Tag Archives: recession

For Amy, With Love and Squalor


Ruby was walking her five-year-old son, Cash, home, and we were keeping them company on the journey. I was pulling the kids in the trailer, but peddling so slowly that my bike was wobbling to maintain equilibrium. I was in happy conversation with Ruby; she’s an artist and a like-minded soul in this suburban enclave.

Children often point and smile when they see me riding around town. If I’m in a good mood, I grin back and hold my arm up high like a salute to the sky. If I’m feeling grumpy, I’m just annoyed that anyone thinks it’s unusual or worthy of remark to see a flower-bedecked, rainbow-striped retro cruiser pulling a trailer full of children down the side of a busy street.

And oh, this challenging winter and spring we’ve had . . . I can’t endure the struggle anymore! Day after day of glittering sunshine, crisp mild breezes, and skies so clear you can glimpse the purple snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the distance, between the strip malls and rows of redwoods. Such hardship. Such complain.

I keep waiting for my teen daughter to announce that she hates me and the jangly sort of lifestyle that has formed around us in these lean times, or at least to be embarrassed by our shabby home and lack of car. It’s actually been sort of disconcerting, as she seems to not care at all. Maybe it’s because of the circle of support and friendship we have around us. We never find ourselves stranded without a ride if we need one, for example.

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So this afternoon, on this fine sparkling day, Ruby’s son asked, in the guileless way of the kindergartner: “Why don’t you have a car?”

“Because they’re expensive to own and operate, and we decided we couldn’t really afford it if we wanted to stay where we’re living.”

“No one really does that,” Cash said, in his lisp that’s an artifact of his toddler days, so recently passed. “No one doesn’t have a car.”

He paused, and Ruby had the grace to avoid filling the silence with embarrassed, polite excusing and correcting. “It’s actually kind of weird,” he said after some thought.

My children–possibly in a precocious desire not to hurt my feelings, which upon reflection gives me great parental satisfaction–don’t ever say anything like that; they’d censor the word “weird” from their commentary as naturally as we censor “stupid” from ours. I even press them sometimes, gently trying to goad them into confessing the frustrations and embarrassments that sometimes come with being a “poor” family. We review what we do have instead of a car: electronics we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, a biggish house instead of a small apartment, a yard where we can grow vegetables and swing from fruit trees.

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When I was growing up, it was forever in the most polite corners of suburbia, worlds of genteel middle class-itude, where no one leaves toys in the front yard, paints their homes controversial colors, or parks their cars on the street. (And I never knew curbs symbolized a certain affluence until I was an adult and lived in neighborhoods where my parents would mutter, “no curbs,” with some distaste.) I wasn’t even allowed to tack posters to my bedroom walls, which were always painted “Navajo White”–a blandly popular neutral–in an effort to maximize resale value. There was the ticking of a clock in the living room, its carpet ever striated with vacuum cleaner markings; you could hear it in the silence like a metronome.

For a few years while I was a teenager we lived in a leafy suburb of metro New York, on the so-called “Gold Coast” that borders Long Island Sound. I made a friend there, Amy Hendrix (no mean feat when you’re an outspoken, acne-riddled wearer of grandpa’s overcoat and unflattering vintage sheath dresses,) who was also a self-identified writer and social outcast. I remember the first time I went to her house. It was one of those experiences that, looking back, showed me what life’s potential held, and it wasn’t all painted in Navajo White and at a decibel that wouldn’t be heard by the neighbors.

They had a small artful sign decoupaged to their front door, made of letters cut from magazines: “criminals are not as intelligent as other people.” Amy explained that her sister thought it both wise and useful as a burglary deterrent. The parents let her glue it above the doorknob! On the front door! Inside, they had a giant black-and-white photograph over the mantle. It was a picture of the older daughter, who was possessed of the most phenomenal head of hair I’ve ever seen: platinum ringlets, wild and long, dancing around and above her head, down to the dip of her lower back. This picture was of her, clearly topless but discreetly posed from just below her clavicle up to that balletic face and hair that had its own life and will.

The only other art in the living room was a framed album cover, and walls and walls of bookshelves filled so that some had to be laid on top of the others. I couldn’t remember whether the album was of the Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, perhaps? But since Skyping with Amy, I’ve learned it  that it was Bob Dylan. And couch-matching was of no concern.

In the dining room, they had painted the walls a deep bordello rose pink, and hung dozens of faded old portraits in dark frames, mostly of somber-looking men and women, looking dolefully at the camera. “Wow, are these all relatives?”

My friend and her mother made eye contact and snorted knowingly. Apparently they had bought the whole lot of framed photos –which were, of course, of complete and utter strangers!–at a yard sale, the same yard sale where they had bought this rather wild paint color. “See? We ran out. They only had one container.” The bordello pink ended three-quarters of the way around the room with some halfhearted W- and M-zigzag swipes, before giving over to the unattractive wallpaper they’d been attempting to cover.

I’d never seen any family make such carefree aesthetic choices. We’d lived all over the country during the course of my childhood; I had attended five elementary schools and two junior high schools in areas as diverse as Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and New Hampshire. Yet still, my exposure had been limited to the sorts of families (“corporate transients,” my parents called them, our familiars,) who lived the sorts of lives we did, families where there were two cars, tidy garages, well-kept lawns, and tastefully-appointed homes. Families who moved often, as one does in the military, when promotions or new career opportunities arose, leaving the houses easy to empty, scrub down, and stage for sale as we kids stared out the back windows of station wagons awaiting the next application of Navajo White.

