Goodbye, summer!

What a summer it’s been. Every year I brace myself as June comes along and announces that hot, sticky weather won’t be far behind. For me, with it comes extra transit delays due to track work and more time waiting in stifling subway stations. I also inevitably find myself jealously listening to other people’s vacation plans and stories, and wondering when we’ll get our finances and lifestyle in place enough to take trips ourselves. And to make it worse, I miss the convenience of having multiple outdoor rinks around the city where I can fit skating in at least weekly. I struggle to exercise as much, and start feeling sluggish. So I tend to think of a summer as a long hot slog through three months and I just bear it enough to get through.

This year, I remember thinking that maybe it won’t be so bad, that I need to try to enjoy it.

But, unfortunately that would not be so for me. This summer, my Husband and I:

Returned home from a pleasant walk on a Saturday afternoon to find our apartment had been burgled and 3 laptops, 2 of them work computers, had been stolen

Commenced an apartment search planning to finally move from our starter apartment that we’ve been in for 6 years, only to determine that we could not yet afford to move somewhere better

Worked overtime every week, feeling stressed and overwhelmed that we could not get things done in the timeframes asked of us

Learned of a family member’s struggle with cocaine use

Supported our family as they faced another eviction proceeding, which ended in us coming to the rescue with 1-2k that we’d been planning to use to book an anniversary trip, our first non-family-visit vacation since our honeymoon 5 years ago

Fought a tiresome battle with our CEO to get Husband’s freelancer paycheck in time to help our family close that eviction case

Fought another tiresome battle to get a review that was promised to me for 3 months after job start, and has still not been completed as we reach month 9

Experienced 2 painful cyst ruptures despite being on birth control which is usually prescribed to prevent cysts from forming, and

Had one breakdown that ended in doubling my dose of Prozac after months of carefully reducing it as part of a plan to try to reduce my meds before trying for baby. Now I’ll wait 3 more months and then try to reduce the Wellbutrin instead.

Now, there have been some good things happening – we are on track to finish paying down 2-4 of the debts we’ve been carrying for years, we’ve both gained tremendous experience in our jobs, and Husband is successfully charging over 20% more for his freelance work than he did just last year. Once he actually gets paid for that work, I’m sure that will feel good.

I turned 28 last weekend, and I’ve been thinking a lot. We need a change. I need a change. I feel as though inertia and lethargy have settled in, and I can barely stand it anymore. I want to start fresh, to move somewhere new, decorate our living space as the adults that we are instead of the college kid that I was when we moved here, start taking vacations, saving a nest egg, exercising and eating healthier, planning for a family, and enjoying life more. I’m trying to muster what energy I have to make that happen.

Perhaps this Fall we will get ourselves solidly on that path. I sure hope so.

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Housing court tomorrow

Tomorrow members of my family will face the housing court judge who will decide whether to grant them an extension to pay or to unequivocally move forward with eviction. Considering that the three of them live in a bronx apartment that costs less than $1000/ month and they’ve been there over two decades, this is extremely distressing. You can’t house 3 people for 1k in many places here. It’s unheard of, and it’s only because of rent control that they pay so little. Once they are kicked out, they will have to pay going rates.

Now you might say, why do they need to live in NYC? Can’t they move somewhere cheaper? I don’t see how though, because none of them can drive or afford a car, and 2 of them are disabled so there’s no chance of learning to drive. The only places I can think of that aren’t in the city but allow a person to meet their needs without a car are assisted living facilities or in downtown locations of other cities, but neither can house 3 people for under $1k, as far as I know.

So, where does that leave them? I wish I knew.

Meanwhile, it’s not easy to pay our own rent, and the hot water disappeared again yesterday and isn’t back yet. We pay about $1.1k/month for the privilege of living in an apartment (near the subway at least, albeit the end of the line) that has been burgled twice in 6 years and, lately, loses heat and/or hot water about 10-25 times a year.

And still I know we are lucky in some ways, as there are Americans who have it worse. Americans who live in slums, shacks, trailers, and homeless shelters, who despair at the prospects of a jobless future, who cannot feed their children.

What a luxury it seems to be worried about deficits and taxes.

Happy New Year (Really)

For the first time in years, I am ending the year with a strong sense that next year will be great. Here’s why:

– I just left my office for the last time. I resigned. I’m done there, forever!

