Joy of Zero Income

We are living the story. Freedom from work! Work we sometimes despised. We put in the time, collected our checks, waited until the day retirement arrived so we could focus on work we really loved. For me that’s writing, although it pays way below the cost of living, and dream vacations to Greece cost so much.

We can move to where the weather suits us. If we can afford a house. That’s what all the saving was for when we worked those soul crushing jobs. Al and I did better at saving than most, but when we thought about it, we realized we’d have a hard time buying a home in this crazy market unless we paid cash. Because we’re retired. No income. Well, very little income. This adds all sorts of complications.

We could dip into our savings, but higher income means higher tax bracket. Thus more taxes. Taking money out of 401K also means paying even more taxes as 401Ks (unless they are Roth) are not taxed until you take them out of the market. We thought that was great when we were saving.

Social Security is giving seniors a COLA raise for the first time in forever, but Medicare is raising costs equal to that and they take it right out of your check. If you’re not collecting SS yet, you still have to write Medicare a check.

Last week consisted of crunching numbers with our banker, who is lovely and kind. It was soooo boring. She and Al loved talking finance strategies, me not so much. Now we just have to figure out what we want to do. Which taxes to pay when or if there’s a way people who are not rich can avoid them. (There isn’t.) I learned a lot about money and what it can and cannot do for you in retirement, but I still don’t understand how it is legal for billionaires to have billions of ways to avoid paying taxes. While we in the middle have exactly zero legal means unless we spend zero.

Money is a strange thing. Now this crypto-currency is weirder yet, although I do like the IDEA of minting a trillion dollar coin to pay off our country’s debt. Or is it debt ceiling? Or are we just calling off that whole thing? Sure I’ve learned a lot, but I have way more to figure out. Lucky for me, Al’s hobby is finance. And he’s really good at it.

Facebook Love

Am still using the Flash! book by John Dufresne for ideas to spark flash fiction. This morning I had not one idea. My mind was a blank slate. I read on in Dufresne until I found a prompt that interested me. Two people talking to each other, both having totally different conversations. That got my fingers typing…


“It was just one of those Facebook things,” I tell my husband, knowing my excuse is lame and too late.

He doesn’t use Facebook, thinks it’s a waste of time. I can tell you this about the man I married: he doesn’t hardly like to talk to me, so why would he want to talk to almost everyone he’s ever known?

“You always do that,” he says.


“I’m talking about our future and you bring up the past. That’s your problem.”

But I didn’t bring it up. He picked up my phone when it pinged and read my private messages and saw what he saw. Pictures, old ones, from when my Facebook love and I dated in high school. It was more than pictures, it was the whole crazy thing of me thinking I was not in love with my husband but with a guy I hadn’t seen in forty years.

“There will be penalties if we draw from the 401K now,” he says.

“We were in love once. A long time ago.” As I say it, I realize I could be talking about my husband or the Facebook guy or any number of men I had loved. Too many, too often, to ill effect. Is love like that for everyone? Is anybody happy?

“On the other hand, Florida has no state tax.”

We are sitting at the table in the dining room. There’s a whirring sound as pages spit from the printer in the corner.  “We’re gonna need a new file,” he says.

I pick up the pages. The history of  Facebook friend’s messages from first to last.  Here’s one from the middle: It feels so good to finally say I love you and mean it. The pages pile up even though we have not communicated in months. Today his text is brief. You okay?

I’m not sure but it seems I am supposed to add these little love notes to our files of financial information. Unlike the shiny clean sheets in the printer, each page of our financial history has been worn thin by many readings.

I like to buy pretty new file folders for the old abused papers. There are white ones with little gold stars, pink ones with gold hearts, pink and gold striped ones. I put the texts from my Facebook love in one of the gold heart files.

I don’t touch the other papers. I’m not a finance person, but I know that on paper we have wealth, just the wrong kind. The kind that can disappear overnight.

“I just, I don’t know, it was like I went crazy for a minute. Like I was sixteen again.” I was over it, whatever it had been, because I’d spent the last few months in bed in a sugar coma. “I’ll never be over it.”

“If we use the Roth IRA’s first, that should see us through until social security kicks in.” Also on the table: his busy calculator.

“Did you ever think that when we got old we’d still care about things like love?”

“I think we’re done here,” he said, gathering the remaining papers and putting them in their proper files. “What’s for dinner?”


Home: His & Hers

IMG_1890Something that happened forty years ago almost cost me my thirty year marriage last year. I only realized this yesterday. The body holds emotions that the soul and mind don’t divide into time. That’s why when we hear a song that is particularly poignant, we’re right back there at the senior prom.

This happens in many ways and for me it involved men and new houses. I have owned two new houses in my life. Half a lifetime apart. It would never have occurred to me that the husband I bought the first house with would influence how I responded to the husband I bought the second house with…I was married to house guy #1 for only seven years and house guy #2 has been with me for thirty. So, no comparison. Right? Wrong.

Subtle, though, which is why it can be a good exercise and clearing for you if you run into a perplexing problem of unknown origin like I did. I had my beautiful new home. A home I had never aspired to (I always wanted a cute little ranch house). My husband happily organized the appliances, the shiny new deck that caught the sunset perfectly, and picked out a television and the few pieces of furniture he believed we needed, including a king-sized bed.


Meanwhile I shopped in my basement, filling out the house as best I could with things that didn’t really fit. I mentioned I’d like to do a bit of decorating and husband said “Bank’s closed. We just spent a small fortune.”

