Journal Archives - March, 2003
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I found myself, there in the waning days of November, five hundred dollars in lawyer's fees poorer. The good news was that that $500 had bought me one final chance to take care (without years of effort, anyway) of the $10,000 bill the hospital had sent to collections. And if worse came to worse, Mr. Gruner assured me, he'd roll over that payment into the costs of filing bankruptcy through him. I wasn't at all thrilled with that idea, but I was in a corner anyway.
The first piece of advice he'd given me was to send a letter (or, better, a fax) to the collection agency disputing the charges. The point, he said, was to get their process put on hold while he worked with me to reach a settlement with the agency; by law, he said, they couldn't maul my credit report over a disputed charge until the dispute was resolved.
"Isn't that unethical?" I asked. "After all, I did sign an agreement with the hospital that I was financially responsible for the services they provided. It's not like I can claim there's fraud involved or something."
"You're here because you don't think you should pay them $10,000," he pointed out. "As it is, the issue for you isn't whether you're legally responsible for the charges or not. It's that you were working in good faith with the hospital to reach a deal where you would pay less, and someone dropped the ball."
"But what do I say? I don't want to lie, and the truth is that they have a legal right to rape me for the full amount."
"Say 'I dispute the validity of these charges.' Period. That's all you need to say, and it's true."
"So I'm not disputing the charge itself, just the fact that they're trying to collect $10,000 when if I were still dealing with the hospital I'd be settling for about $4,000?"
"That's what I'm hearing from you, yes."
So I called FCN back, got their office fax number, and sent a three-line fax to them the following day. (I have yet to follow up with a final check on my credit report, but presumably the strategy worked.)
In the meantime, there was nothing left for me to do but wait and let my lawyer work his magic behind the scenes.
I had plenty of time to brood about my finances while the wheels of bureaucracy continued their inexorable grind. "I'm willing to settle for up to $4,000," I had told Mr. Gruner when we discussed the situation; in between that, about $8,000 in credit card debt, and the possibility of getting a car loan for up to $6,000 more in order to buy a commute vehicle, I was looking at a serious debt load -- several years' worth of repayment, at my salary. And that was assuming a best-case scenario of a settlement. If the collection agency decided to take a hard line, I'd be behind by over a year's gross pay.
Bankruptcy had been the last thing on my mind when I walked into the lawyer's office, but I had to admit it held a certain appeal. Sure, it would destroy my credit rating, and prevent me from taking advantage of that safety net for another seven years -- but it also meant I'd be immediately back in the black, and could start building up a personal reserve with the portion of my take-home pay that would otherwise go toward bills.
It also meant admitting financial failure. But at least I'd be admitting failure with a good excuse.
I thought back to what Mr. Gruner had said when we first talked in his office. "My clients' average bankruptcy filing is for less than $25,000," he had said. I remember being surprised to discover that it was that low, although in retrospect, it does seem reasonable that the majority of bankruptcies would be from people who just kept falling further and further behind, a nickel at a time, until it was taking over their lives. "Bankruptcy" might conjure up images of the gambler with six-figure debts or the stockbroker wiped out in a market adjustment, but it was designed to protect the average person, who has probably never held more than a few thousand dollars in their hands at once.
December came, and started crawling by. I waited for word from my lawyer. The collection agency had acknowledged receipt of his communications, and was sitting on the paperwork, making their decision. How long would it take? He couldn't tell me. We played phone tag for several weeks while I grew increasingly tense.
The idea of bankruptcy started looking more attractive with every passing morning. I was sick of debt, sick of uncertainty, sick of this whole thing, and I just wanted out. My pride fought a valiant retreating action, but in the end, it just couldn't hold out long enough.
Meanwhile, I made only minimum payments on my credit cards, starting to get uncertain whether I was going to pay them off little by little or try to wipe them out in a bankruptcy. I also had to back-burner my car-buying plans due to the financial uncertainty, although I did apply for a car loan just to see if my credit rating had been impacted by the mess. (I was turned down. However, when the credit report was sent to me, none of the medical stuff was on it.)