– Next week I start at a new job that I am very excited about!

– The new job is in mobile marketing – technology and services – a rapidly growing, changing industry with a strong NYC base.

– The new job is at a 5 year old tech startup, with an atmosphere that is on the other end of the spectrum from the office environment I just left and in which I had such a hard time.

– After just 3 meetings I feel more comfortable with my new coworkers than some my current ones.

– I will work with technology that I am new to and learn more about using regular expressions.

– The company is small and thirsty for innovative, driven people.

– I get to dress casually most days – even jeans. I will feel like me again!

– My husband just increased his freelance rate by 20% and the main client said sure.

– My skating students are doing well and I’m loving coaching them.

– My own health has improved. I’ve lost around 25 pounds in the last year, and dropped my low density (“bad”) cholesterol by 50 points down to a healthy range.

– After over 3 years of hard work, perseverance, and sacrifice, we launched the beta of our website!!!

(due to pseudonymity I won’t link to our website here, but email me if you want to know what it is)

Our work is paying off. We’re going to have a great year!

On top of the long view, I’m psyched for the weekend because my brother is visiting, he gave us a Kinect for Christmas which is very fun (and generally amazing), and I’m on holiday until I start the new job next Wednesday. Time to celebrate!

Looking again

Well it’s a year since I last job-hunted, and here I am ready to go again. I’m eager to move on from my current place, but this past year hasn’t been a total bust career-wise. I’ve learned about a field entirely new to me – environmental remediation. And while there are aspects of it that I am quite happy with, I think when looking at the big picture it’s not the right field for me. The other integral thing I’ve learned this past year is about what type of work environment I want, and what will and won’t be conducive to my happiness.

It has been 10 months since I started this job, and for the past 6 I have been various levels of unhappy with it. It was December when I started thinking I should look elsewhere, but not until January that I really came to a firm conclusion that I want to leave.

My final reasoning is based on what I was looking for when I took this job, which is rather low-paying for my skill set. There were 3 main reasons I was happy to accept that pay:

1) I wanted to learn about environmental engineering and environmental science.
2) I wanted to be making a positive contribution to society.
3) I wanted a job that wouldn’t ask me to be a workaholic.

I think I only got 1 of those for sure, and that one (# 3) was in overkill! Not only are most of my coworkers not workaholics, anumber of them seem to be perpetually in do-the-least-possible-without-getting-fired mode.

The other two I got to some degree, but from what I’ve learned, I don’t think this field will wholly fulfill my needs, especially for challenge, creativity, and connection to the people whose lives I’m working to improve.

I actually think it may be time for a career shift, staying in STEM but moving to a different field and industry. I have a clearer understanding of my needs in a career and in a job, well beyond the factors I considered when choosing a major for my degree. I now realize how much I value community, work culture, location, societal effects, and the structure of a typical workday.

As I explore this further, I’m reading a book about career change, with the major questions to consider in order to determine the career path that is best for all of your needs. I hope to write about this as I ponder these questions.

Culture Shock

I hardly know where to begin. When in doubt, start in the middle. No no just kidding.

The beginning, well I guess that would be background. Through my life history, my friends, my family, my environment, and the pursuits I’ve chosen and been fortunate enough to dive deeply into…through all of these things I’ve seen a wide strata of society. I’ve gotten closer to some parts than to others, but I’ve been exposed to a lot.

From my own family, on one side from a dark history during the Great Depression to the behaviors that desperation helped develop in my grandfather, and from the lives of immigrants in the early 20th century to the multi-generational struggle towards both accepting and respecting ourselves. On the other side, from an American history spanning back to pre-Civil War North Carolina to growing family during the Great Depression to a classic post-WWII 1950s American family to life with those Yankees up in Massachusetts. With all these different personal histories merged into the story that led to my existence, I grew up learning how to be compassionate, open-minded, and accepting of different backgrounds and the personal struggles that so many face.

In my youth, I also met all sorts of people, mostly New England suburbanites. From the kind and gratious modern immigrants who attended my public school for it’s strong English as a second language program to the friends whose parents worked extra jobs so that their kids could train in competitive figure skating to the richer skaters who drove only Mercedes and lived in the huge houses in the Boston suburbs with the best schools. Despite our varied backgrounds, we learned to work together and support each other, many of us driven by the shared passion for the sport of figure skating and our dreams of achieving within it.

