3/31/2015

I am Mad as Hell, and I am Not Going to Take it Any More


I’m angry- REALLY ANGRY- about a lot of things these days. Politics, the environment, the media, the dismal pecking away at women’s rights over their own health and bodies, you name it. I try to keep from ranting too much, for fear I’ll turn into one of those people. I recently re-read Deer Hunting with Jesus, just to remind myself that most people are just struggling to survive, doing the best they can. To hate them for their ignorance or inability to demonstrate empathy for others or concern for anything other than their own immediate needs is pointless. Everyone just does the best they can, and sometimes that version of “best” isn’t very kind, good, thoughtful, or helpful.  Can you tell I subscribe to Rousseau's view of humanity? Then on the other hand, there are some folk out there who ought to know better. Unfortunately, I am related to several of them.

                                                            Sulphur Springs, Texas

Angry at my Mother
Both of my parents were mentally ill, and I grew up in a dysfunctional family. This sounds shocking and overly-dramatic, but it is still, nevertheless, true. My father had schizophrenia and my mother was a schizoid. (How they found each other, and reproduced, god only knows. Lends credence to the old saying about “crazy finds crazy.” It is truly amazing that I am as "normal" as I am.) In spite of this huge albatross, my parents managed to hold down real jobs all of their lives and pay the mortgage. My father was an engineer and later, an attorney. My mother was a paralegal. (And DAR, as she was fond of reminding people. I feel I must do it now, in her stead.) From the outside looking in, I had a fairly “normal” childhood : lived in a large spacious home in an upper- middle class neighborhood, had a sister, pet dogs, family RVs, took piano lessons, family vacations, grew up shopping at Neiman's, was in Girl Scouts, went to Sunday School, was accepted and attended a superior college. No drugs, no house fires, no arrests, no teenage pregnancies, no crazy women in the attic. Sure, my dad heard voices/saw visions and went through phases of plastering the windows with aluminum foil and worrying about the government spying on him. But there were other times when he was kind, encouraged me, and gave me painting lessons.

My mom’s illness manifested itself kind of like Asperger’s, with an inability to relate or communicate with people; she was also incapable of managing her home, her children or her life. She couldn't make a decision about anything. She is well-known among my childhood friends for rarely ever saying more than, "well....." in a breathy soft voice. Food was often scarce growing up because my mom didn’t feel like cooking or eating "real food"; she often bought only candy and soda instead of actual food. Started sending me to the store on my little bicycle to buy it for her when I was 6 years old. Mom didn't like to leave the house. Mom celebrated holidays in her own fashion: everyone got new Christmas and Easter clothes (which we were never allowed to wear again, only the once) but we rarely had a nice holiday meal or very many gifts. Putting up a tree only happened when the kids did it. My grandmother cooked Thanksgiving for us - at our house.Typically, in non functional families, the kids pull together to survive. Unfortunately, my sister and I grew up at odds with each other - consciously or not, mom played favorites in an ever-shifting triangle of alliances-a situation that has only escalated over the course of our lives. (I am angry at sis, too, but I blame my mother for creating the situation. I know mom was ill, but I still blame her.) The only thing sis and I ever agreed on while growing up was that our mom had the social-emotional maturity of a 9 year old, and "whatever advice mom gives you - do the opposite". It was like having a very truculent lazy third sister and not having a mom at all. My predominant memories of my mom involve her lounging around the home in her pj's reading a book or watching tv. Sis and I took over running things long before we were teens; we were "adultized children".

While my dad put himself through UT on a scholarship, my mom came from money. Lots of money.  My mom’s father owned a church furniture making business in east Texas that was extremely prosperous during the first half of the 20th century. My mom grew up in a family that owned property, land, businesses. Mom had a childhood bedroom with wall paper imported from France, rode the train to Dallas to shop at Neiman-Marcus, and had her teeth straightened with orthodontia- all this during the Great Depression. Her family had the first 2nd bathroom in town, they drove a string of luxury cars, and had "help". Mom’s father gave every single one of her girlfriends a solid sterling silver tea set for their wedding gifts. (Google the price of one today – not on eBay, but from Horchow or Neiman’s, to see what kind of money I am talking about.) Mom went to Baylor for college, and later UT for grad school. Whenever life hit the shizzle while I was growing up, my grandmother was there with cash money to bail my parents out. Granny also gave me a  two month long “Grand Tour” as a graduation gift, bought me numerous cars, and the deposit to buy my home. My sister got what she wanted: French horns. (Their value was equal to my own gifts.)

