It’s not just my appendix that’s vestigial.

When I learned about vestigial structures in high school biology, I imagined the concept applied only to bodily organs. In the biological context, vestigial refers to an organ or part of the body that loses its function through evolution. (Think of the wings on a kiwi or chicken.) But in the sociological sense, I posit that it is a behavioral adaptation (appropriate to a former setting) that no longer serves the purpose for which it was originally intended.

Growing Up

I grew up in a particularly bad part of my city, or as an acquaintance so eloquently put it, “Damnnnnnn, you live in the ghetto…” As a bit of background, my home city frequently leads the top 10 most dangerous cities in which to live.

Most of the danger stemmed from gang violence. As a result, the key to staying out of trouble became keeping a low profile: don’t make conversations with strangers, keep the basketball game friendships restricted to the courts, don’t respond to verbal threats, avoid dangerous areas, etc. The violence, however, meant fights were quite common. I personally have never been interested in a fight –  never felt it was a passage into manhood. As a result, I managed a way to avoid them: a “fuck you, leave me alone” scowl.¹ I mean-mugged, acted hard, looked hard,  put my stink-em face on, gave them a stink eye,  flashed my RBF (resting bitch face), etc… And it more or less worked. I never did once get into a fight, still haven’t to this day.

There’s something about a smile in the hood. Something that signifies weakness. I have no idea why, but I was always expected someone to come up and ask, “What the fuck you smiling about?” if a shit-eating grin ever crossed my face. As if your smile meant you couldn’t stand up for yourself when the time came. As if a smile was an invitation to be crossed, to be tricked, to be taken advantage of.

Supporting Evidence

In fact, a recent study supports that position. Researchers tested the idea whether if, in the context of a staged face-off before a fight, “smiles are an involuntary signal of submission and lack of aggression, just as teeth baring is in the animal kingdom.” Sure enough, “fighters who smiled more intensely prior to a fight were more likely to lose, to be knocked down in the clash, to be hit more times, and to be wrestled to the ground by their opponent (statistically speaking, the effect sizes here were small to medium). On the other hand, fighters with neutral facial expressions pre-match were more likely to excel and dominate in the fight the next day, including being more likely to win by knock-out or submission.”

Selection Pressures

While this may have gotten me far in the hood, scowling absolutely failed me in the corporate setting. By the end of my summer internship, I was invited to breakfast with the hiring partner at the firm where I was working. His main concern was, “You seem to be unhappy here. You never smile.” What used to keep danger away now threatened to upend my career.

I was under the false impression that I would be judged by my work product, and not my presentation. But after being warned about the dress code (I wore a polo on a Thursday, gasp!) and told my wearing earbuds on the way to the restroom made it look like I wasn’t working hard enough, I realized impressions were 50% work product, 50% how you present yourself. And smiling was key. Unlike the hood, I was to slap that shit-eating grin across my face, and when asked how much more shit I wanted, answer, “Plenty more, sir!”

Moving Forward

Because that’s the thing about vestigial structures. They remain, but only as long as there aren’t any selection pressures to weed them out. And in the corporate setting, either my scowl or employment were going to be weeded out. Ultimately, I chose to return to my home state, and this immediately fixed the problem – as it turns out, it’s easier to smile when you genuinely enjoy your environment.

But I learned something from that experience. Behavioral adaptations that served me in a former setting could do me a great disservice in another. And as my career carries forward, the more I push myself into new settings, the more I’ll need to be cognizant of this implication.

-fotografhia

emotions are like crayons. 

hate is black. love is white.

a blank page is inherently white – like life- the canvas for life is love.

to which we paint our stories. some people choose to cover their whole canvas up with colors, with distractions, with fancy things.

the love is there, but you cant see it. its covered. its hidden.

some people have less color, and you can still see the white. but the black splotches show their depth – those blacks are hatreds.

ideally- my canvas would be white. and colors.

thats how i view the world.

solid lines, like corners.

you make them in a painting/canvas juxtaposing blacks and whites. 

a balance of shadows.

which goes to say – that unfortunately men. which are built as square and jagged can be chiseled by whites, or chiseled by blacks. chiseled by love, or chiseled by hatred/meanness.

women however, are subtle.  flowing lines. the balance of blues and reds, gradations. to form a wave like quality that is native to women.

