Pressing Pause

This blog was born out of a desire to step off the treadmill of life long enough to think about meaning and purpose in life.

Since our collective treadmill has been rendered inoperable by the coronavirus, we have an unprecedented opportunity to think more deeply about how to live.

But how do we do that when we’re like sedentary people trying to create exercise routines, how do we start being introspective and reflective, of thinking conceptually about what we want for ourselves, our neighbors, the world? How to reimagine our post-coronavirus lives?

One way is to rethink what’s most important. For example, many people are being more thankful for the non-materialistic joys in their lives, whether that’s a daily walk, deeper appreciation for nature, shared meals with family, or renewed conversations with lapsed friends. Similarly, many people are rethinking their consumer habits, realizing how little most material things adds to their lives. Many, of course, will have to spend less post-pandemic, others will choose to.

And yet, this isn’t such a golden opportunity to press pause or do much of anything for the 90.1% of people who are deeply worried about how they’ll meet their basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare. Many, many people can’t get past the most basic of questions, “How will I/we meet our basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, medical care?”

As a member of the New American Aristocracy, I have the luxury of reinvigorating my inner life; meanwhile, hundreds of millions of poor, working class, and middle class people around the world wonder how they’ll feed, house, and cloth themselves without steady work that pays livable wages.

Gideon Litchfield, in an essay titled “Where not going back to normal,” points this out:

“As usual. . . the true cost will be borne by the poorest and weakest. People with less access to health care, or who live in more disease-prone areas, will now also be more frequently shut out of places and opportunities open to everyone else. Gig workers—from drivers to plumbers to freelance yoga instructors—will see their jobs become even more precarious. Immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and ex-convicts will face yet another obstacle to gaining a foothold in society.”

He concludes:

“But as with all change, there will be some who lose more than most, and they will be the ones who have lost far too much already. The best we can hope for is that the depth of this crisis will finally force countries—the US, in particular—to fix the yawning social inequities that make large swaths of their populations so intensely vulnerable.”

The cynic in me thinks it’s more likely that heightened scarcity—especially of decent jobs—will cause people to be even more self-centered. The negative critiques of globalization add to my skepticism, if not cynicism. The worst case scenario is every person and every country for themselves in an increasingly cutthroat survival of the fittest competition. I hope I’m way off.

If the “New American” or “World Aristocracy” are smart, they’ll realize it’s in their own enlightened self-interest to think about how to assist and empower the “ones who have lost far too much already”. Ultimately, we will all sink or swim together.

In the end, it’s a question of time and perspective. Like any uber-lucky ten-percenter, at age 58, I can “circle my wagons” and save, invest, and spend with only my family and me in mind. I would live very comfortably, but my daughters’ children and their children would inherit an even less hospitable world.

Instead, I intend on taking the long view by focusing less on my comfort and more on the common good, or as stated in the humble blog’s byline, small steps toward thriving families, schools, and communities.

We Need To Stop Criminalizing Poverty

A tweet:

“A Georgia man stole a can of beer. The judge ordered ankle monitoring. The company administering it charged him more than $1,000. He sold plasma, but fell behind on his payments & the judge jailed him for non-payment. We need to stop criminalizing poverty.”

I had to read this a few times. The first time I thought the author was excusing the man’s initial act of stealing the can of beer as a result of his poverty. So I wondered, what does stopping criminalizing poverty mean? It can’t mean excusing theft can it? Otherwise, as Chinua Achebe wrote, things fall apart.

Upon closer review, the overarching problem is falling behind on his payments for the disproportionate fine. And being jailed. Stopping criminalizing poverty means a poor person should not be fined $1,000 for stealing something valued at $5. Nor should they be jailed when they can’t pay the fine on time. Taxpayers pay for the person’s time in prison and society pays when they find it even more difficult to find work upon their release.

Community service makes much more sense.

