Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Visible World is Visible

I ran through the parking lot of the local Catholic church this morning. I don't usually do this, but I was making a beeline for the garbage can behind the building. When I rounded the corner I glanced unknowingly under the overhang behind the back door, where two people lay sleeping. There is a story behind this, to which I know no details. I only know that it was a shock for me to see how easily these people, sleeping out doors, could hide in plain sight.

When I was in my twenties I lived in my car. Maxed out on student loans, beholden to landlords that leased buildings on the university calendar rather than the actual calendar I was left each summer to fend for myself. I couchsurfed in the strangest places: from the homes of professors to the odd night on a party house couch. I worked on farms so that I could sleep in a tent on the land. I stored all of my worldy possessions in the basement of the daycare I worked at. I didn't have a landing pad when I was starting out and it still evokes a deep sense of anxiety for me to think about that period of time when I was unmoored.

The image I took in this morning becomes other things besides what it is, as I digest it - not knowing the story that the two young people, lying huddled in a mass of camp bedding, with a single knap sack beside them would tell - I started thinking about what the image - static in my mind- brought forward. I see my own reflection; the years I spent without basic resources, and the constant possibilty for any of us, or for any of our children, that we could be stripped of our material comforts.

I started thinking about the possibilty that this small moment could be a harbinger of things to come. Will small towns like mine grow their populations of indigents as our social tectonics continue to shift? I look at the statistics: unemployment nudging 10%, foreclosure numbers continuing to increase, social safety nets becoming more and more porous as we vie for "job creators" and demonize the people that shifting economics leave most vulnerable. We are in a sinking boat, and many people are doing whatever they can to get into the few lifeboats that we have, leaving many more adrift under the eaves of our churches.

Seeing the pair of human beings sleeping on the pavement this morning, seeking a desperate sort of shelter snapped me into an awareness of our collective moment that I was probably trying not to notice. It is not comfortable to confront the responibility that we have for one another. When I told Mark about the couple, he immediately grew cautious of some ambition he imagined of me: that I would want to invite these folks into our home. I wasn't necessarily moving in that direction, but I was thinking about the web we live in. The repercussions of an individual action on another. If my MO is to myopically and perhaps decadently care for my own needs and whims (with equal fervor?) am I actually taking something from someone else? I don't want everyone who is in trouble to move in with me. I do want us to understand not only our responsibility for one another but how our social negligence will bubble to a visible surface, marring the veneer that we cling to. All of the things that make the middle class or the upper middle class feel secure - lawns, "security systems", signs of status - they all seem false if they juxtapose suffering.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Getting By In Style: Within Our Means

Getting By In Style: Within Our Means: " I do a lot of things to save money: I cook our meals from scratch, garden and can food for the winter, avoid using my dryer as much as poss..."

Within Our Means

 I do a lot of things to save money: I cook our meals from scratch, garden and can food for the winter, avoid using my dryer as much as possible, keep the house at 60 degrees, drive a 1992 Saturn that gets close to 40 MPG which we own outright, shop thrift stores and yard sales, forage freecycle, handmake gifts for most occasions. I don't even have cable, which, these days, sounds like an ultimate sacrifice - I know.  In our kitchen, the words "Use it up..."  written in indelible chalk, dominate the space above our heads to remind us of the old WWII adage: Use it up, wear it our, make due or do without. These are our words to live by.

 Having grown up with my father, who worked in the logging industry making close to $15,000 a year as the sole breadwinner in the eighties, I will never complain about my straits. I acclimated long ago to the challenge of parcelling small amounts of money into their designated areas. I find a certain satisfaction in rising to a challenge and making both sides of the incoming-outgoing equation add up. I live well, and happily, and am aware of how hard it is for many families to sidestep economic crisis, even as they work their tails off. I myself am wrestling with a debt built from bad teeth and leaky roofs. In light of  recent conversations on NPR and elsewhere about what it means to be middle class, and because I was asked by a colleague to write about what it is like to live on a teacher's salary, I thought I would tackle the topics of wealth, frugality, and work.