-epiphany

tl;dr: I left law school with six figures on my head: $107,025. Fifteen months later, after aggressive repayment and other frugal practices, I’m worth $0.

My Situation

I’m finally worthless.

I left law school with a six figure mortgage on my head: $107,025.

Fifteen months later, I’ve paid $93,292.78, and still have $26,485.27 left.  By the time I finish paying off my loans, I will have paid approximately $13,000 in interest.

As for being worthless, I mean this strictly in the accounting sense. Net worth = assets – liabilities. Essentially,  my emergency fund, 401k, and jalopy of a car are equal to my student loans.

Net Worth

*I’ve ignored ~14k of other assets and liabilities, as they’re a wash.*

How did I do it? Long story short, on $XX,000 gross income ($XX,000 net after taxes), I put myself on a $30,000 budget, and applied the rest of my salary to my loans.

Mint

*This graph does not account for a salary advance taken in 2012, repaid throughout 2013, that I put toward student loans. Business services are the reimbursable expenses I note below.*

In 2013, I actually ended up spending $25,500. Even on my aggressive budget, I managed to put an additional $4,500 toward loans.

Disclaimer

Allow me to cut you off: Before you tell me to go fuck myself², and that my situation does not apply to you – that you can glean nothing from my experience, I’d like to say a couple of things that I hope help.

  1. Frugality applies regardless of income. The lessons I’ve learned, the habits I’ve cultivated, they’re not exclusive to my situation. Even if you can’t commit X0% of your income to debt repayment, maybe this can help you increase it from 10 to 20%.
  2. When I was ten years old, my father lost his job to a disability. We never had much money, but his injury stressed our situation to the extreme. To stay alive, my family ran up a credit card debt, something I witnessed personally. (In an immigrant family with non/semi-English speaking parents, the oldest/most-educated quickly becomes the financial representative and learns the family’s finances.) I quickly learned the effects debt could have on a family: It was one thing to be poor, it was another to become enslaved to debt. This experience molded me at a young age. When I went to law school 11 years later and accrued six figures worth of debt, I made it my mission to pay it off as quickly as possible.

My Methods

I’ve gone over some of these methods before in an earlier post. But in this post,  I’ll expound and edit some of my earlier comments.

  1. Maintain your old standard of living – it’s easy to upgrade, nearly impossible to downgrade
  2. Draw up a budget – stick to it
  3. Avoid consumerism – reflect before you impulse shop
  4. You’re a product of your environment – keep frugal friends
  5. Live in a shitty neighborhood – but dat rent payment doe
  6. Negotiate your student aid package – don’t accept your school’s first offer
  7. Change your student loan plan to extended – repay your loans using the avalanche method
  8. Maximize rewards on your credit card – pay your statement balance off every month
  9. Pick an airline – collect the points
  10. Contribute to your 401k up to employer match – if you’re in a high enough tax bracket, contribute up to your max
  11. Take advantage of your work perks – use the office milk for cereal
  12. Cook – groceries are far cheaper than eating out
  13. You’re not alone in this – accept the help you’re given
  • Maintain your old standard of living – it’s easy to upgrade, nearly impossible to downgrade

I grew up poor. During some points of my childhood, my parents raised a family of 5 on less than $25,000. (We never ate out, went to a movie theater once a year, my dad and I collected abandoned tennis balls at the park for fun…)  All throughout college and law school, I made by on less than $20,000 per year. By the time I started work, I figured: If my parents could raise us on 25, I could live like a king on 30.¹ So I gave myself a small upgrade in a standard of living, and stuck to it.

On my 30k salary, I had $2,500/mo to spend. To give you a feel for my standard of living, my pre-paid phone is nearly 4 years old, I drive a 16 year old car, I buy my clothes from second-hand stores, my brother and I don’t use the heater more than one week a year…

Truth be told, I could probably live under $20,000, but I gave myself a high enough salary to afford some luxuries like travel. Some months I set a goal to save $500 to put toward a vacation. Three to four months later, I’m looking at enough money to afford a plane ticket and have enough for a hotel and food if I plan it right. I figure a slightly higher salary that I can keep long-term is better than cutting costs to bare bones only for me to break it and binge.

