I still want to go by SJ, not JMcJ

August 22, 2007

Is anyone else disturbed by this NYT article about parents buying condos in their kids’ college towns instead of sending them into dorm life? I find it disturbing, nay, angering… nay, enraging. First off, it’s bad enough that I walk around a campus all day where I overhear complaints from people whose parents bought them an Audi rather than a Benz. I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it anymore when I start hearing people compare their condos. Secondly, I think a lot of these parents are nuts. I met a couple of students at Michigan Tech whose parents bought houses and then rented out the rooms to other students to help finance their own child’s education, but we’re talking about entire houses that went for 30-40k. Plus, the child in question had to pony up for her share of the mortgage too. But being newly immersed into the upper middle class world where parents micromanage every single detail of their child’s entry into college, I only see potential for further smothering, control, and unwillingness to give the child responsibility in this article. This might suit the kids in question just fine–hey, would I really have complained about someone buying me a swanky 2/2 condo instead of having to live in Norton?–but it’s not really setting them up for anything other than continued pampering and refusal to take responsibility for their own livelihood. Do you think a parent who has bought a condo is going to sit back and let the quality of their investment depreciate while their child is living the carefree college life? Oh no. You can bet there’s gonna be a maid in there, and you can bet that all the paper work is coming to mom & dad’s address. There’s probably a hint of jealousy lurking under this rant (my parents made it clear to me from a young age that I was largely going to be on my own when it came to paying for college, even though they fully expected me to attend), but honestly I think I would have hated being micromanaged even more. If that’s the price of access to a deep pocket, it’s not worth paying. The whole scenario gives me the creeps.

But still, I think, these are just people of questionable motivations and even more questionable judgment having a little fun with their money, so why the heart palpitations, self? That brings me to Cary Tennis’s advice column for the day, which looks like it was written just for me. At least, the letter part was. It’s from a woman (pseudonym: Judgy McJudgerson) who wants to stop being so judgmental, and lately, I’ve been wondering if I should want the same thing too.
I hope any who knows me and reads that is going “whoah, Liz, you? judgmental?” I hope. I don’t mean in any way to sound immodest, but for most of my life I’ve been one of the least judgmental people I know. I’ve read it on job evaluations, I’ve heard it from friends. I am a Libra. A diplomat. When I’m around, people come out of the closet, tell me what’s bugging them, vent about evil co-workers and family members, and share their religious views even if they know them to be in conflict with mine. I listen, I ask gently probing questions in the manner of a hippy dippy therapist, and I never really care much one way or another what other people are doing with their lives if it doesn’t involve bodily harm to herself or someone else (I mean, I want to know all about it, but I don’t usually have an opinion about whether or not it’s a good idea. I want to support you in whatever you want.) All about balance. Judgmental is not something I have typically thought of myself as.

Now that I am old and crotchety and a little more cynical, however, I feel this changing. In some ways, this is a positive change. I’ve started to see that sometimes keeping my mouth shut when I knew that something was going on that hurt one of my friends may not have been the best idea–even if I couldn’t (and none of us do, I know) get them to consider changing, at least they would have heard it from someone. I’ve started to feel responsible for my very own self, and that means making lots of judgments about what’s a good idea or not in terms of where to work and live and how to spend my money. Opinions: I have them now.

In other ways, I’m a little scared of the person I’m becoming and how much I am starting to relish being able to say, ah-hah, that was your mistake and that’s your problem, not mine so hasta la vista, dumbass. If you’ve spoken to me lately, you know that is pretty much my new motto for life. I’ll take care of me and you take care of you… but if you don’t, the best thing I can do for you is to let you fall on your own behind so you have some motivation not to let it happen again. I know, I’m a cold hearted one, aren’t I?

Case in point, the subprime mortgage crisis. Am I crying for people who are getting foreclosed on after putting zero down for a negative amortization or adjustable rate loan on a much more expensive house than they could realistically afford? Not a tear. D and I were offered those same loans to buy those same expensive pieces of real estate, and did we do it? No. Why? Because it was a bad idea! We didn’t care that someone would give us the money. We did a little reality check and realized that there was no way we could take on a mortgage for 200k+ and reasonably expect to handle it with no bail-outs from family. In the end, if someone tells a pig it can fly and then the pig jumps off the roof, the pig is the one with broken legs. We could have gotten someone to fork over some cash so we wouldn’t have to live the renter life, but as soon as we put our name on the dotted line the fact that we weren’t 100% sure we’d be able to make the payments in years to come become our problem, not their fault. So, we said no thanks. A lot of people did not. They are defaulting in record numbers, and we are all going to pay the price for them via either a government bailout (not likely) or a tanked economy and job market. Some of the blame lies with greedy financiers who approved this nonsense and started the housing bubble going in the first place, but in my mind the ultimate blame lies firmly on the people who used their best “I deserve this no matter how much money I make” mentality to decide to sign up for a commitment they couldn’t fulfill. I’m not talking about people who lost jobs, I’m talking about people who had jobs that never would have qualified them for the mortgage they took out and used whatever flaky mortgage product they could find to get it anyway. Possibly more angering than these people, however, are the journalists writing about how no one saw it coming. Ahhh! The bullshit! Anyone with half a brain has seen this coming for at least two years now. On what planet do people making my kind of money (20-30k a year) live in houses that cost over 200 grand with monthly interest-only payments of 1500 a month (not counting taxes and insurance and homeowner’s). Not a planet with a sound economic future. You didn’t need a Harvard economist to tell you that, surely. Thus, I am judgmental when it comes to wacky mortgages and foreclosures. Shouldn’t a-had done that, people.

More famously on this blog, I have found out that I am also judgmental when it comes to pregnancy for teenage high school drop-outs who had both the economic and educational advantages to be able to avoid it and chose not to. Thus, I’m not jumping on the happy baby name boat of denial. I’m just not going to do it, and anyone who has a problem with that can just have a problem with it.

I can feel this tendency creeping outward, into other areas and situations. I can feel myself thinking differently about things related to welfare, healthcare, and drug addiction. I don’t think I’ve reached the point where I believe that everyone needs to be perfect (and I would never say I am), but I definitely feel more and more resentment about being asked to help shoulder the burden for people who consistently make bad choices. It’s such a grey area that I don’t think any of us will ever be able to say well, this person deserves our help and this person doesn’t, but how about some differentiation between plain bad luck (getting laid off, getting cancer) and piss-poor decision making (credit card debt for luxury consumer products or a fancy vacation, drug abuse without any attempt at rehab). For everyone but a saint, it seems like there must be some kind of healthy line to draw between being shortsighted and selfish and being a doormat. Also, who is really helping a person who makes the same mistakes again and again? The person who fixes it for them or the person who steps back and lets them learn how to fix it herself? I’m not saying it feels good at the time–it feels pretty awful re: my car right now–but sooner or later we are all better off if we’ve had to do that a couple of times.

So Cary’s advice doesn’t really ring true to me–I do care about people in bad situations, even ones of their own making, but I don’t see it as my job to pull them out. I’ll offer my advice/opinion if asked, and even help if asked nicely. But I don’t see crusading as the answer. Still, one of the starred letter writers brings up an even more important question for me: why does all of this bother me so if it does not directly affect me? There’s a couple of obvious answers–it might affect me one day, I might be scared that I am actually a fuck-up too, it’s plain upsetting to think about how unfair life really is–but none of those are quite what I’m looking for. Something about my own life isn’t good enough for me, and it’s easier to find fault with others than to fix the problems with my own. I don’t want to be a doormat again, but that’s definitely got to change.

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