Green Hair, Mustard Seeds, and Me

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It’s been a couple weeks now, and my green hair is starting to fade. My light brown roots are peeking through, and since I don’t go many places, most people who will see me have seen me. And while I tweeted a short explanation, I haven’t gotten too detailed when explaining why my hair is green. Mostly because I was (am) angry, and it was hard to talk about it without being mean. And that rationale is sorta the whole point.

In order to really understand my green hair, however, you need to understand me a bit. I don’t really talk about my faith much publicly these days, and that’s been on purpose. Largely because what “Christian” seems to mean in society these days doesn’t really align with what it means to me personally. But also partially because I’m not a man of great faith. When I see Jesus talk (twice) about having faith as tiny as a mustard seed, my first thought is something like, “um, what about people with the faith of a basil seed?” (full disclosure: I haven’t gardened very much, basil seeds are probably not the smallest, they’re just the smallest I’m familiar with, and MUCH smaller than mustard seeds)

Shawn, Let Me Explain Matthew 17:20…

Please don’t. I already know. I really do. I’ve taught bible class, led youth group, served on deacon/elder boards, and heck even preached Sunday sermons. I’m familiar with conventional wisdom on the metaphor, and I’m not claiming that I’ve discovered some new, deeper, more holy meaning. No, when I consider the notion of small faith affecting change, I’m encouraged in spite of the biblical focus. Jesus was stressing that God is so great, even the smallest sliver of infinity is still infinity. (See? Old habits die hard. Here I am preaching…)

But what if my small faith is combined with weak belief and mountains of uncertainty? Is my basil seed of faith still enough to move mountains? Maybe. And, maybe not. The thing is, I still need to live my life in a way that seems right. And let’s be frank here, when I say “weak belief”, I’m not just throwing out church-y phrases. Do I believe in God? Sure, usually. I guess. But pretending to have a rock solid faith for the sake of saving church ladies from “the vapors” seems a bit un-Christian. Heh.

Bro, Do You Even Christian?

Yes. Yes, I consider myself a Christian. But only because Jesus seems to be someone worth following. Whether you think Jesus was/is the creator of the universe, becoming a man to redeem the world, or just a rebellious lover of humanity — he was a really awesome guy. I want to be like him, because he cared about the outcast, taught people to think instead of blindly obeying, valued people over anything else, and got furious at the exploitation of human beings by those in power. And Jesus was kind. He must have been, or the children wouldn’t have flocked around him.

So yes, while in many, many ways I do not identify with the modern, American version of “Christianity”, I do consider myself Christian. Maybe not a “good” Christian. Maybe not even a good representation of “Christ-like”, but inasmuch as I’m anything, I’m a person trying to be like Jesus. And most days, that’s enough for me. To be clear, that’s not enough for many folks, and so many will not consider me a Christian. That’s OK.

But Dude, if You’re Wrong [Insert Crackling Fire Sounds]

Yeah, so if you’re a Christian to avoid burning in Hell, you’ve missed the point. Maybe Hell is a place of fire and pain, maybe it’s a metaphor for separation from God. And maybe it’s simply a description of the empty worthlessness a life lived for selfish gain gets a person. I honestly don’t know. But I also don’t need to know.

The way I strive to live my life is not predicated on a promise of future reward. I don’t choose kindness so that someday I’m given an oceanfront view in heaven. Empathy is not a vehicle to riches, in this world or the next. And my motivation for helping others is not accrue favor from a higher being, but rather to, you know, help someone because they need help.

For what it’s worth, this is also why I’m far less concerned about people who aren’t Christians than traditional Christianity would dictate. And here is where I lose a lot of folks who were mostly ok with my particular take on living a Christ-like life. That’s OK. I’m not starting my own religion, and I’m not telling anyone they should “Christian” like I do. But here’s the thing, Jesus didn’t seem to be a guy overly concerned about technicalities. If there is an afterlife, and some metaphorical pearly gates, it seems like a pretty low-rent heaven that would allow douchebags with the proper punch card into eternal glory, and send caring, compassionate Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, etc., into eternal torture.

