Jul 23, 2009

"Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be..."

Lord Polonius, the 'unseen good old man' of Shakespeare's tragedy had it right. Shame I didn't listen to him.

When I was a kid of some 16 years old I'd just gotten my first taste of having money, and I decided I liked it. Unlike my younger brother, who I think is half Jew, I liked spending it, too. Then came the fateful day around my freshman year in high school that I decided that I needed to get a credit card to earn myself a credit rating. What I planned on doing with a credit rating living in a bedroom in my parent's house is beyond me, but I applied for and received a Sears credit card one fateful day in 1985. With it I purchased a Sears LXI stereo rack system for $500, complete with tower speakers and a wooden shelving system with a glass door on the front and a glass lid over the turntable on top.

Thus began my slavery to credit.

I beat the system once, over a decade ago. My father had died and my mother went ahead and parceled up our inheritance from his benefits. My brother used his to begin to finance the construction of his new house. Me, I paid off all my credit card debt. Every penny. I was a free man for all of perhaps six months. I'd not canceled the cards, you see, just cut them up and tried to forget about them. It crept up slowly, my debt, as it always does. I needed something here, an emergency came up there, and it was always so easy to use the credit cards until I had piled every single stone of that entire mountain right back on my shoulders, plus a few boulders for the road. Oh, don't get me wrong, I always managed to keep the notes paid, but never managed to get much beyond that, and we all know that's where the trap is. You pay interest and you pay interest but you might as well be eating soup with a fork for all the advancement you're getting.

I got profoundly lucky. I got in a motorcycle wreck last October and totaled my bike. Between the law suit settlement check and a very large financial gift from my father in law I paid off all my credit cards. Again. This time for real. No going back. It's not often that opportunity comes to your door twice. It's rare enough that it knocks the first time: I'm not fool enough to think it'll return thrice.

A few months have passed, the last of the fees and interests and fiddly bits of plastic debt have been paid down and all the credit card statements read "$0.00". Now comes the hard part. Canceling them.

I've had difficult tasks in my life. I've had onerous jobs to do, jobs that really genuinely wore on me. I'd even say I've had to suffer, just a little, but I've never, EVER had to do anything quite as hard as cancel a credit card. I think next time I'd sooner reach down a pit bull's throat to pull the steak back out of his stomach than deal with trying to cancel a credit card.

I figured it was pretty easy. Hell, it was an option on the VRU system after you dug in a ways. I got a person on the phone who went by the name "Zack." Little did I know I was about to battle to take possession of my gods-damned SOUL. It started out easy enough. He asked a few simple questions to verify my identity. I verified with him that I'd like to cancel my credit card account. That's when Zack went on the attack.

He questioned my judgment. He asked if I was sure I wanted to destroy all the careful work I'd done building up my credit rating. He reminded me that I needed credit to buy a house, to pay for college, to etc etc etc. I riposted every stab, threw back in his face that I now had CASH to pay for what I needed, and didn't need credit. I told him that if I wanted something I'd damned well save up for it, not just rush out and charge it. I showed him several ways that I understood I'd just pulled my foot out of the trap and he for sure wasn't going to convince me to put my foot BACK in the rusty jaws. I even went so far as to demand that he put his supervisor on. He insisted HE was a supervisor and before I could riposte again he'd feinted from a new direction and got me off THAT line.

We kept fencing, back and forth, he and I. He wasn't going to give up until I'd put my soul back in hock to Capital One Bank and I wasn't going to give up until that account was finito. I finally got so tired of it that I got nasty, used a few foul words and let my voice crank up, and he responded with a curt "Let's keep this on a professional level." I could have happily torn his balls off and professionally choked him with them, but I persevered. So did he. I think we must have gone around for ten minutes or more. Zack was ready to sell me my slave collar back, and I insisted that I didn't want it, didn't need it, and for damned sure wasn't going to put it back on for HIS benefit.

Finally I guess I had spoken enough sense that Zack decided that I was, in fact, serious about canceling my Capital One slavery card. Sweat pouring down my face, fists clenched in righteous anger and determination I agreed that yes, I was bloody well serious. And just like that, it was over. He rattled off a litany of required warnings about me using the card again and fees being refunded if I'd paid them in the last month, and that how they'd really miss me there in the sugar mines of Bolivia where I'd just spent the last ten years labouring to pay off an impossible debt.

I wanted to cheerfully tell him to fuck off, but I didn't. I graciously thanked him and hung up the phone.

"What did I just escape from?" I asked myself. What prison without bars and walls have I gotten myself out of? If a junkie wants to quit drugs his dealer doesn't come and browbeat him until he's got that needle back in his vein or that spliff in his fingers. Casinos don't send out thugs to drag compulsive gamblers back into the queasy light coming off the one-armed bandit when grandma has decided she's spent enough nickles, but just try and cut off the credit card company's source of easy money and see if they don't put their best people on you to help you keep that iron collar locked around your neck.

No Zack, you can threaten and cajole and sell all you want--I'm free of my slavery and my 'good credit rating' and all that mystic smoke and mirrors bull the capitalists use to keep me in thrall to the debt gods. No, I'm done. Cash on the barrelhead, my friend. If I want it bad enough then I'll save for it, and if I can't afford to save for it then I can't afford to own it.