Sentence To Ponder

From The Guardian. The report is from Oxfam, a British-based charitable organization:

“The growing concentration of the world’s wealth has been highlighted by a report showing that the 26 richest billionaires own as many assets as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population.”

Oxfam says between 2017 and 2018 a billionaire was created every two days. And then there’s this. Just 1% of Jeff Bezos’s (pre-divorce) fortune is equivalent to the whole health budget for Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people.

Related.

Wednesday Assorted Links

1. I wouldn’t normally be drawn to an essay titled The Gift of Menopause, but the Times’s preamble drew me in. So glad. Brilliant. Exquisitely written.

2. The Difference Between Being Broke and Being Poor.

3. The Fight for Iowa’s White Working-Class Soul. Is that DJ Byrnes’s future?

4. The Highest Court in the Land. For Richie. Who would dominate.

5A. The specious claims of the “wellness industrial complex” continued. Worshipping the False Idols of Wellness. 5B. Wellness Brands Like Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP Wage War on Science.

6. Flat Cokes, Relay Running, and 500 Pages of Notes: A Professor Prepares to Break a Guinness World Record for Longest Lesson. I will not be attending.

Summer Reading and Thinking

What I’m reading. Janesville by Amy Goldstein. What happens to a place when a majority of people work for an automaker that closes shop? When people used to earn $28/hour with some overtime and now make somewhere between $0 and $16/hour. Here’s a part of the answer:

     “In the shadows of town, hundreds of teenagers are becoming victims of a domino effect. These are kids whose parents used to scrape by on jobs at Burger King or Target or the Gas Mart. Now their parents are competing with the unemployed autoworkers who used to look down on these jobs but now are grasping at any job they can find. So, as middle-class families have been tumbling downhill, working-class families have been tumbling into poverty. And as this down-into-poverty domino effect happens, some parents are turning to drinking or drugs. Some are leaving their kids behind while they go looking for work out of town. Some are just unable to keep up the rent. So with a parent or on their own, a growing crop of teenagers is surfing the couches at  friends’ and relatives’ places—or spending nights in out-of–the-way spots in cars or on the street.”

Robert Putnam on Janesville,

“Reflecting on the state of the white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy focuses on cultural decay and the individual, whereas Amy Goldstein’s Janesville emphasizes economic collapse and the community.  To understand how we have gotten to America’s current malaise, both are essential reading.”

On deck. In the hole.

Shifting to thinking, I’m thinking about how artists talk about becoming artists and the implications of that for parents, teachers, and coaches. How do parents, teachers, and coaches cultivate true artistry or other specialized forms of expertise in young people? Specialized expertise that might enable them to independently make a living in the new economy. My thoughts are still in the subconscious primordial ooze phase, but I trust they’ll settle in some sort of coherent pattern sometime soon.

In short, here’s what I don’t hear artists say, “I took this really great class in school.” Instead, musicians for example, almost always say, “My parents were always playing the coolest music.” The word I keep returning to is “milieu” or social environment. In this data obsessed age, we’re utterly lacking in sophistication when it comes to the cumulative effective of the environments young people inhabit. Granted, formal schooling, think Juilliard for example, can contribute to artistic excellence, but meaningful learning is mostly the result of osmosis outside of school.

How do some families, in the way they live day-to-day, foster specialized expertise in children almost by accident, whether in the arts, academics, cooking, design, computers, or athletics? What can educators learn from those families to reinvent formal academic settings? What might “osmosis-based” schools look like? Schools where students watch adults actively engaged in learning and get seriously caught up in the fun.

 

Is There A Way To Climb Out Of This?

As in inveterate eavesdropper, I enjoy “Dear Abby” type columns. Presently, I like Slate.com’s “Dear Helaine” who answers personal finance questions.

Today’s “Dear Helaine” letter stopped me in my tracks because it succinctly and powerfully captures so many citizens’ dire reality.

