Monday, October 20, 2014

Where is the champion of those saddled with student loans?

Let me start off by saying, I recognize, no one made me take out student loans. They were the only way I could afford graduate school, and I was grateful for the opportunity to go. Despite my debit of $49,500 upon graduation I did not regret my decision (although I did regret not trying harder to find scholarship options). I was fortunate enough to start working at a full-time job exactly 6 months after graduation - precisely when I became responsible for repayment. Everything was great.

Not long after I began working the government instituted a policy of loan forgiveness for anyone who worked in civil service. Although I qualified, as an employee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, after crunching the numbers I saw I was ineligible because I made too much - a back handed compliment if there ever was one. I felt like the stereotyped middle class - making too much money to qualify for any assistance, but not enough that I actually could afford all of my expenses and have room to breath at the end of every month.

Ultimately, I was a vision of the American work ethic - hard work paid off in the form of an increased salary, something I know many, many people go without (including some of my coworkers who were denied even a cost of living adjustment for years). With this added income I increased my student loan payments to more than was required. I felt good that I was saving money by reducing the amount I would have to pay back over time in interest. At the rate I was going I would be able to pay off my loans a few years early. I wouldn't be able to afford buying a house at the same time as  many of my peers, but at least I would have this albatross off from around my neck.

To make a long story short, I decided to pursue my dream in life, a luxurious first world privilege if there ever was one. I took an unpaid leave of absence from my job and was able to negotiate a reduction in my monthly student loan payment - roughly half of what I had been paying. I was able to make these payments every month over the last two years. Sometimes I didn't know how I was going to do it, but always something came through - be it a tax refund, a surprise job, etc. Then, a couple of months ago I started a new, full-time job, something I hadn't had since I took my leave of absence two years prior. I'm in a completely different field, something that has absolutely nothing to do with either of my degrees. At first I was resentful I had these loans - what was the point if I'm working in an unrelated field. I expressed these feelings to an older woman in my neighborhood I spend time with (older in age but not spirit), and she corrected me - saying that my anger at my loans was misplaced. Of course, she was right. I was mad that while I finally had more money to my name than I had for a long time, I still couldn't spend it the way my friends did (vacations, cars, even going out to eat), because I had my loans to pay. This is an idea worth exploring another time, but tangential to the issue at hand.

I had been thinking about how to manage my loans. Friends told me about companies that would buy out my loans and let me pay them back at a lower interest rate. It was something I was considering, but was hoping to wait until I got some sort of a raise - at least enough of an income that I could approach an American financial institution asking for a loan and not be laughed away. But, the clock that we forget is always ticking in life caught up to me. Last month I received an email informing me that since it had been two years, not only would my student loans increase to what they had been previously, when the amount was contingent on an income that was roughly three times what I'm making now, but that there would be an extra amount added each month, to make up for the full amount I had not been paying. Essentially, I was told I would have to pay almost three times what I would had been paying. Not just once - but every month until I paid off my loans. The amount demanded by my student loan provider was about half of my take-home pay. I did not worry about this - how could they expect me to come up with this? I submitted a request for a reduction in my monthly payment, happily sharing my previously embarrassingly small salary, brimming with confidence that my request would be accepted.

My only response ended up being a notification that the massive monthly payment was successfully extracted from my bank account. I gasped in horror - what should have lasted me three months, which was plenty of time for there to be miraculous influxes of money here and there to allow me to continue my payments - had suddenly vanished. I frantically took to social media, asking for help what to do. More than a few people, with varying degrees of seriousness, suggested I withdraw all my assets from the US and just forget about the debt. Since I was living abroad without any plans to move back, what did my credit score there matter any way? While it sounded satisfying in my state of panicked anger, it was not a real solution for me. I acquired this debt honestly, and willingly, and so shall I pay it back.

