August 10, 2013
I have a lot of student loan debt.
When I say “a lot,” I mean… a lot. I could own a house in many parts of the country for the amount of money I owe. I pay more every months to my loan companies than I do on rent (and I live in New York City). I rarely tell anyone how much I owe because it freaks them out… and is a little embarrassing, I have to admit.
When I talk to people about student debt, my personal experience with it is, unsurprisingly, the big force behind the direction of the conversation. I have many strong opinions on the student loan industry, the higher education industry, and the culture in this country surrounding money, school, and work. I will readily talk your ear off long past the moment when your interest wanes.
At some point in those discussions, after I talk about sleepless nights, years of not feeling able to ever go out with friends, the drastically reduced freedom, whether or not it’s “fair” that the people who can most afford to pay for school actually end up paying significantly less for it than their poorer counterparts who borrow, how my degree has exactly nothing to do with what I now do for a living… my conversation partner will inevitably ask either,
“So would you do it again?”
“Do you regret it?”
And here is where things get tricky.
Honestly, I am extremely happy with my life at this point. After nine years in NYC I still adore this city like it’s my lover. I am thrilled with my career, see myself contentedly pursuing it for many, many years to come, and am on a trajectory within it that is objectively awesome. I have a network of fulfilling personal relationships. I have confidence in my ability and eagerness to continue learning, growing, and becoming a better person and citizen of the world.
And without having gone to my alma mater exactly when I did, life would be different. Maybe better, maybe worse, maybe exactly as great, but without a doubt… different. And since my debt hasn’t absolutely ruined my life, and without having any idea of what my life would look like without such formative years and experiences, it seems a little absurd to say I regret it.
Recently (after years of being asked these questions), I finally realized that the real problem is how dumb I was as an 18-year-old. Or more politely, extremely naïve, and extraordinarily unaware of… almost everything in the entire world.
So the matter of regret or wishing I’d chosen a different path is a non-issue. What I want is for someone (ideally, now-me – or better yet, 80-year-old me… but since now-me is available now and 80-year-old me won’t show up for awhile, let’s stick with the former) to go talk to 18-year-old me. Ask her what she really wanted, be bluntly honest about things that matter and things that don’t.
I imagine the conversation would have gone something like this:
27 (current me): So… that’s a pretty big check you just got from the bank. What’s it for?
18 (then me): OHMIGOD. I’m going to NYU! I’m going to live in New York City!
27: Aw man, congratulations! That’s a big honor. Why do you want to go there?
18: Well mostly because I just love New York City. I have since the first time I visited, on a school trip back in 7th Grade. And also – it’s a great school! I probably shouldn’t say this, but I kind of want to go because it’s basically the best school that anyone in my high school class is going to. And hardly anyone else is going away to school, so that’s kind of cool too. But I guess after NYC, mostly I want to go because I have no idea what I want to do career-wise, and no matter what I choose, NYU will be a good school for it.
27: Well first of all, I hear ya on the NYC thing. It’s pretty damn great. Second, I am totally not judging you for it, but be careful about comparing yourself to your friends. I know it seems insane right now because all anyone talks about is college and how much where you go affects your future, but by the time you’re 2 years out… no one cares where you went. Education, at the end of the day, is what you make of it. I know people who went to totally crappy schools but found a great professor there, or did a lot of learning on their own, and are insanely successful now. I know people who went to Harvard and Stanford and NYU who went out partying four nights a week and are working boring jobs they don’t like now… or their parents just paid for school and they aren’t working at all. (But sorry, kiddo, you don’t get to be part of that last group.)
18: Yeah… I guess that makes sense. It’s still so fun to tell people I’m going there though! Everyone is so impressed, and my family is so proud.
27: That’s true! Just remember… that fun only lasts now – it’s not a feeling that lingers forever. Be careful about making decisions for forever-you based on now-you wanting to feel good right now or to avoid feeling bad right now. These things come and go.
18: I guess that makes sense…
27: And can we go back a minute? You mentioned not knowing what you want to do a few minutes ago, and I’d like to talk about that too.
