Musings of a Debtor–Part 2

(this is part 2, see part 1 here)
I’ve had several friends ask me “Why are you guys so focused on paying your debts off?  What’s the big deal?  Isn’t debt just part of life?”  I’ve had others question my sanity when we’ve bought cars that were several years old. “Aren’t you just going to pay more in repairs? Don’t you want something reliable?” (really? that last question is necessary?!)

Disclaimer time: I AM NOT JUDGING YOU.  Repeat after me “Jim is not judging me.  He’s just writing about his own family’s crazy convictions. He’s actually a nice guy, once you get to know him…”  Of course, if what I write causes you to think about your own situation, great!  Believe me, I’ve logged many sleepless nights pondering this stuff.  I also do not think all kinds of debt are bad. A mortgage, while it can involve serious risk, is often a great investment, given a steady and advantageous rise in property value as it’s paid down. In addition, business-related debt has a whole host of implications and dynamics attached to it – and is often the right move in those situations.  But I’m not talking about those kinds of debts – I’m going to pick on consumer credit debt for this post.

Enough Disclaimers – Example Time
Let’s look at a simple example.  Clever marketing has, for years, presented consumer credit debt as just another line of income. It’s subtle, but it’s there. And when the curtain is pulled back to reveal that you are, in fact, borrowing, with high interest, against your own future, we’re told to “Make other people’s money work for you”. Okay, then.  Let’s look at how other people’s money works for us.

Meet Joe.  He wants an iPad. I mean, there are ALL kinds of ways it would boost his productivity, and lift his mood. (Hey – not making fun, I *am* a developer.  I LOVE tech toys, and I really want an iPad.)  So Joe buys a 64 Gig iPad, and got talked into a really sweet Mac Book Air as well. After his trip to the genius bar, and some mall shopping, Joe now has a balance of $5k on his credit card. Don’t worry, that’s less than 1/3 the average credit balance per household that has credit debt. Joe’s credit card has an average rate of 13%, but he only pays the minimum each month.  I mean, why waste that cash flow?

So, let’s take the iPad specifically.  It cost him $699. If he can only pay the minimum payment, his iPad will actually cost him around $978 by the time it’s paid off. Not *awful*, but that amount could have scored him an iPhone as well – too bad for Joe.  However, the real kicker is how that adds up over all the things Joe’s charged on his card.  His balance of $5k, paying only the minimum, won’t be paid off for *over 21 years* and he will have paid an additional $4900+ in interest. Ouch.

Joe’s really mad about this, so he puts an extra $50 per month towards this credit card.  That helps.  Now he’ll have the $5k balance paid off in just under 3.5 years, and only pay $1100+ in interest. But man, that $1100 could’ve paid for the weekend at the cabin with his wife.  Or it could have been a down payment on the new car he bought recently. But that money isn’t available yet – he has to earn it, and then spend it to pay the interest and principal on something he already consumed. Future income…present debt.

Oh, Statistics
Multiple sources indicate that the average credit card debt being carried per consumer/household is around $15k. At the roughly-average rate of 13%, only paying the minimum payment, it will take almost 31 years to pay the balance off, and you will have paid roughly $15.7k in interest. “Jim, really? Who only pays the minimum payment?”  Well, if Joe is 29, then there’s a chance he falls in the 41% that only pays the minimum for his age range. A third of Americans at any age have only paid the minimum for the last year. The upside is that 54% say that they *have* paid the balance in full in the last 12 months.  But I digress.  The point is that Joe is making other people’s money work so hard for him, that if he only pays the minimum, he’ll pay them double by the time all is said and done. Joe’s not making other people’s money work for him – he’s spending his future income before he’s earned it.

Opportunity Cost
I work for a software consulting company. As developers, we *love* traveling to tech conferences and speaking.  However, we have to be careful about the impact of the travel.  You see, it’s not just the cost of the trip that the company covers.  It’s the fact that I won’t be billing while I travel and speak.  That’s called opportunity cost: “The loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”

Now we get to one of my main concerns with consumer debt.  If Joe’s iPad really costs him almost $1k, and not $700, he’s not only paying $300 more, he’s unable to use that $300 for anything else that could potentially gain value.  At the very least, the $300 could be available for essentials, or even another “want” – even better if it’s earning him money through savings or investment.  But not so, if it’s just paying the creditor.

So – let’s take that car question up again.  I opted to pay $5k cash for a 2004 model car in 2009.  What I *really* wanted was something new that cost in the range of $20k. Let’s assume I financed that new car at 5% interest, no money down, for 4 years (in TN…yay for sales tax): I’ll have $500 per month tied up in the payment, and by the end of the 4 years, I will have paid (just under) $24k for the car.  The interest alone almost pays for the car I actually bought.  Had I bought the new car, $24k of my money would be tied up over 4 years that couldn’t be used to gain value – either through earning interest or paying down debt.  Yes, buying a used car has a risk.  It requires a lot of research, and patience in selecting a vehicle.  It means you need to be prepared for what repairs are normal for the age of the vehicle, etc. However, given my situation, I could pay the value of the car 3 more times in repairs (which I’d never do) before I’d ever come close to if we’d bought something more like what I want. I’m not knocking the peace of mind that can come with the new car smell – the “I don’t have to worry about the transmission dying on the way home” feeling – at least, you hope. But it comes at a cost – nothing is free.