So why am I here? Because my consternation is not unique to me. Perhaps my financial hardship was acquired in a uniquely fun way, but it is the same hardship shared with so many Americans around my age today. Saddled with a debt that cannot be vanquished the way so many others can. Student loans are not, or at least should not, be considered more impervious than vanity purchases on credit cards. Why can private loans be renegotiated for more favorable rates, while something that was undertaken for edification, be more rigid that the financial obligations of income taxes. How is it that a society that is so fiercely proud of the right to an education, and the idea that one can improve their lot in life through education, subject those that can't meet the expectations of repayment to a fate worse than many crimes. Try getting a job, let alone being able to rent an apartment or lease a car if you have on your credit report that you failed to pay back your student loans.

At the end of the day, I'm not disappointed in the choices I've made. I'm disappointed that as a society we are able to effect changes that are so meaningful to people's every day lives in a positive way - yet the problem of student loan debts continues to cripple not only those bearing them, but society as a whole. While corporate 'people' were quickly bailed out, in order to prevent the economic fallout on the nation, our economy is quietly stifled by a problem that no one is able to rally for a solution. How much more stimulated would the economy be if there was a stimulus package helping to reduce the interest rate for student loans - allowing them to be paid off faster. Why do economic packages from Congress need to be 'shovel ready', couldn't they be just as valuable if they freed up Americans from bondage to miserable jobs or liberated them from their parent's basement because they could finally afford their own place? Where is the champion of this movement? I'll tell you - probably working two jobs just to make ends meet.

Friday, October 10, 2014

My Red Solo Cup Moment

I reached a milestone in my adult life tonight: I left a party early.

Ok, this might not seem like an actual thing to have emotions over, I realize. I'm a person who really enjoys parties: meeting new people, hearing different points of view, generally expanding my horizons. When you add the social lubricant of alcohol things get interesting real quick.

Truth be told, nowadays I prefer to spend my evenings being insufferably productive: doing yoga, learning something new, cleaning my apartment. However, in the spirit of the new year, I was inspired to go outside my routine and try new things. So, when a friend asked if I wanted to come out, I ignored my initial reaction of 'no' in favor of 'ok but I might want to leave inappropriately soon after we arrive." We agreed my response to her invitation was odd but fair.

After walking 23 mins longer than promised, we finally got there, me awkwardly sweating from carrying a backpack, plus pushing my bike and myself uphill. The host offered to make me a drink: my options consisting of vodka, coke zero, or a combination of the two. I declined, feeling like the only successful prodigy of Nancy Reagan's campaign in a room full of people forgoing the mixer because it was a waste of space in their cup. Then I just felt old, realizing that most people there were born after Reagan finished his presidency.

Having established I'm ok coming to a party and being a wet blanket, I looked around to see if there was anyone to strike up a conversation with. There were a bunch of guys calling each other 'bro' in one corner and talking excitedly about something, so I decide to head in the other direction and sat across from a guy thoughtfully watching fashion models walk down a runway. It was jarring for the simple reason most of my friends don't have a television in their homes anymore - either due to its pervasive effect, or the fact you can watch everything online. Hipsters and haredi people really have a lot in common.

"I really enjoy the thought-provoking storyline," I said deadpan. For some reason I thought being sarcastic would be a good way to begin my new friendship.

He smiled uncertainly and explained that it was, "For the ambiance more than the plot."

"Looking to spice up your wardrobe?"I asked with a raised eyebrow before realizing this is probably not the way to talk to a complete stranger. I instantly regretted not having a cup full of vodka instead of stupid water.

"No, I mean.." he trailed off as his eye remain transfixed at the women hypnotically walking up and down runways.

I looked around the party; it was something I would have enjoyed when I was their age. But it was more than that - I had already checked off this box in the bingo game of life. I started getting practical on myself: how much could I accomplish at a pregaming for the night when I had no intention of drinking or going bar hopping? When was the last time I pregamed for anything? What was I really doing there?

I started furiously looking at my phone in order to be engaged in something. At that point I realized if I had to look at my phone to be entertained, I might as well just leave. If I'm not there for the people, then I'm not really at the party. Not only that, but I had come so far on my journey in life, why go back to a stage that I had left in favor of loftier, more long term goals?