18: Sure. It’s just that I like a lot of things. I love love love dance. And theatre. I’ve been in all the plays and musicals since I was a freshman in high school, and they’ve all been amazing. And I’ve been dancing since I was 8, and even though I’m not the best, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I don’t feel like it’s the same for me as for a lot of the other girls… it’s not just something I do after school. It makes me happy, and there are things I can express through dance that I can’t any other way. And I love teaching! I started assistant teaching when I was 12, and have had my own class for a few years now. There are days when I get home from school and don’t want to go because I’m tired, but five minutes into teaching my first class, my mood is 100% better. And I have to say, I’m pretty good at it. I love sharing the technique with the kids and helping them really understand it, and I’ve choreographed dances for them that, between you and me, I think are pretty kickass. But then I really like school, too. I’m really good at math, and I’m in all the AP classes.
27: That all sounds amazing, it’s wonderful to love and enjoy and be interested in so many things.
27: So even though you love all those things, you really don’t have any idea what you want to study in school?
18: Well I was thinking maybe psychology or math. But I’m not really sure. I kind of feel like there might be things to study or do that I don’t even know exist yet. That’s another reason I want to go to NYU and live in New York – I want to see more of what’s out there than I even know exists right now. What is it that they say? Big fish in a small pond? I guess it’s kind of conceited to say I’m a big fish, but I at least want to go into a bigger pond to see if I can swim there.
27: I have to say I noticed how excited and enthusiastic you got about dance and theatre a minute ago – you kind of threw everything else in there at the last second. But it sounds like you’re expecting to want to study something more academic?
18: Yeah… I guess I’m a little afraid to put myself out there with dance or theatre. I’m okay here, but probably not good enough to do it in the real world. With regular school stuff I know I’m good… it’s a lot more likely that I’ll do well with that kind of stuff, I think.
27: Hmm. I understand where you’re coming from. It’s hard to put yourself out on the line, and failure doesn’t feel good. But I will say that it’s also important. You learn from it, and it help you get better. And stronger! And it doesn’t change who you are… people still love you and you’re still Allison. But let’s leave that for a minute and maybe come back to it. So you don’t know exactly what you want to study, which probably means you don’t know what you want to do once you get out of school, right?
18: No, not at all.
27: Well even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, there are probably some things you actually do know. Like where you want to be, or how you want to feel, or how much money you want to make. More like ideas about your life after you’re done with school that you want to be true no matter what your job is.
18: Well… I think I’ll still want to live in New York. I love the city. And I want to help people, or make life better for people. I don’t really care that much about money. I mean, I don’t want to be poor, and I want to be able to afford to go on trips sometimes and buy things for people, but I don’t need to be rich. I don’t think I’d like being a scientist or any job like that*, where you spend a lot of time researching by yourself, but not much time in the world around people. But also I really want to be successful. Even though I’m not even really sure what I mean by that. It’s kind of why I want to go to the bigger pond – I want to push myself and challenge myself. And I think no matter what my job is, I don’t want it to just be a job that I go to and leave and don’t think about. I want to care about it more than that. Sort of like dance – I kind of see myself finding my identity in my job. I don’t ever want to retire.
27: That’s all awesome! Isn’t it kind of crazy, even without knowing exactly what you want to do, you actually know a lot about what you want in general.
18: Yeah, I guess I never really thought about that specifically, those were all just things that I’ve kind of thought of on their own without connecting them.
27: Pretty cool. So let’s take those things that you want: you want to live in New York (or a city in general). You want to be around people and help people. You don’t care that much about money and getting a job that pays hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but you do want to be really good at whatever you do. You want to learn about and experience the world. You want to be around other people, and you want to be doing work that makes people’s lives better in some way. That about covers it, right?
18: Yeah, I think so.
27: So first of all, you’re right. There are a bunch of things you could do that would still let all of those things be true. Way more than you’re aware of, way more than I’m even aware of. But let’s talk about a couple examples. What if you decide you want to be a teacher. That could happen, right? You mentioned loving teaching dance, it would help the world, teachers can make good money, you can be really good at it.
18: Yeah, that could happen.