If just the interest alone (from above) was placed in a certified deposit for the 4 years it would have otherwise been tied up, it would earn $163 in interest at 1%.  If I’d had $24k on hand, and still chose to pay the $5k for the car, and placed the other $19k in the same cd, it would earn $774 in interest over the 4  years.  Yes, I know that’s not much to write home about, but consider this: shy of interest bearing savings accounts, cds are one of the most conservative ways to grow money. I could also be investing in my retirement with that money (or some other investment).  I could be paying ahead on my mortgage – the debt for the one asset that tends to appreciate in value (barring epic housing crashes, etc.).

The point?  Getting into debt is easy, but the opportunity cost is HUGE. Our money is not only tied up paying a balance, but the finance charges are keeping us locked in for the duration unless we can climb above minimum payments and attack them aggressively.  Debt compounds.  The same is possible if we have our cash freed up to invest in things that earn value, or at least pay for essentials without incurring debt.

Judgment!
No, not really.  But this is typically where people think I’m getting judgmental. The irony is, if I’m judging anyone, it’s myself. Does living like this mean I have to say no to things I want?  Yes, not going to lie. Being responsible typically does mean you weigh choices and try to aim for the wise one. I wrestle – *a lot* – with what the implications are that our culture feels – that *I* feel -  so entitled, and have so little grasp on delayed gratification, that we’d continue to rack up debt at such a concerning rate in spite of all the warnings signs around us.  I have a problem with stating that I’m for a balanced Federal budget, while being unwilling to balance my own.  To what moral high ground do I have a right, if I rail against selfishness, poverty, our national debt and unfunded liabilities, and more – only to neglect preparing for my kids’ educations, my own retirement and everything in between and after?  In other words – I have no business demanding responsibility from those in power when I’m unwilling to live it myself.  And on top of that, Proverbs 22:7 is spot on: “…and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave”.  Why do I want to pay my debts off, and stay out of debt?

I want to be free.

Musings of a Debtor–part 1

I’ve decided to write honestly about some of the challenges my family has experienced, specifically with finances over the last few years.  Why in the world would I want to share this online? Primarily to provoke thought. You might disagree – fine if you do. “But isn’t this kind of personal, Jim?” Yes, in many ways it is. But I think it’s important and beneficial (personally and for others) to be willing to share from concrete personal experience. If you don’t care what people think of you and the mistakes you’ve made in the past, sharing this kind of information isn’t something that can be held over your head, and that’s a liberating thing.

I’ve worked two jobs for almost 2.5 years. Why? Well, in 2010 I was able to check off “Experience total company collapse thanks to embezzling CEO” from the bucket list.  I’ve held the second job to keep us from being as deep into the red as we would have been after that fiasco.  Most everyone in that company missed the last couple of paychecks, and discovered that withholdings for their medical & life insurance, HSA, IRA & ‘everything-else’ never actually made it to the proper destination (though the money was, of course, *withheld*). Not many families would simply be able to absorb that kind of hit without flinching.  However, the trouble is that we (my family) had been in rough shape prior to that.  We never seemed to be able to get ahead of anything financially. Everything was one more cut in the game of death-by-a-thousand-cuts. It hadn’t always been so.

Course Changes
The first two years after we married, my wife and I worked through all kinds of pain and toil to eliminate our debt (which went moderately well into the 5 figures at the time).  I still remember the incredible feeling of walking into the bank to pay off my Stafford Loan. Amazing! We did the “debt snowball” approach, and watched in wonder as it accelerated – moral victory after victory. But our course changed after becoming debt free. Instead of kissing the ground like passengers who nearly averted a plane crash, but managed to make it home alive, we slowly began to take being debt-free for granted. Of course that’s not entirely fair. But key decisions were made that locked us into the proverbial “financial boot-on-our-necks” posture.

First – lack of savings.  Oh, don’t get me wrong – we had savings, and at one point a nice comfortable buffer in our checking account as well.  But we never worked to put back the often recommended 3-to-6 months worth of expenses. There was always something else – a want, or a need…didn’t matter.  We were out of debt.  The economy was great.  We’d get to that emergency fund at some point. The lack of any savings available when one of our cars was totaled put us in a position to be willing to take on a car note – and our journey back into debt began.

Second – we bought a house that stretched us.  Not only that, but sold a townhome as the market in that side of town was going down in value, erasing what little equity we had.  But the real estate market was booming at the time – what could go wrong? (Ah, the good old days of 2005.) We never adequately planned for what life would look like once we started having kids.  We never thought through what it would entail to furnish three sitting rooms, 4 bedrooms, kitchen, office #1 and #2, and more. We knew the good advice to set aside a bare minimum of 1-2% of your home’s value per year as a maintenance fund – but we were so strapped due to other concerns, we weren’t able to proactively do it.  Then our washer died.  And our dryer. And then we had HVAC issues.  The point isn’t to sing a sad song about it – just to show that buying even slightly beyond your means, and without thinking through longer term consequences limits the scope of what you can do financially far more than you think.

Third – and hardest to describe – is that we lived for “now”.  It’s not that we were always wasteful.  In fact, it’s been a passion of ours to give away a significant portion of our income to charitable causes.  Yet even as we did that, we showed little restraint in other areas and we failed to focus on mid-to-long-term planning. I had a good job – with the best team of developers I’d ever seen assembled. Baby #2 was arriving. My income had – at that point – slightly-more-than-tripled since when we’d first gotten married.  We started carrying a balance on one credit card.  But the Amex?  We paid that thing off every month. Then the ideal job situation evaporated overnight.