 Helaine,

I am 41 years old and have not come into any windfalls of money, nor is there any hope I will. My financial situation is as follows: I make $15 an hour plus tips, and my paycheck is usually about $1,300 every two weeks after taxes. My rent and utilities take up about half of this income. My husband is unable to work because of a disability that is not disabling enough to qualify for Social Security. Our children are 22, 19, and 16. We have been living in a cycle of poverty pretty much for the past 23 years. And yes, we’ve been hit with student loans and medical bills that just don’t get paid—my husband is $30,000 in default. My older kids are working in low-wage jobs, $10 to $12 an hour, but as of now are not contributing to household expenses because I want them to build a life outside of the money-sucking hole of my reality. So, yeah, it’s dire. What kind of financial planning helps people get out of poverty? I am moderately intelligent and a really hard worker. I’m also kind of giving up. Most of the time, I would rather spend $8 on a pack of PBR than plan for retirement or emergency funds. My financial life is an emergency. Is there a way to climb out of this?

As I read it, I thought of Conservative Republicans’ knee-jerk response to poverty, people are lazy. I trust that this woman is telling the truth when she says she’s a “really hard worker”.

I purposely didn’t read Helaine’s response because I wanted to think about it independently. And I wanted to know what you think.

Two initial observations.

• student loans and minimum wage jobs, will their young adult children get college degrees, will those degrees provide them with any kind of competitive edge ?

• the husband is a “net loss”, spending, but not earning, can he do anything to generate some income?

It’s very easy to understand how the author, and the legions in her situation, would simply say “fuck it”, I’m going to enjoy today a little bit because tomorrow is looking real bleak.

I’m going to go back now and read Helaine’s reply. Mine would take a long time to write because there is no easy answer or quick fix to the family’s predicament. Of course the same is true of poverty writ large.

Final thought. Will this woman, her husband, and the 19 and 22 year olds vote? If so, for whom? They, and the legions like them, could determine the election.

[Can’t decide whether to give Olen an “A” or “A-“. Either way, a caring and thoughtful reply.]

What I’ve Been Reading

  1. Work email.
  2. The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans by Neal Gabler. Highly recommended. Gabler, a well educated widely published author, explains how he became one of the 47% of Americans who could not cover an unexpected $400 expense. A clear, compelling story, courageously told.
  3. All the Sad, Broke, Literary Men by Helaine Olin. This genre, the take-down of a person others admire, is on the rise. Which is unfortunate. It’s sad Olin can’t muster up any empathy for Gabler. Helaine, if you don’t have anything nice to say, . . .
  4. My wife’s emotions.
  5. The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese. I’m about to share the tagline. Then you’re going to click on this link. In fact, it will probably be the only link you open. Why, because deep down you’re a voyeur too. Tagline, “Gerald Foos bought a hotel in order to watch his guests have sex. He saw a lot more than that.” Told you.
  6. The Secret History of Tiger Woods by Wright Thompson. Thompson deserves a Pulitzer for making me feel some empathy for TWoods.
  7. Thinking Beyond Money in Retirement by John Wasik. Nice insights.
  8. Work email.

Postscript: A reader texted in:

Read your blog post. I read that $400, 47% article earlier this week and thought it was pretty interesting. Buuuut even though one of my top 3 pet peeves is probably people gleefully and lazily taking other people down on the Internet without any effort toward critical empathy, I actually very much agreed with Helaine Olin’s article. She was a little callous up top, but I thought the article itself was pretty balanced – she commended his bravery for talking about something that is difficult to talk about (but it helped made less difficult when people step up to the plate and tell their stories, like he did) and gave him credit when she agreed with some of his other points but I also very much agree that his article was lacking in other ways and it was worthwhile of her to call him out in it. (Seriously, I couldn’t get over the emptying of the retirement fund for the daughter’s wedding.)

Okay, the “reader” was actually my eldest hija. I told her I stopped reading Olin’s article too early. Sorry Helaine for my knee-jerk rejection of your essay. Best part of this? It’s on record that eldest hija doesn’t support fathers’ paying for daughters’ weddings!!! Yes!!!