Savings: Status Check

It’s been awhile since I’ve given an update on my savings strategy. Mostly because it’s embarrassing.

I set the goal to save $10,000 by the end of this year, which will provide me with some cash to help me survive the student life while in Amsterdam. I started out pretty well, cutting back in various areas of my life and regularly adding to my savings account. Though it’s only ever been small amounts, the steady progress I was beginning to see was comforting.

But now, a few months later, progress has come to a screaching halt. After an expensive July, including car repair and travel expenses, I had an even more expensive August, with more car repair and unexpected medical costs. And September hasn’t allowed me to catch up. It seems like the more I lose control over what I’m spending money, the more I feel compelled to spend it voluntarily on things that are nowhere in the budget. My logic goes something like, “well, the budget is already shot. So I may as well buy these platform shoes with fish in them.” So as much as I’d like to blame my derailed spending solely on the cruel universe that doesn’t want me to succeed, I must take at least 10 percent of the blame….or 60.

Nonetheless, I’m still trying. And if anyone has ideas about how I can make some extra cash, I’m wide open.

Here’s the latest.

The Quitting of the Job

I did it, folks. I quit my job. That sounds mighty dramatic and might give the impression that I burned a bridge or two in the process. But instead, it was actually quite peaceful and the higher ups were surprisingly supportive.

As you may know, this hasn’t been the smoothest year at work for me. There have been disagreements, frustrations, and various levels of disrespect going on. And more recently, the challenge has been the number of people leaving the organization. Since the beginning of summer, it seems like every couple of weeks someone has announced their departure and/or departed. It’s been blow after blow, on my team and others, leaving us feeling understaffed and overworked.

All the while I’ve been wondering how my departure would sit in this mix. I’ve been tempted to negotiate with people – “look, I know you want to leave in a few weeks. But I’ve been planning to leave for over a year now. So even though I’ll be here for another 3 months or so, can you hold off on telling people until after I do? Even if it means telling them after you’re gone?” It only seems fair. With all of these people quitting before me, it looks like I’m jumping on their ship, abandoning the sinking one we’re already on. But if they let me quit first, we’ll be going in order of decision making, rather than departure date. And in this case, I think the date of the decision to leave should matter more.

I never had the nerve to ask anyone to change their timing because I’m pretty sure not many people share my skills in reasoning. So I decided to put all of the woes of the organization out of my mind and tell them the truth, choosing to give them at least three months notice. I know you might be thinking three months is way too excessive.  But considering one of the higher ups has been consistently joking in a serious way that I need to give her six months to a year to give her time to prepare, I was compromising. Yes, she was mostly joking. But her anxiety was the reason I was forced to come out with it when I did.

Last week this same higher up learned of another departure that will dramatically affect things in early 2011. And perhaps in an effort to deal with her nausea and fainting spells all at once, she actually came to my office and asked me outright: “be honest with me. Are you planning to leave at any point this (program) year?” She was referring to any time before the end of June 2011. And of course the answer is yes. So I told her the truth. “Yes. I was planning to tell you next week (which was true). But I’m moving to Amsterdam in January.” She was upset, in the eyes tearing up kind of way – not the angry kind of way. But in spite of that, we briefly chatted about my plans, as she asked a number of questions that seemed like she needed me to prove the legitimacy of it all before she would accept it. But she did, finally saying, “I understand you have to do what’s best for you.” It happened quickly. And I had basically given notice. But there was still more to the process.

I had another meeting at the beginning of this week with the first higher up, who I consider an ally, to discuss a game plan for announcing my upcoming resignation. There are two more higher ups who needed to hear it from me right away, particularly in light of some crazy crapsters she has planned and will soon announce in the next month or so. She needed people to know about me as soon as possible, mainly my direct boss and the first higher up’s boss, the CEO (who incidentally was my boss back in the day). She asked that I tell them within the next 48 hours.

My first step was to make an appointment for a 30 minute meeting with the CEO. I haven’t been in his office more than three times in 2010. So I’m sure he expected something when he saw me coming. We chit chatted for about 45 seconds before it was time to explain why I was there. I paused. Uncomfortable smile. “This is tough. And I know the timing of it couldn’t be worse. But I have an exciting opportunity to move to Amsterdam and go back to school. So this means I’ll be leaving New York and the organization before January.”