Does that mean I’m trying to do some magic hand-wavy trick to turn “the way, the truth, and the life” into a moralistic litmus test for heaven? Um, no. I don’t feel a need to do that. Again, my motivation for how I live my life is not a future reward. In fact I’ve always been suspect of folks who need that carrot in order to do the right thing. My little basil seed of faith is apparently sufficient to follow the example of Jesus, even if he doesn’t want to be friends with me afterward.

Ok. You’re Outta the Club

I know. No, seriously, I know. Writing this and posting it publicly will actually be sufficient cause to prevent me from holding a role as teacher or leader in a church. It will be a rationale for people who have been uncomfortable with my brand of living life to finally put me in the “other” camp. It might sever friendships, and it will disappoint people who thought I was someone else.

But that’s OK too.

I am a Christian, because I think Christ is someone worth following. I think the modern Christian Church resembles the Pharisees in the bible far more than it represents Jesus and his gang. And I can’t pretend to be something I’m not in order to fit in. That really doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Jesus did either. My faith might be tiny, but my resolve is not.

That Was a Lot. But, Why is Your Hair Green?

Heh. You still want to know? Cool. It’s difficult to explain without painting some folks in an unflattering light, but my hair is green because my daughter was treated poorly for dyeing her own hair. She was a volunteer assistant coach at the Christian school from which she graduated. Partway through the season, when she dyed her hair bright red, she was told she could no longer represent the school in public. There was a new rule, which she hadn’t been told about, that volunteers were not allowed to have unnaturally colored hair.

The rub, however, is that she was still allowed to help in practice, just not sit on the bench during games, or get announced as a coach during the pre-game. Her “look” was appropriate enough to exploit for free labor, but not “good enough” for the public to associate with the school in an official role. And she was gutted. So I dyed my hair in solidarity.

So What Now?

I dunno, coffee? I mean, it’s not like I’ve suddenly changed who I am, and my life is on a different trajectory. If I haven’t been living my life loud enough that people are shocked to learn I was a heathen all along, well, maybe things change for them. As for me, I’ll continue to live life the best way I know how. When presented with new information, I’ll change my views accordingly. If given a choice between kindness and and cruelty, I’ll strive for the former, while rallying against the latter. And with all my shortcomings, failings, poor choices, and inevitable mistakes: I’ll try to leave this world a little better than I found it. Regardless of where my next stop might be.

Shame

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Before I start, it’s important to know that I’m not writing this to convince anyone to send money. We’ll be OK, truly. I’m writing this because much like depression, shame withers in the light. I don’t want the specter of “what if someone finds out” to live in my brain, rent free. And perhaps hearing our misfortune will help someone else avoid a similar one.

In order to understand how someone could have $12,518.42 stolen from them without noticing, it’s important to explain our situation over the past 18 months or so. Because on the surface, the notion of losing that much money and not noticing seems like wealth and privilege at an incomprehensible level. If exposing financial information makes you uncomfortable, you might want to click away, because I’ll be using some real numbers.

In the middle of the pandemic, my job changed. Part of that change included no longer receiving employer-sponsored healthcare. I receive a generous stipend, but it doesn’t come close to covering a solo plan. So we added some out of pocket money to the stipend, and started paying for COBRA. (That allows us to keep the healthcare from my last job, paying the full premium plus administrative fees for up to 18 months)

We also have adult children in their early 20s. They were underemployed thanks to the pandemic, and we have been helping them make ends meet. Plus, Donna’s part-time teaching position was even more part time this past school year. Add to that a massive repair bill on my aging pickup truck, existing debt from our barn experience — and the stage is set for a pretty rough financial gauntlet.