Cold Hard Reality
Losing my job was, perhaps, the “Come to Jesus” experience we desperately needed. But much like my young children – who *insist* they’ve learned their lesson, they’ll never do it again, “Daddy can I *please* have that toy back right away?” – we hadn’t quite changed our ways entirely.  On one hand, being unemployed and then moving my family to a new city was taxing in all respects, of course. But our first rental home experience was a disaster (one I still shudder for being responsible for getting us into). We had no savings to fall back on to pay for the move to a second rental home 6 months later – and no savings to fall back on when tornados ripped through our community and left us living out of a hotel for a week right after we moved in.  That house we’d bought that was a stretch? Yeah, we were still paying for it. Had we not been able to find renters (who got a serious discount, no joke), we would have gone under sometime in early 2011. Our consumer debt was working it’s way back into the territory of what we had when we first got married – and even with income from both of my jobs, we were in the red every month. Suddenly the “seemingly-minor-oh-don’t-worry-we’ll-get-to-that” decisions from before my company collapsed had a magnified effect on what we were able to do now in a real emergency, and the severity of that effect came *without any warning*.  For the first time in my adult life I began to seriously consider what I would do *when* we lost everything.  I was angry.  Angry at myself for not being a better husband and father. Angry that I couldn’t stick my head in the sand and just ignore than dangers our debt posed. My impatience and selfishness had deprived my family of better footing and opportunities. No, son, you see – Daddy and Mommy wanted to go out to eat a lot, get the latest gadgets and buy a home in an affluent area that we didn’t think through properly beforehand – and now we owe more each month than we can pay, so *that’s* why you can’t play soccer this season.  First world problems?  Yes, that’s true. But selfishness and impatience is still selfishness and impatience at any income level.

Reset
In early 2012, our renters moved out of the house we still owned. It was do-or-die time for us. We tried putting it on the market again.  I did my best calculations – we had until no later than the end of June before everything would collapse. We stayed to let my oldest son finish his school year, and we waited anxiously for movement on our home. A few things came up (as they always do) that shortened the timeline from “end-of-June” to early May. As a last ditch effort, we contacted a leasing agent to see about renting our home out again.  They were shady and pushy.  I had a *bad* feeling about working with them, and decided to think on it over the weekend.  That Saturday our soon-to-be-buyers came to the house.  In the meantime, I’d changed day jobs.  I was doing what I’d been longing to do for years, and working from home, to boot.

So why not just move back to the house we owned? We would have as a last resort.  But for the last two years we’d lived with a boot on our financial necks.  We watched the opportunities we could provide our children recede from reach one by one as more essentials were put on credit. Moving back wouldn’t have been better financially.  The cost of living was higher, and we’d still be in a situation where we couldn’t get ahead, but now with triple the debt (at least). And the market!  Good grief, if my experience in 2010 taught me anything, it’s how quickly it can evaporate. Nashville always has Sr-level developer jobs available, right?  Not quite.

Anyway – moving back would have meant 10-15 years before our *current* debts would be paid off. I’d have two kids in college at that point. (yikes) If we sold, we’d have a fighting chance to do it in 2-3 years.  But there was a catch.  We were underwater on the house.  We scrounged everything we could, and then had to borrow money in order to cover closing – and it still took an additional miracle of some unexpected cost reductions to close. We officially exceeded our earlier debt ceiling sometime in July 2012. Yay?

It’s baffling how much of our situation could have been prevented, or at least mitigated. I can’t take responsibility for my former CEO’s actions that let to the company’s collapse, but I could have been more prepared. Some things just happen, end of story. You can choose to be a victim (bad idea) or you can take responsibility for responding in the best way possible and learn from it. But the things you *can* control are often determined ahead of time by a long stream of small decisions you’ve already made – and you may not be aware of how those decisions will be setting you up for failure or success down the road. Sticking to wise principles will help keep you in calm waters, and help steer you there when things get rough.

So – after the house closed, the reset button was pressed in a big way for us.  Starting over…from scratch…in a nice hole of debt.  But still, it was a fresh start. That’s the backstory. In part 2 I plan to chat a little more about the ‘why’ behind our drive to get back out of debt….

Random Musings

High School Reunions
Just had my 20 year reunion.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect.  Overall, I came away from it deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with so many in such a brief time.  My class had over 550 students, so 20 years later I’m still meeting people that I never had a class with, and was very pleasantly surprised to hit it off with a couple of guys that I hope to do some camping/paddling with in the near future.  Time has been very well to most everyone that I saw, and the level of genuine interest and mutual respect far exceeded anything we had 20 years ago.  Any downers?  Barely.  I was amazed at the ‘metaphysical acrobatics’ one classmate was willing to perform in the quest to convince everyone that he had no regrets (really – we all have them).  There were a few odd moments where crickets would have been heard chirping, if not for the noise, one or two mild blow-offs, and – i think – one “so-long-and-have-a-nice-life”. 

IMG_0244IMG_0259

Books & Tea
Jim_Tea1 I just started re-reading CS Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”.  It’s an amazing book – challenging modern concepts of “Love” (“There is kindness in Love, but Love and kindness are not coterminous…”), and trying to tackle the “intolerable intellectual problem” of human suffering.  Lewis has a gift for stating things eloquently and plainly at the same time.  He can turn a topic around and over, examining it from multiple angles and provoke the reader to not only consider his opinion, but to think for themselves as well.  Much to my own dismay, I’ve taken a special liking to Darjeeling tea (a lot of it) – and I (as I do even now) constantly have a cup nearby.  As Lewis said, "You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."