Silence and stunned face. So I continued, “it’s important that you know how thankful I am for all of the opportunities I’ve had here. And this wasn’t an easy decision for me (okay, that was a lie).” As I was coming up with various words that would hopefully ease the blow, his face moved to a calmer state. He appeared to be absorbing what I said earlier.

To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what he said in response, which is why I could never write the dialogue of my autobiography. But I know he asked me to clarify my expected date of departure (end of December). And he remarked on how tough the year will continue to be in light of my and the many other departures, pointing to a white board where 23 (now 24) positions to be filled are listed (granted, many of them are brand new positions). But then the conversation turned to my plans. He asked a number of questions, which led to me telling him about my program, its overlap with my genealogy interests, and even the prospect of starting my own organization – about which he seemed really interested and excited. He even said, “I’m kind of jealous.” He asked a few more questions about my thoughts on the future of the organization and whether or not I thought we could reach our goals. I was a bit more optimistic than I usually am, saying I think success will be possible as long as two or three things happen in the meantime. The conversation was so calm, it didn’t make sense for me to raise my gripes at that point. So it ended with, “thanks so much for all that you’ve done for the organization.” To which I replied, “no, thank you.” Ridiculous and cheesy, I know. But it was sincere.

Then it was time to tell my direct boss. At the end of the day, when she was no longer in meetings, I asked if she had a few minutes. From the way I seemed to build it up, she probably guessed I was either quitting or joining forces with the rest of the black people to take down all the timid white women. Obviously it was the former. She maybe made a face or something. But she didn’t seem horrified or infuriated. She took it in stride, asking a few logistical questions, which were followed by, “so, Amsterdam!”

I’m relieved. The truth is finally out. And they took it well. Perhaps it was easier for them to take because it’s so extreme. Not like, “you suck…and I want to see if there’s another similar organization that would hire me and suck a little less.” More like, “you might suck…but nothing except leaving the country and starting my life over will satisfy me now.” I’m taking a major step that they mostly don’t understand. Celebrating just makes more sense than questioning or fighting.

A Tense Anniversary

I always try to avoid the hype surrounding the 9/11 anniversary. That’s in no way meant to disrespect the lives lost in 2001, or the subsequent suffering of those left behind. Perhaps my feelings about the date would be more in tune if I had lost someone close to me in the attacks. But as it is, I tend to see all of the “we will never forget” and flag waving sentiments as gross patriotic masturbation. Sorry – kick me out of the country, if you must.

It seems like Americans do forget something on 9/11 (and perhaps year-round). We’re not the only ones with a death toll. About 3,000 people died as a result of the September 11th attacks. After a quick google search, I learned that more than 3,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan alone in just the first six months of 2010. And since 2003, more than 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq. Every life counts. So I’m not saying the importance of the American lives lost is diminished by the number of those lost overseas. But why does it seem like American suffering trumps that of all others – especially when September comes around? I wouldn’t mind so much if Americans ever acted like they gave a damn about anyone else. But I don’t see much of that.

And this year the September 11th hype is so much more. With the mosque/Islamic community center controversy and this clown starting the public Qur’an burning nonsense, this year’s 9/11 anniversary seems to be clouded by hatred and tension more than anything – at least in the news. It all seems so absurd.

The nastiness of it all has made me pleased that I’m taking a break from this country. People are more sane in other countries, right? Wrong.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at some Dutch headlines relating to September 11th in the U.S. I still don’t know which one is the most mainstream paper in the Netherlands. But across all the papers I read, it seems like Dutch sentiments are just as split, and in some cases twisted as Americans. And just like Americans, some Dutch people have trouble minding their own business and have decided to get involved with issues that don’t relate to them.

The leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, Geert Wilders, is one of those who’s having trouble minding his own business. I’ve mentioned him in an earlier post. But to spare you the trouble of reading that all over again (although I’m sure it was riveting the first time through), he’s an uber conservative who’s pretty close to being a part of the next coalition government. Although Wilders’ politics are extreme, for some reason he gained enough momentum in the recent June election to make him less than marginal. Doesn’t bode well for the Dutch, as far as I’m concerned.

