn’t give us a new deal on better terms.

Your grandfather and every self-help book ever written will tell you that through adversity comes growth and self-discovery. Adversity helps you find out what you’re really made of. Strength and confidence come cheap during the fat times — it’s how you keep your chin up and face the day when the world seems aligned against you that shows the true measure of a man. You either rise to meet the challenge or collapse like the Republicans’ hopes this November.

To begin, I started up a weekend painting business to make some extra dough. That made sense because in my twenties I worked a few years as a painter and had the skill. I bought all the required tools and posted ads in Craigslist three times a week. Little by little the work came in, to the point where at present I wouldn’t mind if things slowed down just a bit. Now, on the hardship index, working on your own on the weekends might not be on the same level with, say, facing starvation or torture, but it has been a pretty big deal to me. I tend to go several weeks in a row without a single day off. I have to carefully budget my time to meet my other responsibilities, such as yard work for two properties, managing the finances, and the million other little things that come up when you’re a father and husband. And naturally, with it being my own business, I’m sort of working without a net. If anything goes wrong, it’s my ass. So along with the toil comes worry.

Then there was the refinancing issue. Several brokers kind of strung me along, gave me reason for hope, and then told me the banks didn’t care for my kind anymore. One loan processor I dealt with inexplicably dropped out of sight after offering a deal that was surely too good to be true — suddenly she wouldn’t return my calls or emails. Another broker I briefly spoke to asked me a few questions and then told me, in so many words, brother, you are in deep shit. And every morning I’d wake up and there was good old Debt, just sitting there like he had nothing better to do.

Another consideration was the effect this would have on my marriage. Here I can report that the missus and I acted as a team. No blaming, no finger-pointing, no recriminations, we just came up with a game plan, took the necessary austerity measures, and saw the contretemps out together. I think she even liked how your humble servant reacted to all this, finding the extra income, working the phones, that sort of thing. She maybe saw me as a stand-up guy, someone to be proud of.

Well, long story short, the missus found a broker who is well-connected with a few key underwriters and he cobbled together a deal for us. It was never a sure thing until the closing actually took place. A solution was found, but I hasten to add it isn’t a permanent solution — we merely bought five years of breathing space. But that’s five years to figure out what we’re going to do next, and you can do a lot of figuring in five years.

So getting back to adversity and building character and all that good stuff, in my case I believe I’ve benefited. I may have kept the house, but I got evicted from my comfort zone, and that’s is a good thing. I’m the type who suffers from being too safe and comfortable. I get lazy and sluglike and generally become a less-than-effective human being, so I need to feel the heat from time to time. Am I enjoying this, all this working and scurrying around? Not really, or at least not all the time. But do I feel more in control of the situation? Yes, I do. And that, my friends, makes all the difference.