States Visited

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Over the last two days I have read two different stories that have left me...confused.

I read the first yesterday. It was by, and about, a divorced woman raising three children that eventually had to go to a 'soup kitchen' because she couldn't afford food. She was already receiving boxes of food from a shelter, but it still wasn't enough. She had to do something. There is no shame in asking for help when you need it, but she was so ashamed of her situation that she refused to ask her parents or friends for help, deciding it was less painful. I can understand that. It isn't easy to admit to friends and family that you need help. A stranger willing to help can be a lifesaver. I also understand that sometimes, even when you make all the right decisions and do all the right things, you still end up in a mess. It happens. Life happens. And it can happen to anyone.

What I do not understand is the mindset that has to blame someone or something else when we don't get what we want. Here is a quote from her column:

"I could segue into some political rant here, a slick dismissal of the Bush administration, perhaps, or a paragraph declaring my support for Barack Obama. But the moment I walked into the soup kitchen -- the moment I acknowledged, publicly, that I could not provide food for myself or my children (which is why the soup kitchen is so much more difficult than the food bank) -- is the moment that my ability to believe in the politics of this country was forever altered. I know why poor people have historically low voter-turnout rates. If you vote, you acknowledge that you believe in the system. And to believe in the system when you're at the very bottom, when you've watched the chrome and ink-black SUVs drive by while you're packing your own beater with dried beans and lentils, to believe at that point is f**king painful. You either say the system works and you've earned your place, or you concede that there is something wrong and there might not be any way to fix it. The entire summer of 2007, as I struggled to keep us fed, I hated thinking of politics, an unusual characteristic for me. It hurt to listen to any presidential candidate talk about the working poor, and not because they weren't genuine, but because all their talk was just that -- talk. It was like listening to my former self, the one who didn't know how bad things could get." (Emphasis added.)

Her name is Heather Ryan. She graduated summa cum laude from her undergraduate program and earned a spot in a top graduate writing program, where she earned her Master's degree. When she had to go to the soup kitchen to feed her children she was working as a secretary for the county. She now teaches writing at a university in Oregon.

I can't even imagine what it would be like to know I couldn't feed myself or my children. I also cannot imagine spending six or seven years studying creative writing or art history or interpretive dance or about a thousand other things offered in college and expecting to get a job on which I could afford to live.

I read the second this morning. It was actually an interview with a woman named Sandra Tsing Loh, who is a radio host and writer, among other things. She has written a book about the struggle of a single mom in L.A. trying to do what is best for her children's education. It is called "Mother on Fire." I don't have children, yet, but I can understand her concerns. I certainly will want my children to receive the best possible education I can provide for them. As the interviewer set up the piece, she offered the following thoughts:

"For any parent who has ever worried that her children will end up uneducated and deprived of art and music because she has chosen a career in the creative fields rather than, say, podiatric surgery,… for any parent who has ever felt the searing pain of unrequited love after touring a fancy private school or suffered an existential crisis while considering a move to the suburbs, "Mother on Fire" will function as much-needed salve -- and inspiration."

Well, that certainly set the tone for the interview, but, as soon as I read that, a few words jumped off the screen: because she has chosen a career in the creative fields rather than, say, podiatric surgery. I immediately thought of the article from the day before. If you make the deliberate, conscious decision to choose to go into a field in which you probably cannot find a job or, if you do, it will only offer minimal income, or if you refuse to give up the metropolitan lifestyle that comes with living in L.A. or New York, why should the rest of the country have to bear the burden of providing you with a lifestyle and luxuries you desire?

We aren't talking about people without an education and without a high level of intelligence who had no or little choices about what to do with their lives. Both of these articles are about college educated people that chose to be where they are – both in where they live and in what they do, and, yet, they both feel that something is horribly wrong with society and our government because they can't live the way they want to live doing what they do. Am I supposed to believe that someone with enough intelligence to receive the degrees that these women have did not know that they have to get a job once they got out of school and that, if you intend to work in the field you study, you are going to be bound by the income those jobs produce? They may not have chosen to be single moms, but they chose to study creative writing and journalism and to live in Los Angeles.

I continued reading the interview to see where all of it would go. It went exactly where I expected:

"In my book, I drew a lifeboat, where, at the very tip of the lifeboat, are the top 1 percent of the earners. They're both dual lawyers. Their children are set financially… They're looking over the tip of the lifeboat and seeing the sharks circling, rather than looking behind them and seeing how much luckier they are than the rest of the country." (Emphasis added.)

Huh? Luckier? This is an intelligent, college educated woman that chose to work in the field she is in and to live in one of the most expensive cities in the entire country. It isn't bad luck that would make housing and private education in L.A. expensive. It is economics. It isn't luck that makes someone decide to become a doctor or lawyer or CPA rather than a journalist. How does a person get here, to the point that when someone makes a conscious decision to do something and it gives them something you want, it is nothing more than luck?

The interview ended with this final comment from Ms. Loh:

"And I think that goes back to the public school thing, where on one affluent block, in Los Angeles, every morning about 7 a.m. you see the four Lexuses and Range Rovers bolting out of the driveways and going to four different private schools in four different remote parts of the city. If they each just went to the corner public school and took one year of tuition -- $25,000 a year -- and put it into that school for one year, that would be $100,000. That school could buy a new gym, and everyone would save so much money -- you'd save gas, you'd save the planet -- if people just looked around and started thinking a little more communally rather than competitively."

What are the odds of that? – Two articles in two days, both by college educated women, about how the 'system' is broken because it isn't giving them what they want and both point to people driving luxury cars as a big part of the problem.

How have we gotten to the point where the mindset is not, "What do I have to do to be in the position to do that for my children?", but, "We would all be better off if those people would stop doing what they think is best for their children and help us take care of ours." Are some of that top 1% there because of luck? Sure, but it is a very tiny fraction of the whole. The vast majority of those people are small business owners that work their butts off for what they have and they should never feel guilty about spending their money on whatever they want.

There is so much more here…but I didn't study creative writing. I studied accounting and I have to do some now. Obviously, there is something wrong with our government and society or I could get paid to sit here and blog all day.

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