Tag Archives: recession

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.

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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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.

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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.

With Apologies to the Hungarian Cafe

I think a lot of us who suppressed artistic pursuits for years are revisiting the possibilities now that we’ve lost our “real” jobs. Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a sales rep become a photographer, a realtor start up a home-grown theater program, and a downsized tech guru switch to consulting and focusing on his music career.

A couple weeks ago, I traveled back to New York City, the place where I nurtured my dreams as a young adult. As a teen in Long Island, I’d occasionally catch the commuter train in the early morning and spend the day in the Village, maybe take in a Woody Allen retrospective at a theater, drink coffee and smoke Camels, all without any awareness of the irony such cliches deserve. I left the area for college but moved back in my twenties, lived in a fifth-floor tenement walk-up and worked at a bookstore. I went to cafes as a pretension, sitting there and making a half-hearted attempt to write, or at least to pretend to write. “Look at me, won’t you? I’m writing in a cafe. Regard my thrift-store hipster clothing.” (I’m sorry, Hungarian Cafe near St. John the Divine, I don’t think I ever covered the rent on my chair all those hours.)

In college I majored in journalism. That was the compromise I made with my parents, who were, after all, fronting the bill for my tuition. There was one thing I was sure I could do, and that was write. In fourth grade I began announcing that I wanted to be an “author,” but despite years of trying, I couldn’t seem to translate that desire into the role of “journalist.” I wanted to write about emotions and memories. I didn’t want to chase after reality and chronicle it, I wanted to create my own, or at least poetically interpret what I saw, and I didn’t see how to do that in media.

I’m sorry now for my shortsightedness, and for the fact that I didn’t explore my options more fully. When I was asked (which I was, often, throughout my life,) “why didn’t you ever ‘do anything’ with your writing?” my pat answer was something along the lines of, “But I have. Everything I’ve done professionally and personally has benefited from it.” That’s a load of crap, and I know that now. I could turn a phrase in a thread of business emails, and express myself decently when I needed to put my best face forward. Resumes and cover letters came easily. I also wooed my fair share of lovers through my written sentiments and wordy rhapsodies.

When Facebook entered into the picture, I started to rediscover old college friends I’d been either too drunk or too careless to maintain contact with. Interestingly, many of them had become editors, were working in publishing, or were authors of books. I felt fleeting bitterness: I could have done this! Why didn’t I do this? After awhile, one or two of those friends began to quietly mentor me, and then I had a blog, and then a few more writing assignments came here and there.

I had to have the bud of a writing career lain blatantly in my lap, on the heels of professional ruin. Thank goodness for confessional blogs.

My professional experience as an independently-contracted sales rep became, ’round about 2008, an extraneous luxury for the companies I represented. If they didn’t completely change their business model to eliminate that position, at the very least the commissions dried up to nearly nothing. But now, years later, I’m sitting at a cafe around the corner from my house, writing long and hard for the few places that pay me to do so. It’s my work and I love it. And you know what? I’m noticing a lot more people writing here. It’s become difficult to score one of the good tables with an electrical outlet, now.

I think a lot of us who suppressed artistic pursuits for years are revisiting the possibilities now that we’ve lost our “real” jobs. Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a sales rep become a photographer, a realtor start up a home-grown theater program, and a downsized tech guru switch to consulting and focusing on his music career. I will never downplay the struggles of our poverty, but I greet this artistic revolution with gratitude.

So I had my short trip to New York, in order to meet with some people who have been instrumental in my fledgling writing career. I got to sit on the subway not as a bitter and unfulfilled bookstore employee, but as a writer. I got to look at those long avenues with their rivers of taxicab yellow as a (very lightly) employed “creative,” and I felt younger than I ever felt when I was a resident of that great city, several long lifetimes ago. It was so good to come full circle with those lost dreams; to walk up to the brownstone building of My. Literary. Agent! I’m not embarrassed to say I cried.

I’m a person who is prone to crushing sadness. It’s a thread that has remained constant throughout everything I’ve done and written. As cornball as it sounds–and I’m actually cringing as I write this–I take comfort in what was my first spoken word: “light.”

That said, I am overdue to honor my mentors: Robert Feinstein, Jeremy Smith, Neal Gorenflo, Lisa Belkin, Candace Walsh, Brian Doherty, and Laura Jackson among the many who’ve shown me The Light, and other unnamed benefactors who let me have my moment. I finally get to be a writer now.

Mashed Sandwiches and Empty Water Bottles

Mashed Sandwiches and Empty Water Bottles

There is no “check engine” light when you’re a car-free family. Or . . . something like that. My latest piece is up over at shareable.net; please click a star and share if so inclined.

Craigslist and Other Intimacies

reprinted from my blog about surviving the recession at shareable.net

This is what people love to call a first world issue. I’m sitting at a cafe, trying to write with the vague promise of money for my efforts on the horizon, while my under-employed husband plays with and tends to our two youngest (healthy, brilliant, and adorable) children. My dream is that sometime soon, my memoir will be published, and I will be a real, professional writer, and we might not be quite so financially strapped.