 To defy the taboos about talking real numbers, and give you a thumbnail sketch of our finances, my husband and I gross about $70,000 a year, combined. After paying insurance, taxes, and putting away a meager $75 for my retirement every pay period, I bring home about $1400 evey two weeks - roughly $2800 a month. I confront my financial obligations with the help of my husband, who brings home about the same amount of money I do. After we pay for our childcare, mortgage, property tax, condo fees, car, life, and homeowners' insurance, gas, groceries, heat, electricity, and phone we have shelled out an amount exceeding my monthly take home pay by about $500. On top of this, I have a $400 student loan payment each month, without which I would not even have the job I have now. (Given the home I grew up in, loans were the only way for me to attend college and then graduate school).  After we handle our "known" expenses  each month we are left with less than $1200 to handle all of the unknowns that add up: from school pictures and soccer cleats to car maintence, holidays, and travel. My son still needs pants  and shoes that fit - there is no way to keep him from growing. And then, I have to mention the elusive creature: savings. In the back of my mind, I know that even though we have managed to put away about $7000 for our son's college fund, we have only put away half of what we really ought to have saved for him at this stage in the game.

 So, we don't have much of a cushion. There are a lot of things we can't realistically do. I haven't seen my mother who lives in New Mexico or my brother in Seattle in about  four years.  We don't go out to eat or to the theater together because any evening out requires an extra $40 - $50 for childcare. We can't get a family gym membership. We can't pay for TV. We have to decline invitations to weddings, birthdays, weekends away, and spontaneous get togethers. We don't have pets. We have abandoned expensive hobbies like horseback riding  and skiing. Instead we amuse ourselves with board games from the church yardsale, gardening, and cooking. We have had to scale back our charitable contributions too, much to our shagrin.

 This is a portrait of the middle. I am here in the middle with so many other people in public service, and I am among the lucky. I am grateful for good healthcare and for opportunities to continue my education. I have a great partner who is as frugal and resourceful as I try to be. I have a relatively short commute. I have relationships with people that help me with things like household repairs. I have a lot to be grateful for. I chose my profession because teachers saved my life, not because I would ever get rich being one. It is startling to think that I made more money working as an uneducated "data technician" -  anonymously plugging addresses into a database in 1998 so that a company like Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts would know which street corner might be the next site for their new coffee shop - than I do now,  introducing my 95 students to new skills and experiences, planning lessons, teaching for 6 hours a day, assessing work, administering school and district policies, participating in professional development, writing grants, and collaborating with colleagues.

 To me this comparison says something about our priorities as a community of people. I am not the only teacher I know who creatively addresses the challenge of living on a teacher's salary; for many of us it would take just one unforseen event: a car breaking down, pipes bursting, a trip to the vet for Fido that could drive any of us into debt. If living in the middle class means that we feel a sense of security, then most teachers are among those in the middle class, but tentatively.  It is worth it to pay teachers a fair and viable wage - one that is indicative of their value to the community and one that affords them the space in their personal lives to really be good teachers. It is true, I have a huge vested interest in making this claim. The truth is though, the one leveling mechanism we have is education - it is the single most important factor in any person's ability to choose their direction and to enhance the opportunities of their children. Our society does not function without access to education - at least in its non-feudal ideal form. I wouldn't be working in this field if I did not believe in it. I think it is important that I and others who feel the same way I do can afford to choose this profession.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Rearview Mirror

 We have a weird history with car accidents in this family - they usually mean something  in the same way that fortune cookies mean something- like, oh! your whole life is going to change today; live well because what seems risky may pale next to what seems normal;  today, you will not reach your destination, or do not look back, your future is in front of you. Given that the most recent fortune cookie I opened was empty, I am cautious about this line of thinking. But, the truth remains, car accidents tend to be harbingers of larger life events. So, I do wonder what the universe was trying to say to me at 7:22 when I became party to a 3 car pileup at an exit off of route 16 when a petite doctor and her Saab knocked into the back of me after she was set into motion by the Grand Cherokee behind her.

 As I think about the sensation of surreality, the jumbled moments prior to impact, when, even though I can't see behind me I sense that something is about to happen, I realize how familiar this is. Just before these moments, we tend to anticipate them, even though we can't change them or fully understand them. They are a lot like our lives, even though we are scarcely aware of anything going on around us, part of us still knows when some epic storm approaches, ready to dismantle our current understanding and reassemble it in ways that might take us seconds or might take us years to comprehend.