I was especially wary of the golden handcuffs syndrome: You start making good money and you end up buying the lifestyle that comes with it. Managers and other co-workers pitch in: “encouraging [co-workers] to keep their student loan balance high, to buy bigger houses and fancier cars, and to live beyond their means epitomizes the theory of the golden handcuffs.” By the time you’re a few years in, your mortgage and unpaid student loans make sure you feel you can’t afford to leave.

  • Draw up a budget – stick to it

The most aggressive budget in the world doesn’t matter if you’re not sure if you’re following it.

My favorite is using an Excel spreadsheet to track daily expenses. I make most of my purchases through credit card, and I set aside some time at least twice every week to catalog all my expenses, affixing a comment to each cell so I can go back later if I have any doubts as to what the purchase was. I find this forces me to reflect on my purchases and makes me think back before I shop.

(If you’re often paying cash, make it a practice to put your receipts in your wallet until you’ve logged them as expenses.)

If you want to track your expenses without the manual hassle, another option is Mint. By granting it access to your online money accounts, it does the tracking for you. Two points come to mind. First point, I prefer Excel over Mint because manually inputting purchases requires me to reflect more than seeing a Mint snapshot of how I’ve spent my money. Second point, some people don’t feel safe trusting their banking information to Mint. Even if they trust Mint, who knows how they store your passwords or what security they have on your personal information? If hackers can gain access, you might be compromised in a way you’re not comfortable with.

I go belt-and-suspenders, and use both services. For my expense log, I prefer Excel, but for net worth graphs and pretty pie charts, I prefer Mint.

  • Avoid consumerism – reflect before you impulse shop

I treat the word need as literally as I can: food, water, shelter, etc. If I need something, assuming I have it in the budget, I buy it immediately. For example, once a coworker noticed I had holes in my only pair of black pants, I went to the thrift store and bought another pair that day.

But if I want it, and it’s above $20, I give myself a month to decide if I still want it. If it’s a big enough purchase, I save up for it over several months, and then make a game out of seeing how long I can go without buying it. As it turns out, though, I’ve found that sometimes, it’s more fun to want something than it is to have it.

Speaking of which, one of these days, I’ll get those cap toes and telephoto.

  • You’re a product of your environment – keep frugal friends

At work, I found similarly minded people and joined an informal frugal club: each of us had paid our student loans within 3-4 years. I notice that when I go out with them, I spend <$20. When I go out with other co-workers, I easily find myself spending $60+ on a night out.

I live with my brother, and sometimes go grocery shopping with him. A few months back, I picked up a $4 bottle of wine, only to have my brother ask why I was suddenly splurging as compared to my usual $2 buck chuck. The importance wasn’t saving $2; by having my brother around, I maintain perspective on costs.

  • Live in a shitty neighborhood – you pay far less rent

I don’t recommend this, but I REALLY wanted to repay my loans.

I have friends whose rent alone is ~2500+ per month living in the city, but  to stay within my budget, I chose to live outside of the city and commute in to save on rent. Even factoring in transportation costs, I’ve managed to keep rent+commute under ~1200. Plus, trying to avoid the robberies keeps me in prime sprinting form.

When I worked in Manhattan, I purposely chose to live in West Harlem. Not only did I save on rent, but more importantly, it kept me grounded. After being treated to $25 hamburgers and $40 filet mignons at work, I remember trying to pick up some dinner near my apartment only to be surprised by a $4 combo meal in a hole in the wall. Only a few weeks and I had forgotten food could even be that cheap.

  • Negotiate your student aid package – don’t accept your school’s first offer

When I got accepted into law school, my student aid package didn’t report my Grad Plus loans. Costs were $55k, but funding was $35k. I went into the student aid office, told them that while it was adorable that they had accepted me, that they might as well have rejected me if they weren’t going to fund me. I told them that on second thought, the finances didn’t even make sense to go to law school.

I had already been offered $23k in need-based aid per year. A few days later, I got an email from the student aid office: I was being offered a $10k/yr merit-based scholarship. Between the need-based aid and merit-based aid, this ended up saving me 100k in tuition. But the key was the merit-based scholarship – had I kept my mouth shut originally, that’d be 30k I’d still be paying today.

  • Change your student loan plan to extended – repay your loans using the avalanche method

The avalanche method is a method of repayment that requires you to pay minimums on all debt and put all your extra income to your highest interest loan. Mathematically, this results in your paying the least amount of interest over the life of all your loans. You will also be debt-free soonest.

