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I was walking through a local Peet’s Coffee last December.  It was late afternoon. The place was populated with people sitting at tables staring into laptop screens in the fading sunlight.  

My bankruptcy was moving towards discharge.  I had just come to terms with the end of my assistant sound editing career and was beginning to mentally germinate this blog.  Before that day, I had always wondered what all of these able-bodied working age adults were doing sitting at their computers during regular working hours. 

It hit me.  Some of them were probably bloggers.  And I was about to become one of them.

I wasn’t looking at an aggregation of odd, immature behavior.  I was looking at my future, the new phase, the next challenge.  It wasn’t scary.  It felt good.

From Ray Bradbury:

“Life is trying things to see if they work.”

After nine months of immersion in financial difficulty, unleashing this blog this week has been a bright spot.  Thanks to comments and links from Portfolio’s Felix Salmon and The New York Times’ Freakonomics to a 25-year-old techie guy in Malaysia, this site has had over 4,000 views since Monday.  

This begins my re-entry into the writing world I left 27 years ago when I quit my newspaper job to go to film and TV graduate school.  It feels good to be back, like I’ve come home.  We’ll see where this takes me.   

My new mantra is “Jai Ho,” the Academy Award winning song from “Slumdog Millionaire.”  The title means “let there be victory” in Hindi.

Let there be victory, for all of us:

My attorney’s copy of my Chapter 7 debt discharge letter arrived in my mail Jan. 17.

The miles of pacing around the neighborhood and up and down the beach, the mental and emotional turmoil, the fear of creditors coming after me, all of it was brought to an end with one matter-of-fact, anti-climactic sentence:

“It appearing that the debtor is entitled to a discharge, IT IS ORDERED: The debtor is granted a discharge under section 727 of title 11, United States Code, (the Bankruptcy Code).” 

“This document is proof that you have been discharged from all of your dischargeable debts held prior to your filing of the case,” my attorney said in his cover letter. 

Translation: my credit card debt was gone.

I had been waiting for this for months.  Actually, I had been dreaming of being debt free for years.  I just didn’t think I’d declare bankruptcy to get there.  Now, it was done. 

I had it all planned.

I poured an extra, big glass of my favorite wine (La Boca Malbec, $2.99 at my local Trader Joe’s). 

I opened iTunes.  I will dictate in my will that one piece of music be played at my memorial service. “Flamenco Sketches” from Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.”

Miles’ slow, bittersweet, muted trumpet filled the room.  I opened Quicken and brought up my account list. 

I opened each credit account, entered “bankruptcy discharge” in the last payee/category field and the account balance in the payment field, zeroing it out.  Then I went to each account’s edit window, zeroed out the credit limit and checked “hide in lists.” 

Where I once had 11 accounts listed, I now had two, my checking and savings.  I have never felt so relieved.

I played two more songs.  

PBS ran a Josh Groban special one night last June. 

I hadn’t worked since January.  I was facing bankruptcy.  I hate asking for financial help, and I was about to ask my sister for a bridge loan to retain my attorney.   

Groban sang “You Are Loved (Don’t Give Up).”  A year before, I would’ve dismissed this song as a piece of pop sentimentality.  On that summer night, I thought of the family and friends I knew would stand by me, and it moved me to tears. 

Six months later, I had made it to the other side. 

I have been a hardcore Frank Zappa fan since high school.  “Peaches En Regalia” is the quintessential Zappa song, intricate, edgy, way ahead of its time.  It’s also triumphant, the kind of song you play when you’ve left one phase of your life behind and are embarking upon another.

For your listening pleasure:

 

The photo of my burning credit cards is symbolic on several levels.

I burned them after I received my Chapter 7 debt discharge letter, which finalized the death of my old credit lines.  The cards were completely useless.  It was time for them to go. 

Burning my cards symbolically cleansed my irresponsible financial habits and started a new life of living within my means.

It is symbolic of our culture of easy credit and instant financial gratification going up in flames. 

What rises from the ashes will be up to us.    

I beat Lehman Brothers to bankruptcy court by five days last September.  My path to BK began in 1994, when I triumphantly paid off $15,000 in credit card debt I had accumulated during the dry spells in my career as a freelance Hollywood assistant sound editor. 

Did I learn my lesson and resolve to stringently budget myself and never live off my credit cards again?

No.

I went through an ongoing cycle of hot work years followed by cold ones.  My plan (if I even had one) was to dip into my credit to get by in the cold years and pay it down in the hot ones.  My last weekly salary was $1900 a week.  If I worked eight or so months a year for three or four years straight, I could bring my debt under control.

My debt began to grow as the cold years multiplied (1996, 1997, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008) and I went back to using credit cards to pay my rent, basic expenses, and other credit card bills.

I confess.  I did it.  There were way too many beers, breakfasts, dinners and glasses of wine in restaurants where you pay up for the privilege of sitting in a chair two blocks from the beach.  There were plane tickets to visit family and friends and charges for concert tickets, weekend kayak trips, books, CDs and whatever else my impulses led me to buy. Read the rest of this entry »