Friday, June 29, 2007

Money Talks

A few weeks ago Drew and I made a significant payment on a credit card that will take us a step closer to being completely debt free before we venture into buying a house. We high-fived each other after we wrote the check and congratulated ourselves for being so mature and organized about handling our finances. Our Tuesday night bill-paying and financial planning powwows were finally paying off - literally.

It was not always so.

I admit: I am the spender of the family. I love to shop. Drew, on the other hand, does not admit that he is a shopper or a spender, even though he is. He might not be spending on clothes or shoes, but his are bigger ticket items: A digital camera here, a set of bagpipes there, or lunch for his entire staff. And when he does shop for clothes or shoes, he is not the kind who will wait for a sale or scour the aisles at TJ Maxx for a bargain.

This is not a problem now that we are both making pretty good salaries, but at the start of our marriage, we had issues. Not only did we not have a lot of money, we were somehow ashamed to talk about the fact that we had to budget. I think he was feeling pressure to “provide” for me and I didn’t want to adjust to being accountable with my money to someone else. This lead to many fights and some nasty surprises on our bank statements at the end of the month.
Talking to my friends, I was relieved to find out that our past arguments about money and our continuing struggles to come to terms with how to handle finances are the norm.

What still shocks me is that fights about money always get so personal. There is always so much guilt and emotion during these fights, even though they are about “just money.” Money, which technically should not be making us happy or unhappy, yet the way we handle money can come to exemplify childhood hurts and reflect our upbringing and our values. These arguments bring to surface our expectations of what we want our lives to be, and brings us face to face with what our lives are not.

And that’s even before the checkbook is balanced.

Drew and I still struggle to define how we communicate about money. How do I ask for his ATM receipts without sounding like I am nagging or checking up on his spending? How does he tell me that I should put off a purchase in favor of paying a bill without sounding like he is trying to control me? How do I fit something simple like a pedicure into our budget, without feeling like I have to ask for an allowance?

There is no one answer that will work for every couple. Even though we have our financial routines down to a science now, Drew still gets frustrated from time to time and I still get emotional and defensive. But we are sitting together every Tuesday night, checkbook and bills in hand, and we are talking about what we hope to achieve together, as a couple – a house, a baby, maybe, finally, a honeymoon.

And that’s hard to get defensive about.

Spousal support

I spent this past Saturday night in a very crowded and warm church, sitting on an impossibly uncomfortable pew. It wasn’t some religious fervor that drove me there and, trust me, I do have better ways of spending a lovely summer evening. But my husband, Drew, is a member of a community chorus that held its concert this weekend and, as his wife, I felt like I had to be there.

I wanted to be there.

As I sat there, trying to ignore the spasm that was forming in my back, I thought of all the events I attended to show my support for him. There were the firefighter conventions in Pennsylvania, where he participated in the “battle of the barrel” with his fellow firefighters (two opposing teams try to keep a barrel in the air by aiming high-powered fire hoses at it). While he was engaged in some manly bonding time, I spent the day fighting mosquitoes, trying to find some shade and a not-too-revolting bathroom.

Lately, since he’s taken up bagpiping and joined a Highland band, I spent plenty of time helping him get dressed in his Scottish warrior outfit: shirt, kilt, knee socks, the funny white socks that go over his shoes and have several tiny buttons, the sporran that goes under the huge belt and buckle, little tassels that go under the socks just so, and a hat. It takes about 30 minutes to get ready. For his first parade, we had to get up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to drive to New Hampshire. I spent the day carrying various pieces of bagpiping equipment, marching along with the band (uphill for miles) and taking pictures. The day ended at a pub in Portsmouth, with about 20 men in kilts, drinking Guinness. I was in need of a drink by then as well.

I can’t say that none of these little adventures are fun. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy men in skirts? And I have seen places and met people that I otherwise would not have. But sometimes I wonder if husbands show the same devotion to their spouse’s hobbies as wives do. Or am I overdoing it by supporting Drew and going to all these events without complaint?
It might also be that my hobbies are more solitary pursuits. They don’t require a special dressing routine or long drives — pottery and writing are not exactly spectator sports. Drew dutifully encourages me to continue with my pottery and my writing, but I don’t know for sure that he has read all of these columns, for example. I can’t really say that this bothers me — I like to write, it’s my “thing” that I do for me, not for any other reason. And I assume that he wouldn’t really care if I skipped a concert or stayed in bed for a parade.