So, I hadn’t met any artists, until then.

I hadn’t met anyone who was bucking tradition, or flying in the face of convention. When I met this family I felt this strong “YES,” feeling inside me; it made me feel whole and thrilled and gave me a deeper sense of belonging than I ever remember having felt.

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One thing I’ve noticed since we, as a family, moved out of our tidy suburban enclave and “downsized” to a shabbier existence in line with our new-found financial straits: we are meeting and bonding with more artists, eccentrics, and cheerful outcasts. There is this feeling like we’re pioneers in a new sort of Wild West. Bartering is common, urban homesteading is a survival mechanism, and looking and acting “right” for the neighbors never enters the picture. Mostly, the neighbors are “weirdos,” too: underemployed engineers creating bike trailer modifications and popping up their welding masks to say hi, people giving over more time to their art than to their accounting ledgers, folks learning to monetize their creative impulses because that’s all we really have right now.

So today, walking alongside one of my dearest friends, I listened to her son’s un-coached commentary. He spoke ingenuously and without hostile judgment. Just this: “not having a car is weird.”

“Yes, but I think it’s a good weird, don’t you?”

What it Feels Like to Sell Your Family’s Only Car


When the cable and Internet got shut off, I could hide my shame and embarrassment from the kids, who were oblivious to the threatening collection letters. None of us had to face the person sent out to sever our connection to the world, since they can do it all externally without having to enter the house. I knew scrappy Molly would be okay. Molly takes everything in stride, and embraces change. I worried about Rainer and Zeke, who take such comfort in things reliable, familiar, and stable. Having access to TV shows and the Web was something they’d never been without. But still, I could reassure myself it was not a forever thing, that we would eventually breach that financial stranglehold and it would all be turned on again, as though nothing had happened.

But selling the car meant no turning back. Our Honda SUV was only three years old. It was the first new car I had ever owned. I traveled from city to city to earn money for my family when I worked at my sales job, and this was the capsule that carried me along to the accompaniment of satellite radio and my own self-important chatter on the Bluetooth. The leather seats smelled like the expensive purses I had started to carry as my commission checks swelled. I spent more time in that car than I spent anywhere other than home, and I made sure it reflected my success. Twice a year, I got it detailed to shining perfection. I remember once grabbing the worker’s red towel and buffing off a small spot of road grime I spied on an edge of the license plate, with an apologetic smile.

Because we didn’t yet own a house, this was our most visible claim to the comforts of our income level. Emerging from the frosty air conditioning of my stalwart Honda I would arrive at meetings in the morale-sapping endless Texas summers as pristine as when I had left home. Having a nice, new, big car made me feel like an adult. It made me feel like I deserved my job. Like putting on a power suit, it made me act differently. I felt more in-control, businesslike, and competent. Walking to my car with my keyless-entry fob in hand made me feel cared for. My car looked handsome in the parking lot. I liked that it was luxurious while also being (relatively) fuel-efficient for an SUV. I sometimes congratulated myself at having made a good choice. On the rare occasions when I had to get it serviced, the sybaritic dealership had employees who called me ma’am, and brought me coffee in a china cup and a copy of the Wall Street Journal while I waited.

It was also our family vehicle, and when I wasn’t working, we clicked the children into the fanciest and safest car seats money could buy. We idly visited big box stores under any pretext. We took long drives to the rolling wooded hills outside town, often just meandering leisurely, filling the gas tank without concern. Of course those long days of driving without a specific destination would involve eating dinner out, as well. It just seemed a fitting end after the hours spent acquiring. None of this seemed indulgent; it seemed more just what families did on long unplanned weekend days. Nothing we were doing felt extravagant at the time.

I identified with my car. I felt peaceful knowing my children saw it, dent-free and shining, when I pulled up to the curb to pick them up. When I was growing up, my mother drove a station wagon and when I waited to be picked up from somewhere—school, ballet class—I would feel comfort at the sight of the burgundy Pontiac with its blandly reassuring stare. It offered the sort of comfort I associated with my mother.

The Honda was completely paid-off, but the costs associated with insuring, maintaining, and fueling it were taking us over the edge. A few times we had considered driving out to the coast, or maybe into San Francisco for the day . . . but the money required to fill the gas tank was galling. It got about twenty miles per gallon, but with gas prices increasing, it was getting closer and closer to a hundred dollars to fill it up. We were $500 to $750 in the hole every month, and we couldn’t see where else to cut. We figured selling the car would cover that margin for at least eighteen months, if we could sell it for the $15-20K that it was worth. Accomplishing that would, we hoped, give us time to establish new income streams. We analyzed the numbers and seeing them in black-and-white made the choice a clear one. Larry had always indulged me by calling the Honda Corbyn’s car, the car I paid for with my sales job, the car I lovingly shined and kept vacuumed, and the car that it would ultimately be my own decision to sell. In the end, though, this wasn’t a decision I needed to make or we needed to make. The decision was being made for us.