When my grandparents passed away, my mom, an only child, inherited everything. Because she never sought the advice of a financial planner, (that would require interacting with other people, you know, “talking”), my mom sold all the hard assets and left her little nest-egg sitting in cash in checking accounts, drawing at first 3-4%, later less than 1% in interest but incurring far more than that in fees, thus entirely missing the boom and bust of the 80’s and 90’s and 00’s. Can you imagine if she had invested in Apple, Walmart, Southwest Airlines, or Toyota stock in the 1980's?

Here’s the thing, and I want to be very clear about this: I don’t believe parents “owe” their children anything in terms of money such as an inheritance. Parents should endeavor to take care of those beings they bring into the world, in terms of providing a home, sustenance, and education- to the best of their abilities. In that regard, I had a pretty good launch into this journey we call life. As F.Scott Fitzgerald writes at the opening of The Great Gatsby:

 “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ’just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.’”

Cut to now. When my mother passed away recently, she had a small estate – half a mill, roughly, pretty much the same amount her parents had left her, only now 30+ years later and only holding steady because her home value increased while her bank accounts decreased in value – all of it left entirely to my sister. Not a dime to me or my children, her only grandchildren. What happened, you ask?  The story is as old as Shakespeare’s play King Lear……I was " triangled out" of the final alliance between my mom and my sis. In spite of an earlier will that made me executor and directed me to divide her estate evenly between her existing heirs, and in spite of the fact that I had devoted my entire adult life to taking care of my mom – visiting her weekly, talking to her on the phone every day, including her in all our family celebrations, taking her on vacations with my family – not for any personal gain but because I loved her, my sis, who had ignored mom most of her adult life other than to occasionally show up and either steal a piece of furniture or drop off a pet she no longer wanted- swooped in at the end of mom’s life and pressured a confused senile old woman to change the inheritance plans she had made earlier in her life. As mom suffered from strokes the last two years before she passed and became increasingly demented, sis convinced mom to rewrite her will, thus giving sis all the money.

Note to self: don't let this happen to you. What do you want your legacy to be? What do you want others to remember about you? Write an irrevocable will NOW and give it to a disinterested third party, for safe-keeping. Oh how I wish mom had done this, stowing it with with my aunt or cousins.



Angry at My Ex
When I was four months pregnant with his child, my first husband, now my ex-husband, filed for divorce.  He then spent the next two years, paradoxically, engaged in a legal battle for custody over our child, whom he had met only once, for two hours. (I had moved away and given birth in a different city over 200 miles away from him, alone, to escape his abuse.)  I remember trying to explain to my attorney at the time that I knew my ex didn't really want to take this child into his home and raise it; he was only engaging in the legal custody battle as a means of attempting to force me into accepting certain concessions in the divorce. My attorney gave me a stern lecture about how I needed to “get real” and “accept the fact that this man was going to be a part of our child’s life for the next 20 something years, and we had just better learn to accept and deal with it.” I scoffed at her ideas and told her that I knew him much better than she did, and that he didn't give a hoot about this child or its life.

I long ago (and many years of therapy later) worked through my anger and frustration with this man, and learned to forgive and let go. Not because, as they say, forgiving someone absolves them of their actions, but because it frees you from giving them a space in your heart and mind.

“Living well is the best revenge” as the saying goes, and I re-married to a really wonderful man, who took in that child and raised him as his own. We have had a magical, wonderful life, and still do – full of family, friends, education, travel, culture, arts. I wouldn't change a thing – not even my relationship with my ex – for without him, I never would have had this wonderful child, his only son. Second husband and I have provided as best we can for this child and his brother, and we live a comfortable middle-class existence. (Did I mention that ex has had a career as financial adviser for a string of major oil and gas, precious metals, and other, similar companies? This ain't some migrant farm worker we are talking about, paid in cash. His car cost more than my house.)