Again I assert that I know my troubles aren’t Real Troubles. They’re Spoiled White Girl troubles. To use the parlance of the Californian New-Agers that surround me, I’m wondering when I’m allowed to “own” my struggles and stop sheepishly apologizing for them, as though by virtue of the things I have been given over my relatively easy life, I am not permitted to acknowledge my current suffering. I’m wondering: does it have to be, that I take a bus back and forth to a minimum-wage job in a dangerous part of the city to say I’ve truly “tried everything?” Nothing is beneath me; I will clean port-a-potties, I just don’t want to disappear far away from my life and my children day after day for the kind of money that wouldn’t ultimately make much difference for us.

I sold a bicycle my oldest had outgrown, a few days before Christmas. Craigslist is strange and wonderful. It’s so intimate. It’s like this complicated and nuanced Recession marketplace, and we’re each other’s saviors sometimes. A woman wanted a Christmas present for her school-age daughter, and I needed money for our holiday grocery purchases. I sent her photos of the fork, the derailleur, the pedals that could be adjusted as, like mine, her daughter’s limbs grew suddenly long and lanky.

We met on my porch. It was only seven or so, but dark enough that the dangling strand of half-lit, half burnt-out Christmas lights hanging from the leaf gutter provided the only illumination. I was glad for the forgiving darkness; maybe she wouldn’t mind the scratches so much. I knew they would buff out with minimal effort, and I doubted her daughter would mind. But then my words stumbled over themselves getting out, and I heard myself trying to give her an excuse to not buy it. “I understand if it’s not what you’re looking for. It’s not perfect, maybe not perfect enough for a gift? I could negotiate on the price, I understand.”

She eyed the bike, silently. “It’s not a problem if you need to change your mind. I understand.” I stopped the flow of words at last, and let her look without my interfering. I tried not to think about what the $125 would mean to us, and what it would mean if we didn’t get it after all. I didn’t want to wear that need.

The other day at the park, I spent hours chatting with another mom from the kindergarten, who is aerobicized and pony-tailed, yoga pants in a Lincoln Navigator. We had much pleasant conversation, and I was happy to open up to her and her world and see where we could connect. She had funny things to say about her twins, about how one of them is so tender and empathetic that he cries when he sees someone else get hurt. How she looked down at her own hands grabbing the rails of her hospital bed when she went into sudden, dangerous, early labor with them, and about how that’s her most vivid memory of that time: how her hands looked. She commented supportively about my son’s shoulder-length hair, and complimented my thrift-store dress. It was only later, when talking about the house they rent in Tahoe and the ski boots she bought for the boys, that she spoke haltingly, embarrassed. She talked about discounts, about Groupon, about her car and her life and the decisions she makes. She mentioned being poor as a child and how that’s not what matters, that it’s not what she remembers and that it’s not what my children will remember.

I can be abrasive, and when younger, I wore my convictions with a blazing cloak of righteousness. I’m still a person who doesn’t know when to shut up, but I’m hoping that in my dotage (!) that I am less judgmental and more approachable. I had not wanted this other woman, this mother like myself–familiar with the same set of vulnerabilities, hardships, and smelly clean-ups–to feel anything but at ease with me. But still, there was this chasm between us, of needs and not-needs, and she filled it with her own embarrassed rationales. I sat, smiled and nodded, full of sympathetic head tilts and raised eyebrows. I touched her arm, made dismissive noises, reassured her. This would have been me, had the Recession not hit us so hard and so relentlessly.

The other day, my husband’s employer told him that due to ongoing financial struggles, they would be reducing his hours from forty to thirty-two a week, for the indefinite–but, we’re told, absolutely temporary–future. This is confusing news. It allows me more time to write, which right now is the only (potentially positive) variable in income flow for us. There is the fact that we have our (much-needed) healthcare coverage still, and that against all odds, he remains steadily employed. There is also the opportunity to pull our heads out of our ostrich holes (do ostriches really do that? anyway . . . ) and see what other options are out there.

The woman bought the bike. She hurriedly and awkwardly passed me some folded bills, and I thanked her quickly and put the money in my pocket without counting it. It’s a business transaction, but the intimacy of it makes it feel like a social one, as well. We worked together to fit the bike into the back seat of her sedan, negotiating the position of the bicycle by micro-amounts to allow closing of both doors. It was the kind of thing you do with family when you’re loading a moving van, or wedging an oversized purchase from IKEA into your car in the parking lot. Eye contact, very little words, body language conveying the small adjustments that need to be made. I was struck with the urge to hug her goodbye before she drove away; my already loose boundaries are becoming even looser as these emotionally-challenging times continue. Also there aren’t established rules-of-etiquette for Craigslist business, at least none that I’ve thus far integrated.

So I’m writing this in a cafe, having had the ongoing good fortune to peel two rumpled single dollars out of my wallet to get a cup of drip coffee and use their Internet on a near-daily basis. Today, our monthly food budget resets, and we can finally fill in the gaping holes in the refrigerator. The children don’t suffer from want for anything, but there’s an unfair amount of pasta dinners during the last week of the month, which I know isn’t an experience unique to my family. I’m determined to write our story for as long as people want to read it, and for this time–one day in the far future–to be a time that brought us many great and surprising changes. I also hope, though, that I don’t have to decide which bill we can pay in a given month, and which we can put off for awhile longer. There is no romance in that, I don’t care what people try to tell me. But this morning, as I slept for the last precious hour or so before waking, I dreamed of eating bacon and lo! when I awakened, there was bacon.

Dreams come true.