As I posted my ad on Craigslist I felt a combined anger and sadness. (“Excellent condition 2006 Honda Pilot with leather interior. Silver. Seats seven, or eight in a pinch. Clean title, impeccably maintained . . .”) And then, a breaking sort of goddamn it, we don’t need this car, this car doesn’t define me and it doesn’t define my family. The safety it represented was an illusion. Or rather, the safety it offered now was in what it could give us financially. Once I had accepted that this was the best (only) solution, I felt like a pressure had released and, in its place, I felt more-or-less peaceful resignation. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid I would change my mind. Here it was: I could let go (all at once!) of the stresses of not making ends meet for the past year. I could know we’d have enough to survive on for the next eighteen months or so. I cried after I wrote the ad, not because I was grieving. Mostly I was regretting having waited so long. The release of tension felt like a balloon popping—not a slow realization of growing relief but an instant, dramatic one.

It turned out that even after we’d made up our minds, we had to suffer through a panicky few days worrying about whether we were even going to have any takers. Alarmist news outlets had been talking about how previously easily-liquidated assets were not getting bought, leaving the downwardly-mobile class sitting on a pile of luxury items that no longer fit within their means. Eventually we got a serious offer from a young family. We played phone tag, traded banter, and became friendly. In a nod to safety-consciousness, I arranged to meet them at the parking lot of a nearby office building, empty after-hours. I stood next to the car in a way I hoped looked casual. I thought better of it and decided to sit in the passenger seat, door open. I opened the glove box and pulled out the thickly-rolled stack of onion-thin paper, pink and yellow and white, marked with the faint hieroglyphs in duplicate and triplicate that formed my car’s journal entries. I flipped through them and re-stacked them, arranging them in a way that was far too fastidious, like a new mom slicking her son’s bangs down as he prepares to board the school bus for the first time. I put them back in the glove box and gently pushed it until the hardware made that satisfying “chink” of connection.

I recognized the handsome dark family in their gleaming white sedan as soon as they drove up; we made eye contact and shared smiles of greeting. In the awkward giddiness that comes over me when I’m nervous, I pretended I was one of those airport employees with the short orange lightsabers, guiding them into the parking spot. We introduced ourselves—mother Rhonda, father Andrew, and their son, Joseph, who was surely not even two years old yet. I suggested there were probably more kids in their future, and they agreeably let me pry in this small way. “Yes,” Andrew said, “and it would be hard to fit more than just the one car seat in ours,” he gestured.

He walked around the Honda, feeling for tell-tale body repair work. “By the way, it didn’t come up at all on CarFax, which was weird.”

“That’s because it’s a ghost car.” Andrew and his wife looked at each other and barked quick, appreciative laughs. I had put them at ease, which had been my skill in sales. I knew I wasn’t selling them a lemon, but rather a great car at a good price—and I could see them slowly concluding that as the minutes passed, and our smiles became genuine.

I suggested we ferry the cars over the couple blocks to where we lived, so we could go through the paperwork and make the necessary transactions. I turned the key in the ignition and buckled myself in to my first new car for the last time, and still felt nothing but relief. My sentimentality is so rarely eclipsed by my practicality; I kept waiting for the inevitable tears. I was at peace with this decision, and I was excited about the dramatic change and how it might alter our family’s life story.

But still, that evening, they handed us a cashier’s check for the deposit. They would be coming back with the difference and trading that for the pink slip of ownership, but for now they were preparing to drive off in our last real asset. Rainer and Molly gave exuberant hugs farewell to them before they left, as if this little family were long-lost friends we had finally made the time to see. The sky had a green-gray cast to it, and everything looked and felt just a little different when I walked slowly up the porch steps. I was sad, and yes, I was a little jealous of this successful young couple that had weathered these tough years better than we had. Zeke was quiet. He watched from a small window that overlooks the driveway. He saw Joseph try to heave himself up into this high vehicle, and ultimately get efficiently carried up and into the car seat and buckled in. He looked out the tinted window and in at Zeke, watching him. And with no notice, Zeke hopped from his vantage point and ran outside to the front porch as they made their way down the street, Andrew following the Honda in their smaller sedan. I kept gently herding him into the house, trying to discourage him from that moment of loss, but he wanted to see it. He needed to see it and say it out loud: “They’re taking our car. They’re going to have it now. That’s not our car anymore.”

Some quiet reflection and then, “Are they bringing it back later?”

No, Zeke, they’re not bringing it back.

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Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are


Sometimes a lawn mower can change everything.

I always associated nice weather with the deafening “rrrrrrrrrrrr” of lawn mowers.  It’s not a bad sound for most of us; it’s generally something that brings to mind summer days, backyards, and the smell of cut grass.  To start a lawn mower generally requires some level of finesse: the perfect amount of fuel to prime the motor, followed by meaningful yanks to the pull cord.  Having too much machine for the job is, supposedly and in some places, a uniquely American point of pride. A lawn mower is a classic symbol of suburbia, a perfectly-manicured carpet of grass the reward for its conscientious use.  Stroll through any big box hardware store and you can see them, lined up and shining, some of them even ride-on style, costing as much as a cheap used car.