December passed. Still no word.
The first week of January, my parents took me to see a high-mileage Ford Escort, which was nonetheless in great shape, being sold by a guy who was retiring from Lawrence Livermore Lab. The blessing in disguise of the month that FCN had stalled was that I had deposited three paychecks in the bank, and was letting them basically sit around while I paid as little as possible into expenses, so I was able to pay for the car with a cashier's check, instead of trying to finance a vehicle and undoubtedly ending up with a more expensive one. So some good came of the 10 months of financial stress after all, I suppose.
January crept by. For the second month straight, I paid the minimum balance on my credit cards, getting increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, at the end of the month, I leveled with Mr. Gruner on the phone. "It's getting to the two-month mark on this. I'm sick of their stalling. You know what? If we don't hear a response from them by Friday, let's arrange an appointment, and I'll come into your office and discuss bankruptcy plans."
"Okay," he agreed.
Friday rolled around. We played phone tag some more. The following Monday afternoon, we spoke. "Well, we're past my deadline," I said. "So what day is good for you for us to get together?"
"Actually, I've got great news," my lawyer responded. "They just agreed to settle for $3,500. I'll fax you the paperwork."
I blinked. "Uh. Wow. Thanks."
I arranged some financing with my parents, and on February 5, pulled everything together to send out a cashier's check by certified mail. Shortly thereafter, delivery was confirmed, and the nearly-year-long saga of the broken arm drew to a quiet close.
But it was a close thing. Had they made their decision a few days later, or in the unlikely event I'd been able to reach my lawyer on Friday (probably involving calling him from work), I very likely would have begun a bankruptcy filing before hearing the news.
I did end up having a brief twinge of regret at not just wiping the slate clean. Later that month, I did the math, and figured out that a conservative estimate shows me being completely debt-free again sometime in March, 2004. So I guess I'm locked into my current path for the long haul. It's a good thing I enjoy where I live and like my job.
I guess the story isn't really over until I've paid off all the loans that made this possible -- but for now, the drama is behind me, and that's good enough for me.
March 5, 2003 ... Quote of the day:
"I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way."
-- Franklin P. Adams
March 8, 2003 ... Sorry I've been so quiet lately. I've been going through some emotional lows, which cuts down on my tendency to write; and then, just as things started picking up again, I got involved in penning a new TTU story on the spur of the moment, which cuts down on my journal-writing time. And then, to top it off, I've been working this weekend on switching computers to a hand-me-down from Lox that will more or less double Ouroboros' processing power. The short-term downside, of course, is that I have to move all my data over and make things work again.
I'll get back to proper, non-boring posts again soon, really I will. In the meantime, take a look out your window -- or, better yet, step outside -- and enjoy the weather. There's a lot to be said for weather, no matter what kind of weather it happens to be.
March 13, 2003 ... Alright, work is officially eating my life this week. Three consecutive 10-12 hour days, in between a series on growth, long staff meetings, and large newspapers. When I've come up for air I've been writing fiction and/or playing video games to destress. I shouldn't even be online now; I have to get up before 8 a.m. tomorrow.
Still, I couldn't resist making the following observation.
TEH IRONY, IT BURNS: Picture this scenario: The world is on the brink of war. Nations posture tensely around the globe, and European leaders take pointed jabs at each other. Diplomacy is keeping the peace, for now, but the various factions are becoming increasingly polarized and breakdowns seem inevitable.
Suddenly, a shot rings out in the capital city of a Balkan nation, and one of the region's top leaders lies dead.
History sure does love repeating itself.
(Speaking of history repeating, incidentally, here's an excellent analysis of how today's Iraq showdown differs from the Gulf War, including some interesting revelations on George H. W. Bush's thoughts on the matter.)
