When You Leave Cloud 9

 

Reading a friend’s memoir feels a bit like voyeurism. Reading a friend’s memoir of their husband, whom you have never met, feels a lot like voyeurism. When my friend Ericka Andersen sent me her new book Leaving Cloud 9, about her husband’s childhood and journey into adulthood, I let it sit on a shelf for months. It felt strange delving into his world in this way; a man I have only seen photos of over the last decade or so of their relationship.

While I was on vacation last week, I brought Ericka’s book with me after listening to her and one of my best friends, Mary Katharine Ham, discuss it on The Federalist podcast. Ericka’s husband Rick’s childhood sounded like mine in a lot of ways, and I was incredibly curious how someone like Rick ended up with someone like Ericka. Ericka, like my husband Seth, had a freakishly normal and loving childhood, and I admired her, as I admire Seth, for jumping into a relationship with someone with as much baggage as a 747.

Like Ericka, Seth was raised in an intensely normal and loving home. Seth and I had different childhoods in many ways: his parents are still married, mine divorced when I was a toddler; I grew up poor, he was upper middle class; he grew up in a committed Jewish home, we were a vague mix of Catholic and Reform Jewish; I bounced around from apartment to apartment and eventually to a trailer park every six months, his parents still own his childhood home. Like Ericka and Rick, you could never imagine the two of us getting together. In Leaving Cloud 9, Ericka explains the social science research indicating how increasingly rare it is for people of Ericka and Seth’s socioeconomic background marrying people like Rick and me.

Like all marriages, ours isn’t perfect. Yes, we have a podcast together, we tweet each other jokes constantly, but like all couples, we have our ups and downs. We have the same stresses as everyone else; it’s probably a good thing that Seth’s stresses are not mine, and my stresses are not Seth’s.

Last night at 1:30 am, I came out into our living room to confess to Seth I’m intensely stressed out about our finances. We’re not poor by any means, we’re living a comfortable middle-class life in the suburbs of New Jersey on a tight margin, but we’re doing fine. I can’t help but feel that we should be doing better; I look around at friends with homes valued over half a million dollars with taxes upwards of $15,000 per year; sending their kids to schools that cost $30,000 per year, per kid; going on exotic vacations or making major renovations to their homes. We’re comfortable in the three-bedroom apartment we’re in, but we’re not financially capable of doing any of those things. What are we doing wrong?

Seth assured me we are not frivolous and we’re not destitute, and yet, I couldn’t help but cry in frustration. Money gets me stressed like nothing else on Earth, while Seth is cool as a cucumber about it. Reading Ericka’s book made me realize why. She wrote,

It’s tough to shake that feeling of possible homelessness, especially after having lived from motel to motel for weeks at a time as a young boy. Today, even with a great family and a relatively high two-person income, Rick will still say things like, “I am imagining having to live in my car” or “I just don’t want to end up homeless.”

The fear is very real, even when it’s irrational, as nearly anyone who has lived it can tell you. And there’s something especially terrifying about going it alone, without the backup of parents or siblings or even friends. The sense of walking a tightrope with no net persists even when you’ve long left the circus and are walking on solid ground. To rid oneself of those fears is a monumental task—one that Rick is still working on.

Reading those paragraphs made me cry. That’s exactly how I feel about money, despite the safety nets we have in place and the careers we’ve built.

People always assume growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household and a fairly secular mix of Catholic and Jewish is the greatest hurdle Seth and I face in our married lives. I have always said, and Ericka’s book reminded me, it’s the financial differences in our upbringings that make the most significant difference and causes the most problems between us. Growing up poor and rich is (I considered anyone with a home rich growing up, even if they were solidly middle class like Seth’s family are), and probably always will be, our greatest challenge.

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There are 7 comments.

  1. Member

    What a great testimony to give in writing, and to the both of you and your spouses. It takes great courage to write something like this because I can imagine you have to relive the experiences. I just finished Under Magnolia by Francis Mayes. I encourage that you read it as well. She wrote Under The Tuscan Sun – the beautiful story that they made into a movie. You’d never guess it was the same writer – so powerful, so much courage. The problems in our families could benefit from this book. I can’t wait to buy it, read it, and pass it along. Thank you for sharing your friend’s story.

    • #1
    • July 5, 2018 at 5:46 pm
    • 3 likes
  2. Thatcher

    Bethany Mandel: What are we doing wrong?

    Living in New Jersey.

    But seriously: you have a great family, a great career, and a great husband. Things usually go slow when you start out in life. It takes time to build up financial security.

    However, it could also come out of the blue. Write your own memoir – maybe it will become a best seller. Keep writing columns for newspapers and Ricochet, keep appearing on TV, and who knows what could happen?

    Heck, your “Altima” story alone should be a movie . . .

    • #2
    • July 6, 2018 at 6:10 am
    • 1 like
  3. Member

    My mother-in-law grew up dirt poor. My father-in-law steadily invested his entire adult life, and left my mother-in-law with a very large estate. Still, she cannot spend an extra 30 cents for a slice of cheese on her $1 hamburger at Burger King, nor can she believe anyone would be foolish enough to do so (I listened to her rant about this for 20 minutes one day). She will wear a pair of shoes until the soles fall off, then she will duct tape them to get another year out of them. She knows she has more money than she will ever spend, yet the thought of being without money drives everything she does. Needlessly worrying about money is ruining her life.

