I’m not a politics junkie, really. I know that might be hard to believe based on some of my columns over the last year. You’d find support in your disbelief from my family members as they recount the agony I go through while running through the Sunday morning roundtable tortures.
This Sunday, much like last Sunday and the one before it, the buzz was about how John McCain has co-opted Barack Obama’s tentpole strategy of change. Some argue that he is only flipping his deck of cards around, that he utters change while he shuffles out constancy. Others are saying that he actually has presented change, but only one, yet that single one has all but assured him a close run to the White House – Sarah Palin. The other big topic for the talking heads was the collapse and eventual sale of Lehman Bros. Investments and the rapidly plummeting stock prices for Washington Mutual (WaMu) and other notable lenders.
It all started me to thinking about the notion of change beyond the rhetorical slings and arrows. What changes are we actually looking for in this country? Who among us are secure? Who are hanging in, and who have given up? Despite optimistic numbers all summer long, unemployment is at a five year record high, so pervasive that those once rose-tinted figures had to be retro-actively adjusted to gel with the facts. I posed the question to some of my fellow Popdose writers: how are you doing? We’re presenting the responses here as an invitation to you, the readers. Feel free to share your situation with us in the comments section.
A point worth mentioning: this article has been several months in the making and while individual circumstances may have changed from person to person, the viewpoints are still valid, the message still has merit and is presented in that respect.
Our family has been slammed by oil prices, ironically, even though I and my wife Kate work at home as freelance writers. The health insurance situation has also crushed our financials, as we still fork over a considerable monthly sum but now the same money buys us catastrophic health coverage with a $5,000 deductible.
The Dogmobile is a 1999 Dodge 3500 Ram Van Extended Maxi Wagon, a 15-passenger beast we ripped the back three rows of seats out of and outfitted as a dog bus. Today–literally–we eBayed the Dogmobile. Kate and I adopt retired racing greyhounds and are active with our local adoption organization – volunteering, shuttling dogs around New England and even New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to their new adoptive homes. We used to have five greys banging around our house, but kids coming and old dogs passing on have us down to three, two of them elderly males in their twilight.
We used to take them on long trips, most memorably to Dewey Beach, a Delaware get-together where thousands of greys from across the country and their owners get together in October and run wild on the beach (for a week, the town fathers lift the dog ban and hoteliers lift pet bans– but only if you’re bringing greyhounds). But the maintenance on that vehicle, registration, insurance, and 12mpg on the road–15 mpg if you’re coasting down an icy hill with an 80mph wind at your back–seems like a stupid frivolity when all our disposable income is going to the guy in the tanker truck who fills our fuel oil tank to heat the house, or the emergency room folks who take care of us when we end up in the hospital because our colds turned into pneumonia because we couldn’t afford do go to the doctor back when it was only a cold (yes, that
happened already this year).
So tomorrow, I drive it to Maine to hand over the title and keys to a working gentleman who will put it to good use. We sold it for half its book value, or, if you like, $1,000 less than we spent on repairs in
2007 alone. Literally, you can’t give away these vehicles anymore. We’ll still support the greyhound adoption activities around town, volunteering, cooking for bake sales, contributing a day or two around their Yankee classic garage sale fundraiser. But gone are the days where someone posts a missive to an email list “who can take a couple dogs to Poughkeepsie?” and we’d step up to the plate. We’d love to, but we just can’t afford it anymore.
We’ll make it, we’re tightening our belts, we’re not getting creamed like many families are in the USA, especially some with breadwinners in the military. So we really have nothing to complain about. But it will be a little sad tomorrow to leave the Dogmobile behind.
I think the overall lack of outrage is pretty indicative of the typical citizen. We feel ass-raped, yes, but we also feel this absolute sense of “whatthefuckever”, knowing that there’s shit little we can do to change anything. America isn’t about freedom, its about the top 1% gaming the system at the expense of the other 99 and not even caring to disguise it anymore.
Seriously, when gas hits $5 (notice I didn’t say “if”), we’ll no doubt hear the GOP-speak telling us that, when you figure in inflation, cost of living, etc., gas is no more expensive than it was in the 70’s. It’s total bullshit and we know it, but we don’t speak up about it anymore. We’ve been brow-beaten into absolute complacency over things that would have had prior generations chucking tea in the harbor.