March 17, 2003 ... Wonderful. A 48-hour countdown to war. You know what this means? Well, aside from the thousands of people dying, and everyone on both sides stepping up the political rhetoric, no matter what the consequences of the inevitable invasion are. And aside from the fact that for the second week in a row my timecard at my newspaper job is going to have more overtime on it than most Third World countries.
All that stuff is inconsequential. What war really means is that ...
THE BUNNY GETS IT
I'm putting you on notice, President Bush. Once the first shot is fired, the cute little duck goes, too.
It's not quite the same level of commitment as being a human shield, but we've all got to do what we can.
March 18, 2003 ... The countdown continues. Bush says Saddam has 48 hours to leave Iraq, now down to less than 24. Saddam thumbs his nose at Bush. Everyone's politics shift as people and nations reposition themselves in light of new developments. France drops its hard-line stance. Canada says no. Britain says yes. Turkey runs around in circles chasing its tail.
I'm trying to process all this while driving home from work in the middle of the night. A shadow leaps out onto the road ahead -- and I have to swerve to miss a deer, completely driving all of the big weighty stuff out of mind. Thereby reminding us that there is no international crisis so major that it can't be interrupted by a small, stupid crisis close to home.
I've been largely avoiding mention of impending war in my journal. The primary reason for this is that, in today's world, everyone's a pundit. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks became the thread that ate the Internet; as war drums build to a crescendo, the threat of international hostilities is doing the same. To make matters worse, this time around I work at a newspaper -- in a relatively conservative area, no less -- and there is no escape from talk of Iraq. Not there, not here, not when listening to the radio on my daily commute. Not online, not offline. Everything I want to say on the matter has been said, generally eloquently. Every time someone says something I agree with, a shouting match starts. Every time someone says something I disagree with, a shouting match starts long before I get involved.
In short, commenting on the matter leaves me feeling redundant, and nothing else quite so efficiently destroys my desire to speak up.
Still, with the clock ticking down, it's extremely likely that I will only have this one last chance to make my position clear before hostilities start and/or the situation changes beyond recognition. It's easy to say "this should have been done differently" in hindsight, or be a critic once you've already seen how the hand played out. I do have strong feelings about my government's Iraq policy ... and if I don't state them now and put my money where my mouth is, then any criticism I level later is just going to come off as sour grapes.
So. My big official Iraq post.
I am against war.
Like you, I am against Saddam Hussein. He is a bad man and should be removed from power. Like you, I am against terrorist strikes, especially those on our soil. Duh.
Unlike some of you, I am of the opinion that the costs of going to war with Iraq outweigh the benefits.
Our administration tells us that America will be safer, and Iraq will be happier, if we bring Iraq a democracy. The administration fails to mention that the primary opposition parties to Saddam Hussein's rule are not exactly thrilling choices as replacements. The largest, by numbers, is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a fundamentalist Muslim group. In a pure democracy, by the numbers, these folks would come to power. Can you name a single fundamentalist Muslim country which considers the United States an ally? With Arab opinion of the U.S. at record lows, this is unlikely to change just because we pushed over the dictator keeping them from seizing the reins.
We're told a "coalition of the willing" has been assembled, 30 countries or more, and this excuses our failure to receive U.N. backing as we did during the Gulf War. They fail to mention that 30 countries out of the over 200 in the world is an abysmal 15 percent. What would happen if Bush's domestic approval rating was that low? And why do people pay so little attention to international opinion? It is no determination of what is wrong or right, I agree -- but it does affect us, every time we go to a diplomatic meeting, every time we try to get a treaty signed, every time we try to get support for our next war. Is the removal of this dictator worth the alienation of 85 percent of the world?