27: You could also go work for a nonprofit. Maybe there’s an organization that goes and tutors kids at inner-city schools, and runs afterschool dance classes.
18: That sounds amazing!
27: Well let’s say your starting salary out of college either as a teacher or at this nonprofit was $35,000 a year. It might be a little lower or higher than that, but from what I know, it’s a pretty safe estimate.
18: Okay, I think that’s about what my mom makes! It doesn’t sound so bad.
27: True! But let’s pick apart the numbers a little more. After taxes, that $35,000 turns into about $27,000. If you share an apartment with one roommate, you could pay about $900 a month in New York for half of a two-bedroom apartment, along with utilities. A MetroCard there is about $100 a month. So that brings you down to $16,440 a year. That check you just got from the bank? They’re going to ask for about $250/month. That’s another $3K a year. Is anything going to change between this year and next year? If not, you’ll probably end up with four of those – so $1,000/month in student loan payments. So that brings you down to $4,440 a year for everything else: let’s say food is $200/month (this is doable, but means you almost never get to go out, and almost always have to cook at home), that brings it down to $2,040. If you want to go home a couple times a year, that’s probably $600 in airplane tickets. $1,440. That gives you $120 a month to do everything else. Broadway plays ($70 at least). Concerts ($60). Dance performances. A night out with friends. Any new clothes. Christmas presents for people.
18: I love buying Christmas presents for people!
27: Well there you go. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but even that’s a really simple outline of expenses you’ll have, and assumes you have no other debt – no credit cards to fill in the gaps while you’re in college. AND assumes you’re making minimum payments on all those loans, which means you’ll be paying them off for about 20 years. AND assumes you’re saving nothing. Nothing for emergencies, nothing for traveling, nothing for retirement. And what happens if you find the perfect job, but it pays less? Or what if that nonprofit that tutors and offers dance classes doesn’t exist, and you want to start it yourself? What if you realize you actually want to try to be a dancer? Or a dance teacher? All I’m trying to say is that your thinking is that going to this great school will give you options, and that’s true. You’ll get a great education, learn a lot about people and about what’s out there and yourself. But it will also take them away: if you’re paying all that money back for the next couple of decades, you aren’t going to be able to pursue things without money being your first thought. And I’ll say this: you will learn a lot about yourself and the world and learning at a lot of places that don’t want $40K a year (or more) for it. I said it a little while ago but it’s worth saying again: education is what you make of it.
18: But I just want to go there so bad.
27: I know you do. But you know how you get annoyed at people who always feel like they have to wear American Eagle or Abercrombie clothing? How you don’t think the name of the brand matters?
27: Being super focused on going to a big-name school is exactly the same thing. It’s caring more about the label than the quality of what’s underneath.
18: Oh. That makes sense.
27: I’m not saying any of this to make you feel bad. I am insanely proud of you, and I think you are capable of doing absolutely anything you decide you want to do. But I want you to have all the relevant information, and I don’t want now-you to make a decision that’s going to stop future-you from kicking ass too.
18: Okay. Thank you. I have to go do some thinking now.
27: You’re going to be awesome, no matter where you go to school or what you choose to do. Well, just don’t choose to become a drug addict. Or a snooty corporate boss who only cares about money.
18: Ha, okay. I’ll do my best.
27: Do exactly that and you’ll do just fine.
I was a hard-headed 18-year-old, *certain* I was doing the right thing. But this is what I needed. Someone to pick apart my thought processes and put my actions into real terms. This was the way to reach me, and this was the way to avoid the elephant of debt on my back that continues to play a significant part in every single decision I make in life. (And it barely even touches on other related conversations: giving up on pursuing the arts because of lack of confidence, what skills to focus on that would be broadly applicable no matter what the career choice, real budgeting based on real numbers instead of hypotheticals… and on and on.)
I don’t think 18-year-olds are “kids” who are “too young” to make big decisions about their lives, but I do think that as a society, we are not doing a great (or good, or fair) job of having the real, mature conversations with them that would actually prepare them to make those decisions in an informed way.
*please note, this was 18-year-old me’s idea of what a scientist/scholar was… as has been pointed out already, she didn’t know much about much of anything.