So anyway, Wilders has hopped on a plane to come to NYC to participate in and speak at one of the protests against the Islamic community center by the WTC site. He was invited by a group called Stop Islamization of America (I haven’t even bothered to investigate what they’re about). Apparently he’s so strongly opposed to the plan, and Islam in general, that he felt compelled to be here to vocally protest. I’m all for free speech. But c’mon, man. Just stay home.

Wilders at Ground Zero. Photo courtesy of Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

Fortunately, Wilders doesn’t represent all Dutch people. In fact polls indicate only 20 percent of Dutch people supported Wilders’ participation in today’s protest. But 41 percent were neutral and only 39 percent were opposed to his craziness. That’s not enough opposition for me.

So leaving the U.S. for the Netherlands will not mean leaving behind conservative and sometimes hateful politics. They’re just everywhere…and apparently willing to travel as much as I am.

In spite of all that, my heart sincerely goes out to every single person affected by the September 11th attacks and subsequent violence, here and overseas. I hope at some point we’ll see that none of these losses, none of the pain, and none of the hateful words and exchanges have been worth it. At some point it has to end.

The Relative Nature of Problems

Problems, problems, problems
Woe is me, I’m havin’
Problems, problems, problems
– Tribe Called Quest, 8 Million Stories

Phife described problems with women, clothes, and theft. Endless problems that warranted lengthy and numerous verses. But I’m still pretty sure for the last couple of weeks I’ve had him beat. Did he really think those were problems?

This is how my thinking has turned. I’ve developed some sort of anguish snobbery. Arguments with other drivers, missing the train, the general annoyances of my job. Sure, these can all be frustrating. And they really are. I don’t want to discount the fact that even the little things can have a big effect. And I don’t want to say that every time I’m upset about something I must let it roll off my back in light of the people with real problems. Because even the smallest issues have their place on a scale of frustration. But it’s just that I have earned some type of (temporary) right to judge other people’s problems and, in most cases, deem my circumstances more dire. Although I’m nowhere near the end of the scale involving terminal illness, insurmountable poverty, or gruesome death, I’m definitely far superior to the road ragers and reality tv “stars” of the world.

My climb into the range of superior problems began a couple of weeks ago when I began to feel pain in my back, reminiscent of what brought on a need for surgery last year. No big deal though. I had been stretching and doing strengthening exercises that I assumed were pushing it a bit (although that falsely implies I was working out aggressively). This type of pain has come up a couple of times since last year’s surgery. And once it required a couple of vicodin. But it never took more than a few stretches, some rest, and a few days to subside. However, a week later – on a Saturday, it was much worse this time. Sciatica in my left leg was in full effect. And if you’re not familiar with the pains of sciatica…well, you’re really lucky. The best way I can describe it is the brief, sharp, pulling pain you get in your legs when you over-stretch your hamstring, thigh, or calf muscles. But imagine that feeling all the time, in any and all resting positions. Last year the sciatica was in my right leg and accompanied by total numbess of my foot and much of my leg. Pain on the inside and numbess on the outside.

Wong-Baker Pain Scale

When I woke up on Saturday with the crazy pain in my leg and persistent pain in my back, I thought my whole weekend would be blown as I waited it out. By Saturday evening I was completely collapsed on my kitchen floor, literally screaming, having sneezed and taken level 9 pain to something off the charts. I’m not sure how many vicodin I took. But it didn’t matter. I watched the sun rise without even the briefest reprieve. And somewhere around 5am, if you can believe it, it became worse. As I shifted from one painful position to another, the pain in my back suddenly became more acute. As if the knife that were already there were twisted and lodged further in with a hammer. And at the same time, a cruel person pulled every nerve out of my left leg with bare, dirty hands, only to play them like a harp. I’m not sure I even got a scream out – nothing but the pain seemed clear…that is until I felt the feeling in my foot fading. The little toe, all the toes, my heel, then my calf. I begged…literally begged. “Please don’t let this happen to me again. PLEASE!!”

It didn’t stop. In fact, through Sunday, the numbness and pain were only accompanied by severe weakness. Twice I fell over when putting my weight on my left leg for only a moment. Monday I barely moved. Tuesday morning I took my last remaining vicodin and dragged myself out of the house to see my spine doctor (that’s right – I have a doctor just for my spine). Not so sure how I survived that journey, but it did involve some crying in the taxi. And incidentally, once I stopped crying, the driver and I had a delightful conversation about Amsterdam. He promised to pray first that I would feel better, and second that I would find love and happiness in Amsterdam. He was a bright spot. But I digress.