With our new expenses and decreased income, it was clear that we would be making less than we spend every month. We had about $17,000 in the bank, and about $20,000 of credit available across our 5 credit cards. Knowing that would only keep us afloat temporarily, we started doing everything we could to add income while decreasing expenses. Sadly, most of our expenses are fixed, and while we could have canceled Netflix, that small savings in the middle of a pandemic didn’t seem worth it. Anyway, we were going deeper into debt every month, but surviving.

Donna took as many sub positions as she could on the days she wasn’t teaching. I worked my DayJob as a sysadmin, and then started cartooning, writing, and creating training videos for YouTube. While my efforts might smack a bit of mid-life crisis, the bulk of my previous career was making training videos, and I’d been a professional writer for years at Linux Journal. The only oddball item was my daily comic, but since I found the process relaxing, it was almost a daily therapy session for me.

So for the past year plus, we’ve been using credit cards for everything possible, and paying the minimum balance due, with additional payments as more money came in. We knew our credit card debt would rise, and our bank account would dwindle, but the hope was to slow the bleeding until I started to bring in some serious revenue from my after work endeavors. It would certainly take a while, but the clock we were trying to beat was a combination of “not running out of money and credit” plus “we have 18 months of COBRA”.

I’d like to say we had a clearer plan, or even a more succinct goal. Unfortunately, we just had stress, chaos, and a faint hope that “something” would give. Perhaps I’d get a job offer that included benefits. Perhaps the school where Donna worked would offer a medical plan. Maybe my YouTube channel would take off, or my comic would go viral. But what it actually meant was many, many credit card charges, and many, many payments to credit cards coming out of our shrinking checking account.

And that’s how it happened.

Back in September of 2021, lost in our myriad of credit card payments, a new credit card payment posted. “Credit One Bank” took an ACH payment for $182.95 out of our account. That’s about the size of other credit card payments that constantly come out of our account, and at first glace I assumed it was our Meijer credit card, which is a branded card from one of the countless credit companies.

As the months went on, there were more and more payments from “Credit One Bank”, all varying from the $100-$300 range, which again, matched our other credit card payments surprisingly close. Looking back, I should have seen it. Of COURSE I should have seen it. There were 4 days in a row where $182.75 was taken out. And while I don’t remember seeing those payments, I probably saw them and assumed I was looking at the same payment. But I didn’t notice.

See, our account balances were changing in just the way we expected them to change. Our credit card debt was rising, and our bank account was shrinking. That’s not ideal, but it wasn’t unexpected. And so we weren’t suspicious that something was wrong. We saw that our money was going away faster than we hoped, and so we focused harder on making more money, not picking apart our bank statements. Heck, we probably subconsciously avoided looking at our bank statements, because we knew it would only add stress to an almost unbearably stressful situation!

And then this month, August 2022, 11 months after that first “Credit One Bank” payment snuck into our life, we ran out of money. Our mortgage payment bounced because its auto-withdrawal happened a couple days before my paycheck was deposited. I had already moved the posting date, because I saw the writing on the wall, but even that only kicked the can down the road a month. Our checking account was in the red, we’d gotten multiple overdraft fees applied on top (because other smaller payments were trying to clear after the account went negative). And only a couple of our credit cards had credit available at all.

It’s embarrassing. And it sucks. But things like Twitter verification, a Wikipedia page, and a well-known-in-certain-circles name does not always equal the underlying financial success it hints at.

So anyway, my paycheck posted, and our account was limping along in the black again. Since our credit was about dried up, we’d been strategically deciding what to pay and when to pay it. So our credit card payments, even the minimum amount due, had to be timed to our paychecks. And that brings us to this week. Yesterday, in fact. My paycheck wasn’t due to post until today (the 18th), and I was watching our account balance like a hawk, making sure nothing tried to clear before my paycheck was in there. And wouldn’t you know it, Credit One Bank was posting a payment for $168.64.

I KNEW I hadn’t made a payment, because after the mortgage fiasco, our balance was too low for that. And so when I logged in to all our various credit card accounts, trying to figure out why one of them automatically made a payment, I couldn’t find a payment for that amount. Anywhere.