We added our own din to that noisy chorus of weekend lawn mowing in our own neighborhood until, at a yard sale about year ago, we came across a barely-used, old-fashioned push reel mower. We might not have bought it if our gas-powered one had been working, but it had mysteriously stopped functioning two weeks before, and we were watching our weedy front lawn grow long and feeling reluctant to part with the cash to buy a replacement. But here was an alternative staring us right in the face: fifteen dollars for a simple, people-powered option.

We toted our reel mower home and started to use it. I was really excited for a few days, maybe for the same reasons I like vacuuming and find the chore soothing. It was so easy to pull it out and scoot around the yard with it, and I could even do it with my young children nearby. I could hear them if they needed me, I could stop what I was doing and tend to their needs, then easily come back and pick up where I left off.

Why don’t more people use push reel mowers? After using and loving ours, I was baffled by their relative rarity, so I did a little research: it turns out, getting sticks caught in the blades is an irritation for some. Also, if you have a really bumpy, hilly yard, you probably won’t get the precision cut you might prefer. And you can’t let your grass grow really long before you mow, because the blades will tend to just fold the grass over rather than cut it. Compare those negatives to the estimate that operating a gas mower for an hour is the pollution equivalent to driving a car three hundred miles.

What was more unexpected was the cascade of events that happened as a result of switching lawn mowers. The first thing was, neighbors started to ask to borrow it. I had never lent or borrowed lawn equipment; I don’t know exactly why.  Something about seeing us with our quirky, unusual and primitive mower in the front yard captured people’s interest. What grew from that is: it’s the official lawn mower of our block, now.  And we borrow the electric weed eater from another neighbor, because I can’t figure out an unpowered way to do the edging.  We’re all sharing tools, sending each other quick texts or Facebook messages, saying, “Can I use the mower tomorrow? Is it in its usual spot?”

I also didn’t expect some of the other subtle changes the new mower brought about. The simplicity of its operation gave me a confidence in outdoor chores I hadn’t previously had. I grew more excited about trying my hand at growing vegetables, and instigated a raised-bed garden building project one weekend. Now, three growing seasons later, I know how to amend soil properly, start my veggies from seed, and have a successful compost pile.

I don’t want to overstate how this small change in our family’s lawn care choice affected us, but I will say this: it’s remarkably powerful to stop what you’re doing, disrupt the status quo, and say, “Why?” And, “is there a better way?” Can holding a tool in my hand and operating it using the strength of my body lead me to a certain kind of empowerment in other parts of my life? I can mow our little patch of grass and look over at the new vegetable garden that’s growing the food that’s powering the muscles that are mowing this lawn. And our machines shouldn’t take that sort of simple pleasure away from us.

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The Worst Kind of Fool


Earlier this week I wrote a self-pitying blog post for shareable.net. I’m happy to say that it didn’t get published before I had a chance to review it and revise it. Below are excerpts, which I’m embarrassed to share, but shame is sometimes an important emotion to feel, I think. It’s corrective, like guilt. The key is not to let the guilt and shame overwhelm your ability to improve yourself and your behavior. Let’s call this an exorcism:

I keep forgetting we didn’t do this last winter. We lost our car in March, and even though the dual-season monsoon climate of California still held us in its wet weather grips at that point, were nearing the end of that onslaught. Every week was a little drier, a little sunnier, a little more forgiving than the week before. Now there’s the relentless moving toward darker, colder, wetter days, and even at two p.m. the shadows are long . . .

It’s hard to engage in my sanity-savers, so my sanity is not being saved. My alone time used to be in the jealously-guarded evening hours, when I would put on my earplugs and listen to music on my long bike ride to the gym, through the rough neighborhood near the rail yard, where families sit on couches on the front porch, and there is shouting and tricycles and the smell of dinner cooking. Afterward I might find any excuse to wander through some store or other, maybe on a banana-obtaining excursion to Trader Joe’s . . .

What do I do, now? It’s dark, and it’s cold. It’s often raining, that wind-driven sideways kind of rain. I’m supposed to be bearing up, but I’m not bearing up. There’s not enough French toast in the world for this kind of bone chill and boredom. I can’t remember what I might have done back when we had disposable income and a vehicle or two. Did I find a reason to go to Target? Or Bed, Bath, and Beyond? Were there maybe more purchasing expeditions, outings that were diverting enough to alleviate the tendency to flop around the house in frustration, sighing, while the kids bicker and the dirty dishes accumulate in the sink? Is that why they invented Christmas—to give us all something to DO?

Pity me! Pity me!—right? Woe is me, I can’t go to the gym or idly shop at big box stores. I will say that the mood had a legitimate genesis though, and I can trace it back to a couple of events that happened over the past week.

One evening, my oldest, Rainer, had a choir performance and it was cold and raining hard. In order to be there to see her and support her, we had to bundle three little children (our two younger kids, plus a sweet little guy whose parents were paying us to babysit,) hitch up the bikes to the trailers, attempt to create waterproof cocoons for them, and bicycle hard against the clock, mostly uphill about 2.5 miles (not far by our usual standards) in freezing rain and wind. By the time we arrived, my skirt was clinging to my legs, soaked, my cold ears throbbing painfully in time with my heartbeat. The babies were warm and calm, so I left my husband to deal with finding shelter for the bikes and offloading everyone while I ran full bore to where the choir was supposed to perform in a minute or so. After shouldering through the crowd, all carrying umbrellas and posing for pictures in front of a giant outdoor Christmas tree, I finally found the choir director. They had already performed. They were trying to beat the worst of the weather, so they had started earlier than planned.