In my college years I moved to NYC to attend a very selective school, and there I met a whole new slew of people. There were hard-working kids that were the first in their families to go to college, over-achievers of middle-class means (where I’d place myself), and no shortage of students who had spent most of their summers working to improve themselves in educational or athletic sleepaway camps or travelling the world with their families. They were the most foreign to me; they chatted about the latest Tiffany’s fashions, had a credit card from Daddy and a fake ID, and many had not yet worked for pay themselves. But still among this diversity of backgrounds I found unity with many, for we shared an intellectually curious attitude and were lucky enough to be a part of a great academic community, full of energetic people eager to make a difference in their communities.

Then I met my husband, and I learned up close about another stratum of society. His family history included Irish Catholic and German Jewish immigration to Brooklyn in time to see the mobs and ethnic strife close up, extreme intelligence of the sort that sends a kid to college as a young teenager, and some serious hardships that would have tested anyone’s emotional resilience and ability to carry on. That side of his family was poorly equipped to deal with the things thrown at them, and by the late 20th century had lost most of the resources their family had developed towards decent lives in Brooklyn.

His family history also included a large Guatemalan family, of which one particular daughter faced many struggles, losing her first husband to what she later learned was an escape into exile to protect his life in the face of an imminent coup, finding herself left alone to raise their young son. She later remarried and had another son, but his father didn’t treat her right, and she realized she had to get out for her safety and sanity. That was when she found her way to America, meeting a man in late 1970s Brooklyn whom she would marry and have two more sons with. The oldest son was my Husband, who spent his childhood in Brooklyn before his father disappeared and his mother, his brother, and him moved to a cheaper apartment in the Bronx. There they witnessed and experienced many hardships, but always were buoyed by the love, strength, and the incredible will of his mother. Despite their material struggles, his mother, a teacher, always emphasized the value of education, and with her support and the intellect passed to them from their father, both he and his brother were accepted into an exclusive upper east side private school, the tuition covered by the school’s endowment. There my husband made friends that he’s held on to since, people who I’ve come to value as friends as well. Despite their varied backgrounds, they too bonded over shared intellectual curiosity and worldviews and their shared environment during that formative phase of life.

Now I’ve started my first real-world job, in an office setting, and it’s a new adjustment. I thought that everyone here would work together towards the office’s shared mission, but if that’s happening I’m not sure. People seem mired in their daily struggles, which is understandable. They have a wide range of attitudes towards work, and it doesn’t leave me with the feeling that we’re all working together towards a shared goal.

In that absence it seems that they try to bond over what they assume to be shared experiences or mundane small talk: the weather, their summer vacation destinations, the search for housing in NYC, marriage struggles, or drunken nights. Somehow it turns out that my experiences in these areas are dissimilar from those of my colleagues – I dread summer; the only destination vacation I’ve taken in the last 5 years was my honeymoon and we still carry debt from it; they seem to think that $2,000 is a reasonable or even affordable and good rent; I’m incredibly happy in my marriage and don’t take it for granted; and I have little interest in bar hopping. I often come away from these conversations feeling more disconnected from my coworkers instead of less.

But what really gets to me is their attitude. Sometimes it seems like they’ve all given up. Throughout my life I’ve always given immense thought to my choices and whether they were likely to maximize my happiness. I’ve always tried to separate those choices from the general “expectations” that I perceived society had for people my age. As a result I feel immense pleasure and drive to do the work that I’ve chosen. I’m struggling to shake off my surprise and disappointment that my colleagues don’t appear to approach work with the same attitude. There is a lot more negative energy than I was prepared to handle. And I’m lost to find things that can help me feel connected to my coworkers.