And of course then I started looking at our account history, and quickly realized what I should have realized 11 months ago. Someone was making a credit card payment with our account, but it wasn’t us. Or at least, it wasn’t only us. As I searched the transaction history, I found that over the past 11 months, there have been 54 payments taken out. The dates and amounts are fairly random, but vary from $100-$350 or so. And added together, they equal $12,518.42. It turns out that initial $17,000 we had in our account wasn’t dwindling as quickly as we thought, or at least we weren’t “dwindling” it.

I spent most of yesterday talking to the bank, and to the police. Today I have to drive back to the bank (and hour drive, one way, ugh) to finish closing our compromised account and set up a new one so we can continue making our mortgage payments, car payment, and credit card payments. And now, I need to fight to get money back from “Credit One Bank”, even though in my communications with them yesterday have proven to be anything but helpful.

Our bank, Straits Area Federal Credit Union, has shifted a bit. At first, they told me all they could do was stop further withdrawals by charging me a $25 stop payment fee. But after talking to the police officer as I filed a report, he encouraged me to go physically to the main office, and talk to someone a bit higher up the food chain. I’m glad I did, because now they’re going to reimburse me for the previous 60 days, and for some reason the first 60 days of fraudulent charges. Assuming that happens (I’m signing paperwork today), it will put $4,595 back into my new account. The remaining $7,923.37 will likely never get recovered. But I will be sending all the information to “Credit One Bank”, and hoping they do the right thing. Regardless of the outcome, it will take months before I know anything.

I’m not gonna lie, while that $4,595 will be incredibly helpful in the short term, we’re clearly still teetering on the edge of disaster. Thankfully, there’s a bit of good news in this bleak story.

When summer started, Donna clearly couldn’t get anymore subbing jobs, so she applied for a part time position at one of our favorite places on earth. McLean & Eakin Booksellers. She got the job, and I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen her love what she does more than when she’s working at the bookstore. The owners must recognize how much she was made for the job, and without prompting, called Donna in to offer her a full time, year round position. And believe it or not, this small town, independent bookstore provides health insurance for their full time employees.

Health. Care. Insurance.

Our COBRA eligibility runs out in November, and we did not have a plan for what we were going to do after that. The middling insurance plan I was quoted to buy on our own was over $30,000/yr, and that was without dental or optical. Donna getting a job that provided healthcare was unexpected, and the most amazing news we’d gotten in a very long time. I don’t even know what the plan will look like, but it honestly doesn’t matter, because whatever the benefits include will be more than that nothing we could afford once November hits.

I cried like a blubbering idiot. And that, I’m not ashamed of.

Look, we’re far from being financially stable. My napkin math shows that we have about $65,000 in credit card debt, one mortgage with $60,000 remaining, another with $100,000 remaining, and a car loan with $13,000 still outstanding. My DayJob isn’t in immediate jeopardy, but I maintain datacenters for servers that operate in the cryptocurrency world, so longevity and stability are not guaranteed. But in spite of this current financial setback with Credit One Bank, we actually have a bit more hope than we’ve had in a while.

Donna will be working full time, starting some time before November. My YouTube channel was recently monetized, and while it’s only bringing it $100 or so a month, it’s a start. I’ve been working with an editor about a potential book deal, and while my comic hasn’t taken off — I still really enjoy it, and perhaps someday others will enjoy it too. I’ve even built up enough content on YouTube, that I don’t feel bad starting a Patreon page for people who want to support my creative endeavors. (It’s not live yet, but once I get the patron benefits sorted this week, it might be one more trickle of income)

So yeah. It’s been a rough month. But it’s also been a good month. We really will be OK, and my intent is certainly not to make anyone worry about us. We didn’t fall for a scam, and yet we ended up losing the bulk of our “cushion” in arguably the worst time ever. My hope is that everyone looks a bit closer at their checking account after reading this, and if you do end up a victim of bank fraud — know that someone else’s evil is not a character flaw of yours. Be kind, maybe especially to yourself. It’s easy to be like Blue, and since I draw him, I know it first hand.