Changing your repayment plan from standard to extended extends the terms of the loans from 10 years to 30, but it also lowers minimum payments on the lower interest loans. This allows you to put more income toward the highest interest loans.

For a more detailed explanation, see my previous post on the matter.

  • Maximize rewards on your credit card – pay your statement balance off every month

With a little bit of research, I found the ideal credit card to maximize the rewards for my usual expenses. In my case, it was the Capital One Venture card, affording me 2% travel rewards on all charges. With their purchase eraser feature, I could erase any travel expenses from my credit card balance, effectively netting me cash-back.

It’s a common misconception that maintaining a balance on your credit card is good for your credit. A. This is false; and B. Even if it were true, the interest you’d end up paying would not make it worth it.

  • Pick an airline – collect the points

My job requires that I fly abroad frequently for business. Per year, I’m averaging 6 international flights a year. To get the most points, I fly the same airline and make sure each flight is logged on my frequent flyer account. Start early, some airlines do not allow backdating rewards.

  • Contribute to your 401k up to employer match – if you’re in a high enough tax bracket, contribute up to your max

Because I’ve noted this in another post, I’ll link to it directly.

However, after talking with a coworker, I’ve changed my tune on 401k. As it stands now, I’m in the highest tax bracket possible. It’s highly likely that I’ll make less than my current income in retirement, so it makes sense to defer my income so as to have it taxed at a lower rate later in life. As of the beginning of this year, I’ll be maxing out my 401k contribution.

  • Take advantage of your work perks – use the office milk for cereal

If I work past 7, dinner’s on the client. If that nets me leftovers,  that saves me having to make lunch. If I work past 9, the taxi’s on the client, too. I save myself the subway ride and more importantly, I get home safely.

While everyone else uses the office milk for coffee, I use my share for cereal. Making sure I have a good breakfast ensures that I don’t binge for lunch.

I expense reimbursements on my credit card, and cash out on the rewards. I go on recruitment events and score free dinners when I can.

The more work spends on me, the less I have to spend myself.

  • Cook – groceries are far cheaper than eating out

This one is pretty self-explanatory.

  • You’re not alone in this – accept the help you’re given

I did not get here alone; I’ve had so much help along the way.

When I was in my second year of law school, I fell into a heavy depression – afraid I was never going to repay my debt. It was easily the lowest point I’ve ever experienced in my life. My parents were absolutely instrumental in my recovery, but in terms of debt repayment, a close friend was key. Let’s call him T Lo. While everyone else had accepted my decision to leave law school, T Lo refused to. Any excuse I made, he shot down. Every reason I had, he refused. I had left school, was one day away from submitting for medical leave, and T Lo cut it short. I came back to school, finished, and started work. Without him, there’s no way I’d be where I am today.

And then, right around graduation, I applied to TFA, set on never putting my degree to use. A friend, D., insisted I take the job offer I had and pay my loans as quickly as possible. She kept on it for weeks. Even after I made her promise to stop, she kept at it. Suffice it to say, she succeeded. Without her, I’d have another 9 years before I was free.

Not only that, but even now, my mom helps out by ironing my dress shirts, my dad pays the insurance on the car I share with my brother. Before I started work, I asked my brother to live with me. I’d pay a larger share of the rent, and he’d cook dinner. The biggest bonus: nothing like coming home to supportive family after a 16 hour workday…

Edit: Special props go to my good friend, HJR, who taught me the Excel/budgeting tricks in Summer of ’11, and was instrumental in beginning my path toward frugality.

Steps Forward

If I keep according to plan, I’ll be debt free by May 2014. I’m not sure what my next steps will be, but as of now, I’m thinking extended travel in a few years. Nothing quite like collecting passport stamps.

– Dobby

____________________

1 To be honest, I think this was the main reason why I was successful. My childhood anchored me as to expenses: my parents’ $500 mortgage growing up pretty much made it impossible for me to justify paying $2000/mo for a 1BR apartment in the city.