It has been difficult, all these years, to bite my tongue and say nothing, as my ex-husband started a second family (that he also left). For in this second family, he had another child, and that child he put through private schools and provided tutors and nannies and dance lessons and trips to Disney World and everything a child could ever want or need. And the child he waged a two year $50K (1991 dollars) custody battle over? That child gets a Christmas gift, most years. A few toys, video games, clothes. No attention, no vacations, no care. Ex fought me repeatedly over the minimal amount of child support; never reimbursed me, not once in 18 years, for medical bills, or contributed a dime towards the education of his child. Forced me to pay my 50% share of travel expenses for our child, even though he has consistently earned more than 10x what I earn. I have had very little material to work with, in terms of behaviors on my ex's part, in my attempts to convince our son that his biological father loves him, too. That the divorce wasn't about him, but about me.

Here’s the coup de grace: Of course, now 20+ years later, ex-husband has refused to help pay for his child’s college education (even though my son attends a relatively inexpensive fairly prestigious state school, which is all his step-dad and I can afford). That stingy-ness is nothing new; it is totally true to form with my ex; financial abuse was just one of the many things I left him for all those years ago. I am not surprised. Here’s the part that I just cannot and will not tolerate:  Ex showed up a few months back to visit our child in his new college town, and took him out to lunch. His son hadn’t seen him in ages. While they were talking about college, majors, career options and so on, during this lunch, ex somehow conveyed to his son that our child was a failure and a great disappointment to him, because he didn't study hard enough to get into a “good” college, that his GPA in college was nothing to brag about (as son works almost full time to help pay his way) and that Ex, his bio dad, couldn't possibly help him in any sort of career path (either by giving advice, or with a rec for an internship with a friend, encouragement to attend grad school, etc.) because his own son was a “loser”. Of course, you and I realize that : a)if ex had supported this child with private schools, as he does his other child, things might have turned out differently, b)his son was, in fact, in the top 8% of his graduating class, with respectable SAT scores and killer extra-curriculars, and he is currently at an extremely competitive university, so none of this is factually true, and c)none of this was about our son at all, in fact, but ex's projection of his own lack of self-worth onto his son. But how do you convince a 21 year old to believe that ?

I really didn’t want to be right about this man, but unfortunately, I am. That attorney of mine was just mouthing platitudes; she had no idea who she was dealing with. She'd guided 100's of women through similar divorces and that was what she said to them all the time. Not only is my ex a selfish insecure broken human being who hasn't given one drop of love, attention, nurturing or affection to a boy – now a man- who looks just like him and takes after him in terms of interests and abilities (sports, music, majoring in economics and business), it is clear that the very fact that he mis-treats this boy BECAUSE our son reminds him of himself, and this is a reflection of his own self-loathing. Ex can’t even be neutral, much less nice. He can’t even just show up out of the blue, for teh first time in years, take his kid to lunch, and say the usual stuff that divorced non-custodial dads say, ("Cat's in the Cradle") not meaning any word of it, as we all know and expect them to do. He had to be hateful, to turn the knife while sticking it in. 

That man’s name is Gregory Scott Panagos.

If you run into him , tell him that to 'dis on your child is totally not cool.



                                                             WWWD : What Would Willie Do?

Angry at My Alma Mater
Two students both apply to the same college: one is a boy, one is a girl. They are each in the top ten percent of their graduating class, have stellar SAT scores at the high end of the school admitting profile, each applicant has the requisite impressive extra-curricular activities, and are both children of alums, and thus, legacies. The girl’s parents’ have donated large sums of money, over the years, to the alma mater, “greasing the wheels” as they call it. The boys’ parents, middle class but not wealthy, gave smaller amounts- what they were able to afford.  Coincidentally, the girl's parents were not in need of financial aid, but the boy's parents were. Guess which student was accepted?

Rice University was founded in 1912 in Houston, Texas and in keeping with its founder William Marsh Rice’s stated purpose, was originally tuition-free to students who were accepted.  It is generally considered one of the top 20 universities in America, and one of the top 100 in the world. By the time I matriculated in 1979, tuition had only been charged for a decade, and was still reasonable for middle class families – around $2500 a year, during a time when tuition at most Ivy Leagues was $10-14K or more.  Perhaps tired of consistently appearing on those perennial “most affordable colleges” lists that come out each year, Rice began escalating tuition costs throughout the 1980’s, which, perversely, increased demand.