Career
I often marvel at how much we’ve changed in our view of “career” from the Baby Boomer Generation to Gen X.  I think it would be easy to dismiss much of the modern view as selfish, but I think it’s much more than that.  Globalization and the increasingly rapid pace of technological advancements have turned the normal view of the business world on it’s end.  While I love having a so-called “cutting edge skill” – the reality is that it’s always at the risk of obsolescence.  In this kind of climate, long term trust in a corporation is unthinkable.  The employee/employer relationship – at least in my field – seems to be shifting towards a more symbiotic one (at best).  I think that’s a good thing overall – but the lack of continuity has its drawbacks.

Netflix
Seriously – people need to get over it.  We’ve gotten streaming in addition to DVD-by-mail basically for free for years now.  This is a company that has had their pulse on the future in multiple critical instances.  No brick and mortar – remember the Blockbuster ad campaign about having the option to hit stores as well as the mailbox?  Ha – a dinosaur memory at this point.  Then, Netflix sees the promise in Amazon’s cloud hosting capabilities and transfers nearly everything to the cloud, saving themselves millions in hardware costs alone (not to mention the immense technical labor overhead involved in maintaining data centers at that scale).  They see the end of DVDs – sooner than most of us think.  Most brand new TVs have apps to run services like Netflix and Hulu – and if they don’t, it’s easy to either use your blue-ray player, or a computer.  I see it as their strategic move to convince the “one DVD a month” families like mine to just switch to only streaming.  The rest of the revenue they pull in as a result will fund the efforts to digitize even more movie selections (a process that is much more intensive than most realize).  So sure, whiners, go use Redbox or Blockbuster.  You’ll be back. :-)

 

of rogues, jedi and growing up

lukeAt four years old, I saw Star Wars in the theater – I can still remember the opening scene – the massive Star Destroyer chasing Leia’s ship.  I can trace nearly all my love for space to that moment.  When it was revealed in “Empire” that Vader was Luke’s father, I was so devastated I tried to wish it away.  Luke was my hero – the hero. All through my childhood and teen years, it was an established fact – bordering on a right of passage – that Luke was the dominant hero figure.  I still remember being so disappointed that Leia told Han “I love you”.  And then – to make matters worse – finding out that Leia was Luke’s sister!  Wasn’t the hero supposed to get the girl, too?

Then something happened.  I grew up.  The safe & insulated world of my teens disappeared amidst the emotional tsunamis of divorce, college & moving away.  The endless optimism and hope I had for the future began to be tempered by real experience.  Luke started to sound a little whiny.  I found myself more sympathetic to Han.  Sure, he was rough around the edges, but likable.  He flew a fast ship, knew how to come through in a pinch, understood loyalty, took care of his own and I could appreciate that.

Then something else happened.  I experienced deep heartache over someone I dated in college.  I graduated, toured regionally with some bands and scraped by on peanut butter sandwiches and the free employee lunch at Macaroni Grill.  I discovered I hated always playing other people’s music and never having time for my own.  I decided to switch careers.  As a melancholy artistic type suddenly thrust into the heart of corporate America, I was unprepared for the backstabbers.  The white collar backstabbers weren’t anything like the blue collar backstabbers of my warehouse college jobs – they were a vicious breed apart.  I had to grow a thicker skin, think on my feet, learn how to get cussed out in front of others while staying calm – all the while trying to better my skills so that finding a new job would be a reality and not just a wish.  I was married.  I had kids.  Things like self-defense turned into home and family defense.  I had to ask myself – in the unlikely event of someone breaking in or attacking my family – would I be willing to use deadly force.  I was surprised not only at the answer, but the depths from which it resounded a loud “YES.  I WOULD NOT HESITATE.”  Images of Mel Gibson from the Patriot come to mind.

hanI wasn’t just sympathizing with Han, now.  Here’s a guy that improvised everything.  Even the ‘fast ship’ of his – without which he would never have met Ben and Luke, gotten connected to the Rebellion and ultimately redeemed himself – had been won in a game with best “frenemy” Lando.  Simple chance.  And let’s not kid ourselves – he wasn’t just rough around the edges.  He could take cold, calculated risks to get out of danger.  Don’t believe your eyes on the re-released versions of Star Wars.  In the original, Greedo never got a shot off.  Han shot him cold, all the while trying to look relaxed and stall for time as he unsnapped his holster to take the shot.

I would have taken that shot, too, and I find that unsettling.  Life is wonderful and full of so many incredible gifts – but it can also be darker than the darkest dark.  No human being emerges from the dark unchanged.  Archetypes like Han Solo, and Maximus Decimus Meridius from “Gladiator” resonate with men because we often have so much in common with them.  Improvising, and trying to look calm while we’re wondering if the hyper drive is actually going to work the next time we fire it up.  We have an emotional depth we don’t always know how to communicate, so we’re left telling the woman who just said “I love you” a simple “I know.”  In the case of Maximus, we feel betrayed by existing power structures and we overwhelmingly react with passion to the moment of his greatest discovery – who he truly is.

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

This was an identity forged & discovered through tremendous hardship & loss.  Are there any other truer revealers of who we are?