Wednesday morning was the MRI, to which my brother-in-law drove me. Wednesday afternoon was a call from my doctor. A disk herniation would have been bad. But this was a super duper sized herniated disk, that had broken off, and was hanging out in my spinal canal and severely compressing the area nerves, causing almost the complete breakdown of my leg. What’s more, there was blood that had gathered where it was not supposed to be. And since he was going on vacation in two days, I had two choices: wait for two weeks to reassess when he returned, or get myself to the hospital that night to have surgery on Thursday.

Woe is me, I’m havin’ problems, problems, problems. Pray for me, I’m havin’ problems, problems, problems.

Wednesday night I checked into the hospital (I’ll spare you the details of how I got there and how I found my final pre-surgery meal). Thursday morning I was wearing all the surgery gear, including a very unflattering cap that barely fit my hair, and rolling over to have the doctor sign my back. I was too dazed by all of it to even register fear.

I woke up from a pleasant dream to find myself in the surgery recovery room. I don’t remember much – except there was no more pain in my leg. I later learned that although there was no more pain, so much of my disk had been lost (between last year and this year’s incident) that I’m about 10% of a disk away from being “bone to bone” in the lowest part of my spine.  I can live with it.  But if the thought of it isn’t cringe-worthy, I’m not sure what is.

Friday morning, I passed the physical therapy test (which basically just told them I wouldn’t tumble down a flight of stairs the moment I left the hospital) and was discharged.

Problems over, you wonder?

My sister picked me up from the hospital to drive me home in my car. Almost in tears, she ran into my hospital room explaining that the driver-side window wouldn’t roll up. There was just no window. After driving me to Brooklyn, she and her husband found a lot for my car for the evening because parking on the street for even a moment wasn’t an option. But the good news was my sister would stay with me for a couple of nights to take care of me. She would just get some much needed work done while at my place. But when she tried to get online…fail. My internet wasn’t working. I called the cable company. The neighborhood was fine. It was only my connection – but it was so broken that it would require a technician to come to my place. My sister’s plans of working were destroyed and her options for staying as long as she planned became blurry.

Lord knows I’m havin’ problems, problems, problems.

Saturday evening my sister drove my three-windowed car to her much safer neighborhood in Jersey. She’d figure out how to get it fixed on Monday. Sunday afternoon her car broke down. Monday morning both of our cars were taken to the car doctor – $350 later, my car window was fixed and her car needed more time. Monday evening my brother-in-law was forced to drive my car an hour or so south to pick up my nephews from his sister’s house. Two exits into the drive, my car started overheating. As I chewed on numerous vicodin, I listened to him describe the many things the Pep Boys guy said it could be. $200 later, I had a new thermostat and the car was still overheating. Nephews still at their aunt’s house, brother-in-law turned back, barely getting home in my smoking car with all types of things bursting and blowing out.

Tuesday morning I had my car towed from my sister’s house to a local dealership. I also had to make an early morning call to my doctor’s office, reporting continuous, unexplained bleeding from my incision.

Help me out, I’m havin’ problems, problems, problems.

Wednesday morning I was feeling much stronger, even able to hobble around my apartment without crutches and taking fewer vicodin to get through the day. The bleeding still persisted, but I had an appointment to have my incision looked at in the morning. After a much less dramatic taxi ride, and receiving yet another prescription, things in the health and pain departments seemed to be calming down.

And the car? Another $1,150 later to replace all types of parts, it was fixed and ready to be driven by Wednesday afternoon, windows up and all.

So it’s been a rough couple of weeks. Yes, I’m thankful for the many blessings that have gotten me through it (and in a short period of time, I should add) – including family and friends to take care of me and persistently check on me, an incredible doctor who was able to squeeze me in for an emergency surgery, and medical insurance to make surgery an option. But boy oh boy. I will be milking this right to judge other people’s problems, and reflecting on my superior coping skills for quite some time. I’ve earned it. And until I can completely feel my left leg and foot, and walk like a normal person again, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve still got some problems, problems, problems.

Woe is me.