I’m guilty of absolutely not giving a shit anymore. They win.
I suppose my wife and I would be considered a middle-income family at this point in life. I work about 25 miles away from my home and drive to and from work each day. I kind of feel that I should be saying how the increase in the price of gas has really affected my life, but surprisingly the only thing that has changed drastically is that I get very grumpy when I hit the pump. I have no train station near me. If there was one that would take me to work, IÁ¢€â„¢d use it in a heartbeat even if it tripled my time to or from work.
But I canÁ¢€â„¢t and now every time I get a tank of gas, I turn into my grandfather. I mumble to myself how when I bought my car 4 years ago I could fill up my tank for $19 and how this past week, I spent $51 on that same tank. I never thought IÁ¢€â„¢d become that person that gave Á¢€Å“when I was your ageÁ¢€ stories, but here I start out on that path. Oh, and I download a lot more albums than I buy now. I used to average $30 a week on gas and about 3 CDs Á¢€” so around $60 a week combined. Now, I average $80 a week on gas and maybe two CDs a month. So IÁ¢€â„¢m still down money.
But honestly, other than buying less music I canÁ¢€â„¢t see much that has changed for me. Maybe this indicates that I make more money than I thought (If you are my boss, ignore this statement and note instead that I need a raise) and I should have been putting a lot more away with each paycheck. Or maybe IÁ¢€â„¢m adjusting little things here and there and just not realizing it. ItÁ¢€â„¢s most likely that I donÁ¢€â„¢t believe I can do anything about it anyway, so IÁ¢€â„¢m just rolling with the punches with hopes that a changing of the guard in 2009 will also help the economy. Probably naÁƒ¯ve of me to think that, I know.
Every time I look at the rising price of gas, I think one thing in particular: how fortunate I am that, after 20 years of working a mixture of retail, telemarketing, I.T., and various behind-the-scenes bullshit jobs for this company and that company, IÁ¢€â„¢m now a full-time, work-at-home writer and editor. But it sure as hell doesnÁ¢€â„¢t mean that IÁ¢€â„¢m not affected by this situation.
If thereÁ¢€â„¢s one thing my wife and I have always loved, itÁ¢€â„¢s taking road trips. We live in Chesapeake, VA, which is one of the so-called Seven Cities of Hampton Roads (the others being Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach), which means there are a multitude of day-trip options available to us. As you can imagine, however, our ability to take these jaunts has dropped dramatically as a result of the cost of fuel. WeÁ¢€â„¢ve got a Hyundai Elantra, and it now takes the better part of FIFTY DOLLARS to fill up the tank; by the time weÁ¢€â„¢ve gotten to our destination, we can barely afford to spend any money, leaving us little reason to go in the first place.
Every other Saturday, my wife works, leaving me to play the single dad with my 2-year-old daughter. Our usual plan of attack was for my daughter and I to drop my wife off at work, and then the kid and I would tool around town, stopping here and there, eventually finding our way back to Mama whenever her shift was over. Now, however, IÁ¢€â„¢m often tempted to just let my wife head to work on her own, so the kid and I can hang out at the house. ItÁ¢€â„¢s in no way as much fun, but itÁ¢€â„¢s more economical. Try explaining that to a 2-year-old, though.
Those of you who are good with context clues probably just figured out that my wife and I only have one working car at the moment. Actually, we do have a second car sitting in our driveway, but itÁ¢€â„¢s a 1988 Chrysler 5th Avenue. For one thing, it doesnÁ¢€â„¢t work all that well to begin with, but the more important factor right now is that, back when gas was in the $2.00 range, it STILL cost fifty dollars to fill it up. As such, thereÁ¢€â„¢s no way in hell IÁ¢€â„¢m going to waste my money getting it back in working order. I canÁ¢€â„¢t afford to drive it, anyway!