2 I will admit, when I was in 2nd year of law school, I remember reading an article of someone paying off 90k of student loans in one year. My thoughts when I read it: go fuck yourself…

I woke up at 2:30 in the afternoon today. The sun hurt my eyes so I shut the unwilling blinds closed. I woke up to this empty house with credulous windows that were sold, I made aromatic coffee so elegantly bold. This trembling room is drowning in the timorous memories of all the lies I ever told. I spike my coffee with whiskey, a little bit of everything to mask the cold, to numb the pain, to forget how much I guilelessly fold, to quiet my soul that I sold, to remember a gaze I can never hold, to justify a few days of sanity belonging to the old.. I stay indoors while the sun dies and until the winter night is born. When the day dies raven and the doleful moon takes over her throne, I can go outside and smoke a cigarette and stare into stars, my eyes worn. These lovelorn freckling stars are faint in this city, so I dim the lights on the dying Christmas tree, his needle-like yellow leaves torn. My sweet mug filled with an intoxicating hot brew, the repeating music dancing slowly through, I rue the lively hue of this ink that stains this paper anew. This poem composed in haste and jotted frantically in disarray by a madman, these mordant, vitriolic verses that run their delusive mirage without a plan, these lovely phrases that span ephemerally for a small eternity, they all immaculately leave me void and vacated, petrous yet uninhabited, engulfed by the attenuating twinge of a warm trenchant longing to sleep without a dream anticipated. This beguiling room with her solemn illusive solitude, this debilitating reality brazenly razing its ostensible facade in nude, this blatant daily self-deprecation and breaking of voracious hearts so crude, it’s celestial yet ungodly, as if despicable by a divine design, as if a magnificent misery callously composed by a violin unfaithful to music and to wine.. This is my life. This, is my poem with words confined. I’m just tired, and in exhaustion I’m slowly losing my mind. In exhaustion, I leave the room behind a bind, I lose, just so I can find.

-agrestis

My room is full of maps, heavy books never opened, piled on top of one another. The curtains are closed in my room. Sometimes I run away from this house because she’s not a home. This time, I ran to far and foreign countries where the sun hides when it’s raining, melancholic drops of music pouring radiantly from everywhere. Maybe I should stop running. Maybe the maps lie, and maybe the books reveal a story worth reading. The music advances in my room, and musical instruments are never played, dusty old friends that are now strangers, trying to be found while I’m searching for something unknown beyond the ceiling of my messy room, behind her furtive walls that have feelings, but are yet lovelorn. My friends don’t know, but my room has seen me lie, deliberating to numb the pain with alcohol and drugs, burying far-flowing feelings, masking emotions without learning their meaning. Can they believe my bench, even though they’ve never been there? Are there any friends that believe Christmas trees live forever in this winter? Maybe I should be mute not to lie, and maybe I should be ill, not to run. Perhaps I should burn this room and live in a new house alone. Maybe I’ll find a place I can call home. Maybe if I were blind, I’d stop believing the deceitful lies the maps feed me. Maybe I must be deaf not to hear the piano and the violins. Someone show me, tell me slowly, where is the heart of me. This room is crazy, yet its emptiness the same. These people are so unknowingly insane. I’m just a man, writing a little more to keep myself sane. Don’t tell anyone I’m writing. They get worried if I’m not smiling. But my words need to smile too, like the freckling stars shining in the face of this cold, raven night, where the sun’s shy, they may be strong too.

– agrestis

I had heard of the royal we, where kings, relying on “divine right,” used the pronoun to speak for both God and themselves. The king would cease to speak solely in a personal capacity, but also in a representative capacity as leader of his nation or state. In this practice, we replaces I as is “perceived as deferential and more polite than singular forms.”

At work, I learned of its business counterpart: the corporate we.

Picture this: A superior comes to you and says the following, “We’re going to need to do X, Y and Z…” As she describes the project in further detail, you realize that we actually means you, which has often left me wanting to say, “And which part will you be doing?” In the corporate setting, it is considered polite to pretend a task will be a team effort rather than acknowledging the junior will be doing the grunt work. (To be fair, when a superior reviews and takes ultimate responsibility for the work product, it really is a joint effort.)

Or imagine this: You’re the most junior member on a 3-person team. A client writes your group at whatever odd hour of the evening with an additional request. The mid-level responds immediately, making sure to CC you, “We will review this at once and send the corresponding documents.” And just like that, you know who will be reviewing the documents and sending them out: you. Here, we actually meant (s)he.