While having my coming-of-age moment I got a text: it was a friend inviting me to brunch in her sukkah the next morning. This is what I wanted - not necessarily more carbs, but time in the sukkah, focusing on the holiday, the spiritual. Something that wouldn't give me a hangover the next day, although perhaps another kind of regret when my skirts won't zip after the holiday season finishes.

With that, I put away my phone and picked up my bag. I said my farewells, making sure to thank the host for his tap water, and began the uphill bike ride home. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was in much better shape than I anticipated, and was able to climb the hills with minimal distress. It was reaffirming - a timely reminder that the efforts we put in over time to work hard and get better at anything do pay off as long as you are consistent. Whether it is climbing hills on your road bike or leaving certain types of events or behaviors in your past, change is possible.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Take a break and watch these chickens break up a bunny fight

Every time I go to facebook or twitter, or just go online in general, I'm met with increasingly hysterical and frantic news reports. Things keep going from bad to worse. I'm not even going to bother to link to what I am referring to, because the truth is, horrible stuff is going down all over the world.

How do we go on without falling into a pit of despair? Youtube. Here are some videos of animals doing what people can't - breaking up fights and otherwise getting along with those not like them.

Here are two chickens breaking up a rabbit fight (favorite sentence of today)

Here is a dog breaking up a fight of two other bickering dogs

Cats save family from bears

 Cat saving boy from dog

This bird is literally stepping on this cat's neck. Still getting along.


Monday, June 30, 2014

No Prayer Goes Unheard

The day after tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in the middle of Tel Aviv, joining together in their longing for the safe and speedy return of the abducted teenagers, Israel got their wish. Well, sort of. The fates of the boys were finally discovered. Details are still sketchy, but it seems they were murdered soon after their abduction. Is that a relief? Is the fact it's finally over a relief? Can there be any good from such a confusing and sad situation?

I think the love and concern that poured out of strangers for the well-being of these boys, from all over the world, is one consolation. Those prayers don't just disappear simply because they weren't answered the way we wanted them to. The 18 days of prayer can be correlated to the '18' prayer we say several times a day - the Shemonah Esrey. One of the prayers states that God is 'shomeah tefilah' that He hears prayer. It's in the present tense. Our Sages tell us this means that no sincere prayer goes unanswered. It could be that now is not the right time, but those heartfelt please and tears don't fall on deaf ears. Even if you don't believe in God (כ"ו) the positive energy put out into the universe, the unity and love and longing for things to be good - that doesn't just stop being there. It's there, and it will be used.

And let us not forget, that we don't need a heart-stopping event to remind us that we are all one. The next time you find yourself thinking thoughts that distance you from your fellow human, whether it's bearing a grudge, talking gossip, or being jealous, remember how easy it was to see the best in people when we were all on the same team. We still are, that hasn't changed. And that is a relief. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Don't talk about your feet and other things not to say on a first date

Like death and taxes, dating is often one of those unavoidable things we just have to suffer through until we meet ‘the one’. While it doesn’t have to be a grueling process, it often is.

First dates are exciting, brimming with potential. But the fact that your next first date could be your last first date comes with the flip side: not only could it not lead to marriage (or even a second date), it could be down right unpleasant. I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of person – the crazier someone acts on the first date, the more grateful I am it happened on the first, and not the third, or tenth, date – or after the honeymoon. The sooner I see we are totally incompatible, the sooner I can move on to someone more suitable. No matter how sunny my disposition on dating is, it doesn’t mean I’m not thrown for a loop when dates say things that raise an eyebrow or two. Since I always try to protect the privacy of those I date (hopefully ensuring guys will continue to want to go out with me without fear of becoming the subject of an upcoming column) I crowdsourced my friends for some of the least-expected, and least welcomed, sentences they've heard on a first date.

Think of this as perspective for your next less than great first date – at least he or she didn’t say any of the things below (or if it was something worse please share!).

Things not to say on a first date:

1. "I have written a poem for you on my cellphone while I was on the toilet, would you like to see?”

2. "Did you know you can pleasure a man with your feet?"

3. "Wow, you don't look like you exercise!"