I figure next week I'll gird my loins, strap on my sword and shield and vanquish the dragon that is named Canceling My Discover Card.

Jul 5, 2009

Airburst! With Report!

You know, leftover grilled zucchini and California rolls go really well together? But then again, most things go well with grilled zucchini, especially when they're fresh-from-your-garden zucchini, especially after a nice long weekend full of fireworks and enough barbecue'd goodies to feed a small third-world country.

So here it is, the Fifth of July. Nothing important, calendar-wise (that I'm aware of, I mean, there may be some special National Day Of... today, but I've never heard of it.) It's just the day after Independence Day, or "Thank God They're Gone Day" if you're from England. That particular quiet day where, thankfully, I didn't have to immediately return to work, where I can sit around and look at the house that's still clean from the painstaking scouring it got Friday, looking at the yard that won't need to be cut until next week.

Driving down our little country lane this morning en route to cutting grass at work there was the usual signs of post-Fourth celebrations. Each driveway had its own little signs--black scorch marks on pale grey concrete, burnt Roman Candle tubes lying drunkenly around, and piles of clear cello torn off and gleefully discarded by small hands. My field was no different--this morning going to feed the chickens I saw by pale golden morning light the signs of last night's fireworks party: scorched squat blocks of tubes wrapped in colourful paper, the black PVC tube left over from a huge collection of double-burst mortal shells and the burned remains of pale tan punks stuck in the ground, as well as a few red plastic drink cups tossed helter skelter in the green grass.

It was one more in the long chain of fireworks memories for me, a good one, as every one is. There's something about the smell of burnt gunpowder and paper in the air, something about the trembling instant of a huge carnation of burning light in the air, as transitory as the breaths of air that came and went last night, stirring the heat around a little. Lsat night seemed to be all about near-misses, though. Perhaps my luck biting me in the butt for landing a work-at-home job, or payback for some windfall yet to come.

Oh, no bloodshed last night, no one even got burned, but many near misses, many almost-was-bads. Ever since they've come out for public purchase I've been a huge fan of the mortar shell-style fireworks--the huge rectangular boxes with garish cartoons on the front, advertising "Wizard Airburst Shells With Report!" or "Nerves Of The Steel!" Inside lurks a black PVC tube with a flat base and innocuous tan-paper wrapped spheres, each with a little pad of gunpowder at the bottom and an impossibly long, terrifyingly fast fuse. In the finest tradition of mortarmen everywhere you stand the tube up somewhere stable and drop the paper shell inside, listen for the soft tap as it strikes bottom. That long fuse just barely extends over the top of the mortar's tube, just enough room for you to hold it with fingers that will soon be scorched by punk or lighter or wonderfully fast sizzling as the fuse takes fire.

A few heart-beats later and the tube makes a wonderful hollow "THUMP" as the charge sends the firework high in the air and then a few heartbeats later it expldoes into one or two or three glorious flowers of fire and sparks and then is no more. It's long been a habit of ours to buy two, and fire them as simultaneously as possible, filling the sky for just a brief moment with multiple bursts, different colours vying with each other for dominance, sparkling and crackling pieces flowing outward from the center of the burst.

I learned an important lesson last night about those mortars--putting a double shell in a mortar tube designed for single-stack shells doesn't work. My brother-in-law and I lit and moved off, and while his shell boomed and soared some ninety feet in the air or more mine only made it thirty feet or less and exploded in all its glory, the wonders of pyrokinetics exposed for all to see at a height not intended for explosions. I was still running when it burst, and my father-in-law said it looked like a scene from Apocalypse Now: the hero striding out of the jungle, the golden white flares of thousands of tiny burning fragments spreading out from just behind my back. As much as I love the image I doubt any Viet-Nam soldier was ever caught in combat with a white T-shirt extolling his local NPR station, a pair of black shorts and a white straw Panama hat. Or, or for that matter, a red plastic cup with Sprite and Bombay Gin on ice in his hand.

I have to wonder what it's like to be outside shooting fireworks in cool weather, or even mild weather. I was listening to Garrison Keillor broadcasting their 35th anniversary show from Minnesota and it was something like 70 degrees there, almost frozen compared to the 90 or so it was last night here in the Delta. I don't know how I'd handle it, chewing on a cigar, taking sips from my drink, trickles of sweat making their slow way along my spine. I wonder what it might be like to stand in a field of grass in blue jeans and a flannel shirt lighting those fuses, smelling that sweet, sharp cordite smell in the air, watching the white plumes of smoke billow and roll out across the air.

Every time I go out with a bag full of potential I think back to the wild chills evoked in me as a kid lighting black snakes, those tiny pills that would hiss and sizzle into long chains of ash and the joy of filling the air with purple or red or green smoke from the small globes of smoke bombs. Later, carefully unwinding long chains of Black Cat firecrackers from their paper wrapper and their gunpowder-coated fuses woven cleverly together, so that each one could be lit and tossed at something or someone. Graduating to the plastic-finned rockets and thence to the mortar shells and huge blocks of firework tubes all wrapped in balsa wood and paper. Every time I go out I wonder what next time will bring, and wish that it could last just a little longer.