Success

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Five years ago, my wife Donna and I invested our entire nest egg into buying an old farm in Brutus, MI. We refurbished the old barn, and created a young adult ministry, because there wasn’t one in the area. It turned out almost exactly like we pictured it, but then when it was still in its infancy, Emmet County shut us down. It was actually quite ugly, and they threatened to condemn the property if we even had a bible study in the farmhouse.

“The Barn” in its heyday…

So now, rather than the vibrant ministry we hoped to launch, Donna and I have a mountain of debt, a second property to pay taxes on, and a really nice barn we’re not allowed to use. It’s really easy to feel angry, foolish, and defeated.

But.

The young adults who were part of the fledgling ministry did not get shut down. They continued to meet in other locations. They kept meeting for worship music, bible studies, and fellowship. In fact, the core group of people still meet to this day, years after the actual barn was shut down. They still call their group “The Barn”, even though many of the current group members were not around when the actual barn was involved.

Over the past 5 years, 4 couples who met or got their start at the barn have gotten married. One of them is my eldest daughter, the singer in the video clip above. Her and her husband are expecting their first child, and our first grandchild, in September. The group of young adults that got started at our short-lived ministry continues to grow and flourish, even though my wife and I are no longer a part of it at all. Our barn sits empty, but I’m not sure I can consider it a failure.

Our goal when we started The Barn was to create a community of young adults who could grow together, and lean on each other as they transitioned to adulthood. We always intended for the group to take over once it was established. We wanted… exactly what happened. It just wasn’t exactly the way we expected it to happen.

Donna and I can always make more money. We can have a bit less extravagant retirement, which can start a few years later than we intended. Because when we decided to invest everything we had into the lives of the young adults we cared for, our intent was to change their lives, not create a business. And their lives are not only changed, but continue to change new lives who only know “The Barn” as a weird name that references some place they used to meet.

The Barn is both the biggest failure, and largest success we’ve had the pleasure to be involved in. It didn’t turn out like we planned, and yet it also ended up much better than we ever hoped.

Success, it seems, comes in many flavors.

Mental Illness Month

I think May is mental illness month. It might be October though, because Google tells me both things. It doesn’t really matter though, because honestly it’s not something that only happens once a year. I mean “Christmas Month” makes sense, or “Pre Spring Break Tanning Bed Month” — but Mental Illness isn’t seasonal. Well, unless it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is seasonal by definition. Even that isn’t just one month long though, so leave me alone about it!

In case you haven’t already realized it, I suffer from mental illness. Some of it might be a result of my accident, but for the most part it’s just the way my brain was built. I rarely talk about my mental illness, because it’s horribly embarrassing. Plus, I generally try not to think about it, especially since overthinking is sorta one of the symptoms. Nonetheless, I’m feeling OK today, and thought it would be a good idea to use the whole “Month” thing as an excuse.

I always try to do my best, and in the case of mental illnesses, I’m a bit of an overachiever. I have the “Trifecta of Crazy”, or more specifically, I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety, and Depression. Before you line up to get my autograph, it’s important to realize that the three disorders are very closely related, and are sorta like symptoms of the same issue. (I know, the issue is called “crazy”, har har har) I’ll explain them in order of their crippling effect…