4. "You don't move much, do you?"

5. "I heard she only married me to get back at her dad."

6. "If your phone rings, you can answer it, if my mom calls I'm going to answer."

7. "Did you used to do a lot of drugs, because you talk like you used to do drugs."

8. "When was the last time you had sex? For me it was last night."

9. "The neighborhood I live in is great if you want to make sure women never talk to you."

10. "I haven't told my doctor, but I stopped taking my meds."

11. "I wanted to let you know that I have a platonic relationship with this girl. Every time she's sad she comes over and I comfort her, like we sleep together."

12. "I think Borat is an accurate representation of life as a foreigner in the USA."

13. "I don't want to kill my ex-wife, I just wish she was dead."

14. "My brother is very well off and he took his wife last year to France, that is probably where my Nephew was conceived."

15. "You look tired."

Each phrase has its own curl of wisdom behind why it is so very wrong to say on a first date (or in some cases, ever). We can discuss those at another time. In the meantime, please share your own worst date phrases in the comments, and breathe a sigh of relief if you never heard any of these!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How you can help

As soon as Shabbat went out this past Saturday night, the first thing on everyone's mind was checking the news. We had heard a rumor over lunch that the boys were found just before Shabbat came in, and we were yearning for it to be true. Sadly, obviously, it wasn't. One of my friends began reading from a news site, the only light in the room coming from the computer monitor, all of us so anxious to find out what happened, no one could bother the extra step to turn on a light after Havdallah. I sunk down onto the couch, hearing words, but not understanding. How do we live in a world where these headlines are real and not on some television show? How does the President of the United States send a message congratulating the US Soccer Team on their win in the World Cup, but no words of comfort to the family of the boy with US citizenship?

You could say, it's easy not to care when it's not your family, not your country. At the end of the day, these events have minimal-to-no impact on most people’s daily life. Even when people care, like when the Nigerian girls were taken, the concern only lasts so long. There is some other international tragedy that gets picked up in the news cycle.

I've been trying to find something redeeming in all of this. I'm a glass-half-full everything-has-a-silver-lining person. The Jews have gone through a lot over the past 3,000+ years, and this is bar far not uncommon in our history. So much so, that many hundreds of years ago in Europe, a famous rabbi who was abducted and held for ransom ordered his congregation to ignore the mitzvah of redeeming a Jewish hostage to prevent further abductions of Jews. I found it powerful when we don't give in to despair. When we fight to not be a weak, downtrodden people. Equally powerful are the efforts being made to encourage people to do acts of kindness. I can't explain to you why doing gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness) is the most appropriate response to the brutal abduction of three teenagers on their way home for Shabbat - but it is. It's simply such a beautifully quintessential Jewish response.

I wish we didn’t need such negative events to bring us together, to inspire us in these ways. The unspoken part of going through these things together as a nation is the universal idea that we are one. So how do we temper the suffocating knowledge that people we love are in mortal danger, living in terror? By putting more love and light into the world. It reminds me of Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, if you clap your hands and believe, she will live. If we don't let the evil in this world bring us down, if we push through it and replace it, drown it out with our acts of love for no other sake then themselves and wanting to bring happiness to the world, things will get better.

Which brings me to my request for action, what you can do in the face of this tragedy: Join Curls of Wisdom this Thursday in not speaking any lashon hara negative words about any person. Lashon hara is divisive, it cuts and separates and erodes us as a people. If we can go a whole day without any negativity come out of our mouths, think of how much more positive the world will be on that day. Even the most hardened among us must admit, that one day without speaking negatively about another person can't hurt, and G-d Willing, can only help. Even if you slip up, every time you make an effort to not say something negative, you are changing yourself and the world. We will ask everyone to share their stories with us.