Mostly, it worries me that this is a pre-emptive strike. Or a ten-years-late strike, depending on who you talk to; either way, the point is, everything was settled over there, everyone was playing nicely in their own little sandbox, and suddenly the U.S. rampaged in saying that this guy has got to go, now. This is behavior we're unwilling to tolerate in any other civilized nation. Saying that we can do so, giving us special dispensation to prance around the world as its sole superpower, is an enormous contributing factor to the alienation everyone else is suddenly expressing. Bush Jr. went to the U.N. and they wouldn't give him the time of day; Bush Sr. went to the U.N. for the Gulf War and got a strong vote of confidence for essentially the same military action. Heck, Bush Jr. got similar international backing for ousting the Taliban. What's changed? We're attacking someone on a far flimsier pretext.
This is especially insidious because every argument used to justify Saddam's removal becomes a further precedent for even deeper and more dangerous and more unilateral involvement in the affairs of dictatorships worldwide. Saddam needs to go because he might provide WMDs to terrorists? Congratulations, you've just declared war on North Korea. Remember when we caught them red-handed a few months back selling missiles to Syria, which has been designated by the U.S. as a state sponsor of international terrorism? Congratulations, you've also declared war on Iran; we know about their hidden nuclear program now. Big deal, of course, because these guys are "the axis of evil" and need to go anyway, right? But where does it stop? Pakistan is an emerging nuclear power, and we're currently catching most of our al-Qaida suspects there. China is a known nuclear power; the U.S. has been hounding it for decades about its repressive dictatorship and human rights abuses, and they've been doing a lot of spying on us these last few years. Can anyone make a compelling case that neither of those nations will ever sell weapons to terrorists? And let's not forget Russia, which has one of the world's largest and most poorly guarded stockpiles of decommissioned nukes, and which just today got so upset at us over our rush into Iraq that they halted progress on a nuclear arms treaty. A commitment to disarming terrorists means disarming these people -- all of these people -- and setting our priorities accordingly. I'd rather have a few pounds of sarin in Baghdad than a hundred missing nukes in Moscow.
The other big reason this war is a stupid, stupid idea is that it's a no-win situation. If Saddam has WMDs, Bush seems determined to prove it by painting a big target on American troops. If he doesn't, then he's a paper tiger with no fangs and a lot of bluster. Given that almost all pundits are calling for a very short war, it seems like they're counting on the latter -- but doesn't that destroy any justification we might have had for invading to rid him of them?
I could go on; I'm trying to cover in a single post what millions of people have talked about for months. Look. If you want to see what the world effects of our little war are, read some newspaper sites. The debate's not going to end in the meantime. Nothing short of total destruction of Planet Earth could stop people from bickering over the damn Iraq war. Not even the war itself, or the war's end, will stop the debate. And every single discovery that comes out of Iraq will be seized by both sides and pointed to as justification for previously held positions.
I'm not under any illusions that my position is obvious to anyone with a brain. I'm not under any illusions that this is a clear-cut issue. I'm not under any illusions that my ideological opponents are frothing maniacs. Millions of people out there think Saddam is a bad man and are trying to argue the best way to make his badness affect the world less. I just wish that people would take a longer, broader view, and think about not only what goals we want to acccomplish, but what those goals will cost us.
I see many deep costs the administration doesn't want to talk about. That's why I'm anti-war.
All that having been said, with things the way they are, I hope that I'm wrong.
I hope I'm wrong in my assessment, because at this point invasion is inevitable. The Bush administration has said very clearly that U.S. troops will enter Iraq, either to search for WMDs or to shoot people who stop them from doing so.
I hope I'm wrong that we'll be mired in a hostile country as a military occupation force for years while the issues of democracy are sorted out, because if I'm right many U.S. troops will die, many civilians will die, and a great deal of money will be spent.
I hope I'm wrong that we're alienating the world, because we have to live as world citizens for the rest of our lives, even if Iraq is overthrown tomorrow.
I hope I'm wrong that Iraq poses no WMD threat, because that would lend moral justification, albeit late, to a war that the government has steadfastly refused to profide clear evidence for -- and occasionally provided fraudulent evidence for. I hope that if evidence of an Iraq WMD program comes out, that its discovery and reporting are beyond reproach; heaven knows the U.S. has enough incentive to legitimize its aggression by "finding" WMDs that weren't there.