There’s something about anti-hero redemption as well.  As much as I loved “Back to the Future” as a kid, I sheepishly admit that most of my childhood was spent feeling like this guy at this moment:

mcfly

George has no idea he can knock Biff out.  He acted more out of courage and principle than he ever had up to that moment.  He goes from “peeping Tom” to true rescuer, and his timeline is forever altered for the better.  Han learns there are better things to fight and live for – and goes as far as being willing to die for them.  Joseph Donnelly reaches the moment of his dream and shouts “This land is mine!  Mine by destiny!” and all the hardship that passed before pales in comparison. 

That’s what these anti-heros’ redemptions really offer – hope that you don’t have to let the darkness turn you into a cynical has-been.

Edward F. Mooney writes, “Job gets the wonder of a world returned, but he does not learn why he suffered.”  That can seem unfair, but the answer is a good one: “The reception of a life beyond dust and ashes throws the need for an answer aside”.  I don’t want to stop at just not being a cynical has-been.  I want move on to the reception of a life beyond dust and ashes…

When life gives you class vi rapids…

In conversation I tend to be as direct as tact will allow.  So you’d think blogging would be even easier, right?  Not for me.  I want to write about the deep and shallow things of life, but I over the last year I have stopped short several times of actually posting, for fear I’d say too much, reveal too much or offend someone I care for.  But the real reason is that I feel like I’ve been paddling through serious white water for the last year, and blogging, journaling, or even simply taking a quiet solitary walk haven’t been on the table as serious options.

On July 6th, 2010, I was sitting in an office at the Sommet Group, in Franklin, TN.  The developers had become aware that layoffs were coming, and most – if not all – of us would be let go.  One of my fellow developers had left for an interview and texted me as he left the building: “At least a dozen FBI are headed into the building!”  I knew in my gut that they were bound for Sommet, though I couldn’t tell you why.  It turns out the our CEO had been embezzling money.  Sommet handled payroll for other small businesses, and we were apparently taking their money and instead of funding payroll taxes, IRAs, medical insurance, FSAs, etc., our CEO was using it to subsidize a failing business unit along with a lavish lifestyle.  So we weren’t just in trouble for our own company’s delinquency, but for dozens of others.  Employees from across those small businesses (including Sommet) were discovering that their retirement, medical insurance and other benefits weren’t actually being funded, though the money was being withheld from their checks.

So.  FBI *and* IRS agents raided our office that Tuesday.  They were very nice, but it was a serious situation.  I literally left my post-raid interview with the FBI and headed straight to a job interview at a consulting company in Nashville – talk about context switching!  Thank God my good friend Garry Kean was in town – I was able to talk to him at Starbucks for a few minutes prior to my job interview.

The ensuing job search was rough.  Sommet didn’t pay us the last two paychecks, and despite recruiters promising “Sure, there are plenty of senior level jobs in Nashville”, none materialized.  I secured some side work that would help keep us afloat, but it wasn’t much.  At the end of July, at the recommendation of my good friend and former Sommet co-worker, Alex, I interviewed with a company in Chattanooga, TN.  They offered me right in the range I needed – and they were the only offer I’d had since Sommet collapsed, so we were Chattanooga-bound.

chattanooga

It’s been interesting.  Chattanooga is a good city overall – lots of interesting things to do, great restaurants and it’s small.  We love living on Signal Mountain, and I work with some very good people.  I would never have considered the job here if Alex hadn’t recommended I interview – and getting the chance to continue working with him has truly been one of the most rewarding things about the new job. 

But I’m also not going to lie – it’s been a tough year.  Our first six months was overshadowed by an awful rental house.  My second full month on the job saw my team working loads of overtime, so I was practically gone the whole month.  If we haven’t been travelling, we’ve been sick, vice versa, and sometimes both.  Making friends has been a challenge as well.  We’re still looking for a church (thought we’d found a good one, but alas no).  Steph has met more people than I have.  I’m extremely thankful for friends like Jon – though he lives in Nashville, we’ve stayed in regular contact and have managed some visits as well, and Alan.  You don’t replace the network of family and friends that was built across 15 years very easily, if at all.

SignalSnow

I’m thankful for a good job – and one that continually challenges me to step up in my skills.  There’s still the interesting dynamic, though, of working alongside people who wanted to move to Chattanooga and plan to retire here, whereas I would’ve never considered it outside the events of last summer.  In the words of Gomez, “I’m just as lost as you are” – especially when it comes to what lies ahead.  It’s been tough having to lay aside so many things I love – writing and recording, camping, and others.  I don’t see an end to the white water just yet, but I still have the paddle in a firm grip….

Flood reflections a year later

JimAboutToJumpIn May 2010, the Cumberland River flooded the worst is has in 500-1000 years.  The damage done to the greater Nashville area alone was simply beyond words.  As events would have it, I wasn’t in Nashville when the flood began.  Was I somewhere safe and dry?  Far from it.  I was canoeing a section of the Cumberland (BSF) north of Nashville with a good friend.  When the outfitter dropped us off the day before, he simply said “Yeah, I hear you might get some rain tomorrow.”

We noticed the water level was higher than usual as we paddled to our half way point (I’d canoed this section of the river at least twice before), but we didn’t really give it another thought & settled down for the night, slept in and fixed breakfast.  About the time I was literally swallowing my last bite of eggs, the sky unloaded.  We scrambled to collect our gear – but the problem with canoe-camping is it’s so hard to resist the urge to pack heavy gear, since you’re not carrying it on your back.  We finally hiked the gear down to the bank and started packing the canoe.  I noticed heavy currents of silt flowing from upstream.  The water level had risen a few inches over night, but it wasn’t terribly alarming at the moment.  The rain failed to let up, and we had come prepared, so we just accepted that the last 9 miles was going to be a soaker.  We had no idea.