February 24, 2013
There’s a moment in my creative process when I get so excited about what’s emerging that it becomes a little alarming.
Or a lot…
(It’s good though. Exploring new domains, growing, developing new skills. Being freaked out. Et cetera, et cetera.)
February 18, 2013
A couple of weeks ago I traveled abroad for the first time ever. On Monday I realized I didn’t have any work for the week. I’d already had a slow several weeks prior, during which I caught up on all the mundane Life Things (laundry, taxes, sweeping the floor, sleep, etc.) that I’d let slide while being absolutely crazed from September through December, and by that point was getting antsy.
So I started pricing plane tickets. Why the hell not.
After an hour on every travel site I could think of, I decided on Berlin. Cheap airfare, I’d been hearing of its awesomeness for some time, and somewhere — anywhere — is better than nowhere. My flight was to leave about 48 hours later.
On Wednesday I sat near my departure gate at Newark (side note: not nearly the pain in the ass to get to that I expected) and started to get nervous.
Honestly, this doesn’t happen often. I have solid faith in my ability to figure out how to pretty much anything I need to, and a somewhat realistic perspective that the risk of most things I could do in life is pretty damn low. The whole world isn’t waiting to laugh at my failures, money is just money, time is just time, and I don’t do that many things that could realistically physically incapacitate me. So nervousness is not part of my general state of being.
But there I sat, getting a little scared. Going to a new place, taking the longest plane ride I’d ever been on, embarking on a trip I hadn’t really planned beyond the flight and hostel reservation, venturing into a land that uses a language I did not speak or understand. I knew it would be fine. Worst case scenario, I’d hang out at the hostel and walk around aimlessly for three days, maybe embarrass myself a few times in front of people I would never see again in an attempt to obtain nourishment without a word of German. While that’s not exactly the greatest vacation anyone’s ever had, it would also not hurt me in any way. So the nervousness was quite arguably irrational, but kept gnawing at me no matter how much I tried to argue it away.
And it made me start to think… it’s kind of cool to be a little freaked out. If I look back at any of the really Big Moments I’ve had in my life (moving to New York, biking a century, submitting my application for the internship that got me started in sound, any of the most important or ambitious projects I’ve embarked on as a freelancer…), they were all preceded by me wondering if (and sometimes being absolutely positive that) I was in over my head.
Which is… kind of awesome. What nervousness really seems to be then is an indication of an expansion of limits. I think about it exactly the same way I do about exercise: honestly, I kind of like being sore in the days following a hard workout. It’s painful as hell, but it means I pushed myself hard enough to go beyond where I’d been before — I’m getting stronger. I’m getting better.
Perhaps nervousness is an indication of stepping it up in life — choosing to rise to the next level of a career, a relationship, a hobby, just about anything. You don’t really get better (and you never get great) if you’re sitting comfortably, a safe distance from your boundaries of ability.
So what if being freaked out itself became a value? I don’t think it’s right, or even possible, for it to be true all the time. Or most of the time. Or even close to most of the time. In order to maintain a solid sense of self, as well as my relationships, my ability to keep paying all those cumbersome bills, and possibly my life, most of my time probably needs to be spent in a non-freaked-out state. But how about 10%? What if, one moment out of ten, I was scared? Not 100% positive what the outcome of my activity would be? Not 100% certain of my ability to succeed? What would the artistic, physical, social, emotional, or financial ramifications be?
History indicates the rewards are massive and the risks are not negligible, but far from life-threatening. So I’m going to try it — see if I can spend 10% of my life freaked out.
Which both excites and scares me. Just the way it should, I suppose.
August 26, 2012
DRIVERS OF THE WORLD:
The fact that I am a cyclist does not exempt me from the laws of physics.
Despite being on a bike, I still take up space. I still have momentum, and – especially when I am traveling as fast as you – I cannot stop instantaneously.
If you pull in front of me and slam on your brakes, I am going to end up bleeding in your back seat. If you merge into the lane of traffic where I’m riding, you are going to either run me off the road or squash me between your vehicle and the parked car, median, wall, or whatever given obstacle might be making its home on the side of the street. If you hang a left without checking your side mirror, you are erecting a 2000-pound metal wall in front of someone who is not a crash dummy.