Both royal and corporate forms change the meaning of “we” out of politeness. The plurality in the royal form is meant to come off as deferential, while the plurality in the corporate form is meant to evoke teamwork. I can’t speak as to the former, but the latter fails: it removes agency from the assignment of work while still benefiting from its assignment. For me, directness is as polite as it gets: the frankness of “I need you to do X” is more than enough motivation.

All in all, I’ve learned that context is important: whether you’re in a royal court or a judicial one, we hardly ever means we.

-fotografhia

Story 1

I was living in Dubai for the past year and my rent was pre-paid through November 30th. My contract allows me to move out early with a refund if I give a 60-day notice. I gave my landlord notice in July. At the time I insisted that the landlord’s agent, Rose, confirm a) receipt of the notice and b) that I would receive a refund for two months’ rent upon moving out. Rose confirmed in writing.

I moved out at the end of September. The landlord’s employee, Anne, took my keys. She confirmed my refund amount via email and asked for my bank account details. I gave them to her.

A week later I emailed Anne to inform her that I did not receive the payment. She said she’d check with the landlord. The next day she informed me that the landlord said he does not have an obligation to pay me. I sent detailed emails showing the clauses in my contract, my move-out notice, and the emails from the agent confirming the refund amount. The landlord ignored the emails.

It is 100% clear to me that my landlord is violating our agreement and stealing my rent. The property manager, Rose, supports me. But to move forward I am faced with a dilemma. It will cost 500 dollars per hour to hire a lawyer to help me. And the lawyer refuses to make any comment about whether I could claim the legal fees as part of my case. So I may lose the case, and I may win the case but not be reimbursed for the legal fees (which could be anywhere from 40% to over 100% of the money the landlord owes me). And I am moving from Dubai to Amman so I cannot attempt to sue the landlord directly.

The lawyers I spoke to were not helpful. They believe I have a strong case and will represent me, but they will not cap the number of hours required or arrange some other payment deal. So although my landlord is taking advantage of me, it may not be a good move for me to take any action.

Story 2

I came to Amman a few days ago to set up the office here. My colleague rented a furnished apartment for me near the office. I’m new to Amman but it seems to be one of the best neighborhoods in the city. The apartment itself is nice. And it is double the normal price of an apartment because we got it furnished and for only one month. It is also across the street from a fancy gym.

I came home past midnight Thursday night and went to bed. I was planning to wake up at 9am to go back to the office (that seems late but Friday is the weekend here). I woke up at what was probably 8am but I continued to try to sleep. I was somewhere between thinking and dreaming, but awake enough to be aware that I was in bed and that it was morning. It was about 8:30am.

My bedroom door slowly opened. I turned and saw the face of a young man. Calmly I asked, “who are you?” and he just closed the door and left. Since I was new to the apartment I thought maybe he comes every Friday morning to clean the apartment. About a minute later I questioned this because I heard no noise while he was in the living room, and he did not greet me or apologize when I saw him. Instead, immediately closed the door (calmly) and left.

Maybe he was a thief! I jumped out of my bed and ran through the living room to the hallway. “HEYY!!! Who are you?” then in Arabic “min anta?! Wainak!” I came back to my living room and checked on the only valuables I had in the apartment: my iPhone, my Android phone, and my cash. They were all missing.

I showered, dressed, and went to the office. My colleagues came to the office a few minutes later and I told them what happened. They urged me to report the incident to the police. Sara was visiting Amman with me and staying in the same building. She told me that she was woken up at 2am because someone was trying to open her front door. Luckily for her, her door was locked and her key was inside of it (this is relevant later). Admittedly, my front door had been unlocked.

Sara called our office assistant to take me to the police station. I arrived at the police station around 11am. The police station was in a residential area. We walked in and were directed to a room where a man sat behind a desk in plain clothing. He asked us what happened.

There were two other men in the room, also in plain clothes. As I spoke, I was interrupted with many questions. “Why wasn’t your door locked… you should lock it. Next time lock it… how much do you pay for your apartment?… why are you paying so much? You’re overpaying. You could get a better deal than that, much better…”

And no one was taking notes.

Then I described the person I saw. I saw him very briefly. But I think he was not much taller than me, skinny, he had thick hair, and his skin was on the darker side.