This section of the river normally had long gentle slopes – with some shoals here and there, with the occasional Class II or III rapid.  This time, though, the water flow was beyond anything I’d seen.  Here we were in a fully loaded canoe – easily 250-300 lbs of gear, plus two adults, and we were fighting through rolling waves peaking at 3-5 feet.  Each time the nose of the boat plunged down from a peak, we braced ourselves for the inevitable swamping.  We got lucky though – constantly bailing between paddling and steering.  However, the water level was rising faster.  The temperature was dropping, and a cold biting wind had kicked up.  Our rain gear was actually soaked through (save for plastic ponchos we eventually pulled out), and it was mainly our life jackets helping hold body heat in.

Less than a mile before the takeout point is a rapid called Devil’s Jump.  On a normal day it’s really something that only experienced boaters should attempt.  I’ve run it twice, and it’s a blast, but it’s tricky.  But on May 1st, 2010, it could only be described as Biblical.  We pulled off well upstream and scouted out the area.  An entire section of the river, littered with boulders the size of cars and small houses – normally all visible – was submerged.  The passage through the left side of the river (where I’ve run the rapid before) was thundering so loud we nearly had to shout to hear each other from a few feet away.  There was no way a fully loaded canoe was going to survive it.  With al the submerged rocks, it was a certainty that if one of us were thrown from the boat, it would be a slim chance of getting back above water.

The only way through was around – via a portage/backpacking trail that’s barley wide enough to allow passage for one person at a time.  The rain was full deluge, and had been for a while by then, so as we unpacked the boat to carry the gear down the 1/4 mile trail, the trail was already under water and slicker than vaseline.  Four trips and at least an hour later, we had all the gear at the other end of the trail and collapsed onto the soaked rocky bank for a minute.  The water level had risen what appeared to be 1-2 feet since we’d stopped to scout the rapid.  I just couldn’t believe it.  At this moment I was very concerned for our safety – and was considering tying to boat off somewhere and getting up on the mountain and pitching camp.  We were cold, wet, exhausted and I wasn’t sure how wise it was to get back in a river that was obviously flooding.  The take out point was maybe half a mile away, so we decided to go for it – it’s a good thing we did.

We had no idea how extensive the flooding was.  We were so behind schedule that my wife had called the outfitter and they came down looking for us (and missed us).  We were later told that if we had pitched camp to get away from the flood, we would have been stranded there for 3-4 days unless we’d decided to hike out instead (and hiking would have still involved crossing the river).  When we finally reached cell service on the drive back, we began to learn of conditions back home.  People abandoning cars on I-24, some not making it out in time.  The huge school building being carried from Bell Rd down to I-24.  Franklin flooding thanks to the Harpeth.  Entire subdivisions being destroyed in Bellevue.  The Cumberland flooding downtown Nashville.

JimJumpIt still seems so surreal.  It drives home, for me, the importance of keeping your head in dangerous situations.  Sometimes a calculated risk is better than retreat – but when it comes to the power of moving water, any calculated risk is riskier than you’d think.  Little did I know, my experience over those 48 hours as the BSF rose from 1100 cubit feet per second to over 20k were a foreshadowing of the year ahead!  That’s a story for the next post….

Gratitude

I’ve been off the grid for a while due to being laid off unexpectedly.  It truly is amazing how quickly things can change.  One minute you’re part of one of the premier software teams in Nashville, TN – pinching yourself every day, thinking “this must be a dream….this is too good to be true”.  The next minute you’re unemployed and in the hole financially thanks to a thieving CEO.  I will blog about the “why” behind the layoffs another time, but suffice it to say that we not only lost our jobs, but were owed at least 3 weeks pay (which we’ll never see).  Job hunting was….interesting.  Despite numerous recruiters’ claims “Sure, there are plenty of senior level software positions open in Nashville”, none materialized.  I learned of an opening in Chattanooga through a fellow developer, and after researching them (plus interviewing), felt like it was great opportunity.

Fast forward to tonight.  I’m in my hotel, ready to start my second week with the new company tomorrow.  I’ve been sick for the last week – with the worst of it hitting me this weekend.  I miss my family, still have a house to pack (and…gasp…sell) and was primed and ready for a mini-pity party tonight.  My mind started wandering over silly little regrets – you know, the ones from 20 years ago that suddenly pop into your mind leaving you as embarrassed now as you were then.  Whether out of habit, or desperation, I began to discuss my situation aloud in prayer.  I lamented over those silly things, but especially over the very real financial challenges my family faces today: selling a house in a down market & expecting a loss; being without a paycheck since June; the credit debt we’re incurring until paychecks arrive, etc.

I suddenly realized how silly I sounded.  It’s not that my problems are’t real or important to me or to God, but seriously, I needed perspective!  In all of human history, I (along with millions of Americans) am in the upper echelons of salary and standard of living.  Even when I sell my house and take the loss I expect, we will recover and wind up in better shape than we’ve ever been thanks to a generous offer and a cheap cost of living in Chattanooga.  While I can easily pine-on-demand about wanting a life of meaning, how many millions of people have lived lives in the muck and filth of places like Kibera – maybe at one time they hoped for something better, but the world crushed it out of them, leaving them dead inside long before death claimed them?  I was struck with profound gratitude – the sense of which only grew as I voiced aloud what I was thankful for.