I am, in fact, 170 pounds of aluminum and steel and rubber and fabric and blood and flesh and brain tissue and teeth and eyelashes, and I am a living, breathing person with sisters and friends and parents and a career and student loans and (for just a few days more) no health insurance. That backpack I’m carrying contains my computer, which I worked hard and saved scrupulously for and is my livelihood. The bike I’m on is how I get to work, how I run my errands, how I exercise, and a large part of how I carve out a little niche of enjoyment in my life. I love it. I do not love when people fail to recognize that I am still a fellow human being while on it.
PEDESTRIANS OF THE WORLD:
If you want me to act like a car, treat me like a car. Don’t look straight at me and continue walking against the light and directly into my path. (Again – physics apply to both of us the same.) If you get in my way and I am unable to stop or turn (emphasis here on unable — I don’t want to hit you exactly as much as you don’t want to be hit by me), it’s going to hurt. Both of us. A lot. Please, please spare us the pain. And for Pete’s sake, if you’re opening your door into traffic or jaywalking between cars, take a glance behind you or around the corner before blindly putting both of our lives in jeopardy.
CYCLISTS OF THE WORLD:
Those of you riding the wrong way on busy one-way streets, cutting across crowded sidewalks, and screaming through red lights and stop signs with absolutely no regard for pedestrians or cross traffic are making the rest of us look like dicks, and we don’t appreciate it. Quit freaking people out (and putting all of us in danger), and maybe we won’t have such a terrible reputation.
POLICE OF THE WORLD:
Please take a look at that last section and start enforcing the laws appropriately. The person who pulls ahead of the crosswalk or coasts through an obviously-clear red light is a negligible part of the problem, yet is disproportionately disciplined over those who aren’t using their judgment and are perpetually a breath away from killing themselves or maiming the next pedestrian to cross their path. Sure, it’s easier to catch the slow-moving offender, but with little risk of consequence for the wrong-direction rider, there’s not much incentive for them to change their ways, and ultimately no good will is engendered on your part, our part, pedestrians’ part, or drivers’ part. There must be a system of accountability, and you are best-suited to enforce it – there simply isn’t an ad campaign in the world as effective as forcing offenders to pony up their cash.
And just to throw it out there, the myriad drivers parking in the bike lane – any bike lane, at any given time – are like free money. Is there any reason to not take it?
I’m not a douchebag rider. I’m not elitist about my bike or the fact that you’re in a gas-guzzler or running in Vibrams or whatever other trait one might notice (you, like me, are more complex than my two-second assessment indicates). I am simply trying to get through my day without dying. I’ll do my part… it would be pretty swell if you could do yours, too.
July 15, 2012
I’ve had a spate of experiences lately that have forced me to admit that moves I made — changes I was actively excited about — were bad for me. And not course-adjustment-bad, turn-around-and-go-back-to-where-you-came-from-bad.
This spring I saw an optometrist. We talked about the usual — my stunningly-poor eyesight, for the most part. But then she told me the insides of my eyelids were severely irritated — they looked like the eyes of someone who lives with cats but is allergic to them. When she pointed it out, I realized I’d been waking up most mornings with slightly swollen eyes, and occasionally when I was sleeping I’d be jolted to consciousness by a burning sensation that could only be soothed by eyedrops and some intense rubbing with facial tissue. But cat-less, I was at a loss for ideas about what might be causing such problems.