But there is something about being there for him so that when he looks out in the crowd, he sees a familiar face that is rooting just for him. He usually gives me a little wink to let me know that he has spotted me in the crowd and then it feels like it’s just the two of us there and he is singing or playing just for me.

I suppose all this will change once we have a Baby Drew to take to soccer games or band concerts. Then it will be the two of us on the sidelines and I think I’m going to let Drew figure out the soccer uniform. That’s only fair, don’t you think?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A trip down memory lane

Last weekend I returned to my alma mater for alumni weekend. It was the first time since I graduated nine years ago that I returned for any organized event or spent any time on campus. My husband, Drew, was a member of the college choir that celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, so it was in a way really his reunion. I went along for the ride, expecting to maybe run into a couple of old classmates, but not expecting much else.

In the end, the weekend inspired a bit of soul searching and nostalgia. My former classmates all looked exactly like they did nine years ago. This disturbed me, because when I look in the mirror I see wrinkles and lines that were not there before. I am possibly chubbier, but maybe a little better dressed than in college — I wear a lot less flannel anyway. I was also worried that somehow I wouldn’t measure up. I imagined that they were onto bigger and better things than I am, that they were happier, more accomplished, more together than I am. That fear was quickly put to rest: The girl who has the high powered corporate job seemed very sad and lonely; those who have kids seemed way too happy to be away from them for a weekend; and most of my classmates thought that my job sounded “cool.”

I had some time while Drew was rehearsing with the choir to sit on the steps of the theater building on campus and reminisce about my time as a college student. I didn’t expect that seeing campus — the buildings, the lawn, the cafeteria — would evoke such vivid memories that I thought were long gone. I suddenly remembered people I haven’t even thought of in years. I had sharp flashbacks of small events: of saying good night to a boyfriend under the arches of Cloister Hall; of realizing that I really want to be an English major in the middle of accounting class; of learning to drive in the parking lot of Lesher Hall; of opening my mailbox, hoping to find a red package slip in it; of sitting in the cafeteria with all of the other international students, drinking tea for long hours. All of these memories were accompanied by not just the visuals, but all of the sounds and feelings of those moments now long gone. I had goose bumps all weekend.

What was the most disturbing was to watch students — the class of 2010! — live and learn and grow in the places where I used to live and learn and grow. They seemed incredibly young and free and careless, and I was jealous. I’d like to think that places change because they have transformed me; that just like I am never the same, they too are forever altered. But that is not the case. While there might be a couple of new buildings on campus, the mood, the smells, the sounds of the school are the same as in 1998, when I left. I was jealous to think that now a new crop of students is experiencing this without me; that they still have a journey in front of them and that Cloister Hall doesn’t care that I was kissed there or that Good Hall can’t really appreciate the fact that I found my life’s calling in one of its classrooms. The buildings have moved on and I am stuck with memories.

As I said, it was a complicated weekend. I know that I am who I am because of everything that happened there — good and bad. I do miss that old life, but at the end of the weekend, I was ready to come home. I was also grateful that I could tuck away all of these memories on a remote Pennsylvania college campus for safekeeping.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Big 3-1

Birthdays are always disappointing. I go to bed the night before thinking that the next morning I will wake up and feel different. I hope I will feel smarter and wiser and more confident; that I will instantly know what I want out of my life and what I don’t want and how to get there; and that there will be an unusual spring in my step.

The next morning the alarm goes off and it’s Wednesday. I have to get up, go to work, and instead of feeling new, I feel like my same old self — not wiser, not smarter, not knowing more about the world around me.

It happens this way every year and it’s been happening since I can remember my birthdays. The thing that I do enjoy about birthdays is when my parents call and recount the day I was born. It is always the same story, obviously, but in the story itself there is always so much hope and promise that it gives me hope that maybe this will be the year when it will all click.
I turned 31 last week and I think I’m having a harder time with this than with turning 30. Turning 30 was something to celebrate. It was a nice, round number. A rite of passage, if you will.