Our office assistant asked me if it was the building manager. He apparently fit the description. I told him I never met the building manager. However, two days ago I was in the hallway of my apartment and had this exchange with a man:

“Do you live in this building?”

“Yes”

“What? Which unit?”

“14”

“Oh, you must have just arrived then”

“Yeah”

“What is your nationality/citizenship ((جنس”

“American”

I said that the man who asked me these questions did not look like the guy who was in my apartment though.

Next a man brought two books to me full of men’s faces. I looked through both books and did not find anyone that looked anything like the man in my apartment.

We went to another room 30 minutes later where there was another man behind a desk. This time one of them gets out a paper and asks me questions. The three policemen and our office assistant (his name is Abdo) made lots of jokes. Apparently they knew each other. Some of the questions they asked me were relevant. But much of the conversation went like this:

“So you are American in Amman? Where is your family from though?”

“Libya”

“AHAHAHAA Zenga Zenga Dar Dar!!! AHAHAH”

“yeah”

“AHAHA. But why was your phone number a Dubai number?”

“I live in Dubai”

“Oh. How much money do you earn a month? Is it around XX?”

“Something like that”

“Wow. That is a lot more than any of us make. We make XX”

“Yeah the salaries are higher there but Dubai is expensive”

“Still, it’s great. I am sure you are being paid well here. Were you drinking last night?”

That question seemed relevant. “No”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No”

“Really? Man you were in Dubai with a good salary. Did you at least screw some women?”

“Are we going to solve this case? I did not touch the doorknob of the entrance. Maybe there are fingerprints.”

We continue to talk and they make many more jokes, but I didn’t understand them (my Arabic needs work). Then we go to the apartment. Abdo said he’d call the apartment manager, and I should let him know if it was him, but not to say anything at all in front of the apartment manager.

When we arrived at the apartment with the police, Abdo called the apartment manager and told him we need to see him. He said he couldn’t (or something) and Abdo said no no we need to speak real quick at apartment 14. The manager arrives, sees the police (in plain clothes but with walkie talkies) and he is visibly scared. They police me to unlock the apartment but I hesitate because I don’t want to touch the doorknob. Abdo tells me I can open it without touching the doorknob and I do.

Then the police walk in and grab the doorknob to open the door further. Evidence destroyed.  We press the light switch and the lights don’t turn on. The apartment manager says the light must have burned out, and offers to go and get new lights (according to Abdo).  He was told to stay put, and I noted that there were two lights. Both were working when I left. Now both were not working. Very suspicious.

I told the police that the apartment manager matched my description, but I did not see the assailant well enough to identify him with certainty.

He was taken into custody for questioning. I felt guilty because the man seemed scared. The evidence and points of suspicion are:

  • I was asked which unit I lived in and what my nationality was (American). It’s not a good idea to tell people you are American when traveling. It was not the apartment manager who asked, but I later learned from Sara that she saw that the apartment manager lives with 5 other guys.
  • The apartment manager met the description I gave to the police.
  • Sara told us that someone tried to open her door at 2am. She said it was probably him. I asked her if it was someone who just tried and then left, or if they tried for a while. She said it was enough to wake her up from the other room, so he must have been trying for a while. And she says that because her key was still in the lock, he would not have been able to open the door even with the key.
  • Apparently he was planning to fly to Egypt in a few days
  • He looked scared – though this could be for other reasons (I could not understand all of the Arabic being spoken and I wasn’t a part of all conversations)
  • I don’t really know what to think of this, but the lights in the living room did not work when we came back to the apartment. I don’t know what could have happened during those two hours I was at the office/police station. My initial theory was that maybe he created this problem as an excuse for why he was in the apartment (perhaps he thinks I saw him 100%)

Thoughts

I gave a lot of detail in this second story because it is an interesting mystery, and because I’d like to remember this experience. But the real reason I shared these two stories is to say this:

I do not know if this young man is innocent or guilty. Neither do the police. But he was handcuffed and taken for interrogation. He is being treated as a criminal. His brother is apparently arriving from Egypt today (the same day of the incident) and will not find him. Even if he is innocent, he may get in trouble for some victimless crime because of this, such as not having proper work authorization.

My landlord, on the other hand, stole much more money from me. I am 100% certain that he stole it and I have all the evidence. But I am the one who is stressed and burdened by the situation. I most likely cannot take action because I don’t live in Dubai anymore. If I do, I bear all the risk of paying for a lawyer.