I kept calling and texting my ex to try and track Rainer down. Finally, I was told they were having dinner with a group of friends in a restaurant nearby. At that point, bitter disappointment and grief led to tears that I couldn’t seem to stop. I was soaked, freezing cold, and so ashamed that I didn’t have the resources or ability to get to where I was supposed to be, for my daughter. I couldn’t go into the restaurant like that. Instead, I stood outside the restaurant window while my ex sent Rainer out so I could hug her, at least. And apologize. The thing that hurt the most was her confusion and concern; I don’t think she understood my visceral sadness. I had to leave her behind to return to that warm, golden room, and go back and pick up the pieces so we could make our way home in the storm.

At this point, my self pity was getting a nice, running start.

Credit: In Her Image Photography

A few days later, I went to a grocery store to buy our Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. Things were going to be slim this year for sure, but we would be together in our house, relatively healthy, safe, intact and grateful for it. I spent a lot of time in the crowded market, making small talk with other shoppers, joking about my skills in the kitchen, getting advice from store employees, and planning our first home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. I went to the checkout with a cart full of groceries. When it came time to pay, my card didn’t work. That’s when I lost it.

We weren’t going to be able to pay. I didn’t know how, but I had miscalculated everything. There’d be no taking home these groceries, and it looked like we weren’t going to have any sort of traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Now let me be clear: we always have enough, and with the dried beans and grains, canned soups, tomato sauce and pasta, and assorted nuts and seeds in the larder, our family will not go hungry in the near future. It was just that this was going to be the first year that we couldn’t provide the traditional trappings, and that was the just last brick on a pile that was sitting on my chest. I cried right there at the checkout. Hard. I think I might have begged a little, telling them to please try the card again, and again. I remember making quite a spectacle of myself, and things progressed from there, involving getting escorted out by a man in a uniform, but I’ll just leave it at that. Hours later, I had been driven home by a friend, and my head was aching from the crying. No one in the family was able to sleep until the wee hours of the morning. It had been a hard night with lessons learned about expectations, and humility, and gratitude.

I am writing these words on Thanksgiving. Unexpectedly, a friend picked me up this morning, and drove me to the one grocery store that was open today. We had some money left on a food stamp card after all. Now I can smell turkey cooking, and along with the other most fortunate Americans we’ll be having the canned cranberry gel, the mashed potatoes and stuffing, some corn and peas, some pumpkin pie. About the only complaint today is that I forgot the whipped cream.

Fall and winter are always a time of reckoning, not just for me but for lots of people, I think. Short days mean long hours spent at home with your thoughts. The sun encourages extroversion; the lack of it turns your thoughts inward. Holidays bring joy to many, but for lots of us they are emotionally complicated, full of memories and some sadness. It’s a time of extraordinary parental pressures to provide abundance and tradition to the children.

This holiday season had a rocky start for me. This is the first time we’re doing it without a car, and without any money to provide the kind of comforts that the long, dark cold time takes away. But we have a pink Christmas tree, and if you have that, you can’t be hurting too much. A single strand of multicolored lights turns our porch into a warm welcome home in the darkness, and you don’t even need to squint to make it look beautiful. I was the worst kind of fool for not realizing we have absolutely everything we need.

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Bright Pink Lipstick


1011074_10202997602243110_891455566_nI’ve spent the last several years writing blog posts about the Recession. Here’s how it started: an old friend of mine got hold of me. It turns out he was an editor for a website about the New Economy, and he wanted me to write my story. This is a familiar sort of occurrence among people of A Certain Age: thanks to the wild accessibility of really pretty much everyone through Facebook, people like me are reconnecting with folks we were too drunk or too careless to keep in contact with as decade after decade rolled past. For some time now, I’ve been ludicrously rewarded for epochs of bad behavior. Turns out that all of my exes and a whole bunch of lost friends are excellent and forgiving people, which makes me feel a whole lot better about my taste, but even worse about my carelessness and the time I lost with them.

Which brings me to: carlessness. My word processing program doesn’t want to even acknowledge it’s a word; it’s just a snippet of the zeitgeist and that takes longer to integrate into common parlance. It’s too close to “carelessness,” and maybe that resemblance is a bad thing. You see, outside of places like New York City and maybe Portland, not having a car–especially when you are the suburban mother of three–is a sign and symbol of having Blown It Big Time. But we are without a car. It was an easy decision at the time: we couldn’t pay the rent. What we had was a paid-for, valuable hunk of metal parked in the driveway and a roof we preferred to keep over our heads. Some people make another choice: to move in with family, perhaps. “Temporarily,” of course. But it was no accident that we had found ourselves in Northern California, far away from both of our parents’ households in Texas. We had severed the ropes of that safety net and had no regrets. You see, there are some sorts of safety that are so fraught with danger and damage that calling upon them feels like a sort of suicide.