I hope I'm wrong that the U.S. is going to bomb Iraq's infrastructure back into the Stone Age with its "shock and awe" strategy; otherwise we'll just have to pay to rebuild it once we're in control.
I hope I'm wrong that lots of people are going to die.
Maybe my cynicism at the administration is misplaced. Maybe they can pull this off in a way that leaves us smelling of roses. I hope so, because any alternative in which I'd be able to say "I told you so" would be unthinkable.
March 19, 2003 ... In case you've been living in a bomb shelter for the past 24 hours and are only just now coming out to read your e-mail, the war started today. I know I already made my Big War Post, and I was going to go back to talking about other things now, but I kind of thought that this deserved a mention. It's only the second hugest event of the century so far, after all. Maybe the first, though it's too soon to tell just yet.
Bush had previously offered Saddam a chance to step down as leader of Iraq and avoid hostilities; the deadline on that ultimatum was this evening by American clocks, and time ran out today. Barely two hours afterward, a few U.S. cruise missiles rained down on a site near Baghdad in the somewhat anticlimactic first strike of the disgustingly misleadingly named "Operation Iraqi Freedom." (Yes. We must free Iraq from possessing weapons that might threaten the United States.)
The notable thing about that first strike? It appears to be coming out that the attack was aimed specifically at Saddam Hussein. It missed, but that's almost irrelevant compared to the incredible precedent this sets, and the incredible difference which this will make in future negotiations with insane WMD-possessing despots. (If Kim Jong Il thinks that he's going to be the first target of a strike against North Korea, what's he going to do the moment war with them seems likely? What are we dooming ourselves to by treating this war as if it exists in a vacuum?)
But, really, that's not the thing that struck me the most about the first-attack issue. That honor would have to be the built-in potential for political satire. Today's events are, without a shadow of a doubt, a setup waiting for a punchline.
I find myself perversely hoping that this action (which is, in the myopic context of the war and our stated objectives, entirely defensible) produces a wellspring of criticism; and, if so, that conservative commentators leap to Bush's defense ...
... and, if so, that one of them unwittingly says something like the following: "The missile strike was completely justified. After all, if every two-bit dictator with delusions of grandeur knew that openly flaunting the world community and threatening international stability will lead to the potential of assassination, we wouldn't have to fear their attempts at aggression."
For some reason, even the possibility of this occurring cheers me up immensely.
March 21, 2003 ... For reasons outlined in my forums, this will be my last post dealing with Iraq, unless I feel that whatever involvement I have with local peace rallies is interesting enough to write up. I've been too busy with work to attend any yet, but the last few days have pushed me over the edge into where only activism can matter any more.
I was uneasy with the war before, but now I can't ignore it any more. People are dying. Our international reputation is plummeting, dragging us down the slippery slope to more (and more frequent) warfare. We are being lied to. Something must be done.
There are a few factors contributing to this decision, not the least of which is the fact that the Bush administration, as pointed out in my previous post, has named their campaign "Operation Iraqi Freedom." That "freedom" has all along been secondary in the arguments for war to "national security" is not the worst of it. The truly appalling thing is that "Iraqi freedom" is a blatant lie. You do not free people by bombing the fuck out of them. Pardon my language, but it's the only word that even comes close to the magnitude of the "Shock and Awe" campaign the U.S. has so visibly promised.
"Well, maybe we're just bombing the current regime out of power, and it will be worth it once the Iraqis are free," one might argue. If that's the case, ask yourself: What is being bombed? When a Pentagon official brags that "there will be no safe place in Baghdad," what are we supposed to think? When the "Shock and Awe" specifications themselves call for "the capability to deny an opponent things of critical value ... This could include means of communication, transportation, food production, water supply, and other aspects of infrastructure as well as the denial of military responses," who is going to be be sickened, weakened, and killed by the lack of food, water, and shelter? Even after Iraq is "liberated" from its current leaders, a starving, homeless population depending on humanitarian handouts for subsistence is not free. They may no longer fear repression, but they're slaves to the world's charity, and their quality of life living from moment to moment is far lower than it was in a stable but repressed society.