I have a job – and less than a month after I lost my old one.  I love what I do – how many people can truly say that?!  My job allows my wife to stay at home with our boys.  My wife and sons are healthy, safe and without want when it comes to necessities. Despite our impending move two hours from our current home, my boys have enjoyed 3 years with my mom and step-dad close by – and the two hours to Chattanooga is really not bad at all.  Living in Chattanooga puts us closer to my dad, step-mom and my oldest sister.  Despite the awful way my last job fell apart, working there introduced me to some of the sharpest developers I have ever met, and allowed me to forge friendships I will value the rest of my life.  I could go on….there truly is so much I have to be grateful for.  Saying it out loud is a powerful thing.  I encourage you to try it as well…

(Oh, and I’m also thankful for the 17-inch Macbook Pro my new company bought for me to use!)

In Which I Gain Some Fatherly Perspective…

Most of us have heard our parents say, at some point, that they’ve tried their best to do better for us than their parents did for them.  Most of us that are parents have figured out that they really meant it when they said that.  It’s far too easy, though, to focus on where our parents have fallen short, and miss their sometimes herculean efforts to be better parents than their own.

My parents separated when I was 15.  The ugly reality of divorce is that no matter how well all parties involved handle the aftermath, it’s still an aftermath!  Take the classic teen-know-it-all-hormone-induced-confusion-and-angst of most 15-year-olds, couple it with a divorce and constant conflict with your father and what you get is a recipe for long term negative focus, to put it lightly.  Complicating things, I misread my father for several years.  You see, we have a lot in common – shared interests, personality traits, values, habits, vocal inflections, etc.  It’s easy to assume you know the other person’s motives and intent when you have so much common ground.  About ten years ago, one of my sisters had us take the Myers-Briggs assessment and I was amazed that my father and I both weren’t “ENTJ”.  That was a critical moment for me, after which I really began to pay more attention to who my father was – and respect our differences.  Gone were the arrogant presumptions – now replaced with at least some humility.  Over the last two decades – and as a result of moments like those – my relationship with my father has improved beyond my expectations and hopes.

This year, my father’s birthday coincided with Father’s Day, and I took my oldest son with me to visit him for the weekend.  I found myself thinking back over the stories he’s told me of his childhood.  The youngest of 7 children – over 20 years separating him and his oldest sister (a sister who was more a mother to him than sister, and more grandmother to me than aunt).  His mother died when he was 14.  His father was, by all accounts, a good man, but strong on discipline and sparse with praise and emotional connection.  I learned this weekend that his father never took him camping or canoeing – something he did with me for many years when I was young.  And it occurred to me that those weekend trips (and many were week-long trips) that my dad took with me cost him real vacation time & rest.  Canoeing 50 miles, while tons of fun, isn’t terribly relaxing or easy on the muscles and back!  Many dads simply want to sleep on the couch during a football game, rather than in a tent in a south Georgia swamp, cooking cheap hot dogs over fires made with wet firewood.  What 42-year-old wants to don a backpack and hike sections of the Appalachian Trail with a bunch of 12-year-old boy scouts?  My dad did.  He made the choice to do something with me that I loved, something his father never modeled or did for him.

Our parents are children, too, just like us.  They carry their own set of hopes, fears and disappointments which they shared with their own parents.  I am tremendously fortunate that, regardless of all the ‘aftermath’ of coming from a broken home, both of my parents have fought hard to give me a better life than what they had.  I’m not dismissing or trivializing the challenges – don’t get me wrong, divorce sucks.  There are years we can’t get back, and words all of us wish we could forget having ever said.  But then the picture of redemption arrives.  Maybe at first it’s just fragile ‘green shoots’.  But it grows up in the presence of – in spite of – the pain, difficulty and scars, almost as if to prove to the hurt that it can’t be stopped or overcome.  Redemption, by its very nature, not only rescues us, but laughs in the face of our former captor.  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” (Psalm 23: 5)

 

Chain of Command

General Douglas MacArthur is arguably one of the most accomplished military officers in American history.  His resume boasts having lead troops into battle in World War I, superintendent of West Point, Army Chief of Staff under two presidents (Hoover and FDR), World War II Pacific commander, presided over Japan’s surrender in 1945 as well as the military occupation of Japan following the war.  When conflict erupted on the Korean peninsula in 1950, MacArthur pulled off one of the most daring and brilliant invasions in modern history, choosing to land troops at Inchon in order to divide and route North Korean forces (who had pushed South Korean forces to the tip of the peninsula) – eventually forcing the North Korean army to retreat to the North’s border with China.  China – claiming the fear of invasion (a matter the students of history will continue to debate for decades to come) – joined the North Korean forces and pushed MacArthur back to the 38th parallel.

MacArthur had urged President Truman to take the fight to the Chinese.  Just as Patton, in many ways, foresaw the Cold War with the Soviet Union, MacArthur believed China needed to be confronted, and fast.  Frustrated that Truman saw things differently, MacArthur publicly announced his dissatisfaction, ultimately leading to his dismissal by Truman in 1951.  MacArthur was – and still is – celebrated as a hero, and he should be.  What should not be celebrated, however, is his public insubordination to the President.  It’s a difficult position to reconcile for many of us who felt Truman should have taken a different road – possibly even taken MacArthur’s advice.  Truman did the right thing in dismissing MacArthur, even if we disagree with Truman’s choices on the war.  The same goes for President Obama’s dismissal of General McChrystal.  McChrystal’s complaints should have been fully and bluntly discussed, in private, with the President.  If he still felt, after all that, that the President was not giving him what he needed to fight the war, then he should have resigned, retired and taken his case to the public.  Most Americans would have listened, politics aside, to a man who’d served his country honorably and respected the chain of command enough to not publicly denounce the President while actively wearing the uniform.