I didn’t think much of it. I’m not a money person and I was fortunate for all I had. I moved on. Or so I thought. But I kept getting more and more depressed, feeling more and more isolated from my husband, and just in general unhappy. I didn’t connect it to the house. I eventually entered therapy where I found that I lived in an unequal marriage. The money management wasn’t equal. The time-commitment to each other and our home was not equal, and trust was all but gone.

Just like my first marriage. But this husband (which is why he has lasted thirty years) was willing to dig in and do the work. It started, funny enough, with me drawing up a budget to decorate the house, him laying out the budget for me, and us working together to make it all fit. It did and we went from there. I’m still working on some things like painting which men see as pointless in a new house because it’s new. But builders use cheap paint and nails pop and since I’m redecorating there are all those nail holes to fill. Also I want new color.


Since I’ve become an equal in money management, I know what we can afford and I’m not going crazy but I wonder, if, that first time I bought a new house, had he listened to me and bought the ranch instead of the quad-level (I had two children under two years old, but he wasn’t thinking about my needs, although I did stay slim running up and down those stairs), we would have had money (not that I’d have known) to buy curtains for the gorgeous living room patio doors and bay window. We’d have had money for real furniture instead of my worn down bachelorette fuzzy love seat and battered old plaid chair someone gave us.


What I didn’t know then was marriage has to be equal or everyone loses. Don’t give the money duty to your husband. Don’t let him make the “big” decisions to help him feel like a man, don’t do it because it will erode trust and without that you got nothing.

Our Fortunate Tortured Selves

Remember liberal guilt? The idea that because we had so much, we felt guilty, and so to assuage our consciouses, we were happy to give some back. I still think giving to the poor is a noble cause, but I never thought guilt was what social programs were about. I thought those programs were in place because of  love. Because of generosity.

I’ve been poor, even homeless, but I’ve always worked. My income, when I have one worth reporting to the IRS, has always hovered close to the poverty level, which is now $13,444. My jobs have been waitress, secretary, high school teacher, college teacher, writer. The only government assistance I’ve ever used was a Pell Grant to start my college education. After I married, the Pell Grant went away. I pursued education anyway because I believed it was my way to a better job than waitress, bartender, or secretary.

Now I have two degrees in English, two jobs (writing and teaching) and I couldn’t buy myself a used car. Forget about a house! My husband is the reason I am living in a new house, buying new things to furnish it with, and feeling twinges of guilt. I have so much. Most of the world has so little. It doesn’t seem fair.

Land a man, land on your feet. This uncomfortable truth has been the reality of my life. Yes of course I cook and clean and so forth. That’s the unpaid work we women who marry take on. Well, some of us.

Had I not been married, I would have pursued full time teaching with more zeal. But the way things happened, I was able to teach part-time and write for great chunks of time, taking years off the day job. Without that time  off from teaching, I never would have been able to pursue things like writing for magazines. I would not have been able to write novels or find a publisher. I probably wouldn’t be writing this post or have the time to worry about all the poor people in the world. I’d be too busy grading papers or flying the freeways.

When I told my husband about a post I wrote a week or so ago, all about moving to the country and buying new curtains, he said I should be careful. He said I should not flaunt our situation. He said it would make some people with less feel bad. He was right. And ever since, I’ve been feeling guilty about my good fortune.

The Dream Job

I got the email about the review rate cut while on vacation. I decided to put thinking about it on hold, maybe let my deeper, wiser self work on it while I looked at Texas antiques, ate cowboy barbecue, and cried by the side of the road next to the X that marks the spot where JFK was shot.

What really got me about that place was the window of the book depository from where the sniper shot. It has never been closed, but is still open just those few inches it takes to stick the barrel of a gun out and ruin a man, a family, a nation. You know what? I really don’t want to talk about my silly job thing now. It is so unimportant next to the death of a president.

I cried twice that day standing out there on Elm Street; once when I saw the two Xs on the road and again when I looked up at the window. We didn’t take pictures. We didn’t linger long. It was a walk I’d wanted to take, but it wasn’t something I enjoyed.

Martha Beck calls necessary but painful times like my afternoon on Elm Street “walking through the ring of fire.” I’m not sure why, but I couldn’t leave Dallas without seeing the scene of that horrific crime. Beck says doing tough stuff burns off the “shallows.”  In my case, that might be the shallowness of a tourist: buying things like miniature beer bottles filled with something called beer salt and hunting down a pink “Don’t Mess With Texas” t-shirt. I also tried on a cowboy hat and acquired a southern accent. The shallows.

Entering the ring of fire, I finally told my husband about the review rate cut last night. He thinks the price of my writing is beyond rubies, so he was upset on my behalf. I was glad to let him be since I’ve been putting off dealing with the whole thing, putting off feeling bad about it, putting off making a decision about staying or going. He didn’t give me any advice; he knew it was my decision to make. I still didn’t know what to do when I woke up this morning.

On the one hand, it’s really insulting to be told that your words are now worth exactly half of what they used to be. It hurts my pride and my pocketbook and my barely articulated hope of moving up to bigger and better things at the magazine. On the other hand, I love to read and I love to write and being on staff at a magazine is a life-long dream.

One of the exercises Martha suggests in Steering by Starlight is to make a visual map of where you want your life to go next. When I came across that exercise this morning, I looked at the bulletin board over my desk, which is where I typically arrange such collages. It was almost empty, awaiting a proper collage for Rose and Belinda.

Since I had a bunch of magazines ready to rip apart for appropriate images, I decided to make Beck’s pictorial star chart. I love it! And something I noticed almost immediately is that I already have one of the things I am longing for…a job writing for a magazine. I went downstairs and checked inside my front door. Like a sign sent directly from my star chart, there was a book waiting for me to review. Deadline’s May 30. I need to get reading.