Meanwhile, at least we're liberating the Kurds -- who after all live in the parts of Iraq least likely to be bombed, and who have long since suffered under Saddam's tyranny -- right? Guess again. As part of Turkey's conditions for U.S. use of their airspace, they sent 1,500 troops into northern Iraq, with the possibility of a full-scale troop movement still undecided. Turkey has no love lost for the Kurds, and vice versa. And unless the U.S. is willing to turn on one of its own critical regional allies, it appears overwhelmingly likely that the Kurds are once again going to get shafted by our "freedom."
In short, this war is taking a flamethrower to a pinata. Incredible, blatant missteps are compounding on each other, one after the other. Not in the military sense -- we're doing a fine job of invading a country with few direct casualties -- but in the larger geopolitical sense.
Every day brings more horrifying news than the last; and the Bush administration refuses to take seriously any world or domestic criticism. I don't know if his juggernaut can still be stopped before inflicting even more damage to U.S. credibility and world goodwill, but the attempt must be made.
Anyway. Remember the bunny, and the threat of retaliatory violence against the duck? I regret to report that the duck has, in fact, been liberated by the forces of digestive freedom.
As it so happens, I decided in the late days before Bush started the war that the ensuing dangers required me to make a pre-emptive duck strike. The duck officially became collateral damage when I got hungry during the 48-hour ultimatum countdown. However, I can state in hindsight that my preventive aggression was completely justified, because after all, war did start, and the duck would have had to have been eaten anyway.
March 26, 2003 ... In a subtle way, my decision not to write any more about Iraq in my journal was a poor one: I now find myself suffering from non-political writer's block, and so I haven't written anything at all. There's so little else to say. The war feels too important -- especially with the absolutely nonstop media coverage over the course of the last week. It's been burning me out.
At any rate: Since my last post, I attended an anti-war rally in Sacramento. While I hope to type up a more in-depth view of the event as an essay, in the meantime the local media coverage (link goes to my employer's competitor, but we didn't cover the rally, so what can you do?) can perhaps provide a taste of its flavor.
I was surprised to read that the police pegged its attendance at 450; it felt smaller to me, but then, in every story about every mass gathering of people I've ever read, the police have always given the lowest head count, and by all accounts do their counting very conservatively.
I spent most of Monday with my family, eating lunch, shopping and playing Scrabble. I spent all of Tuesday and today at work. Save the rally, life has been excruciatingly normal. I need to set aside some time and resurrect my muse from its war funk. Until then, I can at least provide this "I'm not dead" post while I try to find the time for something better.
I'll end this with a hearty "what she said" to local columnist Susan Rushton, who like me has spoken out against the conflict with great passion; who like me is suffering from war burnout; and who has, unlike me, shifted gears and done something about it.
March 28, 2003 ... Symptom of a deeper burnout, I guess. It feels like I've been putting my head down lately and just trying to push through. Convincing myself that I can just leave all the magic behind for a while because there's too much else staring me in the face. Kind of like deciding that I no longer have time to eat; this emptiness is more trouble than it's worth.
The guys and I went out to see "Spirited Away" today. Went into the movie theater needing a catharsis. Almost found myself overwhelmed with emotion at the trailer for some godawful stupid movie I'd be embarrassed if I even remembered the name of. Stuck through it and watched the film itself. It was a wonderful movie; unfortunately, very evenly paced, very smoothly flowing, no places where the dam really burst.
Also suspect that I've lost both my checkbook and my Swiss army knife. Vaguely irritated at first and somewhat mystified at second.
Not really as depressed as this post must make me sound. Just worn out. Need a day off, entirely to myself, to just go out and be antisocial somewhere and sit in the sunshine and reorganize.
Note to self: I am loved.
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