I'm not going to be so chutzpadik as to suggest that not speaking gossip for 24 hours will solve the problems in this world, or even release the hostages. What I will say is that it will make the world a better place, because we will be making ourselves better people. Don't give up hope, step up help.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Straight Talk with Rivkah Naomi - Emuna Gym

Straight Talk with Rivkah Naomi

Emuna Gym

“Sun is shining, the weather is sweet now
Make you want to move your dancing feet”
-         Bob Marley

There is no chidush that during the good times the spirit of hope is awake and moving you forward joyfully. All around the sweetness of the warm sunlight and the luminous moon by night seem poised and placed by Hashem to light, support and delight your way.

You make the bus, receive good news and your soup turns out perfectly. You feel it, all of it. You feel loved and supported by G-d at one with the efforts and flow of the universe.

Confronted by small challenges you access your connection to HKBH. You activate your emuna, you deeply trust that all will be as it should be and you affirm that it is “all good” Baruch Hashem.

Your friends stop by for a schmooze and receive some chizuk. You, of the sunshine dancing feet, are Capital C connected to the divine and generously give a splash of your overflowing emuna to your holy friend. You know that it’s All Good and All for the Good.

So let’s be real for a moment. It doesn’t last. Your receive bad news, 5 dates in a row gone the way of total rejection. Your parnasah is challenging and your room mate moves out without notice and someone steals your wallet, all in the same week and yeah, the dermatitis was a nice bonus touch.

Sun may be shining but all you have are unhappy feet that are opting out, out of it all. It’s too hard and too painful and where is Hashem anyway. You are already having trouble making rent this month, why would you get your wallet stolen and your room mate move out?

This could be A Sign…
You lay in bed with a quiet dread. What is the sign saying to you? And thus an embossed linen invitation is hand delivered to your yetzer hara to please make itself at home, an extended stay.

Maybe you are deserving of a punishment, maybe you don’t deserve anything good anyway. Maybe you are not supposed to be in Israel. Maybe you will never get married. Maybe your room mate doesn’t like you. Maybe you are too short, too tall too thin, not good looking enough. Maybe nothing good will ever happen to you. Maybe everything you do is pointless.

Maybe, Hashem doesn’t love you!

It is so easy to fall from your place of connection into an abyss that is the dark road of the yetzer hara. Let’s be real, you probably can’t maintain those dancing feet highs but also you can’t sojourn to long on strange roads in the dark of night.

What is a holy neshama to do when tossed into this furnace? Channel Avraham Ivinu of course! Just as he was cast in to the idolaters fiery furnace and came out so too you can survive the fiery furnace of doubt and fear and emerge stronger.

Straight talk is about strategy so let’s talk about a plan.

  1. When the sun is shining, move your dancing feet! Breathe in that goodness. Soak your neshama in the sunshine of Hashem and dig life. Bank your connection so that you can access it and the deep knowledge that you are always in Hashem’s zone of protection on the dark road.
  2. Accept that different things happen all the time and sometimes those things feel great and sometimes they feel awful. It does not mean that you are great or that you are awful. You my holy friend are You, perfectly you.
  3. When you build a muscle you strain it to the point that it needs a day or two to recover and rebuild itself. For this pain you receive a nice bicep; same goes for your sweet soul. She needs to be stressed and recover from time to time all to build her strength which allows for a stronger connection to HKBH and to the other lovely neshamot she meets in a day.
  4. Think of your challenges as your own custom fit emuna gym, a very exclusive place designed for your perfection. When a person receives such an amazingly thoughtful gift all you can do is say toda raba! So go ahead and give a big shout out to Hashem for being so thoughtful!

My holy friend, please don’t give up! Recognize the yetzer hara for what it is, a deceiver designed to disconnect you from the source of everything. Use your clarity to fight back and don’t be dainty, throw down some moves!

I’ve always thought that good manners are underrated, so say thank you to your guest and then wish the good traveler a safe long journey to somewhere else. As it turns out you have to invite a new room mate in and 3’s a crowd.

Rivkah Naomi Green
The quintessential wandering Jew, Rivkah Naomi has been on the road for years. She’s lived in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa and in a variety of lovely places in the USA making friends from the West to East Coast. Her yearning search for a home has brought her to, what we all hope, is the final destination, Israel.

Her friends keep her around because she is known to arrive with red wine, laughs and straight talk.