It’s all too easy for the ‘opposition’ (in this case, conservatives) to selectively ignore the importance of our military respecting the civilian chain of command at the top when the target of the complaint is a President with whom we strongly disagree.  It’s conveniently ignored by the Left as well, when it suits them (take the treatment of Petraeus today vs. the “Betray Us” ad in 2004).  The danger would be for us, as citizens, to take the military’s respect for civilian leadership for granted, or to sacrifice that respect for the sake of politics.  The importance of this principle – and the essential truth that the office of president must be respected, even if you don’t like the man – is one of the many reasons why our nation hasn’t fallen into the cycle of “bloody coup after coup” as other nations have when civilian and military leadership come into conflict.  Our current President doesn’t seem to mind ignoring, dismissing or even undermining the institutions that have made us great, but in accepting McChrystal’s resignation, he – whether for this motive or not – helped preserve them.

From Community to Cult

This has been a difficult post for me to contemplate, not to mention for me to actually write.  It is my hope that anyone who has faced (or is facing) similar issues will find some guidance and peace of mind. 

I grew up Presbyterian, but have attended mostly evangelical/charismatic ‘style’ churches for the last 20 years (see my earlier post).  Twenty years is more than enough time for some common problems to have been reinforced:  Many evangelicals have an underlying distrust (if not disdain) for intellectual thought, and have adopted a “fortress mentality” – where they attempt to combat the difficult questions and challenges of our culture with greater religious “emotional intensity” while never actually addressing or confronting the challenges leveled at them by those of different convictions.  Nancy Pearcey, in her book “Total Truth” (a book I’ve found to be a wonderful resource on Christian worldview), writes at length on this phenomenon, since it is a common scenario in many evangelical churches.  This vein of anti-intellectualism has caused evangelicalism to lend itself to a systemic distrust of questioning.  In some cases, it’s simply a moderate fear of “will I have the answers if someone questions my doctrine?”  That can be a healthy fear – if it leads one to confront those questions in their own life head on, rather than hide behind ‘religious experience’ alone.  However, in two specific instances, I have seen the ‘distrust of questioning’ taken to an extreme that I cannot find any Biblical support for.

At the heart of this is the desire – the need – for communal bonds.  For all that good that came of evangelicalism’s early days, there was a prevailing attitude of distrust towards the ‘religious authorities’ of the time.  In Total Truth, Pearcey writes, “Taunting religious authorities became so widespread on college campuses that in 1741 the trustees at Yale University had to pass a college law forbidding students to call college officers ‘carnal’ or ‘unconverted’” (pg 271).  The point here is that while there was good that emerged from what evangelicals know as the “Great Awakenings”, at the same time the old order of strong communal bonds within believing communities was disintegrating.  You cannot assault the institutions that made those bonds possible, without also dissolving the bonds as well.

The result is a problem evangelical churches have wrestled with for decades: how to foster real community.  Pearcey explains, “In the colonial period, the dominant political philosophy had been classical and Christian republicanism, which was highly communal.  But in the new liberalism…the ethos of self-sacrifice was replaced by one of self-assertion and self-interest” (pg 280).  In describing the emerging style of preaching at the time, Pearcey writes, “Increasingly, the populist preacher became a performer, stringing together stories and anecdotes…this method engaged the audience’s emotions while subtly enhancing the speaker’s own image by highlighting his own ministry and spiritual experiences.  The outcome of all this was the rise of personality cults, the celebrity system that has become so entrenched in evangelicalism” (pg 287).

And here is where the fine and dangerous line is crossed.  This is how many evangelical congregations have moved from the desire for real community, into the territory reserved for cults: “One of the dangers in personality cults”, according to Pearcey, “is that they easily lead to demagoguery…strong-willed leaders who, ironically, ended up exercising an even higher degree of dogmatism and control than pastors in traditional denominations, whom they denounced” (pg 289).

How those leaders assert their control can vary.  However, in my experience, the squashing of dissenting opinions seems to be a common symptom.  A close companion to that symptom is that members (especially leaders) in that congregation have no qualms about severing relationship with those they disagree with, regardless of prior history.  So, here’s a short quiz for you:  If you currently attend a church, how well do they handle disagreement?  If you disagree, are you ostracized, directly or indirectly?  What about others who have disagreed?  Does your church push for “unity” by attempting to enforce “uniformity”?  If the leaders of your church show no broken-heartedness over ‘severed’ relationships with those who’ve disagreed with them, may I humbly (albeit emphatically) suggest you find a new church?  As Christians, we should be among the best examples of the power of reconciliation.  We have several Biblical examples (Paul & Peter, Paul and Mark, to name two) of Christians who disagreed and came into conflict, and yet continued to support one another in the end.  If we have a pattern of cutting people out of our lives because they won’t “line up” with our “vision”, are we not simply acting like petulant children?  To borrow a paraphrase from Augustine: “In essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty.  In all things, love.