So we carry on, working menial jobs and trying to shake money from trees. We take our children on errands in our bike trailers, pedaling in the sweltering heat or in downpours, faces held in caricature expressions of grim determination. It’s been an adventure. A noble experiment. So many others around us are in similar straits, so this whole thing–newfound poverty–has an air of camaraderie to it, and whole new ways of doing things have taken root. We’ve done it all: bartered, gotten backyard chickens, grown a vegetable garden. I’ve written so many essays about the New Simplicity that I’ve started to think of my style as “Chicken Soup for the Recessionista’s Soul.” This ghetto for my writing is eye-rolling in its tendency to put a positive spin on things but still keeps my work out there, in front of appreciative eyes.

But something horrible has happened to me this year, and I don’t know what to do. At some point–was it after the hundredth “no?” The thousandth? Was it day number 1350 of not having enough, or maybe day 1351? But somewhere along the line I realized this is not going away, and that struggling to pay the utilities is a monthly reality with no end in sight. That making Top Ramen for dinner had stopped being an amusing indulgence in crappiness, and has become–at times–economic necessity. I look at my children and I want to say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry you’re having to wear this need and pretend it’s okay, I’m sorry there are no birthdays at pizza parlors or dance lessons. I’m sorry I can’t send you with a handful of change that I don’t have so you can get a candy bar at the corner store. I’m sorry you notice what other families enjoy–simple things, a drive to the country and a weekend of camping–and you notice the difference and have to ask me why. I’m so sorry I cannot provide for you the things that were provided for me. I’m sorry that a simple trip to the doctor to check for pinkeye has to be a negotiation based on the twenty bucks in co-pay expense versus what may be curable with time and the hive mind of online medical care advice. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I wear bright pink lipstick (one tube, annually, cheaply obtained) and have my cruiser bike decorated like a parade float. I let my children dress with lackadaisical freedom. We played by the rules and we lost everything that offered us safety and security, so to hell with the rules, I teach them. You will get screwed-over six ways to Sunday, so find the hidden magic, I say. Do you see that smooth brown stone? Pick it up and shift it towards the light, and you will see small bits of glitter like tiny stars. I try to tout this lifestyle as one we would have chosen back when we were flush with income and silly material wants, and YES: there are lessons we’ve learned. Yes, you can be a band of hobos with torn parasols, in satin and velvet castoffs, and yes, there are blackberries that grow wild all over this town.

But I’m done. The truth is that I’m toiling for not a lot over minimum wage, and those chickens in the back yard have come home to roost. There’s only so long you can go on before all your resources are tapped, and the barrel you’re scraping has well and truly reached bottom. I know we are required to be  grateful for what we have: no one in the family has chronic health issues, we have good public schools for our kids to attend, and we live in a patch of paradise that makes living without a vehicle or air conditioning a tolerable option. We have–praise ye gods!–health insurance from my husband’s low-paying retail job.

We have a marriage where our struggles manifest themselves in silent regret and disappointment (and a lot of space between us in our marital bed) versus thrown fists or addictions. But no amount of health-insurance-provided antidepressants can prop me up forever, and it’s me who has to keep this ship afloat. It’s doubtless my lifelong sense of entitlement that has probably contributed to my lack of ability to turn things around and make something from nothing, which is probably a story for another day. I’m forty-two years old. I have three children. I pull them where they need to go. I look at my husband while we sit on the porch and the hand I reach out to him is conciliatory.

Apologetic.

Controlled Burn


This originally appeared on my blog about the recession at shareable.net

I’m at a café right now that’s across the street from a vacant office building. The low-slung seventies-contemporary structure used to house our family dentist’s business. Today, parked in strategic places around it, are several fire trucks standing sentry while firefighters navigate the drama of the flames licking the charred window frames. Great eructations of dark brown smoke take cumulus form for a two-block radius. I think it’s called a “controlled burn,” though I associate that with forests and greenways. This is practice for the rookies. I’ve been watching. The building is maintaining structural integrity, though the interior is a black maw.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been writing what I guess amounts to a Confessional Blog here on Shareable. What’s included in my writings, with a tip of my hat to this website that gave me my start, is the concept of sharing. Mostly the ways in which sharing–community exchange, connections, and support networks–has addressed the value of combined resources and collaboration during these hard times. What my writing evolved into, slowly over time, was a continuation of our family’s story, including successes, poor decisions (and the occasional good ones), and strokes of crazy luck that came our way.

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This epoch has been a watershed one for my family. We lost so much, let go of so many things we had gained and built over time. Things we were praised for, by our extended families, bosses, friends and neighbors. We released it all. And yes, in the process of rebuilding, things took different form. The sharing habits took hold, and made community a critical part of our new way of doing things, so much so that I don’t remember how to go back to an insular existence. We hope to always live this way now: a lifestyle that involves reuse, repurposing, childcare exchange, car sharing, donating, barter, and a much wider net cast out among the people we count as neighbors and fellow travelers.

These are all good things. But aspects of my family’s life are changing in ways that dilute my message here, I’m afraid. We have climbed out of the deepest part of the pit and, with the support of my publishers, readers, husband’s raises, etc. we are no longer at the scariest part of our own suffering. The recession is still aflame and many are dealing with struggles far greater than ours ever were. It feels disingenuous to write any longer about the sacrifices we are making to stay afloat. We can pay the rent, I’m getting some writing work, we have health insurance. Our lives are full of abundance and luxury, even as the concept of “luxury” has taken on different meanings for us. (No amount of money can buy the experience, for example, of gathering eggs still warm from the coop and turning them into an omelet using spinach from the garden out front.)