OCD – This is the one that is hardest to believe is real. For me, I mean. Because really, it feels insane WHILE I’m doing it. My particular manifestation of OCD is that I have to do things evenly. If I turn the volume up on the remote, I need to also turn it down. If I step on a sidewalk crack with my right foot, I have to step on one with my left. If that weren’t enough, I then have to step on one with my left again, followed by stepping on one with my right. Because it has to be “even” (I stepped on one with my right foot first last time, now I have to step on one with my left foot first). I know it’s crazy. Boy do I know it’s crazy. That doesn’t stop me from slapping my own butt cheek, however, if my wife nonchalantly slapped one cheek without slapping the other. When it gets out of control, this particular mental illness is very frustrating, as you can imagine. Not just for me, but for people trying to watch television when I have to pass the channel I was switching to so I can press the “down” channel button since I’ve been pressing the “up” button. Thankfully, this one is managed fairly well with medication. It’s absurd, I know. Still, it’s very, very real. If you have symptoms of OCD, and you’re embarrassed to get help — SEE A DOCTOR. Yes, it embarrassed the crap out of me to tell a sane, rational doctor that I had to slap my own unbalanced butt cheek — but he prescribed medicine (a small dose even), and it works. It was worth it.

Anxiety – This is the one I still attribute to the car accident. After my accident, I had such horrible anxiety (and Agoraphobia, a common bedfellow of anxiety) I almost couldn’t function. I wasn’t afraid of anything in particular, except for maybe that I was going crazy. I really only have issues with anxiety when I’m in a crowded room for too long, or if I’m particularly mentally exhausted. If you see me at a party looking particularly nutso, it’s safe to assume my brain is overwhelmed, and I’m currently certain the world is about to end. Or explode. Or I’m going to explode. Or everyone is out to get me. Or that I’m part of an intricate television show where everyone watches me and knows all my secrets. (I don’t even have good secrets, so I suspect the show will get canceled after the first season, especially if it’s on FOX) The good news is that medicine helps here too. I’m told that counseling really helps too, but thanks to insurance issues after my accident, I never spoke to a counselor. I should probably do that now, but it’s not like I have this mental illness thing all figured out. It’s still embarrassing, and what if the counselor uncovers some secret past of mine, and finds out I’m really a serial killer. Or spy. Or Libertarian. But really. If you have anxiety, see someone. At least your doctor. Drugs aren’t always the answer, but they’re almost always *part* of the answer.

Depression – I don’t very often suffer from depression. Part of that is because my OCD/Anxiety medication also treats depression. (Remember I said they’re all related?) I’m actually very thankful that this is the one I struggle with the least, because it’s the most scary. When I get depressed, I get really, really depressed. And when you’re really, really depressed, you don’t want to get help. You don’t want to do anything. You don’t want to BE. I’m going to be very transparent here, even though it scares the crap out of me. When I’m in a valley of depression, I’m pretty sure I only hang on because of the people I care about. The depression would have me believe that everyone would be better off without me. Because dealing with a depressed person is HARD. It’s painful for me to see how much it hurts my family when I’m depressed. And it feels like it’s all my fault, because, well, it’s ME! I keep going because of the truth that I’ve told myself over and over when I’m *not* depressed; depression lies.

Depression lies.

It gets its own paragraph because it’s so simple, but so, so important. Dealing with a clinically depressed person *is* really difficult for those around them. Heck, dealing with a grumpy person is difficult. But that’s NOTHING compared to dealing with the loss of someone you love. I don’t know this first hand, thankfully, but I know others who do. I know that when my wife struggles with her own form of mental illness (it’s not my story to tell, so don’t ask), it’s very difficult to be the loved one. But never, ever ever ever is dealing with someone’s struggles worse than dealing with the loss of them.

There is medicine that helps with depression. It’s not magic, and it’s can even lose its effectiveness after a while. If you have issues with depression, please talk to your doctor. You should probably seek counseling too, but at the very least, talk to your doctor about it. There is help available, and it’s NOT a sign of weakness to ask for help. Holy crap it’s the opposite. It’s SO HARD to ask for help, that doing so is a victory in and of itself.

So that’s my schtick on mental illness. I have it, in spades. It affects my life on a day to day basis too, in more ways than just the TV remote thing. I’ll try to post some more this month about it, because I’d rather embarrass myself a bit than to have someone think it’s shameful to have issues. If you get nothing else from this post, just remember, depression lies. It really, really does.