 When I first brushed with mortality in an automotive setting, I was 18. I was in the backseat of my Saab 900 rounding the corner in front of Killington Mountain when a red Civic crossed the center line and slammed into the front end of the Duster just a car before us. You've gotta love a Duster - I hold the car responsible for the fact that no one was harmed that day. For us, sitting in the next car in line, there was the sobering reality that if we had been 40 seconds more prompt that morning, we could have been creamed - which, was ironic, because we were headed north to Addison County, Vermont to jump out of airplanes - a fact that had kept us up all night on Greeta's porch tossing and prognasticating... willing our finest possessions to one another because we feared the risk we could be taking. Jumping out of an airplane turned out to be folly. The real risk we faced lay embedded in the everyday acts that we thought were so benign: cutting carrots, barefoot, while talking about global economics; walking down stairs in the dark and miscalculating their number; or, most perniciously, driving. My friend Ian handled the moment with grace, and pulled calmly to the side of the road, where, luckily, (and I'm dating myself here) a payphone happened to reside in the dirt lot of the state park. He was so cool that after we did our jumps, he returned time and time again, even joining the military to continue seeking out danger in daily life. Greeta went on to travel feverishly, and to dig in deep to our toughest problems in her work as a social worker in Burlington.  Though I would not go out seeking danger, or adventure the same way, I walked away knowing that the real danger was in being complacent, in not realizing that we are dustmites under the couch of posterity, in taking what we have for granted.

 The next time the dark forces of car wrecks would enter my life, I dreamt about it. In my dream, I backed into the side door of my grandfather's jeep. I was 19. I woke up knowing that something would happen because of this dream; I told everyone at work about the dream, and then, that same day, in the rain, I backed out of my parking spot at work - right into the side door of my boss's car. We know it's coming when it does.

 At 25 I came home after a long day working two jobs.  (This story still spooks me). When I walked through the door of my house I looked down at the table in the foyer to check  messages, where I saw a hospital bracelet with my husband's name on it just as I heard him mumble my name from the next room. As it turns out, his first day after seasonal unemployment began went like this: 6:20 AM  kiss Marjke goodbye. 8:00 AM  awaken to a phone call from an eccentric friend offering an opportunity to purchase, slaughter, and butcher chickens (because they had previously discussed the thought that a person who cannot butcher their own meat should not eat meat to begin with), which Mark readily accepts. 8:30AM travel to said friend's home, and then to a neighboring friend's house to borrow a truck. 8:45AM head to a farm in Dover to purchase 10 roosters from a woman with two eye colors and a man pushing a single log around in a wheelbarrow. 9:15 AM return to the home of our eccentric friend and begin killing roosters with a Burmese sword in the woods, clean up the carnage, butcher, package and divvy the meat. 5:00 PM get into a little Toyota with an intersting history and drive home. 5:15PM try to turn left 500 feet from our driveway only to be pummeled from behind by a 96 year old woman travelling at 55 miles per hour - WHAM! 5:16:42 PM head straight for a garbage truck in the oncoming lane. 5:16:44 PM swerve sharply to the right, narrowly avoiding a calamity, only to head back into the lane where the 96 year old woman, he was briefly acquainted with before, was again barreling down on him. 5:17:00 PM finally bring the carreening blue box that he was inhabiting to a complete stop on the shoulder of the road, check his body for injury, and turn to his friend, make eye contact, and in unison yell "The Chickens!" 5:18:00 PM frantically pull plasic bags of chicken fromt he shattered back window of the Celica. 5:20:43 PM call roommate to retrieve chicken and other personal effects. 5:24:08 PM be seized by paramedics, strapped to backboards and loaded into the back of an ambulance. 5:24:24 PM watch as a police officer opens a garbage bag full of chicken entrails that was left on the side of the highway, grimmace and closes the bag, dropping a pair of chicken feet into a smattering of broken glass. 7:52:09 PM return home from a litany of tests. 8:04:33 PM kiss Marjke hello. 10:31PM conceive a child out of sheer joy in having survived. Life and death swirled over Mark's head that day, dancing with one another, both comforting and menacing, just daring him to proceed.