The man who may or may not have stolen my phones could end up in jail or deported. The man who certainly stole two months of my rent ($5,000) will at most be forced to pay me what he already owes me.

There is something very unfair about this. I feel sorry for the suspect in Amman. He is struggling to get by, sharing an apartment with five guys. And he might be innocent. My landlord in Dubai is 100% guilty of a bigger crime. But he will never be treated as a criminal, and he will likely repeat his crimes with impunity.

I can’t help but be reminded of the investment banks behind the 2008 financial crisis. I can’t help but be reminded of the BP oil spill. The people who commit the biggest crimes are the ones who get away with it.

-wilaneta

If conspicuous consumption (buying things to show them off) was in fashion in our parent’s generation, I like to think my generation has replaced it with its close cousin: conspicuous experiences (buying experiences to show them off).

Whether it’s a function of sour grapes or a true attitudinal shift, I can’t quite tell.

On the sour grapes front, there are student loans. For those of us who graduate from college with debt, the average is a cool $26,000. Unemployment and economic malaise only serve to worsen the burden. Even if my generation wanted to buy a flashy over-sized home, our credit and debt obligations would likely prevent us from doing so. So perhaps we pretend we don’t want it, citing to the freedom and carefree nature of renting.

On the attitudinal front, many of us saw our parents buy that flashy oversized home, lose their jobs in the 2008 crisis, and begin the painful deleveraging process. We saw our parents go from consuming commodities to having commodities consume them. Sure, renting can’t buy you equity, but it won’t leave you six figures underwater.

Thorstein Veblen*, who termed the phrase “conspicuous consumption”, described it as applying “wealth as a means of publicly manifesting … social power and prestige.” Buying a luxury car serves as a signal to our peers: look how good I have it… look how happy I am. In our parents’ generation, the belief was that things could buy you happiness. In ours, we read study after study that it’s not things, but experiences that buy you happiness.

But just because my generation is done buying things doesn’t mean we’re done showcasing how happy we are. We’re not content with just experiencing our lives, but instead, we have to put them on display. We use Facebook, Twitter, chats, SMS, phone calls (who am I kidding, no one does that), Snapchats to broadcast our experiences. What was once conspicuous material consumption becomes conspicuous experiential consumption. Instead of showing off bling, we’re now casually uploading vacation photos, concert tickets, tagging every which place we go to. It’s not enough to enjoy ourselves. Others must know how wonderful our life is.

But we forget we’re not always the ones on stage. And when it’s our turn to be in the audience, we compare our B-reel to everybody else’s highlights, and leave feeling a pauper of happiness. Because once you commit to showing everybody how happy you are, you also commit to the happiness arms race. Your  “I want to be happy”  goal turns into “Look how much happier everybody is than me.” And suddenly, the pressure’s on for any experience to be the best it possibly can be. Because, sure, your date is cute, but someone cuter could have just messaged you, and you’re sure as hell not gonna find out if your phone is in your pocket.

So you disconnect. Sure, you’re there in form, but not in spirit. And that blasé look on your face, as you scroll through page of I-don’t-know-what, after I could have sworn we were having such an interesting dinner and you were actually looking at me because I’m sitting 2 feet in front of you, appears. And you’ll tag us both here for the world to see. Because god damn it, even if you’re not, the world deserves to see how happy you are.

_______________

* You may recognize the term “Veblen good”: a commodity where people’s desire to buy certain items increases as their price increases (as greater price confers greater status) instead of decreasing according to the law of demand. A Veblen good is also a positional good.

Recently, there have been some critiques out there that the Cannes festival featured too many French movies this year (six). 

“I find it strange that there are so many French films in competition at a time when French cinema is sub-par,” said Helen Barlow, an Australian critic covering the festival for the online edition of SBS, a multilingual, Australia-based TV channel. “I’m appalled that there are no Australian or New Zealand filmmakers in competition. There should have been one, since there are 50 million French films.”

It’s easy to agree that because the Cannes is an international event, the festival has a duty to represent the world at large and not overly focus on French cinema. 

But at the same time, don’t forget that the World Series hosts two countries, the United States and Canada. There’s an ever worse example: Ms. Universe features only one galaxy.

-fotografhia

Making Oakland proud

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