But turning 31 seems like a whole different era is about to begin — or maybe it’s already underway. It feels like everything important that is going to happen in my life will be determined in the next nine years: having children, figuring out my career, hitting the decade marker with my husband and helping my parents settle into their new life in the U.S. This is the first year when I really feel that I need to get my butt in gear, so to speak.

There is suddenly urgency to everything, every decision. When I turned 25, it wasn’t a big deal to think that “well, maybe I’ll have kids when I am 26 or 27.” But now it matters whether I’ll have kids at 32 or 36. At 25, it was OK to feel that my career was without direction, but I am not so sure that it’s still all right. At 25, I didn’t think about my parents getting older, or taking care of them. Even though they are still young and healthy, that thought crosses my mind more and more often these days. This is all important, grown-up stuff that I should feel ready for, right?

But the truth is, instead of feeling ready, I feel the same panic that I felt when I turned 18 or 20 or 29. I woke up on those birthdays with uncertainty and with questions swirling in my head — and it wasn’t any different last Wednesday. The answers are not clearer, the path doesn’t seem to be easier. It is the same old me — only now I am actually “older.”

So I wonder: If I feel the same year after year, is there some sort of cumulative knowledge and wisdom that happens throughout the years without my realization?

There must be, because I was ready to graduate from college when I turned 22; I was ready to get married when I turned 26; and I was ready to become a U.S. citizen when I turned 30.

I hope that the panic I feel is normal, that secretly I do know the answers. The real trick might be to trust the panic and to trust that I will know what to do next.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Free marriage advice available here!

Now that the official start of the wedding season is upon us, I’d like to share some marriage advice that I’ve accumulated over the last five years of my marriage. It might not work for everyone, but you can pick and choose the ones that have meaning for you. And as with all free advice – it’s only worth as much as you paid for it!

1. Speak up! If your spouse does something that annoys you – whether it’s something small like leaving socks in the middle of the living room; or something big, like not listening to you – you need to speak up early. Even if it sounds silly, even if you feel like you are nagging. If you don’t say something now, you will become resentful towards those socks and eventually towards your spouse. And the poor guy/girl won’t even know what hit her/him when you finally blow up after years of putting up and shutting up.

2. Be nice to your mother-in-law. And your brother-in-law. And your grandpa-in-law. It’s not important to like them, but it’s important to recognize that they are your spouse’s crazy family. You have yours, don’t you? So respect each other’s families and accept that everyone’s family is a little nuts.

3. Snuggle.

4. You will have fights. This is normal. It doesn’t mean that the marriage is over, or that you don’t love each other anymore. It just means, that well, you are humans. But don’t bring up past hurts or attack each other’s personalities or any of that other nasty stuff. Be fair. And never underestimate the healing power of a good fight, cry, a heavy door you can slam, and then open up to make up.

5. Leave something to the imagination – please. All right, so you can’t hide your hair removing devices for the rest of your life, and you can’t be lady-like when you have the stomach flu, or that nasty zit on your back. But it’s not going to kill you to take off your ex-boyfriend’s boxers and your high school T-shirt for a couple of nights, and slip into something cuter, right? This is true for guys too – contrary to popular belief, your high school mesh T-shirt isn’t attractive either.

6. Put down the toilet seat. Really.

7. Get away from each other! Get a hobby! Go out with friends! Please, do not become one of those couples that only do things together. It’s really annoying to your friends and ultimately very bad for your relationship. You need to go out and have your own adventures so that you can keep coming home and have something new and fun to share.

8. Talk about money. All. The. Time. This sucks, but it’s the best way to make sure that you can achieve your financial goals and have enough left for lattes. One person always ends up being the spender and the other the saver. (If you are both spenders, good luck to you!) Respect each other’s money habits, but be flexible and compromise. Nobody should have to ask his/her spouse for spending money.

9. Stop blaming it on PMS! Both of you!

10. You will only know what “for richer for poorer; for sickness and in health” means when one of you gets sick or you struggle with money. They are both worth living through together – you will be the stronger for it.