You can never swim in the same river twice; the Buddha tells us, and what this means is that no one, no place, and no institution remains frozen, as it was when we first experienced it. Things change constantly and that is the nature of life. The Rice I knew was full of super bright middle class kids whose parents couldn't afford more expensive schools.  This was in accordance with the founder, William Marsh Rice’s, vision of creating a school of excellence, of free or low cost, in this quadrant of the country. During the late 1970’s, perhaps due to its lack of national renown, Rice’s accepting demographic was roughly 33% local to Houston area, 33% from Texas, and 33% from the rest of the world. What this meant was that students from even “po-dunk” small Texas towns, who demonstrated the intellectual potential, were frequently accepted – even if they had preparatory educational deficits and a demonstrated financial aid need. I knew a kid whose high school didn't offer half the required pre-requisites, but was admitted anyways, with the proviso that he make up the missing coursework once he got to Houston (as well as the college level material offered at Rice.) The admissions department took calculated risks with admitting kids, including myself. As with most esteemed educational institutions of the time, Rice was majority white, majority male, and has worked hard to diversity these facets of its student body in the years since I was there; rightly so.  I grew up and learned with kids on scholarship from Little Rock, Ark, as well as graduates of elite east coast prep schools and (due to the many members of OPEC who lived in Houston at the time) sons of the sheiks of Araby. It was an eclectic mix, yet still tipped predominantly toward the children of teachers, engineers, college professors, ministers. The “genteel” educated poor. There were quite a few legacy students, as well as children of professors, who managed to graduate and go on to do exciting wonderful things with their lives, somehow. All in all, we had tremendous esprit de corps, because we were all trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Rice’s admittance profile is quite different these days: the class of 2018 has 55% out of state candidates; over half of its international students are from mainland China, 83% from Asia in general, and thus pay full tuition, 26% of those who are not international are American students of Asian descent, and 58% are multi-lingual. I completely understand and support the goal of student body diversification that Rice has pursued in the years since I was a student there, If your goal was to increase academic diversity and renown, I'd guess you'd have a range of student admissions that reflected population data for higher learning everywhere. If you wanted to encourage education and 21st century skills for members of nascent economies, you would admit more students from third world nations or under-privileged and under-served groups.If the goal was to increase representation of  U.S. minorities, then surely there are more than 12% of Hispanic or 8% of black/African American students applying who could benefit from the rigors of a Rice education. Something hints that perhaps there are other factors at work besides ethnic and cultural diversity alone, when one considers admission stats vs population stats in Texas and America. For comparison, America in 2014 was roughly 77% Caucasian,  13% black/African American, 17% Hispanic, 5% Asian, while the 2010 census reveals that Texas is roughly 45% non-Hispanic white, 12% black/African American, 38% Hispanic, and 4% Asian-American.  I can’t help but wonder what the driving factors are behind the admission decisions that have been made.

I’m not the only one wondering what the mission and goals of my alma mater are these days. This topic completely blew up just a few weeks ago, (hmmm....around the time that acceptance letters were mailed out, March 1), with thousands of posts, on an alumni blog I read. The "problem" with educating all those voracious young minds to question, research, and form educated opinions is that they will use that skill on everything, even the actions of the college they attended (which they feel they should have some say in.)

Yes, my rant on this topic is about my kid. Don't worry about him; this all happened awhile ago and he doing just fine at another institution of higher learning. He was admitted with 45 college hours of coursework from earning all 4's and 5's on his 15 different AP exams; he is doing research in his chosen field that he will be able to publish as first author, thus earning himself professional cred, before he even applies to grad school. I am not worried about him; smart kids, if they work hard, will always land on their feet. The fact that many fellow alums question the admission policies of our alma mater - our mater, our home - indicates we have strong feelings of ownership in the continuing legacy of this school. Many of us may not be able to show this care in terms of financial contributions, but clearly would like to be involved in leadership, somehow, demonstrating our pride and love in other ways. We want to be heard. Our opinions matter. David Leebron, are you listening? I’m just wondering if money - whether the ability to pay full tuition, or the amount of money a double-legacy’s parents contributed over the years, has anything to do with admission.


Yes, there is a theme here: my rants are about money and people. They are all connected.  Money is not the answer to everything, but it sure does help. I'm not asking for Cadillacs or bling here. I am putting two children through college, and I am feeling the pinch. 

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