The positive side of this is that I’ve begun exploring resources intended to aid my generation to adjust and succeed in the workplace. I’ll definitely write about this as I learn more. Meanwhile, dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

How much we spend on debt and health

Currently, for my husband and I combined, we spend $1,200 each month on health costs and debt. For health costs, this includes prescriptions, doctor’s visits, and a minimum of tests. For debts, this includes credit card, student loan, non-loan overdue university bills, bank fees (many of which we wouldn’t get hit with or would be lower if we had more money), and back taxes (from when we didn’t manage to pay enough estimated self-employment tax during that period when Husband worked full weeks and unpaid overtime but was only a “consultant” – just so that his employer wouldn’t have to provide him with benefits). And the monthly costs may increase soon since we’ll no longer be able to defer payment on my school loans, probably to about $1,400.  We are 24 and 29.  I’ve read that people in my generation have higher levels of debt in their 20’s than most previous generations.

With regards to credit card debt, I think I definitely fell victim to some predatory lending, and now I’ve got a debt with a really high interest rate and high over limit and missed payment fees too. I think I should have known better than that, but it’s too late now to ruminate. Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to see if I can get the rate down or transfer the balance to a card with a lower rate.

And now, I arm you with knowledge from Co-op America’s Real Money about predatory lending:

Predatory lending: Predatory lending is a fast-growing practice in which financial institutions use high fees, exorbitant costs, and other unscrupulous lending practices to take advantage of targeted groups—often the elderly, students, and low-income people. In the case of credit cards, banks may market cards to these groups that “contain hidden transfer charges, exorbitant late fees, and exploding interest rates,” according to the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).

It’s not just target groups that suffer from such practices. A Woodstock Institute report states that “the intricate web of penalties and fees implemented by the credit card industry may be one of the key factors for the high level of indebtedness among Americans. In January 2005, the average US household had seven credit cards and carried a balance of $14,000, the highest level of debt ever.”

I feel a little better knowing I have less than average credit card debt…

Settling in to the summer

The last few weeks have seen an interesting hodgepodge of demands on my time, but I think I’ve managed to secure enough babysitting hours to stabilize the financial situation a little bit until we get our next cash influx, which should be a few weeks away now. Financially we’re in what Husband is calling a “famine cycle,” but I think I’ve succeeded in keeping it from getting as bad as it has been in the past. I pulled in all the cash from any savings account we had, enough to bring our bank account in the black again, and now I can put enough cash from babysitting into the account to keep from bank fees and bounced payments when some of our unavoidable bills are processed. This feels a little better, although it’s still really stressful as a significant portion of our bills are going unpaid, and thus our debt is just growing further.

I found a new occasional baby sitting gig, watching a 2 month old. I’m happy to be around a baby again, as the toddlers at my other gig are now 20 months and 3 1/4 yrs old. And so far, the baby seems to be a pretty easy baby, although I haven’t spent too much time with him yet. His parents are both musicians, and I’m going to be helping out while his momma gets some practice time in. So I get to listen to some great classical piano while I’m working, too! It’s pretty soothing. So far the baby and I seem to interact well – he likes my smile and my laugh.

So this is what my weekly schedule is shaping up to look like: 5-10 hours with the 2 month old, 10-15 hours with the toddlers, unknown number of hours in the lab (I’m a “part-time staff associate” for the summer), and 10-20 hours on the startup company. I’ve been taking time off from lab work the past few weeks to focus on helping to get the business pitch ready for our next attempts to secure funding, but I begin lab stuff again this week. We have some new summer undergrads who I will be meeting on Thursday and begin training on Friday. I’m looking forward to new potential mentees!

As for my mental and physical health, I’m struggling, but fighting hard. I’ve been a revolving door of various infections, viruses, and other stress-related sickness. I feel the pull of the bed, with the comfy covers and the promise of sleep and dreams, but I’m managing somewhat to get myself to do work. Last week I felt myself wanting to sleep an awful lot, but on Thursday I fought hard against the desire to stay in bed, and it was a good step. I went out and ran some errands in the neighborhood and then went to Starbucks and did some work there, and by the time I returned home I felt somewhat rejuvenated. When I get stressed out too much, I try to meditate and relax. When I feel like sleeping but know that I’ve had enough sleep, I try to get out and just do little things to get myself going. It’s these small skills that I’ve been cultivating to fight depression, and I’m definitely getting better at it. These struggles with depression and anxiety haven’t been easy, but I am definitely able to see progress in my ability to deal with everything and to fight my way out of the depressed state. I know that I’m dealing with everything that’s going on now in a much, much stronger way than I would have even two years ago, and for that I’m proud.