And that leads me to a final observation. People talk about participating in protests where we shouldnÁ¢€â„¢t buy gas on a particular day, so that we might send a message to the oil companies that weÁ¢€â„¢re not going to put up with these outrageous prices. What they fail to realize, however, is that many of us are performing this Á¢€Å“protestÁ¢€ simply because we canÁ¢€â„¢t afford to buy gas! I donÁ¢€â„¢t know about anyone else, but since gas passed over the $3.00 mark, I think IÁ¢€â„¢ve only actually filled my tank to the brim on one occasion. I just canÁ¢€â„¢t bring myself to spend that much at one sitting. ItÁ¢€â„¢s too damned painful.
As someone who works (when I bother) from home, my longest drive most days is the half-mile to and from my kids’ elementary school. (I know we should be walking or biking — could you please tell that to my son, if he ever finishes brushing his teeth?) Even so, my guilt over excessive fossil-fuel usage was such that last year I finally decided my next “family car” needed to be a hybrid. I’d like to say that my primary goal was to save the planet — or even to earn the holier-than-thou attitude that so many hybrid drivers seem to assume. But the truth is, I got the biggest charge from the notion that my shiny new hybrid SUV might represent a swift kick to the shins of the oil companies (and their toadies in Washington). I eagerly anticipated having a new reason to scoff at the line of oil-drilling rigs that have been allowed to destroy the vista from the Santa Barbara coastline, the way George Bush wants to sully the landscape up in ANWR (Editor’s note: This portion was written prior to John McCain’s choice of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.)
However, as gas prices have soared more than a dollar a gallon just since I took delivery on that hybrid last fall — and as the size of my gas tank has continued to seem punier and punier — I’ve come to believe that there’s just no defeating Big Oil. And that’s a problem here in the Los Angeles area, where folks already feel the need to live close to their jobs because traffic is such a nightmare. My wife works for a company based northwest of L.A., in Ventura County, so that’s where we live — not near the beach or in the canyons, not near the hotspots of Hollywood, not even in a nice progressive enclave like Pasadena or Studio City.
My conservative town hasn’t seen too many foreclosures, but it is home to one of the companies most responsible for — and most devastated by — the mortgage crisis: Countrywide. Massive layoffs there, and by my wife’s company as well, have wreaked havoc across our community. Stores and service businesses are suffering and even closing; hundreds of homes are on the market with no takers. Enrollments are dropping in the local schools, and teachers are being let go — a problem exacerbated by a statewide revenue shortfall that has our esteemed governor threatening to cut school budgets to the bone.
California is a paradoxical place. Perceived as the most liberal of states, its citizens nonetheless refuse to provide adequate funding for its schools or its social-services programs in the best of times; in times like these, the bottom is allowed to drop out, even in the wealthiest communities. My wife and I are committed to public education, but we’re becoming acutely aware of the limitations that stance may force on our kids in a state where the stability of school funding levels long ago took a backseat to the enforced maintenance of low property-tax rates.
Still, even as our town slowly empties out and the quality of our kids’ education slips closer to the level endured by kids in less fortunate parts of the L.A. area, there is a silver lining to our region’s economic tribulations. That traffic I was talking about? It’s dissipating — or at least it is on those weekend nights when my wife and I occasionally leave the kids behind, take out a fourth or fifth mortgage to fill the gas tank, and drive the 40 miles into Hollywood or Westwood or downtown L.A. to partake of the culture that Ventura County resolutely fails to offer. Then we drive the same 40 miles back home, and take out another loan to pay the babysitter. As of last week, her fee now includes a surcharge… for gasoline.
My wife and I experienced the early rumblings of recession when we tried to sell our 2 bedroom condo and “trade up” to a 4 bedroom condo. At first, there was a lot of interest in our place, but that quickly waned as the news about the mortgage crisis and foreclosures started becoming more pronounced. After investing in upgrades,lowering our price, and keeping the house immaculately staged, we had one shitty offer. Well, we couldn’t make the numbers work in our favor, so we took the house off the market, refinanced while we could, rolled any outstanding debt into a refi, and made our uneasy peace with the whole process.