In another realm of life, since my freshman year of college I’ve been trying to be a runner. It started out as a psychological experiment, more than anything: I am by nature quite averse to running. Have been since I was a kid. But I wanted to see if I could make myself learn to enjoy it. And while it took about five years (of admittedly on-and-off effort), during 2010 something finally clicked and I… became a runner. Suddenly I could run 5 miles without thinking much of it; I stopped thinking of the phrase “just two miles left” as the epitome of insanity; I found myself actually looking forward to the exercise. For my birthday in 2011 I asked only for a pair of Vibram Five-Finger shoes. I was quite a fan of their premise: run the way our bodies evolved to run. Not with an inch of padding and a pound of extra weight. Just run. And once I got those lovely shoes I found I absolutely adored the sensation. I felt light and playful. There was just one problem: after a mile or two out, I would get extremely painful blisters on the bottoms of my toes. Debilitatingly painful. Often I’d have to limp home and then limp through the ensuing days. Having gone through a decade of dance in my younger years, I was quite familiar with blisters, and kept expecting callouses to form and the pain to desist. For several months I made a point of running at least five times a week, and going just far enough to toy with the line of pain, but not enough to cause damage. It worked, sort of — I got up to about 3 miles. But then life got crazy and I spent a few weeks (really, weeks — not months) not running, and when I got back out on the pavement found myself back at square one. Since this past winter I’ve found myself only decreasingly motivated to even try.
In yet another realm, for Christmas this past year I received a very nice mattress pad from my parents. My father (who has had back troubles) swears by his, and wanted to share some of the glory. A memory-foam wonder, when I placed it atop my bed upon returning home after the holidays, I promptly laid down and fell asleep for the night. I awoke to find my back feeling as though it had… air in it. My spine felt as though it had decompressed. Clearly this was a good sign! Every evening afterward I relished in laying down on my little cloud.
(cough*seemingly*cough) unrelated, I’ve been having significant trouble for much of this calendar year with my comfort at work. I’ve been finding myself unable to remain comfortable for long periods of time, experiencing new immobility and frustrating weakness. It’s what I’d imagine “getting old” to feel like.
Over the course of about three weeks, I’ve now had three little epiphany-moments, suddenly linking previously-unconnected aspects of my life.
First was my pillow. In addition to the mattress pad, I also received a memory-foam pillow for Christmas. I picked it out; it was extraordinarily comfortable, the perfect thickness and density, and I loved it. But one recent day out of nowhere I realized my problems with my eyes seemed to be related to sleep, and while I couldn’t pinpoint the onset of my symptoms, I couldn’t remember ever having experienced either problem before last winter. Culprit: new pillow. That night I switched from the fancy pillow to a $4 cottonball I’d bought from Target to have for guests, and haven’t had one swollen or stinging eye since.
A few weeks later (a mere week ago), I realized I could say the same thing about my back problems — I didn’t remember ever being bothered by it until earlier this year. I ripped the mattress pad out from under my sheet, slept on my comically-cheap mattress that night, and the very next morning didn’t feel so wobbly. (I’m still pretty messed up — I do think this issue transcends one quick answer like a sleeping-surface switch and will involve some lifestyle adjustments and considerable time (and money) at a chiropractor, but I also don’t think it’s crazy that this silly piece of foam served as a catalyst to jar a whole bunch of conditions previously lying dormant into action.)
And just last night, I decided to go out for a freakin’ run and leave the Vibrams at home. Instead I wore a light pair of Nike sneakers I’ve had for years. They’re more meant to be stylish shoes — not designed for exercise — but I figured that could be perfect, allowing me to retain my forefoot-first running style, but also leaving space for a pair of socks and not so much friction against my skin. I put in about three miles and felt just fine. Unfortunately, since it’s been over a year since I was able to do long (“long”) runs, my stamina — both mental and physical — is back where it was before I had my Runner Moment, before things clicked. I find myself certain I can navigate my way back there quickly though, and my will to do so will be greatly enhanced by getting rid of this one element — the shoes that annihilate my feet.
So there are my stories. Three items that I thought would make my life better, in fact made it worse. But because of a disconnect between my expectations and reality, I was pathetically slow to see what was going on, and allowed things in all three realms to go way too far before taking the very simple acts necessary to fix them.
Sometimes… stuff just doesn’t work. And it’s fine. Life’s basically one big experiment anyway, but these few incidences occurring in such quick succession are reminding me to not get attached to outcomes, and to remain objective about what works and what doesn’t. And if it doesn’t work… stop. Simple, trivial, silly. But a truth I clearly needed to be smacked over the head by. Here’s hoping I won’t need it again.