Most recently, I, under the influence of pregancy, slowly watched a car next to me "rolling", which actually turned out to be me - doing the rolling, that is - at a stop light - into the toe hitch of a Dodge Ram, which folded the hood of my Saturn in half to return the favor. I realized from that point forward my life, my mind, my perception of the world would really never belong to me alone, again.

 I am sitting on the couch, now. Every breath hurts. I am left wondering what comes next for me. Children? Change of career? Death? Tough choices? All I can say is that I am grateful that the fortune cookie I opened was empty, because I know that can't happen more than once in a life, like some other things I can think of. But today, I am here; I have something to think of, lessons to learn, and a lot to be grateful for.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Small Yam Festival

I woke up to the kindling of a thunderstorm.
I came home to sunshine. And complicated thoughts about families, parenting, and other things.
I know I am a month late for this, really, but I cooked from traditional Nigerian recipes today. The Yam festival is a time to understnad the change of the season, when the summer turns to fall; when the harvest is taken in, and what we have held onto and saved from the previous year will be left behind to make way for what we will gather this year.  Unfortunately my little grocery wasn't carrying real yams - just sweet potatoes, so I focused on plantains, rice and black eyed peas. The scent of the cinnamon is lingering on my fingers.
These same fingers would keep typing if it weren't for the miles to go before I sleep. Nulla dies sine linea - that's all I require of myself here. There are times when the linea will be brilliant, times when it will not. Maybe I will revise this tommorow - or find a way to make something more exciting happen. I'm still rusty in this writing gig.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Perfect Tomatoes

I've been waiting for a summer like this. Last year was a dissappointment. I nurtured 12 tomoato plants only to find them all slowly pass away, victims of a weird leaf eating blight that spotted and then grayed and then withered every single plant. Every. Single. Plant. I had big plans for those plants: I pine for homemade sauce made with the herbs and garlic from the same small patch of earth. I planned to sundry the funkier looking tomatoes and store them for the winter.

I had heirlooms: brandywines - oh! Have you ever seen a brandywine? It is pinkish instead of red; the outside is bulbous, with odd looking growths. It is huge. When you cut it open, there is no logic to its interior, no symmetry. The flavor of that thing - it's rich and sweet. The tartness and acid of a traditional tomato are downplayed, and you are left with a soft kiss of flavor in your mouth. A tomato is a rare love.

And the miracle of this year is that right in the middle of the garden, a volunteer emerged. The sweetest tomato I've ever eaten decided to come up in among the cucumber vines. That's right, my brandy wine. And instead of shrivelling this year all of my tomatoes have decided to rock the house.  All kinds of tomatoes: sungolds, roma, early girl. I love tomatoes when the come ripe out the garden, their skin still warm from the sun. I had a fabulous burger tonight with slices from a surreal perfectly round, perfectly red tomato under a sheaf of arugula, and I am happy. This is a good year - you can tell by the tomatoes.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Make Something

Today I freecycled a carload of 2X4s so that I could get to work on the chicken coop I plan to put into use next spring. I'm embarrassed that after having serious plans to finish this project over the summerI would only really start construction today, the last day of summer, but alas...

About 1/3 our way through the coop venture, friends came by for dinner, and we shifted gears, and it was about time too. I come back to this idea of making something, because our conversation led back to this idea at the end of the evening, when we started to talk about rock walls - our friend started asking for advice. My husband and I put in a dry stone retaining wall - it took 3 years to complete -it probably didn't need to take so long, but we took our time. We pulled all of the material from our own property; we unearthed stone from the edge of the woods; we took lots of breaks. In the process we built a fire pit too.

We finally finished the wallthis summer - and I have to say that toward the tail end (the last year) Mark took on the lionshare of the work. He works in fine gardening, but doesn't usually work on the construction end, and started taking serious responsibility for the project. I also started to see that, maybe it was best for us if we didn't work right on top of each other. I try not to be a backseat driver. Mark watches me pretty closely, which usually causes me to screw up.  He like to make fiun of me for my inability to do math in my head, while I am working on a calculation. It's his way of knowing me well, I guess. He's right. I'm bad at math.