I’m not a guy who believes that “Things happen for a reason,” but if I were, I would say that we did the right thing by getting out of the real estate market and restructuring our financial situation. Why? 6 months after our real estate drama ended, the company I worked for laid me off because they were not able to balance the books with the staff they had on the payroll.
Had we given in to our desire for a bigger home by accepting the shitty offer on ours, I think we would have quickly joined the ranks of the foreclosed and probably be living with my parents about now.
Living in NYC, the gas price stuff doesn’t affect me so much, but the unemployment stuff does. I quit my job in February in hopes of pursuing a career I actually want, but it’s been slim pickin’ in the job hunting department, so I’m still jobless, unfortunately…
And in terms of luxuries, trying to make international travel plans has been really tricky with the dollar being this weak.
Like Taylor, my wife and I live in NYC. We donated our car when we moved here, so gas prices haven’t affected us, except when translated into the rising costs of groceries and other consumer goods. We also have no pets, and have been unable to date to have a child, so there are no expenses there. Overall, I could selfishly add that in our two years in the city, we’ve been able to pay off a good deal off credit card and student loan debt.
The NYC cost of living is actually the biggest hassle, and immune to a lot of fluctuations: when times are good, it’s high, and when times are bad, it’s higher. Plus there’s the fact that even with a two income family, we make just enough to get reemed when the its 1040 time. But the truth is our “solution” to this problem partly lies in our decision to head back to Canada at the end of the year–where my wife is a citizen, and where I did my last degree. We both fell in love with the city of Toronto while living downtown for a year, and now that we’ve made the decisions to be there, and not try to buy into the the New York housing rigamarole, my wife can actually take a trip this summer to visit a friend of hers–something we wouldn’t have dreamed about when we thought every extra penny would be going into brokerage costs.
So how has the current economic situation affected me? Well, it’s not making me run for Canada, but living in the specific area of the U.S. where I am at this particular time probably has influenced my decision to settle up there at least a little.
Last Saturday, I woke up with a funny feeling in my mouth. My gums in the back, upper quadrant were swollen and my tongue was fiddling at the source of the irritation. I reached in with my thumb and forefinger and pulled out a broken molar. I don’t get all weepy about these things anymore. I left a poor paying job that had health benefits because I needed a better paycheck. During the last months of my mother’s life, I leaned heavily on the credit card. I had to and, if I was faced with the situation all over again, I would not hesitate. Nonetheless, those bills needed to be paid.
I now have a job that pays much better, but has no medical benefits and has resulted in a piece of tooth in my palm. Amid the political sturm und drang of the past nine months we’ve seen some of our cornerstone financial institutions crumble and others get propped up with taxpayer sticks, a new debt we’ll be saddled with for many years to come – a debt that needn’t have been incurred if there was some oversight in the mortgage industry. But here we are.
I don’t complain about my job because it is, in many ways, infinitely better than the previous. Plus, I have a job. I work in a field where, as long as grass needs feeding, growing and the occasional weed-kill spraying, I’m good. I drive a 1988 station wagon that was once my grandfather’s. It’s horrendous on gas, but it’s built like a tank. I spend about $80 a week on fuel. There had been a price decrease over the past month, but with the damage of Hurricane Ike starting to become real to the nation, that price has jumped ten cents overnight. Ten cents may not mean much to you, but I remember the steady shot to the top incurred by Hurricane Katrina not so long ago. I’m prepping for the worst.
I don’t do much on the extravagant side anymore. I bought a tremolo pedal last week. That’s the extent of my high-rolling. It appears that the economic stimulus check I got back in May hasn’t done all that much for the big picture. Anytime I plunk down money, for a new record, for a book, for a Big Gulp, I am aware that I’m spending money earmarked for something else – a bill, a fill-up, or the difference between handling unforseen financial necessity and being stomped by it.
A side note that provides a little context on all of what has gone before… The lawn care company I work for does the turf work for a lovely oceanfront property that perches upon a small hill. At the bottom of the hill is a private beach cove that meets the Atlantic. The house is owned by a family who founded one of the banks teetering on the brink this very week. Everything is connected in ways, some big, some not so big, and while I have no connection to this family beyond that home on the hill, their fate is tangentially tied to mine.