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We own a few fancy electronic gizmos. We still don’t have a car. We have no air conditioning, but Molly has dance classes and I get the occasional manicure. We’re not hurting, and I don’t want anyone to think we are pretending to be. I wrote a piece for a national magazine that was recently published, and awakened the very next day to a bombardment of hate mail in my inbox. Apparently some of the choices we have made during these strange, scary, wonderful years trigger great anger in some readers. I never intended to write a how-to for surviving the recession, and I certainly never thought I was writing a manifesto for living the Simple Life. But this has been a blog about sharing, and now it’s more about sharing my thoughts, personal history, internal struggles, strengths and weaknesses.There are ways I’ve become a better person, but loads of ways I remain beholden to avarice, lassitude, ego, and stubbornness. I drive myself crazy. It’s always a mountain to climb, this journey of self-knowledge and self-improvement. If any of you out there really feel you are Where You Need to Be in your heart and mind, I would love to study at your feet.

And no, none of this can be fixed by a Choco-Taco. I speak from experience.

So from my vantage point at the café window, the “caution” tape has been strung festively around the burning building. I can see that the structure is still intact, and it seems the firefighters have done their job at controlling the flames. But that building will never be the same. Even if they don’t knock it down (as I suspect they will), the burn has done its damage. All of us have experienced this destructive fire, and some are boarding up the gaping holes with plywood and spray-painted X’s. I am choosing to leave it all open, doors and windows. The ceiling beams are craggy, and even though burned (maybe especially because of it), they smell like the power contained in the trees from which they were hewn.

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Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before


By request, a consolidated list of published pieces:

 

Huffington Post, May 10, 2012: “The President Recognizes My Family” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/corbyn-hightower/marriage-equality_b_1505784.html

 

Huffington Post, May 21, 2012: “My Husband Had a Vasectomy and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/corbyn-hightower/husband-vasectomy_b_1495617.html

More Magazine, May 2012: “Broke But Not Broken” http://www.more.com/broke-not-broken-finances-post-recession%20

 

NYTimes “Motherlode” blog, April 7, 2011: “Feeding Your Family From a Dumpster” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/feeding-your-family-from-a-dumpster/

 

NYTimes “Motherlode” blog, June 15, 2012: “Memories of a Father’s Rage” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/memories-of-a-fathers-rage/

 

Scary Mommy blog, August 9, 2011: “These Chickens, This Life” http://www.scarymommy.com/these-chickens-this-life/

 

Yes! Magazine, Sept. 2011: “Living Right on the ‘Wrong’ Side of Town” http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/living-right-on-the-wrong-side-of-town

 

Yes! Magazine, Spring 2012: “Renting With Style: How I Found Bliss in a Creaky Old Rental” http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/making-it-home/renting-with-style

 

shareable.net recession-living blog: http://www.shareable.net/users/corbyn

Moving to Villa Villekulla


This piece  first appeared on my blog at shareable.net.

We were moving from Texas to northern California, under economic duress. There is something about driving long distances (as opposed to flying) that makes it easier handle the change from one environment to a vastly different one. In the course of your journey you can see the land swell and flatten, observe the terrain and climate change from curving mountainous roads to vast swathes of desert, and note the commensurate architectural adaptations. These are microhabitats, with each community and household navigating a different course.

We were leaving an exurban planned community that had seemed as desolate and unwelcoming as the lunar surface. When we arrived in the house we had chosen and rented by proxy, what was immediately surprising and thrilling to me was how urban it felt. Railroad tracks were a few hundred yards away from our small one-way street, and the corner strip of businesses included a mortuary, pawn shop, donut shop, and a narrow convenience store with two small aisles stacked high with Mexican pastries and cheap wine.

My positive reaction was short-lived. Although our house had a lovely rock facade, a deep and cozy front porch, and an apple tree whose blossoms were in full flower, when we went in, our economic downturn took a shift to the visceral. The walls were cheaply paneled, the aged carpeting was a matted and mottled light brown, the appliances were vintage early-eighties, and the windows either had rotten and water-logged wooden sills or cheap metal frames.

We sat on the decrepit spiral staircase (which looked hand-built by a carpenter of dubious abilities) and snapped a family portrait. Day One. Our faces in this photo are tired and apprehensive, the kids in a weary cluster at our knees.

Your home is wherever your bed is, and that very first night, we were all tucked into clean linens in our strange, new, small and oddly shaped rooms. But in the light of day, we still saw the funky junky-ness of this new dwelling of ours. There was a moist quality to the air, and a noticeable whiff of Dogs Who Had Come Before. Where once a balcony had been, there was plywood attached with foam goo forming a new “wall.” The backyard was shabby, with one side of the privacy fence leaning at a near forty-five degree pitch.

There had been a beige luxury to the house we lived in during affluent times. The carpet was so plush, you left perfect footprints squished into its thickness as you made your way (barefoot, naturally) across the room. There was a garden tub with large corner windows inside an expansive master bathroom, quietly humming central heat and air, and appliances with a heavy luster to them. The walls and ceilings met at right angles, with no softness or crumble to the plaster and drywall. Just the crisp reliability of a brand-new home and the suburban neighborhood in which it sat–gated, landscaped, predictable.