    Another story. I have a friend whose father would intentionally give the kids different amounts of treats, like ice cream. If the kid that got the least complained, he would gently explain, “You have ice cream. Enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it just because someone has more than you, you will never be happy. There will always be someone who has more than you. Enjoy the gift you have been given.”

    Money fears can ruin your life and ruin the relationships you have with people you care about. I suggest you follow the advice of Dave Ramsey to deal with your money concerns.

    BTW, that last thing I would ever want is a half million dollar home with $15,000/ year taxes. I tend to feel sorry for people carrying that burden. Don’t envy them. Definitely don’t try to live like them.

    • #3
    • July 6, 2018 at 6:40 am
    • 3 likes
  4. Member

    OP:

    Last night at 1:30 am, I came out into our living room to confess to Seth I’m intensely stressed out about our finances. We’re not poor by any means, we’re living a comfortable middle-class life in the suburbs of New Jersey on a tight margin, but we’re doing fine. I can’t help but feel that we should be doing better; I look around at friends with homes valued over half a million dollars with taxes upwards of $15,000 per year; sending their kids to schools that cost $30,000 per year, per kid; going on exotic vacations or making major renovations to their homes. We’re comfortable in the three-bedroom apartment we’re in, but we’re not financially capable of doing any of those things. What are we doing wrong?

    You are the product of your background, and I won’t try to change that. But, I will make an observation about the people you see who seem to be “doing better”: chances are they’re not. I’m an old guy (almost but not quite as old as @stad), so it’s been a while since we were the struggling young couple.

    But, back even farther, shortly after my parents divorced when I was a teenager, my mother went into the paid labor force for the first time in 20 years, where she earned minimum wage. Yet a financial planner friend who was helping my mother pointed out that she could write a bigger check than most of our neighbors who looked so prosperous with their new cars and nice furniture. He knew that most of them were highly leveraged, and many were struggling to meet the minimum payments. Looking like you’re “doing better” doesn’t necessarily mean you are “doing better.” Just because someone’s living in a nicer house, driving nicer cars, going on fancier vacations, or sending their kids to expensive schools, don’t assume they are really doing better than you are. 

    • #4
    • July 6, 2018 at 9:49 am
    • 1 like
  5. Coolidge

    I’ve seen a lot of positive reviews of Erika’s book. I might have to check it out, even though it’s about as different from my normal fare as it’s possible for a book to be. 

    Stressing about money isn’t new, people have done that for as long as we’ve had the concept of money. You would think that our current prosperity would make it less common, but it isn’t. Your story and also Michael Brendan Dougherty’s article on NRO today about our social treasury are a good reminder that money can’t buy happiness. You and Seth are a good match. I suspect that while he keeps you from stressing too much about money, you also help him balance his attitude about money (whatever that may be). 

    • #5
    • July 6, 2018 at 11:00 am
    • 1 like
  6. Member
    MB

    My mother is the 9th of 10. Her father was killed in an accident in 1935, She was two, the oldest was 16. My grandmother had grown up on a farm and had an 8th grade education. As you can imagine, things were not easy. As a child, I can remember her explaining that she and my father had selected a wedding ring with a single diamond rather than multiple small stones in case they had to pawn it. It would be worth more at the pawn shop. 

     

    Now, to the lovely part of the story. My parents were never wealthy, but as they did a bit better, and then a bit better, they added to her ring, and then added another ring, and then added diamonds to the rings. Both of my parents were proud of those rings, the work they put in to be able to buy them, and the compliments my mother got on them. My dad died 4 years ago at 90 years old. He had a full life and always took great pride in his 7 daughters. This past year, my mother decided to break up her rings and make one ring for each of us. She spent much time and thought on the settings and disposition of the stones. The twins got identical rings, the youngest the stone from Mom’s engagement ring. I wear mine every day. It’s a single stone and will be worth more at the pawn shop if we need it. 

    • #6
    • July 7, 2018 at 1:48 pm
    • 1 like
  7. Member

    Nick H (View Comment):

    I’ve seen a lot of positive reviews of Erika’s book. I might have to check it out, even though it’s about as different from my normal fare as it’s possible for a book to be.

    Stressing about money isn’t new, people have done that for as long as we’ve had the concept of money. You would think that our current prosperity would make it less common, but it isn’t. Your story and also Michael Brendan Dougherty’s article on NRO today about our social treasury are a good reminder that money can’t buy happiness. You and Seth are a good match. I suspect that while he keeps you from stressing too much about money, you also help him balance his attitude about money (whatever that may be).

    Also, it’s worth remembering that consumption isn’t the same thing as wealth; people who live in modest homes and save consistently can over time become wealthier than people who live beyond their means in expensive homes.

    • #7
    • July 31, 2018 at 9:08 pm
    • 1 like