In the new/old house, creaky as a wooden ship, you can drop a marble in the farthest interior corner, and it will take a hilariously random path through the rooms, down invisible slopes and channels, until it finally clicks to a stop in the corner that tips deepest into the earth. And there’s even a basement, which is unusual in California. There are Christmas lights swinging from dusty cords down there, and the walls smell like soil and wet concrete.

One room is too small for furniture. But it is not a closet. It HAS a closet.

We added the magic little-by-little, as we went through this transformative journey from the comforts of what we had back then, and into our new, low-income recession life. Like the marble in the corner, we slid down . . . over . . . and through until we came to a stop and stayed. And that was when we painted the walls yellow–an acid citron, like the world’s ugliest crayon, because that’s the best kind of pretty. Against that went aqua furniture, and pink fabric in great swaths over the windows that don’t quite close. Red shag rugs, lamps from thrift stores, a multicolor dollhouse we rebuilt as a family. Silk monarch butterfly ornaments hang from mirrors and door frames, and cuckoo clocks from my husband’s German childhood occupy much of the wall space.

The man who owns this house is mostly a name on an envelope I mail every month. He has a beard and his eyes twinkle when he smiles. He remembers raising his sons in this house, twenty years ago. They kept rabbits in the backyard, and chickens like we do now. We eat oranges, pears, and apples from the same trees that they harvested and turned into jams and sauces.

Wild Bill watches over everything on our block. He’s the big, bald tattoo artist across the street, and a minor celebrity in this town. He leaves gifts on our porch: a fruit-picker, a pint of leftover soup, a wagon for the kids.

When everything is rough and ragged, the logical course is to festoon it with as much multicolor madness as you can muster. At least that’s my instinct. There was an untouchable sterility to the perfection of “success,” like if you made too sudden a movement, you’d disrupt the delicate balance that held it all together. The beige walls stayed beige, all rooms were regulation size, there were no chickens anywhere nearby, and a dropped marble made a small spiral and sat, solemn and as still as a stone on the kitchen floor.

Some Small Spring


originally published in November 2011 on shareable.net

Sometime in the darkest and grayest folds of winter, we have a “false spring” here in Northern California. It usually comes sometime after the glittering artificiality of the holidays are over, when the trees are just gray slashes against a sky so bleak that it has a yellow cast. The syrup of sunlight and warmth is like a gift and I wake up full of energy, with plans for the seedlings I’ve been nurturing on the windowsills. Neighbors emerge stumbling from their front doors, eyes blinking at the return of the light, greeting each other with the surprised shouts of unwitting hermits delighting in sudden fellowship. I fall for it every time, too. I take the heavy drapes down, throw open the windows, begin to plant the spring garden, and stow the coats in the trunk in the basement.

The chickens are smarter. They still hold their necks tucked under their wings in the semi-hibernation mode they go into, eating little and laying no eggs. They slowly swivel their heads our way and regard us with a jaundiced eye, as if to say, “are you really going to do this again?” It’s long weeks after this false spring that they begin their joyful chatter and busy-ness. The groundhog’s shadow is irrelevant; the tilt of the earth an alarm set by larger forces.

We’re not close to that time, yet. Here in my town, the leaves have turned and the wind has begun to sweep that golden-red glory away into bulging bags tied tidily at the curbs. Park visits end early as we tuck our chins down into the collars of our jackets. Beds are gaining layers of comforters, more every night. Mornings hold the visible frost of our words, moistening our itchy scarves pulled up high against the cold.
We won’t get our false spring until we’ve settled into our real winter, and remembering that gives me a sick, scared feeling. I don’t readily accept the gifts winter brings, and mostly I just bear up against the darkness as best I can, usually not without massive support efforts on the part of my friends and loved ones. The crowd around me presses on strong, and sometimes I just lift my fists up to my ears and close my eyes, and let them carry me along by my elbows.

The other day I was creekside along the trail near our house. There was a fire there early this past summer, and it was alarming to see the trucks speeding to the roaring blaze to put it out. Our trail is redolent with life. Wild turkeys fear nothing, and they’ll run towards a bicycle in motion. Skunks and raccoons come out around sunset or just past, and you can see the reflection of their eyes as they wait their turn to roam the neighborhood. We all share this strip of relative wilderness: Canada geese, quail, the feral cat population, as well as the rumpled drifters who find shelter under the footbridge.

The site of the fire has become a microclimate of sorts, showing its own “false spring.” In between and around the stiff black splayed fingers of burnt branches are sprigs of fennel, blazing chartreuse and yellow. Oaks suffering the devastation of browned leaves and singed bark show their bold olive-green new growth, as if challenging the growing cold. The earth that was black and bleak now looks loamy and welcoming, in this spot. Animals crouch low in the hunt for bugs. This is an area that was scorched, where new life is making itself stubbornly apparent.

We are just barely into this dark time. False spring is so far away, and real spring an almost unfathomable part of a distant future. The light leaves–and when it does, it leaves for a long time. It stays gone until you wonder if it will ever come back, and then when it finally does, and you feel like you are warm for the first time in months and can come safely out of your hole, it goes away again. The task for me is to go back to the scene of the fire and see the small signs of life there, some small spring.